Emmys Review: Virtual Show Was a Surprising Triumph of Producing

Opening this year’s Emmy Awards, host Jimmy Kimmel told the audience — the one at home, given that there was no one sitting before him in the stands of the Staples Center — that there were a great many moving parts in piecing together the ceremony. He asked, mordantly, “What could possibly go right?”

It turns out: Quite a bit. Pieced together with just enough in the way of production value to feel nourishingly of the once-and-future world and with a happy willingness to indulge serendipity that felt brand-new, the first major awards ceremony of the COVID era was imperfect, and knew it. But it met its moment with elán, charm and a level of effort so profound as to seem effortless — the sort of thing live TV at its best, social distancing or no, has always done.

That last point feels crucial to emphasize in part because it seems so likely to get lost: A massive passel of winners in various locations off-site were notified of their wins, handed Emmys (either by Hazmat-suited presenters meeting them where they were or automated cuckoo-clock-style boxes opening mechanically), and given the opportunity to speak, all of which went as well as it conceivably could have, give or take the participation of a few major nominees. The literal dispensation of awards went off seamlessly, and the requisite nods to the tension of the moment within the ceremony were done better than they often are. (Enlisting Americans affected by the COVID crisis in many ways, from a rancher to a New York City nurse, to present awards was an on-its-face bizarre decision that ended up injecting charm and a frank bit of reality into the show.) 

The speeches, too, felt notably unbound. In the comfort of their homes, without having to burn time on a walk to the stage, and understanding the peculiar nature of the moment, the winners almost to a one spoke with some combination of eloquence, effusiveness, wit, and grace. Particularly charming winners included Zendaya, the surprise winner of the Best Actress in a Drama trophy, overcome, and Jesse Armstrong, the utterly expected winner of Best Drama for his show “Succession,” acidly delineating the state of the world as he saw it. Between these two poles of enthusiasm and clear-eyed understanding of the state of things lie the best of the ceremony, which only faltered in some of its lengthiest bits but which thrived in a sort of theater-kid passion both for the arts and for using the arts to say something. Some of the stem-winders — Mark Ruffalo’s and Jeremy Strong’s speeches seemed to run longer than might ever have been allowed on a live stage — moved in part for their attempt to get at something, and their unrehearsed search for truth in the moment. To watch these, as well as the surprisingly unbound reaction shots of certain losers similarly freed by the comfort of home to be actively disappointed, was to watch high drama.

Both the speeches and the reactions of those not allowed to speak seemed to provide one implicit answer to the question of why the Emmys were happening at all. (Given the many delays the 2001 ceremony faced in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, this is hardly a new question.) One answer: In September, a bunch of awards are handed out to people on TV to encourage them to keep making great work. It’s what this industry does, and finding a way to keep that going with a sense of camaraderie and fellow-feeling gives a sense of hope that a return to order may be closer than it appears. Kimmel, often too cool a host for the room he’s in, modulated his tone slightly for a room that was empty; it felt notable that he participated in presenter Anthony Anderson’s “Black Lives Matter” chat rather than maintaining his usual detachment. His presence suggested a sort of throughline with awards shows that had come before even as he effectively redefined his involvement in this one.

Another is that a platform this big — even with Emmy audience numbers in decline in recent years — provides the opportunity to say something. Emmy said something, for instance, in celebrating the work of Zendaya, Uzo Aduba, and Regina King; those winners — the latter two of whom wore shirts celebrating the life and mourning the loss of Breonna Taylor — had things to say, too. The show around those winners also included meaningful interludes with Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, and America Ferrera in taped pieces celebrating their outlook with what felt like meaningful curiosity and desire to amplify their voices. 

The Emmys were purposefully imperfect, and they were often strange. A bit early in the ceremony in which Kimmel lit an envelope on fire and found it caught a bit more than he had expected (forcing a very game Jennifer Aniston to extinguish it at some length) felt apropos: This show burnt down tradition, and did so in a manner both very entertaining and just barely under control. But Kimmel, tasked with an impossible gig, kept the show moving and light in the moments he was shepherding it; the show itself, thanks to producers as well as to Emmy voters, took on the requisite seriousness of purpose without ever once congratulating itself for going forward. This was the final, crucial trap the show avoided: Instead of saying it was brave of the show to exist or Hollywood to celebrate itself, the Emmys, burning up an envelope and torching their usual ways of doing business, acknowledged that they were basically frivolous, and then pushed themselves to do a bit more in the way of celebrating Black Americans and essential workers in a way that made sense for the show. The end result was a show with a strange and compelling power: Reminiscent both of the time-tested and worthy ways of doing business in Hollywood and of a new frankness and openness that, even after COVID abates and awards shows reconvene, will always be welcome.

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