This year’s Emmy Awards, also known as the Pandemmys, also known as The Wall of Celebrity Feeds, was what it was, as they say with a shrug of the shoulders.
The night was probably doomed to be diffuse and awkward without a live audience, but then the weak writing, fangless sketches, and the bland pre-taped segments did not help matters. Asking celebrities what they’ve done on their summer vacation — er, I mean in quarantine — is definitely not the kind of mid-show featurette that’s going help buoy a difficult non-event event. Neither is sending Randall Park on stage with an alpaca solely, it seemed, to make a joke about thinking he’d be appearing with Al Pacino.
Host Jimmy Kimmel appeared to have accepted the unlikelihood of putting together a satisfying telecast. He was trying, but, wisely, he didn’t strain, as he dutifully kept the virtual and in-person bits on track. It didn’t help that there were a few awards sweeps, including “Schitt’s Creek” and “Watchmen,” deserved as they were; they nonetheless kept the night from variety, from being broken up with different titles and faces (and home decors and family members jumping on couches with excitement). It wasn’t until the final stretch, when Billy Crudup (“The Morning Show”), Julia Garner (“Ozark”), and Zendaya (“Euphoria”) won for different drama series, and then “Succession” won best drama (as it should have), that an assortment kicked in.
Right from the get-go, you could sense that the producers — like the producers of other recent awards shows — had not quite figured out how to compensate for the lack of an audience. For the first five minutes, Kimmel delivered a monologue — “You can’t have a virus without a host” — with footage of past years' audiences spliced in. We were meant to think that the Emmy producers were choosing to pretend nothing different was happening in the way a pandemic-filmed sitcom with no live audience might use a laugh track. But — big psych out — Kimmel was standing on an empty stage at the Staples Center with no one in the audience. It was, as he put it, “The No People’s Choice Awards.”
A few guest stars including Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Sterling K. Brown, and Anthony Carrigan (from “Barry”) did appear in the flesh, but, alas, for some poorly written stage patter; and the silence was not their friend. You could hear a pin drop to the ground in the hollow room, and the jokes, too. One of Kimmel’s gags fell particularly hard. Noting that every time he says “Schitt’s Creek,” broadcast standards require that it be accompanied by a visual of the title, he added, “Just in case you were wondering why network television is almost dead.” It was just a little too resonant a moment, coming as it did during an awkward network telecast honoring mostly cable and streaming series.
One of the night’s treats, awards-wise, was the success of “Schitt’s Creek” — it was a “Schitt’s-krieg,” as Kimmel called it. After six statues (out of seven), series co-creator and co-star Dan Levy exclaimed, with wise snark, “The Internet is about to turn on me! I’m so sorry!”
We’ll probably never see a sweep so stark, with the reordering of the awards for the virtual telecast, and the Canadian series took every one. A lot of viewers relied on “Schitt’s Creek” for a laugh in the early COVID-19 days, so its victories felt particularly poignant. I can’t say it’s a show I expected to sweep the night, even though this was its final season; but I can say that its triumph made me smile.
Another treat was the way the “Schitt’s” cast and crew gathered (at a social distance) for the telecast, accepting their awards together and applauding for one another. They created a pocket of live activity that the show at large was missing, as one after another they had their time at the acceptance mic in the room. The old castmates got to be together, one of the enjoyable things about normal Emmycasts. “It’s kind of ironic that the straightest role I’ve ever played lands me an Emmy for a comedy performance,” Eugene Levy noted about his own win. “So now I seriously have to question just what I’ve been doing for the past 50 years.”
One odd Pandemmy choice was that, after each Emmy was presented and the winner had had his or her moment, we returned to each of the nominees. That meant the losing nominees had to hold in their disappointment at home long enough to return for a small reprise. I felt their pain.
We saw a number of winners remind viewers to vote, notably Regina King, who accepted her statue for “Watchmen” wearing a Breonna Taylor “Say Her Name” T-shirt. Uzo Aduba also accepted wearing a Breonna Taylor T-shirt, after yelling, endearingly, “Mom, I won!” We also got a “Friends” reunion tease, as Aniston went home after her stage bit and we saw her with Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox. Of course, HBO Max — which paid a lot of money to stream “Friends” — is saving that full reunion for its own promotional purposes.
And we got to check in on David Letterman’s beard, which has been out of the limelight of late. As he presented the best variety talk show statue to John Oliver, his beard appeared to be doing magnificently. As Kimmel pointed out, Letterman was doing the pandemic beard long before anyone else.