Emmys 2021: The 'Coffin Flop' of Awards Shows

The Emmys are always the Fredo Corleone of the Hollywood award-show crime family — they want respect, but they’re lucky if they get a little pity and/or the occasional banana daiquiri. They always get overshadowed by their glitzier, glammier, drunker siblings. But even by Emmy standards, the 73rd annual event was a tedious mess. If the entertainment scale has “Bowen Yang’s shoes” at one end, and “Dr. Phil comedy sketch” at the other, this long, dark night of the gold went off the charts all the way into “The Queen’s Gambit director reads a speech twice as long as the show.” The whole show felt like one long coffin flop.

This was the first post-pandemic Emmys, a year after Jimmy Kimmell quipped “Welcome to the Pandemmys” in an empty room. They had a chance to remind everyone what we all missed about live old-school in-the-room award-fests. Instead, it’s like they decided to remind everyone what sucked about them. You know it’s a rough night when it kicks off with Rita Wilson spitting bars on a Biz Markie classic — and that turned out to be one of the highlights. Jason Sudeikis and Jean Smart deserved better. Michaela Coel deserved better. And Bowen Yang’s shoes deserved better.

Ted Lasso, The Crown, Mare of Easttown, and (surprise) Hacks were big winners, so the event should have been a lot livelier. Cedric the Entertainer did his best as host, starting with his all-star sing-along of the Biz’s “Just a Friend.” (Lean back, Mandy Moore!) LL Cool J did a touching tribute to his fellow hip-hop O.G., representing Queens as always. But then, oh snap, guess what I saw: Michael Douglas throwing bass and Catherine Zeta-Jones throwing back mid-range. It was that kind of night. The Emmys were obviously ripping off the Golden Globes by cramming all these celebs at tables in a cozy little room — a clever move, given that we might never see a Globes gala again. Unfortunately, the Globes do this kind of thing better, by turning it into a flat-out binge-drinking mess.

Seth Rogen summed up how a lot of us felt looking at the crowd: “There’s waaaay too many of us in this little room. What are we doing? They said this was outdoors. It’s not! They lied to us!” He gave a nervous laugh, but he sounded genuinely baffled. “We’re in a hermetically-sealed tent right now. I would not have come to this! Why is there a roof? It’s more important that we have three chandeliers than that we make sure we don’t kill Eugene Levy tonight!”

Jason Sudeikis won for Ted Lasso, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Some of us were rooting for him to make another dazed and confused Tolstoy-quoting speech like he did at the Golden Globes this year, but he went for a smoother vibe in a natty corduroy-and-bow-tie suit. When he said, “So…heck of a year,” we all felt that. He also gave a shout out to his forrmer boss on SNL. “I want to thank Lorne, who went to take a dump right now. Perfect — oy yoy yoy.” Somehow it summed up the warmth and humanity that made his show such a highlight of a year when we needed all the highlights we could get.

Hacks was a surprise stealth champion all night, but nobody basked in the moment like the legend Jean Smart—always the designing-est woman in any room. She got one of the night’s heartiest, most affectionate ovations when she won for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. (She was also nominated in Best Supporting Actress in Limited Series for Mare of Easttown.) She gave a genuinely touching tribute to her late husband. It was a moment of genuine drama and emotion. Naturally, they played her off.

Michaela Coel gave the speech of the night, after she won Best Writing for her ground-breaking and devastating work on I Will Destroy You. But her speech was a highly resonant work of art in itself, packing so much insight and drama into just a couple of minutes. She began by saying, “I just wrote a little something for writers, really” — but it was a lot more than that, and her words hit home. “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain. That isn’t comfortable.” Her advice to her fellow writers: “Visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success. Do not be afraid to disappear from it, from us, for a while, and see what come to you in the silence.” She dedicated her story “to every single survivor of sexual assault.” It was a powerful moment, and it made the rest of the show look even more sluggish and smug.

RuPaul had one of the night’s most touching moments, after RuPaul’s Drag Race won Best Competiion Series. That made Ru the most awarded Black artist in the history of the Emmys. Ru, surrounded by contestants, had a message for the home audience. “For you kids watching, you have a tribe waiting for you,” Ru said. “We are waiting for you. Come home to Mama Ru.”

Olivia Colman, one of the best things ever to emerge from England, won for playing one of the worst. (She won an Emmy for The Crown, but she really deserved it for Peep Show.) Gillian Anderson also won for playing an even more dismal relic of British history in The Crown, but it’s always cool to see Anderson win anything. Especially since it’s just a few weeks after David Duchovny released his third album and dropped trou on The Chair. (The truth? SO out there!) Josh O’Connor and Tobias Menzies also won for the Netflix show; the fact that the English monarchy has achieved its final destiny as a source of cheap amusement for Americans is a joke Henry James should have lived to see.

Hannah Widdington and Brett Goldstein won for Ted Lasso, as did Kate Winslet, Evan Peters, and Julianne Nicholson for Mare of Easttown. John Oliver gave an immensely moving toast to Conan O’Brien and the late Norm Macdonald when he won for Last Week Tonight. Ewan MacGregor made like a suave gentleman bandit picking up his prize for Halston. As for actors of color? Not a single one won in any acting categories at all, yet another embarrassment for the Emmys.

Amy Poehler got to present an award near the end, positively beaming with joy that she wasn’t hosting this fiasco. She asked a relevant question on behalf of the audience: “What time is it and how do we get out of here?” Conan O’Brien had more fun just lurking in the audience and losing than most of the winners. All night long, as soon as the show got a real dramatic moment — Jean Smart or Jason Sudeikis winning — the Emmy honchos couldn’t shut them up and play them off fast enough. What’s the point of silencing the stars to make room for comedy sketches where the punch line is “Wait, Fred Savage isn’t famous anymore”?

It all led up to the mind-blowingly dumb moment when the show stopped cold for a speech from the President of the Television Academy. It was such a self-parodic Emmy disaster, it made you wonder if that Tim Robinson doing an I Think You Should Leave bit under the makeup, beard, and glasses. (I expected him to start talking about sloppy steaks.) Conan brilliantly upstaged it by leaping to his feet and urging the crowd to give a standing ovation. When Conan gave a salute, that was an in-joke for the hardcore award-show junkies: He was doing Stephen Spielberg’s much-mocked salute to Bill Clinton at the 2013 Golden Globes. God bless Conan — a man who knows his junk-TV history.

The Emmy honchos made the bizarre decision to read off the nominees, and then bring out the presenter, which added a minute or two of dead air to every award — a rookie mistake. It really backfired when they made Kerry Washington had to pause in the middle of presenting Best Supporting Actor in a Drama, to do a hasty and awkward tribute to the late Michael K. Williams … right before he didn’t win for Lovecraft Country.

The In Memoriam loop hit harder than usual, which is only natural since we lost so many TV legends this year. But there was something especially raw and painful about seeing Michael K. Williams in the montage, way too soon, when we all were hoping for decades of more brilliance from one of TV’s all-time greats. The Emmys could have used a lot more of his spirit.

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