In defense of Issa Rae checking her phone at the Emmys
As Betty White approached the lectern at the 70th Annual Emmys, an awards show her career technically predates, the camera panned briefly over to Issa Rae. The 33-year-old writer and actor joined the rest of Hollywood on her feet for the near-universally beloved star. She was also caught checking her phone. Who could blame her? (And not just because this year’s ceremony was a total snooze.) More than just bait for Twitter scolds, that moment perfectly encapsulated the trouble with the dull and airless broadcast: the Emmys’ fixation on celebrating nostalgia over confronting the present moment.
That’s what Rae does with Insecure, the HBO series she created and for which she was nominated in the Best Actress category. Her consciously slick and achingly sincere look at the everyday lives of four black women in L.A. is perhaps the most honest series on television. In that way, it shares essential DNA with the show that turned White into America’s favorite daft and sexually active senior. The Golden Girls nestled in with four white women in Florida navigating the trysts and tribulations of their twilight years. It may have looked through rose-colored glasses, but the substance was the stuff of real life—particularly with the shadow of death lurking just beneath the palms.
Every series about women and friendship over the past 30 years owes something to The Golden Girls; Issa (Rae’s eponymous character) and White’s lovable Rose are cut from the same cloth. The inner lives of older women may not have been considered worthy of attention in 1986, just as Insecure is a rare and wonderful window into the black experience today. In fact, it’s one of few nominated series that grapple with what it means to move through life in the present—as a black person, as a woman, as a thirtysomething hustling to get by. Still, the series has yet to be nominated in the Best Comedy category.
A vast majority of the evening’s prizes went to series set in bygone eras, like 1950s New York (Best Comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), 1950s London (The Crown, for which Claire Foy won Best Actress), and the late-1800s Old West (Godless, for which Merritt Wever and Jeff Daniels both won acting awards). Even The Americans (Best Actor Matthew Rhys) and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (Best Limited Series) look into the country’s past, albeit through a more sordid lens. Statuettes also rained down on series that create elaborate fantasy realms—like Best Drama Game of Thrones, and Westworld, for which Thandie Newton scored a much-deserved Supporting Actress win.
But shows that address the world of today were largely, if not entirely, shut out. There’s a notable correlation between such series and the artists who currently make and star in the best of them. Atlanta, for which Donald Glover won Best Actor last year, is perhaps the most daring, artistically adventurous series on air, despite a lack of dragons and androids on the streets of Georgia. The series was largely overlooked, winning just two awards not featured on the broadcast, for Guest Actor Katt Williams and Cinematography, out of a total 13 nominations. Kenya Barris’ Black-ish, a family sitcom often pointedly topical about black life, likewise went home empty-handed. Perhaps because the black experience in America leaves little to be nostalgic for, these creators are training their expert focus on the here and now.
Television is a great way to escape; from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Hot in Cleveland, at 96, Betty White understands this (among many other things) about the medium better than most. And there’s no arguing that TV’s ability to help us momentarily forget the outside world is part of our obsession with consuming it, particularly right now (The Handmaid’s Tale notwithstanding). But it’s worth recognizing the efforts of artists who aren’t looking to the past to make sense of the present, but right outside their doors. And yes, maybe even down at their phones, quietly wondering when it will finally be their turn.