The telecast felt like a very private party — people seemed to be having fun, but the jollity didn’t really come through the screen.
As the positivity-signaling shows “Ted Lasso” and “Hacks” traded off comedy awards at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday night, it was indicative of a past year that tried our souls and put us in the mood for a shared national tummy scratch. The traditional television industry, buffeted by the pandemic and endlessly losing ground to streaming video, has had it as bad as anyone, and the theme of the show — unremarkable, more or less efficient but still overly long — appeared to be, “Hey, we’ve all got jobs!”
That did lead to a certain level of spirit in the room — you got the feeling people were having a good time. No president of an award-bestowing arts academy, for instance, has ever received as warm a reception as Frank Scherma of the Television Academy when he announced Debbie Allen as winner of the Governor’s Award. But it was an insular jollity, one that didn’t really come through the screen. Whether it was the actual mood or the venue and nature of the production, it felt like a very private party. (The unusual prevalence of bleeping during the acceptances contributed to that effect.)
The ceremony opened not with a skit or a production number or a monologue by the host, Cedric the Entertainer, but with a promo reel of snippets from nominated shows. That self-celebratory mood carried through into an opening number with the ad-copy refrain “TV, you got what I need,” riffing on Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” featuring what appeared to be every rapper with a regular role on a broadcast or cable series, plus Rita Wilson.
The show’s producers had said that a live audience of 500 would have plenty of elbow room in a tented room at the LA Live complex in Los Angeles. The featureless space — it resembled the venue for a B-list fashion show — looked pretty crowded onscreen, though, and the presenter Seth Rogen agreed, crying, “There’s way too many of us in this little room!”
Echoing comments made by Jennifer Aniston earlier in the week, he indicated he would not have come if he had known what the social-distancing situation would be. It appeared, as the show went on, that that would be the night’s only contentious moment, unless you counted Scott Frank’s visible irritation as the producers tried three times to play him off during his marathon acceptance of a writing award for “The Queen’s Gambit.”
There was little in the scripted portions of the ceremony to draw us in. The good moments were more off the cuff. “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” was responsible for a couple, with a reference to Oliver’s mock crush on the actor Adam Driver that was one of the evening’s few genuinely funny bits, and an affecting tribute by Oliver to the comedian Norm Macdonald, who died five days before the awards. (Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” also celebrated Macdonald.)
Kerry Washington, presenting the award for supporting actor in a drama series, paid tribute to the actor Michael K. Williams, a nominee for “Lovecraft Country,” who died Sept. 6, a fortunate move given that Tobias Menzies then won the award for “The Crown.” Less fortunate was the decision to put the camera on the musicians Leon Bridges and Jon Batiste during the memorial segment, which put the images of many of the honorees, including Macdonald and Williams, far in the background.
Some presenters scored by playing off their screen personas, like Jennifer Coolidge of “The White Lotus” and the stars of last year’s big winner, “Schitt’s Creek.” But the “Schitt’s Creek” bit, involving a fake teleprompter malfunction and Eugene Levy’s mock annoyance at getting no lines, went on too long, which was a common problem. A taped sketch about a support group for actors who had never won Emmys just managed to stay funny to the finish line.
Other sketches, like Ken Jeong’s presenting an award from outside the event because he’d forgotten his vaccination card or nearly every self-promotional sketch involving Cedric the Entertainer and his CBS sitcom “The Neighborhood,” just felt endless.
Time could have been taken away from the sketches and given to the acceptance speeches, which were frequently interrupted by play-off music, which was just as routinely ignored. It wasn’t clear whether the producers were more impatient than usual or if the speeches were longer than usual, but they seemed longer, perhaps because there was a lot more rambling self-satisfaction than eloquence or emotion; Jean Smart, Michaela Coel and the richly deserving surprise winner Ewan McGregor were notable exceptions.
The pared-down awards ceremonies of the last two years have been an understandable response to the pandemic. But it will be nice when we get past celebrating survival and return to putting on shows.