In the annals of Hollywood events, the words “no host” have forever occasioned despair in the hearts of participants: “You mean we have to pay for our drinks? What kind of cheap operation is this?”
Nevertheless, for the broadcast of the 71st Emmy Awards — oh, my God, TV is so old — Fox decided to go hostless. (The show rotates among the four major broadcast networks — sorry, CW.) And everything was fine, more or less. Every award was delivered, three of them to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”).
As with this year’s hostless Oscars, the idea of hostlessness was injected into the space where a host would normally be — with Homer Simpson introduced as the host, before being sidelined by a piano dropped onto his head. Anthony Anderson then took it upon himself — I mean, it was planned — to take things in hand, rushing backstage, where he considered stealing an Emmy before sending Bryan Cranston out to get things going.
This is not the first time the Emmys have gone hostless; in 1975 (CBS), 1998 (NBC) and 2003 (Fox) the awards were delivered without a celebrity driver. It’s safe to call it unusual. From the producers’ standpoint, one can see the appeal. It avoids the possibility of your host going rogue on the assembly. It sidesteps too the possibility of your chosen host becoming newsworthy himself, in a negative way, cough, Kevin Hart. It can avoid controversy, unless of course the choice of avoiding controversy itself becomes controversial. It probably saves a couple of bucks too.
It was fortunate that the Emmys led with the comedy categories. The first 45 minutes of the show were solid and speedy, dominated by comics who, it seemed to me, had written or at least vetted their material. There were presenters Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz, whose shtick was that their eyes were dilated from surgery and they couldn’t read the teleprompter: “Here are the nimrods for dead ascot in a chocolate staircase.” There was Bob Newhart, irascibly insisting to Ben Stiller that he was not a waxworks. There was the cast of “Veep,” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus channeling Selina Meyer: “I’m sorry I was told I would be up here alone, you know, to celebrate the show ‘Veep,’ because that is me. I was the veep.”
Perhaps as a hedge against the lack of a single comic voice to knit the evening together, Thomas Lennon (lately Felix on “The Odd Couple”) was enlisted to provide absurd commentary as the winners headed toward the stage. (“It’s official. Patricia Arquette goes to the Emmy stage more than she goes to Trader Joe’s.”) It was funny at first. (Lennon took an occasional swipe at his own situation, noting that “Succession” was based on “the same Murdoch family that has ordered me to sit at this microphone and tell jokes.”) In one of the night’s few negative shots, he delivered “a shoutout to any of our previous actress winners who are watching tonight from prison; those two weeks are going to fly right by.” Felicity Huffman, if you have not been paying attention.
The back half of the evening became more trying, in part because: three hours. But it was noisy enough often enough to rouse the sleepy viewer. (Still, a variety-themed production number with Adam DeVine provided a reminder that the most thoroughly planned moments are not always the best.) There was the interest of seeing what “Game of Thrones” actors look like in 21st century clothes and hairstyles (well, apart from Gwendoline Christie, who could have walked right into her next medieval drama). And there were the winners to keep it real.
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Sunday night’s memorable moments included Ben Whishaw opening with the admission that he was hung over from drinks with his agent the night before; Arquette, with a plea for transgender rights; Alex Borstein, from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” putting away a little liquor bottle as she rose to accept her award, and her speech, which pivoted from “Tonight I’m not wearing any underwear, so you’re just going to want to throw that chair out or at least clean it pretty well,” to a story about her grandmother surviving the Holocaust because she dared to step out of a line of women about to be shot. (“Step out of line, ladies,” Borstein said, “step out of line.”)
Similarly, Michelle Williams, lead actress in a limited series or movie for “Fosse/Verdon,” turned a nod to her supportive bosses at FX into a pitch to bosses everywhere, to empower any women who worked for them, “because one day, she might stand in front of you and say thank you for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment and not in spite of it.”
There were the Exonerated Five, whose story is told in “When They See Us,” rising in the audience. And, almost finally, there was “Pose” winner Billy Porter in a big asymmetrical hat and shimmering striped suit, exulting: “The category is love, y’all, love.” (It was lead actor in a drama, in fact.) You could believe it.
Finally, finally, there was “Game of Thrones,” back again to win for dramatic series, to probably no one’s surprise. It only remained for Michael Douglas to bid us goodnight.