Nobody would confuse the 68th annual primetime Emmy Awards, held Sunday, September 18, in Los Angeles, with the kind of excellent TV they were purportedly meant to honor.
Though the show moved along at a brisk clip (and even ended on time!), too much of it felt like a rerun of earlier awards shows — from some of the more predictable winners to the fact that many of host Jimmy Kimmel’s comedy bits have been done before.
But the Emmys remain one of the best ways to see what TV values about itself, and in that regard, the 68th ceremony had its surprises — and a self-congratulatory focus on diversity within the industry that the awards were able to (mostly) bear out.
And, hey, the night even marked the rise of a new power, one that might someday take down reigning emperor HBO.
So let’s look at four winners and three losers from the 2016 Emmy Awards.
Winner: Surprises ruled the night
Okay, yeah, Veep and Game of Thrones won the Comedy and Drama Series trophies for the second consecutive year. And nobody could say they were all that surprised by Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning her fifth consecutive Lead Actress in a Comedy Series trophy. (She’s now the first woman to ever win that title six times — five times for Veep and once for The New Adventures of Old Christine.)
But the rest of the night was filled with a welcome swath of first-time winners. Whether it was Rami Malek taking home the Lead Actor in a Drama prize for Mr. Robot or Louie Anderson winning Supporting Actor in a Comedy out of nowhere for Baskets, you didn’t have to look far to find winners absolutely nobody was predicting.
The surprise winners even extended to folks who probably should have won a few years ago — like Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany for Lead Actress in a Drama. And there were a few who just seemed weird, period, such as Bloodline’s Ben Mendelsohn, who won Supporting Actor in a Drama even though he had little to do in the show’s second season.
Some of these surprises were byproducts of a somewhat routine turnover in Emmy stalwarts, one that happens every few years. (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart wrapping up, for instance, made room for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in the Variety Talk Series race.) But a lot of them resulted from the voters simply looking to previous winners and deciding, "Hey, let’s go after something else" — no matter how surprising it might be.
And that’s great. The Emmys are frequently repetitive and boring. That’s why they’re frequently easy to predict and boring to watch. But in the years when they seemingly go out of their way to reward new things, they can be an unexpected amount of fun.
Loser: Jimmy Kimmel
For a substantial portion of the telecast, Kimmel’s turn as host was largely just okay. The show began with the requisite comedic montage featuring some of the year’s most notable (read: popular) nominees; by the end of it, Kimmel had been chauffeured around by the Modern Family cast and James Corden alike. (Also, Jeb!)
After that, it was time for a decent — if safe — monologue in which he touched on Hollywood’s Diversity Problem, Jeffrey Tambor’s inevitable second Emmy win for Transparent, and how weird the Emmys must be for O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, who attended the ceremony with actress Sarah Paulson, Clark’s TV counterpart on FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Soon enough, though, Kimmel’s energy began to wane — and so did his jokes. At one point, he and the Stranger Things kids passed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; it was amusing, but between Ellen DeGeneres ordering pizza for the audience at the 2014 Oscars and Chris Rock selling Girl Scout cookies at the 2016 Oscars, the bit felt a little tired.
Still, things briefly perked up when Kimmel’s erstwhile frenemy Matt Damon joined him onstage, if only because the audience was so palpably excited to see a movie star.
Otherwise, Kimmel’s night is maybe best summed up by his attempt to rile the audience up by teasing a Bill Cosby appearance. The announcer read Cosby’s name, to mild consternation and fading grumbles, only to have Kimmel walk out. "He’s not coming, I just wanted to see what you would do," he said with a shrug.
And "with a shrug" appropriately sums up Kimmel’s performance as an Emmys host. It was fine — but after the great job Andy Samberg did last year, fine was disappointing.
Winner: FX nearly topples HBO
Yes, much of FX’s success came thanks to one program — The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — whereas HBO’s success was spread across three shows (Game of Thrones, Veep, and Last Week Tonight). And, yes, HBO ultimately pulled even with FX to win the most trophies on the night, with both networks winning six a piece.
That's a marked difference from the 2015 ceremony, when HBO utterly dominated all comers, with 43 wins to second place NBC’s 12. And when you add in the prizes from the recent Creative Arts Emmy Awards (mostly for below-the-line technicians), HBO still leads — with 22 prizes overall — but FX is much closer than networks typically get to HBO, with 18.
Again, FX won half of its 2016 awards for O.J. — but HBO won slightly more than half of its awards (12 out of the aforementioned 22) for Game of Thrones (which matched but did not beat its own "most awards for one show in one season" record, set in 2015).
Perhaps more importantly, FX’s greatest challenge came in a category where it didn’t even win. The network finally returned to the Drama Series race — where it hadn’t been nominated since Damages’ second season in 2009 — with a nomination for The Americans. Though Game of Thrones ultimately took home the title, The Americans’ presence is significant. A big part of HBO’s success is that it competes everywhere; in FX, it finally has a network that can match it for ubiquity of quality.
(Also coming up on the outside: Netflix, which had its best year yet, winning nine prizes overall. It’s not quite in the same universe, but the Emmys have occasionally seemed loathe to embrace the streaming programmer. That sentiment might be fading.)
The 2016 Emmys featured the awards’ most inclusive set of Emmy nominees to date, with 21 out of the 97 acting honorees — across the comedy, drama, and limited series categories — being people of color.
Fittingly, the ceremony didn’t shy away from that fact. Kimmel immediately took it on in his opening monologue, snarking that the only thing Hollywood values more than diversity is "congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity."
When Master of None co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang won for Best Comedy Writing, Yang gave a passionate and tongue-in-cheek speech about how Asian Americans rarely get to see themselves onscreen, even though there are just as many of them as there are Italian Americans.
"They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos," Yang said. "We got [Sixteen Candles’] Long Duk Dong."
And so even as Kimmel made jokes about the increasing focus on #diversity, the winners list told the story of how that increased diversity is slowly but surely affecting the industry, from Aziz and Yang, to Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance’s Limited Series wins for The People v. O.J., to Regina King’s Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series win for American Crime, to Key and Peele’s win for Best Variety Sketch Series.
Then there was Best Comedy Actor winner Jeffrey Tambor, who used the latter half of his speech to advocate for transgender talent being considered more for transgender roles, kinda sorta acknowledging that he’s come under fire for being a cisgender man in a trans role. In fact, he even said the word "cisgender" during his speech, undoubtedly sending dozens of Emmy voters scrambling to Google.
And finally, there was Transparent director Jill Soloway, shaking her Emmy above her head and yelling, "Topple the patriarchy!" That might be par for the course on Twitter, but notsomuch at the Emmys — at least not until now.
Loser: Maggie Smith
Oh, we did forget to mention one good bit from Kimmel: his apparent disdain for Maggie Smith, who hasn’t attended the Emmy ceremony a single time in the five(!) years she’s been nominated for Downton Abbey.
"She had a Sunday ceramics class she couldn’t get out of," Kimmel deadpanned at the beginning of the telecast. Later, when Smith did win Best Supporting Actress in a Drama — and again, wasn’t there — Kimmel rushed to collect the Emmy and insisted that Smith would have to come and get it from "the lost and found."
Was this a particularly brilliant bit? Nah. But it was just weird and specific enough to work, and besides, Smith will never know about it. She’s very busy and important, and anyway, she has that ceramics class.
Winner: Game of Thrones’ "Battle of the Bastards" is the most Emmy-winning episode ever
"Battle of the Bastards" was specifically nominated for seven separate Emmys. It won six of them — including a writing prize for Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and a directing prize for Miguel Sapochnik. The only one it lost was Supporting Actor (where Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, chose it as his submission). Those six awards were enough to rise it above ER’s 1995 classic "Love’s Labor Lost" for the winning-est episode of all time.
The episode also won an editing prize. And a makeup prize. And a sound prize. And a visual effects prize. And on the surface, those prizes make sense; "The Battle of the Bastards" is one of the most epic episodes in television history, a gigantic war film that’s somehow been squeezed onto the small screen.
So it’s hard to say that neither the episode nor Game of Thrones deserved those awards (save for the writing award — there have been much better episodes of Game of Thrones, and there were much better episodes nominated). But it’s also a little weird that it’s the most successful episode in Emmy history, which suggests it’s one of the best TV episodes ever made, something that seems at least a little suspect.
Loser: reality show super-producer Mark Burnett
While Kimmel’s opening monologue was largely a celebration of how TV brings people together, he also wanted to point out that TV can tear us apart. As an example, he pointed to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, arguing that without The Apprentice, Trump would never have become a presidential nominee.
Obviously, we can never know the answer to Kimmel’s hypothetical scenario, but he extended his logic to indict the man who brought The Apprentice to TV and, thus, brought Trump to the masses: producer Mark Burnett.
Burnett brought Survivor and The Voice to the US, in addition to basically inventing the reality genre as we know it. He’s also a Brit, which makes him potentially subject to whatever immigration policies a President Trump might decide to implement. (We’re betting Burnett has a work visa, at the very least.)
Anyway, the jokes weren’t as funny as Burnett’s face was terrifying. Look into the eyes of a man haunted by one of his greatest successes and try not to feel just a little bit haunted yourself. In the Mark Burnett biopic, this will be a key scene.
Later, when The Voice won for Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Burnett tried to joke about Hillary Clinton complaining about how Kimmel was giving free airtime to Trump, but the joke bombed. Nobody wants to laugh with you, Mark Burnett.
The TV Academy decided that instead of rewarding Lemonade — Beyoncé’s terrific visual album that made its debut on HBO (and was consequently eligible for Emmy consideration) — it would reward Grease Live! and a James Corden carpool karaoke clip show.
The former makes a certain amount of sense; the direction of Grease! Live was probably the best thing about it and the kind of massive technical accomplishment the Emmys often pay attention to. The latter, though? If you’re going to reward Corden, why do it for a clip show?
Maybe Lemonade didn’t deserve to win in that category overall — but it sure as hell deserved to beat Carpool Karaoke.
Correction: We originally stated HBO won seven Emmys at the primetime ceremony, to FX's six. Both networks won six, and HBO only won 22 overall.