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MATTHEW GILBERT

Emmy Awards strain to entertain, but some moments broke through

Sheryl Lee Ralph accepts the Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for "Abbott Elementary."Phil McCarten/Phil McCarten/Invision/AP

There were few surprises at the Emmys this year, win-wise. Many of the major awards were presented to names and faces that had won before, something the Television Academy voters tend to do. They do so very much like to confirm their previous choices.

And none of those choices was egregious. HBO’s sharply written and beautifully acted “Succession” again walked away with the best drama statue, and deservedly so. Apple TV+’s feel-good comedy “Ted Lasso,” lead Jason Sudeikis, and supporting actor Brett Goldstein repeated their previous victories, this time for a less consistent but still soulful season. And best actress in a comedy Jean Smart (”Hacks”), best supporting actress in a drama Julia Garner (”Ozark”), and best actress in a drama Zendaya (”Euphoria”) were all back on the stage once again for good work.

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It was very deja view, but with a small smattering of new names here and there, including Lee Jung-jae of Netflix’s “Squid Game,” who became the first person from a foreign language show to win best actor. ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” also took home a couple of well-earned statues, with Quinta Brunson winning for best writing for a comedy and Sheryl Lee Ralph winning best supporting actress in a comedy.

Most of the quality newcomers to the series competitions this year, however, including “Yellowjackets,” “Severance,” “The Great,” and “Only Murders in the Building,” failed to register.

It was too bad — the night could have used a lot more excitement and fresh energy.

The cast and crew of "Succession" accept the Emmy for best drama. Kevin Winter/Getty

Oh, the Emmy producers did try to goose the telecast a little this year, in an effort to keep last year’s rise in viewership moving upward. Most notably, there was a more intimate than usual pre-pandemic-like atmosphere in the Microsoft Theater, with a closer stage-to-audience relationship, the stage mixed right in with a ballroom setup. There was comic Sam Jay hovering above in a booth adding commentary. And the show opened with an oddball dance sequence set to the theme songs of “Friends,” “Law & Order,” and “The Brady Bunch.”

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They got our attention — is that host Kenan Thompson rocking to the “Game of Thrones” theme in a Targaryen wig? — but lost it quickly. Ultimately it was just another TV awards show among a thousand TV awards shows, long and stuffed with unnecessary montages and comedy bits. More than halfway through the night, did we really need a bit featuring Kumail Nanjiani as an unhappy bartender? It’s probably time to understand that awards shows no longer have mass appeal, that you’re not going to bring in people simply looking for little slices of entertainment.

Thompson was a likeable host — but we knew that would happen, and so did the show’s producers. His warmth goes a long way toward buttressing too-easy jokes such as “TV is all we have, from ‘Netflix and chill’ to ‘Paramount+ and eating dinner alone.’ " With better material, he could shine; he’s halfway there just by showing up and smiling.

There were, as always, Moments.

The most riveting was for best supporting actress in a comedy. When Ralph’s name was announced, the theater snapped to attention. They watched her every step to the stage, and when she opened her mouth to sing without saying a word, they were ready. She sang a verse from Diane Reeves’s “Endangered Species,” a cappella, with the lines, “I am an endangered species, but I sing no victim’s song. I am a woman, I am an artist, and I know where my voice belongs.” Rousing? Quite. “This is what believing looks like,” she said to an audience utterly enthralled by her.

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Jennifer Coolidge accepts the Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series for "The White Lotus."Mark Terrill/Mark Terrill/Invision/AP

Jennifer Coolidge was so entirely Jennifer Coolidge as she accepted her statue for best supporting actress in a limited series, mewing, “Gosh, thank you, gosh, what a night” and complaining about being bloated from a lavender bath — something right out of “The White Lotus.” Her hemming and hawing was lovely — but the music wanted her off the stage, and soon, and the mild anthem play-off theme turned more aggressive with “Hit the Road, Jack.”

My personal favorite moment was a throwaway line. It was at the top of the show, when Michael Keaton took the stage to accept his best actor award in a limited series for “Dopesick.” “My face hurts so much from all the fake smiling I’ve been doing,” he said. I smiled for real.

A few teams of presenters clicked nicely. Smart and Hannah Einbinder recreated their “Hacks” dynamic, with Einbinder flirting with Zendaya from the stage. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez did their “Only Murders in the Building” shtick, which, if you like the show, was sweet. And Will Arnett dragged out Jimmy Kimmel, who, having lost for best talk variety show, was on the ground and incommunicado. Some of us related.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.