The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards opened Monday night with a little soft-shoe self-deprecation, a semi-musical number called “We Solved It,” in which a chorus of television stars claimed that their industry’s diversity problem had been overcome — until RuPaul arrived with the news that no, they’d jumped the gun
Not content to say it in song, the show then emphasized the point by handing out its first 10 awards, and 22 out of 26 overall, to white performers, directors, writers and producers. The host Michael Che made a joke about it after six awards, James Corden after nine. The tension and embarrassment in the Microsoft Theater were palpable when an African-American, Regina King, finally won, for best actress in a limited series in Netflix’s “Seven Seconds.”
Meanwhile, the evening — beginning with that musty, tinny, only slightly funny production number — was proving another and more immediate negative: that the Television Academy and NBC hadn’t solved the problem of how to make the Emmys broadcast funny, vibrant and relevant in the peak-TV era.
That the show was more self-congratulatory and backward looking than usual could be blamed partly on its 70th anniversary status, which occasioned a short film montage of Emmys history and a long, charming but not otherwise necessary appearance by the 96-year-old Betty White.
The show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, won an award for “Saturday Night Live” and ended his acceptance speech with a dig at those who have predicted the demise of the broadcast networks, still the home of the major awards shows. “Here we are,” he said, accepting one of the broadcast networks’ only two awards, the other going to the director of the Oscars. The networks may have been the one significant group to do worse on the night than people of color.
Glenn Weiss, the winner for direction of a special for the Oscars telecast, did his best to liven things up by using his acceptance to propose to his girlfriend, Jan Svendsen, who cooperated by coming to the podium and tearfully accepting. (Mr. Weiss doubled down on the personal-business trend the “Harry Potter” director John Tiffany started at the Tony Awards, when he led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to his boyfriend.)
A couple of tweaks to the usual award show format jointly contributed to the broadcast’s anemic feel. Separating the awards by category — so that all the comedy, limited-series and drama awards, except for outstanding series, were presented in succession — robbed the evening of some of its texture and suspense. The “Mrs. Maisel” sweep was apparent within the show’s opening half-hour, making the show’s outstanding comedy award a few hours later an anticlimax.
The decision to have the nominees’ names read in prerecorded voice-overs may have saved time, and reduced the possibility of gaffes and mispronunciations by the presenters. But it, too, sucked tension out of the proceedings, and the abrupt shifts from the presenters’ patter to the announcements of the winners were jarring. (It also tended to highlight the banality of most of the patter.)
At a time of cataclysmic change in the country and in the TV industry, it’s an accomplishment of a perverse kind to put on an awards broadcast that feels flat, inessential and, despite its insistent topicality, out of touch. It felt appropriate that the night’s big finish was an award for a show, “Game of Thrones,” that hadn’t had a new episode for over a year.