Cringe-Watching the 2022 Emmy Awards

“There are eight billion people on this planet,” Oprah Winfrey said on Monday night, near the start of the Seventy-fourth Primetime Emmy Awards, “but only twenty-five Emmys to be given out tonight.” That, the Queen of All Media calculated, gave each person in the world a three-hundred-million-to-one chance. If you happened to be watching at home, clinging to some shred of hope that you, somehow, might end up one of the winners, you have Oprah to thank for crushing your dream.

Awards shows have had a lot to grapple with during the past few years: Trumpism, racial imbalance, sexual assault, the pandemic. Just a year ago, Seth Rogen was on the Emmy stage, freaking out that the place had a roof and might not be COVID-proof. But the 2022 Emmys seemed to retreat to the cozy echo chamber of show biz. Before Winfrey came on, the host, Kenan Thompson, wearing a top hat and tails and flanked by interpretive dancers, performed a dismal number to the themes of “Friends,” “Game of Thrones,” and “The Brady Bunch” (whose surviving cast members were seen for an unceremonious second). So that’s where awards shows go when they decide that there’s nothing in the world worth worrying about: up their own boob tube.

Despite celebrating the craft of television, the ceremony was ineptly written and paced. Thompson’s comedy interludes had a wocka-wocka desperation about them, and the formerly low-key job of announcer went to the comedian Sam Jay, who stole focus with contrived introductions of the presenters. (“You’ve seen them on ‘Black Bird,’ but they’ve never been mentioned on Black Twitter. . . .”) For whatever reason, not all the presenters could be trusted to read off the nominees, which were sometimes announced before the presenters walked onstage, and the “In Memoriam” sequence was shot from angles that made it difficult to see the names of some of the departed. In the d.j. booth—because somehow having a celebrity d.j. has become mandatory at awards shows—was a fellow called Zedd, whose idea of wit was bringing up “Succession” ’s Jesse Armstrong to “Shake Your Booty.” The play-off music, just as subtly, included “Time to Say Goodbye,” and kept things moving at a brutal clip. Instead of letting the winners build up to real emotion, the broadcast shooed them off to make time for the stars of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (tastelessly introduced as “two cops no one wants to see defunded”) to go on a chase for a stolen Emmy.

Don’t blame the winners, who were, more often than not, well chosen and well spoken. The evening’s emotional high point came early, when Sheryl Lee Ralph won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, for “Abbott Elementary,” and began her speech by belting out a verse from Dianne Reeves’s “Endangered Species.” She pumped her statuette into the air three times, each with an emphatic “Thank you,” and brought the electrified crowd to its feet. Then she was whisked off, so that Kenan Thompson and Lizzo could do a gag about time zones.

Ralph’s speech wasn’t just a barn burner—it was also a rare win for a show on a major TV network. The Emmys of the streaming era are a masochistic affair, during which the networks (this year it was NBC’s turn) must devote three hours to honoring the likes of HBO, Apple TV+, Netflix, and Hulu. The sole NBC show to win anything was “Saturday Night Live,” which had one other competitor for the variety-sketch-series prize, “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” And “Abbott Elementary” was, in fact, the only network show besides “S.N.L.” that was honored—for Ralph and for its creator and star, Quinta Brunson, who won for writing the pilot episode. As for drama, the Big Four have all but given up, though there were plenty of commercials to remind us of the upcoming season of “La Brea,” an NBC show about a giant sinkhole in the middle of Los Angeles. The point makes itself.

Last year at this time, I predicted that the theme of the 2022 Emmys would be “everything’s coming up lotus,” and, guess what, I deserve a Mai Tai. The White Lotus” won five awards, the most of any show, including for its actors Murray Bartlett and Jennifer Coolidge, the latter of whom seems to be transitioning into her true form as a Muppet, and thank God. “I took a lavender bath tonight right before the show, and it made me swell up inside my dress,” she cooed, from within a sparkly green gown. When the play-off music came, she simply boogied to it. The show’s creator, Mike White, was onstage three times—for the directing, writing, and limited-series awards—and, true to “The White Lotus,” there was uneasy pleasure in seeing what such a self-lacerating soul would do when forced into repeated self-celebration. “The White Lotus” was kind enough not to have lead actors at all, leaving room for Michael Keaton (“Dopesick”) and the supremely deserving Amanda Seyfried (“The Dropout”).

Many winners were return guests, squeezing out worthy new arrivals like “Severance” and “Yellowjackets.” For the second year in a row, “Ted Lasso” won for Outstanding Comedy Series (presented by Pete Davidson, looking like a bad first date from the twenty-fifth century), as did its leading man, Jason Sudeikis, and its supporting actor Brett Goldstein. Jean Smart won her second consecutive Emmy, for her divine performance in Hacks,” and cracked a Botox joke, so no complaints here. Zendaya repeated her 2020 lead-actress win for Euphoria.” And “Succession,” which was out of contention last year, returned to pick up a supporting-actor award for Matthew Macfadyen and a second Outstanding Drama Series honor (despite being a dark comedy), trading wins with Squid Game,” which received honors in acting (Lee Jung-jae) and directing (Hwang Dong-hyuk). Armstrong, making a succession joke as cringey as “Succession,” observed that his show’s ascent was more democratic than King Charles III’s. “Keep it Royalist,” the actor Brian Cox warned him.

That was a step back from Logan Roy’s catchphrase, “Fuck off!” But there was enough merry swearing that the Emmys themselves might be too hot for network TV. I counted two F-bombs, from Goldstein and John Oliver, the host of “Last Week Tonight,” which won the variety-talk-show award for the seventh time in a row. (His peers at the nightly talk shows tend to resent this, because Oliver has to turn out episodes just once a week.) There were also “shit”s from Coolidge and Regina Hall, and “bitch”es from Mindy Kaling, Molly Shannon, Vanessa Bayer, and Lizzo (accepting Outstanding Competition Program, for “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls”). Just move the ceremony to HBO and let the fucks fly! If you were looking for a little dignity, there was Geena Davis, accepting the Governors Award on behalf of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which uses data to remind entertainment executives to put female characters in their content.

Ultimately, Oprah Winfrey was right: I didn’t win an Emmy, and neither did you. But don’t feel bad. You weren’t obliged to sit through the ceremony, and, besides, what are you supposed to do after you win? Jerrod Carmichael, who won for his soul-baring comedy special Rothaniel,” announced, “I’m not, like, a sore winner, but I’m gonna go home, because I can’t top this right now.” Compare Mike White, who clutched one of his three Emmys and deadpanned, “I love everybody here tonight. I want to party with you guys later.” That’s the spirit. ♦

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