Look, the Emmy Awards Were Not the Worst Thing to Happen in 2020

     September 20, 2020

emmy-awards-2020-bryan-cranstonGetting mad at an awards show is like getting mad at a cat. Admittedly, as a rule, awards shows are a lot less cute and fuzzy than cats, but an awards show is what it is, is going to do what it’s going to do, and no matter how much you yell at them, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see much change in their behavior.

This remains true even during a pandemic, this year’s Emmy Awards ceremony reveals, which were unlike any ceremony in television history but still featured some awkward gags, some funny ones, some blatant product placement and cross-promotion, a few shining moments of surprise, and plenty of wins that will undoubtedly frustrate many but please a select few.

This year, to the credit of host Jimmy Kimmel and the writers, the opening monologue didn’t try to trot out the “art is the most important thing and that’s why we have to do this tonight” messaging you might have expected from a show being held in truly troubled times. Instead, the night was presented as what it basically is: a fun distraction.

The opening minutes blended Kimmel’s up-to-date monologue jokes with archival footage of past Emmys audiences laughing — before, of course, the eventual reveal that Jimmy was really performing to a nearly empty auditorium, an appropriately 2020 dystopian visual.

Like most awards show bits, it was relatively predictable. In fact, the entire show was, wildly enough in this wild year, almost entirely predictable from beginning to end, and there’s comfort to be found in that, even though it meant a show where the first seven awards all went to the same batch of very happy Canadians. Is Schitt’s Creek that good a show? Would it have been nice for the wealth to be spread around a little bit more, especially considering that The Good Place was also a multiple nominee for its final season? I know where I land on that, but Schitt’s Creek is an awfully hard show to get mad at, especially right now.

In general, the Emmys did a decent job of performing the most valuable service an awards show can offer in the 21st century: Surfacing shows that may or may not have gotten lost in the turbulent ocean of content currently available but tragically underseen. The fervent Schitt’s Creek fandom may grow larger after the show’s sweep, meaning that more people will be exposed to its positive energy and brilliant comedic performances. Uzo Aduba‘s win for her role in Mrs. America doesn’t just serve to remind viewers that the excellent nine-part miniseries is streaming now — it will increase the modern audience’s awareness of real-life heroes like Shirley Chisholm.

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Image via Netflix

The four-part Netflix series Unorthodox, which picked up a surprise win in the Directing For A Limited Series, Movie Or Dramatic Special category, is definitely a show that very few people might have seen, up until now. But it’s exactly the sort of niche-yet-universal programming that makes this era of television so special. By the way, congrats to Unorthodox director Maria Schrader, the only woman to win a non-acting award tonight. It was… not a great year for women behind the scenes, at least as far as the Emmys were concerned. (But then again, is it ever?)

There were some good jokes (including a vicious Quibi salvo), a lady Friends reunion, way more Jason Bateman than I was expecting, and not nearly enough alpaca. During a press conference last Wednesday, executive producers Ian Stewart and Reginald Hudlin had told reporters that they were prepared for anything to go wrong: “We’ve got Jimmy Kimmel who loves live TV and loves chaos in live TV — I think he’s actually hoping things do go wrong, to tell you the truth.” but beyond the occasional phone ringing or internet glitch, it was a remarkably smooth event, running just barely a few minutes over three hours.

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Image via ABC

Rather than see the stars in their most elaborate get-ups, we got glimpses into their lives during quarantine, whether it be pre-taped bits with Margo Martindale and Bryan Cranston showing us how they keep busy or Zendaya‘s family cheering for her win. Damon Lindelof said that his living room of celebrants had all been tested before jumping up and down after Watchmen took the Outstanding Limited Series award, but it still made me nervous to see so many people gathered wearing so few masks. At least the glitzy Schitt’s Creek party seemed to be partially outdoors and also in Canada, where COVID is less of a threat.

The ceremony being staged like it was of course was far from normal, but beyond pandemic anxiety, the feelings it triggered weren’t too different from usual: elation, frustration, that 20 minute period in the middle where you’re a bit bored and sleepy and waiting for the Chinese food to show up, and then the final rush of wins. The political moments felt vital and necessary, such as when both Regina King and Aduba used their tops to remind us that the cops who shot Breonna Taylor are still not in jail. David Letterman was coaxed out of his semi-retirement to do some jokes (admittedly from the year 1986, but hey, he’s been out of the game for a while now).

And Succession star Jeremy Strong won a kiss from Daddy.

As mentioned, the best version of the Emmys doesn’t just celebrate the greatest television of the previous year — the awards also hopefully surface television that might have gone unseen. A night dominated by just three shows isn’t perhaps the most successful version of that, but one of those shows was Watchmen, and while the other two revolved around entitled white families… Well, complaining about stuff like this is a bright spot of normalcy in a very abnormal year. And let’s face it — 2020 has been disappointing in far, far more egregious ways so far.

So cheers to the producers of this year’s Emmys for getting through this almost impossible challenge. Now, it’s time to consider everything else that’s happening in the world, and get mad about that. 

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Television