Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and cultural critic. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Sometimes award shows can surprise you.
I was expecting a snoozefest at this year’s prime-time Emmy Awards. The main reason: the eligibility of the final season of “Game of Thrones,” which I thought would sweep the board.
The HBO fan favorite earned a record-breaking number of nominations (32) and dominated many dramatic categories, with three out of seven supporting-actor nominations and four out of six nominations for supporting actress — plus three out of seven directing nominations.
The show had already taken home 10 Creative Arts Emmys last week for sound editing, visual effects, costumes and makeup.
Meanwhile, the final season of HBO’s comedy “Veep” was up for several nominations, and folks widely assumed the show would win for best actress and best comedy series.
So I thought we were in for a predictable evening.
Beyond the two HBO behemoths, various other shows garnered numerous nominations within the same category, including “Barry” (three of six supporting-actor nominations in comedy), “This Is Us” (two nominations each in actor and guest actor), “Saturday Night Live” (four out of seven slots for guest actor in comedy) and “Fleabag” (two nominations for supporting actress and two for guest actress in comedy).
Besides “Fleabag,” there were some other unexpected and welcome nominations — like the ones for “Schitt’s Creek” — but there were also numerous nods for shows way past their prime. Does anyone really believe “This Is Us” is still one of TV’s best dramas, or that “House of Cards” should still be getting any nominations?
“This Is Us” snagged five acting nominations. Some of those could have gone to a boundary-pushing, timely show like “Succession,” which, though it was recognized as an outstanding drama, didn’t get any acting nominations.
This domination of the Emmy categories by just a few shows does an incredible disservice to the many remarkable shows and actors currently on TV. Everyone knows we’re in the era of “peak TV,” but if you look at how the Emmys tend to favor just a few shows, you would think we only had a handful of high-quality comedies and dramas rather than dozens.
Critics agonize over their yearly top-10 lists (and some don’t even put an arbitrary number limit on their list of “top shows”) because there are so many deserving series out right now. But you wouldn’t always know it from the Emmy nominations.
Letting a few shows dominate the Emmys precludes the proper recognition of shows that are critical darlings, like FX’s excellent comedies “Better Things” and “What We Do in the Shadows” and the Julia Roberts-led “Homecoming.”
It can also make for a dreadfully boring Emmys show.
This year, more than ever, I was sure the Emmys would be a “Game of Thrones” lovefest in service to that series’ millions of fans, rather than an awards show that honored the best accomplishments across all of TV.
Imagine my surprise, then, when “Game of Thrones” took home only two awards: supporting actor (Peter Dinklage) and outstanding drama. I literally screamed in joy when Jodie Comer won the top acting award in drama for her brilliant turn as a sociopathic assassin in “Killing Eve,” so sure was I that she would lose. She hadn’t even been nominated in 2018 for the show’s first season.
I was similarly delighted with Billy Porter’s win for “Pose.” Julia Garner, a winner for “Ozark,” rounded out the dramatic acting awards, which went to four different shows.
Finally, the wildly entertaining “Succession” — which I’m sure will be amply nominated next year for its second season, which reflects and lampoons ongoing upheavals of the media world, took home the writing award for drama. All in all, a reassuring spread of awards on the dramatic side.
On the comedy side, “Fleabag” clearly won the night, with awards for best directing, writing, comedy series, and — in the biggest upset — lead actress, as Phoebe Waller-Bridge beat out Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Veep.”
Waller-Bridge’s three acceptance speeches, and her witty, self-deprecating incredulity at having won multiple awards, were themselves a delight. Her second speech humorously plagiarized her first one, in a sort of meta-commentary on the faux authenticity and dryness of acceptance speeches.
In her third and final speech, accepting the award for best comedy series, she exclaimed, “This is just getting ridiculous!”
In fact, it was a great night for acceptance speeches. Making an iconic fashion statement in an outfit adorned with 130,000 crystals, Billy Porter — the first openly gay black man to win an Emmy — quoted James Baldwin on the importance of unlearning internalized prejudice and claiming public space with pride.
Jharrel Jerome was the only Latino winner of the night – for “When They See Us” – and the first Afro-Latino to win an Emmy. Accepting the award, he said, “te quiero, papá,” and dedicated his speech to “the Exonerated Five,” aka the Central Park Five, the subject of Ava DuVernay’s searing miniseries.
Two women also gave memorable speeches. Patricia Arquette advocated for trans rights in a tearful tribute to her sister Alexis, who died in 2016. And Michelle Williams, a winner for her portrayal of Gwen Verdon in “Fosse/Verdon,” made a compelling speech about the gender wage gap in Hollywood, highlighting the fact that women of color in the industry make 52 cents to the dollar as compared with white men.
It’s a good thing the wins and acceptance speeches offered so much surprise and entertainment, because otherwise the show itself was a mess in its production choices. Unlike the host-less Oscars earlier this year, which were unexpectedly successful, this year’s host-less Emmys were dragged down by badly written jokes, an inconsistent performance by running commentator Thomas Lennon and a head-scratching musical number.
In their tribute to shows that had recently ended, the producers also left out several significant, Emmy-winning series that also happen to be known for their feminist perspectives: “Orange Is the New Black” (which was a game-changer for the TV industry) and the wonderful, taboo-busting “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
The funniest part of the show was when Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel roasted the Emmys for deciding to go host-less — because they were right.
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My predictions might be worthless, given how wrong I was that this year would bring a boring, predictable awards ceremony, but I suspect the Emmys will decide to go with a host next year. No matter what they do, I can only hope that next year’s nominations will be spread among more shows, and that the winners will be as surprising (and well deserved) as this year’s.