What did we used to watch award shows for? To celebrate talented people winning awards? To gripe about them losing awards to less talented people? To scope the outfits? To gossip and laugh and tear up with friends while eating something unhealthy? The days of the award show as a lark, as an exercise in Hollywood grandiosity and our love-hate relationship to it, seem long gone. Even before the election of Donald Trump, award shows had become the flashpoints of Hollywood’s ongoing failures to diversify, each show either flaunting a failing report card or a self-congratulatory series of small improvements.
Then Donald Trump was elected. Now in addition to judging outfits, we wonder will the host roast the president? Will the winners? Is anyone who doesn't share Hollywood’s reliably liberal politics watching, besides the president? And what will he tweet about it, or have they confiscated his phone? Award shows have always had political moments, but they have not always been so deeply politicized.
This is the new normal for award shows and the 2017 Emmys was no exception. When the president of the United States openly sides with white supremacists, giving awards to people of color, women, and the episode of Black Mirror that is a sweet lesbian sci-fi love story is even more political than it would otherwise be. And then on top of that, there was host Stephen Colbert’s opening song and dance number insulting Trump, a Sean Spicer cameo, and sweeps for Saturday Night Live and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (making Hulu the first streaming service to win the top drama Emmy), to say nothing of victories for Veep and Last Week Tonight, all propelled in some part (and in SNL’s case entirely) by their commentary on the Trump regime. The whole night was in conversation with the president, if not, Colbert’s monologue aside, all that audibly in conversation with the president.
Colbert began the evening by diving right in on Trump, delivering a song and dance number about how “the world is better on TV,” that included the lines “Imagine if your president was not beloved by Nazis!/ The Americans has hotter spies than the Russian inquiry/ Even treason’s better on TV!,” had Chance the Rapper exhorting “I get it, them finales, they got you focused/ Just record the show and try to show up at the protest,” and ended with male and female dancers in Handmaid’s Tale bonnets and sequined outfits shimmying around on stage. His monologue, which didn’t start out about Trump but ramped up to him, ended with a controversial appearance from Sean Spicer that will be the most discussed moment of the night. Should a Trump stooge who willfully went out and lied to the press and the American people be treated as a funny joke? Strictly as a way to irritate the president it was surely effective, but Colbert, who later referred to Spicer as “the Wizard of Lies,” was granting Spicer a kind of immunity in order to get under Trump’s skin.
After the opening number, the Trump references started to dwindle, even as the entire night became a rebuke to Trump’s vision of America. Donald Glover became the first black person to win Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series and the first to win for Best Actor in a Comedy since 1985. Lena Waithe was the first black woman to win for comedy writing (she had also been the first to be nominated), which she did for Master of None’s lovely “Thanksgiving” episode, based on her own experience coming out to her family. Sterling K. Brown, who won last year for his performance in The People v. O.J. Simpson, won best actor in a drama for This Is Us (and was inexcusably played off midspeech). Riz Ahmed won for his performance in The Night Of, becoming the first man of Asian descent to win an acting award. The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reed Morano won for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, the first woman to do so since 1995. Even Big Little Lies, which swept the miniseries awards, was celebrated as an example of female-centric storytelling. Perhaps the least political victor of the night, John Lithgow for The Crown, made a dig at Trump: “[Winston Churchill’s] life reminds us what courage and leadership in government really look like.”
All of these victories were deserved, as were Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd’s for Handmaid’s Tale (Dowd may have gotten an extra push from her righteous work in The Leftovers) and Laura Dern’s and Nicole Kidman’s in Big Little Lies. The quality of the winners, so many for the first time, kept the show moving along nicely, as did Colbert’s extremely capable hosting. But particularly because the winners for The Handmaid’s Tale, buoyed to victory in part because of that fictional dystopia’s resonance with our current moment, kept politics out of their speeches, the Trump rebuke was more implicit than it might have been. Yes, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, on stage with Dolly Parton, compared him to their boss in the movie 9 to 5. “Back in 1980, in that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot. And in 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” they said. But the night ended on this understated note, from The Handmaid Tale’s showrunner Bruce Miller, “Go home, get to work, we have a lot of things to fight for.”