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Matthew Gilbert

A big night for ‘Fleabag’ is just what the Emmys needed

Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag.”Emma McIntyre/Getty Images/Getty Images

It was an excellent Emmy night, when it wasn’t one of the weakest Emmy nights ever.

It was an excellent Emmy night because the Television Academy saw fit to hand out statues to some new, unexpected, and wholly deserving nominees. OK, I’ll cut to the chase: Phoebe Waller-Bridge and “Fleabag.” Surprisingly, the Amazon comedy about — how to summarize? — love, faith, sex, loneliness, grief, parenting, and stolen objects took home a few of the night’s biggest awards. Waller-Bridge won for writing and acting, Harry Bradbeer won for directing, and the show won for best comedy.

Much as I wanted Julia Louis-Dreyfus to win for “Veep” and break the record with nine Emmys, I was delighted to see Waller-Bridge’s smiling face on the stage. She represented the antithesis of the Academy’s usual auto-pilot mode, where the voters simply confirm their past choices — which they did with “Saturday Night Live,” which won yet again for best variety sketch series against fresher shows such as “Documentary Now!” and “Who Is America?”

Waller-Bridge’s cries of “Nooo, oh my God, nooo” as she accepted the best actress statue, and then “This is just getting ridiculous” when she accepted the best comedy statue, were worth the price of admission. In a nice touch, she gave a loving shout-out to the Emmy-snubbed “sexy priest,” Andrew Scott, whose performance was critical to the season’s success. Will her three charming visits to the Emmy stage inspire viewers to check out “Fleabag”? I hope so.


The drama categories also delivered some pleasing surprises. Sure, “Game of Thrones” won best drama as expected for its worst season, a token of farewell to a beloved hit show. Shrug. But “Succession,” which should have won best drama, was honored for best writing. Jodie Comer, irresistibly amoral in “Killing Eve,” won for best actress, beating favored (and less deserving) costar Sandra Oh. (Now the question “Are you an Eve or a Villanelle?” has gotten a little more complicated.) Julia Garner, the up-and-coming and hugely talented actress from “Ozark” (and “The Americans”), won best supporting actress over a gaggle of “Game of Thrones”-ies.


And Billy Porter won as best actor for his compelling work as the ballroom MC Prey Tell on “Pose,” owning the stage as he gave a rousing acceptance speech wearing a cock-eyed cowboy hat that seemed to be reaching to heaven. “James Baldwin said, ‘It took many years of vomiting up all the filth that I had been taught about myself, and halfway believed, before I could walk around this earth like I had the right to be here,’ ” he said. “I have the right. You have the right. We all have the right.”

The limited series categories — which have become highly competitive as the quality has skyrocketed in recent years — were also satisfying. “Chernobyl” — so cool and haunting as it told a horror story with no horror tropes, and with a strong understanding of the danger of government-sanctioned lies — did well, winning best writing, direction, and show. And Jharrel Jerome of “When They See Us” won for his wrenching performance. He gave a touching acceptance speech, ultimately saying, “This is for the men that we know as the Exonerated Five.” The five men, the so-called Central Park Five whose wrongful convictions inspired the series, stood while the clearly moved audience cheered them.


So why was it one of the weakest Emmy nights ever? Everything aside from the awards in the hostless telecast teetered precariously on awfulness.

First off, a piano fell on Homer Simpson, and then Anthony Anderson and his mother stole a few statues, and then Bryan Cranston led a cheer for TV — “Television has never been this damn good!” he exclaimed — and finally Ben Stiller took us on a wacky tour of TV legends. It all felt a few decades late, and flattened out like poor Homer.

The other comic “moments” — including Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz pretending they just got eye surgery, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel joking about the lack of a host, a dance routine featuring Adam DeVine — didn’t rise too much higher. And the narration in and out of acceptances by Thomas Lennon was strained at best, the nadir of banality, perhaps, being his comment that limited-series writing winner Craig Mazin of “Chernobyl” is “more like Craig Amazin.” The writers of the Fox telecast tried to inject interstitial humor to replace the anchor work of a host, and it was consistently disappointing.

The random song choices — there was no live band — gave the night a strangely canned quality. Fox’s endless “Masked Singer” promotion was just plain tacky, even more so in the middle of a telecast devoted to honoring TV’s best. And the decision to gather the casts of ended series “Veep” and “Game of Thrones” but not “The Big Bang Theory” — which was included in a vapid farewell video to shows that left the air — was odd and distracting.


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