Alan Sepinwall: How Do You Solve a Problem Like the 2021 Emmys?

Last year’s Emmy haul for Schitt’s Creek was a historic one, as the Pop TV comedy became the first ongoing series to ever sweep all seven of the awards — the four acting categories, plus writing, directing, and Outstanding Comedy Series — presented in the primetime telecast. Because that night’s show largely covered one genre at a time, the sweep seemed even more dominant, since the first hour or so just kept cutting to the same Toronto venue where the Schitt’s cast and crew were remotely attending the pandemic-altered ceremony. When the show’s co-creator and co-star Dan Levy won in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy category midway through this run, he looked a bit anxious, quipping, “The internet is about to turn on me, I’m so sorry.”

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What Levy understood so keenly is that even when a show or movie is widely beloved, there’s a point at which too much success can be a turnoff. Not coincidentally, the sweep was followed by the first negative discourse of any kind Schitt’s had received, even if much of it was along the lines of, “Yeah, it was a good show, but was it that good?” The rest of last year’s Emmys featured results that were nearly but not quite as steamroller-ish, with Watchmen and Succession scooping up most of the trophies in the Limited Series and Drama categories, respectively. If not for the novelty of host Jimmy Kimmel and the producers having to reinvent awards show tropes for quarantine times, it would have been a terribly predictable night.

Because the same actors and shows so often win again and again and again, I’ve often joked that the easiest way to win an Emmy is to have already won an Emmy. But lately, it’s gone from a year-to-year thing to a minute-to-minute thing. And in the process, it’s made what’s already the dullest of the four major awards shows — lacking the performance component of the Grammys and Tonys and, to a degree, the glamour of the Oscars — an especially tough sit. Kimmel and company largely avoided the problem through structural ingenuity, and this year’s Emmys producers attempted to address it by mixing the genres back together, assuming that one or more of Ted Lasso, The Crown, and Mare of Easttown would have Schitt’s Creek-esque runs.

As it turned out, only The Crown achieved what awards show expert Mark Harris referred to on Twitter as “the Full Schitt,” taking home all seven drama trophies awarded Sunday night, including Netflix’s first-ever Emmy in a series category. Ted Lasso lost the comedy writing and directing categories to HBO Max’s Hacks (which also earned comedy lead actress honors for its star, Jean Smart, in a category with no Lasso nominees). Mare‘s momentum stalled after three acting wins (for Julianne Nicholson, Evan Peters, and leading lady Kate Winslet), as Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit swooped in late to take the limited series prize (and also the directing one, for which Scott Frank is probably still talking somewhere).

But there was never any real suspense over whether Hacks could beat Ted Lasso for the top comedy award, and Outstanding Limited Series always felt like a Mare/Gambit toss-up. So there were precious few surprises to be found on a night when a telecast saddled with abysmal comedy bits and other clunky production choices (you shouldn’t need a microscope to see the name of TV legend Ed Asner during the In Memoriam montage) really could have used some help from the Emmy voters.

That help did not arrive, with a small handful of series — many of them featuring white people in and/or from England, despite the TV Academy’s attempts to play up their newfound inclusivity — hoovering every trophy in site, turning a night meant to celebrate what we love about television into an example of the medium at its creakiest and most predictable. The rare moments of liveliness or surprise seemed to come about almost by accident, whether it was I May Destroy You writer/star Michaela Coel’s powerful — and, especially contrasted with the Scott Frank ramble that preceded it, marvelously efficient — speech paying tribute to sexual assault victims, Jean Smart paying tribute to her late husband Richard Gilliland(*), or something lighter like Conan O’Brien mockingly saluting Academy chairman Frank Scherma.

(*) It was a really bad night for the Emmy orchestra’s attempt to play people off. Lifetime achievement honoree Debbie Allen made clear early on she wasn’t going let that happen, Frank ignored multiple attempts to chase him from the stage, and even Smart got interrupted in the midst of a very emotional and good speech. Frank definitely could and should have tightened things up, but in general, the tension came because the telecast had to make room for disastrous sketches like the support group for actors who never won Emmys.

And the shame of it is, these were very good TV series that were kicking ass and taking names on Sunday night. And other than The Crown — which had won before in other categories, just not Outstanding Drama Series — these were all first-timers at the Emmys, and the winner’s enthusiasm was often palpable, starting the night off with Ted Lasso‘s Hannah Waddingham squealing with delight repeatedly through her speech. But there’s a sameness to the show that can be tough to get through, particularly when the one show that swept everything(*) has been around for a while.

(*) And even the sweep didn’t fully register, because Tobias Menzies wasn’t available to accept his supporting actor award for playing Prince Phillip, leading to a telling eye roll from presenter Kerry Washington, who had just gotten choked up talking about Menzies’ fellow nominee, the gone-too-soon Michael Kenneth Williams. 

To a degree, these results were also pandemic-influenced. Succession took the year off, or else it might have spent the night trading victories with The Crown. The drama and comedy categories in general felt lighter than usual, with limited series for the moment staking a claim as the medium’s dominant creative form. But the category lines in general feel maddeningly blurry. Mare is probably going to get a second season, even after racking up several wins as a limited series, while HBO’s Lovecraft Country was nominated as a drama, then canceled after only one season. The variety and talk awards often feature apple/orange comparisons, or wind up so split that Saturday Night Live had only one other show to beat (A Black Lady Sketch Show, which should have won) for the Variety Sketch Series category.

What is the solution? Is there one? Would abandoning the honors system of recent years to require voters to watch all the submitted episodes in a category improve things? Probably not, since there was often a sameness to the results under that system. (Also, basing awards for seasons’ worth of worth on one or two episodes, has always felt wrong-headed.) But while Netflix and Warner Media (which produced both the HBO winners and Ted Lasso) can feel pleased with how the night went, on the whole it was a dire, monotonous event, and one offering little hope of how the Academy can improve things for future telecasts. Though maybe cutting out the comedy bits would be a good start?

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