The Emmys 2022 Needed More Wins Like Sheryl Lee Ralph’s

Recall a few years ago when Phoebe Waller-Bridge, upon accepting her third Emmy of the night for Fleabag, said with a big, slightly embarrassed smile, “Now this is getting ridiculous!” The Emmys tend to go all in on their favorite shows—nearly the entire casts of Schitt’s Creek or Ted Lasso winning, or a multi-hyphenate like Waller-Bridge hitting the stage over and over again. In an era of too much TV, the Television Academy decided a while ago to settle on a few favorites and call it a day.

This doesn’t make for riveting TV. And it felt like the Emmys 2022 broadcast, hosted by an amiable Kenan Thompson, was more aware of this reality than usual, maybe, in both its production and its set of victors. To the latter point, there was no Crown-level sweep; the most acting trophies that any show won was two, in The White Lotus and Ted Lasso; while most of the shows that always win won again, including Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, one streak was finally broken when Lizzo’s freshman Prime Video hit Watch Out for the Big Grrrls dethroned four-time reality-competition champ RuPaul’s Drag Race. But the ceremony also moved at a weird clip. As if anticipating hearing the same walk-up music over and over again, as has happened in years past—will we ever get the Schitt’s Creek theme song out of our heads?—a newly installed DJ played a bizarre, often discordant collection of top 40 hits from the past to welcome winners to their big moment. Who could have anticipated Succession writer Jesse Armstrong claiming his latest Emmy amid “Shake Your Booty”?

The Emmys are always in some state of crisis; this year, they barely tried to hide it. Thompson’s America’s Best Dance Crew-esque opening number felt eerily out of date. There was an animated Simpson’s bit—talk about out of date—at the ceremony’s (non-bar) bar set that got recycled for bad jokes a few more times. Winners were played off more egregiously than usual; given too little time to bring on a translator, for the Squid Game winners, say, or in the case of Jennifer Coolidge, barely giving her a second before cranking the play-off music up. Fortunately, it was Coolidge running long, so effortlessly, brilliantly funny that she turned the poor production into the best bit of the night, complete with a bracing “I’m full” utterance and a delightful dance off the stage. 

Thank God for the winners, indeed. They are why we watch awards shows and for the most part they delivered—a reminder that, even at the Emmys’ most redundant or sloppy, good TV can come out of giving actors shiny things. Sheryl Lee Ralph’s bracing win for comedy supporting-actress was a huge surprise in and of itself, but that had nothing on her astonishing speech—the best I’ve ever seen at the Emmys, and maybe any awards show. The speech crystallized what the Emmys—which at their best often honor the work of great actors too outside of what Hollywood deems mainstream to become movie stars—should be about. A veteran of show business, a certified legend of stage and screen, finally getting her big spotlight. You hear “never give up” from these types all the time; when Ralph said it, you couldn’t help but feel inspired.

There was Lizzo’s rousing big win, too, which smashed through the dullness settling in as the pop superstar cheered her show’s dancers on, with the kind of enthusiasm and joy you rarely see at these things. Jerrod Carmichael carries a bluntness when it comes to awards—which I first encountered in an interview with him this past spring—and as he won for variety-special writing, he once more proved so refreshingly candid. (Tonight’s money line: “I wanted to win. I’m happy that I won.”) Squid Game’s director Hwang Dong-hyuk spoke gorgeously and concisely about history being made in the room, and of carrying that momentum into inviting more non-English-language shows to the party. Michael Keaton won his first major industry award—how is that possible?—and spoke knowingly, winkingly, profanely of his career highs and lows. Mike White managed to be interesting for each of his three White Lotus wins, first tearfully honoring his father, then delivering a stellar Survivor metaphor (if you know, you know), and finally, awkwardly, somewhat sarcastically remembering to thank HBO. Jean Smart also did what every great repeat winner should do, ending her speech with a heck of a kicker: “Thank you for the Botox.”

These small moments are why we watch the Emmys. Maybe I’m feeling a little melancholic because the show as a whole felt like such a downer. Thompson disappeared, as hosts often do—but especially so, all but yielding the floor to announcer Sam Jay at the halfway point. The network promo also felt more egregious than usual, between all of the Peacock and La Brea and SNL alumni. For every thrilling Quinta Brunson writing win (Jimmy Kimmel nonsense aside), there was a repeat. It’s hard to argue with Smart and Zendaya and Julia Garner and Jason Sudeikis winning individually, but collectively, getting in the way of folks like Brunson, Melanie Lynskey, Rhea Seehorn, and the Only Murders duo leaves so little room for spontaneity and surprise on stage—the Sheryl Lee Ralph effect, if you will. There’s no freshness in the way the Academy assesses the TV landscape. 

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