Taking a cue from the 2019 Oscars, the 71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards also went without a host last night, hoping that bits and awards would move the program along. But while the host-less Oscars was fine and brisk, if a little bland, the Emmys were messier, incohesive, and plagued by some truly bizarre production choices from Fox — some of which were so ridiculous it made me wonder if Fox was just intent on sabotaging the show from the beginning. Self-sabotage, at least, would've been more fun to watch.
Without a host, the ceremony instead started with a silly gag where Homer Simpson gets hit with a piano (sure!) which segued into black-ish's Anthony Anderson running around, clamoring about saving the show. It was an odd, unfunny choice — doubly so when you remember that Anthony Anderson has been publicly accused of sexual assault three times, once as recently as last year; no charges were filed against Anderson, who has denied any wrongdoing — and by the time Bryan Cranston came out to gravely talk about how "television has never mattered more," the Emmys were already growing stale.
Throughout the night, presenters were trotted out to say eyeroll-inducing things (reducing Fleabag to "a show about a sex addict," for one) or to do embarrassingly unfunny bits (Ken Jeong recorded a TikTok video for an excruciatingly long time). Even a nearly-flawless performer like Maya Rudolph faltered with the writing (a too-long joke about how her and co-presenter Ike Barinholtz recently got LASIK). Contestants from The Masked Singer were everywhere on the red carpet and during the ceremony in a particularly aggressive push from Fox that got annoying despite my love for the actual show. There were so many jokes about not having a host that they began to prove why they needed a host, and none of those really landed either; Amazon's Alexa reading the nominees felt years too late and was instead just an uncomfortable reminder that the controversial retailer-turned-streamer had already won the night's first four awards. And then there was Thomas Lennon, a comedian who I enjoy so much I sat through three seasons of an Odd Couple reboot, as the show's dry, snarky announcer trotting out silly factoids that fell flat--the only time I laughed out loud was when Lennon broke in the middle of a particularly bad joke, wondering "Are the Emmys 'woke'?" and admitting, "This is why people don't want to do this: Because it sucks." Yep, it does.
Fortunately, the ceremony was saved by a few genuine surprise winners and a handful of inspiring, memorable speeches. Sure, we had to get through some predictable yawns: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel picked up the first two statues, though at least the second resulted in a fired-up speech from Alex Bornstein, rallying women to "step out of line." Later in the night, Ozark, a show that I'm not fully convinced exists outside of subway posters and award ceremonies, nabbed two wins as well: Julia Garner for Supporting Actress (who gave an adorable speech) and Jason Bateman for directing (which marked the second time I laughed out loud, because all anyone knows about Ozark is how dark it is--literally.) Infuriatingly, Netflix's Bandersnatch, more video game than television movie, won over HBO's Deadwood and, of course, John Oliver and Saturday Night Live won, as we all knew they would. (At least the Netflix wins added to the unintentional chaotic theme of the night!)
But aside from the unsurprising wins, there were a few moments that made living rooms and Twitter erupt such as every single time Phoebe Waller-Bridge won (three total) and gave three giddy speeches. "This is just getting ridiculous," she joked the third time she went up. Jesse Armstrong won Writing for a Drama Series for the darkly hilarious Succession, an award that many people thought — feared — would go to Game of Thrones. (Thrones, by the way, won Best Drama and Lead Actor for Peter Dinklage.)
And the speeches! The speeches are what anyone watches award shows for and this year, we saw many memorable ones: Patricia Arquette (Supporting Actress, Limited Series or TV Movie for The Act) mentioned her late sister Alexis Arquette, trans actress and activist, and rightfully advocated for trans rights. "They're human beings, let's give them jobs, let's get rid of this bias that we have everywhere." Later, Michelle Williams (Lead Actress, Limited Series or TV Movie for Fosse/Verdon) used her speech to address the wage gap: "The next time a woman--and especially a woman of color because she stands to make 52 centers on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart--tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her. Believe her."
The two most emotional speeches of the night both came from people of color (an added sting to the fact that the nominees and winners were, again, overwhelmingly white). First, there was Jharrel Jerome — Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series — for When They See Us, a must-watch Netflix series that I worried would be shut out despite its 16 nominations. (It only won two total; last week was Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or Special at the Creative Arts Emmys.) Jerome's blistering performance was one of the year's best, the sort that gets under your skin and stays there for months afterward. His speech was emotional and he dedicated his award to the Exonerated Five: Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and "King" Korey Wise, whom Jerome portrayed, were all in the audience and shared the winner's joy.
Later, Billy Porter, who became the first out gay Black man to win Oustanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his fantastic work on Pose, cited James Baldwin's "They Can't Turn Back" essay ."It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I'd been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here," Porter quoted in a sentiment very familiar to many queer people of color. "I have the right. You have the right. We all have the right," he continued. Porter, by the way, only needs an Oscar to complete his EGOT.
The 71st Primetime Emmys were plagued by Fox's bland and baffling production: playing Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" when Chernobyl won, the strange photo choices behind some of the winners as they gave speeches, two bloated "tributes" to HBO shows that already ended, and a tribute montage to other ended shows that failed to acknowledge Orange Is The New Black and You're The Worst (among others) but did remember to include Gotham--which is, perhaps, the first time someone's remembered Gotham in years. But aside from (or, maybe, because of) all the nonsense, this year's ceremony stood out because of its surprising, deserved winners and multiple emotional speeches. We'll likely forget Ozark's wins in a few months, but we'll remember Porter quoting Baldwin, and Fleabag snagging best comedy. And, thanks to the network's relentless promotion throughout the night, we'll also remember that The Masked Singer premieres Wednesday, Sept. 25 on Fox.