Why the 2019 Emmy Awards Didn't Shine Nearly as Bright as the Winners

Emmy Trophy
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

A general view of atmosphere of the Emmy Award at the 68th Emmy Awards Press Preview Day at Microsoft Theater on Sept. 14, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

Face it: We should have known the 71st Annual Emmy Awards were going to be problematic when Fox led into the show by hiding all the faces. Did you know the new season of the reality series The Masked Singer is premiering soon? If not, presenting all the silly-costumed characters parading down the same red carpet that just welcomed legends Michael Douglas, Michelle Williams and Norman Lear. And just to hammer home the shameless self-promotion, witness the “Thingamajig” in the accountant segment! It’s a minor miracle that the Leopard didn’t serve as the host. 
Don’t roll your eyes. This was an awards ceremony so ill-conceived — a Bill Cosby and Roseanne joke, people! — that you just know the producers were considering it. 

Television has never mattered more. Television has never been this good. Emmy winner Bryan Cranston made those solemn declarations early on, back when we were all alert. And to wit, worthy winners such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Billy Porter and Alex Borstein illustrated the diverse and intriguing mix of the TV class of 2019. They delivered standing ovation-worthy speeches to boot: Williams inspired women of all creeds when she thanked the Fosse/Verdon production company for giving her equal gender pay; actor Jharrel Jerome dedicated his When They See Us win to the Exonerated Five, all sitting in the audience. People all over the country are Googling “What is Fleabag about?” as I type this.

Yet the broadcast itself was amateur hour, a ham-fisted mix of awkward banter and tired comedy bits. What a sweet relief when the stilted dialogue finally stopped and Halsey stepped up to the mic to perform a lovely, poignant rendition of “Time After Time” during the In Memoriam segment. We needed more of these true colors and less hackneyed attempts at grown-up girls trying to have fun with their male co-presenters. 

The go-to scapegoat here is usually the master of ceremonies. But taking a cue from the Oscars, the Emmys decided to go host-less for the first time since 2003. Whereas this risky tactic worked in February, the ceremony could have used the remote patrol. With nobody to guide us, the show had an incohesive quality. Sometimes the presenters introduced the nominees, sometimes it was a random announcer that sounded like Siri. In one instance, it was Siri. And while nobody missed the stale monologue — and it’s no fun to razz a target like the Kardashians when Kim is beaming front and center — a rousing production number would have added some much-needed pizazz. It’s possible, I swear. Just ask Jimmy Fallon and Neil Patrick Harris.  
It’s not like producers were starved for talent, either. Musical personalities such as James Corden, Stephen Colbert, Maya Rudolph and Lin-Manuel Miranda all briefly took the stage at some point without singing a note. Samantha Bee was relegated to cameo status next to Adam DeVine, the actor who played Bumper in the Pitch Perfect movies, during a clumsy music segment that introduced the Variety Show categories. (You know who also appeared in that segment? Another contestant from The Masked Singer, D’oh!) Fred Armisen and Sarah Silverman sat silently in the audience. Wait a second, even Halsey hosted Saturday Night Live last season! And Porter is a fantastic Kinky Boots Tony winner! Oh, how you mock us, Emmys gods.
Instead we were stuck with Thomas Lennon, late of Comedy Central’s Reno 911, who provided “punchlines” as each freshly minted winner walked to the stage. He aimed low. Though presumably on-hand to provide laughter during that long 20-second trek, his digs came off snarky and off-putting and cheapened the moment. He mumbled something about the size of the shark in Jaws upon Bill Hader’s victory for Barry. If your name is Craig Mazen and you’ve just nabbed a trophy for writing an episode of Chernobyl — which depicts the tragic nuclear accident in 1986 — you probably don’t want to hear some schmuck shriek, “More like Craig Oh-Amazin’!” The zinger in the aftermath of the Chernobyl win for Best Limited Series: “It’s the little nuclear disaster that could!” 

If only an orchestra could have played him off. Alas, live musicians were scuttled in place of piped-in pop music after the winners were announced. Read: Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” for RuPaul (for Best Reality Competition Series for RuPaul’s Drag Race); Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Susie Q” for Borstein (for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel); the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” for Ben Whishaw (for Best Supporting Actor in a Mini-Series for A Very English Scandal). Those cues were on the obvious side but at least deemed appropriate. Who knows what the musical director was thinking/inhaling when Florence + the Machine’s regret anthem, “Shake It Out” blared during a win for . . . yup . .  . Chernobyl.
Putting on an awards show is a thankless task. The producers spend months building it up only for armchair critics to knock it down. That’s why the predictable structure needs to go. These ceremonies have begun to resemble Super Bowls in the sense that we tune in for the commercials (ooh, Breaking Bad movie trailer!) and the musical act with the knowledge that the truly important stuff will go down in the last five minutes. In this Golden Age of Television, we deserve a thoughtful, entertaining show that truly goes for the gold. It’s not too late for a leopard to change its spots.