TV won’t feel the full effects of the 2016 election until next year’s Emmy nominations. The shows that were in contention this year were already in production or wrapped long before the first few weeks of November played out.
The one exception has been the talk show world. As late night took a noticeable swing towards the political, some of these shows’ best work often followed. On Emmy nominations morning, that shift helped the category get it right for the first time in a while.
After a resurgence in viewership and a warmer embrace of the kind of comedy that used to fuel the host’s previous show, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” was a shoo-in. Popularity in viewers doesn’t necessarily translate to Emmys success, but for a legion of fans who had missed the “Colbert Report”-style pieces that this “Late Show” had initially been reticent to embrace, this year’s Emmys host was always going to be in the mix.
One of last year’s most inexplicable omissions, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” built on its early success with an election season of fierce writing and shrewd reporting. Aside from the Herzog-inspired campaign field pieces, the show continues to do great work in non-election areas, namely in their pieces about unprocessed rape kits and evidence collection.
This is only the third year for the Variety Talk category, but even in that short time period, there have been a few shows that established themselves as the new regulars. Making way for the new kids on the block meant that each of those two-time nominees would have a hard time all continuing their streaks.
Though “Last Week Tonight” has largely kept the same format over the course of its multi-year run, as an established favorite and last year’s winner, there was no way that it was going to drop from these ranks. The only thing that would have worked against it was its immediate hiatus right after the election results came in. Even though Seth Meyers did much to fill that void while he was gone, when the show came back, it doubled down on its ability to find other vital stories beyond the DC bubble.
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” got an added boost from two telecasts that had nothing to do with the show: last year’s Emmys and this year’s Oscars. Having Kimmel front and center at those award shows gave him a chance to make an impression on voters who might not have otherwise tuned in to late night. Kimmel’s heartfelt monologue about the health of his newborn son also gave the show a human element to add to the pranks that usually give “JKL” viral clicks. It’s a moment that our Michael Schneider argued was the most Letterman-esque from any host since Dave retired.
“Real Time with Bill Maher,” a perennial favorite during the era when Sketch and Talk were fused into one category, has never been one to skirt controversy. It’s baffling (and somewhat fitting) to now see that his recent use of the N-word on his show seemingly had no effect on his voting bloc.
All of this left one clear odd man out: Jimmy Fallon. If the backlash to the “Tonight Show” Trump appearances weren’t going to sink its chances, having two powerhouse CBS shows crowding the field certainly wasn’t helping either.
“The Tonight Show” ouster from this category is an indication that even in the Emmys world, the show is getting beat at its own game. James Corden has a stranglehold on the party game, engineered-for-Facebook-shares demographic. And among fans of the genre, it isn’t even the most popular late night showing its own network. Balancing carefully constructed pieces that ultimately trend and indulging in the goofy every now and then, “Late Night with Seth Meyers” is arguably the most consistent show on broadcast. (Having “Late Night” miss out on this round of nominees is the only oversight that keeps us from declaring this category an equivocal success.)
As these shows’ scripted counterparts begin the long journey to reconciling their series with a different cultural landscape, maybe the necessity for political commentary from late night hosts will be diffused out among the rest of TV programming. In the meantime, these nominees show where in-the-moment comedy is for the time being.