“This is why people don’t do this,” Thomas Lennon sighed, about halfway through the 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards telecast. “Because it sucks.” Somehow, Lennon—the comedian, writer and Reno 911! star who’d been enlisted to provide live voiceover commentary on the ceremony—wasn’t even the first entertainer to use the word “sucks” to describe the Emmys on the Emmys. Earlier in the evening, during a bit with Stephen Colbert in which the two late-night hosts complained about this year’s awards going hostless, Jimmy Kimmel offered his own (apparently scripted) review: “I’m sorry, but this show sucks!”
That certainly isn’t a rare sentiment among awards show viewers in 2019; neither is it really an unfair appraisal of Sunday’s festivities. You just don’t usually hear people who are supposed to be legitimizing the whole song and dance with their enthusiastic presence outright trashing it, ostensibly with the network’s blessing, on live TV. As it turned out, the strangest thing about this year’s Emmys telecast—one that also featured multiple major trophies for a dark British dramedy adapted from a one-woman Edinburgh Fringe Festival show, before concluding with a victory for what may be the worst season of television to ever clinch best drama—was its tone, which at times shot straight past self-deprecation all the way to self-hatred.
Entertainment award shows have been somewhat restrained in the Trump era, it’s true. And we’ve seen some additional (mostly female) anger and (mostly male) self-flagellation since #MeToo started sweeping through the industry in the fall of 2017. Yet the negative vibes emanating from the Microsoft Theater, this time, felt different—more mean-spirited and nihilistic than contrite. So many elements of the ceremony radiated apathy or derision toward TV in general. Presenter pairings often seemed random. Bill Hader’s observation that “a limited series is a show that was canceled” dripped cynicism (even if, with so little competition, it was one of the funniest things said all night). Lennon’s mostly inane jokes recalled the mocking narration on Love Island (even if he did get in some good digs at Fox owners the Murdoch family after Succession won a writing award). There was even something belittling about the way Bryan Cranston invoked Neil Armstrong in his faux-spontaneous, not-actually-the-host intro, as though it’s laughable to celebrate TV when there are guys around who’ve walked on the moon.
I don’t necessarily believe that the Emmys, as an institution, deserve our respect. Quite a few of Sunday’s winners do, though. What a dissonant experience it was to watch characters from Family Guy make cracks about how the Academy loves to celebrate people like Bill Cosby and Roseanne, amid speeches like Billy Porter’s call for inclusion, which cited James Baldwin, and Alex Borstein’s tribute to her Holocaust-survivor grandmother. I cringed watching Phoebe Waller-Bridge deliver boilerplate jokes while presenting an award because the lines she writes for herself—and even her running acceptance-speech gag about how excruciating every part of her job on Fleabag had been—are so much better than what the Emmys writers scripted for her.
There’s an argument to be made, I guess, that this was Fox honoring its roots as an irreverent broadcast upstart; Homer Simpson did kick off the show, after all. You wouldn’t be wrong, either, to note that humility is de rigueur for the entertainment industry these days. And yet, Fox wasn’t shy about promoting its own fall lineup. There were so many Masked Singer tie-ins, Prodigal Son ads, presenters culled from its own prime-time series (oh hi, Tim Allen) and synergistic deployments of its trusty animation franchises that just about every energetic moment that wasn’t part of an acceptance speech felt like a commercial.
From where I was sitting, the 2019 Emmys simply came off as bitter and shady. Maybe we were tasting the sour grapes of a network that didn’t have a single nominee among the televised categories. (FX, which did win several awards, isn’t even under the Fox Corp. umbrella anymore. The cable channel was part of the 21st Century Fox stable that Disney acquired earlier this year.) Over the course of the past two decades, Peak TV has made the Emmys increasingly competitive; now, they’re a race that the broadcast networks are no longer automatically positioned to qualify for, much less win. It’s a sign of weird times for this business that we’re celebrating the best that television has to offer on networks that have been eclipsed, at least in terms of creativity, by cable and streaming competitors. It makes you wonder how long such an uneasy coexistence can continue.