Television’s new golden age

Breaking down the highlights and snubs from this year’s Emmy Awards

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William Bennett/Staff

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The Emmy Awards, much like their film, theater and music counterparts, are annually greeted with both excited buzz and exhausted indifference.

Awards ceremonies reflect, on a year-by-year scale, the ways in which our culture has changed and grown — or, more commonly, the ways in which it has hardly changed at all. That being said, there were many historic wins for both women and people of color, as Donald Glover, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Riz Ahmed, Kate McKinnon, Lena Waithe, Sterling K. Brown and several others all earned landmark achievements, some of them even breaking records. And the Bay Area was represented at this year’s Emmy Awards as well — Berkeley-based comedian W. Kamau Bell (starring in “United Shades of America”) took home the award for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program.

But, for every long-awaited breakthrough, there was a predictable mainstay. “Saturday Night Live” and “Veep” continued to dominate their respective categories — perhaps deservedly, perhaps not — even when the list of nominees was stacked with incredible potential. The most interesting and unpredictable categories to watch this year, meanwhile, were those for drama series, as “Game of Thrones” was ineligible due to the timing of its premiere, and therefore the wins could be anyone’s game.

All in all, the Emmys pulled off a number of feats that many other recent awards shows have failed to achieve — it acknowledged the work of some of the most impressive artists in the industry, tackled current political topics in a way that was humorous but well-executed (including a shocking, self-deprecating Sean Spicer cameo) and captured the spirit of what many hail as a particularly enriched era in television, whether or not such a platitude could ever actually be proven true. If nothing else, television, with its rapid expansion in both quality and diversity, is certainly something to keep our eyes on.

Shannon O’Hara

Outstanding Drama Series

The Drama Series category was filled with serious contenders this year. “Better Call Saul” is a law- and crime-centric spinoff of the much-beloved “Breaking Bad,” “The Crown” captures the early life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II, “House of Cards” holds the record for most nominations for an online original series, “Stranger Things” captured hearts with its sci-fi horror story starring the cutest cast of talented teenagers in the industry, “Westworld” is a mystifying and captivating blend of western and sci fi, and “This is Us” has been celebrated for its representations of complex family relationships and mental health. Ultimately, “The Handmaid’s Tale” took home the prize — and it was very well-deserved.

Hulu’s original television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name rocked the industry this spring with its harrowing (and disturbingly timely) narrative and captivating camera work. Set sometime in a distinctly not-so-distant future, toxic pollution has rendered a significant part of the American population infertile. The dystopian government in this series has eroded the separation of church and state — there is no religious freedom, and there is no freedom from surveillance. And that’s not the worst of it: Women are blamed for the lack of procreation in the country, and those women who can still have children are forced into sex slavery — they are repeatedly raped by the men who “own” them, while the men’s wives hold their hands.

And that’s an oversimplification of the nuanced and complex stories within “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which are only enhanced by impeccable direction and cinematography that capture the resilience of the women in this series. This win is incredibly well-deserved and signals another success on the part of original series from online streaming services, which are rising to — perhaps even surpassing — the creative and innovative levels of premium television.

Sophie-Marie Prime

Outstanding Comedy Series

The 69th Emmy Awards saw “Veep” take home the award for Outstanding Comedy Series; Julia Louis-Dreyfus broke records and took home yet another Emmy for her role on the show as well. The other nominees, “Master of None,” “black-ish,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Atlanta,” “Modern Family” and “Silicon Valley,” came from a range of television networks, including Netflix, HBO, ABC and FX. Though HBO took home the win with “Veep,” Netflix’s momentum only continues to grow as it dishes out more and more awards season contenders, such as “Master of None.”

The nominees were also very diverse in topics and content. “Master of None” was ambitious in its most recent season, shooting one episode entirely in black and white and another with a significant portion in American Sign Language with subtitles. The season was also hailed for its LGBT representation. “Atlanta” was similarly a standout — Donald Glover’s new show follows a man navigating the rap scene of Atlanta, Georgia, and its commentary on race, gender and sexuality is alternatively presented through drama and deadpan humor. “Atlanta,” perhaps more than any other contender, deserved the win for its innovation and originality, and hopefully it will be recognized in future seasons for breaking away from the more formulaic approaches of shows like “Veep.”

“Modern Family,” “black-ish” and “Veep” were all more established, each with at least a couple (many more in the case of “Modern Family”) seasons under their belt. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” meanwhile, had memorable characters, most notably Titus Andromedon (played by the hilarious Tituss Burgess), and “Silicon Valley” draws on the lovable, awkward nerd trope that has seen a lot of popularity as of late.

What may have secured “Veep” the win, however, is the approach it takes to dealing with many present-day issues; in many ways, it is an outlet for the frustration with the current state of affairs in the country. Its dialogue is fast and caustic, the characters insult each other more than they insult themselves, but just barely. This year’s nominees were very much a reflection of the current climate of the country. They provided a funny, but at times sobering, portrayal of society as it is.

Danielle Hilborn

Outstanding Limited Series

The Emmy for Best Limited Series went to HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and could not be more deserved. The show proved to be a breath of fresh air, as it centered around women and crucial issues that demand attention. The all-star ensemble, featuring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman who took home an Emmy for her role as Celeste brought its A-game throughout the series. The characters balance each other beautifully. Witherspoon’s performance as the stay-at-home gossip of the community, struggling with her competitive side, is vividly accurate. Her character effectively grounds the dramatic and haunting performance of Kidman as a victim of domestic violence.  

In the acceptance speech for the Outstanding Limited Series, Kidman and Witherspoon addressed the overarching reason that “Big Little Lies” is such an important show for today. The show is flush with great entertainment value, with an outstanding cast, beautiful cinematography, a killer soundtrack and a dramatic, suspenseful plot. While it does all these things well, the show has created a new standard for female roles and female storylines in television. The female-fronted cast challenges the cliché maternal characters so often portrayed on screen and gives them substance, as well as real, trying issues to illuminate. “Big Little Lies” has created a key to open the floodgates for better, more dynamic and powerful roles for women and has given permission for women everywhere to tell the raw, gritty stories of domestic violence and rape, rather than keeping them secret due to stigma.

Maisy Menzies

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Since her portrayal of Peggy Olson in “Mad Men,” which garnered her six Emmy nominations, Elisabeth Moss has been someone to watch and root for, an actress well-deserving of awards. Her win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series was well-earned, and unsurprising. Moss’s portrayal of Offred — a woman in a suppressive society forced to bear children for the powerful men with barren wives — was haunting, pained and beautiful, and the entire “The Handmaid’s Tale” series relied on her excellent performance as a backbone.

The Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama category was packed with heavy hitters, some, such as Viola Davis and Robin Wright — both with more years and acclaim than Moss — all artists worthy of the Emmy. However, it was Elisabeth Moss’s otherworldly portrayal of a woman pushed to the breaking point and forced to move through it that made her most worthy of the final award. Her speech was a typical flustered monologue of a first-time Emmy winner, but it became feisty at the end with her thanking her mother for teaching her “how to be kind and a fucking badass.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” was truly the show to beat this season, taking home eight awards, and Elisabeth Moss made the show that much more impactful with her powerful performance. This win was a long time coming and well-deserved.

Sydney Rodosevich

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Going into awards night, it was easy to bet on Sterling K. Brown for Outstanding Lead Actor. Sure, Bob Odenkirk was reliably excellent in “Better Call Saul,” and yeah, the underrated Matthew Rhys deserves all the Emmy awards he can get, but the emotional depth of Brown’s performance in the terrific “This Is Us” made him tower above everybody else.

The most striking feature of Brown’s performance in “This is Us” was the disarming self-awareness that he brought to the table. Every scene with Brown’s character, Randall — from his quiet breakdown near the end of the the first season to his realization that he is not responsible for the weight of the entire world — felt poignant and real. As Randall, Brown crafted that rare character who actually knew what his own worst impulses were and continuously fought to avoid being consumed by them. For all that, he truly earned the award.

Brown’s speech was in itself a great mirror for the sensitivity of his character. His references to Walter White, Dick Whitman (“Google It”) and Andre Braugher’s Detective Pembleton were quick but witty, as was his comment about his co-stars being “the best white TV family that a brother has ever had.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s thoughtful speech was cut off by a commercial — a bad move on the part of the network that hosted the Emmys. At least let the man finish!

Arjun Sarup

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has walked away with another Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

Her portrayal of Selina Meyer on HBO’s political satire, “Veep,” has been lauded throughout the show’s six seasons. For her first “Veep” Emmy nomination and subsequent victory, Louis-Dreyfus became the first woman to receive an acting award for three separate comedy shows, and now, with her sixth win, she broke a record for most Outstanding Lead Actress wins for the same part on the same show.  

That’s not to say Louis-Dreyfus didn’t face tough competition — nominees Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin of “Grace And Frankie” are both established, beloved actors who have contributed to the film and television industry for years. Meanwhile, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is something of a comedy sensation, one that deserves far more accolades than it has received — Ellie Kemper, the show’s star, also deserves an Emmy for her performance. Tracee Ellis Ross of “black-ish,” Pamela Adlon of “Better Things” and Allison Janney of “Mom” are similarly impressive in their roles.

That being said, Louis-Dreyfus is an absolute legend — a leader not only among women in comedy, but among comedians in general — certainly deserved her win, as “Veep” continues to dominate the comedy field.

Shannon O’Hara

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Donald Glover, aka rapper Childish Gambino, won this year’s Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his performance in FX’s “Atlanta.” Glover played Earnest Marks, a Princeton dropout struggling to make money while working as music manager for his cousin.

Glover’s win is considerable, given the immense talent of this year’s nominees. Many expected the award to go to Jeffrey Tambor, who won the past two years’ trophies for his moving portrayal of a transgender mother in “Transparent.”

Although Glover and Tambor both gave excellent performances, Aziz Ansari should have won for his acting in the second season of “Master of None.” Ansari’s complex portrait of modern romantic and familial relationships made the show touching, hilarious and innovative all at once. One surprise nomination was Zach Galifianakis, who played a dedicated clown named Chip in FX’s “Baskets.” The role was utterly surreal, but it failed to amount to anything beyond an incoherent mixture of quirkiness and hackneyed clown humor.

Glover is also the first person of color to win the award since Robert Guillaume, who took the trophy for the sitcom “Benson” in 1985. In his acceptance speech, Glover thanked “Trump for making Black people No. 1 on the most-oppressed list,” adding that “he’s the reason I’m probably up here.”

Jack Wareham

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie

The Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie was anyone’s game — nominated along with winner Nicole Kidman were Reese Witherspoon, Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Felicity Huffman and Carrie Coon. The intimidating list of powerful performers is perhaps one of the most competitive in years for the category; every one of them has a film and television ledger that makes them a household name.

In the end, though, Nicole Kidman’s tautly conveyed Celeste Wright of “Big Little Lies” won out, and with good reason; Celeste is a complexly written character to whom only such a seasoned actor as Kidman could fully do justice. The black-and-white natures of ingenues and Lady Macbeths are long a thing of the past; this is an age of grey Celeste Wrights, who succeed in some realms and struggle in others. In portraying a successful careerwoman who struggles to come to terms with and escape the worsening abuse of her young husband, Kidman performed in turns capable, nervous, reluctant, resigned and confident. Both her performance and her acceptance speech brought attention to this very nonfictional issue, one that is often difficult for third parties to acknowledge or even to notice.

Kidman’s able mastery of the nuances that made up her character becomes vital in this lens — too often are victims of domestic abuse blamed for being weak, or asked why they didn’t just leave. The grotesque seven-episode cycle of torture Kidman was recognized for conveying answers just how difficult it can be, even for someone who seems so unshakable to the rest of the world.

Sahana Rangarajan

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie

Earlier this year, British actor-rapper Riz Ahmed — rarely under the spotlight, but quietly captivating in all of his recent work — was featured as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. It’s a testament not only to his incredible acting and musical talents but also to his commitment to advocating for diversity in film and television.

So it’s fitting that Sunday night, Ahmed made history by becoming the first Muslim and artist of South Asian descent to win an Emmy for acting. He took home the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for his work in HBO’s “The Night Of,” triumphing over performers such as his co-star John Turturro, Robert De Niro for “The Wizard of Lies” and Ewan McGregor for “Fargo.”

Ahmed’s win was far from undeserved; his performance as Naz, a college student from Queens who is accused of murder, was as complex and powerful as it was understated. Naz’s ethnic and religious backgrounds are never centralized in the show’s plot — but as Ahmed pointed out in his acceptance speech, “The Night Of” still has the power to shed light on prejudice, Islamophobia and “the injustice in our justice system.” It’s a star-making role, one that has brought the actor out from under the radar of global entertainment and has made him a household name.

Anagha Komaragiri

Outstanding Reality-Competition Program

Originality is often left ignored and replaced with popularity, especially when it comes to picking the winner of the best reality competition. Shows without similar predecessors such as “American Ninja Warrior,” “The Amazing Race,” “Project Runway” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — each with its own original competition, some of which have even spurned spin-offs — were tossed aside yet again. Alas, the television academy picked the show with the highest viewership and not the show with the most unique content, and thus, “The Voice” took the win again.

While it is important to consider ratings and viewership, to focus only on numbers takes away from rewarding televised content that strives to bring something new to the industry. Both “Top Chef” and “The Voice” were prefaced with a variety of cooking and singing competitions. However, shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” had no predecessor. That is to say, no other televised competitions feature individuals competing with the same talent, in this case, being the best drag queen. The creation of such shows requires creativity and risk-taking, and thus should be rewarded with the Emmy, more so than “The Voice” which albeit is a great show, but lacks the originality and diversity that other category nominees bring. It’s time to stop praising the mundane hackneyed competition shows viewers have grown to love, and start praising those who’ve managed to succeed unconventionally.

— Samantha Banchik

Outstanding Variety Talk Series

Much like the 2017 Emmys themselves, this year’s nominees for Outstanding Variety Talk Series were dominated by comedians that have pivoted from goofy late night host to fully fledged political commentaries. Both “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden” went viral this year for each host’s emotional pleas to save Obamacare and oppose Brexit, respectively. Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series event went on to become a full fledged show thanks to Apple. “Real Time with Bill Maher” remains a biting late night voice, even when the host himself can be at the center of controversy more often than not.

Interestingly, three alumni of “The Daily Show” were nominated in the category and ultimately John Oliver’s irreverent “Last Week Tonight” took home the prize and deservedly so. Stephen Colbert has grown nicely into his role as the host of “The Late Show,” after the retirement of late night veteran David Letterman, but still lacks the stinging sarcasm and satire that fans saw from him on “The Colbert Report.”  Though it would have been nice to see relative-newcomer Samantha Bee win for introducing a female perspective in a category long controlled by men, John Oliver’s weekly deep dives into seemingly boring, obscure issues still remains the most essential late night programming right now.

Derek Fang

Outstanding Television Movie

What does “Sherlock” have in common with “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circles of Love”?  They somehow were nominated in the same category this year.

This year’s Outstanding Television Movie category featured an eclectic list of nominees with the “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror” cinching the prize. “San Junipero” is a particularly notable episode because it subverts the typical “Black Mirror” formula. Overtime, “Black Mirror” has developed a pattern of both exceptional production value and overt warnings about the dangers involved with technology. But it’s not a true “Black Mirror” episode unless it concludes with a major bummer and subsequently kills the mood of everyone in the room.

However, “San Junipero” defies all these expectations. The episode begins, on the contrary, in a past decade. Instead of introducing a new device or futuristic city,  “San Junipero” pays a visit to a nostalgic beach town circa 1987. Iconic movie posters, classic arcade games and tape cassettes take center stage in a major deviation from standard operating procedure. In a show chiefly concerned with the rise of technology, this episode takes its time in introducing a new form of virtual reality. The first half of “San Junipero” begins by exploring an intimate relationship between two women and offers viewers a glimmer of optimism at its finale.

It’s ironic that the episode most dissimilar to the “Black Mirror” zeitgeist is the one that triumphed at the Emmys. “San Junipero,” however, is worthy of its accolades because it succeeds in delivering a deeply personal love story. In a show that is typically so cynical, it is immensely satisfying to see “Black Mirror” break down its own walls, succeed spectacularly and receive recognition for its efforts.

With that being said, it’s wise to never bet against Dolly Parton. 2018 is going to be her year.

Sarah Alford

Outstanding Variety Sketch Series

Politics drove television for the past year, from late-night talk shows to topical dramas such as “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Yet, the most talked-about show of the past season — and the biggest awards winner come Sunday night — was “Saturday Night Live.”

“SNL” came off of quite a few big wins — including Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon for their satirical portrayals of political figures, and Dave Chappelle and Melissa McCarthy for their guest appearances — before it ultimately won “Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.”

Of course, there were other strong nominees in the category. “Billy On the Street,” the always-hilarious pop culture quiz show, and “Portlandia,” the eccentric sketch series featuring “SNL” alumnus Fred Armisen, were worthy contenders, and may have easily triumphed in a different year.

But this is 2017, and “SNL” deservedly won the title with little contest. Sketches portraying the Trump-Clinton debates or Sean Spicer’s press conferences defined political satire for the past year, serving as a lens through which a larger audience viewed government, ultimately becoming as inseparable from political representation as whatever it was satirizing. It provided a space for comedians of color — Dave Chappelle following the election or Aziz Ansari following the inauguration — to offer personal insight and commentary on our perception of politics. “SNL’s” win is unsurprising, but it’s fascinating that in all of its 42 years, America’s favorite comedic institution has never felt more relevant.

Anagha Komaragiri

Arts Department’s Choice: Best Speech

If the theme of this year’s Emmy Awards was the tumultuous epoch we live in, Lena Waithe’s speech was a warm hymn for the power of unity in this time. The first ever African-American woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, Waithe ascended to the stage wearing a dazed expression atop her stunning tailored tuxedo with holographic detailing. Soon, the initial flood of shock sharpened and focused into a powerful emotional statement. The customary “thank you”s after acceptances grew wider, from her friends, family, girlfriend and colleagues, to her entire “LGBQTIA family.”

“The things that make us different,” she assured with gentle confidence, “those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world — because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we were not in it.”  The things she was recognizing — the LGBTQIA community, the inherent beauty of our world — weren’t unfamiliar concepts to those of us who watched the episode of “Master of None” she and co-writer Aziz Ansari were being recognized for. “Thanksgiving” presented a juggernaut of emotion in the midst of a stalwartly quirky show about modern love and life, praised and embraced almost immediately for its relatable portrayal of queer women of color’s interactions with their communities. Through both her Emmy acceptance speech and in “Thanksgiving,” Waithe’s consistent emphasis on chosen and biological family alike serves as a reminder that divisive times make human connection more vital than ever.

— Sahana Rangarajan

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].

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