The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards were held, as always, in Los Angeles on Sunday night. But viewers could probably feel that the room’s focus was on a city about 2,600 miles to the east: Washington, D.C.
While TV is, for so many, a necessary escape from real life, it seemed like this awards ceremony couldn’t stop reminding everyone about the dystopian competition reality show in which we all currently reside.
Host Jimmy Kimmel’s first bit included an almost-surreal cameo from Jeb! Bush, who you may recall a few forevers ago, thought he would be the GOP’s presidential candidate. It was hard to tell how Jeb! felt about the role to which he was reduced to instead: A cameo in a parody full of Hollywood elites. At least he didn’t have to beg the audience to clap?
Once he appeared onstage, Kimmel ribbed Mark Burnett, the Brit who brought America Survivor, for sparking the rise of modern reality television in the U.S. and, by extension, the rise of Donald Trump. Should Trump get elected and “build that wall,” Kimmel warned, “The first person we’re throwing over it is Mark Burnett.”
Later on, Kate McKinnon won Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on Saturday Night Live — the first cast member to do so since Gilda Radner in 1978 — and, in her speech, thanked Hillary Clinton. Clinton returned the favor:
Congratulations on your Emmy, Kate! Big fan of yours, too. pic.twitter.com/w00QO1GwyH
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 19, 2016
And when Julia Louis-Dreyfus accepted the award for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her unimpeachable performance as (former) President Selina Meyer on Veep, she took a moment to “personally apologize for the current political climate.” (Veep also won Best Comedy Series for the second year in a row.)
“I think that Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics. Our show started out as a political satire, but it now feels more like a sobering documentary. So I certainly do promise to rebuild that wall and make Mexico pay for it.”
The rest of the night was littered with jokes about Bernie Sanders, the Supreme Court, Hillary Clinton, and more Trump. It was as if everyone in the room wanted to both acknowledge the complicity of television in Trump’s ascent — from reality TV to cable news — and simultaneously absolve themselves of any guilt for not going on the record against Trump before it’s too late (assuming, you know, it isn’t already too late). If there was a single Trump supporter in the Microsoft Theater on Sunday night, they probably felt it best to keep that allegiance to themselves.
Diversity in entertainment, or lack thereof, was also fodder for Kimmel, who noted that this year’s pack of nominees “are the most diverse ever.” He quickly followed up that line by pointing out that “here in Hollywood, the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity. The Emmys are so diverse this year, the Oscars are now telling people we’re one of their closest friends.”
The kicker, perfectly delivered: “If you’re a person of color, find a white person near you and thank them for their bravery.” (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell and Master of None’s Aziz Ansari obliged with an on-camera hug.)
More sincere celebrations of the fact that television is a more inclusive landscape than film — though, really, not by much! — came from winners whose acceptance speeches veered almost into stump speech territory, especially in the case of Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Soloway spoke with her usual vigor about the importance of putting trans people, women, and people of color on television “and make them heroes.” She demanded that “we…stop violence against transgender women.” And she punctuated her speech with a rallying cry: “Topple the patriarchy!”
(Jimmy Kimmel, faux-concerned: “I’m trying to figure out if ‘topple the patriarchy’ is a good thing for me or not.”)
Jeffrey Tambor, star of Transparent, echoed his showrunner’s views, imploring network owners and other entertainment powers-that-be, “Please give transgender talent a chance.” He added, “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television. We have work to do.”
When Ansari and Alan Yang took the stage for winning Best Writing in a Comedy Series — the Master of None episode that earned them the prize, “Parents,” explored the tensions between immigrant parents and their first-generation-American children — Yang pointed out that Asians have little by way of positive, thoughtful representation in mainstream pop culture. (“We’ve got Long Duck Dong. We’ve got a long way to go.”)
“Asian parents out there,” he said. “If just a couple of you could do us a favor, get your kid a camera instead of a violin, and we’ll be all good.”
About halfway through the ceremony, some evil behind-the-scenes genius plotted a Taylor Swift ex-boyfriend portion of the program: Tom Hiddleston — formerly of the performance art duo Hiddleswift — presented an award immediately before (Dear) John Mayer, sans introduction or context, played guitar into the next commercial break.
The biggest winner of the evening was The People v. O.J. Simpson, which swept five categories: Best Mini-Series or Movie, Best Writing for a Mini-Series or Movie (D.V. DeVincentis for “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”), and Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor in a Mini-Series or Movie (for Courtney B. Vance, who played Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, and Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden).
Paulson brought Clark as her plus-one, and her speech was an emotional, eloquent mea culpa on behalf of, well, everyone, for the way the media treated Clark during the O.J. Simpson trial:
“The responsibility of playing a real person is an enormous one. You want to get it right not for you but for them. The more I learned about the real Marcia Clark — not the two-dimensional cardboard cutout I saw on the news, but the complicated, whip-smart, giant-hearted mother of two who woke up every day, put both feet on the floor and dedicated herself to righting an unconscionable wrong — the more I had to recognize that I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial and careless in my judgment. I’m proud to be able to stand here today in front of everyone and tell you: I’m sorry.”
Leslie Jones, honorary Olympian, appeared alongside the accountants, using the opportunity to comment on the recent, disgusting hack of her Twitter account — yet another social media attack the SNL and Ghostbusters star has had to endure.
“Y’all protecting something that nobody is trying to steal,” she said to the suit-and-tied men from Ernst and Young. “Don’t nobody want to know about boring Emmy secrets! But since you’re good at keeping things safe, I’ve got a job for you: My Twitter account.” As for the naked pictures that were stolen and spread around the internet? Jones, like Emmy-loser Beyoncé — the Lemonade director lost to the men behind Grease: Live, one of whom is also the director of Hamilton, hopefully taking the sting out of losing to Grease: Live — isn’t sorry. “I just wanted to feel beautiful, y’all! Can a sister feel beautiful?”
The night offered welcome, genuine surprises — Best Lead Actor and Actress in a Drama series going to Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek, whose character is technically two people, and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, who plays approximately seven clones— sprinkled in among the usual suspects. Maggie Smith won, yet again, for her turn on Downton Abbey, despite her regal refusal to deign to attend this little party for television; Game of Thrones won Best Drama Series, as well as the drama awards for writing and direction. This is obviously infuriating because The Americans is the best show on television. (Then again, considering how the Cold War shook out, maybe it’s not a bad idea for these spies to get accustomed to defeat.)