Two Muslims walk into the Emmys...

From left: “Master of None’s” Aziz Ansari with his Emmy, which he shared with Lena Waithe, for writing for a comedy series; “The Night Of’s” Riz Ahmed, with his Emmy for lead actor in a limited series or movie.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)
Television Critic

Two Muslim men, on prime-time television, clutching shiny metal objects close to their black garments amid an unsuspecting crowd.

No, this wasn’t an episode of “Homeland” or a dozen other television dramas in which any metal object held by men of similar description would invariably be a weapon.

It was the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, where actor Riz Ahmed and actor-writer Aziz Ansari won two top categories for shows that exploded stereotypes and made history in front of an audience too dazzled by all the other history-breaking moments that evening to notice.


There were so many firsts in L.A.’s Microsoft Theater on Sunday night that the oversight was understandable. The evening’s swag bags should have included tally sheets to keep track of the multiple barriers being broken.

Donald Glover, creator of FX’s “Atlanta,” became the first African American comedy director to be so honored; “Master of None’s” Lena Waithe the first black woman to win the prize for writing on a comedy series. Streaming service Hulu broke network and cable TV’s monopoly on the top Emmy, outstanding drama series, when it won for “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

FULL COVERAGE: Emmy Awards 2017 »

And it was certainly the first time a former White House press secretary appeared onstage riding a motorized lectern. Sean Spicer: trailblazer.

Indeed,the ceremony and list of nominees was the most diverse in history, said host Stephen Colbert, congratulating the Television Academy and the Emmys. The crowd applauded. “That’s impressive,” he added. “I did not know you could applaud while patting yourself on the back at the same time.”

The applause, however, wasn’t all in the service of self-congratulations. There was plenty of genuine excitement over the nominations as quantifiable proof that the industry and the academy were finally stepping into the 21st century. Perhaps the success of new shows like “Insecure” and “This Is Us” had sent a message: Viewers wanted to see more people like themselves on TV, and not all of America looks like Ryan Seacrest.

Many of this year’s nominees, and winners, could be seen as progressive Hollywood pushing back against the new president and his policies, which many in the entertainment industry consider hostile toward women, minorities, immigrants and the LGBTQ community.

If the Emmy wins were meant to send a message, then perhaps the most pointed, and poignant, was the sight of Ahmed and Ansari winning awards for shows that demystified the scary “Islamist” talked about so often on the Trump campaign trail.

Riz Ahmed in a scene from HBO's "The Night Of."
(Craig Blankenhorn / Associated Press)

Ahmed won lead actor in a limited series for his role as Nasir Khan on HBO’s “The Night Of,” making him the first Muslim, and the first Asian, to win a lead acting Emmy (before Ahmed, the only other person of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy was Archie Panjabi in 2010 for her supporting role in “The Good Wife”)

The eight-part cable drama followed Muslim college student Nasir through the legal system, and later prison, after he was accused of brutally murdering a well-to-do white woman on Manhattan’s tony Upper West side.

Nasir, the son of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Queens, was an immediate suspect. But was he really guilty? Written by Steven Zaillian, “The Night Of” made viewers question their own preconceptions about race, religion and the justice system while trying to get to the bottom of the case.

That Nasir and his family were presented as multi-dimensional people living in an equally complex community was a breakthrough in the portrayal of Muslims on series television, arriving before Donald Trump took office and announced his first major presidential action: the travel ban. Targeting citizens of eight Muslim-majority countries, it was eventually halted.

Ansari shared top honors with Waithe for writing on “Master of None,” the Netflix series in which he also stars. When they took the stage, he ceded the mike (for the second time in two years) to his writing partner, and Hollywood celebrated the breaking of a race barrier in the category.

But Ansari, who also won last year, was also a first in the category, and he’s responsible for offering up what no other TV series ever has: the casual Muslim.

“Master of None” chronicles the not-so-remarkable life of Dev (played by Ansari), a thirtysomething, low-level actor fumbling his way into adulthood. That means devoting entire episodes to his use of dating apps, his obsession with Italian food and the dashed expectations his immigrant parents had for their son (if only he’d been a doctor).

Dev Shah is Muslim, but he is not angry, obsessive, regretful or oppressed. And he’s not armed with an Uzi. He’s a mostly nice, occasionally irritating guy armed with a cellphone he checks obsessively. He drinks at bars with his friends, has the occasional one-night stand and attends masjid only on holidays. He has been known to eat pork.

How can he be a Muslim, then? Simple. The same way others who choose to follow some practices of their faith and not others (much to the chagrin of their devout parents) still identify as Christians or Jews or Hindus.

And some Muslims also identify as actors, and wind up at the Emmys. “It’s always strange reaping the rewards of a story that’s based on real-world suffering,” the British Ahmed said as he accepted his award. “But if this show has shone a light on some of the prejudice in our society, [such as] Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, maybe that’s something.”

And even among all the history-making bombshells of the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, it really was.



The complete list of 2017 Emmy winners

Riz Ahmed of ‘The Night Of’ wins Emmy for lead actor in a limited series or TV movie

Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe asked to step aside for the cast of ‘Big Little Lies’


2:05 p.m.: This story was updated for clarity.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.