There’s no such thing as a perfect awards show. Sure, it might be odd to open this way in a review of what was, by and large, one of the best Emmy Awards I’ve ever seen, but it’s true. Even the most generous of awards committees can’t honor every deserving recipient, and that’s not even considering the sheer number of scripted television shows that aired in the past year, or taking into account the fact that one man’s deserving recipient is another man’s overrated trash. And then there’s the entirely different, but still tangentially connected, train of thought that leads to difficult questions like, “Wait, why do I care about this?” and “Does any of this even matter, in the grand scheme of things?” So imagine my surprise — an apt word to describe Sunday’s telecast — at an Emmys that was satisfying, efficient and … kind of great?
The first sign of a pleasant surprise: Jimmy Kimmel was funny. His late-night persona often smacks of smug, smarmy comedy, but after overcoming a painfully unfunny pre-recorded intro, Kimmel was energetic, brisk and agreeable. (I will continue to ride for Andy Samberg’s performance last year as long as I have to — we must protect his ascension to Steve Carell-level national treasure.) The sandwiches stunt and predictable Matt Damon bit played well; even the introductions and one-liners landed effectively. As one can only hope good hosts will do, he kept things moving.
And to be sure, despite FX’s and HBO’s relative dominance (specifically “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “Game of Thrones”), the highlight of this year’s ceremony was how the committee found ways to honor the lesser-publicized but truly worthy performances, writing and direction. Louie Anderson’s win for his deeply odd but stunning performance on “Baskets” was a sure sign of changing, more comprehensive tides. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s writing on the “Parents” episode on “Master of None” — which was, for me, a bit overrated — was still heartwarming to see honored, and led to one of the better speeches of the night. And “Transparent” ’s Jill Soloway’s award for directing “Man On The Land” was a much-deserved underdog win against HBO heavyweights “Veep” and “Silicon Valley.”
It would be difficult to talk about this year’s ceremony without also mentioning the number of genuinely moving acceptance speeches, from Patton Oswalt’s short, touching shoutout to his late wife to Jeffrey Tambor’s understated but impassioned plea for inclusivity to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s tearful tribute to her father. It’s weird to judge people on their specific brands of stunned gratitude, especially when they’ve just been judged on their actual work, but Rami Malek and Sarah Paulson deserve the unofficial Emmy Award for Outstanding Acceptance Speeches. Malek’s perfectly paced and delivered ode to “all the Elliots out there” comes second only to Paulson’s retroactive and heartfelt apology to the real Marcia Clark.
Yes, we can complain about certain omissions. “The Americans,” while finally being nominated after four seasons of thriller perfection, still failed to win an award outside of Margo Martindale’s repeat Guest Actress win, though Malek’s win over the incredible Matthew Rhys is hard to argue with. Tatiana Maslany also pulled off the upset over Keri Russell in recognition of the utterly transfixing body of work she’s put together as a whole in “Orphan Black.” “Fargo,” whose second season was one of the most perfect seasons of television in recent memory, also went home empty-handed. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t somehow throw Bokeem Woodbine’s name in here somewhere, so there. That’s his name, and his performance in “Fargo” is one I’ll never forget.) And I’d rather not discuss the utter disrespect shown to “The Leftovers,” which is, in this writer’s opinion, the best show on television and the recipient of a whopping total of zero nominations.
But it’s tough to complain about an Emmys that awarded hard-working actors like Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance, finally honored the comedic brilliance that is “Key and Peele” and found “SNL” ’s first openly lesbian cast member, Kate McKinnon, at a rare loss for words. It’s an easy line to draw from the Emmys’ general air of progressive politics to the standard “TV is doing diversity better than movies” argument. It is, of course, not that simple. There’s still work to be done. Still, the 2016 Emmys were a heartwarming celebration of “Peak TV” and how much more is possible on television than ever before. As Leslie Jones put it in the night’s most optimistic, confident and touching segment, the Emmys just wanted to feel beautiful, y’all.