The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards: TV Review

EMMY AWARDS - JIMMY KIMMEL
ABC
Technically mighty impressive, even if the domination of certain shows killed the excitement.
9/20/2020

Against long odds and considerable challenges, producer and host Jimmy Kimmel mounted a mostly live quarantined award show with astonishingly few blunders.

Every four years at the Winter Olympics, everybody pretends that they're experts in figure skating, befouling Twitter with gripes that a skater who did a clean routine (usually an American, if we're being honest) lost to somebody who fell down twice — ignoring that said skater (usually a Russian) did like 17 quadruple jumps or something. It's all you can do to not scream, "It's called degree-of-difficulty, folks!"

I'm not going to pretend that Sunday (September 20) night's 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards didn't slip up a few times. There were comic bits that didn't work, social justice bits that felt slightly rushed (and, as a result, perhaps a little shoehorned-in, when they could have been the spine of the telecast). And if there was ever a year that demanded a change in the show's overall award-giving structure, it was this one, with its three waves of nearly unbroken domination by Schitt's Creek, then Watchmen and finally Succession.

But here's the thing: I read interviews and watched behind-the-scenes footage and I still can't fathom more than the very tip of the logistical hurdles faced by director Hamish Hamilton and a production team led by Reginald Hudlin. The mantra for the telecast boiled down to the question, "What could go wrong?" but the answer came almost astonishingly close to "Nothing," or at least "Nothing important."

Did it take Jennifer Aniston three shots with the fire extinguisher to put out the fire host Jimmy Kimmel set to the first nomination envelope? Yes. Is Kimmel probably going to regret the joke about calling ICE on John Oliver? I sure hope so, because in a show that worked so hard to be conscientious and sensitive at every turn, that was a dud of an attempted punchline. Was the night's final acceptance speech interrupted by a cell phone ringing? Oops! Did Mark Ruffalo seem like his audio was coming from the inside of a diving bell? Yes, but I guess I can't say for sure that he wasn't.

While several stars politely declined the opportunity to Zoom into the telecast — I can only imagine how hard Meryl Streep laughed when the suggestion was made to her — every single winner was present in some virtual capacity. After six months in which nearly every living human knows the collective discomfort/embarrassment of That Lady Who Never Remembers to Unmute Herself or The Guy Who Forgets That He Isn't Wearing Pants to the Morning Meeting or The People Whose Wifi Hasn't Worked Properly Since March, every camera set-up here basically worked; every audio hook-up came through reasonably clear; and the precision required to get the right people on-screen at the right time (and then off-screen at the right time) in what was — and this can't be emphasized enough — the first truly and predominantly live awards show of the pandemic was pretty astonishing. Heck, when was the last time you were on a single cyber-meeting that wasn't abruptly interrupted by an attention-starved cat, a boundary-starved child or the UPS guy?

So whatever the content was or wasn't and whoever the winners were or weren't, I'm prepared to review this Emmys telecast more generously than almost any awards show in recent memory. Simply because the thing they were trying to do was harder than, like, that year they tried having a group of reality hosts co-host or the latest variation on "Award shows don't need hosts! Do they?"

Kimmel has reached the point now where I appreciate his ability to stumble forward in adverse circumstances — global pandemics, social-media-obsessed accountants screwing up envelopes, etc. — more than anything he does when all systems are going smoothly.

Appearing from the Staples Center, he kinda came and went and only little bits and pieces of what he did were funny, but he persisted and helped the show maintain a still point at the center of a wheel with a crazy number of spokes. I think the gag of his monologue being enjoyed by a full and star-studded crowd went on too long, since it prompted more than a few people to wonder if the goal was somehow to fool whichever viewers out there somehow didn't know what was actually happening. This wasn't like the virtual baseball fans that Fox keeps perpetrating. It was Jon Hamm and Lorne Michael guffawing along with schtick-y punchlines like "Isn't Watchmen also what Jerry Falwell Jr. was into?" and better punchlines like, "You know what they say: You can't have a virus without a host."

The sad and haunting revelation that Kimmel was, as we all knew, standing in from of an empty room of cutouts and Jason Bateman probably could have come two or three minutes earlier. And I'd say that lines like, "We don't have a live audience. This isn't a MAGA rally" might have alienated a certain segment of viewers, but…well, it's true.

The show was always going to be topical. I'd be tempted to say that the show was only somewhat political, except that of course it was political even if not a single speech mentioned Donald Trump until Succession creator Jesse Armstrong's spectacular run of un-thanks acknowledgments at the end. Sterling K. Brown wore a "BLM" shirt. Regina King and Uzo Aduba were wearing Breonna Taylor shirts. Several people who didn't win, but whose living rooms made fast onscreen cameos, placed statements in plain sight. (I'm still trying to figure out the statement Armstrong's viewing party was making with the discordant wallpaper, rug and sofa wherever they were watching.) Many, many, many people said to vote, and there were shout-outs to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Did you think a telecast that was inevitably going to be recognizing the inclusive embrace of Schitt's Creek, the blistering commentary of Watchmen and the "Eat the Rich" class saga that is Succession was going to be escapist fun in the middle of a pandemic and less than two months from an election that people on both sides insist is the most important in many decades? Come on.

I mentioned the need to reexamine the Emmys structure in future years, because the one-genre-at-a-time approach becomes a real drag if the show becomes a series of coronations. Because Schitt's Creek won an unprecedented seven categories in a row on the comedy side, that meant that the telecast was 72 minutes in before something other than Schitt's Creek won. It was bordering on inevitable that Pop TV's little Canadian import, not even on Emmy radars for its first four seasons, was going to win comedy series and one or two other wins (Catherine O'Hara should, in a different year, have been treated to a rousing standing ovation from an assembled crowd). But I'm sure Emmy organizers figured a couple other shows would win in a couple secondary categories. Instead we kept going back to the Schitt's Creek tent, and Dan Levy was a little bit apologetic by his last acceptance speech.

Both the movie/miniseries and drama series categories offered little surprises. Unorthodox helmer Maria Schrader winning over a trio of Watchmen directors? Fairly unexpected. The Morning Show co-star Billy Crudup winning supporting actor in a drama over a trio of Succession favorites? Not wholly expected. Zendaya pulling off probably the upset of the night for lead actress in a drama for Euphoria? Wow. Still, after Schitt's Creek literally swept, Watchmen and Succession at the very least dominated. And when the only outside categories to get primetime exposure resulted in yet another Last Week Tonight and RuPaul's Drag Race triumph? You get waves of monotony threatening to set in.

In a "normal" year, this would have been borderline disastrous, but the telecast kept finding different variations or oddities. There were categories presented by teachers, farmers, truckers and several medical professionals. Randall Park came out with an alpaca. Noho Hank from Barry (or at least Anthony Carrigan) came out dressed like a postman. And there were always those quick glimpses into people's living rooms as one could take pleasure in Uzo Aduba's books, couple Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson watching together or whatever was happening with Jeremy Strong's neckwear. There was always something happening. Oh and the Necrology segment, featuring departed luminaries accompanied by H.E.R. terrifically singing a strange arrangement of Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," was an above-average example of the form.

The show wasn't completely live, mind you. There was an awful Kia commercial loosely tied to how the Emmy trophies were being taken around the country. Issa Rae, America Ferrera and Lena Waithe had great monologues about the importance of inclusivity and representation that I wish could have been tied slightly more seamlessly into a telecast that also had a silly montage of how actors spent their time in quarantine, producing very good booze-related laughs courtesy of Margo Martindale and Tatiana Maslany but then some flat jokes as well.

I could go into the head-scratching questions regarding Tyler Perry's Governor's Award — yes, he's a pioneer and a maverick, but his approach to unions is a problem, and then there's strangeness of an Academy that completely ignores his shows saluting him because he's rich — or inconsistent choices of random celebrities introducing the comedy series nominees. But I'm not going to.

This was a difficult thing that the TV Academy did tonight. I'm not sure how it could have been pulled off much better.