It says something for the forces of change buffeting television that an Emmy win for Game of Thrones – a budget-busting fantasy series about ice zombies and CGI dragons – could be considered a vote for the status quo.
But that has been the general reaction after a night of middling excitement at TV’s answer to the Oscars. The other big victor was Amazon’s wiseacre comedy The Marvellous Mrs Maisel – one of the few Amazon properties to enter the public consciousness largely due to a simultaneously vulnerable and gadabout lead performance by Rachel Brosnahan as a Fifties housewife trying to break into the misogynist world of postwar New York standup.
Overall, the 2018 Emmys, hosted by Saturday Night Live comedians Michael Che and Colin Jost, found television at a crossroads. Netflix and Amazon chest-bumped in the battle of the streaming giants while the ultimate prize of Outstanding Drama went – a bit contentiously – to the more traditional Game of Thrones, over the greatly fancied The Americans in its final season. Also prominently snubbed was Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which lost out to the charming yet inessential Mrs Maisel.
Amazon will feel it has stolen a march on its streaming competitors in bagging the headline Outstanding Comedy Series, this marking the second year running that Netflix has lost to Amazon in one of the key categories, after Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale walked away with Outstanding Drama Series in 2017. If this wasn’t quite a bloody nose for Netflix it was a reminder – perhaps a heartening one – that pouring billions into “content” does not guarantee a clean sweep come awards season (Netflix still joined HBO atop the leaderboard with 23 awards each).
Yet, though Mrs Maisel is well regarded, its victory was divisive too. The perception will be that it snapped the trophy from under the more deserving Atlanta, Donald Glover’s surreal and mesmerising exploration of American identity in the Donald Trump era.
Despite being both deeply hilarious and politically outspoken – it has tackled subjects such as whitewashing and police violence against minorities – Atlanta was completely shut out by the Emmys. Instead, in opting for the quirky Mrs Maisel, the ceremony perpetuated the sense that the American entertainment industry is fundamentally ill-equipped to acknowledge the cultural and political tensions rocking the United States.
Ultimately, it was an evening when the losers were talked about more than the winners. If Mrs Maisel’s victory was perceived as slightly wilful on the part of the Emmys, then a win for Game of Thrones suggested the voters had not actually watched any TV this year.
Game of Thrones will go down as one of the most epic achievements in the history of the medium. Yet even its biggest fans will admit series seven was deeply flawed, full of sound and fury and lacking the Machiavellian qualities of previous seasons. Up against it was FX’s The Americans, a Reagan-era slow-burn espionage drama perceived as a sleeper classic – a noir treat whose subtle genius transcends its pitiful ratings.
Unlike Atlanta, The Americans was, at least, not sent away empty-handed. Matthew Rhys was named Outstanding Lead Actor in a drama, over Jason Bateman in Ozark and Ed Harris and Jeffrey Wright in Westworld (Claire Foy deservedly bagged Outstanding Lead Actress for her farewell bow in The Crown). The Americans also received the gong for outstanding writing, for the episode “The Start”.
None of this rated as a bombshell. One of the rare talking points in a night light on surprises centred on the presence in the stalls of mysterious Atlanta character Teddy Perkins. The internet was convinced Donald Glover was hiding under the makeup, until the cameras alighted on Glover elsewhere in the audience.
Similarly raising eyebrows was all the love bestowed upon Glee! and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy’s second season of American Crime Story. Where season one, The People vs OJ Simpson, was heralded as zeitgeist-y and addictive, series two, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, fizzled like the dampest of squibs.
But wishy-washy reviews and lukewarm ratings were not reflected at the Emmys, which gave the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie to Darren Criss for his unnerving turn as Versace’s sociopathic killer, Andrew Cunanan.
Versace also won for Best Direction in a Limited Series, though it missed out on what is arguably the most sought after award in its category, for best writing – which instead went to Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s Black Mirror, and the zippy season four opener “USS Callister”. This really was something special: a Star Trek pastiche that simultaneously celebrated and critiqued nerd culture (specifically its toxic masculinity tendencies).
The big cockle-warming moment, meanwhile, was a belated win for Henry Winkler for outstanding comedy supporting actor for HBO’s Barry. Winkler recited a speech written 43 years previously on the occasion of his first nomination, for playing Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli in Happy Days. The 73-year-old thanked his son and daughter, adding: “You can go to bed now, daddy won!”
The Emmys has never been regarded as the edgiest of awards. When a show achieves a certain level of acclaim it can seem more difficult for it to lose than to win – as demonstrated by the endless gongs laid at the feet of Frasier and Mad Men during their glory years.
Yet in 2018 it was clear that something has started to change. Of the major winners, only Game of Thrones could be described as a blockbuster. Certainly The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is not a popcorn hit in the tradition of Friends or the aforementioned Frasier; The Americans will be remembered, if at all, as that gripping drama that nobody could be bothered to watch.
By acknowledging the obscure gems vying for our time while ultimately alighting upon the only true blockbuster in the room, the Emmys reflected what television has become – a place of limitless choice where the shows that make the most noise are the ones that, in the end, carry the day.
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