Now there’s something you don’t see too often — an Emmy night that actually makes good television. The Emmys are usually one of those pop-culture Zen koans: Why is an award show for TV such a painful little hate-watch? But this year’s model was easily the most entertaining Emmy bash since Conan O’Brien hosted in 2008, a welcome change after last year’s debacle. Jimmy Kimmel kept things moving and got the whole event done and dusted in three hours — with a minute or two to spare, actually. Yes, there was still plenty of pomposity on display; if you took a tequila shot every time people congratulated themselves on “storytelling,” you got loopier than whoever did Clare Danes’ hair. But the awards were full of surprise moments and the winners had something to say. Hell, the Courtney B. Vance/Angela Bassett eye contact alone would have made it all worth watching. Any TV party that includes both Jill Soloway saying “topple the patriarchy” and John Mayer making hilariously tortured guitar-solo faces is covering the spectrum of American weirdness.
Kimmel did an excellent job with the inevitable buttload of jokes about Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson and Game of Thrones. But it was the winners who provided the most memorable moments, especially after Julia Louis-Dreyfus won for Veep and spoke movingly about her late father, who died Friday: “His opinion was the one that really mattered.” When Patton Oswalt won for his Netflix special Talking for Clapping, he gave a clock-cleaningly beautiful tribute to his late wife Michelle McNamara, in words that were intensely emotional yet graciously understated. “I want to share this with two people: One of them is my daughter Alice, who’s waiting at home. The other one is waiting somewhere else, I hope.”
When Sterling K. Brown won for The People v O.J. Simpson, he started a running gag about Jay-Z and Beyoncé that lasted all night (“I got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain”), proof that Beyoncé can keep winning award shows without even showing up. And as Courtney B. Vance proved on People with his powerhouse performance as Johnnie Cochrane, this guy knows how to give a speech. He dedicated his award to his leading lady (and fellow nominee) Angela Bassett, peacocking in the front row in yellow. “To the woman who rocks my chain, Angela Evelyn Bassett! This one is for you, girl!” Bassett pointed back with a smile that lit up the room, and damn: Make a woman smile like this and you are undeniably winning at life as well as art.
The host’s opening bit included a clever Carpool Karaoke session with James Corden — the two of them as Wham!’s George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, singing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” It also had a dismal cameo for the already-forgotten Jeb Bush, who played Kimmel’s Uber diver, in a none-too-uproarious attempt to rebrand himself as a lovable loser who gets the joke. (Who knows — maybe Jeb really does think he got punished for running “a positive campaign.”) Julia Louis Dreyfus got the best line, citing the LBJ biopic All the Way: “LBJ? That was my nickname in my high school Spanish club.” (All the Way didn’t win — but it was still cool to see director Jay Roach in the crowd beside his Bangle wife Susanna Hoffs.)
Kimmel kept his comedy interludes brief and sharp all night. The best: his mother making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the Stranger Things kids handing them out, Amy Schumer reading the flattering note Kimmel’s mom put in her sandwich. The way she winced over the words “Bring back Parks & Rec” might have been her finest TV moment of the year. He also made a running gag out of his mock rage at “Lame Maggie Smith,” who won for Downton Abbey but was a no-show as usual. “When Maggie Smith hears she’s nominated for an Emmy, she has the same reaction the rest of us have when we get those ‘20 percent off at Bed Bath & Beyond’ coupons in the mail,” he fumed. “Why do we keep nominating this woman. She’s treating us like the People’s Choice Awards!”
Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Tatiana Maslay (Orphan Black) won the top acting awards, well deserved in both cases. Kate McKinnon’s tearful speech was enough to make even Lorne Michaels a little verklempt. Louie Anderson won for playing the mother on Baskets; alas Loni Anderson wasn’t nominated for a thing. David Schwimmer and John Travolta sat close enough together to share a few good-sport hangdog reaction shots, despite Kimmel’s vintage joke about The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Tom Hiddleston and Prianka Chopra made the glammest entrance of the night as they walked out to present together, with him gallantly giving her a twirl. America Ferrara and Mandy Moore made a groovy presenter-couple as well. The house band included Ray Parker Jr., Steve Jordan and Mayer, who provided the night’s bitchiest moment when he played “The Thrill Is Gone” as Taylor Swift’s ex Hiddleston was leaving the stage. Oh, dear John.
Jeffrey Tambor (who won for Transparent) gave a moving tribute to the late Garry Shandling, while Henry Winkler gave an appropriately declamatory eulogy for Garry Marshall, quoting the late sitcom kingpin’s words: “Other people make important television. I make recess.” The In Memoriam montage — always an Emmy specialty and often the show’s high point — included Tori Kelly performing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over a loop of sadly departed TV faces from the past. So many greats: Abe Vigoda, Al Molinaro, Ken Howard (represented by a 30 Rock clip, rather than the classic White Shadow episode where Heywood Nelson dies on the basketball court), Patty Duke, her TV dad (and Tribble-phobe) William Schallert, Dan Haggerty (the Grizzliest of Adamses). It also included legends like David Bowie, Merle Haggard and Muhammed Ali, a respectful and moving gesture to include icons who shaped TV from the outside. The final shot belonged, as it should have, to Prince: the Purple One center stage at the 2007 Super Bowl, taking his bow in the rain. It seemed to sum up what was genuinely exciting and enthusiastic about this year’s Emmy celebration: For once, these awards pointed to TV’s future as well as its past.