Critic's Notebook: Some Happy Surprises at the Emmys

Matt Roush
THE 68TH EMMY(r) AWARDS - “The 68th Emmy Awards” broadcasts live from The Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Sunday, September 18 (7:00-11:00 p.m. EDT/4:00-8:00 p.m. PDT), on ABC and is hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. (ABC/Image Group LA)
JIMMY KIMMEL
ABC/Image Group LA

Who else initially thought the Maggie Smith win (her third for Downton Abbey) was a joke?

Jimmy Kimmel, the Emmys' unfailingly droll and occasionally hilarious host, had set up the gag (which led to this ironic punch line) early on in his monologue, citing a "Maggie Smith rule" that all nominees must be present to win. "Maggie has shown up no times," Kimmel said. "She's Downton absent. Why do we keep nominating this woman?"

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True to form, she wasn't there to take the prize (over multiple Game of Thrones co-stars, including the favored Lena Headey), which elicited the expected groans in the Twitter-verse. But despite repeat wins for her, and a fifth in a row for Veep's Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who was quite moving as she honored her father, who passed away Friday), and HBO's Veep and Game of Thrones repeating as top comedy and drama, what we'll mostly remember this year's Emmys for are the surprises, and the proud inclusiveness of actors and writers of color (epitomized by the audacious Key & Peele's win for variety-sketch series), female directors and stars in untraditional roles: Baskets' Louie Anderson winning for playing a mom, Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor making a plea for transgender hiring as he accepted his second consecutive Emmy.

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When Transparent creator Jill Soloway won her second directing Emmy for her sublime Amazon series, she eloquently spoke of the privilege that "when you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and you put them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects, you change the world, we found out." Describing Transparent as more "revolution" than television, she wrapped her speech by declaring, "Topple the patriarchy!"

Which cued up one of Kimmel's best moments, as he addressed the show's own identity issues: "Transparent was born a drama, but it identifies as a comedy."

Kimmel's irreverent wit, which only briefly took a detour into Trump-bashing (at the expense of Apprentice producer Mark Burnett), kept the show mostly aloft from its elaborate opening, in which his route to the Emmys included a recreation of the O.J. Bronco chase, encounters with Modern Family's Dunphy clan (zzzz), James Corden's karaoke carpool, the Veep presidential limo—chauffeured by Jeb Bush ("Are you nominated? Wow, what's that like?")—and Khaleesi's Game of Thrones dragon.

Some bits worked better than others, typical for a long awards night. I loved Saturday Night Live's Leslie Jones spicing up the accountants' intro by badgering the Ernst & Young suits to protect her hacked Twitter account. Matt Damon scored while taunting his frenemy Kimmel for losing the variety-talk award to HBO's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. Less successful was Kimmel's attempt to copy Ellen DeGeneres's pizza-delivery Oscars moment, having his mom send out peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to the hungry audience (delivered by the Stranger Things kids on bikes). At least he didn't try to take a group selfie.

The PB&J routine ate up time that might have gone to the winners, many of whom were unceremoniously played off stage during their speeches—none more cluelessly than Master of None co-writer and star Aziz Ansari, who finally got to thank his parents when he went back up as a presenter. (John Oliver later nailed it when he demanded, "Please play me off. I've never had the chance to do this before.")

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show

Lester Cohen/WireImage

The producers and cast of Game of Thrones accept their award for outstanding drama series

"If your show doesn't have a dragon or a white Bronco in it, go home now," Kimmel quipped. He had a point. FX's limited-series winner The People v. O.J. Simpson clearly dominated its field, with wins for stars Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown (only American Crime's repeat winner Regina King broke the acting sweep). While Thrones won writing and directing Emmys for the epic "Battle of the Bastards" episode, no actors won, with Kit Harington as the resurrected Jon Snow upset by Bloodline's Ben Mendelsohn.

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Was that a Clone Phone that Maslany was using?

FX was doing so well with O.J. (and the Baskets win for Louie Anderson), it got me hoping for an against-the-odds win for The Americans, possibly in the lead acting categories. No such luck, but who can complain when the Emmys went to upstarts Rami Malek of USA's innovative Mr. Robot and Tatiana Maslany (whose name presenter Kiefer Sutherland mangled) for her multiple Orphan Black clones. These are not what you'd call household names. Maybe now they will be.

TV is now so expansive it's more impossible than ever for the Emmys to give every great show and performance its due—FX's brilliant Fargo, for example, was pretty much shut out. At its best, this year's ceremony reminded us (Larry David's feigned interest aside) what a truly golden age this industry, and its fans, are enjoying.