Column: Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jennifer Coolidge helped save the Emmys from boring back-to-normal
For an entertainment journalist, nothing says “back to normal” more than trying to figure out the logistics of attending an awards show. After two years of remote-work comfort, one rebels against even the thought of Spanx, and I am too old and jaded for heels. It’s the Emmys, after all, where the look is Oscar-casual plus gladiator sandals, and no one will be looking at me anyway.
But I had forgotten the disorienting labyrinth of street closures and parking anxiety that marks the beginning of awards season. After finally leaving my car in the lot adjacent to the Microsoft, I was almost hit by a limo — which, admittedly, would be a super-dramatic death.
And why settle for normal when super-dramatic is available?
It was a question the ceremony itself echoed as the initial thrill gave way to traditional tedium enlivened by a few very high points — Sheryl Lee Ralph bursting into song, Jennifer Coolidge defiance-dancing an attempt to play her off. These standout moments only underscored the fact that “normal” is a goal that often sells everyone short.
The first full-sized Emmys since the pandemic hit was buoyed by a “we’re back” energy that had heat-dome-baked attendees lining up for selfies with the enormous Emmy statue on the Microsoft patio and casually-not-casually scanning the room for famous faces. In the ladies’ room, women dealt with snapped straps and the tyranny of fashion. “This dress is whupping me,” one could be heard complaining in a closed stall. “Between the nails and the Spandex…Lord.”
Although most of the nominees entered via the gold carpet and were separated from the ticketed guests by a wall of fake greenery, a few, including “Severance’s” Zach Cherry and Dichen Lachman and “Ted Lasso’s” Jeremy Swift, rubbed elbows with the less famous crowd, dodging carts stacked with Fiji water and Emmy-embossed snack boxes on their way to star-studded tables on the theater floor.
The tension at the 2022 Emmy Awards — tradition versus newness, future versus past — is the tension TV will have to resolve if it’s to survive and thrive.
But the most familiar portions of the ceremony, including the many scripted bits of leaden banter and an opening musical number that referenced none of the nominated shows, were among its weakest.
And while I suppose there is comfort in “Ted Lasso” and “Succession” extending their comedy and drama winning streaks, the 74th Emmys proved that if you’re content with “normal,” you’re going to miss all the best bits.
Like when, “Abbott Elementary’s” Ralph, only the second Black woman to win for supporting actress in a comedy, belted out the 1994 Dianne Reeves song “Endangered Species” to a breathlessly amazed audience, all of whom picked up their dropped jaws and rose with a roar.
Normal does not begin to describe Coolidge’s acceptance speech for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or movie for “White Lotus.” She had taken “a lavender bath” before the ceremony, she said, that caused her body to swell in her dress and made it difficult to speak. An attempt to play her off with “Hit the Road Jack” was met with a full-body shimmy.
Nor does “normal” capture the exultant cheers that met the triumph of “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” over “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in reality competition series; in the loge section, a dozen Big Grrrls rose as one from their seats, cheering and sobbing as Lizzo called them superstars.
Telecast writer/producer Chris Spencer gave the audience hope for the unexpected with a pre-telecast list of rules that included the post-Oscars-slap warning that “if any of you have the urge to come on this stage, you will have your ass severely beaten.” Host Kenan Thompson also took a few sharp jabs at Netflix and other platforms. But really it was women who brought life to this year’s Emmys.
Join the Los Angeles Times for news and analysis as we follow the 74th Emmys live from in front of our televisions, inside the theater and backstage.
Geena Davis winning the Governors Award for her tireless work for gender equity in Hollywood; Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder’s presenter-bit about Einbinder crushing on Zendaya; Zendaya’s emotional thank you to “Euphoria” viewers who have shared stories of feeling like or loving a person like her character, Rue; Lizzo remembering how she longed to see people on screen who were “fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me”; all these moments — and more — gave this year’s Emmys an unexpected female energy despite the rigors of a 45-second speech limit.
“Abbott Elementary” creator Quinta Brunson, who won for writing in a comedy series, managed to shine even with Jimmy Kimmel, inadvisably committed to his presenter joke, lying at her feet like a specter at the feast.
And they it did on a Monday, which made those moments even more extraordinary. Most years, the Emmys are on Sunday, but since the big four networks take turns broadcasting the ceremony and NBC airs “Sunday Night Football,” every fourth year it gets pushed into the work week. Awards shows are considered glamorous, while Monday most certainly is not. (If you’re not careful you might wind up spending the hours before the Emmys at, say, a gynecologist appointment. While there may be odder ways to prep for television’s biggest night than a Pap smear, I can’t think of one at the moment.)
That tension, between the mundane and the unexpected — exultant outbursts and exploding red tulle gowns versus scripted bits with a case of the Mondays — vibrated throughout this year’s Emmys. We ask a lot of our awards shows, especially these days. After two years of crisis-induced workarounds, we crave a return to the steadiness of ritual, but also release from its historical confines. We want to go back to the office, maybe, or only when we want to. We want the traditions of the Emmys but not the one in which a few shows win most of the awards.
And we want to be surprised, affected, moved, entertained. The crowd in the seats that ringed the nominee tables at the Microsoft made that perfectly clear, cheering for various nominees with an enthusiasm, and volume, that never let you forget this was a live event. Unfortunately, that kind of excitement rarely translates to the telecast, which moves under its own steam of imperfect scripting interrupted by moments of hope. Hope, specifically, that voters will reward more than a few types of excellence and that the winners will take seriously the fact that they are part of a television show.
Jennifer Coolidge is already a big star, but her first Emmy nomination, for “The White Lotus,” is next-level. To her, that’s both thrilling and scary.
Not everyone can bring down the house with a song like “Endangered Species.” I would say Sheryl Lee Ralph is the only person capable of such a feat. Future award winners should not, dear God, feel obligated to sing (or as in Coolidge’s case, dance) their acceptance speeches. But as this year’s Emmy producers — and indeed every awards show producer in recent memory — have suggested, there is nothing wrong with having something meaningful or lyrical to say when you’re honored for work you have spent so much time and effort perfecting.
There’s no reason we should return to normal if normal is boring or empty or limited. Even on a Monday, it is possible to be breathless and amazed.
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