Nothing in ABC’s broadcast of the 2020 Emmy Awards was as impressive, or as appropriate to the occasion, as the aplomb with which the first presenter, Jennifer Aniston, wielded a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, she was only shooting foam at a prop envelope in an endless coronavirus routine. She couldn’t put out the dumpster fire that was going on all around her at the Staples Center on Sunday night.
Jimmy Kimmel, hosting the show in the mostly empty arena, invoked “our old pal television” in his introduction, pushing the theme that the medium has provided an essential relief this year from the emotional toll of pandemic, protest and disunion. The world may be terrible, he said, but television has never been better. That may be true, but the Emmys show continued its trend of feeling out of tune with the way most of us watch TV. Once a year, it gives us that old feeling of being trapped inside a very small box.
The restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic have required rethinking awards-show formats, and the Emmys’ announcement that there would be cameras at most nominees’ remote locations was promising. The opportunity to see how and where the nominees presented themselves — living room or scenic vista? Bed-head or ball gown? — sounded like a kick.
There was some of that satisfaction, mostly in brief glimpses of non-winners, like Alex Borstein of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” resplendent on a rooftop bed, or Ramy Youssef of “Ramy” planted on his couch in T-shirt and cap. And through the bulk of the telecast, the technological challenges of doing so many remote connections weren’t an issue — everyone delivered their speeches with a minimum of glitch.
But the promise wasn’t really fulfilled — we got good looks at all the nominees only in the marquee categories, with lesser awards settling for jamming all the nominees on the screen together or showing just the winners. (It also didn’t help that the first seven awards went to “Schitt’s Creek,” whose nominees had all assembled, somewhat socially distanced, in the same place, a big featureless room that looked like a wedding venue.)
The show undeniably had an unaccustomed variety — it necessarily broke out of the lock step of tuxedos, teleprompters, crowd shots and walks to the podium. But instead of enlivening the proceedings, the mix of pretaped bits, remote acceptances and solo appearances by guests on the Staples sets made you nostalgic for the hothouse atmosphere and occasional breakdowns of the traditional awards-show format. The spontaneity that was award shows’ saving grace was largely replaced by stage-managed banality, like the bit in which Aniston, Courteney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow of “Friends” — apparently a Covid-19 pod — pretended to still be roommates.
That was probably to be expected, as was the consistent note of earnest, if sometimes coded, political and social solicitation in both acceptance speeches and scripted segments. One winner after another encouraged people to get out and vote, without any specific guidance regarding whom to vote for — the inference of vote suppression being sufficiently partisan. It fell to Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession,” to make a brief reference to President Trump in the night’s last acceptance speech.
The producers’ attempts to make the show conscious in its own right had mixed success. A series of awards presentations by “essential personnel” — a schoolteacher, a rancher, a U.P.S. deliveryman — were well meaning, at least. Other decisions were problematic, like an unfunny sketch that tried to tie together Russian election interference and voting-by-mail, or the hazmat suits worn by people delivering statuettes to the winners, which appeared to mock the pandemic. And before Aniston picked up the fire extinguisher, her and Kimmel’s scripted banter about not being able to hear each other at their socially sanctioned distance was starkly lacking in humor.
As always, there were high points, even if you had to wait longer than usual in between. The reliance on pretaped presentations allowed for David Letterman’s characteristically sharp appearance, firing off jokes about TV in 1986 (the last year he hosted the Emmys) and slipping in the night’s most touching line: “Regis, I checked. You’re in the montage, buddy.”
John Oliver, whose “Last Week Tonight” won again for variety talk series, gave a quick demonstration in his acceptance speech of why he’s the most valuable player in American TV. Sunrise Coigney, jumping for joy when her husband, Mark Ruffalo, won for “I Know This Much Is True,” actually delivered on the promise of the at-home awards. Eugene Levy, accepting multiple awards for “Schitt’s Creek,” was a model of grace.
The show’s strongest statement about diversity (on a night when “Schitt’s Creek” and “Succession” dominated) probably came with the bestowal of the Governor’s Award to Tyler Perry, the prolific writer and producer whose shows are generally ignored by mainstream awards shows. In an example of the show’s hybrid nature, Perry gave a live acceptance speech after a recorded introduction by Oprah Winfrey, and his account of his outsider success was stirring.
Any other year, the ovation from the live audience would have been a pleasure to hear.