Chaotic, Familiar 70th Emmy Awards Reflects Its Times

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Washington, D.C.'s Elizabeth Webster and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel at the Governor's Ball After Party. Courtesy Elizabeth Webster.

Some funny things happened at the 70th anniversary Emmy Awards Show on Monday.

Not too many funny things, but some.

Even with the presence of the hugely popular salt and pepper news team from Saturday Night Live,   Colin Jost and Michael Che, or, to be fair, Michael Che  and Colin Jost, the evening wasn’t exactly a laugh riot.

What the show gave us was a fairly accurate—if confusing—state of television in the culture today, an awards show that, like some other newsworthy things, was all over the place.

We are a long way from the early days of the Emmys, which even I don’t remember. When it comes to the Emmys, as Dorothy might say, we are not in Kansas anymore — during the days, when anybody in Kansas who owned a black-and-white only television set owned a bunch of stock in Sears, when television shows—Milton Berle and “Your Show of Shows” and half-hour musical shows starring Nat King Cole came from New York and the local and national news were 15 minutes long and any awards to be won were handed out to NBC, CBS and ABC and, sometimes, PBS, if Leonard Bernstein was involved.

That was then, but this is now. Right after around the time that the Grammys noticed rock and roll, around the turn of the century the world turned cable and started having midnight trysts with the digital world of computer systems and whole new worlds of delivering entertainment, news, music and films.

Television, as we know it today and the Emmys that resulted, were on view at the awards show on Sept. 17. Home Box Office, thanks to “Game of Thrones,” that long-running off and gone and back again saga of alternative kingdoms of treacherous rulers, treacherous, treacherous queens, master swordsmen and swordswomen, dragons and dragon queens, led in the Emmy haul.

HBO took the Outstanding Drama Series with “Thrones” — although by the time it returns we may have to jog our memory with the unpleasant thought that the undead white walkers now have an undead white flyer dragon which destroyed the wall.

Almost like an anachronism itself, HBO had to share attention and awards with producers of streaming shows like Net Flicks or Hulu and, notably and noticeably, Amazon, which copped major awards for outstanding comedy series with “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with a lead actress in  a comedy nod for newcomer Rachel Brosnahan,  and its writer and director, the effusive lady with the spiffy hat Amy-Sherman Palladino.

Viewers also got a sense that television—like perhaps the country itself was becoming a very tribal entity, what with more and more movies of different sensibilities, ranging from grim to dystopian offered on different venues with different ways of viewing, from binging parties to the lonely guy with one bag of popcorn watching noir night on American Movies Classics, and maybe straying to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” although without bragging  about it.

I admit to my son’s description of me — good naturally, but still — a digital neanderthal. For instance, when Jeff Daniels came up to receive the Best Actor Award for a Limited Series (a befuddling category), for the Western-themed “Godless,” I thought “Say what?” — not having seen the show in my local newspaper’s TV listings. The huh moments piled up quite a bit, especially among the various reality show categories, a viewing habit, be it “Dancing with the Stars” or “Housewives of . . .” whatever city shows, are a habit  I’ve never picked up, reality itself being hard enough to deal with, without inventing an alternative. Or as Rudy might say, truth is not truth.

Sometimes, the night looked like one of those SNL nostalgia shows from years  ago that NBC likes to run on nights when nothing else among the thousands of channels is worth watching. SNL itself, with Lorne Michaels offering up a “We’re still here” bit of bravado. Jost and Cheh or Cheh and Jost, SNL performers were all over the place handing out awards and when the show got its big award, there were so many SNL people on stage, they could have started the new season right then and there.

What with the fact these kinds of awards shows are usually at least a little bit and sometimes a lot politically charged, these Emmy’s seemed almost mild-mannered.

True, the producers had something in mind—a quasi-high-energy celebration of diversity, complete with a song-and-dance number which proclaimed “We Solved It,” a nod to a high number of nominees who were not white.

Cheh noted that black winners tend to, among the many expressions of gratitude, tend to have “Thank you, Jesus” moments.

Trouble was, for the longest of time, there were no such moments until the remarkable actress Regina King won the outstanding lead actress in a limited series or TV movie for her stint  in “Seven Seconds.”  This was soon followed by the gifted Thandie Newton who won outstanding supporting actress in a drama series for HBO’s dark take on robotics “Westworld.” Not to mention the remarkable RuPaul for a win in the reality-competition program category for, you guessed it, “Rul’s Drag Race.”

There came a moment, however, for  a show stopper. There always comes a time for a show stopper, a moment like that which comes out of left field and startles even people waiting in line for a drink. This one happened when Glenn Weiss won an Emmy for directing an awards show like the Emmys, helming the Oscars, and got on stage and proposed to his girlfriend Jan Svendsen.  As they say, the crowd went wild and cried.

Was it schmaltzy, sentimental, weepy? You bet.

But amid all the tumult, the jokes and the fragmented but familiar shows, the moment seemed oddly fresh and brand new, like a couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.

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