Emmys Analysis: HBO Holds Off Netflix in a Year Unlike Any Other


It was an Emmys unlike any other on Sunday night, and not just because it took place in the middle of a global pandemic; virtually everyone involved was participating via webcam from their home; and statuettes were delivered to winners by people in full Hazmat suits, leading host Jimmy Kimmel to nickname the telecast "the Pandemmys."

Consider this, too...

A Canadian show (Schitt's Creek) from a network that most people cannot even find on their TV (Pop TV) and that no longer has any executives or programming (as a result of recent changes implemented by parent company ViacomCBS) swept all seven televised comedy categories on top of two prior wins at the Creative Arts Emmys: best comedy series, best actor in a comedy series (Eugene Levy), best actress in a comedy series (Catherine O'Hara), best supporting actor in a comedy series (Daniel Levy), best supporting actress in a comedy series (Annie Murphy), best directing for a comedy series (Andrew Cividino and Daniel Levy), best writing for a comedy series (Daniel Levy), best casting for a comedy series (Jon Comerford and Lisa Parasyn) and best contemporary costumes (Darci Cheyne and Debra Hanson).

Schitt's Creek's nine statuettes for its sixth and final season breaks the record for most wins by a comedy in a single season that Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel set in 2018 and matched in 2019. (Maisel had to settle for four below-the-line Emmys this year.) Schitt's also becomes the first comedy to ever sweep the four main comedy acting categories — both lead and both supporting categories — in a single season. And Daniel Levy, meanwhile, ties the record for most wins by an individual in a single season with his four, joining Moira Demos (2016) and Amy Sherman-Palladino (2018).

Most remarkable of all? Schitt's Creek had never won a single Emmy for any of its prior seasons!

How did Schitt's do it? It had a strong season, to be sure, but more than anything, I would argue, it enjoyed the Netflix bounce: TV Academy members, like the public, caught up with past seasons of the show on Netflix (they certainly had plenty of time to do so during the pandemic), which had licensed them (just as it had AMC's Breaking Bad before that show went on its mid-run Emmys streak), thereby giving the show a shot of adrenaline that no amount of TV Academy FYC events (of which there were none this year) or billboards (there were some, but few were out and about to see them) could have provided.

Which makes it all the more ironic that Netflix, which came into this year's Emmys with an unprecedented 160 nominations — more than any other single content provider (longtime leader HBO was a distant second with 107) and indeed more than all five broadcast networks combined — probably leaves it feeling disappointed, still without a series win, and with its most nominated show, drama series Ozark, barely averting a record-breaking shutout (0-for-18 would have trumped Mad Men's 0-for-17 in 2012) thanks to a second consecutive win by supporting actress Julia Garner.

Of the other prizes bestowed on Emmys Sunday, Netflix took home one other: unexpectedly, and perhaps owing to a split of three Watchmen nominees, Orthodox's Maria Schrader won best directing for a limited series, movie or dramatic special.

The content provider that surged back to life to win the year? HBO, which some had begun to write off in its first season in years with neither Game of Thrones nor Veep. Instead, the pay-cabler won all of the major series awards except for best comedy series — best drama series (Succession, which also won directing and writing awards); best limited series (Watchmen); and best variety talk series (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver for the fifth year in a row). It won all of the lead acting prizes not allocated for comedy work — Watchmen's Regina King won best limited series actress, her fourth win in six years which now brings her into a tie for most acting Emmys for a person of color; I Know This Much Is True's Mark Ruffalo won best limited series actor; Succession's Jeremy Strong won best drama actor over costar Brian Cox, among others; and, in the night's biggest upset, Zendaya won best drama actress for Euphoria, becoming the youngest-ever winner of that award. And it won a supporting acting prize, too (Watchmen's Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

At the end of the day, HBO leaves with 30 Emmys, while Netflix finishes a distant second with 21. Some are arguing that this year's results validate the HBO model of careful curation over the Netflix model of greater quantity and variety. I'm not sure I'd read that much into things. I do suspect that Netflix's awards publicity team — unparalleled in size and creativity — was able to move the needle less this year than others due to the pandemic. They will be back and hungrier than ever once life returns to normal. But for now, at least, happy days are here again for HBO.

To be sure, there were bones throne to others, too, among them the new streamers Disney+ (which bagged eight technical awards), Apple TV+ (The Morning Show's Billy Crudup won best drama supporting actor) and even Quibi (two shortform prizes); the new hybrid FX-on-Hulu (best limited series supporting actress (Mrs. America's Uzo Aduba, who had previously won drama and comedy acting awards); and VH1 (its six wins, better than any broadcast network, all trace back to RuPaul's Drag Race, which was named best competition program for the fifth year in a row, and has never had a better showing).

Again, with broadcast networks combining for a mere 18 awards, fewer than HBO or Netflix, this was an Emmys that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago — without even factoring in the coronavirus!