For its 68th go-round, the Primetime Emmy Awards offered some surprises (who saw those wins for Orphan Black and Mr. Robot coming?!?) — though the biggest shock was that, under the auspices of host Jimmy Kimmel, the telecast was a tight, joke-packed show that actually had the audacity to end early. Perhaps the Emmy voters (and losers) were simply burnt out on the awards: As Randall Park and Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat joked, last night’s show was actually the third Emmys ceremony held this year, after two separate events for the Creative Arts Emmys earlier in the week. (“So I guess that means Fresh Off the Boat will get our award on the fourth night?” Park quipped; his co-star shot back, “Let it go, Randall.” Maybe next year, y’all.)
Still, Sunday’s gala was packed with plenty of good, bad, and simply bizarre moments. From a simply meh opening skit to the best acceptance speeches, our picks for the good, the best, worst and most head-scratchingly WTF of the 2016 Emmy Awards.
By Amy Plitt and Jenna Scherer.
Best: ‘Game of Thrones’ Goes Down in Emmy History
Winter has arrived in Westeros, and Game of Thrones has arrived in the hallowed halls of TV greatness: HBO’s dragons ‘n’ politics blockbuster is now the record-holder as the show to win the single most Emmys ever, period. The series now has 38 awards to its name (beating Frasier‘s 37), including Outstanding Drama Series for the second year running, and this season’s most stunning episode, “Battle of the Bastards,” nabbed trophies for both Writing and Directing of a Drama Series. It’s no surprise that GoT cleaned up, but the sweep was deserved: Season Six was arguably the strongest yet, venturing into territory beyond the scope of George R.R. Martin’s books and hitting a confident stride. Apparently you do know something, Jon Snow.
Worst: That Cameo-Packed, Rather Lame Opening Skit
The night began on a somewhat limp note with a sketch in which the host hitched a series of rides to the ceremony, starting with the white Bronco from The People v. O.J. Simpson and winding up on dragonback with Game of Thrones‘ Daenerys Targaryen. A serviceable enough idea — except the montage was so concerned with packing in as many famous faces as possible that it came off as frantic and random: The Modern Family folks? Kimmel and James “Carpool Karaoke” Corden reenacting a Wham! video? Ryan Seacrest going down in a hail of CGI dragon fire? And Jeb Bush was there for what reason, now? Because, you know, we’ve all been desperately missing his magnetic presence. The only correlation we can see is that the jokes fell as flat as his campaign. (Please clap.)
Best: The Diversity of the Nominees and Winners
In the wake of this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the other big awards shows have been quick to point out their own relative inclusivity. But the Emmys really put its money where its mouth is, delivering the most diverse roster of nominees to date. Actors, writers and directors of colour featured big in multi-nominated shows like Master of None, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Black-ish, American Crime and Key & Peele — and many won, too. TV has been doing a much better job than mainstream film at representing the diversity of the real world; and thankfully, Emmy voters took notice.
Worst: The Self-Congratulatory Attitude About Diversity
“Here in Hollywood, the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves for valuing diversity,” Kimmel joked in his opening monologue, immediately before … congratulating the Emmys for valuing diversity. Cue an expected potshot at the lily-white Oscars, and an admonition for people of colour in the audience to “thank a white person for their bravery.” It was a gag, of course, but there was some very real condescension just beneath the surface. Emmy voters don’t deserve a cookie for being as inclusive as they should have always been. Here’s hoping for the day when honoring a variety of voices is a matter of course rather than a cause for back-patting.
Best: Kate McKinnon Snags her First Emmy
Kate McKinnon was already having one hell of a year, thanks to her much-lauded, delightfully off-kilter performance in the Ghostbusters reboot, along with her always-impressive work on Saturday Night Live. It’s the latter that won the lady her first Emmy, which seemed to come completely as a shock to the comedian — though she did pull a piece of paper with her speech written on it from her bra. She was charmingly flustered (“I’m shaking, guys,” she said at one point), and thanked her SNL writers and castmates, Lorne Michaels, and her fellow nominees. (Though, sadly, not her overweight cat Nino.) The most affecting bit, though, was when she thanked her mother, sister, and her late father, who “made me start watching SNL when I was 12.” McKinnon’s win also garnered a nod from a certain Democratic presidential candidate who she’s impersonated many a time:
Best: Rami Malek and Tatiana Maslany Take Top Acting Honors
Everyone loves a good underdog story, and this year’s Emmys gave us a pair of them. Lead Actor/Actress in a Drama Series noms Rami Malek (USA’s Mr. Robot) and Tatiana Maslany (BBC America’s Orphan Black) were both the young upstarts in their categories, and both won the night. It was a victory for up-and-comers with mondo talent — Malek’s turn as an unhinged hacker is bizarre and magnetic, and Maslany portrays eight different clones with such versatility that it’s easy to forget they’re all the same performer. It’s also a triumph for left-of-center programming: Mr. Robot and Orphan Black are both genre shows that take wear their cyberpunky strangeness on their sleeve. Welcome to the new face of prestige television.
Worst: Emmy Voters’ Lack of Imagination
As great as Malek and Maslany’s wins are, the Emmy voters still have a long way to go in terms of not awarding the same shows year after year. We’re certainly not begrudging Julia Louis-Dreyfus her win for Veep (see below), but it came during a year when she was up against a few particularly worthy first-time nominees, such as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Ellie Kemper, or Black-ish‘s Tracee Ellis Ross. Ditto Maggie Smith, who won for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Downton Abbey‘s final season. Sure, she was good — she’s Maggie Fucking Smith! But her competition included Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey and Maisie Williams, both of whom gave complex, challenging performances on that series. We’re grateful for the underdog winners this year, but it’s still worth pushing for more interesting choices, not the same old safe stuff.
Best: Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s poignant acceptance speech
It was all but a forgone conclusion that JLD would win, again, for her brilliantly acidic portrayal of Veep‘s bumbling president Selina Meyers — in fact, this year’s Emmys was her fifth consecutive win in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category. Her speech was at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, with both a playful acknowledgement of the HBO series’ role in the current political climate (“I think that Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics; our show started out as a political satire, but now feels more like a sobering documentary”), as well as a brief, emotional acknowledgement of the recent death of her father, businessman William Louis-Dreyfus. Her hands shook as she read the final part of her speech: “I’d like to dedicate this to my father … who passed away on Friday. I’m so glad that he liked Veep because his opinion was the one that really mattered.”
Worst: Jimmy Kimmel’s Hosting Job
Was Kimmel stoned? That’s maybe the only explanation for his hosting duties during the 68th annual Emmys ceremony, which vacillated between weirdly laconic and trying a bit too hard to be edgy. (A Cosby joke? Really?) His monologue, for example, included an extended riff on Maggie Smith’s continues absence at the Emmys, which would have maybe landed better a few years ago, when Downton Abbey was actually culturally relevant. It’s perhaps the best example of why Kimmel-as-host was fine, but not great or particularly memorable; a lot of his jokes simply didn’t land, or would only make sense to people who watch his late-night show (see: the extended bit with Matt Damon). On the plus side: His best barbs were reserved for überproducer Mark Burnett, who, as the creator of The Apprentice, is essentially to blame the political force that is Donald Trump. “When Trump builds that wall, the first one going over is Mark Burnett,” Kimmel said — now that’s funny.
Best: ‘Transparent’ Speeches Call for Revolution
Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor each earned their second consecutive Emmy for Amazon’s Transparent (for Directing and Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, respectively), and took the opportunity to stump for increased transgender and female visibility. “When you take people of colour, women, trans people, queer people, as the subjects of stories, you change the world,” she said, before ending on the mic drop/rallying cry “Topple the patriarchy!” For his part, Tambor acknowledged that he really isn’t the person to play the role that’s earned him so much acclaim. “I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female,” he said, calling for transgender actors to finally get a seat at the table.
Best: ‘The People v O.J. Simpson’ Cleans Up.
Unsurprisingly, Ryan Murphy’s incisive, addictive miniseries about the O.J. Simpson trial won in many of the categories it was nominated for, including Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special (the episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” focusing on the titular prosecutor), Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie (Sarah Paulson, a lock, and who actually brought Marcia Clark to the ceremony), and Outstanding Limited Series. But it’s worth calling out the wins for two of the most compelling actors on the series: Sterling K. Brown, who played put-upon prosecutor Christopher Darden, and Courtney B. Vance, who stepped into the very big shoes of the larger-than-life Johnnie Cochran. Both actors brought a level of complexity and nuance to their roles that simply couldn’t be outshined by more scene-chewing performances from co-stars John Travolta or David Schwimmer; luckily, the Emmy voters noticed, giving each man his first Emmy for those brilliant portrayals.
Worst: ‘Grease: Live’ Beats Out Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’
Twitter was awash with GIFs of Queen Bey twirling a baseball bat in front of a wall of fire after the Directing for a Variety Special winner was announced. The wrath of the Beyhive was invoked by Fox’s Grease: Live, helmed by Thomas Kail and Alex Rudzinski, taking the statuette over of Lemonade, directed by Kahlil Joseph and Beyoncé. And not for nothing: That live musical staging was perfectly competent, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the arresting, dreamlike aesthetics — nor the titanic cultural influence — of that the movie-length video.It’s safe to say that Grease: Live is the Becky with the Good Hair of this situation.
Best: Louie Anderson Wins for ‘Baskets’
This particular win may have had many on Twitter scratching their heads. But those who actually watched Zach Galifianakis’ oddball FX series were rooting hard for Anderson — who plays the passive-aggressive, frustrating mother to the star’s twin brothers — to win in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. (And he was up against stiff competition, including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Tituss Burgess and Key & Peele‘s Keegan Michael Key.) In his acceptance speech, the comedy vet thanked his many, many siblings, and dedicated the award to his mother, who inspired his performance. “Mom, we did it! I haven’t been a very great man, but I play one hell of a woman,” he noted.
Best: ‘Key & Peele’ Finally Wins a Much-Deserved Emmy
The final season of Key & Peele finished up a little more than a year ago, and the world has been a less funny place ever since. But the sketch series, which showcased the often absurd, always laser-focused talents of Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele over five seasons, finally got its due with a win for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. For all of their over-the-top sketches and characters over the years — the Liam Neesons valets, Key’s substitute teacher, Meegan and her long-suffering boyfriend Andre, etc. — their winning speech was uncharacteristically subdued. “This is crazy,” said Peele, before thanking Comedy Central and fanboy-ing out over the fact that Damon Wayans was onstage with them. You’re still our jam, guys!
Worst: Please, No More “Hallelujah”
Look, we love the Leonard Cohen song; John Cale’s cover of it is especially great. And to be fair, it must be tough picking a song to soundtrack the “In Memoriam” segment for an awards show. After all, you have to pick something that’s appropriately somber, but maybe not too somber, telegraphing just the right mix of sadness and poignancy. But can we please, please put a moratorium on using “Hallelujah” for any more of these? Tori Kelly’s rendition of the song was unassailably lovely, of course. But it’s not even the first time the Emmys turned to this song for the In Memoriam section; the Canadian Tenors tackled it during the 2011 ceremony. So let’s maybe it’s time to give it a rest. Even its creator wants to cool it a bit.
Best: ‘Master of None’ Wins for Writing for a Comedy Series
This masterful Netflix newcomer strikes a singular balance between low-key comedy and very real pathos. Never was this on better display than in “Parents,” the standout episode about the disconnect between first- and second-generation immigrants that netted co-creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari a much-deserved statuette. Yang took the opportunity to point out that Asian-American representation on TV is only just getting started. “There’s 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos; we got Long Duk Dong. So we got a long way to go.” Keep fighting the good fight, fellas.
Best: Leslie Jones to Emmy Accountants, ‘Protect My Twitter!’
The moment during an awards show when the accountants who tally the votes show up is usually the moment where you get up to grab another drink or pee — but if you did that this year, you’d have missed comedic force Leslie Jones, who accompanied the three milquetoast men from Ernst & Young onstage. After joking about the level of security afforded to Emmy ballots (“Don’t nobody wanna know about boring Emmy secrets,” which, you know, true), Jones then asked the accountants for help protecting her from the nasty trolls and hackers who drove her off of Twitter for a spell over the summer. “Y’all over here using your skills to protect ‘Best Voiceover in a French Sitcom,’ meanwhile I’m butt naked on CNN,” she joked. “I just wanted to feel beautiful y’all. Can a sister feel beautiful?!?” Amen.
Worst: The Last Gasp of ‘Downton Abbey’
Yes, Downton Abbey deserved its early wins — but the show has been going downhill since its third season, veering as surely toward irrelevancy as Matthew Crawley careening toward an unseen lorry. Yet Emmy voters have been nominating Julian Fellowes’ period soap opera dutifully year upon year, a fusty choice given the richness of TV dramas out right now. Look, we’re not monsters — of course we love Maggie Smith. But did she really need a third Emmy for playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham, at this point more monument than character? (Naturally, she was not present — Kimmel “accepted” the award on her behalf, per his running M.I.A Dame joke.) At least some space will free up in the Drama categories now that Downton is finally done.
Best: The Ceremony Ended Two Minutes Early
No winner likes having their speeches cut till they’re good and ready. (Jeffrey Tambor’s “Sheket bevakashah!”, Hebrew for “Quiet, please!”, was the evening’s most endearing dismissal of the exit music.) But for those of us watching at home, those pushy instrumentals are vital; they mean maybe we’ll get to go to sleep eventually. While award shows have a tendency to run groan-inducingly long — we’re looking at you, Oscars — the 2016 Emmys ended a full two minutes before the scheduled 11pm cutoff. Jimmy Kimmel may not be the funniest guy to ever host, but we’ll give him this: He runs a tight ship.
Worst: Where Was the Watercooler Moment?
For all of the good, bad, and ugly moments during this year’s Emmys ceremony, there wasn’t any one particular thing that stood out as truly “holy crap we mustdiscuss this the next day”-worthy — no Alan Alda cartwheeling as he accepted an award, or Bryan Cranston and Julia Louis-Dreyfus passionately (and unexpectedly) kissing, etc. Presenters mostly played it safe; many of the acceptance speeches were lovely and poignant, but lacking that sort of urgency or message-boosting that gets talked about the next day. (Jill Soloway’s “topple the patriarchy” cries probably came the closest.) Everything was just fine. Which is not the worst thing you can say about an awards show. But it doesn’t exactly make for must-see TV.