One of the most potent moments in the Emmy broadcast came during Michaela Coel’s speech for writing for a limited series. The “I May Destroy You” creator addressed several carefully chosen words to her fellow writers, encouraging them not to be “afraid to disappear … and see what comes to you in the silence.”
Dedicated, at its conclusion, to survivors of sexual assault, Coel’s was a thoughtful message about the power of creating art and silencing the noise around oneself, delivered with concision and clarity. And, though it stood beautifully on its own, it gained in power by comparison: It came just after “The Queen’s Gambit” director Scott Frank had bulldozed through multiple attempts to graciously usher him offstage, saying bluntly as the music rose, “Seriously?”
Frank’s was a standard-issue awards-show speech, or something less — which made it surprising that Frank’s repeated demands for more time were made with such directness. A laundry list of names, it just kept on rolling. Near the end of a long evening, Stephen Colbert accepted a variety special prize by just speaking louder than the orchestra, playing Andrea Bocelli’s “Por Ti Volare,” meant to indicate his time had run short. Elsewhere, too, Governors Award recipient Debbie Allen indicated she planned to speak until her message — a thoughtfully composed one that took as much time as it took — was done. “Honey, turn that clock off,” she said. “I ain’t paying no attention to it.”
This year’s Emmys had a small-capacity room limiting potential stagecraft, and limited and brief involvement from host Cedric the Entertainer, mainly in taped bits. So they ended up defined by speeches. And what became clear is that it’s no longer possible to constrain stars who want to have their say. Through sheer force of will, various talents powered through time limits; one of the few who conceded to the music, actress in a comedy winner Jean Smart acknowledged “they’re playing music and I have to stop” — which felt unfair, given that others barely conceded to hearing it, and that Smart seemed to have more of substance to say.
There was an uncomfortable tension between the show’s evident desire to come in on time and the urgency folks felt about maximizing their time onstage. And that’s hardly good news for a broadcast that — like so many awards shows these days — has seen much of its audience fall away in recent years. The best way to ensure your words are heard widely, after all, is to speak words worth hearing. There are many systemic reasons awards-show ratings are sagging, but a perception that there’s a lot of indulgence and flabbiness happening onstage isn’t helping matters.
An intriguing contrast is provided by this year’s Oscar ceremony — at which, it was announced, winners would not be played off, though they were encouraged to keep things tight. Winners, in the main, complied, having been given advance notice that they would get to say what they wanted and not feel the under-the-gun stress that leads to moments like Frank’s questioning the conductor. And when things did run long, as in the case of “Another Round” director Thomas Vinterberg’s tribute to his late daughter, they were carried across with grace and élan, and without the jarring specter of conflict between the show and the people it’s meant to honor.
The folks onstage at the Emmys are professional entertainers, and — though winning is an exceptional and rare achievement — it would make sense, under the circumstances, for there to be a bit more understanding of what plays on TV. But the Emmys could play a bit more fair. The loud, irritating classical music competing with speeches is no fun for anyone. And if, just one year, the nominees were encouraged in advance to put thought and care into what they wanted to say with the understanding that they wouldn’t be fighting against time, there might be a few more speeches with heft, along with the endless Frank-style monologues that will inevitably happen either way.
After all, a ticking clock seems only to generate an obsession with time — who gets more, whether the amount being parceled out is fair, how one ought to try to claim one’s own share. What if that were taken off the table? Those who wanted to share a more robustly developed list of names or set of thoughts might be counterbalanced by those who find a power in making one point, clearly and directly. Coel, for instance, likely had a bit more time left, and if she fought the music, she’d have won. But it didn’t take her much time at all to move viewers across the country, and to encourage writers to embrace quiet. Among the few, choice words in her speech were a critique of “the need to be constantly visible, for visibility, these days, seems to equate to success.”
In other words, you don’t need to say the most in order to be most clearly heard. Maybe, if shows like the Emmys wind down this annual war against the clock, more winners will take heed.
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