Emmys 2016 Review: A Night of Surprises

Televised award shows can often be painful to sit through, but thankfully, there were enough surprises in the 2016 Emmy Awards to balance out the inevitable second consecutive wins for Veep and Game of Thrones. The potent combination of deserving first-time winners, moving speeches, and diverse voices at the podium made the night feel spontaneous and exciting. At its best, these Emmys, indeed, felt like a true celebration of what television has to offer, and many of the outcomes delighted me.

Master of None’s “Parents” was awarded the Emmy for Writing for a Comedy, an episode that focuses on two first-generation Americans asking their parents to tell the stories about their lives before coming to America. As a child of immigrant parents myself, this story hit straight to the heart. The episode brought me to tears and immediately after, I called my mother. *cue awwww* Awards aren’t the be-all and end-all, but it does feels good to know that this award reinforces the notion that these are stories worth telling. Even better was writer Alan Yang’s acceptance speech, which emphasized the need for more Asian-American stories:

There’s 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong, so we’ve got a long way to go. But I know we can get there. I believe in us. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you could just do me a favor, just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.

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Kate McKinnon’s win for Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her work on Saturday Night Live was also a delight. She had a banner year, thanks to Hillary Clinton, and sketches like The One Where She Was Abducted By Aliens And Ryan Gosling Couldn’t Keep It Together. McKinnon’s humble shout-outs from Hillary Clinton and Ellen Degeneres, to her writing partners, the now co-head writers Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly (watch his new film Other People!), to her late father who pushed her to watch SNL as a child, were particularly moving.

Director Jill Soloway, who won for Transparent, gave a particularly rousing acceptance speech, with a passionate plea to “topple the patriarchy.” Soloway centered the storytelling of queer and trans women in her acceptance speech:

When you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and you put them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects, you change the world, we found out. This TV show allows me to take my dreams about unlikeable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk, and make them the heroes.

Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor’s won Actor in a Comedy for his thoughtful portrayal of Maura Pfefferman, and his speech concluded with a heartfelt plea of his own: a call for greater hiring of transgender talent. Witnessing diversity in storytelling from a pioneering show like Transparent be richly rewarded was a step in the right direction.

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American Crime was one of my favorite television shows of the year. The anthology drama couples superb acting with powerful and provocative discussions about race, class, and sexuality. It was gratifying to see Regina King be recognized two years in a row for her magnetic work as a mother of a high school basketball player team accused of assault.

Although I was rooting for the cool threat that was Bookeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan from Fargo, I was happy that the award went to Sterling K. Brown’s understated performance as Christopher Darden in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The thrilling wins for Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson, who played Johnny Cochran and Marcia Clark, respectively, proved the stellar casting for Ryan Murphy’s series. These three captivating actors took on historical figures familiar to the American public, and breathed new life into their narratives, making their portrayals deeply sympathetic and human. Paulson was one of the locks of the evening, and her win was long overdue.

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On the flip side, yes, The People vs O.J. Simpson was excellent television, but I’m disappointed that Fargo’s remarkable second season was shut out in the process, coming up empty-handed in every category it was nominated in. Was this season too left-field for voters? Too bleak or violent? Too wrapped up in Midwestern quirk, and mysticism? Sigh.

Grease Live was a fine technical feat, with swift and precise direction by Alex Rudzinski and Hamilton‘s Thomas Kail. The live broadcast navigated multiple indoor and outdoor sets, live crowds, inclement weather, and more, but the conceit has been done before, even if it was the best of this new generation of live musicals. Beyoncé’s Lemonade was an artistic achievement like no other. Queen B should have won Directing for a Variety Special and taken one more step closer to EGOT status.

Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Anderson was a singular triumph on Mr. Robot. Malek tackled such an intense character plagued with drug addiction, social anxiety, and mental illness, but always found ways to humanize him. We don’t often see characters on television like Elliot, much less see their performances rewarded, so this win for Lead Actor in a Drama felt important. Plus, bae looked good in a white Dior suit.

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Host Jimmy Kimmel joked in his opening monologue that “the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.” As the night went on, the more this notion seemed true. However cynical Kimmel’s quip was, it was refreshing to see the stage visited by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, queer women, an Egyptian-American, and sure, a couple of white men here and there too.

At last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s took home two trophies for Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy and Choreography. How it lost Main Title Theme Music to Jessica Jones (?!?!?!) is beyond me. One is a sunny, catchy earworm that jabs at sexism, while the other is a bland jazz number. The winner is completely obvious to me, but I guess the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that. Regardless, just let the words “Emmy Award-Winning Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” sink in. We’re so #blessed!

The best show on television, The Americans, was woefully ignored, after being finally being invited to the party in its fourth season. When Character Actress Margo Martindale’s won for Guest Actress at the Creative Arts Emmys, for a role with seemingly less than ten minutes of screen time, I was hoping that the award boded well for the show’s Emmy chances come Sunday night. Alas, the night was not for The Americans. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, your time has yet to come. Next year, Game of Thrones will air outside of eligibility for the 2017 Emmys, leaving a dragon-sized void in the race. With the HBO juggernaut out of the mix next year, could The Americans finally emerge victorious?

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[gifs courtesy of giphy.com and outofficial.tumblr.com]

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Late Night with Seth Meyers’ Safe & Satisfying Debut

Thirteen years of Saturday Night Live prepared Seth Meyers to be the perfect late night host. As the host of SNL‘s Weekend Update since 2006, Meyers has displayed great comedic generosity and support towards his fellow castmates (Bill Hader’s Stefon wouldn’t be Stefon without Meyers as his straight man/husband), which makes him well-suited to ease America into slumber five nights a week. The first week of Late Night with Seth Meyers was solidly entertaining, if not all-too familiar and safe, debut.

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Late Night starts, as every other late show does, with a monologue. His newscaster comedic timing pitches his jokes a bit too formal with cadences more suited for Weekend Update, but I’m sure his delivery will ease with time. Unsurprisingly, Meyers shines brightest when behind his desk. Meyers is a master storyteller and his self-deprecating stories are the highlight of the hour. Whether it’s a story about Meyers knocking his masculinity in needing assistance with car troubles (“It was very hard to feel macho when you’re holding a tiny dog while another man changes your wife’s tire.”) or lovingly chastising his father-in-law for gushing over a celebrity (“To my father-in-law Tom, I love you so much; you have to give Brad Paisley space”), Meyers’ affable charisma endears himself to the audience, and allows us to get to know him more.

My favorite story of the week featured Meyers being approached in a restaurant by a fan’s mother:

Fred Armisen, who leads The 8G Band, provides a nice comedic foil to Meyers. Their banter sits in a comfortable pocket between absurd and esoteric, with Armisen rambling on about his fake new History Channel series Recent History that looks back on the past hour or his fake self-help book Fill in the Blanks that leaves every other word blank. These nightly Armisen segments are right out of a page from the Weekend Update playbook, as were other comedic segments with current SNL writer Tim Robinson or former SNL writer John Lutz. These safe comedic bits were fine, but the familiarity of it all deflated any sense that this show was something particularly fresh. If anything, the Lorne Michaels synergy, from Armisen to debut guest Amy Poehler to several SNL callbacks, was a little tiresome.

Seth Meyers is a great and knowledgeable interviewer, not to mention a natural listener, and quick on his feet with witty responses. Even though his Weekend Update interviews were scripted, Meyers brought a specificity to each interview in the way that he interacted with each guest and it’s nice to see that unfold into his Late Night interviewing. His Kelly Ripa segment revealed that the only interviewing he’s done is when he has hosted Live! with Kelly on numerous occasions (remember when he was rumored to be in the running to succeed Regis Philbin?), but his skill set makes him a natural.

His interview with Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart was a delight (and take note of McKellen’s digs at the homogenization of late night shows and the somewhat awkward Late Night chairs):

As it stands, Meyers’ debut was wholly safe, but wholly satisfying. And the show is already showing signs of improvement: the monologue’s distracting Jeopardy background seen above was replaced by a blue curtain by Friday night. (Now let’s see if something will be done about the tiny desk and chairs.) After his first week, one can’t expect Seth Meyers to reinvent the wheel, but there’s a lot of potential there. It will be interesting to see how Late Night with Seth Meyers will find its niche to distinguish itself from other late night shows.

The Naughty and Nice of 2013 TV

Welcome to my third-annual Naughty and Nice of TV list! Yes, I realize that Christmas is long over, but Starbucks still has their holidays drink menus. Your argument is invalid.

You can take a look at my 2012 Naughty and Nice list here and my list from 2011 here.

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TV on my Nice List:

Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias”

Without question, Breaking Bad sits atop the pantheon of the best television series and “Ozymandias” was the show’s finest hour. The soul-crushing and emotionally dark climax to the series left its audience reeling from devastating moment after devastating moment. Moments that built upon a rich, detailed history of the past fifty-nine hours. Moments like Hank’s final stand. Moments like Walter White kicking Jesse while he was down with the ultimate truthbomb. Moments like the knife fight between Walter and Skyler White. The episode pushed the notion of “family” to the breaking point and left me sick to my stomach and not to mention, wanting more. What an emotionally gripping hour of television.

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Survivor: Blood vs. Water

On paper, the 27th of Survivor should have been a train wreck. Devoted fans such as myself were wary of the seemingly endless parade of twists: A tribe of returning players versus their loved ones; An immediate vote-off before the game even began; The return of the controversial “Redemption Island”; Loved ones getting the decision to take the place of their partners who have been voted out. RUPERT. COLTON. But guess what? It totally worked.

What kept the twists humming were the layers upon strategic layers that no one saw coming: voting someone out as a punishment to their loved ones on the opposite tribe; voting someone out in hopes their loved ones would switch out; voting someone out to knock out players on Redemption Island. Emotions were also at an all-time high, building up to Ciera Eastin voting to eliminate her own mother, Laura Morett.

In Ciera and Big Brother champ Hayden Moss, we got two underdogs who just would not give up the fight (I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw either of them again because of their fire). With his back against the wall, Hayden proved his strategic worth and fought tooth and nail to convince Ciera to force a voting tie, something that has only been seen once before in Survivor‘s 13-year history. It was an epic and historic Tribal Council that epitomized one of the best seasons since Heroes vs. Villains.

Mad Men’s Bob Benson

In an ultimately disappointing sixth season, Mad Men set the internet ablaze with the question: Who is Bob Benson?

This charming and handsome SCDP employee played by the charmingly handsome James Wolk raised more than a few eyebrows as to what his motives were. How many secrets did this genial man hold? Why was he around every corner in the office? What was the nature of his friendship with Joan? What was with his infatuation with Pete? Was he a government informant? An undercover reporter? Pete and Peggy’s time-traveling love child?

The slow-burn of a mystery unfolded itself in his Don Draper duality and opposition to Mad Men‘s previous gay employee, Sal Romano. While Bob Benson’s homosexuality reveal may not have been as out-there a theory for some, for me, it was a perfect stroke of subtle storytelling. And of course, who could forget those shorts?!

Ok, so in all honesty, I may or may not have put Bob Benson on my list solely because I love me some James Wolk. I debated between placing Bob Benson on the Nice list or the sweet relationship between Peggy Olson and Stan Rizzo. Ultimately, thanks to Tom & Lorenzo’s mightily impressive analysis of Bob Benson and gay culture in the 1960s, I went for the short shorts.

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David Brown on Jeopardy!

My friend David Brown (@iamdavidbrown) made a killing on Jeopardy! on an entertaining three-episode run this past summer. It’s an intelligent and fabulous performance that has to been seen to be believed. Way to go, David! #FatDwarfNumberThreeFTW

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TV on my Naughty List:

Breaking Bad’s “Felina”

These are but minor quibbles on the legacy of Breaking Bad, but count me in as one of the people who felt that its finale had too neat of an ending. Granted, this is the only way the show could have ended; Breaking Bad wouldn’t have left any loose threads hanging (Huell’s Rules not withstanding). The show took a Lostian approach in its twisted nostalgia trip to find its closure, and like Lost, expectations for this finale reached perhaps unattainable levels.

Breaking Bad‘s ending was earned and effective, but it eschewed surprise and transcendence for efficiency. Of course, it could only be Walter White who could orchestrate such a risky and mechanical plan with nary a hitch, with the entirety of the series leading to the deployment of ricin and a machine gun. As Jesse Pinkman once said, Mr. White is smarter and luckier than anyone. However, I felt as though Walter White received a redemptive and almost triumphant sendoff that went against the moralist nature of the show.

And speaking of Jesse, the show could have done better by him in the final eight episodes. As the world narrowed in on Walter White, Jesse faded into the background and presence in the finale was sorely missed.

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American Horror Story’s race problems

I absolutely LOVED American Horror Story: Asylum. It was a disturbing roller-coaster of madness that surprisingly surrounded a bloody, beating heart. Coven keeps the crazy flowing, but falls short of making you actually care about its characters. In Asylum, we rooted for Lana and Kit to escape the terrifying clutches of Briarcliff. In Coven… everyone dies and is resurrected. Yay?

Coven has been able to take horrifically vile characters, like Kathy Bates’ Madame LaLaurie, and transform them into more sympathetic creatures. However, these transformations seem only applicable to its white characters. Not much screen time has been devoted to fleshing out its black characters. Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau is a force to be reckoned with and is hands-down the best part of Coven, but she is nothing more than a force of vengeance and anger. The same goes for Gabourey Sidibe’s Queenie who has seemingly sacrificed herself in the wake of a white male terrorist in the mid-season finale.

For a show that has woven itself in the tapestries of historical racial divides of Salem witches versus voodoo witches, it’s unclear what Coven is saying about race relations in America, or even wants to say. There are only four episodes left in this scatter-shot season, building up into the two witch lineages teaming up to defend against the patriarchal Corporation. Here’s hoping the streamlined plot narrows the home stretch, while revealing the larger picture.

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Saturday Night Live’s race problems

SNL made headlines this fall, not for insightful and pointed political skewering or for gut-busting humor, but for its lack of diversity in its casting. Lorne Michaels hired six new featured players this season, five men and one woman. What should have been celebratory for these six turned controversial, as the hiring of six white cast members did nothing but highlight the cast’s lack of diversity.

This past fall, important questions entered the cultural conversation: Where are SNL‘s black women?! Why hasn’t there been a black woman in the cast since Maya Rudolph? How can a cultural institution such as SNL not have someone portray icons such as Oprah and Beyoncé? Unfortunately, the hosting job by the talented Kerry Washington merely winked at the problem, without making any solutions or statements at all. Comments from cast memebers Jay Pharaoh and Kenan Thompson certainly didn’t help either.

And now here we are, with an impending announcement of a single black comedienne joining the cast. Did you catch that Lorne Michaels “did not want to add too many women at this time because the cast already includes five”? Hah. But man, this actress will be under so much scrutiny while fighting an uphill battle to prove her comedic worth. Godspeed, single black comedienne! Good luck carrying the weight of every single expectation ever.

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Big Brother’s race (and homophobia and misogyny) problems

Big Brother also made headlines this year, not for its riveting gameplay, but for the bigoted and racist comments from its houseguests. Following a heated exchange when former model Aaryn Gries flipped the bed of African-American houseguest Candice Stewart, CBS began prefacing each episode with a disclaimer. And while CBS did acknowledge some of the controversy, focusing on throwing Aaryn under the bus and aired an assortment of her bigoted outbursts, other houseguests made racist, homophobic, and misogynist comments that never made the CBS telecast.

The fact that none of these comments were brought up during the live finale, especially when member of the final three made these statements, places more shame on CBS. In the end, in the midst of rampant bigotry, Big Brother crowned its first gay winner this year. Congrats, Andy Herren! I admired your gameplay and your fashion sense.

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The cancellation of Happy Endings

Simply put, I will miss my punny, fast-talking friends from Chicago. Not cool, ABC. Not cool.

5 Reasons Why I’ll Miss Jason Sudeikis on SNL

jason-sudeikisIt was confirmed this week that Jason Sudeikis would not return to Saturday Night Live in the fall, after rumors about his exit began a year ago. His legacy is a solid, if not spectacular one. While not as showy as his fellow recently departed castmates, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, Sudeikis was always a sturdy, reliable, and most importantly, relatable, anchor throughout his eight-plus SNL seasons.

Over the years, Sudeikis has become one of my favorite SNL cast members, joining the ranks of Cheri Oteri, Maya Rudolph, and early-era Kristen Wiig. The unabashed joy and charisma he brought to so many of his characters complemented his underrated knack for nailing his subtle straight-man roles, of which there was an endless cavalcade. Without further ado, here are my top five favorite Sudeikis characters:

The Devil

What if The Devil were one of us? This classic Weekend Update character was vehicle for Sudeikis’ everyman quality, as only a man of his talents could make The Devil so gosh darn charming.

Jon Bovi

Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte were quite a duo to be reckoned with on SNL, with such pairings as ESPN Classic broadcasters Twinkle and Stink, and the infamous “Potato Chip” sketch. But the one twosome that never failed to make me laugh was Jon Bovi: the Bon Jovi opposite band. While the concept appears lame on paper (and yes, maybe lame on-screen too), Sudeikis’ and Forte’s giddy energy is infectious. Plus I’m a sucker for wordplay, no matter how cringe-worthy.

Joe Biden

How do you solve a problem like Obama? Fred Armisen never found footing with his Barack Obama impression, and while Jay Pharoah played a more accurate version of our president, there was never a strong comedic hook to skewering him. Luckily for the Republicans, we have Obama’s VP, Joe Biden, a big-scale bold and brash buffoon who perfectly contrasted our relatively straight-laced commander-in-chief.

Two A-Holes

Jason Sudeikis first broke out with his “Two A-Holes” sketch with Kristen Wiig. Sudeikis’ specificity of douchiness made his A-Hole all the more endearing. The entitled sneer. The constant “Babes.” The persistent gum-snapping. The character became instantly memorable and recognizable. Cheers to the a-holes in our lives!

Maine Justice

When this sketch first appeared in December of last year, it immediately took the title of My Favorite Thing Jason Sudeikis Has Ever Done On SNL. It’s probably for the best that this sketch won’t be overdone to the point of exhaustion. “Maine Justice” is the epitome of Sudeikis: over-the-top unbridled enthusiasm, a dash of charm, and just the right amount of WTF-ery. Jason Sudeikis will be missed.