You really couldn’t win just one Emmy this year, it seemed. At the annual TV back-patting event Sunday night, the winners were WINNERS. The awards came in pairs, triplets, and more, and it was easy to wonder if voters had watched only “The Crown,” “Mare of Easttown,” and “Hacks” — oh, right, and “Ted Lasso.”
No complaints from this critic regarding most of the winners, safe and predictable as they were. This was not the year for underdogs — you know, like Ted Lasso the coach. It was a celebration of the pandemic’s comfort food TV and of shows that were not out to challenge.
“The Crown” had a stellar season, giving us the royal family as a pack of wolves, adding brutal undercurrents to its elegant surfaces. Every performance was a gem, not least of all that of Olivia Colman, who won for bringing lots of bite to her final season as Queen Elizabeth. “The Crown” also brought Netflix its first best drama Emmy.
”Ted Lasso” was an easy comedy treat with a positive, but not naïve, spirit — and it was just exactly what a pandemic-strained country wanted to watch. Jason Sudeikis held the show together with his relentlessly upbeat lead, the kind of cheery turn that is hard to make bearable. And winners Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein were two of the show’s large ensemble of endearing supporting players. Except for the deserving interruptions in its near-sweep by “Hacks” and that series’ excellent lead, Jean Smart, the show deserved the love it received. The orchestrated version of Marcus Mumford’s “Ted Lasso” theme song got a good workout during the night.
And “Mare of Easttown” and “The Queen’s Gambit” also got a few big wins, not surprisingly since both shows were admired and popular. “Mare” developed into a beloved whodunit with irresistible Pennsylvania accents. Kate Winslet gave an enthusiastic thank you for her win, after former local Julianne Nicholson and Evan Peters had won for their extraordinary supporting work. And “The Queen’s Gambit,” which inspired a bit of a pandemic chess craze, took a directing prize and the best limited series prize.
Fortunately, Michaela Coel got a win, albeit only one, for her writing on the potent sexual-assault limited series “I May Destroy You.” If she hadn’t gotten some kind of acknowledgement from voters, it would have been yet another one for the crowded Emmy Hall of Shame. “Write the tale that scares you,” she said, “that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you.” Clearly the actress-writer-director took her own advice.
Now I do have some complaints about the entertainment side of the night. It was mediocre at best, as usual. Host Cedric the Entertainer delivered all the expected jokes, such as “Lock the doors, we’re not leaving until we find a new host for ‘Jeopardy!’ in here somewhere.” The jokes were decidedly fang-less and super forgettable. His other comedy bits included a talk from the bug that landed on Mike Pence’s head during his debate with Kamala Harris, which might have been funny many, many news cycles ago. Maybe. Also, we saw Cedric lead a support group for those who haven’t won Emmys, including Scott Bakula, Jason Alexander, Zooey Deschanel, Alyson Hannigan, Fred Savage, and, to help them, Dr. Phil. It was all shoulder-shrug level stuff.
But readers, it didn’t matter much. The telecast started off with a joyous TV-themed version of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” with Cedric performing along with Rita Wilson, LL Cool J, and various other audience members. It was awkward, yes, but everyone was up and dancing in the Event Deck at L.A. Live in Los Angeles, a warm moment among people who had not been among their people much in past year and a half, just like the rest of us.
The in-personness of the night felt like a gift. Most of “The Crown” nominees were gathered in early morning London, and that London “bureau” was the night’s only reminder of last year’s pandemic-bound Emmys, which was a glut of Zoom madness. Clearly this year’s big night was scaled down for social distancing purposes, with only about 500 people in attendance, at tables; but it nonetheless felt like a true gathering, and in some ways the intimacy was preferable to a full theater. So there was that.
And anyway, there were some naturally arising bits that were more effective than the scripted stuff, both in terms of humor and sorrow. Smart, after receiving a standing ovation, opened her acceptance speech by honoring her late husband, Richard Gilliland, who died six months ago. “I would not be here without him.” Kerry Washington paid tribute to the late Michael K. Williams, one of the night’s nominees, saying he was “a brilliantly talented actor and a generous human being who has left us far too soon.”
When “Saturday Night Live” won for best variety sketch series, Robin Thede of “A Black Lady Sketch Show” sat at her table seething, the camera lingering on her. It was great — easy to confuse for a real moment. When the “Schitt’s Creek” cast was left hemming and hawing without a TelePrompter script, it wasn’t great, and it was unclear if it was real or planned.
Amusingly for everyone except, perhaps, Lorne Michaels, Sudeikis offered his thanks to his former colleagues at “Saturday Night Live,” including his former boss. “I want to thank Lorne . . . who went to go take a dump. Now, perfect. He’s going to get home, he’s going to watch it. He loves watching the Emmys at home. It’s fine, it’s fine. Which home, is the big question.”
The red carpet was like a long hang in a sparsely populated mall hallway. Stars arrived, submitted to COVID-19 protocols, allowed themselves to be chatted up, and ducked into the slimmed-down ceremony. Dedicated followers of fashion were exhausted, anyway, after a week that included the MTV VMA’s and the Met Gala. The remote London carpet offered up Emma Corrin with a kind of “Blandmaid’s Tale” look, and L.A. was graced by Billy Porter in ruffly wings and Bowen Yang in metallic platforms; but it was a relatively quiet pregame, fabulousness-wise.