How long did it take you to realize the audience was fake?
We all knew the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards would be the first marquee awards show of the social distancing era, and what that would mean—no traditional red carpet, very few nominees present in person, and certainly no packed stands at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. But knowing is not the same thing as internalizing. So when host Jimmy Kimmel welcomed us to “the Pandemmys” and the camera cut to a joyous crowd, it didn’t automatically set off alarm bells. After all, an audience is what we expect from an awards show. And while the archival footage of Jon Hamm, Lorne Michaels, and even Kimmel himself yukking it up was eventually acknowledged as a bit, it was also an oddly effective way of easing an audience into an evening that couldn’t help but buck expectations for how an awards show should go. As winner Regina King put it: “This is so freakin’ weird.”
The honors themselves held some surprises, of course: a Canadian sitcom distributed on an obscure American cable channel became the first-ever comedy to sweep all seven televised awards in its category; Zendaya proved teen programming on HBO can get buzz and win statues; The Morning Show’s sole victory went to Billy Crudup. But this year, the typically rote progression of an awards broadcast—monologue, musical number, long walks up to the stage, orchestral play-offs—was inevitably interrupted. The expectations were set appropriately low; beforehand, Kimmel braced for “a beautiful disaster,” while the ceremony itself was studded with self-deprecating cracks. “What could go right?” Kimmel asked, rhetorically, toward the end of his opening remarks. With six months of pent-up demand for spectacle, the answer was somewhat surprisingly: plenty.
Though Kimmel was careful to acknowledge the Emmys are “frivolous,” “unnecessary,” and unlikely to solve any of the pressing issues of 2020, TV arguably has a better claim on high-minded rhetoric than ever. That rhetoric would come soon enough: from Cynthia Erivo and Lena Waithe, discussing the importance of representation; from Academy CEO Frank Scherma, highlighting the power of culture as a connecting force in quarantine; from Tyler Perry, accepting a Governor’s Award for lifetime achievement in the industry. Mostly, though, the broadcast showed rather than told. However choppy, however strange, it was almost soothing to watch a version of such a familiar ritual. The anticipated hiccups, like a phone going off in the middle of Jesse Armstrong’s acceptance speech for Succession’s Outstanding Drama win, were endearing. The typical, usually tiresome clichés—like the in memoriam montage, set to a classic song covered by an up-and-coming artist—were reassuring.
Overseen by executive producer Reginald Hudin, the first Black EP in Emmys history, the telecast wove together over 100 live feeds from across the globe. A handful of presenters took the necessary precautions to appear in-house: Jennifer Aniston, Randall Park, Jason Sudeikis, Laverne Cox, and more showed up for the usual elaborate bits, this time without even half-hearted audience laughter to make the prop comedy go down. Many more relevant parties simply beamed in from home with a charmingly mismatched array of backdrops, dress codes, and companions. All of them were displayed in a sort of jerry-rigged panopticon somewhere in Staples Center’s guts, a patchwork whose makeshift feeling belied the brain-breaking logistics required to make it a reality.
At times, the Emmys even used the unique circumstances to their advantage. With no need to clear their schedules or schlep to Los Angeles, a slew of A-listers popped in for quick cameos. (Apparently, Morgan Freeman is a Kominsky Method superfan.) So did an array of essential workers, who joined the likes of David Letterman in pretaping quick introductions from their posts in hospitals, on ranches, or in outer space. Sometimes, the juxtaposition rang false, as when a COVID survivor segued from her harrowing brush with death to a list of acclaimed actresses. More often, though, the effect was charming, breaking up the monotony of what’s usually a single-location show and keeping the pace brisk. Glass-half-full moments popped up in abundance: Kimmel presented about half the awards himself, trimming yet more fat; Reese Witherspoon’s audio cut out, furthering the impression we were dropping in on Hollywood’s equivalent of an office all-hands.
The ceremony was aided in its efforts by an unusually satisfying set of awards. The first hour of the night was an unbroken victory lap for Schitt’s Creek, a testament to the power of feel-good optimism in a trying time—not to mention the power of the Netflix bump. (The wins for Catherine O’Hara, Dan Levy, and more won’t count toward the streaming service’s total since the show aired first on Pop TV, but they ought to.) The other series winners, while hilarious in their own right, were more somber in their resonance. Watchmen spoke directly to the protests alluded to by the wardrobe choices by Regina King and Uzo Aduba, both of whom nodded to Breonna Taylor with their outfits; Succession’s Jesse Armstrong gave “un-thank-you’s” to many of his clear inspirations, including our leaders.
All of these wins are ones to feel good about—much more in the spirit of Fleabag’s unlikely triumph than Game of Thrones’ unbroken, unexciting streak. They helped paper over the Emmys’ highly visible seams: the absurd spectacle of some nominees having trophies dangled in their face while an actual winner had to fashion hers out of tin foil; “live” presentations that were clearly pretaped, perhaps because John Oliver’s fifth consecutive win was more predictable than most. Television is an effective distraction from our current upheaval, but it’s also a reflection of the zeitgeist, a contradiction the Emmys impressively managed to embody on multiple levels.