Television has never been so damn good, Bryan Cranston boasted in the opening moments of Sunday night’s Emmy telecast, and, wonder of wonders, voters actually made a great many choices this year that reflected that excellence.
Because, let’s be real: The Emmys have a well-earned reputation as the awards show that rubber-stamps its winners long after their sell-by date has passed. You know who put it best? Alex Borstein, winning the night’s second Emmy, repeating her 2018 comedy supporting actress win for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“Ibid,” Borstein said.
Ibid. That’s the Emmys!
But this year, Emmy voters went off script, often in shocking ways. Julia Louis-Dreyfus owns 11 Emmys, eight of them for acting. She had gone six for six for her lead turn on “Veep” and was labeled a lock (yes, by me) for the comedy’s farewell season, a season that was delayed by a year so Louis-Dreyfus could treat her breast cancer.
Louis-Dreyfus had history and a compelling personal narrative, everything Emmy voters love. How could she lose?
Television Academy members, though, fell hard for “Fleabag” and its creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who, remarkably, bested Louis-Dreyfus in the comedy lead actress category.
After Waller-Bridge’s name was read, the camera cut to the other nominated women, but not Louis-Dreyfus. I can only imagine she was as stunned as Waller-Bridge, who was visibly shaking on the stage.
“Fleabag” won everything. And it should have. The series’ second season deconstructed the show’s fourth-wall-breaking conceit in ways both thrilling and crushing, delivering a perfect love story (involving a Hot Priest) that grappled with faith and forgiveness, sin and redemption.
You could view the whole season in about three hours — assuming that, when you finished, you don’t immediately watch it all over again. Many Television Academy members must have done just that, giving it wins for comedy series, writing and directing.
“This is just getting ridiculous,” Waller-Bridge said, accepting the series honor. But it wasn’t ridiculous at all. The “Fleabag” wins stand as one the great triumphs in the history of the Emmys. This year’s comedy categories were full of interesting, deserving choices. Voters went with the best.
“Fleabag” steamrolling through the comedy categories wasn’t the night’s only thrilling revelation. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer were both nominated for “Killing Eve.” Oh, an Emmy regular with eight career nominations, was thought to have the edge. But voters gave Comer the trophy on her first try.
As good as Oh is on “Killing Eve” (and she really sold Eve’s all-consuming passion), Comer was even better this season, shuttling effortlessly between personas and accents. Her character, the psychopath Villanelle, may be incapable of empathy, but Comer gives her a lovely, kooky, desperate longing for connection.
Being of Asian descent, Oh winning would have made history. But voters, making another superb choice, did do something unprecedented when they gave the drama lead actor prize to “Pose’s” Billy Porter (and his hat). Porter became the first openly gay black man to win this Emmy.
More great surprises? It’s almost impossible to list them all. Julia Garner leapfrogged over the four “Game of Thrones” women to win the drama supporting actress Emmy for her firecracker turn on “Ozark.” Jason Bateman bested three “Game of Thrones” directors and was so astonished by his win that he studied the writing on the envelope before beginning his speech.
Of course, “Game of Thrones” winning the night’s final prize, drama series, wasn’t a bombshell. But the mere fact that there was actually a bit of tension in the air when Michael Douglas opened the envelope qualifies as a triumph, particularly since the show’s producers had already brought the cast on stage two hours earlier to take an awkward victory lap. (They did the same for “Veep” later, which felt a bit stilted, since it had lost all of its categories.)
That the “Game of Thrones” ensemble returned to the stage to close the show was actually OK, in light of everything that had already transpired.
Can you believe it? The Emmys have never been so damn good.