With every awards show, there are a few inevitabilities. One is that a random presenter, winner, or sketch participant will be such a hit that viewers immediately ask, “Hey, why isn’t [insert person’s name here] hosting the Emmys?” This year, that scene-stealer was Conan O’Brien. From his raucous welcome for Television Academy Chairman and CEO Frank Scherma, to his crestfallen response to John Oliver’s acceptance speech (props to Chrissy Shackelford for sharing her recently procured Emmy statue with her saddened tablemate), and how he randomly joined Stephen Colbert’s crew on-stage as the most enthusiastic non-winner of the night — Conan, as they say, was on.
But even if CBS somehow had the foresight to hire the outgoing nightly late-night titan (and soon-to-be weekly late-night host), then there would’ve been one less person of color featured in the Primetime Emmys’ spotlight — and this year’s show needed far more than it got.
Early in Sunday night’s ceremony, fears of #EmmySoWhite started to percolate on social media, and by the time Cedric the Entertainer wrapped the three-plus hour show, not one person of color won any acting trophies. To say that’s disappointing is an understatement. Not only did the Emmy nominations reach record highs in diversity, but two landmark programs — Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” and Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” — have been consistently hailed as TV’s best for the past year. Yet Jenkins’ adaptation was completely shut out (and none of the cast members were nominated), while Coel’s ended up winning two Emmys.
Coel’s win on Sunday embodied much of what worked and what didn’t about the CBS telecast. When her name was called (for Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series), the room erupted in a standing ovation, and Coel strode to the stage to deliver a personal, invigorating, and succinct message to the millions of people watching. “Visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success. Do not be afraid to disappear — from it, from us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence,” she said. “I dedicate this story to every single survivor of sexual assault.” Reading from a small slip of paper, Coel needed only 53 seconds to remind the room why she deserved the award she just won.
Over the course of nearly three-and-a-half minutes, the winner who preceded Coel seemed to be asking the Television Academy to take his trophy back. Scott Frank, who directed Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” plowed through two music cues meant to politely bring his speech to an end, refusing to step down before he thanked everyone on his lengthy pre-written list. On the one hand, this is his moment, and as Governor’s Award winner Debbie Allen illustrated minutes earlier (when she said, “Honey, turn that clock off, I ain’t paying no attention to it”), you have to make the most of your moment. On the other hand, Frank wasn’t receiving a lifetime achievement award (like Allen); he was one of 28 winners to take the stage on Sunday, and there was nothing about his particular honor that merited using that much more time than everyone else.
The time Frank took for himself had to be saved later, even if it meant playing off Kate Winslet or Stephen Colbert (with star of the night, Conan O’Brien!), and that, in a nutshell, is how it felt watching the 2021 Emmy Awards. Sometimes, stars would pop up and provide an exciting respite from the doldrums of a very average, very broad show filled with far too many old, white faces. Why am I watching an extended bit with Scott Bakula, Jason Alexander, and Dr. Fucking Phil about long-suffering Emmy losers (all of which were white), when there are so many more prescient Emmy losers I’d love to hear from at the ceremony? (Now, do I think Barry Jenkins, Mj Rodriguez, and Carl Clemons-Hopkins want to do a similar bit on live TV? Hell no, but figuring out a way to recognize these enticing creative minds during the broadcast — or simply talking about their work — would’ve been far better than this weird reminder of yesteryear.)
But, lest we forget, this is a CBS broadcast. The Eye has long banked on attracting audiences with light programming filled with aging stars in broadly appealing archetypes: Cop shows, multi-cam sitcoms, Chuck Lorre comedies, reality TV, and football dominate its programming, so a revolutionary Emmy telecast would’ve been the biggest surprise of the night (yes, even more than Ewan McGregor winning for “Halston,” a show I can assure you does exist). Instead, the 2021 Emmys were more of a traditional telecast, presumably built to succeed a) as a return to “normal,” following all those pandemic/Zoom awards shows, and b) by avoiding the risks taken by the last major awards show with a red carpet and in-person guests, the Oscars. So Cedric the Entertainer (star of CBS’ “The Neighborhood,” which got way more plugs than anyone could’ve anticipated) did a bit about the fly on Mike Pence’s head and another about Tom Brady’s post-Super Bowl party. Were they painfully unfunny? Yes. Were they immediately recognizable to anyone who’s watched TV in the last year? Also yes.
Cliff Lipson / CBS
And sometimes, the broad comedy worked. The opening sing-a-long, with lyrics reworked from the late Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” blasted a catchy song in a tight venue filled with clustered tables of giddy celebrities. The ensuing mob, led by multiple singers including Cedric, LL Cool J, and Lil Dicky (Dave Burd), brought excellent energy to the first third of the telecast. Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein practically exploded when they won the first “Ted Lasso” Emmys, and the show was all the better for their screaming, swearing vitality. (Even Seth Rogen’s immediate acknowledgement that “there are too many people in this room!” helped buoy the show’s spirit at first, although all his fears-in-jest were very, very valid!)
Therein lies another awards show inevitability: No matter how much they may have wanted to, CBS producers weren’t allowed to pick the winners. Otherwise, you better believe Michael K. Williams would’ve taken home his (posthumous) Emmy for “Lovecraft Country,” Lorne Michaels wouldn’t have been allowed near a microphone (not just because “SNL” is a dull winner, but because of longstanding broadcast rivalries), and “WandaVision” would’ve won something, maybe even many things, rather than being completely blanked. CBS also doesn’t want any more questions about diversity coming its way — even though it’s the Emmy voters who ultimately awarded zero actors of color during the Primetime Emmys, they still did so on this network.
What worked about this year’s ceremony were the stars — Jean Smart, Jason Sudeikis, Olivia Colman, and Kate Winslet all delivered memorable moments, and props to Lucia Aniello and Jessica Hobbs for becoming the first two women in Emmy history to win the Comedy and Drama directing trophies, respectively — but there was no special sauce covering the whole of the 2021 Emmys to distinguish it for anything good. The bits were mostly bad, the presentation ran from “pretty standard” to amateurish (so many masked people backstage crossed in front of the camera), and only a handful of winning shows commanded all the attention. (Twelve series were represented at the Primetime Emmys, compared to 14 in 2020 and 18 in 2019.)
This year’s Emmys will likely go down as another reminder that we need to do better; we need to watch television told by an array of distinct voices, we need to talk about that television, and we need to use those conversations to pressure the powers that be to open their minds and embrace all that TV has to offer. There’s more out there than “The Crown,” “Ted Lasso,” and “The Queen’s Gambit.” The Television Academy needs to do a better job of recognizing that, just as whatever network is broadcasting the Emmy Awards needs to work harder to craft a unique ceremony. Otherwise, why should anyone watch? We all need to do better — except Conan. He nailed it.
The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards were broadcast Sunday, September 19 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. The ceremony can be viewed on-demand via Paramount+.