The Insane Pandemic Emmy Awards Were So Much Better Than the Normal Show
The biggest shock of Emmys night: It turns out that making TV’s biggest actors accept trophies from their living rooms makes for the most refreshing and fun award show in years.
“What could possibly go right?”
Maybe Jimmy Kimmel was intentionally setting a low bar when he introduced this year’s unprecedented virtual Emmy Awards telecast. He and a dozen or so celebrities presented awards to an empty arena in a pandemic, while more than 120 cameras, ring lights, and internet feeds were juggled in a control room, a production challenge akin to an agent in a spy thriller tumbling through a bank vault without tripping the security lasers. Mission: Impossible, the Awards Show.
Cynics and realists joined hands together in anticipation of Sunday night’s show. There was no way it could be pulled off, they sneered, let alone be entertaining.
We all entered the night wondering whether we would be watching an award show, or the world’s most star-studded Zoom meeting. The answer in the end was a little bit of both, and also something more: maybe the most refreshing overhaul of an award show in years.
It was a night brimming with spirit and a “sure, why not?” gumption, an endearing energy that made things both looser in tone and tighter in flow.
It was an evening in which a man dressed in a hazmat suit presented an Emmy Award to Catherine O’Hara (a rather perfect Catherine O’Hara moment, if you ask me) and an exploding box blasted confetti and a trophy-bearing fist at RuPaul. Which is to say that it was an evening of lunacy, of corny, total chaos: utterly bizarre, occasionally poignant, never not surreal, and a fraction of the grandeur we tune in for in normal times—and therefore perhaps the perfect award show for right now.
These things are a slog, so you have to smile, shrug, and sigh at the Emmys for, even when producing a virtual ceremony, the telecast stretches to three hours. But it was an uncharacteristically invigorating three hours of award-showing.
With Kimmel setting the tone, you got the sense that the pandemic-necessitated extremes forced everyone to realize how silly all the typical pageantry really is.
Like the Democratic National Convention before it, the necessity to pivot to something untraditional has made us realize how monstrous, unwieldy, and unpleasant—and, to say the least, out of touch—these major events have become. The crash back down to earth is occasionally messy. But, somehow, stripping away the pomp and the glamour also took away the pretentious self-importance, which in turn amplifies its value and power.
It was smart of Kimmel to self-effacingly address the elephant in the room from the top, which is that there were no elephants in the room. “Seriously, I’m asking. Why are we having an award show in the middle of a pandemic?” he said, then joking, “And what the hell am I doing here? This is the year they decide to have a host?!”
It seems “frivolous and unnecessary” to go to such Herculean efforts to stage a Hollywood circle jerk at this moment in time, but so does “doing it every other year,” he joked. He then continued to spell out how unimportant a kudo-fest like this is before conceding, “but it is fun, and right now we need fun.”
Then there’s the indisputable fact that, throughout the “dark tunnel” of this lockdown, the “friend who’s there for us 24 hours a day” is television. So why not have some fun for a night in its honor?
There are different things you pay attention to when you’re watching a pandemic award show telecast.
Of all the ways in which live telecasts have tried to account for the fact that no audience means no laughter and no applause—and, producers fear, no energy—the gag of having clips and audio of past Emmy Award attendees responding to previous years’ bits as if they were reacting to Kimmel’s monologue was by far my favorite. It was the exact right amount of goofy, strange, and winking.
In a similar vein, the awkward and cheesy presenters’ banter when there is no nervous, embarrassed laughter from a live audience is delightfully heinous. I was kind of obsessed with the unsettling whimsy of it all.
Then there’s the judgment of watching famous people hanging out together in their various virtual feeds while we’re still at home being told to socially distance. It’s a wild experience to watch people win Emmy Awards while wearing face masks. And one wonders just how big the show’s COVID testing budget was when they see Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, and Courteney Cox stage a mini Friends reunion, or the entire Schitt’s Creek cast gathered together in a Canadian mansion for the night.
You assume everything is safe, but it’s still emotionally exhausting to see anybody hanging out with each other. To that regard, if Kimmel’s opening “what could possibly go right?” is the quote of the night, then perhaps Damon Lindelof’s, “We all got tested. I swear,” after a crowd of Watchmen’s writers and producers cheered its big Limited Series win together, could be a runner-up.
Also in contention for delivering the night’s defining line could be Regina King, who won Best Actress in a Limited Series/TV Movie for Watchmen and, dressed in a hot pink suit and Breonna Taylor “Say Her Name” T-shirt quipped, “This is so freaking weird.”
If there’s been a question before of how much to acknowledge current and political events at an award show, this one essentially demanded the celebrities do it. They’re holding Emmys in front of a laptop in their COVID bubble. How could they not?
Uzo Aduba, who won Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series/TV Movie for playing Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America, also wore Taylor’s face on her shirt. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death was acknowledged by King and by Kimmel.
Messages to vote were mixed into almost every speech, alongside meek well-wishes to find light and love in our dark world. Anthony Anderson preached Black Lives Matter in a presenter bit and Tracee Ellis Ross promoted the Census.
Lindelof, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (winner for Watchmen), Mark Ruffalo (winner for I Know This Much Is True), and director Andrij Parekh (winner for Succession) delivered incredible, passionate speeches invoking a host of timely, resonant issues. "Stop worrying about getting canceled and ask yourself what you’re doing to get renewed,” from Lindelof, is another great line.
Schitt’s Creek won every single comedy award presented Sunday night—seven of its nine total wins—a historic achievement underlying how beloved and remarkable its final season’s message of inclusion and love was.
In a particularly great moment, Kimmel quipped, “Past losers of this category have gone on to become President of the United States,” right before presenting Best Reality Competition series to RuPaul’s Drag Race, a celebration of queerness, Blackness, overcoming adversity, and being vibrant in defiance of the very systemic oppressions the former Apprentice overlord is fortifying from the Oval Office.
There are people who will not be appeased by any of it, who will scream “you’re rich celebrities, who gives a shit!” into the void until the end of time when it comes to there being any meaning or value to Hollywood outreach like this.
There is a metaphor there, for sure, in Jennifer Aniston holding a fire extinguisher as a literal dumpster fire blazed at her and Kimmel’s feet for a bit, an image encapsulating the entire farce of the idea that celebrities and famous people have any power to end the flaming disaster we’re living through. To wit, Aniston even failed at putting it out, giving up when it wouldn’t stop burning after one try, likely assuming someone else would take care of the real work. (A producer eventually bellowed “put it out!” at her and disaster was staved.)
That easily could have been a metaphor for the entire show, but, contrary to Kimmel’s warning, things generally went off without a hitch. If anything, the remote set-up had advantages.
It was nice that no winner had to be played off because of the excessive bloat inherent to these shows. It was fun to watch the myriad interpretations of no real dress code. People like Elton John, Shaq, and Morgan Freeman presented the Best Comedy Series nominees. There was no uncomfortable applause hierarchy in the In Memoriam segment, which was performed gorgeously by H.E.R.
Everyone involved in the show just seemed game and, because of the uniqueness of everything, perhaps even more touched when they won. The nominees who lost cheering loudly for the winner in their category, audible support because there was no other crowd to cheer for them, was genuinely touching.
It helped that the first seven winners were at a viewing party with a microphone to give speeches from, lending a semblance of normalcy to things. And starting the night with Catherine O’Hara winning an Emmy... well, it’s nice that something finally went right in 2020. (Though if the Schitt’s Creek sweep didn’t border on excessive, it was at least a tad exhausting to have the wins all happen back-to-back at the beginning.)
There was more pre-show attention than usual on this year’s Emmys because. If the glitz of a normal show is stripped away, it would need to justify itself in another fashion. Other than an exercise in nimble ingenuity under extreme circumstances, what merit was there in going through the effort to stage a live ceremony at all? Rubbernecking a car wreck would have made plenty of people happy; a polished, blandly executed “success” would have been a bore.
Those salivating to scavenge a disaster were disappointed by Sunday’s telecast. But if you could approach the show with a healthy dose of earnestness, you were likely bowled over by the night’s biggest shock: It was the most enjoyable Emmy Awards in years.