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In a Vast TV Landscape, the 2022 Emmys Were Pulled in Different Directions

At the 74th Emmy Awards, the honors seemed torn between two tendencies: celebrating old favorites and acknowledging new breakouts

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Among the major award shows, the Emmys are unique in that their honorees can be eligible for years at a time. This fact reflects one of television’s strengths: the longevity that allows it to tell large-scale stories and form long-term bonds with its audience. But it’s also made the medium’s most prestigious prize vulnerable to repetition, an incumbency bias that can lead viewers to boredom, fatigue, or worse, backlash. (Was Modern Family really so bad, or were we just exhausted by its eternal winning streak?)

In recent years, the Emmys have pivoted to a different kind of domination. These days, big winners may not reign for years, but they tend to sweep when it’s their moment. Fleabag didn’t get so much as a nod for Season 1; in Season 2, it racked up so many trophies that a victorious Phoebe Waller-Bridge became a meme. (Other recent belles of the ball include Schitt’s Creek, which broke through in its final season, and The Crown, which had a Season 4 resurgence thanks to some particularly sensational subject matter.) This trend has several contributing factors, from an overwhelmed voting body to changes in arcane Emmy voting rules. But its impact is apparent enough.

In his opening monologue to Monday night’s ceremony, host Kenan Thompson nodded to this new status quo: “We celebrate the hundreds of shows that were produced this year,” the Saturday Night Live stalwart cracked, “and then we give awards to about five of them.” Thompson would know; his home base got its own boost during the Trump years, with glorified cameos propelled to a nomination by their show’s rising tide.

But in the 74th Emmy Awards, the honors seemed torn between these two contrasting tendencies. Some trophies minted new breakouts, like Abbott Elementary—and, in the case of Sheryl Lee Ralph, belatedly gave veterans their due for their work on a hot show. Others cemented a new class of incumbents; if Ted Lasso could still claim to be an underdog story before this weekend, it’s since traded in that title for several others, including Outstanding Comedy Series (again). There are benefits to both kinds of approach: The Emmys ought to celebrate TV’s unique ability to sustain excellence over time, but also allow itself to acknowledge the art form’s astonishing breadth. Few of the night’s winners were outright objectionable. Instead, they simply captured an award show pulled in several different directions.

On the subject of Limited or Anthology Series, at least, the Emmy voters spoke with a unified voice. On the one hand, this makes sense—the category is inherently prone to turnover, so voters tend to recognize shows in their time. On the other, The White Lotus will be back later this year, this time in Sicily. That didn’t stop the Academy from giving Mike White three separate opportunities to give a speech, including one dedicated to his time on Survivor. (Though Jennifer Coolidge barely had time for one. In a night filled with rigidly enforced playoffs, hers felt the most unjust.) Michael Keaton and Amanda Seyfried must have breathed a sigh of relief when they saw HBO’s ensemble didn’t submit any performers as leads. The only televised awards The White Lotus didn’t win were the ones it wasn’t even up for.

In Comedy and Drama, the results were more mixed. At first, Abbott Elementary’s feel-good narrative seemed like it might be too compelling to resist: a network sitcom that proved network sitcoms could still feel fresh, led by exciting young talent but anchored by stalwarts. (They even donated their marketing money for school supplies! What’s not to like?) But it’s hard to out-earnest Ted Lasso, and the two shows ended up trading wins, with Hacks’ Jean Smart the only exception. In 2022, a competitive Emmys means multiple juggernauts, not just one. It’s simply a question of which kind of juggernaut will sway the voters—the ingenue or the seasoned pro; the rookie or the reigning champ.

Drama had more contenders, at least on the legacy side. Succession’s Jesse Armstrong took home his third consecutive statue for writing, not counting a year off due to the pandemic; Ozark’s Julia Garner, too, completed a hat trick, while Zendaya proved her surprise win in 2020 wasn’t a one-off. But Squid Game edged out the likes of Severance and Yellowjackets to become the category’s latest heavyweight, providing Netflix with some much-needed wins (though HBO still carried the night by a long shot). While accepting his award for directing, creator Hwang Dong-hyuk promised to come back to the ceremony following the release of Season 2. When Squid Game returns, it’ll cross over from one kind of Emmys darling to another.

TV Academy chairman and CEO Frank Scherma did himself few favors by name-dropping excellent shows like Reservation Dogs and We Are Lady Parts, which were otherwise entirely absent. His speech was a reminder that, for every show that beats the odds and holds voters’ attention, there are several dozen left out of the spotlight. But the Emmys otherwise attempted to have the best of both worlds: honoring old favorites while attempting to discover new ones.