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For Better and for Worse, Award Shows Are Getting Back to Normal

After the 2020 Emmys’ unique, remote affair, the 2021 installation on Sunday night resembled the sort of ceremonies that have become tradition over the years

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After one of many commercial breaks during Sunday night’s Emmy awards, host Cedric the Entertainer welcomed the audience back with the show’s unofficial motto. “We are back!” he announced, with confidence. “... I believe,” he then added, uncertainly. In a single not-quite-joke, the MC managed to capture both sides of the broadcast. On the one hand, the Emmys were a triumphant return to award shows as usual, enabled by testing and vaccines; on the other, going back to normal a year and a half into a still-raging pandemic is easier said than done.

Last year’s ceremony managed to turn some extremely sour lemons into socially distant lemonade, leveraging technology and humility into a toned-down celebration of television’s power to unite and soothe in trying times. This year saw the return of many award show clichés—though, after a lengthy absence helped us come to appreciate the pomp and circumstance, it may be more charitable to call them hallowed traditions. There was a red carpet; there were stilted, scripted bits; there were overlong speeches cut off by music playing in the same room as the speaker. The honors even went 15 minutes over time, and there’s nothing more classically award show than that.

Things may have been closer to normal than they were in 2020, but they were hardly back at status quo. Rather than the main auditorium of Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater, the Academy took over a much smaller space within its usual venue, arranging a dramatically downsized crowd around a series of tables. The effect was positively intimate—and reminiscent of the Golden Globes, typically a clubbier, more raucous affair than the Emmys’ and Oscars’ grand gatherings. (That might be for the best, given that the Golden Globes themselves are off the airwaves until further notice.) Reduced capacity aside, there were other reminders that all was still not as it used to be. Many cast and crew from The Crown accepted their awards remotely from the U.K., since international travel in the middle of production isn’t an easy ask; those walking the carpet may have been unmasked, but the staff around them had their faces fully covered.

For his part, Cedric the Entertainer did his best to deliver an old-school sense of fun. Dutifully running through the motions, from musical number to monologue to moderating a “No Emmy Club” support group sketch, the comedian himself was a welcome departure from award shows’ increasing norm: After years of networks cycling through late-night hosts with an occasional assist from Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, a 57-year-old actor and comedian with decades of experience counted as a breath of fresh air. (CBS may have sensed that James Corden, who’s anchored the Grammys and the Tonys in the past few years, could use a break.) The casting choice may have proved more novel than the actual results, but Cedric was a welcome reminder that networks have more options than whoever’s on every night at 11.

2020 also lived on in the speeches of many presenters, which continued the push for racial representation that was Hollywood’s main takeaway from last year’s protests. (Though other forms of advocacy also made an appearance; America Ferrera, Sarah Paulson, and Jennifer Coolidge all made quips pointed at the gender gap in pay and opportunity.) But as the night went on, such rhetoric from the likes of Academy president Frank Scherma began to contrast uncomfortably with the roster of winners. On the same night that RuPaul became the most decorated person of color in Emmys history, Michaela Coel took home the award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, and Debbie Allen received the Governors Award for lifetime achievement, all the acting winners were white, while excellent series like The Underground Railroad went completely unrecognized. At least the Emmys will have a chance to do better next year, when the creator and cast of Reservation Dogs can go from presenters to nominees. If they don’t, it’ll tell us all we need to know.

Instead, the awards themselves clustered around just a handful of favorites, chief among them Ted Lasso and The Crown. (The Queen’s Gambit and Mare of Easttown shared the Limited Series accolades, a testament—along with its promotion to final award of the night—to just how crowded that category has become.) Almost none of those shows made the pandemic part of their text; rather, their appeal was rooted in the zeitgeist without directly acknowledging its cause. After Schitt’s Creek dominated the 2020 awards with a historic sweep, Ted Lasso’s success showed a continued appetite for the uplifting in chaotic times. And while Hamilton may have bested the openly angsty Bo Burnham: Inside for Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-recorded), star Renée Elise Goldsberry made a point of highlighting entertainment as a means of connection among so much isolation.

All three major category winners hailed from streaming services, itself a seismic shift accelerated by a pandemic that sent subscriptions skyrocketing, at least for a time. HBO proper did well with Mare of Easttown, but sister service HBO Max had a surprisingly strong showing with Hacks, which earned writing and directing awards in addition to an expected—if no less well-deserved—one for lead actress Jean Smart. Meanwhile, Ted Lasso has already earned its writers and stars a handsome payday for the upcoming Season 3, a material sign of its significance for Apple TV+. In 2020, the new service made a small breakthrough with Billy Crudup’s win for The Morning Show. This year, it was one of the biggest victors of the night.

But the Streaming Wars are inside baseball. For everyone else, there’s the familiar comfort of watching famous people breathe the same rarefied air for a few hours, even if some—like inaugural presenter Seth Rogen—didn’t seem too happy about it. (I honestly couldn’t tell whether Rogen’s outrage at getting duped into an indoor event was real or fake, so close was it to many conversations I’ve had in recent months.) The Emmys weren’t the first award show to make a modified return to business as usual; MTV just aired the VMAs last week, bookending a packed celebrity calendar that included an off-cycle Met Gala. But thanks to the strange, increasingly outdated framework of the fall TV calendar, the Emmys were the first major award show to follow this year’s strange, polarizing Oscars. We don’t know yet whether this ceremony will reverse the accelerating downslide in award show ratings epitomized by those Academy Awards. Yet they did try, as best as they could, to give us some of what makeshift pandemic shows could not. Even as they take a big step toward the future, the Emmys are trying to return to the recent past.