The moment Sheryl Lee Ralph opened her mouth and let loose the first jaw-dropping note of Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” it was an Emmys speech for the ages. Quaking with emotion and palpably overcome, Ralph’s acceptance for her best supporting actress trophy was as impassioned as it was memorable — especially, perhaps, because she didn’t have to recite a litany of names before the timer ran out. Instead, a simple ticker of people Ralph wished to mention scrolled by in a chyron as she lifted her Emmy to the sky in triumph.
With most nominees appearing to submit names ahead of time in case they should win, the most memorable speeches of the night were freer to go off-script and embrace their moment, in the moment. After Ralph’s gorgeous display of joy, Lizzo’s surprise reality series win was capped with a tearful speech that didn’t have to include the many names of “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” producers at all. Instead, they whizzed by underneath as she told the story of growing up wishing “to see someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me.”
John Oliver, accepting the seventh(!) consecutive Emmy for “Last Week Tonight,” could switch it up a little bit with a cheeky shoutout in the scroll to his absent staff (“thank you, and don’t worry: we’ll say hello to Oscar Isaac for you”). “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong also got to deliver a couple wry jokes, including a final dig about England’s latest “succession” not being quite as democratic as the Emmys that was cheeky enough to go over most of the restless attendees’ heads. Given the even slight relief of knowing that various agents, publicists and executives’ names were going by as they spoke, these nominees didn’t have to worry quite as hard about having to spend their post-Emmys hangover arranging a conciliatory fruit basket.
And yet: not every winner got the room to balance their gut reactions with their necessary thank-yous, of course. In fact, the night increasingly felt like it was sprinting to the finish line, with winners breathlessly trying to beat the clock even though the production had ostensibly taken the preemptive step of asking for acknowledgements well before the show itself ever started. Amanda Seyfried, honored for a career-changing performance in “The Dropout,” barely tried to keep up with the intimidating countdown clock before running offstage; “Squid Game” director Hwang Dong-hyuk openly gave up on hoping he could give his speech through a translator given the time constraint staring him in the face; and Jennifer Coolidge, an iconoclast finally getting her due after years of the industry dismissing her, really deserved to say more than her frazzled thanks to HBO. It seemed like the second a winner stumbled, Emmys director Hamish Hamilton and DJ Zedd pounced on the chance to shoo them away.
Given the fact that the show had already tasked winners with clipping their speeches short by asking for names ahead of time, it was strange to watch the ceremony devolve so quickly into winners hitting the stage already wincing at the imminent sound of Zedd playing them off. Contrary to what NBC might’ve hoped, no one tunes into the Emmys hoping to see Peacock trailers and extended commercials for Kia masquerading as comedy sketches. As much as anyone tunes into the Emmys these days, it’s to see the people who make television get their moment in the spotlight and listen to what they have to say. When winners actually got the chance to be themselves and let the chyron do the requisite industry rounds for them, the Emmys came as close as they have in recent memory to getting the balance right.