And This Year, the Emmy Goes to … Politics

And This Year, the Emmy Goes to … Politics

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When his former co-star on “Mad Men,” Elisabeth Moss, was asked if she had seen an Emmys quite this political, she was emphatic.

“Absolutely not,” she said, holding an Emmy in each hand, including the one she won for best actress for “Handmaid’s.” “But I’ve also never seen anything like where our country is right now.”

The Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss said she had never seen an Emmys quite this political. “But I’ve also never seen anything like where our country is right now,” she added.

Credit
George Kraychyk/Hulu

All year, late night shows with an anti-Trump bent and left-leaning cable news shows like Rachel Maddow’s on MSNBC have seen their ratings soar, and now that political posture has received the seal of approval from Emmys voters.

But it also means that the Emmys, and all awards shows, for that matter, are part of a broader cultural divide. And to its critics, Hollywood may be proving yet again that it lives in an elite, self-congratulatory bubble, showering awards on shows that reflect its worldview while ignoring the millions of people who prefer “NCIS” and “The Walking Dead.”

“Remember, it’s California,” said Margaret Atwood, the author of the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” on which the Hulu show was based, as she glided into her first Emmys party at age 77. “This would not happen in a lot of other states. This would, in fact, be a lot different. This is its own world here.”

The show did not draw a big audience. The ceremony, hosted by Stephen Colbert, attracted just 11.38 million viewers, Nielsen said, in line with last year’s total, which was a record low.

On Fox News on Monday morning, the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said viewers were “tuning out” because of how politicized the Emmys have become, and suggested that Hollywood’s anti-Trump posturing had become tiresome.

“They got plucked and polished and waxed, and some of them didn’t eat for two months, and all for what?” she said. “To sound the same?”

Still, the heated political climate produced some startling changes for the Emmys.

“Saturday Night Live” has never appealed much to Emmy voters, and they had not given it a top show award in more than two decades. But just two years removed from inviting Mr. Trump to host “S.N.L.,” the NBC late night show excoriated him this past season, and reaped the rewards: Mr. Baldwin won an Emmy for his portrayal of Mr. Trump, and Kate McKinnon, who portrayed both Ms. Conway and Hillary Clinton, won an Emmy as well.

Alec Baldwin won an Emmy for his portrayal of President Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” and then mocked him on Sunday.

“‘S.N.L.’ had a career year,” said Warren Littlefield, a longtime Emmy voter who is a former NBC executive and a producer of “Handmaid’s.” “You had to watch ‘S.N.L.’ to get an appreciation of the world we’re living in, and it helped us endure what we’re all living with.”

Other shows benefited as well, including Mr. Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” which won the prize for best variety talk show for the second consecutive year. Mr. Oliver delights in using Mr. Trump as a punching bag on his show.

Mr. Glover of “Atlanta” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Veep” were among the many winners who mocked President Trump on stage. And after Mr. Baldwin won, he alluded to the fact that Mr. Trump had long coveted an Emmy but never won one. “I suppose I should say, at long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy,” Mr. Baldwin quipped.

What benefited those shows, however, appeared to have hurt dramas like “Stranger Things” and “This Is Us,” both of which were decidedly retro and unpolitical.

“Stranger Things” was a sci-fi homage to movies like “Stand by Me” and “E.T.” NBC’s “This Is Us” was a heart-on-your-sleeve family drama that took inspiration from the 1983 tear-jerker “Terms of Endearment.”

Still, Hulu’s success was a shock in its own right. Hulu, which is co-owned by Disney, Comcast, Time Warner and 21st Century Fox, has a smaller programming budget compared with those of streaming rivals like Netflix and Amazon.

But “Handmaid’s,” which was in development long before the Trump administration, struck a chord with viewers concerned about women’s rights, and its creators proudly embraced the fact that some regarded their show as eerily timely.

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” won the prize for best variety talk show. Mr. Oliver delights in making fun of Mr. Trump on his show.

Credit
Eric Liebowitz/HBO

“Politics is at the front of everybody’s head, not in the back of everybody’s mind,” said Bruce Miller, an executive producer for “Handmaid’s.” “I think all of the media, including the fictional and nonfictional media, are benefiting from taking that head-on. I have been told that you don’t talk about religion and politics in kind company. Well, there’s no company now where you don’t talk about politics these days.”

“People are talking about and thinking about some serious things and things that are uncomfortable,” he added. “Shows that directly address difficult topics are having their day in the sun.”

Early reviews for the series, which had its premiere three months after the inauguration, were positive, and it has been the show of the year for many TV critics.

Hulu’s marketing department took no chances. The streaming service bought its first-ever Super Bowl ad for an original series, even though the event was months before the premiere. And throughout the year, Hulu hired actresses to don red capes like characters in the show, and circulate in cities like Austin (during the South by Southwest Festival), New York, Los Angeles and Washington to create word-of-mouth buzz.

And as Hulu increases the size of its budget — it will be about $2.5 billion for content this year — a basketful of Emmys is the kind of payoff that may generate even more spending, especially as digital titans like Facebook, Google and Apple enter the scripted television market.

Because Hulu does not release viewership data, it is impossible to know how popular “Handmaid’s” was, but it was far more successful than its previous iteration. In 1990, the novel was adapted into a feature film that was a flop at the box office and did not receive warm reviews.

“We got a Trump bump!” said Daniel Wilson, a producer behind both the movie and the TV show. “Timing is everything. If we didn’t have the president we have now, I don’t know if it would have been this successful.”

Ms. Atwood underscored that point as well.

“I wrote it in 1985,” she said. “There was some incredulity then: ‘Margaret, you’re way over the top! it could never happen here.’”

“And now?” she continued. “I don’t hear any of that.”

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