Subtext became text when issues of race, gender and national politics, long a part of Hollywood awards shows, took center stage at the 69th Emmy Awards telecast Sunday night.
“You can’t deny that every show was influenced by Donald Trump in some way,” said host Stephen Colbert in his opening monologue. “All the late night shows, obviously. ‘House of Cards.’ The new season of ‘American Horror Story.’” Pause. “And of course next year’s Latin Grammys, hosted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.”
By tapping Colbert as host, the television academy all but guaranteed that the first Emmy broadcast of the Trump presidency would send a clear message — Colbert’s late-night career was resuscitated by his return to political satire. But it really wasn’t necessary. Sheriff quip aside, Colbert was barely joking.
The winner in the drama category was “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale in which America becomes an theocracy in which dissidents are executed and all women become property.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” which made history when it became the first streaming series to win top drama, swept all the big categories in which it was nominated — writer, director, supporting actress and actress. And every one of those winners was played onto the stage at the Microsoft Theater by the 1960s Lesley Gore hit “You Don’t Own Me,” which meant the orchestra played that song a lot.
Most of the evening’s other big winners were from shows with strong, or fresh, viewpoints on other topics being argued across Fox, MSNBC, Twitter and at any extended family gathering.
Donald Glover became the first black director to win in the comedy category, for “Atlanta,” the FX show in which he plays Earn, a rap music manager and young father. When he won his second Emmy of the night, in the acting category, he was just as direct as Colbert.
“I want to thank Trump for making black people No. 1 on the most oppressed list,” he said. “He’s probably the only reason I’m up here.”
Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, who spent the last year playing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, respectively, on “Saturday Night Live,” won supporting actor and actress in a comedy series. “SNL,” which had its best season in years, won four Emmys on Sunday.
With the Creative Arts Emmy tally, it was the top winning show of the night and the excitement over “SNL’s” renaissance was palpable from the telecast’s opening minutes, during which Melissa McCarthy rode onstage atop a rolling podium dressed as former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a role she won an Emmy for this year as well.
Except, in the most striking collision of entertainment and politics since the former host of “The Apprentice” took office, it wasn’t McCarthy, it was actually Spicer.
Colbert asked him how big he estimated the Emmy crowd to be: “This is the largest audience to witness the Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world!” said Spicer, referring to his now infamous news conference defending Trump’s exaggerations about his inauguration crowd.
“Melissa McCarthy,” joked Colbert. “Everybody give it up!”
Howls erupted from the audience, which included McCarthy, who did not seem amused.
It was impossible to divorce politics from the awards on stage — even a reunion of the stars of “9 to 5” turned into a brief red state-blue state situation when Dolly Parton, clearly uncomfortable with the loosely-veiled criticism of Trump by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin — by quoting a famous line from that film — quickly pivoted by making a vibrator joke.
But it makes perfect sense after a year in which breaking news from Washington seemed to arrive as fast and furious as new shows. What to watch? The James B. Comey trials or “Veep?” Trump’s contentious news conference speech or the warm fuzzy embrace of “This Is Us”?
Last year alone, there were 455 original scripted television shows to choose from, compared with 182 in 2002. From 2011 to 2016, the number of scripted television shows — on broadcast, cable and digital platforms — increased by 71%. A skit between late-night talk show hosts Seth Meyers and James Corden poked fun at people who said they had watched all the hot shows when it was physically impossible for them to have done so.
Colbert addressed the programming onslaught as well: “Of course, there is no way anyone could possibly watch that much TV — other than the president, who seems to have a lot of time for that sort of thing. Hello, sir, thank you for joining us. Looking forward to the tweet.”
Undoubtedly, the absence of “Game of Thrones” which was not eligible this year, made room for first year shows, those made during the Trump era, to be honored. “Big Little Lies,” “The Crown,” “Stranger Things,” “Westworld” all took on topics of politics and power, betrayal and the ethics of an increasingly modern age.
We may not have our first female president, but female-driven narratives dominated nominations across top categories. In addition to “The Handmaid Tale” sweep, HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” the story of an unlikely bond between four women starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, won five Emmys on Sunday night, including for limited series; Kidman ended her acceptance speech for lead actress by expressing gratitude that the series shed light on the problem of domestic violence.