Review: Emmy Awards Showcase TV’s Cultural Dominance and Trump Jokes

September 20, 2016

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You’ll have to excuse television if it’s feeling a little powerful right now. Maybe a little too powerful. The medium dominates conversations while film buffs are arguing whether the movies are dying. There are ever more scripted series — a record 409 last year — and more outlets to put them on.
And as the host Jimmy Kimmel reminded us at Sunday night’s Emmy Awards on ABC, a prime-time personality is close to running the whole show in America — even if that wasn’t a point of pride to the host or to much of the crowd.
“If it wasn’t for television, would Donald Trump be running for president?” Mr. Kimmel asked in a scathing run of jokes, pointing out the producer of “The Apprentice” in the audience. “Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore, because we’re living in one.”

The cultural ubiquity of TV was a theme of the night, and so was the tension between the night’s crowd of stars and winners and the TV entertainer who’s dominated the year’s nonfiction programming.
It started with the opening sketch, in which Mr. Kimmel hitched a ride to the ceremony with several celebrities. Among them was Jeb Bush, one of several Republicans defenestrated by Mr. Trump, who said that he was now driving for Uber. “If you run a positive campaign, voters will ultimately make the right choice,” Mr. Bush said, adding, “That was a joke.”
He wasn’t the only one joking about Mr. Trump, however ruefully. The comedian Aziz Ansari, of Netflix’s “Master of None,” declared that he was going to enforce Mr. Trump’s policies and order Muslims and Hispanics out of the audience. “America Ferrera?” he said to the actress. “Nice try changing your name to ‘America.’ You’re not fooling anybody!”
As expected, it was a big night for FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” a limited series that, like the campaign, represented a powerful synthesis of reality and entertainment.

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The series also exemplified how the Emmys cleared the admittedly low bar of diversity set by the 2016 Oscars, all of whose acting nominees were white. It not only showcased African-American actors — Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown won for lead and supporting — but it also made race (and, through Sarah Paulson’s character, Marcia Clark, gender) a subject.
That was also true of “Master of None,” whose Alan Yang and Mr. Ansari shared a comedy-writing award for an episode about Asian-American immigrant families.
And while the industry still hasn’t achieved parity for female directors, two women won directing awards: Susanne Bier for the limited series “The Night Manager” and Jill Soloway for her comedy “Transparent,” who ended her acceptance speech, “Topple the patriarchy!”
Regarding which, both the lead and supporting comedy acting categories were won by men playing women: Louie Anderson, for a supporting character on “Baskets,” and Jeffrey Tambor, again winning best actor for playing a transgender woman on Ms. Soloway’s series. Mr. Tambor used his acceptance to urge the industry to cast more transgender performers.

It was up to Mr. Kimmel to tweak the high-mindedness of the night. “The only thing we value more than diversity,” he said, “is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.” He’s both the snarkiest of the major networks’ late-night hosts and a TV classicist at heart, the sort of roastmaster and toastmaster who could spike the punchbowl without tipping it completely over.
There was a little shaking up of the drama-lead categories, which both went to first-time winners in tour-de-force performances. Tatiana Maslany won for “Orphan Black,” and Rami Malek quoted his own hallucination-suffering character from “Mr. Robot”: “Please tell me you’re seeing this, too.”
The surprises ended before the night did: exactly as last year, HBO won both best drama for “Game of Thrones” (much-improved as it raced ahead of its source books but not as deserving as FX’s “The Americans”) and best comedy for the political satire “Veep,” which last year broke the hammerlock of “Modern Family” and may now have the category in its own grip.
But you can’t argue that the comedy didn’t feel of the moment. Accepting the award for best lead actress in a comedy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (the star of “Veep”) said that the program “now feels like a sobering documentary.”
At the night’s end, Mr. Kimmel congratulated the awardscast for ending neatly on time: “We finished before the election came!” But as we’ve seen for a while, and the Emmys reminded us, it’s not entirely clear where TV ends and the election begins.