“Please tell me you are seeing this too.”
That was Rami Malek’s first comment after winning the award for lead actor in a drama at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday night.
It was a sly reference to the narration his alienated and occasionally hallucinating character provides USA’s “Mr. Robot,” but it was also a fine summary of Sunday night’s telecast in its ability to reflect the changing nature of television.
In less than 10 years, television has gone from self-loathing despair to giddy disbelief over its elevated status, and now it appears to be entering an age of acceptance.
From the moment Jimmy Kimmel allowed his initially disappointing “I have to get to the Emmys” opening to be carjacked by Jeb Bush as the Uber driver piloting the limo of “Veep’s” President Selina Meyer, he was a host on fire. At times literally. The opening bit ended with Kimmel hitching a ride on Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon from “Game of Thrones” and roasting Ryan Seacrest as he wound up the red carpet coverage for E!
Kimmel opened the show by matter-of-factly jumping off the stage to hand an Emmy to Jeffrey Tambor, the star of “Transparent” and a winner last year.
“There, I’ve saved us 22 minutes,” Kimmel told the audience. “If your show doesn’t have a dragon or a white Bronco, you might as well go home right now.”
He wasn’t quite on target — Tambor did win, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” cleaned up, and “Game of Thrones” won outstanding drama. But other big wins, including Malek’s and Tatiana Maslany for “Orphan Black” (it turns out there is a God), spread the gold around.
It was Kimmel’s tone, however, that marked the sea change: Television is now confident enough to make fun of even its sacred cows.
Hosts invariably poke fun at the industry being awarded, and the Emmys have always been way more easygoing than the Oscars. But in recent years, the Emmys have been caught trying to preserve their good-times rep while coming to terms with the growing importance of their medium.
Categories in which there were once clear winners and a few fillers are now regularly chockablock with extraordinary dramas and comedies, performances, writing and directing.
Last year’s breakthrough wins for “Transparent,” “Orange Is the New Black,” Viola Davis and Regina King added a solemnity to the proceedings, and, in the face of the #Oscarssowhite campaign, perhaps a little smugness.
All of which Kimmel took down almost immediately.
He called out Sarah Paulson’s decision to bring Marcia Clark (who she plays in “The People v. O.J.”) — “everyone knows if you want to win, sit next to Marcia Clark.” He called out diversity — “the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on valuing diversity.” Even, heaven help the man, he called out Dame Maggie Smith, pointing out that for all her nominations and three wins, she has never deigned to show up at the Emmys.
(And when Smith did, in fact, win again, Kimmel marched out on stage, seized the statue and informed Dame Maggie that she could find it in the lost and found.)
Eric Stonestreet takes a selfie with fans.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
(L-R) Kelly Preston, John Travolta and Rami Malek.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Heidi Klum and Padma Lakshmi(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman are all smiles.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Jon Voight and Miles Brown of “black-ish” pose for a photo.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Bryan Cranston signs an autograph.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Sofia Vergara walks the red carpet.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Aziz Ansari flashes a smile.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Priyanka Chopra glides in a flowing gown.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Emilia Clarke makes her way onto the red carpet.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Angela Bassett arrives in a bright gown.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Michelle Dockery hits the red carpet.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey mug for the camera.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Laurence Fishburne makes an entrance.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Hank Azaria sports the white-tie-on-white-shirt look.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Television is now confident enough to make fun of even its sacred cows.
Operating under the belief that television itself is interesting enough, the telecast mercifully skipped most of the traditional (and time-sucking) taped bits and/or musical numbers designed to distract audiences from the actual proceedings.
Instead, Kimmel moved things along with small hilarious bits (at one point, the announcer introduced Dr. Bill Cosby and the audience froze) and (for the most part) good-hearted skewering. His tone provided both a contrast and a framework for wins that appeared to continue television’s trend toward diversity — two female directors! three out lesbians! women and men of every color! — and a series of speeches that ranged from the deeply personal to the overtly political.
Tambor and, later, presenter Laverne Cox, called on the industry to give transgender talent a chance; Alan Yang, winning along with Aziz Ansari for the writing of “Master of None,” pointed out that there are just as many Asian Americans as there are Italian Americans, though you wouldn’t know it to look at film and television; Paulson apologized to Clark for the sexist way she was often portrayed during the real-life O.J. Simpson trial; Kate McKinnon thanked Hillary Clinton twice; and Courtney B. Vance ended his speech with “Obama out, Hillary Clinton in.”
It was a show in which Jill Soloway, winning her second directing Emmy for “Transparent,” could draw cheers by happily demanding that television continue to “topple the patriarchy,” and then, minutes later, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, clearly distraught over the recent death of her father, could wring hearts by saying, “I’m so glad my father liked ‘Veep’ because his opinion is the only one that matters.”
Kimmel, always light on his feet, kept up with every turn. “I’m trying to figure out if toppling the patriarchy is a good thing for me,” he said after Soloway’s speech. “Probably not.”
And he certainly did not spare himself. Moments after “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” won for variety series, for which Kimmel’s show had been nominated, his nemesis Matt Damon strolled on stage. “I missed the last category,” he said to Kimmel. “Did you win?”
It takes a lot of confidence to poke fun at your secret fears, to tear down your sacred cows. And now, along with an abundance of great shows on a growing multitude of platforms, television has that too.