After last year’s disastrous live Emmy show, it took a global pandemic and the complete evisceration of the rulebook for the Television Academy’s grandest night of the year to get its groove back. As host Jimmy Kimmel delivered his opening monologue to an empty theater, and as stories of hundreds of camera kits dispatched so that winners could deliver speeches live lingered fresh in mind, the idea that any of this could work looked bleak.
But somehow it did, resulting in an Emmy show that not only went off without a single technical hitch despite the ambitious setup, but also found a perfect balance of politics, comedy and prizegiving.
Here are some of the highlights and lowlights.
The Schitt Hot Viewing Party
A tent erected in a gothic mansion in Toronto was the viewing party to end all viewing parties last night, as the Schitt’s Creek gang pulled off the remarkable feat of winning the night’s first seven awards, making good on every one of its nominations. Eugene Levy and son Daniel Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy all were on hand to deliver their speeches from the night’s most technically proficient outside broadcast — a Zoom setup so good it put most of the homebound lockdown talk shows to shame. And indeed, as the history-making run continued throughout the first hour, it looked like the first award they weren’t nominated for, Outstanding Variety Talk Series, might just have gone their way anyway.
If 2019 was the year of the British invasion with Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge placing a spell on the U.S. entertainment business, 2020 certainly was the Great White North’s year. Although Sandra Oh and Samantha Bee lost out, Schitt’s Creek’s sweep placed the focus north of the border. It’s remarkable how the Levys took the show from a small, publicly funded Canadian comedy to a record-breaking Emmy winner that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “historic.” As Dan Levy, whose overall deal at ABC Signature now looks like a steal, said it’s a “gentle reminder” that shows need time to grow because, in the “wrong hands,” it would have been “yanked off the air” for “underperforming.” Expect the CBC’s phone lines to be busy with calls from south of the border today.
Least Impassioned Speech
As it turned out, the prize for Outstanding Variety Talk Series went, yet again, to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, whose host quickly burst the loving bubble with an acceptance that seemed more bemused than grateful. Given that Oliver now has his name on 13 statuettes from the TV Academy, this wasn’t much of a shock, itself a deflating reality. But coming hot on the heels of the Schitt’s love-in, the show’s fifth consecutive win in this category seemed a little pointless for all concerned. Still, after last year’s British invasion, it was nice that Oliver, as well as Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, continued to rep the old Empire. Oliver’s nonchalance can be somewhat excused by the fact that pretty much the entire late-night business knew he was going to win best variety talk show, again. Last Week Tonight has won five times in a row, despite the fact that while its pandemic programming has been solid, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert have been more relevant and Desus & Mero has been more fresh and exciting. Added to repeat wins for RuPaul’s Drag Race and Saturday Night Live, it seems, certainly in the entertainment categories, that Television Academy voters are ticking the same old boxes rather than making fresh choices.
One Speech to Rule Them All
The recipient of the night’s prestigious Governors Award, Tyler Perry, delivered a speech so stirring it should be studied in schools. Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock set up Perry’s path from homelessness to his disruptive position now as one of film and television’s most accomplished self-starters. Rock’s quip that “Hollywood saw him as a fad and didn’t do sh*t to help him” established the stakes, but Perry spared no time for criticism in his acceptance, which focused on the importance of heritage and of lifting others up. As he told the story of how he’d come to realize the importance of a quilt his grandmother had gifted him, his message, that we’re “all sewing our own quilts with our thoughts, our behaviors, our experiences and our memories” was one an industry built on excluding people it considered “other” needed to hear.
Calls to Vote & Salutes to RBG, Breonna Taylor & Key Workers
President Donald Trump’s name rarely was mentioned, but it was a powerful night in terms of calls for social change and political action. One of the nicest touches were the awards read out by a group of key workers including doctors Katie Duke, Kevin and Karen Tsai, postal worker Tim Lloyd, trucker Jacina Duran and history teacher Cindy Marcellin. Breonna Taylor, the young EMT killed by officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department, and the last Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were saluted by winners including Mrs. America’s Uzo Aduba and Watchmen’s Regina King. Damon Lindelof dedicated his award to the victims and survivors of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, This Is Us’ Sterling K. Brown and Black-ish’s Anthony Anderson highlighted Black Lives Matters, and I Know This Much Is True’s Mark Ruffalo was among a number of stars to urge viewers to vote.
What The [Bleep]?
The Emmys, as ever, airing on broadcast television, always has bleeped some of the more colorful language. Peter Dinklage, Jesse Armstrong and Elisabeth Moss all have been bleeped in recent years. However, last night’s most egregious use of the button was when Black-ish star Anderson was muted for a reference to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s song “WAP.” But Anderson, after saying this was supposed to be the Blackest Emmys ever, didn’t even spell out what WAP means. Elsewhere, Laverne Cox similarly was bleeped, while Jimmy Kimmel had to explain early in the show why the Schitt’s Creek title card kept coming on screen. “In order to meet broadcast standards, the network has decided that every time I say the words Schitt’s Creek, we’re required to put the words Schitt’s Creek [on screen]. Just in case you’re wondering why network television is almost dead. HBO can show us a big blue penis, no problem. I can’t say the word Schitt’s with a c.”
Worst Product Placement
All right, so last year’s invasion of the Emmy red carpet and stage by the characters from Fox reality show The Masked Singer might be the most egregious act of convoluted product placement at an awards show in recent memory, but still … did we need a dozen references to Kia being the car of “choice” for the hazmat-suited Emmy delivery drones winging golden prizes to winners’ houses? First off, it wasn’t like we didn’t realize each nominee had their own delivery person ready to hand them an award — Ramy Youssef tweeted a video of his sadly waving goodbye when he didn’t win — but second, who ever said “I need to get something to someone fast, so I’d better take the Kia”?
The Joy of Friends & Family
The pure elation of Zendaya’s family and friends when she became the youngest Emmy winner for Lead Actress in a Drama was something that never would have been seen during a normal year. It was clear how happy that room was for the Euphoria star (I was worried for a moment that the lady in the back was going to faint) as she beat the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh. There were other, similarly, unscripted moments of joy from Jeremy Strong interrupting his speech for Actor in a Drama Series to give someone a kiss and Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who ignored his low-angled camera setup to get a well-deserved hug after his win for Supporting Actor in a Limited Series. Talking of friends and Aniston, The Morning Show star deserves praise for being game to humor Jimmy Kimmel with both a fire extinguisher gag and rounding up her Friends co-stars Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow. Same to Jason Bateman, who played straight man to Kimmel during the opening and also reunited with his Horrible Bosses co-star Aniston later on.
Least Inspiring Viewing Party
Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington watched the Emmys from a convoluted make-believe 2021 New Year’s Eve party — complete with festive hats and novelty glasses — as their shows failed almost entirely to make the board, and as a line of mask-wearing partygoers made the entire affair look like something out of a dystopian science fiction story. We hope all concerned were able to have a good time regardless — perhaps Witherspoon could at least raise a glass of her $300-a-bottle champagne to toast Billy Crudup’s win for The Morning Show — but of all the windows we got into nominees’ home setups last night, theirs felt the least inviting. Not least because with a contentious election ahead, an empty Supreme Court seat and a global pandemic that shows no signs of abating, the idea that 2021 might be any better than our current reality seems far from guaranteed.