With stories of forthrightness and fortitude, women reclaim their time — and lay claim to Emmy gold.
There was no shortage of surprises at this year’s Emmys — including a few delivered by host Stephen Colbert in the opening minutes of the live CBS show (yes, some of those “handmaids” were men… and yes, that really was Sean Spicer briefly at the podium).
Hulu claimed five wins during the September 17 telecast from L.A.’s Microsoft Theater, becoming the first streaming service to capture outstanding drama series, with The Handmaid’s Tale. The dystopian drama took eight Emmys total (including three at the previous week’s Creative Arts Awards), another record for Hulu.
HBO’s Big Little Lies also took eight awards, including outstanding limited series. And the HBO comedy series Veep — a veteran Emmy winner — continued the night’s focus on strong female characters, delivering for Julia Louis-Dreyfus a record-breaking sixth lead-actress victory in the role of Selina Meyer.
While HBO maintained its usual Emmy dominance with 29 awards (including the Creative Arts), other content providers were not far behind. Digital streamer Netflix scored 20 statuettes, while NBC earned 15.
Saturday Night Live and The Voice accounted for most of the broadcast network’s wins, but there were notable exceptions, such as Sterling K. Brown’s triumph as lead actor in a drama series for his portrayal of a successful family man struggling with the reappearance of his biological father in This Is Us.
The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, follows the story of Offred, a woman attempting to survive and escape a totalitarian regime. Elisabeth Moss, Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel (who scored a guest-actress Emmy at the Creative Arts) were first-time winners for their portrayals of women caught in the nightmarish world created by Atwood, a consulting producer on the series, who attended the ceremony.
Dowd, who had lost to her Handmaid’s Tale costar Bledel for her nominated guest-actress role in HBO’s The Leftovers, appeared stunned by her supporting-actress win for her portrayal of the sadistic Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale. “I think it is a dream,” she said from the stage. “I’ve been acting for a long time, and that this should happen now — I thank you.”
Dowd wasn’t the only cast member to be shaken by The Handmaid’s Tale sweep. Moss, whose nine career nominations include six for Mad Men, scored her first Emmy wins as lead actress and as a producer on the show. After dropping an initial f-bomb, she challenged the network censors again while thanking her mother, Linda, sitting in the first row: “You were my best friend since the day I was born. You taught me you can be kind and a fucking badass.”
Bruce Miller, showrunner–executive producer of The Handmaid’s Tale, claimed the first of his two Emmys of the evening for writing the pilot. At the evening’s end, he accepted the award for best drama with good-natured thanks to those who “supported us when we wanted to do horrible things to Rory Gilmore [Alexis Bledel],” but ended his speech on a more urgent note. “Go home, get to work,” he told the audience. “We have a lot of things to fight for.”
Alec Baldwin was named outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series for his portrayal of President Trump on Saturday Night Live, and when accepting his award, he couldn’t resist a poke at the man twice nominated for NBC’s The Apprentice: “I suppose I should say, ‘At long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy.’”
The actor then turned from politics to art: “I always remember what someone told me — that when you die, you don’t remember a bill that Congress passed or a decision the Supreme Court made, or an address made by the president. You remember a song. You remember a line from a movie. You remember a play. You remember a book. A painting. A poem. What we do is important. And for all of you out there in motion pictures and television, don’t stop what you are doing. The audience is counting on you.”
Outstanding variety sketch series went to Saturday Night Live, its 51st win among 231 nominations — more than any other program. Creator–executive producer Lorne Michaels reminisced briefly on stage: “I remember the first time we won this award, after our first season in 1976. I remember thinking, this was it — there would never be another season as crazy and unpredictable and exhausting and exhilarating. It turns out I was wrong.”
Kate McKinnon took home her second consecutive Emmy as supporting actress for her work on SNL, which included portrayals of Hillary Clinton and Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. “Being part of this season of Saturday Night Live was the most meaningful thing that I will ever do, so I should just probably stop now,” she said. After thanking family and colleagues, she added: “On a personal note, I want to say thank you to Hillary Clinton for your grace and grit.”
John Oliver accepted two wins for HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: writing for a variety series and outstanding variety talk series. In accepting for variety series, he mentioned that last year the staff had celebrated their win by getting drunk and going on the rides the next day at Universal Studios. He advised the theme park: “If someone is throwing up on the Harry Potter roller coasters tomorrow, they work for us. Please send them home.”
Diversity and inclusion were again a focus during the show. Though presenter Dave Chappelle quipped, “I’m truly amazed how many black people are here — I counted eleven on the monitor,” Donald Glover of FX’s Atlanta found a different spin. “I want to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most-oppressed list,” said the actor-director, who won for lead actor in a comedy series and outstanding directing in a comedy. “He’s the reason I’m probably up here.”
Glover is the first African American to win in the directing for a comedy series category.
Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win the Emmy for comedy-series writing when she and Aziz Ansari were honored for the “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None. The story, based on Waithe’s personal history of coming out to her family, is told through a series of Thanksgiving dinners at the home of Aziz’s character, Dev; Waithe plays Denise, his childhood friend.
Accepting her Emmy, Waithe revved up the crowd with an internet meme (“Let me reclaim my time,” as stated Congresswoman Maxine Waters) and concluded her many acknowledgments with a message to “my LGBTQIA family: I see each and every one of you,” she said. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers.
"Every day, when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world — because the world would not be as beautiful if you weren’t in it.” Waithe also thanked viewers and the industry for “embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina [Ansari] and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago.”
Also addressing the transformative power of entertainment was Riz Ahmed, named lead actor in a limited series for HBO’s The Night Of, in which he played a man accused of murder. After paying tribute to one of the show’s executive producers, the late James Gandolfini, he reflected, “It is always strange reaping the rewards of a story that’s based on real-world suffering.
"But if this show has shone a light on some of the prejudice in our societies — Islamophobia, some of the injustice to our justice system — then maybe that is something. And I will shout out to South Asian Youth Action for helping me prepare for this, and the Innocence Project.”
Disturbing social issues also came to the fore in Big Little Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s book about women in a tony beach town and the domestic abuse that disrupts their world. The limited series started its winning streak for the night with a supporting-actress victory for Laura Dern, her first after six nominations.
“I’ve been acting since I was 11 years old, and I think I’ve worked with maybe 12 women, so I want to say thanks to the Academy. Thank you to Nicole [Kidman] and Reese [Witherspoon]’s moms for giving us not only extraordinary women but really well-read women, because that’s how I’m getting parts.”
For her role as an upper-crust wife whose perfect life is not what it seems, Kidman was named outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie, edging out her costar Witherspoon, also an executive producer of the project. “Reese, I share this with you,” Kidman said to Witherspoon from the stage as she accepted her first Emmy.
“I have a huge artistic family that supported me through all my ups and downs. I’m a mother and a wife. I have two little girls, Sunny and Faith.” After thanking her husband, country music star Keith Urban, she added, “I want my little girls to have this on their shelf. I want them to say every time Mama didn’t put us to bed, ‘I got this; I got something.’”
On a more serious note, she pointed to the show’s important theme. “We shone a light on domestic abuse. It is a complicated, insidious disease. It exists far more than we allow ourselves to know, in shame and secrecy. This shines a light on it even more.”
The show’s success also sent another message. Accepting the award for outstanding limited series, Witherspoon said simply: “It’s been an incredible year for women on television.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2017