The 2016 Emmys couldn’t have happened in any other year. That might sound like a meaningless tautology, but it’s not — last night’s awards ceremony deserves high praise for being astoundingly current. Diversity, politics, a few upsets, and media introspection made this year’s Emmys one of best in recent memory. Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the almost zippy three-hour show boasted plenty of must-see moments that spoke to the array of human experience that makes television the sensationally creative medium it is right now.
Diversity — of race, gender, sexuality — is an undeniably huge reason why TV is so exciting these days. Many of the night’s winners knew that and used their time on the stage to talk about why we need more of it. It was already a joy to see the “Parents” episode of Master of None — a culturally specific, semiautobiographical half hour about immigrant parents and American-raised children that could only have come from Asian-American writers — be awarded the comedy writing trophy. But it was exhilarating to then see Master of None cocreator Alan Yang advocate for greater Asian-American representation in pop culture: “There’s 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian-Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We’ve got Long Duk Dong, so we’ve got a long way to go.” Given that Asian-Americans are rarely even included in discussions about diversity in the first place — and given the gratuitous anti-Asian jokes from Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen during February’s #sowhite Oscars — it felt like a long-overdue step forward.
In her historic speech last year, Viola Davis stated the obvious: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Several winners echoed that thought last night, none more eloquently than Outstanding Comedic Actor–winner Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent). “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television,” he said. “Please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story.” Surprise Best Dramatic Actress–winner Tatiana Maslany, who plays seven different characters on Orphan Black, confessed, “I feel so lucky to be on a show that puts women at the center.” That thought was reiterated by Best Comedy Director Jill Soloway, who urged the audience, in what would be the most delightfully gonzo moment of the night, to “topple the patriarchy.” Two female directors, Soloway and Susanne Bier (The Night Manager), took home half the night’s helming prizes — another remarkable victory for the underdogs, considering that women only direct 12 percent of TV episodes overall.
Tambor was far from the only front-runner to take home a trophy; the Emmys lived up to their reputation as the predictable aunt of the award ceremonies by naming repeat winners: Game of Thrones got Best Drama, Veep took home Best Comedy, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus again landed Best Comedic Actress. As expected, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was crowned Best Limited Series and Sarah Paulson Best Actress in a Limited Series. But the important thing is that these are deserving winners. Game of Thrones and Veep enjoyed some of their best seasons ever, The People vs. O.J. Simpson is the show of the year, and Louis-Dreyfus and Paulson are legends. (Paulson’s onstage love note to her girlfriend, Holland Taylor, was another emotional highlight of the evening.)
Louis-Dreyfus was on fire, channeling Selina Meyer in the cleverest joke from the weak opening skit (“LBJ — that was my nickname during my high-school Spanish class”) and continuing the anti-Trumpism Kimmel introduced during her acceptance speech: “Our show started out as a political satire, but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.” As in his New York Times editorial, Aziz Ansari made personal what many Trump supporters want — the elimination of Latinos and Muslims from America — by jokingly asking his parents (and Master of None costars) to leave the auditorium. Meanwhile, Courtney B. Vance (The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and Hillary Clinton impersonator Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live) gave shout-outs to HRC.
It was a thrill to see the willfully weird McKinnon become overwhelmed by emotion, as with fellow first-timers Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Louie Anderson (Baskets), and Sterling K. Brown (The People vs. O.J. Simpson). The first Emmys for Key & Peele (for their last season) and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (probably the first of at least 10 in its category) made up for the lazy and embarrassing awards for Sherlock: The Abominable Bride and Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith. Kimmel played an entertaining version of his fratty prankster of yore, asking Marcia Clark if she’s “rooting for O.J. to win tonight,” passing out PB&J sandwiches to see who’d make a big deal about their gluten and peanut allergies, and announcing the arrival of “four-time Emmy winner Dr. Bill Cosby” just to see how people would react (they mostly sat in stunned silence until he revealed that it was just a joke). He impishly skirted the line of good taste by cracking that “Johnnie Cochran is somewhere smiling up at us tonight,” then gave himself a fun comeuppance by having his longtime “nemesis” Matt Damon rub in Kimmel’s face the fact that the late-night host ended the night a nominee, not a winner (“You lost, and you gotta stand out here for the rest of the night”).
Kimmel was most thoughtful during his monologue, which sparked an accidental theme about the power of media. He blamed Celebrity Apprentice creator Mark Burnett for inflicting the real-estate mogul on us: “If it wasn’t for television, would Donald Trump be running for president? No. He’d be home right now, quietly rubbing up against his wife Malaria while she pretends to be asleep.” And if the Emmys was a tad too self-congratulatory about its diversity — even TV has a ways to go — a few others acknowledged, as Kimmel did, that “television can also tear us apart.” Leslie Jones turned a thankless segment in appreciation of the Emmys accountants into a heartbreaking but ultimately proud speech about her hacked accounts: “I just wanted to feel beautiful, y’all. Can’t a sister feel beautiful?” And Paulson made a public apology to Marcia Clark for failing to recognize the former prosecutor not as a “complicated, whip-smart, giant-hearted mother of two ... righting an unconscionable wrong,” but seeing her 20 years ago as the “two-dimensional cardboard cutout I saw on the news.” That Marcia Clark could be torn down and raised back up by television is a testament to the media’s enormous influence. Heartwarmingly earnest to the end, the 2016 Emmys saw many of the most respected people in TV recognize that power — and promise to use it for good.