What 'Schitt's Creek,' 'Succession' and Zendaya Wins Say About Emmy Voters

EUGENE LEVY Lead Actor Comedy Emmy
ABC

When the Primetime Emmy producers decided to break up the first-ever virtual telecast by blocking the categories by genre, an understandable attempt to limit technological issues with remote feeds as much as possible, none of them could have expected the Canadian filibuster that was the first hour of Sunday's show.

Schitt's Creek, the little import comedy that aired stateside on a fringe cable network that barely exists any longer, cleaned up in a way no series ever has on an Emmy telecast. It wasn't just that the show from Dan and Eugene Levy won all seven comedy awards handed out during the telecast, it's that it won them one after another after another. It was wild and borderline surreal chain of events, as the show kicking off with a win for lead actress Catherine O'Hara and then another for lead actor Eugene Levy. The younger Levy then won in acting, writing and directing, with Annie Murphy solidifying a sweep in the comedy performance races before the show was crowned top comedy. By that point, it felt like an obligatory coronation.

The unprecedented performance for Schitt's Creek is significant on myriad levels. One, that the comedy could do well in its sixth and final season after never winning before, illustrates that it's never really too late with Emmy voters. The project's relatively small FYC budget — POP's spending power is clearly dwarfed by that of Netflix and HBO — is also proof that splashy campaigns aren't always necessary to break through. Looking forward, Schitt's Creek's domination also means that the 2021 Emmy comedy race will have no incumbent. Following Fleabag, that's two years in a row for swan songs emerging as a favorite in the genre.

It's almost as if Sunday's telecast was two different awards shows. By the time came for limited series, variety, reality and drama races, the kudos became something of an eclectic postscript to the Schitt's Creek sweep. Yes, there were other favorites. Celebrated HBO miniseries Watchmen took three awards — for writing, lead actress Regina King, supporting actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and limited series. And Succession (also HBO) predictably dominated in the drama arena, with a first-ever best series win as well as nods for writing, directing and star Jeremy Strong. But in between, there were more than a few unexpected choices.

Uzo Aduba gave FX miniseries Mrs. America a win for her supporting performance as late politician Shirley Chisholm. And Netflix's Unorthodox grabbed the directing award in the limited series race, besting frontrunner Watchmen which was up for two episodes.

Supporting actress Julia Garner repeated her drama win for her work on Netflix's Ozark, a second consecutive victory in the category, but the other non-Succession drama wins actually came as genuine surprises. Billy Crudup gave Apple TV+ foray Morning Show, a veritable clown car of A-list talent, its lone win for his supporting work on the Jennifer Aniston-Reese Witherspoon series. Most excitingly, however, might have been Zendaya. The 24-year-old star of HBO's Euphoria scored a coup in the lead actress race — besting Oscar winners and TV icons. After the sheer shock of Schitt's Creek stunning showing at the top of the telecast, her win came as one of the more inspired choices from a voting body that is, quite often, terribly predictable.

Though there was not the greatest variety among winning projects, the 2020 Emmys have a surprising amount to say about how TV's top awards are evolving with the medium. That a basic cable comedy could win the night's most awards, in a year where basic cable is pulling out of scripted television, shows that voters are not always going to be wooed by new platforms and nine-figure productions. That HBO could still dominate among wins after being dwarfed by Netflix among nominations, proves that it doesn't need Game of Thrones to retain its prestige crown. That the relatively painless remote telecast, a symphony of screens and feeds, went so smoothly should tell awards show producers that, even once this pandemic passes, events like these don't necessarily have to look the way they have for decades.

As for the 2021 Emmys, Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong need only keep it up once he's finally able to film season three — because Hollywood clearly likes what he's doing.