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