As bizarre as the 2020 Emmy Awards would seem to somebody who suddenly arrived at our present coronavirus-laced moment from — for example, this time last year — many of the award winners were anything but surprising. Yes, “Schitt’s Creek” winning all four acting awards was an unprecedented achievement, and at least one of those awards likely should’ve gone to a member of “The Good Place”’s ensemble, but the sweep was in keeping with the Emmy tradition of giving big send-offs to shows in their final season. Otherwise, the awards were doled out basically as expected — with two notable exceptions. The first, Zendaya’s well-deserved Best Actress in a Drama win for “Euphoria,” came over such names as Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Colman and Laura Linney and cemented her as the youngest actress to ever win the award. The other surprise was a downright miscarriage of justice — “Rick and Morty” winning Best Animated Series over “BoJack Horseman” — particularly since this was “BoJack”’s last chance at an Emmy.
Besides “Schitt’s Creek,” the big winners on Sunday were two prototypical HBO prestige dramas, “Succession” and “Watchmen,” each of which was a worthy juggernaut. “Succession” won Outstanding Drama Series, as well as the awards for Outstanding Direction and Writing among drama series. An individual award went to Jeremy Strong for Lead Actor, and one of Matthew MacFayden, Kieran Culkin and Nicolas Braun likely would have won for Supporting Actor had they not all split the vote. “Watchmen” was victorious in the Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Writing categories, and Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II took home individual acting awards for the series. The success of those two series proved beyond a doubt that HBO will continue its reign as prestige TV’s premiere destination beyond the “Game of Thrones” era.
As for the ceremony itself, it was surprisingly well-produced, if not the most comically-inspired awards show. Jimmy Kimmel’s milquetoast comedic stylings were expectedly underwhelming, and without an audience many of the jokes and bits fell flat, such as a remarkably awkward Kimmel-Anthony Anderson duet in which Anderson forced Kimmel to applaud the number of Black nominees and chant “Black Lives Matter.” With no live audience to gauge his reaction, it was impossible to know whether Kimmel’s obvious discomfort was legitimate or a staged part of the bit. In fact, one of the best parts of the show came at the very beginning, where Kimmel appeared to be talking to and interacting with an audience, only to reveal halfway through his monologue that the audience footage was edited in. If they had kept the same format throughout the show, the comedic segments would have gone much more smoothly.
Another standout bit came during the presentation of the Outstanding Variety Talk Series award, in which David Letterman appeared before the camera to deliver jokes that he supposedly found in the tuxedo he wore to the 1986 Emmys. Even in his advanced age, Letterman’s snark and deadpan style shone through his voluminous beard as he made outdated references to Angela Landsbury and baseball players doing cocaine. The cherry on top of Letterman’s performance was the announcement of Last Week Tonight’s victory in the category, the fifth straight win for John Oliver’s brilliant look at current affairs.
Overall, the 2020 Emmy Awards went about as well as could be expected. The awards largely went to deserving winners, everything went smoothly from a technical standpoint and for the most part, the hacky jokes would’ve been just as hacky in front of an audience. Much like this year’s Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the ceremony proved that COVID is no obstacle for any event that has millions of dollars in production costs to throw at the problem.