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Emmy night was a big one for a lot of different shows: Squid Game, Succession, Ted Lasso, The White Lotus. There were very strange music choices (why did Jesse Armstrong collect an Emmy for writing Succession and walk on stage to “Shake Your Booty”?) and bits that dragged on too long (especially Jimmy Kimmel’s play-dead routine that lasted right through Quinta Brunson’s win for comedy writing for Abbott Elementary). But there were also great speeches and encouraging wins, and we’re here to look at five takeaways from the ceremony as a whole. (Here’s a complete list of winners.)
1. The great Sheryl Lee Ralph won the night.
There are years when you have to try to figure out what was the best moment of the ceremony; this was not one of those years.
When Sheryl Lee Ralph accepted the award for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for Abbott Elementaryher speech was not only the best moment of the night, but it’s up there for the best moment of the Emmys… maybe ever?
Ralph took the stage and sang Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species” a cappella — something few people could do effectively. She then spoke rousingly, beautifully and encouragingly about the importance of never giving up on your dreams and how you should value all the people who take care of you. It’s worth downloading the whole speech to your phone so that you can play it for yourself the next time you are discouraged, but really, it belongs solely to her and the power of her talent and her history. Her career in TV stretches back to the 1980s, but with this award she became only the second Black woman to win in the category (after Jackée Harry for 227). While it was overdue, it was great to see.
2. The show still needs more time for speeches and less for montages and scripted banter.
This particular Emmy ceremony, with a couple of notable exceptions, seemed to be playing people off quickly, even though some of them, like Jennifer Coolidge, were very entertaining. Coolidge won best supporting actress in a limited series for her work The White Lotus; after trying and trying to get the show to let her say a couple more things, Coolidge heard “Hit The Road, Jack” start up and, rather than rushing off stage, she danced, to a roar from the crowd.
At the same time winners fought for spare seconds, dull montages that were little more than “here are some TV shows” were allowed to linger, as were scripted bits that seemed less satisfying than the cut-off speeches, even when those sketches were performed by able comedians like host Kenan Thompson and the very funny Bowen Yang. Awards show producers seem convinced that people want all the stuff in between the awards more than they want the awards; betting on the charm of a speech instead of another montage will rarely be the wrong decision.
3. There weren’t a lot of big surprises.
Ted Lasso and Succession were both expected to win their respective categories of comedy series and drama series…and they did. The White Lotus cleaned up in the limited series awards with wins for Coolidge and Murray Bartlett in the supporting categories and for Mike White in directing and writing.
Yet none of those shows swept the awards. Amanda Seyfried took lead actress for The Dropout and Michael Keaton won for lead actor in Dopesick. Lee Jung-jae won lead actor in a drama series for Squid Game, the first Asian man to ever be so honored. This might be a surprise, since it’s the first time someone has won for a performance where they didn’t speak English, but the sheer phenomenon of the show and its big haul of nominations suggested it had a good shot at doing well.
Perhaps the nicest surprise was Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls, which broke RuPaul’s Drag Race streak of four wins in the reality competition category. That win led (of course) to a powerful and joyful speech from Lizzo about the importance of representation — a running theme over the course of the evening.
4. There’s still plenty of repetition.
Even with competition running hot in almost every category and a lack of shows dominating the awards the way sitcoms like Frasier and Modern Family once did, there were lots of repeat winners.
Saturday Night Live won again in the variety sketch category (its only rival was A Black Lady Sketch Show); it was its sixth win in a row, a pretty boring outcome. Succession repeated its 2020 win in the outstanding drama series category, and Ted Lasso won outstanding comedy series after it also won last year. Plus, Ted Lasso actors Jason Sudeikis and Brett Goldstein won again in the lead and supporting categories.
That wasn’t all. Zendaya, who won the award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for Euphoria two years ago, won again. Jean Smart won for Hacks for lead actress in a comedy series for the second year in a row. Perhaps the most impressive of all, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver won its seventh straight award for outstanding variety talk series, continuing to beat The Daily Show as well as all of network late night.
5. People want to see new winners have a real chance.
It’s more an observation of public reaction than of the show itself, but standards seem to have changed for when a show has won “too much.” Back in the days when there were far fewer shows to choose from, it wasn’t until something racked up five or six wins — that pressure started to mount to get something else, anything else, up on stage with a win.
But now, with so much out there and so much that’s good, even two wins for Ted Lasso seems repetitive, particularly when there’s a show that feels as fresh as Abbott Elementary.
The Emmys are starting to have an enviable problem: Even when people disagree with the outcome of a contest, it might be less that a show is undeserving and more that there’s simply something else that deserves a shot in a stacked category. Even the great Jean Smart, beloved by so many over such a tremendous career and absolutely marvelous him Hacks, might not have been the first choice of many people. That’s not because of her ability; it’s because this was a year where she faced opponents like Brunson, who is a new face, and Issa Rae, who’s been nominated for Insecure several times but has never won. This is one of the reasons Squid Game wins feels invigorating — the show is new.
It’s one thing for a win to feel deserved; it’s another for it to feel exciting. Even a second or third win can seem rote by now, so bring on the new contenders, and we’ll be glad to see them.