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What Are the Emmys Going to Look Like This Year?

‘Succession’ and ‘Watchmen’ seem poised to clean up at this year’s awards. But will the (entirely remote) ceremony make for a coherent night of television?

Alycea Tinoyan

Alison Herman: The 72nd Emmy Awards will take place in, uh, various locations this Sunday. You could be forgiven for not knowing this; even here in Los Angeles, where ubiquitous “for your consideration” billboards make awards shows seem like a bigger deal than a presidential election, the pandemic has kept the campaigns out of sight and out of mind for those of us stuck at home. To preview the show, I’ve called up my colleague on the Ringer TV beat, Miles Surrey. Six months into [gestures broadly], other people barely feel real, to say nothing of an already arbitrary set of trophies honoring what 20,000 people have collectively decided are the best TV shows.

Before we even get to the awards, we should probably speculate on the show itself. The pandemic means we can’t take anything for granted these days, not even the hallowed ritual of beautiful people slapping on five-plus-figure outfits and assembling to be photographed. Jimmy Kimmel will emcee sans audience from the Staples Center in downtown L.A., with the wonders of technology allowing for some long-distance cameos. This will be Kimmel’s third time hosting the Emmys and his first after two back-to-back Oscars ceremonies in 2017 and 2018, though experience may guarantee less now than it would under normal circumstances.

Normally, I’m not a fan of the reflexive approach various academies and their producers have taken to casting hosts in the last half-decade or so: major-network late night hosts, give or take the occasional Weekend Update crew or Sandra Oh. It’s not that Kimmel, a consummate and affable showman, does a bad job—far from it. I’m more irked by the general refusal to get creative and test boundaries, limiting an already troubled set of institutions to a shrinking talent pool. But for a pandemic show, I think steadiness and aesthetic conservatism are also … what the moment calls for? More than ever, we’re turning to TV for comfort right now, so I can see how the Emmys ought to follow suit. What say you?

Miles Surrey: I agree, and I also think that the Television Academy is just hoping an established hand to handle proceedings means there’s one less thing to worry about. Given his experience, Kimmel should do an adequate job hosting an awards show in his sleep, so the problem then becomes … everything else. As Emmys executive producers Reggie Hudlin and Ian Stewart told reporters this week, they’re going to be juggling 130 cameras streaming from 20 cities around the world. There are countless ways for the show to turn into a disaster; Kimmel at least eliminates the possibility of having an unpredictable host.

That said, unpredictability is perhaps the most exciting thing about watching an awards show during a pandemic. The formats have long become stagnant, the ratings—not just for the Emmys, but for awards shows in general—are plummeting, and the repetitive cycle of hosts is why we cling to the rare joy of Sandra Oh spicing up proceedings. If the Primetime Emmys had embraced someone like Nicole Byer, who handled this year’s virtual Creative Arts Emmys hosting duties, then there’d be even more reason to look forward to Sunday night’s show—other than the potential of Zoom schadenfreude. (Also, there’s no formal dress code, so imagine if Kieran Culkin accepts an Emmy in a hoodie.)

As for the actual Emmys categories, well, that’s still very interesting. The Television Academy allowing more than five nominees in the Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Comedy categories means there’s more room for weirdness; stalwarts like Better Call Saul and The Handmaid’s Tale are joined by The Baby Yoda Show—er, sorry, The Mandalorian. The show picked up its first Emmy—and the first for Disney+—at the Creative Arts Emmys, and while it’s weird to think of a Star Wars show on a Disney streaming service as a plucky upstart, that’s sort of how Disney+ and AppleTV+ (the Pluses?) enter an Emmys landscape long dominated by HBO. Do you see Disney or Apple shaking up the status quo, or are Watchmen and Succession too strong to bring down?

Herman: My final note on the question of whether this broadcast will turn out to be what Kimmel has preemptively hedged as a “beautiful disaster” is that the Emmys seem a little less suited to a remote model than, say, the VMAs. Musical performances are hard to pull off live, and can benefit from the prep time and production value added by some distance. But apart from the odd Weird Al opening number, the Emmys and other shows centered on filmed entertainment have been a bit more dependent on celebrities interacting in a room, so there’ll be a black hole in the 2020 edition’s center.

Speaking of black holes, though (that was my unartful transition to discussing the Star Wars extended universe) The Mandalorian’s masked bounty hunter and his adorable sidekick have already picked up plaudits for production design, cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing, and visual effects at the Creative Arts Emmys. Technical categories are where I think The Mandalorian was always most likely to succeed anyway, so I don’t know whether these awards are necessarily a sign the show taking Game of Thrones’ “expensive genre show” slot will also replicate its onetime sweeps. But hey, beginner’s luck—and Disney’s awesome corporate might—is still a thing!

The Mandalorian and Apple’s The Morning Show are, as you point out, the vanguard of the second wave of streaming services that launched this past year. (Quibi also brought in a raft of short-form nominations; credit where it’s due.) Netflix didn’t build its HBO-beating nomination engine in a day, though; my prediction is that this year will be a sort of beachhead, where Apple and Disney get invited to the party but still don’t win the night, at least not yet. Next year, they may well be joined by HBO Max, where Raised by Wolves is evidently doing well enough to get a speedy renewal. Maybe an acting nod for Anna Kendrick, or a reality hosting one for Selena Gomez?

For the moment, though, as ridiculous as it feels to call a trillion-dollar corporation and the proprietor of the Marvel Cinematic Universe an “underdog,” that’s precisely what Apple and Disney remain. I certainly don’t see Disney toppling Watchmen, the night’s most-nominated show by a long shot with 26 nods. We should probably talk about Watchmen, don’t you think?

Surrey: Only if we’re going to talk about the all-powerful Lube Man. (Like the summoning circle meme, I hope mentioning him in a blog means one of the awards show segments involves that slippery fella.) But yes, Watchmen is the show to beat in its Emmys categories—anything other than the series nabbing Outstanding Limited Series as well as an acting win for Regina King should register as shocking upsets. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jean Smart also have strong shots at winning their respective acting categories.)

Watchmen has deserved all the plaudits that have come its way—including the Television Critics Association (of which we are both members) declaring it the Program of the Year. Damon Lindelof didn’t recontextualize Alan Moore’s graphic novel for the present day, he effectively wove the miniseries’ alternative universe into America’s real and very much ongoing history of racial violence. It’s a show that isn’t just exceptional on its own terms: Watchmen was made for the moment. And if I was a betting man, the series will be celebrated as such come Sunday.

I think a similar argument can be made for Succession, which racked up a ton of drama nominations, especially in the acting categories (shout-out Cousin Greg!). Succession is a much different show than Watchmen, but it’s still brilliant; it allows its viewers to luxuriate in watching a bunch of rich, awful people running a conservative entertainment conglomerate constantly stab themselves in the back. It’s like Game of Thrones, if everyone was part of House Lannister. And I suspect that, instead of a pricey genre series like The Mandalorian or Stranger Things filling the Thrones void, the Emmys throne will belong to the Roy family. (Better Call Saul deserves its due, but once the Television Academy snubbed the great Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk, I knew in my heart it would never get the credit it deserved.)

But if the limited series and drama categories (probably) belong to these two shows, comedy is still a wild card. Ramy, Insecure, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek—they all have their merits. Do you see any one show or performer standing out from the pack?

Herman: I have to say, I’m glad that this year’s drama and limited series favorites aren’t just topical, but good. We all know awards-granting bodies have a weakness for middle-school-level “message” media that Speaks to the Times but doesn’t do much else. But Watchmen isn’t Green Book, and Succession isn’t Bombshell. Both series predicted the moment instead of responding to it, and both series explore their themes with a sharpness, subtlety, and strangeness that frankly leaves me pleasantly surprised the cream is rising to the Emmys’ top.

As for comedy, the contenders you highlight broadly fall into two categories: either self-started vehicles for ascendant new voices or triumphant victory laps. There are major caveats to both of those rough groupings: Insecure is in its fourth season (which still makes it young in Emmy years, as shown by the new nods for the show itself and Yvonne Orji), while The Good Place is an innovative departure for network sitcoms as we know them. Nevertheless, getting ahead of the curve and heralding new arrivals is the Golden Globes’ game. The Emmys love a ringer (no pun intended), and they love the final season of a beloved staple. What Jon Hamm’s long-overdue win for Mad Men was to 2015, a laurel for the feel-good Canadian family antics on Schitt’s Creek or Ted Danson’s work as an angel/demon/immortal being could be for 2020. But I’d love to be surprised!

Before we wrap up: Now that your beloved Rhea Seehorn is definitively out (sorry to twist the knife), are there any other nominees that serve as your sentimental favorite? I don’t think it can measure up to Watchmen, but the superlative Mrs. America is represented just enough to give me false hope. All hail Queen Cate!

Surrey: Me, sad about Rhea Seehorn being snubbed despite giving the single best performance on television this year? That’s nonsense, I look fine:

Since Better Call Saul’s ethically compromised lawyers can’t get their due, my heart is rooting for the women of two of my favorite shows, Ozark and Dead to Me. Dead to Me’s Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini have the misfortune of competing against one another for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series; I could see them canceling each other out in the votes on the already slim chance of either actress getting a win in a stacked category. But I will always go to bat for Dead to Me—or I guess to keep it in the spirit of the show, drink my body weight in wine.

Meanwhile, since Seehorn isn’t involved, my sentimental pick for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series is Ozark’s Laura Linney, who was an absolute force transforming into the closest thing that show has to a Walter White. I also still love Linney’s costar Julia Garner, who won an Emmy in the supporting actress category last year; she deserves to two-peat for her delivery of the line “fucking bitch wolf” alone.

The monotonous nature of (responsible) life in quarantine has made it hard for me to get hyped for anything, but this conversation was a good reminder that the virtual Emmys can at least entertain and unite us for a few hours on Sunday. Even if being united means acknowledging just how awkward it looks when someone’s stream cuts off mid-acceptance speech.