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matthew gilbert

The Emmys got it right this time

Host Stephen Colbert at the Emmy Awards.Kevin Winter/Getty Images

It was hard to argue with most of the Emmy choices this year. Wait, did I just say that, or am I still tripping on Donald Glover’s purple tuxedo?

The voters chose the challenging and riveting “The Handmaid’s Tale” as best drama. It wasn’t clear whether they would go for the feel-good “This Is Us,” but they ultimately opted for the dark dystopian reflection originated by novelist Margaret Atwood. A breathless Elisabeth Moss accepted her statue for her brilliant lead turn on the Hulu show about misogyny run amok, getting bleeped twice during her speech, which included a tribute to her mother’s strength.

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Throughout the night, when “The Handmaid’s Tale” people won, the band played “You Don’t Own Me” with some irony.

Sterling K. Brown gave one of the night’s best acceptance speeches as best actor in a drama for “This Is Us,” with a salute to a former winner, Andre Braugher. To his cast, he said, “You are the best white TV family a brother has ever had.”

The comedy awards went as expected, with the freshness of the Glover win for best actor balancing out the repeat wins of the nonetheless vital “Veep” and the unbeatable Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Louis-Dreyfus joked that the show’s writers were planning an impeachment story line for next season, the HBO series’ last, but “we were worried someone else would get to it first.”

HBO’s “Big Little Lies” took most of the limited-series categories, which was a good thing. It was an absorbing and well-acted story with an unsettling plot line about domestic abuse. HBO didn’t take the drama categories this year, since “Game of Thrones” wasn’t in the running, but it was strong in limited series and comedy. “The power of television, it astounded us,” best actress winner Nicole Kidman — who was so vulnerable in the series — said from the stage. She was preaching to the converted.

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Watching the night’s supporting awards was like seeing a slot-machine jackpot lineup. Here’s a funny thing: Each winner was fully deserving. John Lithgow was phenomenal as Winston Churchill in Netflix’s “The Crown,” and he won despite strong competition from the emotional lightning storm known as Ron Cephas Jones on “This Is Us.” Ann Dowd, so forceful as Aunt Lydia on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” tearfully and movingly received long-deserved acknowledgment.

Laura Dern won for her comic but ultimately poignant work on “Big Little Lies,” giving the kind of upbeat acceptance speech that made me want to hire her as a life coach. Alexander Skarsgard won for his portrayal of an abusive husband in that same series, a performance that was deeply creepy.

“Saturday Night Live” did well, winning best variety series, as well as for best supporting actor and actress in a comedy. Alec Baldwin was honored for his gargoyle-like impersonation of President Trump. Kate McKinnon won again for all her work on “SNL,” most notably her Hillary Clinton impersonation. “It’s all about the writing you guys,” McKinnon said, before thanking Clinton “for your grace and grit.”

You don’t hire Stephen Colbert to host your Emmys if you’re not looking for political humor – the kind of Trump-based material that has helped Colbert reach ratings highs in recent months. Actually, the material that has helped all talk and variety grow ratings this year.

And Colbert fulfilled expectations beautifully, during his brisk, sharp opening monologue and his shorter gags later in the show. He started with a pre-filmed musical sequence about how “the world’s a little better on TV,” including the line, sung by Louis-Dreyfus, “imagine if your president wasn’t loved by Nazis.” Live onstage, after doing some absurdist dancing with a line of handmaid-costumed dancers, he spoke directly to Trump, noting that our TV-watching president may be the only person who has actually watched all 450 scripted shows of the year: “Hello, sir, thank you for joining us. Looking forward to the tweets.”

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Colbert theorized that if Trump had won an Emmy for “The Apprentice,” perhaps he wouldn’t have gone on to run for president. Why, Colbert wondered, would voters who loved anti-heroes like Walter White not give a prize to Trump, since “he’s just Walter Much Whiter.”

Later on, Baldwin referenced the joke in his acceptance speech as he held onto his statue. “At long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy.”

There were legends and standing ovations. Carol Burnett and Norman Lear together as presenters was a royal event, as was the original “9 to 5” trio of Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton (who made a vibrator joke). In the night’s most frozen moment, Cicely Tyson, in striking red, faltered as she introduced the limited series winner: “I’m so nervous,” the 92-year-old actress said after a long pause. “I don’t know why.”

The best novelty of the night: Colbert having an interview with Emmy – as played by RuPaul. The worst: a guest appearance by Sean Spicer, the real Spicer (which we knew only because we saw Melissa McCarthy reacting in the audience). The former White House press secretary was there to help the Emmys — whose ratings have been lousy the past few years — exaggerate the numbers.

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Minutes later, Colbert joked about how Spicer was, like the HBO movie, “The Wizard of Lies.”