Emmys Analysis: Late-Breaking Shows, Split Votes and Upsets Galore Make for a Crazy Night
Well, that was weird. Sunday night's 71st Primetime Emmys probably cost Las Vegas bookies a lot of money, as there were more upsets than anticipated wins, reflecting the challenges of reading a voting body as large as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (which is comprised of some 25,000 members) in the era of Peak TV (with its roughly 500 shows), when it is harder than ever to gauge who is watching - much less loving - what at any given time.
Where to begin? The final seasons of HBO's two hallmark shows - Game of Thrones and Veep - were received very differently. Both received special tributes - and standing ovations - on the bloated telecast. But then, on the drama side, Game of Thrones, for its much derided eighth season, won for best series and best supporting actor ( Peter Dinklage's fourth win for the show), while on the comedy side, Veep lost across the board - not just for best series, but even best actress. Julia Louis-Dreyfus had won for all six prior seasons of the show, before she was forced to take a year off to battle cancer, and would have broken a tie with Cloris Leachman for most wins across all acting categories by an actress had she won.
Instead, the comedy categories were dominated by Amazon - but not the show from that streamer that most people anticipated. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won for best series last year, when Veep was sidelined, and the TV Academy has often rubber-stamped past winners for series awards, even shows less strong than Maisel. But this year, Maisel wasn't nominated for best writing, creating an opening for Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge to be recognized, and when she accepted that award early in the evening, many were happy she had received her moment.
As it turned out, it was Waller-Bridge's night, as Fleabag - a show that was a non-factor at the Emmys for its first season back in 2016, that Waller-Bridge announced would end with its second season - won for best series, direction and actress, too, way outperforming expectations, particularly for a feminist show with a largely male voting body. Maisel, meanwhile, claimed the supporting actor and supporting actress prizes for Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein, respectively. (Best actor honors went, for the second year in a row, to Bill Hader for HBO's Barry.) Not even Amazon insiders dreamed of such a showing.
Competing streamer Netflix, meanwhile, had a surprising evening of its own. For the third year in a row, an installment of its Black Mirror anthology series won the best TV movie category, this year's being Bandersnatch. But a series win once again got away, with the dramas Bodyguard and Ozark, the comedy Russian Doll and the limited series When They See Us coming up short. When They See Us seemed the best bet - until, that is, HBO's Chernobyl started running the tables, winning for writing, directing and eventually limited series. (This capped a remarkable month for alums of the Hangover film franchise - Craig Mazin, who wrote two of the films, also created and penned Chernobyl, and director Todd Phillips helmed the potential Oscar contender Joker.)
Losing out on best limited series was a tough but not altogether unexpected blow for the service, particularly with the real Central Park Five - or "Exonerated Five," as Ava DuVernay has called them - in attendance. But they had one very special moment, when 21-year-old Jharrel Jerome topped a bunch of vets to win best actor in a limited series for his heartrending portrayal of Korey Wise, which elicited a standing ovation. Netflix also was behind the best supporting actress in a drama winner, Ozark's Julia Garner (who probably benefited from four Thrones actresses splitting the vote), and the surprise best director of a drama winner, Ozark's Jason Bateman (claiming his first Emmy mere seconds after losing out on best actor in a drama for the same show).
Perhaps the two most hotly contested races were best actor and actress in a drama. The best actress category pitted Killing Eve's two leading ladies, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, against one another and Thrones' Emilia Clarke, among others. Oh, who was nominated but lost out last year for her show's first season, was widely thought to have the edge, especially considering that Comer wasn't even nominated last year, and that no female castmember from Thrones had ever won an Emmy. But, in the end, in perhaps the most surprising result of the night, Comer prevailed, perhaps a recognition of the multifaceted demands of playing as conniving and chameleonic a villain as Villanelle.
Meanwhile, the best actor category, having been won last year by Matthew Rhys for the departing The Americans, seemed wide open, with past winner Sterling K. Brown a possibility, along with perennial bridesmaids Bateman and Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk. In the end, Better Call Saul was totally shut out, a disappointment for AMC, and the winner was Pose's Billy Porter, a triumph not only for FX - which also celebrated a best actress in a limited series win for Fosse/Verdon's Michelle Williams - but for progress, as Porter, a Tony and Grammy winner, becomes the first out gay black man to win in the category, and for a show about trans life in the 1980s. Porter, outfitted memorably as always, received a hearty standing ovation.
In the supporting categories for limited series, two Golden Globe winners saw very different outcomes at the Emmys. A Very English Scandal's Ben Whishaw repeated, but Sharp Objects' Patricia Clarkson was upended by another Patricia, Patricia Arquette, for Hulu's The Act. (Most assumed Arquette stood a better chance to be tapped as best actress in a limited series, for her work in Showtime's Escape at Dannemora, which instead was shut out.)
Even though HBO is losing two of its biggest shows ever, in Thrones and Veep, it received an encouraging signal about its prospects next year, for its hugely popular season two, when Succession won best writing for season one; it could be joined in next year's drama series race by the network's Big Little Lies, too. And the cabler's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver was named best variety talk series and best writing for a variety series yet again - both for the fourth consecutive year. Variety directing honors went to Saturday Night Live, as did best variety sketch series Emmy, for the third year in a row. And VH1's RuPaul's Drag Race won for best competition series for the second year in a row.
Thus ends the TV awards season - and begins months of additional head-scratching and second-guessing about how so many got so much wrong.
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