The 2021 Emmys Were a Thoroughly Modern (Mostly-White, COVID-Unsafe) Disaster

·9 min read
Rich Fury/Getty
Rich Fury/Getty

End all awards show bits. That’s the lesson.

The Emmys winners did the show for them. They were all (mostly) great. There were surprises sprinkled throughout, the kind of fun that shocks TV critics watching alone on their couch with some rosé and makes them stand up reflexively and start clapping about.

(That was me, when Mare of Easttown’s Julianne Nicholson deservedly won, Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth reigned over Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana, and Hacks creator/writer/director Lucia Aniello got her double win. Is, as the kids say, “nature healing,” or did Kate Winslet just win an acting award while reminding herself to breathe, or “gather?”)

The speeches were great. The energy was ecstatic. The stars looked like a million bucks and delivered Hollywood charisma and polish. We needed that. We needed them. And they were giving it.

I cannot remember an award show in which the host did the proceedings such a disservice.

Cedric the Entertainer actually did a Mike Pence fly-on-the-head sketch, in this, the month of September in the year of our lord 2021. He brought Dr. Phil into the equation. DR. PHIL. Into what was supposed to be the woke, progressive, “we’re pointing the way toward the more enlightened industry” telecast. Frankly, into any telecast. (Please read.) Dr. Phil! On my TV screen, to entertain the masses.

Seth Rogen Calls Out COVID-Unsafe Emmys: ‘This Is Insane!’

Ted Lasso and The Crown won a whole lot of awards on Sunday night, to the point that Twitter snarks wondered if anyone had watched anything else on TV. Mare of Easttown was almost getting those scoffs, too, except whoever voted for Limited Series noticed that I May Destroy You, which should have won every award (including ones it was not nominated for), The Queen’s Gambit, and Halston also exist.

As a TV critic, I have wondered who, exactly, watched Halston. Now that it’s won a prestigious acting award, I wonder more than ever… who?

We’re post-COVID. We’re in COVID. We’ve had a racial reckoning. No one will say what that means. We hate awards shows. We tune into awards shows. And no one can make up their minds about how they feel about fucking Ted Lasso.

What I’m saying is that this year’s Emmy Awards telecast was the best and worst argument for the ways in which Hollywood systems have and have not changed. That is a sentence that makes no sense, because the situation we are in makes no sense. So how dare this award show not directly address that? But also, how could it?? And how dare it not???

First, let’s talk about the show. The worst parts of every awards show are the parts that the awards show plans. Never has that been laid more bare than it was Sunday night.

Stop. Producing. Bits.

Let’s just talk through the beginning.

E!’s red carpet coverage, an arms race in cringe content in which Queer Eye star and, now, E! host, Karamo Brown, was in nuclear competition with himself, was an exercise in second-hand mortification.

Then the opener. A musical number that would have been humiliating if you did it at your high school talent show, but somehow convinced the finest and most successful minds in Hollywood to willingly participate, opened the ceremony. I loved it. It was terrible. I hated that everyone involved was involved. Rita Wilson rapped.

Here’s the thing, the thing that no one seems to grasp: We’re a captive audience. We’re a desperate audience. That musical number, the late Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” plastered a smile on me that only the ensuing abomination of a telecast could wipe off.

No one knew what was going on. Kathryn Hahn and Sterling K. Brown got into it immediately. Mandy Moore, Susan Kelechi Watson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford… they all started singing. What delightful chaos! Isn’t that all that any of us want in a celebrity audience-participation bit?

My favorite genre of award show bit is celebrities sheepishly yet enthusiastically participating in low-commitment, but possibly traumatizing, audience-participation sketches. And it felt right for an opener for a “post-COVID” (I am lol-ing at the idea of anything being post-COVID at this point) ceremony.

It was both awkward and pure. Trepidatious and jubilant. Everyone involved embodied everything we feel right now, both thrilled to go back into the world and move everything forward… but only when we can and, ha-ha, not when we’ll die doing it. They were all into it, but barely. In other words, our relationship to… life right now.

It was the prime example of the awfulness.

This show was in an impossible situation for the Emmy Awards, one that came a year after pioneering the art of a Zoom awards show.

So it’s remarkable that it did something impressive again: a memorable TV ceremony. The wild thing is how good the good elements were then, and how bad the bad elements are now.

It was a ceremony that was the perfect viewing experience if you were just wine-tipsy enough to burst into tears when Jean Smart gave Kaley Cuoco a kiss on the cheek after receiving a standing ovation for her Best Comedy Actress win for Hacks, a category in which Cuoco was her closest competition. After all this time at home, who doesn’t want to see Jean Smart being legendary and gracious on TV?

It was a ceremony that had the aneurysm-inducing experience, if you’ve googled Dr. Phil at all in the last 15 years, of him showing up in a half-assed, star-studded bit. Alyson Hannigan, I expected better from you.

It was an awards show that featured what ranks among the most diverse set of nominees ever. And then gave all the awards on Sunday night, with the exception of RuPaul and Michaela Coel (whose I May Destroy You, again, should have won every award), to only white people.

It was an awards show touting the new frontier of these Hollywood telecasts as they figure out how to do them safely during COVID. And then the first presenter, Seth Rogen, roasted them to a crisp about how COVID-unsafe everything is. “We’re in a hermetically-sealed tent right now. I would not have come to this. Why is there a roof? It’s more important that we have three chandeliers than that we make sure we don’t kill Eugene Levy tonight. That is what has been decided.” What fun!

The art is moving forward. But this pomp and circumstance isn’t. So recently it seemed there was an option and—more than that—an actual path. There were these amazing, diverse nominees and the opportunity to recalibrate the industry.

But it is all the same. The path is still pointing to Ted Lasso.

In the age of COVID and creative responsibility, producing an awards show is an impossible task. Yet still, Sunday night’s Emmys didn’t have to be so bad at it.

When it started, even when [redacted disastrous Queer Eye host who made us somehow wish for Giuliana Rancic to return] was bombing, it all felt comforting. The night’s host, Cedric the Entertainer, flopping in a dated monologue was calming. It was all refreshing, and even made me giddy—I didn’t stop smiling, even when things were terrible.

But then the awards moved FAST. I’ve covered this goofiness for a very long time, and I was left breathless by how brisk it moved.

The speeches were amazing.

Lucia Aniello, who won twice for her work on Hacks, should have a side hustle giving speeches. Jason Sudeikis, during his Best Comedy Actor speech for Ted Lasso, joked about Saturday Night Live leader Lorne Michaels taking a shit instead of watching him win, an all-time great speech moment.

They gave Debbie Allen a special award, and then convinced LUMINARIES Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ava DuVernay, Ellen Pompeo, and Michael Douglas to do a bit with one of her character’s dancing canes that only anyone born after 1987 would understand. It was beautiful. Her speech, imploring the younger generation whose lives these assholes have all fucked up? Even more outstanding.

I never expected that Olivia Colman would beat Emma Corrin in Best Drama Actress for The Crown, but her speech was phenomenal. Gillian Anderson, wearing the outfit my sister came home in from summer camp in 1995, was lovely. I was just wine-tipsy enough to heavily cry each time a Ted Lasso person won. At one point Kathryn Hahn extended a hand to Michaela Coel to help her down from the Emmys stage after her speech, and I am certain that is The Television Moment of 2021.

What I am saying is that the talent, the art, the creation—and their creators—made a great case for this being a turning of the page. A new path. The next era.

You look at the nominees, at the possibility of this show—a big Hollywood one, but, at least post-vax—and you have expectations.

You want it to be as diverse as the promise was. (Of course Ted Lasso and The Crown would win everything.)

You want it to be the example of pandemic entertainment. (Even the presenters made fun of how unsafe it was.)

You want it, at least, to be entertaining. (Cedric the Entertainer was one of the worst Emmy hosts of all-time.)

While I blacked out during Cedric’s bits as a survival mechanism (who wants “mortification” as their cause of death), I observed the promise of this telecast. We’re on our way to something.

We’re on our way to recognizing excellence. (No show should have won as many trophies as they did, but the right shows were in the race.) We’re on our way to cleverly adapting to our new circumstances. And we’re on our way to making it all fun again.

Sunday’s Emmys were a speed bump the size of Mount Everest on the way to those journeys. But it’s comforting to know, even with that disruption, we’re still on the way there.

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