Okay, take a deep breath and say it out loud: That was actually kind of good.
Every year, the Emmys finds a way to infuriate us. Favorite shows get snubbed. Beloved icons get left out of the “In Memorium” tribute. A winner cries too much during an acceptance speech – or fails to cry enough. The host is too tame, or too old, or just a little too Ricky Gervais. We love to complain about the Emmys because it makes us feel like we’re smarter than those out-of-touch Academy voters who rubber-stamp Modern Family onto the ballot whenever nobody’s looking.
But this year, that changed. Suddenly, the most infuriating thing about the ceremony was that it didn’t give us anything to be infuriated about. The Emmys opened the vote to a wider selection of the Academy’s membership, hoping that it might better reflect the shows and performances that deserved to be honored, and it did. Viola Davis made history as the first black woman to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Jon Hamm finally earned an Emmy after being overlooked eight times. Veep broke Modern Family’s de facto winning streak. Tracy Morgan even made an emotional return to the stage, marking his first appearance in front of a live audience since he was critically injured in a car crash last year. If viewers were outraged by anything, it was that a certain farewell montage spoiled the series finale of every major show they’d never gotten around to finishing. C’mon, Academy! You’ve totally ruined Hot in Cleveland for us.
Somehow, though, even that spoiler-y montage was a positive sign. It meant that the Academy was finally catering to TV geeks like us, the kind of obsessives who probably already knew what happened during those final moments of Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, The Newsroom, and The Daily Show. (Hint: Everybody except Jon Stewart died.) And the night’s host, Andy Samberg, wisely geared his comedy toward the superfans, too, trusting us to understand inside jokes about, say, a certain sex act from the last season of Girls, or a favorite catchphrase uttered by the mean nun from Game of Thrones. (“Shame! Shame! Shame!”) He opened with a spot-on tribute to the familiar problem of peak TV, a pre-recorded musical number that found him locking himself in a bunker to watch “every damn show” out there, including (gasp!) Castle. He wasn’t particularly provocative or edgy, but he was charming, and at his best, he could be refreshingly weird. His best bit involved getting Tatiana Maslany and Tony Hale to fight over a can of beans on the red carpet.
For the fangirls and fanboys watching at home, there was only one possible (if begrudging) verdict about Samberg: we accept him, one of us. So viewers found other things to get worked up about. Grrr, Amy Poehler lost to the still-incredibly-funny Julia Louis-Dreyfus! Blast those voters for passing over Mad Men in favor of a slightly uneven but still compulsively watchable season of Game of Thrones! When Olive Kitteridge cleaned up in the Limited Series categories with six Emmys, Twitter exploded with reminders from indignant critics who’d been telling you to watch this miniseries way before the Academy caught on. (Cough, cough!) When Veep swept the major comedy categories, including Outstanding Comedy Series, you could feel the backlash building against one of the best-written and best-acted comedies on television. “Me this year: ‘This is awesome, Veep is winning everything!” my colleague Darren Franich joked. “Me next year: ‘Ugh, not again, Veep always wins everything!’”
The good news? The real backlash was reserved for far more important issues. For Samberg, that meant critiquing the Academy’s smugness about this so-called “most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history.”
“Congratulations, Hollywood, you did it!” he cracked. “Racism is over – don’t fact-check that … it’s not always saying that much. I bet on the day of Jackie Robinson’s first game, the baseball commissioner was like, ‘This year’s Brooklyn Dodgers are more diverse than ever!’” And no one spoke to the serious implications behind that joke more eloquently than Davis. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said in an acceptance speech that was just as riveting as her performance on How to Get Away With Murder. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers… who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”
Presenters Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler also helped skewer any industry back-patting over diversity. “What an exciting two-to-four hours for women in comedy!” Poehler exclaimed, while Schumer thanked Hollywood for “celebrating hilarious women… and letting the internet weigh in on who looks the worst.” And yet, their sarcasm didn’t make it any less powerful when two women, Transparent’s Jill Soloway and Olive Kitteridge’s Lisa Cholodenko, won Emmys for directing, a field that’s overwhelmingly dominated by men, or when Soloway used her speech to note that there are still 32 states with laws on the books that would allow landlords to refuse to rent an apartment to a trans person. “We don’t have a trans tipping point yet,” she said. “We have a trans civil rights problem.” Soloway to America: Shame! Shame! Shame!
So, where is that mean nun from Game of Thrones when you really need her? Well, it’s likely that even she is less outraged than she used to be. This was a great night for Game of Thrones. Not only did the show triumph in the Outstanding Drama category, it also earned Emmys for best supporting actor (Peter Dinklage), writing (David Benioff and Dan Weiss) and direction (David Nutter), racking up 12 Emmys and making history with more awards won in a single year than any other show. “Thank you for believing in dragons,” said Benioff during his acceptance speech. It was the perfect send-off for a surprisingly funny, poignant show. Thank you, Academy, for making us believe in another thing we used to think was imaginary: an Emmys ceremony that mostly got things right.