74th Primetime Emmy Awards Review: Some Wonderful Moments, Some Woefully Bad Production Choices

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If you’re an award show producer, you probably go into the job knowing that “triumph” is close to impossible. It’s a tough gig. But when you’re done and people look back, is it better to be remembered in infamy or forgotten in monotony?

Nearly six months after March’s Academy Awards, I still laugh nervously when somebody mentions the Oscars telecast, which was a badly conceived show until Will Smith elevated it to a pantheon of notoriety. But hey, at least I remember the 94th Academy Awards!

Nearly three hours after Monday (September 12) night’s 74th Primetime Emmy Awards, I barely remember the telecast at all. But hey, at least it wasn’t a catastrophe?

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Maybe halfway through the evening, the telecast was at a tipping point: The first 90 minutes of the show were a mixed bag. But which award show isn’t? There were some bad production decisions, but there were also surprising winners, one or two spectacular speeches and it felt like the show could go either way. Keep the surprises coming and maybe that’s what people will talk about around the fictional water coolers tomorrow. Fall into a rut and people are more likely to discuss Monday Night Football, which is always a serious risk whenever it’s NBC’s turn in the rotation and the Emmys are bumped out of their normal Sunday home.

It’s likely to be the latter. Emmy voters are a complacent lot and the reality is that when the climax of your show is big repeats for Ted Lasso (comedy series), Succession (drama series, even though it’s a comedy), Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (variety talk series), Saturday Night Live (variety sketch series), Jason Sudeikis (comedy actor), Jean Smart (comedy actress) and Zendaya (drama actor), that’s just too much repetition for anything spontaneous to emerge. Even the limited series categories fell into the apparently unavoidable Emmy rut, as what initially felt like it was going to be a wide-open field instead became a string of victories for The White Lotus.

It wasn’t all inevitability, mind you. Quinta Brunson’s award for writing the Abbott Elementary pilot was a well-deserved highlight. She persevered through a funny, sincere speech despite the unpleasant and unamusing presence of Jimmy Kimmel, who felt that remaining on-stage and continuing a weak “I got drunk when I lost!” bit was more important than giving a young, Black woman her breakthrough moment. M.J. Delaney, director of the “No Weddings and a Funeral” episode of Ted Lasso had perhaps the longest odds in the comedy directing category, but she was enthusiastically flustered in topping the likes of Hiro Murai, Bill Hader and last year’s winner Lucia Aniello. Hwang Dong-hyuk had a historic win for directing the Squid Game pilot (along with the rest of the series), as did lead dramatic actor victor Lee Jung-jae.

Those Squid Game wins are unprecedented, and I don’t want to take anything away from their significance complaining about other aspects of the night. Squid Game shattered so much of the industry’s conventional wisdom about international television, from the idea that people won’t watch shows with subtitles to the even more insidious idea that American awards groups will only honor people already inside their insular bubble. We’ll have to wait and see what the long-term ripples look like, but anything that brings wholly new and different stories to our television screens and reassures audiences that there’s universality in the specific is good for everybody. A drama series win for Squid Game would have given the telecast a needed closing spark, and I write that as somebody who generally prefers Succession.

Instead, a “been there, done that” feeling suffocated the second half of the show.

I’m not going to let it take anything away from how spectacular Sheryl Lee Ralph was, taking the stage and belting out Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” reminding anybody who didn’t know that she was in the original cast of Dreamgirls for heaven’s sake. The woman’s an icon and now she’s an Emmy winner. Kudos.

I’m not going to let it take anything away from Jennifer Coolidge giving up on trying to shout over the attempt to play her off the stage and just breaking into a jig.

Michael Keaton told a funny story about his early experiences watching television. Amanda Seyfried thanked her dog. Brett Goldstein swore. Murray Bartlett became probably the first Emmy winner with a performance that built to graphic on-screen pooping and was enthusiastic and gracious. Geena Davis accepted an honorary award on behalf of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and now hopefully people know the tremendous behind-the-scenes work she’s been doing. Lizzo was LIZZO and Jerrod Carmichael got to pick up an Emmy on a network that buried and then canceled his terrific eponymous sitcom.

But there were ever so many bad production ideas.

The corny opening dance number was elevated by host Kenan Thompson’s game-if-bemused half-participation, but it felt like the sort of thing the Oscars try every few years, to general mockery. Either you’re the Tonys or… you shouldn’t bother trying to be the Tonys. Thompson’s hosting was generally fine, keeping his head up through a broad, vaguely hacky monologue of jokes about Netflix’s debt and the age of Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriends. It didn’t help when Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez presented together and had much better material, prompting no end of “Why aren’t they hosting?” tweets. But Thompson tried, and for millennial viewers, his reunion with Kel Mitchell was a show-saving moment, though couldn’t the longtime collaborators have actually DONE something together rather than just sharing the stage for five seconds?

Having a dedicated DJ is mostly for the audience at the Microsoft Theater, though it was never clear what Zedd was playing or why. He added nothing to the telecast. Having a dedicated announcer with a presence and personality is almost always something that seems like a better idea on paper than in actuality; nobody figured out the tone Sam Jay was supposed to be setting, and I never figured out why she kept shouting. It felt like her presence was deemphasized as the show progressed, and she wasn’t missed.

Then there were the things that award shows always struggle with. To montage or not to montage? The Emmys did well with showing clips from the nominated shows and performances. That was good. The montage tribute to the medical genre? Yawn. The “General TV dramas and TV comedies that aired this year, but that we didn’t nominate” montage? Pointless. The montage of clips from cop shows building to the horrible introduction “Here are two cops no one wants to see defunded” for presenters Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni? Truly awful. The telecast’s nadir.

The “In Memoriam” segment is always a battle and always presents the exact same problems: How much do you focus on the guest performer and how much on the screen honoring the figures we lost through the year? Do you find a way to mute the audience? This year we got John Legend doing an original song and the telecast’s director never quite figured out where the camera was supposed to be (a common problem through the telecast, caused by an atypical staging arrangement), so it was often impossible to read names and occupations for the departed. If you can’t do that, the necrology has no purpose. You aren’t actually showing any respect. And since the crowd wasn’t muted, it was easy to tell when a Betty White or Bob Saget or Vin Scully or Sidney Poitier was getting a roar of applause.

So why not, in a year in which so many titans were lost, give five or six standalone tributes? I’d gladly trade the montages and some dumb Star Wars thing with stormtroopers and a bad Simpsons gag for a little more love for Betty White et al.

There’s also an added grossness that NBC decided to bring to the show this year with integrated commercials. I could tolerate the awful Kia “Same Line Four Ways” thing, but having nominee Jake Lacy, in a tuxedo, introducing a trailer for some Peacock limited series was straight-up tacky.

But nobody is going to be talking about the in-show trailer for a Peacock thing any more than people talk about Peacock in general, or any more than people are going to talk about the telecast. We might remember the winners. We’ll definitely remember Sheryl Lee Ralph singing and Jennifer Coolidge dancing, but the Emmys show? Well, at least it won’t live in infamy.

74th Primetime Emmy Awards Review: Some Wonderful Moments, Some Woefully Bad Production Choices

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