While other award shows in 2020 reacted to COVID-19 by simply cancelling the event, and yet others went with prepackaged presentations, the Emmy Awards went forward live with dizzying optimism: A host live in L.A. and the promise of 138 stars in 114 locations in 10 countries. That plan looked like either cheerful effrontery or mad arrogance.
In truth, it was not so arrogant. What the pandemic delivered was a huge audience for TV; conventional, cable or streaming. As the performing arts stopped and movie-going became non-existent or fraught, television became the sole solace. In any case, the most memorable TV and the most acute aspect of TV itself is the communal experience of watching. That’s the magic and the Emmys reached for it.
Amazingly, it worked. Big-time. In fact it worked so well that it was just like a regular live award show – long, sometimes funny and sometimes exhausting, like being stuck in some strange algorithm, and a reminder as always that the entertainment industry is profoundly weird.
Host Jimmy Kimmel was game for this cockeyed hybrid of pre-pandemic award-show antics and video-conference symposium. He delivered a monologue in front of footage of a before-times audience, and then it was just him and Jennifer Aniston doing the show. There was some silly business about setting the envelope with a winner’s name on fire and Aniston wielded a fire extinguisher. The fire didn’t go out and Aniston looked nervous but just carried on, which was loads of fun. Not slick, but plain old goofy.
Then things got truly weird: Schitt’s Creek won seven consecutive Emmy’s in the comedy category. This answered any questions about what members of the Television Academy have been doing for five months. They watched Netflix comedies, mainly binge-watching Schitt’s Creek. It also answers the question, “Do TV-industry people watch dark comedies filled with irony and anger on HBO?” No, obviously, not right now. There’s a pandemic going on. The Schitt’s Creek accumulation of Emmys was like some strange forest fire of all-engulfing indulgence and probably good for Canadian TV and the CBC.
After that, HBO’s Watchmen and Succession started to dominate, along with some pleasing surprise wins. There were some great taped bits too, which were very funny. In a field somewhere, David Letterman was hilarious and funnier than most comedians who currently have a show.
Some nominees took it all very seriously, as is their option. Regina King deservedly won for Watchmen – one of the greats of her generation, she wins an Emmy or an Oscar almost every year – wore a Breonna Taylor t-shirt and said, “Have a voting plan, go to Ballotpedia.com. Vote up the ballot please. … It is very important. Be a good human. Rest in power, RBG. And thank you.” John Oliver took it all so casually that he just wore a Liverpool F.C. hoodie.
The mechanics of linking the show to dozens of homes and locations, having someone on standby to present an actual trophy, must have been staggering. In advance, Brian Cox, nominated for Succession, told the BBC, in some amazement, “There’s going to be a man standing outside the door with an Emmy, which I may not win. With every Emmy nominee – there’ll be a man standing outside their house!” Astonishingly, it all worked well, adding a relatable aspect we’ve never seen before on an award show: Nominees cozy on the couch or looking tense and nervous in a hotel room. Some were having a wee party.
When Zendaya made history as the youngest person to win an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series, for Euphoria (she’s only 24), a very genuine sense of giddy excitement was visible. During her acceptance speech, she thanked friends who are “out there doing the work in the streets” and asserted “There is hope in the young people.”
The producers said they had created a hazmat tuxedo for “the health and safety of all our winners and the presenter by following all of the health and safety protocols – with a twist.” The twist was that sometimes it worked and sometimes it was haphazard.
Some of the announcers introducing the nominees were farmers or front-line workers. Their sincerity outshone the usual showbiz sycophancy. There was a mini-Friends reunion. The phone rang in the Succession producer’s house as he accepted one of the final awards, and one of his family went scurrying to stop it.
There was even a red-carpet prelude of sorts. On the E! channel three hosts sat at socially distanced desks and jabbered. They showed pictures and video footage of nominees and gushed over style and wit. Someone was praised for her wigs. Linda Cardellini was praised for cutting her own bangs. The hosts played a game, “Who would you rather quarantine with?” If the excitable jabbering was to be understood, the winner was Irish actor Paul Mescal from Normal People. It was oddly comforting, this awkward re-enactment of the awards-show format from the before-times. Even if the wit was at the level of banter at a seven-year-old’s birthday party.
When the E! hosts connected with nominee Ted Danson (up for The Good Place) he was in a house in Vancouver where his wife, Mary Steenburgen, is shooting a series. During the awkward chat, the doorbell rang and his dog barked a lot. His food-delivery had arrived. Two plant-based burgers and one order of fries. That diffused the awkwardness. It was just funny and human.
But it all went on too long, at over three hours on Sunday night, plus the countdown and virtual red carpet. A fun, different award show, but long, because some things never change.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.