Stephen Colbert decidedly answered the question of “how anti-Trump will the Emmy Awards be?” from moment one Sunday night, when he sang an opening number titled “The World’s a Little Better on TV” with lyrics referencing the president’s alleged dealings with Russia. “Even treason’s better on TV!” he sang, as The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys sunnily danced next to him. Handmaids in bonnets doing a kickline soon followed.
That politics would infiltrate the Emmy Awards was inevitable, and the domination of Hulu’s dystopian cautionary fable The Handmaid’s Tale, which won every category it was nominated in during the telecast (and several more at the Creative Arts Emmys last week), certainly reflects the degree to which our culture’s latent unease and anxiety influenced voting. (Which isn’t to say that the series didn’t deserve all of its awards.)
But, as we’ve seen in the handful of award shows that have taken place since last November’s election, the attempts to incorporate political commentary into the ceremonies can run the gamut from messy to preachy to patronizing to isolating to distasteful to tone-deaf to the showbiz equivalent of screaming into an echo chamber—and expecting applause for doing so.
It makes it all the more remarkable that, for the most part, the Colbert-emceed proceedings Sunday night nailed the Trump era award show tone better than any other telecast thus far.
It can seem like a zero-sum game. Ignore politics, and you’re tap dancing around the elephant in the room—a cumbersome exercise in expensive tuxedos and designer gowns. On the other hand, lean too much into political commentary and run the risk of being booed on your soapbox with hisses of “actors should shut their mouths” and “keep politics out of Hollywood.”
With a rare finger on the cultural pulse, the Emmys this year gave audiences exactly what they wanted from a ceremony that was tipped to laud Saturday Night Live’s incessant Trump skewering with a haul of trophies (it did, including Variety Sketch series and awards for Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin), hired Stephen Colbert as its host, and celebrated shows like Atlanta and The Handmaid’s Tale with loads of nominations: smart Trump roasting, pleas for action and change, a celebration of inclusion, and, most of all, a warm, joyous diversion from the chaos in the world.
Colbert was the perfect host for this show, at this time.
Out of his Colbert Report character, he’s honed his persona to the point that he can be irreverent without sacrificing the value of his ascension to late-night’s moral arbiter, and is able to be earnest and mock, often in tandem, without ever seeming smug or patronizing. He can lead a gaggle of cross-dressing handmaid chorus boys one moment and authoritatively go after the president in the next.
Is addressing climate change and Russian collusion through song subtle? No, but it’s smart, and the approach least likely to elicit eye rolls. His monologue was heavy on the Trump jokes—“I bet you if you gave him an Emmy he wouldn’t have run for president”—but also thanked first responders for their brave work in the aftermath of the natural disasters across the country.
Only Colbert could deftly jump from nyuks about being contractually obligated to thank CBS honcho Les Moonves to a passionate, earnest plea for hurricane relief help.
We appreciate the cleverness and the larger joke behind the Sean Spicer cameo—he was brought on stage to replicate his Trump-mandated exaggeration of audience size—though we regret the fact that it might serve to transform the spineless mouthpiece into some sort of folk hero, which photos tweeted by a Hollywood Reporter writer of Spicer partying at the ceremony indicate is already happening.
And we appreciated that there at least seemed to be a self-awareness from Colbert that he was speaking to an auditorium filled with friendly ears. “Where do I find the courage to tell that joke in this room?” he joked, after a rather obvious gag about the popular vote.
In the end, though, there was a justification for why all this Trump-speak was appropriate on TV’s biggest night. As Colbert said, “However you feel about the president, and you do feel about the president, you can’t deny that all TV shows are influenced by him in some way.”
Don’t forget, for example, that The Handmaid’s Tale was in production when it was assumed that Hillary Clinton was set to win the presidency, and that it became all the more immediate after the pussy grabber who ran on a platform of misogyny and rolling back women’s rights actually won—a perfect illustration of a point that Alec Baldwin made in his Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy acceptance speech, saying that, when we die, it’s not the policies or specific politicians we remember, but the stories that were told.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the one our country needed to hear. That it won so many awards—including much deserved statues for Elisabeth Moss, Ann Dowd, and directing wunderkind Reed Morano—alongside a similar sweep by the talent behind Big Little Lies is proof that this year’s awards, as Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson put it, “raised a surprising middle finger to the patriarchy.”
Trump administration weariness, of course, underscored most of the night’s speeches. John Oliver, whose Last Week Tonight won two trophies, made the point that late-night writers’ jobs aren’t easier when there’s this much political material to pull from. “It’s harder because it just wont stop,” he said, in between thanking Oprah Winfrey and her seat filler. (John Oliver is great at acceptance speeches.)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, winning her millionth Emmy for Veep (to no complaints from anyone because she damn well deserves each one of them), joked that the upcoming final season of the HBO comedy “did have a whole storyline about an impeachment, but we abandoned that because we were worried that someone else might get to it first.”
Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker, who won two Emmys for the “San Junipero” installment, said, “I heard 2017 described as being trapped in one long, unending Black Mirror episode. I like to think if I wrote it, it would not be so on the nose with all the sort of Nazis and hate.”
Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton got a raucous reaction, first for the mere sight of these icons together on the stage again, but also for their pointed Trump message. “Back in 1980 in that movie we refused to be controlled be a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda said about 9 to 5. After which, Tomlin echoed, “And in 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”
Still, there was the occasional—and much-needed—reminder that these are “Hollywood liberal elites,” to use everyone’s favorite dismissal of politically minded actors, who were speaking to a receptive audience. “The stuff you said about Trump being bad, so fresh,” James Corden said, ribbing Seth Meyers during their presenter bit.
Of course, nothing helps a show feel like it’s nailing the right kind of tone more than getting the winners right. Rarely does an award show get the winners as right as Sunday’s Emmys did.
The surprise wins couldn’t have been more welcome: Ann Dowd, queen of saying “Hulu,” for The Handmaid’s Tale, and the multiple awards for “San Junipero,” for example. No one could complain about Veep dominance again, or SNL’s inimitable Kate McKinnon repeating.
Nicole Kidman and Elisabeth Moss were so good in Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale that we were certain that they wouldn’t win; we’re so used to disappointment. Ditto to Atlanta’s Donald Glover and This Is Us’s Sterling K. Brown.
The mention of Glover and Brown leads into how the night handled the potent conversation about diversity in the industry during the ceremony. When it came to the wins, it handled it greatly! Give these actors all the awards they deserve! The produced bits of the ceremony, however, were so self-aggrandizing to the point that it veered towards offensive.
Pre-taped sketches with RuPaul and Tituss Burgess were highlights of the night, and a reminder of how ridiculous it is that these shows are always hosted by white men. But montages that basically were framed around the pitch, “Look at these black actors! They’re just like us!” made a spectacle out of diversity instead of normalizing it, in turn presenting these talented performers and creators as tokens to be applauded for simply existing.
When these performers and creators spoke, however, the ceremony came alive. Master of None’s Lena Waithe was the first black woman to ever win for comedy series writing. She thanked the LGBTQIA community, saying, “I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we were not in it.”
Riz Ahmed, who won for The Night Of, thanked the Emmys for rewarding his performance and shining a light on “some of the prejudice in our societies, Islamophobia, [and] some of the injustice in our justice system” (Ahmed is a Muslim). Sterling K. Brown thanked his This Is Us co-star Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays his wife, for “repping black love.”
Donald Glover simultaneously made a statement about race in our country, blasted Trump, and skewered the award show’s relationship with race and diversity, and how we delicately interact with and tiptoe around that conversation, all in one fell swoop: “I want to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most oppressed list. He’s the reason I’m probably up here.”
Their speeches were the best of the night.
It’s interesting to think back to the other award shows from the past nine months after seeing this year’s Emmy telecast. The Oscars were almost too concerned with addressing its diversity issues to broach politics. The tepid reaction to the few jokes Jimmy Kimmel made in his monologue reflected a culture still shell-shocked. The Golden Globes were drowned out by the misguided uproar over Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump speech. The recent MTV Video Music Awards, hosted by Katy Perry and preemptively championed for its “wokeness,” never even mentioned the name “Trump.”
Partly because it was Colbert at the helm, partly because the administration has been inextricably married to the conversations surrounding the shows it was rewarding, and partly because enough time has passed to process it, the Emmy Awards is the first award show to tackle Trump politics and feel like it actually was all the better for it. And maybe that’s because it never lost sight of the reason there’s value in bringing politics into the fabric of the night.
It was almost too perfectly summarized in the words of The Handmaid’s Tale creator Bruce Miller during his acceptance speech for Best Drama Series, the last award of the night: “Go home, get to work, we have a lot of things to fight for.”