Awards-wise, if not comedy-wise, it was a good night at the Emmy Awards. Cultural significance and breaking with tradition were in the air, if not a lot of laughter.
Viola Davis became the first black woman to win best actress in a drama, for ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” and she demonstrated her dramatic power with a riveting acceptance speech that was both a kick in the pants and a breath of fresh air. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said, after quoting Harriet Tubman. “You can’t win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Jeffrey Tambor won for his emotionally honest turn as a transgender woman on “Transparent,” and he, too, gave a compelling speech, dedicating his win to the transgender community. “Thank you for your patience,” he said to them, “thank you for your courage, thank you for your stories, thank you for your inspiration, thank you for letting us be part of the change.”
Tambor’s win also represented Amazon’s official entry into the world of major TV awards, as the networks continue to struggle for recognition. Indeed, Sunday night’s Emmys once again pointed to a serious lack of quality on network TV. Only two major awards went to the networks — for Allison Janney, as supporting actress in CBS’s “Mom,” and for Davis. After five consecutive wins, ABC’s “Modern Family” finally lost its lock on best comedy.
Deservingly, HBO’s biting satire of American politics, “Veep,” took over that best comedy slot, along with repeat wins for lead actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and supporting actor Tony Hale. At a time when politics is looking more absurd than ever, “Veep” was a timely choice.
Also significant: The Emmys gave the night’s biggest award, best drama, to the kind of genre series it has historically shunned: “Game of Thrones.” The Television Academy has looked down on dark-fantasy shows for years, but that irrational taboo was finally broken — and broken in a big way. With help from Peter Dinklage’s supporting actor win, the show took home 12 statues in all (many handed out before the broadcast), the most wins of any show in a single year. George R.R. Martin, author of the books on which the series is based, was in the audience — and not working on his next book — celebrating his 67th birthday.
The voters also found it in their hearts, finally, finally, finally, to give some gold to a “Mad Men” performer, after years of nominations and no wins. Eight-time nominee Jon Hamm took best actor, literally climbing onto the stage to get his statue for years of stellar work playing Don Draper.
One of my favorite moments came when Frances McDormand accepted best actress for HBO’s extraordinary “Olive Kitteridge,” which won six awards including best limited series. She seemed to deliver her short but true speech in character as the terse Olive: “We’re all here because of the power of a story well told. Sometimes, that’s enough. Thank you.”
The most moving moment of the night came at the tail end, when Tracy Morgan took the stage for the first time since his June 2014 highway accident. “Last year, Jimmy Kimmel stood on this stage and said, ‘We’ll see you back here next year, Tracy Morgan.’ Well, Jimmy, thanks to my amazing doctors and the support of my family and my beautiful new wife, I’m here.” Morgan also made a joke: When he woke from his eight-day coma, he said, he was “ecstatic to learn I wasn’t the one who messed up.”
As the host, Andy Samberg was endearing. But alas, no amount of endearing-ness, no amount of man-child goofiness, could help him during an opening bit of standup that ranged from mildly unfunny to wincingly unfunny. He bombed, for the most part, and, from the hurt in his wide eyes, he seemed to know it. The great hall resounded with silence over and over as he tiptoed through topical material (token knocks at Donald Trump and Kim Davis) and taboo territory (Bill Cosby) into bland TV-centric gags.
Only one line connected: Noting that we said goodbye to “Mad Men” and “Parks and Recreation” this year, Samberg said, “We also said goodbye to ‘True Detective,’ even though it’s still on the air.” Boom.
Samberg’s strength on “Saturday Night Live” was with his digital shorts, and he fared slightly better in the pre-filmed opening Emmy sequence, which found him locking himself in a bunker for a year and binging on all the shows. As the night wore on, Samberg appeared to be more comfortable onstage; by the end, it seemed, he was ready to begin.
And as for the preshow? It was red hot on the Emmy red carpet, and I’m not being metaphorical or pop cultural. We knew that on the East Coast because many actors and actresses made note of the temperature, mid-swan, explaining to E! hosts Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic, mid-gratitude, that they were shvitzing up a storm. But no one said it like Cat Deeley, who murmured in her British accent, “It’s hawtah than Haaades,” which translates loosely as “It’s hotter than Hades.”
Always a pal, Amy Schumer wiped a bead of sweat off of Seacrest’s face. Our thoughts were with every hair-and-makeup team who’d spent all day futzing and spraying, as the heat threatened to friz all bangs and clump all lashes. But we didn’t need to worry about Padma Lakshmi, who told Rancic that her secret to looking so striking at 45 was “happiness.” Apparently there was a lot of happiness going around, because there was beauty on a lot of faces, including that of Jaimie Alexander. After their chat, Rancic told Alexander, whose new NBC series, “Blindspot,” premieres on Monday night, that she looked “hashtag gorgeous.”
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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.