With the 2020 Emmys, aka the “Pandemmys,” ABC forged its way through the first awards show in the era of COVID-19. And as expected, it was a mixed bag. Though the winners were mostly expected, there was no sense of how the actual broadcast was going to go. But from the success of not having anyone’s feed cut out to the fun of seeing everyone’s living rooms, honestly this quasi-virtual event was better than expected. And since most of us are at home watching the ceremony anyway, seeing all of the celebrities do the same felt oddly normal.
Below are the best and worst (and one neutral) moment from TV’s biggest night:
Best: The Pre-Taped Segments
This year’s Emmy producers wanted to have it both ways: it wasn’t fully live, but it wasn’t fully virtual. Look, it was a valiant effort. But when comparing the two sides, the pre-taped segments win hands-down. Having “regular people” (essential workers) announce some of the categories was great. It acknowledged not only the scope of the pandemic and its effect on our lives, but helped ground something as frivolous as an awards show without bringing down the whole mood. It was sweet and inspirational, and a nice touch.
Though that will likely not become a tradition once things are live again, one that should is audience silence during the In Memoriam section. That was golden. The production of the segment itself was also noteworthy in that it gave visual context to many of those who passed, in terms of the TV shows or areas of the industry where they were best known (it actually helped me place a few of them). But even more importantly, it lacked the random smattering of applause for lesser-known names versus big applause for others. Emmy producers: If nothing else, please hear us when we say mute the audience during this segment. It was one of the most successful parts of the 2020 ceremony.
Also of note: the short montage of actors talking about how they’re handling quarantine was actually pretty cute. Yes some were better than others, but Bob Newhart made up for anything that didn’t land (also, Margo Martindale remains a treasure).
Worst: The Live Bits and Skits
As noted above, ABC wanted it both ways this year, clearly wanting to avoid an all-virtual ceremony. As host Jimmy Kimmel pointed out though, “this is the year they decide to have a host?!” (after ditching one in 2019). A host-as-MC is fine; Kimmel can monologue well, so let him do it. But the bit with him doing so in front of old audience footage went on way too long, and was nothing but cringe (I didn’t hear a word he said, I was so horrified at archival laughter being used). Jason Bateman among the cardboard cutouts was fine, but it was funnier when he showed up for the mini-Friends reunion (somewhere, HBO Max is screaming). Having some live presenters, especially those who interacted with Kimmel, made one question the social distancing measures of the production itself. Further, not every actor or bit can handle a lack of audience interaction, and it showed. It was awkward, and dragged on and on.
Best: Seeing Everyone’s Living Rooms
The Emmys sent out 80 professional lightning rigs and cameras to nominees to ensure that—unlike their nomination stream—everyone showed up properly on screen. Some chose to go solo, some were in hotel rooms, some were surrounded by family, others dressed up a lot and some not at all, but everyone had something interesting to note in their individual video screens. (None perhaps more so than Jeff Garlin screaming shirtless during the award for Outstanding Comedy Series, as well as Sarah Snook’s tinfoil Emmy, and whatever Alex Borstein was gloriously doing.) Though the ceremony itself was pretty boring, these personal touches added something both interesting and worthwhile (like how winners Regina King and Uzo Adubo wore t-shirts honoring Breonna Taylor) to this unique night.
Having said that, there were quite a few instances where (outside of family members) social distancing didn’t seem to be a priority, even when masks were being employed. Like America’s larger relationship with coronavirus, it seemed like everyone was more or less making up their own rules (although occasionally mentioning they had been tested, although who knows!)
Worst: The Ceremony Was Way Too Long
I can understand that if you were nominated or won an Emmy this year, you would want things to be as equal as possible with prior years regarding the pomp and circumstance surrounding it. Having the winners accept the statues live was an ok compromise (although the way it happened was cruel—see below). But the skits and live segments really bloated out a ceremony that should have been much, much shorter given its mostly virtual nature. There was no orchestra to play people off if their speeches went on too long, but none needed it. The longest of the night, from Tyler Perry, was excellent and to the point.
So without the hugging and walking up to the stage, we should have saved a lot of time. Somehow, we didn’t. That was a major problem. Especially on a night when there were …
Neutral: Very Few Surprises
So this was both good and bad. On the positive side, all of those predicted wins were good (and I’m so proud of my #1 Boy!!!). We knew who was going to win, and they did win, and they deserved to win (ymmv on all of the wins, but these were all good TV shows). The result was a very, very boring ceremony that made us smile and nod a little while drifting off to sleep.
Regarding surprises, there were exactly three and two of them were good: Zendaya for Euphoria (the youngest person to win this award, and only the second Black woman to do so in this category) and Maria Schrader for Unorthodox. Billy Crudup’s win for The Morning Show was neutral; on the one hand, he was doing something interesting on an otherwise very mediocre show (but hey, good on you Apple TV+?). On the other hand, it wasn’t more interesting than anything done by our trio of Succession stars also nominated in this category. It seems clear that Succession split the vote, and while that’s unfortunate, I am comforted by the fact that the only actor from the show to win an Emmy was Jeremy Strong and his giggle, which was an excellent outcome.
Best: Schitt’s Creek Sweep
The Canadians ran riot over the Primetime Emmy Awards. Schitt’s Creek was predicted to win a lot, but everything? I mean literally everything. And yet, few could begrudge the sweep for this sweet and funny show’s final season. Did it totally wipe out a number of other beloved series like What We Do in the Shadows, The Great, and The Good Place? It did but hey, the Emmys aren’t fair. At least the sweep went to a series that continued its record of producing quality content throughout the Emmys as well: from the reserved hall where the cast and crew gathered to celebrate together to Daniel Levy’s matching mask-and-suit combo featuring one of his trademark kilts. It was all very pure!
Still, the Emmys choosing to (for teleconference production reasons) group the categories together (all of comedy, limited series, all of drama) meant that Schitt’s Creek accepted awards for a straight hour. That both amplified the incredible landslide they managed and kickstarted cynical backlash on Twitter from those immediately annoyed at the multiple wins.
A few more Schitt facts: The show set a new record for most wins in one season for a comedy (note that it had zero Emmy wins for its five previous seasons), while Daniel Levy tied a record for four individual wins in a single season. It’s also the first comedy to every sweep wins in all four main comedy acting categories.
Worst: The Cruelty of the Award Delivery System
For better or worse, the Emmys did not sacrifice any of its secrecy this year regarding the winners. I would argue this was for the worse. What it meant was that hazmat-wearing delivery people showed up at every nominee’s door with a statue and then left if they didn’t win. Ramy Youssef captured it on his cellphone here.
Perhaps even worse, some of the nominees received boxes that might or not might contain an Emmy statue, but which would pop out and deliver one like a terrifying jack-in-the-box if you won. As for the losers? Well, Samantha Bee ripped her box open and found … a very cheap bottle of champagne. This bait-and-switch via box or via hazmat seemed particularly cruel, and may have added to the fact that—because the nominees were at home and not surrounded by audience hype—most didn’t go overboard in trying to look gracious if they lost. They barely clapped, some smiled wanly. I loved it; notice how few times the camera cut to the reactions of those who didn’t win? It was one of the realist moments in a ceremony that felt, overall, like a fever dream.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.