Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz, so who better to break down this year's Emmy broadcast?
The Primetime Emmy Awards made a grand return to in-person festivities Sunday night after last year's all-virtual affair. That particular show was dominated by things like the Schitt's Creek sweep in the comedy categories, Zendaya's upset win for Best Actress, and Jennifer Aniston preventing a fire on stage. This year's Emmys saw an almost entirely new slate of shows in each of the comedy, drama, and limited series categories, but that didn't stop some familiar patterns from emerging.
With Cedric the Entertainer hosting, the CBS-produced show was heavy on comedy bits, which put the show significantly over time-limit, and led to several awkward attempts to usher award winners off the stage with what sounded like Italian opera music. In the end, the shows we expected would win largely won, although there were a couple upsets, and a few very lovely moments in the speeches as well. On to the highlights:
One year after Schitt's Creek made an unprecedented sweep of every televised category in the Comedy slate, Netflix's The Crown did exactly the same on the Drama side. Stars Olivia Colman, Josh O'Connor, Gillian Anderson, and Tobias Menzies won all four acting categories Sunday night, joined by writer Peter Morgan and director Jessica Hobbs, both for the episode "War." These were all prelude to the Outstanding Drama Series win that was a first not only for The Crown, but also for Netflix, which has never before won the category. None of these wins were all that surprising, of course. With heavy hitters like Succession ineligible this year, The Crown's biggest competition was The Handmaid's Tale (which went a whopping 0-for-21 at this year's Emmys), but the seven wins made a big portion of the night feel overly predictable each time the show cut to a nominee in London, home to The Crown's own satellite Emmys.
As expected, the Comedy categories came down to Apple TV+'s Ted Lasso and HBO Max's Hacks, and through much of the night it wasn't clear which had the upper hand. The ceremony began with back-to-back wins for Ted Lasso supporting performers Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein. Waddingham's acceptance was a terrifically exuberant and gracious moment where she freaked out at her good fortune and pledged her eternal devotion to co-nominee Juno Temple; Goldstein, meanwhile, got hit by the seven-second delay twice for cursing, after remarking that he was warned not to curse, which feels very Roy Kent in spirit.
Hacks then rebounded with victories in the writing and directing categories, which put to bed any backlash-y rumblings about a Lasso sweep (even though that wasn't technically possible for a show with no lead actress). After Hacks's Jean Smart and Ted's Jason Sudekis each won their widely predicted awards in Lead Actress and Lead Actor, the stage was set for a showdown in Outstanding Comedy series, which Ted Lasso ultimately won, giving Apple TV+ its first major Emmy award in less than two years of existence.
For the first time, the final award of the night was Outstanding Limited Series, acknowledging how much this particular year's critical and cultural conversation was dominated by shows like Mare of Easttown, The Queen's Gambit, WandaVision, and I May Destroy You. Mare picked up three of the four acting wins for Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, and Kate Winslet, who took the trophy in a showdown between her and Anya Taylor-Joy. But The Queen's Gambit had the final (sigh) checkmate, winning Outstanding Limited Series and ending up the night's big winner.
the crown cast pretending to be shocked every time they win an award— c (@wyliesdaya) September 20, 2021
This isn't the first time that the Emmy Awards have been the setting for big sweeps, but with Schitt's Creek and The Crown dominating these past two years, and so many categories overrun with multiple nominees from the same shows, one wonders if the current system of Emmy voting might not need a re-haul in an age where there are quite simply FAR too many TV shows for any reasonable Emmy voter to have seen them all. This may be what leads to so many repeat wins for shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and RuPaul's Drag Race or the perception that only four or five TV shows have cast members delivering award-worthy performances. Whether the Emmys would ever decide to experiment with juried categories (a limited group of voters who would watch all, or at least most, of the eligible programs in a given genre) remains to be seen, but here's hoping that these kinds of sweeps are being seen inside the Academy as a problem worth tinkering with.
As the evening wore on and producers clearly had their eye on the clock, the speeches themselves became battlegrounds between the music cues and the award winners. Governor's Award recipient Debbie Allen, who was honored for her many decades' worth of contributions as an actress/dancer/choreographer/director/producer, made it clear from the outset that she wouldn't be paying any mind to a countdown clock, so the producers didn't even try to mess with her. Good thing, too, as her speech was one of the best moments of the night, preceded as it was by Jada Pinkett Smith, Ava DuVernay, Ellen Pompeo, and Michael Douglas introducing her with the famous "Fame costs…" speech from Fame.
Later, though, the music cues got more aggressive … as did the speakers. Scott Frank, accepting his award for directing The Queen's Gambit, defied the play-off music a whopping three times, plowing on through a lengthy scripted list of thank-yous. Admittedly, he came off as bit entitled, but it's worth considering why it is that awards shows often seem so actively hostile to the part of the show that involves the giving and accepting of awards.
Still, the fact that Frank's filibuster was immediately followed by a somewhat surprising but definitely welcome win for Michaela Coel for writing I May Destroy You was notable for the fact that Coel's speech was heartfelt, genuinely inspirational, and finished in less than half the time.
I am not drunk enough for Rita Wilson rapping over Just A Friend !!! pic.twitter.com/Li7c5KRHao— Carrie Courogen (@carriecourogen) September 20, 2021
Cedric the Entertainer opened the show with a lively tribute to both the medium of television and the late Biz Markie, with a parade of stars — including LL Cool J and Mandy Moore — jumping out of the audience to join in. It all seemed like a standard issue awards-show opening number … that is, until Rita Wilson stepped in front of camera with a mic in her hand and a rap verse in her heart. Increasingly, the mission statement of award show producers seems to be to gin up as many viral moments as they can, and if that indeed was the case for CBS and the Emmys this year, Rita Wilson's was a big Mission: Accomplished, as Twitter basically drowned in a sea of Rita reactions for the next five to ten minutes.
Conan is the best part of this show and he hasn't even been on stage. pic.twitter.com/jZfEFo6C5f— av clark (@annevclark) September 20, 2021
Although Conan O'Brien didn't win the Emmy for the final season of his eponymous talk show, he managed to dominate the Emmy telecast just the same. After getting a shoutout from the Last Week Tonight team from the stage, Conan made a huge spectacle of an ovation for the requisite appearance by the Academy president, and then later wound up on stage with the team from Stephen Colbert's election special. Few expected Conan to win an Emmy for the road in his swan-song season, but the evening served as a nice reminder that Conan — a former Emmys host himself — is a tremendously fun presence at awards shows. I wouldn't be all that surprised if this reminder doesn't get him some offers to host the Emmys again sometime in the future.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.