Nothing sets up disappointment as surely as high expectations. And thus, before even one minute of the 2020 Emmys had aired, they were in a relatively strong position: No one could possibly have had any expectations for them at all. Taking place, as they did, amid a series of global and national catastrophes—the viral of which had turned the annual soiree into a remote experiment—the Emmys were about as wanted as a plantar wart, as timely as a calendar from 1996, as necessary as a fanny pack on a kangaroo. They had to clear a bar so low it might as well have been buried in the ground. Nevertheless: They did it. By the end of the night, the weirdest thing about the Pandemic Emmys was how normal they felt.
The show started like nothing was up. Using audience footage from years past as his laugh track, host Jimmy Kimmel began the show, the “Pandemmies,” with what seemed like a standard, jokey monologue. (It worked for me, easing us into the weirdness of it all. Or maybe what worked for me is thinking about what all his jokes would have sounded like without a piped-in response, which was what happened for much of the rest of the night.) The jig was up when Kimmel spotted himself in his own audience, and he “revealed” he was all alone on the stage at the Staples Center. “Why would you have an awards show in the middle of a pandemic? No seriously, I’m asking,” he said, before answering his own question. Yes, the Emmys may seem even more frivolous and unnecessary this year than they do every other year, but “we need fun—my God, do we need fun.” Moreover, he said, we need TV. In these trying times, Kimmel explained, we have all “found a friend: our old pal television.” It wouldn’t be the Emmys if it wasn’t also an advertisement.
The first third of the show seemed designed to support Kimmel’s point. Schitt’s Creek, a lovely and cozy series that many people have discovered during the pandemic, had a historic sweep, winning every major comedy category. If ever a show were a friend, this one is it. In recent years, the academy has restructured the ceremony so that all of the comedy awards come at the same time, which meant it got a little exhausting to return to the same Toronto event space where the cast was cleaning up. But it’s hard to begrudge Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy recognition, though I do suspect that Schitt’s Creek’s squishy feel-goodness and Canadian-ness kept the night less political than it otherwise might have been. It’s a feel-good show, for an awards show that was trying to make you feel good.
With the comedy awards, the show established its M.O., a mixture of civilian presenters with Zoomed-in winners, fleeting glances at the losers you wish you could see more of, some good sight gags, some solid pre-taped bits—famous people presenting the nominees for Best Comedy was so charming, why didn’t they do it for the other Best categories?—and a bunch of messaging on both COVID and diversity that ran throughout the broadcast without ever quite dominating its narrative. Jason Sudeikis took a COVID test on screen, not particularly as a joke: just to demystify it and show it was something you could do while, well, presenting an award. Essential workers, mostly women—a teacher, truck driver, farmer, nurse, doctor, and so on—presented some of the awards, and did so at a much faster clip than the famous people.
Interspersed throughout were three videos, one featuring Issa Rae, another Lena Waithe, another America Ferrera, in which they talked about their experiences in the industry. Rae talked about a terrible pitch meeting that must have happened in the early aughts, when a white executive insisted he knew what Black people wanted to watch more than she did. Ferrera recalled being asked to sound “more Latina.” Waithe remembered what it felt like to watch A Different World and see a character, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, with her name, and feel seen. In other words, it was a trio of videos meant to show how far the industry has come, in which women of color spoke honest about how bad the industry was very recently. Talking openly about this at the industry’s biggest celebration is a sign of progress, but maybe not as much progress as the Emmys would have us believe.
The whole night had a bit of this feel: a pat on the back for not being as bad as they used to be. Anthony Anderson gave a speech about how this would have been the Blackest in -person Emmys ever—and a record number of Black performers did win—that ended with him having Jimmy Kimmel chant “Black Lives Matter” along with him, though I couldn’t tell if Kimmel was being awkward about it because he felt awkward, just always seems awkward, or was intentionally trying to seem aloof, distanced. For as much as the show thought about diversity in terms of content and talent, as Vanity Fair critic Sonia Saraiya pointed out, the night’s winners were pretty much “entitled white family, lots of black people we felt we should mention, entitled white family,” in that order.
The middle group described the limited series categories, in which Watchmen dominated.* Winner Regina King, wearing a Breonna Taylor T-shirt (Mrs. America’s Uzo Aduba did, too), talked about voting and mentioned Ruth Bader Ginsburg.* Cord Jefferson, who won a writing Emmy with Damon Lindelof, dedicated the award to the victims and survivors of the Tulsa massacre. Mark Ruffalo gave an impassioned speech about needing to be a country of love, and not division and hatred, without ever mentioning Trump’s name.
And then the show moved to the drama categories and, largely, Succession. In a show that was supposed to be about how television is our friend, how it’s the thing we’ve all been doing during quarantine, in a show rife with advertisements for streaming services demonstrating just how much TV is out there, you could watch the Emmys and think, there’s not that much TV out there. Even with surprise winners, like Zendaya for Euphoria, and even with Succession not quite dominating as it had been predicted to (The Morning Show’s Billy Crudup snuck off with a best supporting actor Emmy, at the expense of three Succession actors; Julia Garner snuck off with another, at the expense of Shiv Roy), these Emmys looked like they’d been voted on by binge-watchers—going deep, but not wide. TV may be our friend, but it’s less and less something we share with our actual friends—or anyone else for that matter. By the end of the night, something I would have thought at the beginning was nearly impossible had happened: The show had been so proficient and technically successful, had so skillfully averted disaster, that it had raised its own bar. I wanted more, and a little better. So in that way, it really was like every other Emmys.
Correction, Sept. 21, 2020: This post originally misidentified the show Watchmen as Watchman. It also misspelled Uzo Aduba’s last name.