An awards show is, really, only as good as its winners.
At this year’s Emmys, Andy Samberg did his best, and was above the recent average in terms of flat-out jokes and viral bits. But the show’s real charge came from its champions—both their eloquent speeches and the dramatic structure they provided.
In the Best Comedy field, ruled for the preceding five years by ABC’s Modern Family, the superlative series HBO’s Veep and Amazon’s Transparent traded off wins in the show’s earliest moments, with Veep’s honorees (Best Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Best Supporting Actor Tony Hale among them) going for at least a couple of laughs during their acceptance speeches and Transparent’s (including Best Actor Jeffrey Tambor and Best Director Jill Soloway, the series’ creator) using their time onstage to advocate for trans issues. In the first year that Modern Family felt truly vulnerable at the top, there were two legitimate and equally apt contenders to take the prize. No matter one’s loyalty, just waiting for the new ruler felt fun.
Speaking of games of thrones, then there was… Game of Thrones, the series that’s only an underdog at awards shows. The HBO juggernaut came into the Emmys perceived as a far less likely winner than AMC’s Mad Men, which this summer aired its final season. There was no recent precedent to indicate that Mad Men would outperform Game of Thrones (the past two years, both lost to the now-defunct Breaking Bad), and, indeed, the unfolding of the top drama prizes, as win after win (Directing, Supporting Actor—even Writing, for which Game of Thrones is not wildly praised) was a drip-drop realization that Mad Men’s Emmy story was basically over.
Not entirely, though; Jon Hamm won the series’ first and only ever Emmy for a performer, an overdue recognition that surely felt sweeter for fans for all its delay. His speech was as freighted with specifics (names of friends or relatives who showed him kindnesses that only Hamm scholars could decode) as Viola Davis’s, after her Best Actress win for How to Get Away With Murder, was broad and sweeping. Beginning her speech by quoting Harriet Tubman, Davis, the first ever black woman to win in her category, went on to praise her show’s own writers, and implicitly critique the rest of Hollywood, by stating, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
The Emmys had good tension—the wait to see who would win between Veep and Transparent, or between Game of Thrones and Mad Men—and then they had less-good tension. The interplay between Viola Davis saying that Hollywood gatekeepers had long kept women like her out in the same show that host Andy Samberg and presenter Seth Meyers made a big show of thanking Lorne Michaels for employing 40 of the nominees present was wince-inducing. Yes, not every Saturday Night Live alumnus looks precisely like Samberg or Meyers, but the ease with which SNL-er and presenter Will Forte tossed off a gay joke about kissing Jimmy Kimmel onstage indicated this particular way of looking at the world may be outdated.
And the Emmys agreed! In the first year of offering a special category for sketch-comedy shows, the awards show honored Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer over SNL, giving rise to a speech that was both emotional and perhaps more revealing than Schumer intended (in an on-stage aside, she noted that there would be “two more years” of her creative team working together).
And Samberg was a very good host in part because he eschewed the sort of big sketches that have tended to make past Emmy ceremonies drag on. More than the Oscars (which, all things considered, have a relatively short list of categories) or the Grammys (which long ago just decided to be a concert), the Emmys have a lot to get through. Adding substantial “bits” midway through, as well-intentioned hosts like Meyers last year have done, only complicates things. Samberg had some very sharp blazers and some very cute lines—including a surprisingly sharp dig about Jimmy Fallon’s early movie Taxi and a for-true-fans-only gag about recent episodes of Girls—in the early going, before he more or less went away but for one HBO Now joke. By annoying no one, he achieved the best-case scenario.
But because of that same sheer volume of prizes, there are bound to be moments that drag. The Emmys’ grouping of the miniseries and movie prizes have, historically, been a disastrous choice, one that seems like the first thing an outside observer would change—you’re sure you don’t want to scatter these awards throughout the show at least a little bit? It helped, though, that the winners were mainly for HBO’s literary adaptation Olive Kitteridge. The film was very apparently a labor of love for all involved, including lead actress Frances McDormand, whose very short speech did not entail a printed list of names and ended, “We’re all here because of the power of the stories that need to be told. Sometimes that’s enough. Thank you.” Surely, many will be using Andy Samberg’s HBO Now account to watch Kitteridge over the next few weeks.