The VMAs and the Emmys: The Show Is Always More Important Than the Awards

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For what’s supposedly TV’s biggest night, the Emmys don’t make for great TV. Lengthy and depressingly behind the times — in terms of both winners’ relevance and cartoonish sexism — the ceremony still has the power to provoke the aural equivalent of keyboard-smashing by, say, ignoring Orange Is the New Black. That’s because the Emmys, particularly in an over-saturated TV landscape like today’s, are actually supposed to mean something. Which might explain why the far more enjoyable awards show of the last 48 hours was also the far less consequential one.

Every year, the Emmys/Oscars/Grammys are preceded by a flood of disclaimers. The voting’s messed up! Awards are meaningless! The Wire never won anything, and look how that turned out! The fact remains, though, that every year the Emmys/other major awards shows still need said disclaimers, because our implicit belief that those winged trophies matter is more or less indestructible. Enter the VMAs, which has long acknowledged the truth about these things: awards shows are, first and foremost, shows.

No one tuned into MTV this Sunday out of genuine interest in which acts would take home a Moonman; I doubt most of the audience even remembered the awards themselves are even called “Moonmen” (I certainly didn’t). We watched for Beyoncé, for Twitter reactions to Beyoncé, and for the potential lighter-fluid-on-the-thinkpiece-bonfire moment à la Miley’s performance last year. Which explains why, despite critics’ well-documented feelings about Katy Perry and a certain Terry Richardson-directed clip, a charity shout-out and a few quality Blue Ivy Vines were enough to leave most people relatively satisfied.

The VMAs are a series of stunts and high-budget performances glued together with little more than the adhesive on the producer’s envelopes. Which is fine! Watching Nicki Minaj handle a wardrobe malfunction is entertaining, and a hell of a lot less stressful than imagining a reality where a lot of people honestly believe Ty Burrell did a better job than Andre Braugher this past season. I saw plenty of complaints about the VMAs’ irrelevance on social media, but it seems appropriate that MTV got the Emmys to budge from their Sunday timeslot, and not the other way around.

Because while the Emmys do hold more cultural cachet, they’re ultimately less well-equipped to deliver on awards shows’ main function these days: one of the few mass-viewing events left in a world where we do a good chunk of our viewing on our own devices and our own time. Not that Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Bryan Cranston’s uh, reunion wasn’t memorable, or that Seth Meyers didn’t do a solid job as host/Billy Eichner sidekick. But when the main event are awards handed out to the same shows year after year — some of them deserving, some of them not — keeping viewers attentive and invested is an uphill battle. The place where Britney made out with Madonna, on the other hand, already has our attention. And how invested is anyone in what a network that doesn’t even air music videos anymore thinks of music videos?

None of this is going to stop anyone from watching next year’s Emmys, when it’ll be Mad Men‘s turn to take a victory lap, or heaping scorn on next year’s round of VMA performers. But in a year where the ennui surrounding the Emmys has never been more acute and the need for something, anything to distract us from a horrible news week has never been higher, the VMAs (in a pretty off year themselves in terms of water cooler moments) proved that entertainment and shock value aren’t beside the point for awards shows. They’re the whole point.

To prove it, here’s a final dose of Bey: