The Emmys Should Be Political

The past year has proved, over and over again, that TV is defined by misbehavior. Awards shows shouldn’t ignore that fact.

Colin Jost, left, and Michael Che, co-hosts for the 70th Emmy Awards
Colin Jost, left, and Michael Che, co-hosts for the 70th Emmy Awards (Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

Once upon a time, years ago, two awards-show hosts made a rape joke. The month was January of 2015, and the location was the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were hosting the Golden Globes. The pair riffed on the fairy-tale subversion of a Sondheim musical that had recently been adapted for the big screen. “In Into the Woods, Cinderella runs from her prince, Rapunzel is thrown from a tower for her prince, and Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby,” Poehler said.

The room erupted. Jessica Chastain covered her gasp with her hand. Then Fey launched into her impression of the man who was still, then, a bastion of American television. “I put the pills in the people,” she spat, with plosive emphasis. “The people did not want the pills in them.” “Tina … that’s not right,” Poehler interjected, as if to chastise her co-host. “It’s more like, ‘I got the pills in my bathrobe and I put ’em in the people.”

The Cosby joke was noteworthy for its timing. Back in January 2015, the allegations against Cosby had only recently resurfaced, thanks to a stand-up routine by the comic Hannibal Buress a few months before. The New York cover featuring 35 Cosby accusers was still months from publication. Cosby was still nearly a year away from being criminally charged with aggravated indecent assault. But in a joke, at an awards show, Poehler and Fey helped shift the public perception of Cosby from a benign, avuncular human sweater to a pathological drugger and abuser of women.

The bit sparked some backlash. But the joke—barbed, incisive, and searing—momentarily punctured the warm blister of self-adulation that enveloped the ballroom. It interrupted a night intended to celebrate the feats of the entertainment industry to remind everyone about the behavior that same industry has enabled since its inception. Did it ruin the evening? In no way. Did it refuse to let the room look away from a profound crisis? Absolutely.

And yet: Most people involved in awards ceremonies would prefer that hosts not get too real when it comes to humor. Ahead of the Academy Awards earlier this year, the show’s producer, Michael DeLuca, assured potential viewers that 2018’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, wouldn’t get too “issue-oriented” with his jokes, focusing on simply entertaining viewers instead. (Ultimately, Fox News wasn’t impressed.) The reminder/reproach every year: Don’t politicize what should be merely a cheerful event celebrating entertainment.

Possibly with this in mind, 2018’s Emmy Award hosts, the Saturday Night Live players Colin Jost and Michael Che, have announced that they’ll largely stay away from politics this year. “It is kind of fun for us to do something that is not political,” Jost told Vanity Fair last month. “The exciting part is to do things about television and that particular awards ceremony and make it, in general, less political than normal. There’s a lot to celebrate in television right now. It’s a very strong time.” Asked about the #MeToo movement, which other awards ceremonies have acknowledged to varying degrees this year, Jost joked, “I think that by [the Emmys], people are going to be desperate to give men a chance, finally. It’ll probably be #HeToo by then.”

Which, well, not really. Over just the past week, after further allegations of sexual harassment and assault regarding the CBS executive Leslie Moonves were published in The New Yorker, the network’s board finally elected to let Moonves go. Also last week, the TV producer and writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason published an account of her professional experiences with Moonves in The Hollywood Reporter, writing that the network chief sabotaged her career because he disliked television shows about strong, opinionated women. “I was at the pinnacle of my career,” Bloodworth-Thomason wrote. “I would not work again for seven years.”

During Moonves’s tenure at CBS, Bloodworth-Thomason also observed, the network went from creating characters like Mary Richards, Rhoda, Maude, and Murphy Brown to championing “a plethora of macho crime shows featuring a virtual genocide of dead naked hotties in morgue drawers.”

What does this have to do with the Emmy Awards? Well, it suggests, contrary to what Jost has said (and what the Television Academy might prefer), that now is not actually the best moment to simply celebrate television. This is, believe it or not (I can’t), the first Emmys ceremony since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke not quite a year ago. At last year’s ceremony, Kevin Spacey was still nominated for Lead Actor in a Drama for House of Cards, as was Jeffrey Tambor in the comedy acting category for Transparent. Which is to say: A lot has happened in the previous year and a lot continues to happen. Amid the rollicking news cycle, blithely ticking off television’s accomplishments without acknowledging its systemic failures seems somewhat deluded.

It’s easy to understand why awards shows would rather praise the art of making entertainment than risk alienating viewers who are tired of reality. Hollywood is an escapism factory at its core. But the impulse to look away from the ugly parts, to conveniently ignore certain elements and focus instead on the glamour and the ratings (ratings being inextricably associated with money), is what allowed Cosby and Weinstein and so many others to get away with so egregiously abusing their power for so long. If some people knew that Les Moonves forcibly kissed or touched women (and then put their careers on ice), well, they also knew that he led CBS to record profits. (As my colleague Megan Garber noted in August, in an earnings call shortly after the first Moonves allegations broke, not one analyst asked about them.)

Television, right now, is creatively having “a strong time,” as Jost noted. Series like Atlanta and The Handmaid’s Tale and Black-ish signal to what extent a fleet of new providers and writers have helped inject ingenuity and experimentation into an aging medium. But those shows are strong precisely because they’re topical. They’re curious about, and informed by, the world playing out around them. Even The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a ’50s-set series seemingly beloved by Emmy voters for its sunny, funny joie de vivre, is also a show about a woman trying to break into a male-dominated entertainment industry. The surprising part: Not so much has apparently changed in 60 years.

But however TV might be flourishing artistically, its structural issues aren’t something to celebrate. As of 2016, 90 percent of series showrunners were white, while 80 percent were male. And Les Moonves is not an aberration. The safest bet in the world right now is that more revelations of misbehavior will emerge. When the news itself is so dominated by issues plaguing the industry, the instinct to focus on only half the story is a strange one. Which shows might have won Emmys over the past two decades if not for Moonves? Which women might have won?

The television industry is defined by politics. The best TV shows illuminate reality and the ways in which the world is going wrong. Awards shows shouldn’t indulge the impulses of people in power who’ve always preferred to look away.