As the marketing campaign says, the Emmys are « television’s biggest night. » Sept. 22, 2019, marked the 71st time that TV’s biggest and brightest creators, performers, and craftspeople gathered in Hollywood to give each other awards for outstanding achievement on the small screen. It’s a more prestigious — and competitive — award than ever, what with the extremely high quality (and volume) of « Peak TV » and the number of players in the game, including broadcast networks, cable channels, and streaming services. The big winners of the night? Amazon’s Fleabag, which took home outstanding comedy series and lead actress in a comedy series for Phoebe Waller-Bridge; and HBO’s Game of Thrones, which was named outstanding drama series one last time for its final season.
Additionally, the three-hour broadcast featured a lot of exhilarating highs and plenty of disappointing lows. Here are the biggest Emmy « winners » and « losers » of 2019. (And we’re not talking about who did and didn’t take home a trophy.)
Best: Bob Newhart lives
Big-time movie star Ben Stiller was in the house at this TV awards show to represent for his nominated Showtime miniseries Escape at Dannemora. That’s the rare dramatic product from Stiller, who made his name with silly, sharp comedies. Near the beginning of the 2019 Emmys broadcast, the actor-director showed up to wax nostalgic about the history of TV comedy, walking past creepily realistic statues of legends George Burns and Lucille Ball.
However, as Stiller moved on to ’70s sitcoms, he approached a very realistic, scowling statue of the great Bob Newhart. « What would Bob think today, if he could see how the rules had changed? » Stiller said (via The Washington Post). But then Stiller got cut off — the Newhart statue was, of course, the real Newhart, and had already gotten cheers and laughter for the slightest eye movement and expression change.
« Ben, I’m still alive, » he implored. Stiller claimed to be aware of this, but Newhart noted that couldn’t have been true, as his younger counterpart placed him in « some weird wax museum of comedy. » Stiller backtracked, explaining it was a tribute to both dead and alive legends of comedy. « This legend is going to kick your a**, » the generally subtle and subdued Newhart quipped to the sheer delight of the audience. « That way you’ll know I’m alive. »
Worst: The hosts who didn’t host
The 2019 Emmys didn’t have a host, but somebody had to kick off the show. At the top of the broadcast, an announcer introduced the supposed « host, » longtime cartoon fave Homer Simpson. He managed to get a few lines out, only for a piano to fall on him with a painful « d’oh! » This sent Black-ish star Anthony Anderson into a panic — not because Homer Simpson had, you know, died, but because the Emmys so desperately needed a host. Anderson could do it, but no, he instead rushed backstage (repeatedly and arbitrarily assuring Taraji P. Henson that everything was going to be okay) to find some other person who could host.
After bringing in his mother to stuff a bunch of Emmy statuettes into her bag, Anderson convinced beloved Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston to host. Anderson’s portion of the opening segment was over, and so was, for better or worse, the comic tone of the proceedings up to that point. Cranston took to a darkened stage to deliver in complete and total seriousness a maudlin monologue about how TV is a good thing.
Best: Alex Borstein steps out of line
In 2018, Alex Borstein won an Emmy for her work on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as tough comedy manager Susie Myerson, and gave one of the most memorable speeches of the night. She started with a quip — « I went without the bra. What a platform. » Then she got a bit deeper, thanking her father for being « the only man who has ever truly loved and taken care of me. » The following year, Borstein repeated this cycle — the win for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the opening quip, and a fantastic acceptance speech … but one that was emotional, extraordinarily profound, and which could launch a social movement.
« I know a lot of people were upset last year because I wasn’t wearing a bra, so I want to apologize because tonight I’m not wearing any underwear, » Borstein started (via E! News). After thanking her Maisel associates, she mentioned her mother and her grandparents. « They are immigrants, they are Holocaust survivors, » she continued. « My grandmother was in line to be shot into a pit and she said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ He said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you but somebody will’ and she stepped out of line and for that I am here and my children are here. » Borstein added, « So step out of line, ladies, step out of line. » Simply amazing.
Worst: Tom Lennon has something to say
The host-less 2019 Emmys still needed some kind of connective tissue to move the show along. That through-line: humorous commentary from TV veteran Thomas Lennon while winners walked up to the stage and when the broadcast threw to a commercial break. Make no mistake, Thomas Lennon is an extremely funny guy — he was part of MTV’s The State and he co-created and starred on Comedy Central’s Reno 911! after all. But Lennon’s bizarre, even absurd jokes, often about the winner’s hometown, didn’t mesh with the tone of the ceremony.
« Ben Whishaw’s name is an onomatopoeia for when a handsome British person passed you on a bicycle, » Lennon joked about the A Very English Scandal winner (via Vulture). It felt downright inappropriate and uncomfortable when Lennon cracked wise about performers from serious and tragic material. When Jharrel Jerome won for his role in When They See Us, Lennon made a quip about the actor’s attendance at a performing arts high school, « A place where if you want fame, you literally pay for classes in sweat. Bottles of sweat. »
Lennon’s hit-and-mostly-miss presence felt like a snarky guy in the viewer’s living room, and not even part of the broadcast.
Best: Nobody saw this coming
Maya Rudolph — a delight on Saturday Night Live and The Good Place — is a national treasure, and she comprised one-half of the best presenter duo of the 2019 Emmys. Her partner? Ike Barinholtz, the increasingly famous scene-stealer from Blockers and The Mindy Project. The duo tentatively walked out on stage, their vision impaired by gigantic wrap-around sunglasses, which it turned out they were wearing because they claimed to have underwent corrective Lasik surgery earlier in the day. They removed the glasses, and while Barinholtz apparently found the bright lights very painful, Rudolph apparently lost almost all sight whatsoever.
But still, they had a job to do, and they struggled mightily and hilariously to read off a teleprompter the names of the nominees for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series. Or, as Rudolph interpreted it, the « nimrods for dead ascot in a chocolate staircase. » Those six guys: « Bart Handmouth » (Bill Hader), « Dan Chowder » (Don Cheadle), « Abraham Aluminum » (Anthony Anderson), « Mickey Two-Times » (Michael Douglas), « Schecky Von Bullwinkle III » (Eugene Levy) … and Ted Danson.
Worst: The Kardashians couldn’t keep up
Almost all of Emmys presented on TV recognize achievement in scripted programming — drama, comedy, and limited series. It’s a world that pretends TV is comprised primarily of prestigious fare like Russian Doll and Succession, and not stagey, drama-filled, guilty pleasure reality shows like Keeping Up the Kardashians that fill up the schedules of dozens of cable channels. That kind of thing doesn’t have a place at the Emmys, perhaps because the writers, actors, and directors of the high-brow scripted stuff resent and look down on their reality TV cohorts. That tension was palpable when Keeping Up with the Kardashians‘ Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner came out on the Emmys stage to present the award for outstanding competition program.
« Our family knows first-hand that compelling television comes from real people being themselves, » Kardashian said. « Telling their stories unfiltered and unscripted, » Jenner added. Now, there’s a possibility that these two reality stars were in on the joke — a wink and a nod to the open-secret of the artifice of reality TV. But that doesn’t seem likely. Neither woman’s stoic expression changed at all to indicate they were kidding around, and the audience responded in kind — with almost total silence. A handful of titters rose up from the crowd, however, showing that who did laugh were laughing not with the Kardashians but at them, and their perceived lack of self-awareness.
Best: Billy Porter’s triumphant speech
Arriving in a shiny, pinstriped suit and an asymmetrical Stetson, Billy Porter was already among the « best dressed » at the 2019 Emmys. With his win for the groundbreaking FX series Pose, Porter became the first openly gay African-American man to win the Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series, according to the Los Angeles Times. Porter’s performance as early ’90s ballroom emcee Pray Tell hit one of its high points in the episode for which he won, wherein his HIV-positive character turns in a emotional musical performance at an AIDS benefit.
Porter’s Emmy acceptance speech was also deeply stirring, empowering, and inspiring. « I am so overwhelmed and I am so overjoyed to have lived long enough to see this day, » Porter began. « It took many years of vomiting up all the filth that I had been taught about myself and halfway believed before I could walk around this Earth like I had the right to be here. I have the right. You have the right. We all have the right. » He went on to encourage his fellow artists to keep making provocative, thoughtful television. « We are the people who get to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people who live on this planet. Please don’t ever stop doing that, please don’t ever stop telling the truth. » By the point the audience was on their feet — the one in person, and probably in lots of homes, too.
Worst: The variety number didn’t wow
Major televised awards ceremonies like to break up the monotony of presenter banter/names of nominees/acceptance speeches with a big, showstopping number. The 2019 Emmys gave it a try, introducing the awards in the variety category with a song-and-dance number. While Variety Emmys used to honor programs like The Carol Burnett Show, today they’re reserved for more modern fare like Saturday Night Liveand Jimmy Kimmel Live!
It felt a little awkward to recognize the present-day nominees with a throwback to the way things used to be — the bit was a tribute to the concept of variety television, but except for the presence of a character from The Masked Singer (which reeked of advertising by broadcaster Fox), this was very much a number about old-time variety. (Well, there was that out-of-nowhere sight gag of someone wearing a Meryl Streep mask, but that was just creepy.)
And sure, the segment offered a choreographed dance sequence by performers in flashy costumes, led by a very game star. But why did that job fall to Adam DeVine? In a room full of actors and actresses who can also sing and dance, why did the Emmys hire the Workaholics star who is not really known for his singing? In the end, the number wasn’t earnest enough to be nostalgic, and it wasn’t funny enough to be ironic.
Best: Jodie Comer’s surprise win
BBC America’s Killing Eve was one of the hottest dramas of the year, and yet another achievement in the resume of newly-minted Emmys darling Phoebe Waller-Bridge — the Emmy-winning Fleabag star and creator wrote and produced the first season of this thrilling, oddly funny, cat-and-mouse, catch-the-killer show that’s also a psychological study of the intimate interplay between an intelligence agent and an assassin.
Both Killing Eve leads earned nominations for outstanding actress in a drama: Sandra Oh as intelligence agent Eve Polastri and Jodie Comer as killer Villanelle. If anyone from Killing Eve was going to win the Emmy, it was probably going to be Oh — a beloved actress and multiple nominee in her Grey’s Anatomy days and a Golden Globe winner for Killing Eve earlier in 2019. In a pleasant twist, Comer won the Emmy. Seemingly stunned, she walked up to the stage to accept her award, only to stop to give Oh a sweet hug. Her speech was just as charming as she made Villanelle. Overwhelmed with gratitude, she thanked her cast and crew and also mentioned that she didn’t fly her parents out to see the Emmys live, because she thought she had no chance of winning. Oops.
Worst: A weird way to say goodbye
Weeks before the 71st Annual Emmy Awards broadcast, organizers announced that if the show went host-free, they’d have more time to devote to tributes to landmark TV shows that wrapped up in the 2018-19 season. The way the Emmys chose to do that was, well, awkward.
At different points in the show, the stage was given over to the large casts of both Veep and Game of Thrones, who entered in little groups via several oversized arches. Then they all came together as one and then just kind of stood around. The vast majority of the Veep crew remained silent, allowing star Julia Louis-Dreyfus to speak. The only time another actor spoke was during a weak bit where Louis-Dreyfus acted like she was her character, Selina Meyer, and pretended not to know the actual name of co-star Timothy Simons. It was a weak send-off for a classic series, and a similar situation for the Game of Thrones cast, introduced by Seth Meyers for some reason.
One of the most monumental and popular shows ever, at least each cast member got the chance to speak … although in scripted, generic platitudes about how Game of Thrones was good. (And oddly enough, the farewell didn’t include Isaac Hempstead Wright, the guy who played Bran Stark, a.k.a. the one who actually won that game of thrones.)