Most exciting 2022 Emmy winners show TV biz how to change

It’s no secret that the Emmys have historically been resistant to change, and in many respects, this year’s ceremony leaned heavily on past winners, returning series and familiar themes.

But Monday’s live telecast from L.A.’s Microsoft Theater was also an example of TV‘s biggest night trying to keep up with seismic changes in the medium it celebrates, often with mixed results.

Between all the nominations and victories for TV Academy favorites “Ted Lasso,” “Succession,” “Ozark” and “Saturday Night Live,” it was the triumph of new shows such as “Abbott Elementary,” “Squid Game” and Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” that gave the ceremony a pulse and showed the way forward.

“Abbott Elementary” star Sheryl Lee Ralph memorably celebrated her first-ever Emmy win, for supporting actress in a comedy for her breakout role as a veteran elementary school teacher learning to loosen up in the ABC mockumentary. The former “Dreamgirl’s” acceptance speech found her belting a song that encouraged radical belief in one one’s self: “I am an endangered species. I am a woman. I am an artist. And I know where my voice belongs,” she sang, borrowing lyrics from Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species.”

Ralph is only the second Black woman ever to win in this category, decades after Jackée Harry’s win in 1987 for NBC’s “227.” “To anyone who has ever had a dream, and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like.” The freshman comedy’s creator and star, Quinta Brunson, also won, for comedy writing. Her nominations, including for comedy series and lead actress, made her the first Black woman ever to receive three Emmy nods for the same comedy series in a single year.

Still, for all the excitement generated by such newcomers, the academy, with a record 754 shows to choose from — 83 more than last year! — also went back to the well plenty often. “Succession” won for drama series, “Ted Lasso” comedy series, and “SNL” for sketch comedy; Julia Garner repeated for “Ozark” and Jean Smart for “Hacks.” Altogether, these awards represented a notable lack of imagination and risk on the part of the voters, especially given how expansive and creative television programming is now.

Even in the limited series category, an annual opportunity to avoid the tried and true, academy members chose a familiar theme: yet another HBO show about wealthy folks abusing the help and generally behaving badly. The network’s tourism satire “White Lotus” was pitted against the masterful Hulu drama series “Dopesick,” which chronicled the greed of big Pharma by showing the deadly fallout of opioid addiction in rural America. But the one prime-time award “Dopesick” won — against three for “White Lotus” creator Mike White alone — was for its male lead, Michael Keaton.

Two men in suits hold their Emmys.

Lee Jung-jae, left, and Hwang Dong-hyuk, history-making Emmy winners for “Squid Game.”

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The predictable nature of the winners in performance categories that were stacked with three to four contenders from the same show was punctuated by standout moments that illustrated just how far television has come. When singer Lizzo accepted the award for reality competition series for her Amazon show, she said: “When I was a little girl, all I wanted to see was me in the media. Someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me. If I could go back and tell little Lizzo something, I’d be like, ‘You’re gonna see that person, but bitch, it’s gonna have to be you.’”

For his part, Korean writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk made history when he won the drama series directing award for “Squid Game,” the first non-English language show to be nominated for, and win, a major Primetime Emmy. (He was joined by his star, Lee Jung-jae, who won for lead actor in a drama series.) “Since ‘Squid Game’ got nominations at the Emmys, people keep telling me I made history, but I don’t think I made history by myself,” Hwang said in his acceptance speech, acknowledging his hope that his landmark is just the first. “I believe, I have to say, we made history together … I truly hope ‘Squid Game’ won’t be the last non-English series to be here at the Emmys.”

The awards’ tension between tradition and newness, future and past, was reflected within the academy itself, as it tries to grapple with a world in which a brutally violent Korean survival drama is one of the most popular shows of all time on U.S. Netflix.

In a 2021 study commissioned by the Television Academy and published by ReadySet, as The Times reported last week, the authors explicitly pointed out “a deep-seated resistance in the Academy’s culture to moving forward, changing the way things have always been done, and creating a new future for television.”

For all the excitement provided by this year’s newbies to the Emmy club, the winners were still largely white, and from majority white shows; any number of pioneering programs, like “We Are Lady Parts” or Hulu’s indigenous comedy “Reservation Dogs,” were left out of the competition altogether.

Host Kenan Thompson kept the criticism of the Emmys and the medium to a minimum, but he hit the nail on the head when he lampooned one awards darling: “‘Succession’ is a show about brothers, with no brothers.” Perhaps even more telling, he opened the ceremony by dancing and singing the theme songs from series like “Friends,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Game of Thrones” — shows that were mostly or entirely white until he inserted himself into their universe. Still, in 2022, as a joke.

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