It was uncharted waters for the 72nd Emmy awards – the first major acting awards show held since the pandemic began, a strange and subdued ceremony in which stars accepted awards on Zoom.
But unwelcome new methods (the telecast required more than 100 live feeds), and the end of former Emmys juggernauts Game of Thrones and Veep, ushered in a celebration of new series and talent: Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek swept the comedy awards, HBO’s Succession dominated in drama and the evening’s most-nominated show, HBO’s prescient, eerie Watchmen, cleaned up in the limited series category.
Jimmy Kimmel hosted the mostly virtual “Pandemmys” from a nearly empty Staples Center in Los Angeles, with some help from Jennifer Aniston, Ozark actor Jason Bateman and Black-ish star Anthony Anderson, as well as giant screens beaming into celebrities’ homes across the country. The safety protocols – masked camera operators, styrofoam cutouts of celebrities in the empty stands – were necessary, Kimmel said, because “this isn’t a Maga rally, it’s the Emmys”.
A year after Fleabag dominated the comedy awards, a single program – Schitt’s Creek, a Canadian production which found a second life and a passionate fanbase on Netflix – swept the genre. The cast and crew, including father-son duo Eugene and Dan Levy, best actress Catherine O’Hara and best supporting actress Annie Murphy, accepted their awards together, wearing masks and sitting a Covid safety-compliant distance apart at a set in Canada.
As widely predicted, Succession, the sharply written and brutally funny HBO drama about a media conglomerate family of scoundrels, racked up the drama awards, winning best writing, directing, best actor for Jeremy Strong and best series. The show’s British creator, Jesse Armstrong, flipped the script with a series of “un-thank yous” for things which have kept the cast and crew apart for over half a year: the virus, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and “the media moguls who do so much for the people in power”.
Other winners from the evening included Last Week Tonight with John Oliver for best variety series, RuPaul’s Drag Race for reality competition and The Morning Show’s Billy Crudup for supporting actor in a drama, which brought the Apple TV+ its only win of the evening.
The nascent streamer’s disappointment was outpaced by Netflix, which entered the evening with a record 160 nominations but emerged with only two wins during the telecast (Ozark’s Julia Garner for supporting actress in a drama and Unorthodox’s Maria Schrader for directing in a limited series) and 21 wins overall. Awards stalwart HBO topped the evening with 30 awards in total, most notably best drama series for Succession and Watchmen for best limited series. Watchmen, based on a 1980s comic book series and which used the real-life 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre of “Black Wall Street” as its origin story, took home 11 awards out of 26 nominations, the most of the evening.
In a year of racial reckoning for the United States, when millions took to the streets to protest police brutality this summer, the television academy nominated their most diverse slate to date: a record 34.3% of nominated actors were black, up from 19.8% in 2019. The 2020 Emmys were “supposed to be the blackest Emmys ever”, said Anderson in a bit with Kimmel. “I’m still rooting for everybody black, because black stories, black performances and black lives matter,” he said, escalating in volume, loud enough “so that Mike Pence can hear it”.
Though the host veered from many overt political statements – or, in a ceremony packed with 24 awards, many statements at all – several winners, including several black actors, demonstrated support for the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraged viewers to vote in the upcoming national election. Watchmen’s Regina King, accepting for best actress in a limited series, wore a shirt bearing the name of Breonna Taylor, whose killing by police officers in Louisville in March helped ignite America’s largest civil rights movement in half a century.
Uzo Aduba pointed to her own Breonna Taylor shirt while accepting best supporting actress in a drama series for her role as Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, in Mrs America: “Let’s go change the world.” Euphoria star Zendaya, who at 24 became the youngest person and only the second black woman to win for best drama actress, shouted out the protesters in the nation’s streets. “I see you, I admire, I respect you,” she said.
Mark Ruffalo, the best actor winner for playing identical twins grappling with mental illness in HBO’s I Know This Much Is True, called on viewers to vote “for love, compassion and kindness”.
“If you have privilege, you have to fight for those who are struggling,” he said.
And Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who won for supporting actor in a limited series, dedicated to “all the black women in my life”.
Watchmen’s creator, Damon Lindelof, accepted the best limited series win with a “Remember Tulsa ’21” shirt and dedicated the award to victims of the burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1921. “History is mystery – it’s broken in a million puzzle pieces and so many are missing,” he said. “We have to name it before we can repair it.”