Even though the televised award show is a dying institution, one slowly chipped away at with every passing year, the 2021 Emmys still somehow achieved the impossible: the worst acceptance speech in history.
Scott Frank’s win for directing the Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit encapsulated everything wrong with these things. A man nobody knows read aloud from two bits of paper for more than three interminable minutes, interjecting here and there to chastise the producers attempting to play him off with music, his star – a bewildered Anya Taylor-Joy – looking on helplessly. Never mind that Frank’s entirely pedestrian direction beat Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ lush, gorgeous work on the criminally underseen The Underground Railroad. This was – removed from the sheer curiousness of Frank’s win – a sour, whiny and unpleasant acceptance speech, moody when it should have been celebratory, and lacking in the powerful economy of so many others at the event.
The poor producer faced with Frank’s wrath was stuck in a bind: either move things along, or accept the tedium. It couldn’t have been a more apt metaphor for the contemporary awards show. Despite existing in an age of so much television, with dozens of fantastic series all fighting for attention and audiences, the Emmys still feel stale. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting an A-list nominee at last night’s ceremony – with its comparatively weak star wattage, this year’s Oscars seemed positively arthouse – but the show itself was oddly archaic.
From its host Cedric the Entertainer (presumably cryogenically frozen in 2003 and thawed out for this once everyone else had passed) to the hacky theatrics of its skits – a Dr Phil cameo and a reference to the fly that sat on Mike Pence’s head a thousand years ago? Comedy! – this struggled to feel relevant or necessary. It neatly reflected a genre stuck in time, one too skittish to evolve yet too deferential to its one-time importance to ever just throw in the towel.
Deference was key in the night’s winners, too. All 21 of the major categories – Outstanding Drama, Comedy and Limited Series and their respective actors, writers and directors – were won by just seven different shows. The dominance, in particular, of Mare of Easttown and The Crown was hardly controversial or undeserved, but spoke to a general malaise in voters’ choices. When there is so much TV at our fingertips now, are those seven shows – which also included Ted Lasso, Halston and The Queen’s Gambit – truly the best of everything? Or just the ones that have been written about the most?
In the hours after the ceremony, #EmmysSoWhite trended on Twitter – a hashtag condemnation of the fact that only two performers of colour took home individual awards. One went to RuPaul, for hosting Drag Race, and one went to I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel, who received the Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series award. The backlash is absolutely valid. But, truthfully, why are we asking regressive institutions to evolve or expand their worldview, when we’re endlessly reminded that such a thing holds little interest to them.
Apart from the presence of a few actors best known for movies, this year’s Emmys looked and felt a lot like an Emmys from 20 years ago. We’d be good to take a lesson from the producer faced with Frank’s speech. Either we move on, or accept that we’re trapped.
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