“These are the strangest of days,” Catherine O’Hara said Sunday night when the Schitt’s Creek star grabbed the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. That’s putting it politely, as Canadians so often do.
The SCTV alum was standing in a masked and socially distanced Toronto viewing party with her castmates, but O’Hara also nailed the paradox of pulling off the 2020 Emmy Awards in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
With Jimmy Kimmel back for a hat-trick hosting stint, the three-hour-plus ceremony saw big wins for Schitt’s Creek, Watchmen, Succession, Euphoria’s Zendaya, The Morning Show’s Billy Crudup and Ozark’s Julia Garner. What the HBO-dominated Emmys also saw was a big warning to the Golden Globes and the Oscars to be prepared to up their game before hitting the air next year, virtual or not.
Part of that new high bar is that everything went off flawlessly from a technical point of view for what my colleague Pete Hammond rightly called a Herculean task. However, like the difference between prog rock and punk rock, there was more than the daunting logistics of handing out awards for 23 top small-screen categories at stake. Sunday’s Emmys risked being tripped almost from the beginning by dead air or the threat thereof.
With an A+ for effort and a B+ for execution, it was an obstacle the ceremony executive produced by Reginald Hudlin and Ian Stewart primarily overcame.
“What could possibly go right?” asked Kimmel. Well, it turns out, almost everything.
The digital high-wire act came in strongest and most intimately near the end with the In Memoriam that started off with a moving tribute to recently departed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and had a Prince soundtrack via H.E.R. In an era where awards shows often find new ways to face-plant, that loving look at those the industry has lost was followed by Governors Award recipient Tyler Perry’s poetic words that unveiled the power of true change in an America that often seems more frayed than ever. Then there was that joyful kiss that Succession’s stunned Jeremy Strong gave to the person who handed him his Emmy off-camera at home.
For an America and industry that is pretty much Zoomed out, those up-close and personal moments in a time when many of us feel so isolated from each other over the past six months, were the real wins.
“Hello and welcome to the Pandemmys,” said Kimmel kicking off the ABC show from a near empty Staples Center in downtown LA. In seats punctuated by cardboard cutouts and, for a short time, Ozark’s Jason Bateman, the late-night host was determined to make the best of a COVID-19-determined raw deal. Spotlighting a Hollywood shut down since March due to the global health crisis and the chaotic response here in America, the Emmys had a lot riding on them this year.
Yes, the Friends mini-reunion and Bateman’s subsequent photo bombing was pure cheese and the overall energy level waned more than once (talking to you, David Letterman), despite one-man band D-Nice’s best efforts and beats. That’s OK, because the 72nd annual Primetime Emmy Awards ended up being much better than anyone presumed or maybe even thought it deserved to be – which is a win by any measure.
“The world may be terrible, but TV has never been better,” Kimmel asserted in his opening on a night that saw the broadcast networks virtually ignored in the prestigious categories despite the sarcastic best efforts of past winner Sterling K. Brown.
That’s debatable to some extent, but from footage of star-studded audiences from past awards shows at the start to a game Jennifer Aniston, fire extinguishers and trophy black boxes, this slice of television soon saw the novelty value expire.
There were needless skits on Emmy Delivery Training and Russian infiltration of the USPS filling up time. Beyond that, however, a real narrative emerged on Sunday’s Emmys that had truly something to say.
On a night that saw record wins by African-Americans, the emphasis on the power of inclusion and representation as told by the likes of Anthony Anderson staunchly declaring Black Lives Matter, Lena Waithe, America Ferrera and Cynthia Ervo, stated this was an Emmys for 2020. Closer to home for Hollywood, the sit-down segment with Insecure’s Issa Rae on how a meeting with a bigoted executive early in her career left her “fuming” and re-motivated in its discrimination was just as razor sharp. The Emmy nominee cut to the bone when she said, “You know, one of us got fired after that.”
The participation of frontline essential workers and health care worker to TV’s big night was a lovely bow to some real-life superstars. Yet, truth be told, for a town that loves to opine, we could have done with much more political and cultural riposte in the final stretch before America votes on if Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be POTUS and just days after the death of the Notorious RBG.
With the exception of Succession boss Jessie Armstrong un-thanking the former Celebrity Apprentice host, there seems to have been an agreement to never mention the current occupant of the White House by name tonight. In fact, the names of former VP Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris went unspoken also, but you certainly could pick up what was being put down.
Kimmel didn’t hide where this was all coming from when he proclaimed “this isn’t a MAGA rally, it’s the Emmys” over not having a real and potentially superspreading audience in front of him.
The host wasn’t the only one.
Pleading with Americans to “have a voting plan” and closing with a “rest in power RBG,” Regina King’s two-minute-plus acceptance speech for her Watchmen Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie win had more to say about the state of the nation than most cable newsers’ primetime schedules.
He never said Trump, yet, following with his own Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie victory, I Know This Much Is True’s Mark Ruffalo took to the stump too in a passionate plea for “love, strength” and an equal opportunity American Dream.
In true Rose family fashion, Dan Levy and the Schitt’s Creek team put on a show of their own with their party up North. Promising everyone had been tested and advocating artists be a “bull in the china shop,” Watchmen’s Damon Lindelof held a West LA shindig for the HBO show’s writing staff too. Both were a contrast to the Staples Center presentations by Black-ish’s semi-political Tracee Ellis Ross, a COVID-19-tested Jason Sudeikis and the at-home glimpses of non-winning nominees in various categories. Like the Emmys themselves, they were just all too long, as losing nominees Ramy Youssef and Taika Waititi displayed when they individually caught the moment with tweets:
when you lose the emmy pic.twitter.com/ECkbGcoHBA
— ramy youssef (@ramy) September 21, 2020
— Taika Waititi (@TaikaWaititi) September 21, 2020
From almost the day this very different Emmys ceremony was announced, Kimmel and the producers have been working overtime to play down expectations.
Often unprompted, the host and the people BTS have predicted glitches, virtual SNAFUs and record-low ratings. With hundreds of camera kits sent out to nominees all over the City of Angels and the world, wildfires raging in the Golden State, potentially unstable Wi-Fi and a plethora of wild-card factors always a possibility, the “live without a net” element of the whole thing managed to be much more exhilarating than it was excruciating.
Still, the fact is the L.A.-based Kimmel faced both the NFL’s Sunday Night Football on NBC and the Los Angeles Lakers beating the Denver Nuggets in a dramatic second game of the Western Conference Finals in the NBA’s bubble playoffs on TNT. Coming off last year’s hostless show’s record-low ratings, the quality of the 2020 Emmy Awards will have problems snagging a big quantity of eyeballs tonight.
Which is a hard reality and a shame, because the show was fun and, despite what Kimmel insisted in his opening monologue, it was important too. And that’s certainly a win in these very strange days.
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