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Emmys 2021: 10 Best, Worst, and Most WTF Moments

Our picks for the highs, lows, and head-scratching moments from last night’s ceremony

The 'Ted Lasso' gang celebrates its win for Outstanding Comedy

Cliff Lipson/CBS

If you ever wondered what an awards show in purgatory might look like, the 73rd Primetime Emmys Awards just granted your wish. You could blame it on the times: In 2020, we were collectively starved for connection — any connection — and television provided a decent simulacrum, bringing people and their stories into our homes when we were at our most isolated. This year has seen society emerge from the fog of the worst days of the pandemic, and no one is really sure of what to take away from all of it — least of all the entertainment industry.

Which brings us to the 2021 Emmys, which seemed to take place in a sort of limbo between disaster and its aftermath, between business interrupted and business as usual, between stagnation and progress. While the 2020 ceremony was a sort of apocalyptic shadow play, with then-host Jimmy Kimmel performing to an empty theater and hazmat-suited presenters dropping off statuettes on winners’ doorsteps, this year’s was an in-person, vaccinated, unmasked ceremony that felt almost normal, presided over by first-time host Cedric the Entertainer.

An anxiety ran through the proceedings (best expressed by the night’s first presenter, Seth Rogen, when he fretted, “There’s way too many of us in this little room!”) that, as the night wore on, was supplanted by a creeping boredom. The big wins went off as anticipated, with stacks of trophies going to Netflix’s grand dame The Crown for drama and The Queen’s Gambit for limited series, and the Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso for its freshman season. Meanwhile, HBO’s Mare of Easttown and Hacks netted three wins apiece.

These predictable sweeps offered a snapshot of our current cultural moment: Despite some of the more artistically daring, socially challenging, and diverse offerings that were nominated (see: I May Destroy You, Lovecraft Country, PEN15, WandaVision, and the final season of Pose), the Television Academy rewarded what felt safe. The telecast, too, seemed to be more about TV’s past than its future, with a draggy ceremony that was hindered by hokey comedy bits and a few overly long speeches. If this is what a “return to normal” feels like, maybe it’s time that the Emmys throw the concept of normal out altogether.

From Rolling Stone US

Best: Debbie Allen Becomes the First Black Woman to Receive the Governors Award

If anyone’s truly earned the title of multihyphenate, it’s Debbie Allen. During her 50-year career onstage and in television, the dancer, choreographer, actress, television director, singer-songwriter, and producer has done it all, breaking barriers along the way. Following a pretaped segment recapping Allen’s body of work, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ava DuVernay, Ellen Pompeo, and Michael Douglas came to the stage to pay a sweet tribute to her breakout role in the musical series Fame, tapping canes to the floor as her dance-teacher character Linda Grant used to. But it was the woman herself who reminded the audience of her star power when she accepted her Emmy, refusing to yield her time (“Turn that clock off!”) so that she could properly thank all her fellow artists that she’d worked with over the decades. Most poignantly, Allen made sure to deliver a message to the next generation of artists at home: “It is time for you to claim your power, claim your voice — Say. Your. Song. Tell your stories. It will make us a better place.” CS

Worst: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Creator Scott Frank Ignores the “STOP” Sign

You’d think that a seasoned industry pro like The Queen’s Gambit creator Scott Frank would know basic awards show etiquette, such as: When the music starts playing, you wrap up your speech. Going a little long is one thing; but he decided to go over — like, way over — in his acceptance for the limited series outstanding directing award. When the music first started playing, he paused in his rote, printer-paper speech to offer a snide, “Really? No,” followed by, “Seriously? Stop the music.” Frank went on for what felt like a small lifetime, reading a laundry list of thank-yous over two additional music cues. It’s true that we’ve all gotten pretty bad at reading social cues in these isolated times; but read the room, my dude. Or better yet, read the literal giant red sign at the back of the room (as captured for our edification by Underground Railroad nominee Colson Whitehead) that says “STOP.” JS

Best: ‘I May Destroy You’ Gets a Much-Deserved Win

Michaela Coel’s widely acclaimed limited series I May Destroy You may not have garnered the Emmys sweep that many thought it deserved, but Coel’s win in the Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie category nonetheless felt like one of the most satisfying victories of the night. (Especially after the show was completely snubbed by the Golden Globes earlier this year, receiving exactly zero nominations.) In sharp contrast to the self-indulgent, slow-paced speech from The Queen’s Gambit creator Scott Frank that preceded it, Coel’s time at the mic was concise, deliberate, and a mark of succinct wisdom. “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that makes you feel uncomfortable,” she advised, reading from a single notecard. “I dare you. In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to in turn feel the need to be constantly visible — for visibility, these days, seems to equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear from it, from us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.” CS

Best: A Surprise Visit From the Rose Family

CBC and Pop TV’s Schitt’s Creek made history at last year’s Emmys when it won in every comedy category. Stylish as ever, the show’s Rose family (Eugene and Dan Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Annie Murphy) came up to present two awards — and, with their easy stage patter, reminded us why they’re comedy royalty. The foursome squabbled over a blank teleprompter as Eugene admitted that he got in hot water with the Emmy writers, and O’Hara revived her singularly weird Moira Rose accent when the captions came back on. Given how strained so much of the other presenters’ banter was, the return of the Schitt’s clan served as a reminder that awards ceremonies can be funny if you don’t force it; all you have to do is fold it in. JS

WTF: Conan O’Brien Merrily Trolls the Ceremony

Talk-show icon Conan O’Brien wrapped his nominated TBS series Conan after 11 seasons this past summer. And after he lost the variety talk series Emmy to HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, he apparently decided he had nothing else to lose — because that’s when his campaign of chaos began. When Television Academy president Frank Scherma came out to give his (deadly dull) speech about the state of the biz, O’Brien went full heckler, saluting and clapping until he’d whipped up the whole audience into a confused standing ovation. Later, he raced onto the stage with Stephen Colbert and his Election Night 2020 team when they accepted the variety special trophy, shouting and hugging the actual man of the hour. “Wow, I haven’t met some of these people before,” Colbert joked at the start of his speech. This is the kind of unhinged, why-the-hell-not energy that awards shows have always needed — and Conan was just the guy to bring it. JS