Is it possible that quality television is getting … nicer?
We’re talking relatively nicer, mind you, as we’ll see. This year’s batch of big Emmy winners was still plenty problematic. But when all the winged statuettes were all handed out, many of them went to shows with heart (even if they also had mouths to match).
The Crown, an ambitious Netflix series that chronicles the reign of Britain’s Elizabeth II, was the evening’s biggest winner. It collected collecting seven Emmys,including the trifecta of best dramatic actress (Olivia Colman), best dramatic actor (Josh O’Connor) and best drama series overall.
It’s also one of the most vexing shows Plugged In has to review. It can be remarkably clean for a few episodes, with nary a swear word. And then, out of nowhere, Netflix’ll hit viewers with a graphic sex scene or two or a shower of profanity. From a Plugged In perspective, it might be one of those most schizophrenic shows streaming right now, with enough content to make it hard to recommend.
And yet at its core is Elizabeth herself (played by Colman most recently, and Claire Foy in the show’s first two seasons), and that’s a surprisingly positive focal point. If anything, the monarch comes across as dutiful. She wants to be the very best queen she can be for her empire and its people. She makes sacrifices, walks delicate diplomatic lines and does what she can to keep her unruly family in line. She’s certainly not free of fault or sin, but she comes across as a pretty good person—one who appreciates old-fashioned values. And that’s a rarity in today’s television landscape.
And compare The Crown to some of Emmy’s most recent dramatic winners. Since 2008, Mad Men and Game of Thrones have each won Emmys for Outstanding Drama four times. But Mad Men was cynical and crass, and its deeply flawed protagonist slept with more than a dozen women during the show’s run. Game of Thrones was even more problematic, what with its graphic gore and even more graphic “sexposition.” Breaking Bad (a winner in 2013-14) was a powerful cautionary tale with loads of language and blood. Ditto Homeland (2012), at least in terms of the language and blood. The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) is predicated on sex and religion, where a twisted form of Christianity was the root of this dystopian world’s corruption and dysfunction.
By comparison, The Crown feels strangely innocent.
On the comedic side of the Emmy ledger, Ted Lasso took home four statuettes, including one for outstanding comedy series (and another for lead actor Jason Sudekis). We’ve written and talked about Ted Lasso before (not including our review!).Like The Crown, it’s incredibly vexing. On one hand, the show’s preoccupation with sex and really foul language make it a no-go for many. But on the other, it may be the honest-to-goodness nicest show on television.
The show’s titular character is an American football coach who heads across the pond to coach a British football club—that is, a soccer team—and naturally struggles mightily as he does so. But the coach slowly wins the team, its owner and its fans over by just being a kind, decent human being. When was the last time you saw a show about being nice being the point?
Granted, comedies tend to have a sweeter spot than most dramas. Schitt’s Creek, which swept the major Emmy categories last year, had its own smile-worthy core. But that core was harder to find—a little bit of sugar to make all the selfishness and cluelessness we saw go down a bit easier. And Ted Lasso is far nicer than 2019’s Fleabag or three-time winner Veep.
Again, television’s hardly heading back to the days of Mayberry, so colorfully chronicled on The Andy Griffith Show. I’d not anticipate a return to that sort of innocence anytime soon. But some of last night’s biggest winners remind us that good television isn’t synonymous with terrible characters or a bleak worldview. Sometimes, nice people do finish first—even at the Emmys.