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Sweeps, Speeches and Well-Earned Nostalgia: Variety’s Critics Review the Highs and Lows of the 75th Emmy Awards

The 75th Emmy Awards were a genuinely heartfelt celebration of television — which sounds like it should be a given for an awards show honoring TV, but hasn’t been put in practice in the show’s recent years. But during the Jan. 15 program, the Emmys’ night of nostalgic tributes worked from start to finish, and the winners’ sincere speeches felt like a breath of fresh air. The day after the ceremony, Variety’s TV critics convened to hash out the show’s highlights.

Alison Herman: The Emmys were never supposed to be in January, but because of the actors strike, the ceremony was pushed from its standard September air date. The delay led to some awkwardness around the already confusing eligibility window — Jennifer Coolidge ended up winning supporting actress in a drama more than a year after the conclusion of “The White Lotus” Season 2, and “The Bear” picked up trophies for Season 1 despite having aired its follow-up in June. But the new date also allowed the Emmys to join the heat of awards season, and show other broadcasts how it’s done.

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With ratings sliding for most awards shows, in order to drum up any kind of interest, cast reunion stunts are now a well-worn trope. But by reconstructing the sets of classic television shows from “The Sopranos” to “Martin” to “Ally McBeal,” the Emmys came up with an engaging and efficient way to invoke them beyond just enlisting their stars (though it’s always nice to see Lorraine Bracco). But the broadcast didn’t feel trapped in the past, either, nor did it become overly sentimental — but for any Gen Z fan of “Wednesday” who happened to decide to watch the Emmys for the first time, the show could have also served as a useful history lesson. By looking to its past, the Emmys felt authentically affectionate toward its medium, even as the awards themselves broke new ground, which started right away with its first two awards: back-to-back wins for Ayo Edebiri and Quinta Brunson, the first time in Emmys history Black performers have won both lead and supporting actress in a comedy.

Aramide Tinubu: So often, I feel like we’re suffering through awards shows, but the 75th Emmys felt genuinely endearing. After such a rough year for the industry, it was refreshing to see newcomers get their due, and a veteran like Niecy Nash-Betts celebrating herself. Historically, non-white performers and creators are overlooked in Hollywood, but these Emmys felt genuinely inclusive. While “Succession and “The Bear” took home the bulk of the awards, “Beef,” which has an Asian-led cast, had a great haul, including Emmys for Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, who won for lead actress and actor in a limited series, respectively. That was fabulous.

I was also struck by how unique the ceremony was. It’s so difficult to honor past shows in any new, memorable way, but I think the ones that they chose — namely “Martin” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and other series that aren’t often celebrated — were so fun. I also loved hearing the theme songs from the various series across the years play throughout the show. Theme songs were so iconic for me growing up, and I hate that they’re such a lost art today. Though I will say, aside from the strange, ongoing banter between host Anthony Anderson and his mom, who was seated in the audience, I was truly alarmed by the suggestion that seeing the Twin Towers go down on 9/11 was an “impactful” moment on television.

Herman: I mean, you can’t deny the impact of 9/11 on television, the national psyche or world history! Yet whether it belongs on the same spectrum as Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her self-titled sitcom and the moon landing is another question

But I thought the Emmys telecast did a solid job of generating affecting moments of its own. There was strength in numbers as RuPaul brought up the entire Season 15 cast to share in the fifth win by “Drag Race” for reality competition, a point driven home by his rousing speech that forcefully yet tactfully called out the backlash against gender-nonconforming people: “If a drag queen wants to read you a story at a library, listen to her, because knowledge is power; and if someone tries to restrict your access to power, they are trying to scare you.” The in-memoriam montage, soundtracked by Charlie Puth, was appropriately wide-ranging, making space to honor behind-the-scenes players unknown to a general audience as well as major shared losses like Norman Lear, Angela Lansbury and Matthew Perry, whose name arrived last to give the “Friends” actor’s tragic death its own well-deserved moment. Somehow, the producers accommodated such gestures while also wrapping the show at three hours on the dot.

But we should also probably mention the awards themselves, which kept up the trend of mostly favoring a single show across an entire category. You’ve already touched on “Beef,” and it’s hard to argue with “Succession” as the best drama of the last TV season. As many Emmys as that show has, it was still gratifying to see Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook take home their first statues for the show’s final volume. (And as leads, too!) But how did you feel about “The Bear” knocking “Ted Lasso” off its throne to sweep in comedy?

Tinubu: “The Bear” dominating combined with two-time winner “Ted Lasso” getting nothing on Monday might seem shocking, especially since voters were evaluating Season 1 of “The Bear” against Season 3 of “Ted Lasso.” But when you think about it, the Apple TV+ series lost a bit of its luster in its third outing, and “The Bear,” as chaotic as it may be, has only improved. The Chicago-set dramedy gained momentum because of the delayed Emmys broadcast, and by the time “The Bear” Season 2 dropped in June, Ted and the gang were already an afterthought. Since it looks like “Ted Lasso” is really over, it will be interesting to see how “The Bear” fares in the comedy category against other shows as we return to a more “normalized” Emmys schedule.

And I’m fascinated to see how things pan out going forward, especially since we’re doing the Emmys again in just nine months. Overall, I do hope that the Television Academy keeps up this kind of nostalgic energy, uses the same production team and finds the perfect host (not Anthony Anderson!), because this was one of the most enjoyable awards shows I’ve watched in a very long time. One of my sole gripes is that we didn’t witness Elton John ascend to EGOT status in real-time.

Herman: I imagine “The Bear” is headed for a yearslong streak of dominance, so long as it doesn’t fumble the ball, “Ted Lasso” style. But I’m hoping “Succession” leaving the building makes room for an influx of new blood. Remember 2017, when “Game of Thrones” took a year off and nearly every drama nominee was a freshman? The Emmys have shown that they know how to celebrate television’s past. Now their voting body just needs to better recognize its future.

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