Nothing against all the other Emmy winners tonight, but even the perfectly rehearsed, elegantly delivered acceptance speech couldn’t possibly compare to Sheryl Lee Ralph’s moment in the spotlight. In the minutes after the actor was recognized for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, she sang and beamed and talked to herself, inspiring audiences to jump up and down again and again.
Her acceptance speech was the kind of moment that television — especially live television — is made for and needs more of. From the moment she took the stage, Ralph was a delight to watch: a thoroughbred Broadway star, she took a deep breath at the mic and then began to sing, belting out Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species” and emphasizing every line with the passion of a soloist performing her final show. Then, moving on to the list of people to thank, she didn’t just rattle off names and networks to confirm them. She turned her speech into poetry, her emotions into a rhythm that spoke to the crowd.
“Anyone who has ever had a dream and thought their dream wouldn’t come true, couldn’t come true, I’m here to tell you that is what faith looks like, striving looks like and never, ever give up.” she said, “because…when you have a husband like mine in your corner, when you have kids like mine in your corner, and when you have friends like everyone else who voted for me, cheered me on, loved me…” She completes that Don’t sentence, but the mood is clear: Ralph is infinitely grateful, and everyone knows what she means when she sings her song of thanks afterwards with her trophy in her hand.
But it wasn’t just the speech itself that made Ralph’s win so brilliant. Ralph is a respected artist who has waited to be recognized at this kind of mainstream level since her inception in the late 1970’s. Many in the room seemed to understand how long overdue her recognition had been as soon as her name was called, and gave her a standing ovation even as she seemed too overwhelmed to leave her seat. And her win couldn’t have come for a more fitting role: On Abbott Elementary School, the comedy about an underfunded public school, she plays Barbara Howard, a teacher who admires the protagonist, played by series creator Quinta Brunson, and considers her mentor. Barbara is a trailblazer; Ralph is the same.
Creating live TV magic has been a challenge for award show producers. Some rely on celebrity cameos in hopes of making headlines. Some fill the hours with bits of comedy while trying to create a viral clip or meme. Some have to deal with unpleasant surprises that show the pitfalls of doing everything live. There were more planned moments than unplanned moments at today’s ceremony: some, like the reunion of Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, were delightful, while others, like the dance-heavy intro, were downright awkward. But Ralph’s speech was the kind of showbiz alchemy that can’t be manufactured. The Emmy producers seemed to understand that: they captured her stunned reaction along with each ovation and never acted out while she spoke. They zoomed out and offered wide-angle shots of the room because that’s how electrifying Ralph was: her energy radiated into every corner – and straight onto viewers’ screens at home.