2017 Emmys telecast review: The winners gave a lackluster show some emotional heft

Those hoping for nothing but Trump-bashing at the 69th Annual Emmy Awards likely came away from the show disappointed. Despite some clear jabs aimed at the 45th president, the show mostly avoided politics, which was unfortunate because it drew attention to host Stephen Colbert’s somewhat lackluster performance in a show that relied on its winners to provide the night with truly memorable moments. (Check out the complete list of winners here.)

Things got off to a shaky start after a star-studded musical opening that featured an auto-tuned Colbert singing about how much better everything is on TV. His opening monologue took aim at some of the obvious targets — streaming video and broadcast networks, the absence of “Game of Thrones” from the Emmy contest, and a pointed jab at Bill Maher that audibly delighted nominee Anthony Anderson. For the most part, however, Colbert seemed to be playing it safe, and the result was a monologue that came off as lukewarm.

Colbert’s monologue didn’t pick up steam until the end, when former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer emerged to project that this year’s ceremony would be the most watched in history. Spicer’s appearance drew gasps from the audience, including Melissa McCarthy, whose now-iconic portrayal of Spicer on “Saturday Night Live” earned her an Emmy for Comedy Guest Actress at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys.

Some of Colbert’s later filmed pieces were more successful, including a “Westworld” takeoff featuring Emmy-nominee Jeffrey Wright. But the highlight was a very funny interview with the Emmy statue herself, hilariously played by Emmy winner RuPaul Charles. For the most part, however, we were treated to a series of gags — a “Grace and Frankie” inspired vibrator joke, and an exchange between Best Variety Series losers Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel — that seemed to induce smiles rather than genuine laughs.

Things livened up considerably with the arrival of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton as presenters. The “9 to 5” co-stars walked out to a standing ovation before commenting that their characters (from the classic 1980 film) would not now, or ever, be controlled by a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” yet another swipe at Trump. One can almost hear the FOX News viewing audience, and the President himself, tweeting furiously about the Hollywood elite.

The show flowed nicely, but was that onstage red carpet lined with photographers really necessary? Even the winners seemed to view it apathetically. Though the most unfortunate choice made by producers was to have “Superior Donuts” star Jermaine Fowler serve as the announcer for the ceremony. Fowler is a talented actor and comedian, but his habit of announcing, or rather yelling every announcement wore thin over the course of the evening.

And shame on Emmy producers for both playing off and cutting the microphone for Drama Actor winner Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”), who listed the iconic characters who had previously won in this category, and paid special tribute to Andre Braugher, who was the last black actor to win in this category, 19 years ago for “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

Thankfully, some of the night’s winners provided the evening with some moments of genuine emotion. Veteran character actress Ann Dowd seemed genuinely stunned upon being named Best Drama Supporting Actress for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Best Movie/Mini Actor winner Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of”) paid tribute to his executive producer, the late James Gandolfini, who died before production of the miniseries really got off the ground.

Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, who was named Best Movie/Mini Actress for “Big Little Lies,” paid a touching tribute to her family, and then acknowledged those who live and struggle with domestic abuse. The audience gave a well-deserved standing ovation to author Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) when the show based on her classic dystopian novel won Best Drama Series. But it was Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Comedy Writing, who gave the night’s most beautiful speech honoring the LGBT community and the power of those who are different. Additional kudos to Waithe’s co-winner Aziz Ansari for giving her a moment to shine.

Even though Trump wasn’t as omnipresent as we might have expected, “The Handmaid’s Tale” writer/creator Bruce Miller certainly put a cap on the evening when he remarked to all of the artists in the audience, “Go home and get to work. We have a lot of things to fight for.”

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