"The Emmys didn't suck." That phrase was used a lot in online discussion of Sunday's 69th annual Emmy Awards. It's not often you can say a three-hour awards show didn't drag on, boring the viewing audience into a stupor of annoyance.
The Emmys didn't sag or stupefy because, first, there was a great deal of excellent TV to honour and, second, everything was inextricably linked to Donald Trump and his administration, or it was about the surreal quality of the Trump era. In the matter of the second reason, it had to be massively influential; the Trump era, brief though it is so far, has scrambled the entertainment industry's collective brain and also yielded some of its most memorable output in the past 12 months.
The Handmaid's Tale deservedly won eight Emmys, including outstanding drama and Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd as outstanding lead and supporting actress in a drama, respectively. Why did the drama resonate so powerfully? Because the superbly made adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel offered viewers a terrifying what-if portrait of misogyny that looked like an interpretive key to Trump's rise and triumph.
The sheer weirdness of how surreally close art, entertainment and politics have become was obvious in the opening minutes of the Emmys. Host Stephen Colbert led with jokes about the TV industry and then bizarrely had a song-and-dance routine featuring dancing handmaids who whipped off their oppressive gowns to dance in their underwear. That was funny and weird in a mildly provocative way – the point of the novel and the TV adaptation is that the handmaids are viciously oppressed.
Then came Colbert asking if there was any way to tell just how big the audience was for the Emmys telecast. How could he ever get a head count? Out rolled former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, behind a podium, smiling broadly. "This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period, both in person and around the world," Spicer said, grinning. That's precisely what he said about the crowd size at Trump's inauguration, despite clear and unambiguous photographic evidence to the contrary.
"Wow, that really soothes my fragile ego," said Colbert. "I can understand why you'd want one of these around." That dig at Trump's ego was funny, but the Spicer appearance was disturbing, a dissonant moment for a lot of those present and it will continue to be debated for days. Were Colbert and the Television Academy normalizing Spicer's blatant lying? Was it offering a disgraced Spicer a chance to rebrand himself as a benign, funny guy?
Some will disagree with the intent behind the appearance but it sure defined the incongruity of the Emmy Awards in the Trump era. Saturday Night Live picked up a bunch of awards for, essentially, mocking Trump and his acolytes for a year. The fact that Spicer was rolled into the awards made for very uncomfortable comedy designed to make the audience think – an act far more subversive than what Saturday Night Live has done.
While the Spicer moment will bring hand-wringing and arguments, the Emmy Awards as a whole brought a cornucopia of cognitive dissonance – what was Roger Ailes, the disgraced former head of Fox News, doing in the In Memoriam segment? Why did Alec Baldwin, winning for his gross, exaggerated mockery of Trump, make the case for the importance of the arts by suggesting they are far more vital in life than any government legislation? Surely, after all, SNL's vicious treatment of Trump is about the changes Trump has wrought and not merely a celebration of their own comedic skills?
HBO's Big Little Lies won a load of awards, deservedly. It is as female-centric a drama as The Handmaid's Tale. And it was directed with sublime panache by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée (who won a best directing Emmy). And yet it seemed odd that Nicole Kidman's earnest but long-winded acceptance speech was allowed to ramble on while other winners – none of them white movie stars – were hustled off the stage by rising music. Kidman's speech was 374 words long, while Riz Ahmed, winning for The Night Of, used 250 words and managed to plug two charities. (The Academy provided critics with transcripts of the speeches late Sunday night.) Kidman seemed to think she was in Oscars territory, free to drone on and on.
There were bizarre wins and snubs galore, too. John Oliver's weekly HBO series Last Week Tonight won two awards while comedy and chat shows that do what Oliver does four or five nights a week were ignored. This did yield a good bit of bitter humour from Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. Netflix's Stranger Things was almost shut out, perhaps because it originally streamed so long ago. FX's wonderful Feud: Bette and Joan was also shut out, undeservedly. And John Lithgow did not deserve to win for The Crown, against far more substantive work from his competitors in the category of supporting actor in a drama series.
In the end, the TV industry will count up all the Emmy Awards accumulated. And they are: HBO with 29, Netflix with 20, NBC with 15 and Hulu with 10. The rest of the group: ABC (seven), FX (six), Fox (five), Adult Swim (four), CBS (four), A&E (three), VH1 (three) and two each for Amazon, BBC America, National Geographic and ESPN.
But the real talking point is Sean Spicer. Was Spicer tacitly admitting that what he had angrily brayed from a White House podium was all a lie? If so, was he also admitting that most of what comes from the Trump administration is a lie? Was the appearance an admission that, but for Melissa McCarthy on SNL, he'd still have a job?
No matter the attempted answers, the Emmy Awards confirmed the power of contemporary TV and illuminated all the incongruities of making TV in the bewildering Trump era.