Diversity! “The Handmaid’s Tale!” Julia Louis-Dreyfus!
Umm, Sean Spicer!?
If it’s history you were looking for during the 69th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, then history you found. Black actors won the top award in comedy and drama for the first time in decades. A feminist-dystopic-anti-fantasy won for best drama — and yes, you could certainly say that’s never happened before.
Then, from a technical delivery standpoint that seems almost irrelevant (it’s not), a streaming series upset a field of shows that included a lone broadcast nominee. NBC and CBS once not so long ago utterly dominated the drama category. Sunday night, they lost to a Hulu show.
But diversity was the story of the night. The 67th Emmys had the most diverse slate in Emmy history — 18 nominees of color — and while the 69th Emmys were down slightly (16 nominees of color), the barriers that were finally breached made this awards show remarkable. Lena Waithe was the first black woman to win a comedy writing award (for “Master of None”) which she shared with Aziz Ansari. Donald Glover became the first black man to win for comedy series directing.
And then more records fell: Glover won for best actor in a comedy, joining the loneliest club in all of television. Robert Guillaume, who turns 90 this November, was the last (and only) African-American to win this award back in 1985, as Benson DuBois in “Benson.” Isabel Sanford of “The Jeffersons” remains the only African-American woman to have won an outstanding actress/comedy Emmy.
Sterling K. Brown won the best drama acting award, and for some perspective there: Bill Cosby won three times for “I Spy” in the ’60s, then James Earl Jones (“Gabriel’s Fire,” 1991) and Andre Braugher (“Homicide,” 1998) followed.
What does all this mean and why is it so important? Here’s one reason: That on the eve of its 70th birthday, the Emmys and the industry it represents can be said to have finally turned a corner. Over the years, the Emmys have had no shortage of critics. Too many of the same nominees, too many repeat winners. Less discussed, but long an open secret nonetheless: A huge diversity shortfall. Among just over 500 winners in the major acting categories since 1952 — best actor and actress in a drama or comedy, and best supporting actor and actress in both — just over a dozen have been black, and most in the supporting categories. (The supporting actress in a drama category has been a relative bonanza for African-Americans: five wins, going back to Gail Fisher for “Mannix.”) When Viola Davis won for “How to Get Away with Murder” a couple of years ago, she became the first black actress to win the outstanding actress/drama award.
Diversity has been largely limited to black actors, and Latinos, Asians and American Indians remain hugely unrepresented. One exception on Sunday’s Emmys: Riz Ahmed did make history as the first Asian actor to win in a lead male role in a limited series for his performance in “The Night Of.”
But more diverse roles, more shows with a black writers, directors and producers, and new Emmy rules which have opened up voting to the entire membership have led to a profoundly welcome sea change. On the eve of the 70th, the question probably has to be — how lasting? Seas can be changeable. Nevertheless, the TV Academy knows it, and the industry now knows it too: Diversity and inclusion are here to stay. That’s your biggest headline from Sunday’s historic Emmy night.
Meanwhile, Louis-Dreyfus kept racking them up, affirming (or reaffirming) that the Emmys like nothing better a repeat winner, especially deserving ones. Sunday was her sixth straight win for “Veep,” and eighth win overall. That’s one shy of the record (Cloris Leachman who’s won a total of nine Emmys, which includes a daytime one) but for all intents and purposes, the record was truly and fully breached Sunday. No one has ever won six Emmys in a row for a performance, and as great a comic actress as Leachman is, most of her wins were in minor categories. Louis-Dreyfus is now the Emmy champ, and she still has one season to go on “Veep.”
And ladies and gentlemen, let us also address the surprise entrance of one Sean Spicer, until recently the press secretary to the president — and comic material so potent that the person who lampooned him on “Saturday Night Live” won an Emmy for her performance. “Melissa McCarthy, give it up!” joked host Stephen Colbert as Spicer wheeled in on his motorized podium-Segway. It was arguably the biggest moment of the night and not just because of the jaw-drop value: This represented a singular if fleeting gesture of comedy detente between the Hollywood establishment and the Trump administration. After all, if Spicer could be deployed in service of a sight gag, then just how bad could relations between both camps be?
Reasonably bad, of course. ”I want to thank Trump for making black people No. 1 on the most-oppressed list,” Donald Glover said in accepting his directing award. ”He’s probably the reason I’m up here.” Lily Tomlin came closest with a full-on verbal hit (“we still refuse to be manipulated by a lying, hypocritical bigot”). But otherwise, both host and presenters were surprisingly restrained. There’s a reason for this and it’s called “fatigue.” Trump-bashing at awards shows has become so commonplace that it runs the risk of turning them into something otherwise intended: A celebration of excellence. Sunday night, there was plenty of excellence to be celebrated and for the most part, this telecast and this host got that right as well.