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Review: The 2016 Emmys Thrive, Thanks to Moving Moments and Welcome Surprises

Jimmy Kimmel did a fine job hosting, but it was the speeches and surprises that made the 2016 Emmys a night to remember.

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

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First things first: the honest, unplanned moments of the 2016 Emmys ceremony were incredible, and it’s what we’ll all remember — possibly for decades to come. From the unprecedented number of moving acceptance speeches to a few off-the-cuff  jokes, the live element of the Emmys paid off like few other awards shows have before. Host Jimmy Kimmel was at the top of his game, delivering an effectively biting monologue, and his relaxed demeanor made the perfect foil for the emotional unplanned scenes aptly showcased above the rest.

That being said, all of the amazing unrehearsed moments made some of the pre-written segments feel glaringly sophomoric.

Starting from the top, the prerecorded opening bit was clearly just designed to get Kimmel into a scene from Carpool Karaoke, and that joke didn’t pay off any better than his time in the “Modern Family” van. Sure, Julia Louis-Dreyfus saved the video from a complete “meh” — “‘El B.J.’ was my nickname in high school Spanish club.” — but the been-there-done-that feeling plaguing the opener continued throughout the staged, off-stage parts of the ceremony overall.

Though I’m undoubtedly the lone grump who didn’t care about the “Stranger Things” kids handing out PB&J sandwiches to a crowd, no one can deny the bit itself was lifted straight from Ellen Degeneres delivering pizza to guests at the Oscars. Adding to the original joke by incorporating an Internet favorite TV show and Kimmel’s mother (who made the sandwiches) was a nice touch, but this kind of thing will only work if it’s an established tradition, rather than repurposing proven winners from past awards shows.

Kimmel, to his credit, did find ways to make some things work that shouldn’t have. Repeatedly handing juice to David Schwimmer almost made the whole food debacle worth it, and Amy Schumer’s excellent reading of a note intended for Amy Poehler felt genuine because of her committed interpretation. The disputed Bill Cosby joke — in which Kimmel introduced himself as Dr. Bill Cosby “just to see what you guys would do” — played better because of how uncomfortably it landed in the room, and bringing on Matt Damon to mock Kimmel’s loss in Variety Talk Series was funny enough to justify a promotable tie-in for his show.

But let’s get back to what made the ceremony one of the better recent awards shows: the reactions. After all, the in-the-room aspect of hosting duties is what matters most, as those patient people sitting at L.A. Live for three hours need to be held rapt far more than the people at home who can flip between the Emmys and Sunday Night Football. Moreover, the moments people remember when it’s all said and done always happen in the room, even if ABC undoubtedly hoped they could benefit from a few million clicks online with a good opening video.

Two of Kimmel’s outstanding moments came in his opening monologue, but they really only paid off because of a surprise later: His mockery of “Lame Maggie Smith,” who has never attended the Emmys, came back in a big way when she won for the final season of “Downton Abbey,” and Kimmel accepting on her behalf not only worked as a great button, but illustrated how his best humor was efficient — quick quips based in sharp writing. Of course, the same could be said for his attempt to shave 22 minutes off the telecast — which ended precisely on time, an accomplishment in and of itself — by handing Jeffrey Tambor a trophy at the start of the night. In the moment, I harkened back to when Aziz Ansari made a similarly-themed joke at the Golden Globes, only to be proven wrong when Tambor lost. That didn’t happen here, and again Kimmel’s gamble paid off because of something that couldn’t be planned.

But despite Kimmel’s impressive batting average as host, the speeches — these speeches! — were what made the 2016 Emmys outstanding. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, after show-stopping bits after past wins, went against expectations and used her fifth Emmy for “Veep” to honor her recently departed father. After her second consecutive win for directing “Transparent,” Jill Soloway got the crowd going when she called for everyone to “Topple the patriarchy!” Alan Yang, who won along with Aziz Ansari for writing “Master of None,” spoke genuinely about the need for more (and better) Asian representation in Hollywood. Jeffrey Tambor, always an excellent speaker and fearless advocate, made a passionate, self-sacrificing plea for trans actors to play trans characters, saying “I would not be unhappy if I was the last cisgender male to play a trans female on television. We have work to do.”

And all this happened within the first hour of the broadcast.

While it may have been hard to top Louis-Dreyfus and Tambor, Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance made sure everyone watching would remember them — in the best way — even if they hadn’t seen “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” Rami Malek’s stunned reaction to winning (despite being a slim favorite) won over the crowd, especially when he began by saying, “Please tell me you’re seeing this, too.”

And we still haven’t mentioned Louie Anderson, Kate McKinnon, Regina King or David Mandel, not to mention the endearing amount of muted swearing throughout the show. (Soloway, McKinnon, Mandel and even Kyle Chandler, during his clip from “Bloodline,” were all censored.) The overall impression of the speeches alone made the 2016 Emmys extraordinary, and, while such earnest candor and original voices can’t be relied upon each year, the ceremony as a whole would continue to benefit from a similar brand of courage.

Grade: A-

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