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Stuff White People Like

As anxiety about the declining television business permeates the Emmys, the show relies on … Kanye West jokes.

09.21.09 2:28 AM ET

"Like hires like," as they say. At last night's Emmys, which were permeated by an industry's anxieties about the future, the actors and producers and directors looked pretty much like the cast of Mad Men when that nice black elevator operator wasn't around. "I know that everything is changing but I'm not afraid of it," said Mad Men's creator, Matthew Weiner, while taking home the Emmy for Outstanding Drama.

You maybe should be? Yes, pretty much no one watches the networks, the cables will soon be almost equal players for almost equal pay, and no one's quite sure what to do. So how about doing something different, at last, for once in your lives?

If you worked for one of those shows, could you really face the shame parade of all-white faces at next year's Emmys? Wouldn't you go back to work and try to fix it? Maybe not—because you would have done it years ago.

What last night's Emmys proved was that The Industry as a liberal menace is a total frame job. Really? A bunch of yutzes from Yale, who haven't managed over the years to get a single Sonia Sotomayor onto their supreme joke jury? They're not liberals—they are nice, funny, probably awesome, mostly Ivy League comedy nerds who, through action or inaction, conspire to keep people of color out of the big gigs.

Watch the top 10 Emmy moments.As has happened before, last night brought that horrifying moment—when the writing staff of many of the shows up for best comedy or variety show were displayed, including Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien's. Let's look for the people of color! Hey, there's Wyatt Cenac, the lone black man, hired last year by the Stewart team! And—oh, no, that seems to be it. But at least that young white Simon Rich, the son of the New York Times columnist Frank and also Harvard '07, is working as a writer for Saturday Night Live.

If you worked for one of those shows, could you really face the shame parade of all-white faces at next year's Emmys? Wouldn't you go back to work and try to fix it? Maybe not—because you would have done it years ago.

And what's saddest about this is that all these nice white people at the top feel the cruel financial pressure of the industry. It's "the last official year of broadcast television," said Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and I don't think she's that sad to see it go. Tina Fey's crack about how she's glad NBC hasn't canceled 30 Rock for a cheap talk show is funny because surely someone at the network has run those numbers. Expensive, fantastic shows like Mad Men and Damages are, well, expensive, in this era when quality is revered by a small, cosmopolitan audience. Advertisers still respond to an average viewer income that's double or quadruple America's median, so it's no surprise that they can sell that ad space. But still they lose on total viewers. The execs are stressed—and everything else falls through the cracks, including what real America looks like.

Instead of programming for "them," TV execs are trying to squeeze the last big bits of cash out of TV before it basically becomes satellite radio—a million shows, always on, some in Tagalog, some always starring transsexuals. Last night's remarkably penetrated brand interventions were supposedly a sign of what's going to save the industry, but really were its death rattles. The diversity of America is relevant because also like watches like—which is why there are at least a few working black and Latino and Asian people in front of the cameras. Here comes LL Cool J—and the guy who played Robin in that one Batman movie to present an award and pimp their show that appears on the same network! And here's John Hodgman doing the announcing, and Justin Long on Drew Barrymore's arm—and here's John and Justin in the commercials! It's Total Brand Permeation.

That's already old business. Is your tacky intra-cross-platform brand explosion really going to drive some extra viewers to NCIS: Los Angeles? It may, for a while! Enjoy it while you can. At least that show is designed to look like that good old-fashioned Lethal Weapon ebony-and-ivory buddy system. Back then, in the last 80s, we thought that was the beginning of the end of the "black men can't open a big movie" era, when black actors were also making inroads on TV. But sometime between the original Melrose Place and the new one, all that progress stalled. What did we get last night? A lot of white people, a bunch of oddly nervous Kanye West jokes—and a lot of people eyeing Tracy Morgan suspiciously. Looks like Mad Men is the perfect show for our time in every way.

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Choire Sicha is co-proprietor of The Awl and is at work on a nonfiction book for HarperStudio.