Jimmy Kimmel hosts the “72nd Emmy Awards” on Sunday, September 20, 2020. (Image Group LA/ABC/TNS)

The first ever virtual Emmys were the perfect awards for our times

By Meredith Blake

Los Angeles Times

“Succession,” “Watchmen” and “Schitt’s Creek” were big winners Sunday at the 72nd Emmy Awards. But the biggest story was the ceremony itself, a mostly virtual celebration of an industry thrown into disarray by the COVID-19 pandemic, one that replaced the usual glamorous awards show trappings with a sense of intimacy, uncertainty and, above all, surreality.

Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, it was the first of the major industry awards shows to contend with the complicated logistics of a remotely produced live broadcast. But perhaps an even greater challenge was striking the right tone in a year of dire news, including not only the pandemic but widespread racial justice protests and devastating wildfires that filled the skies of Los Angeles with hazardous smoke days before the ceremony.

In a monologue edited with audience reaction shots from previous Emmys ceremonies, Kimmel addressed the depressing elephant in the room and made the case for celebrating arts _ and especially TV _ during “a year of division, injustice, disease, Zoom school, disaster and death.”

“What’s happening tonight is not important. It’s not going to stop COVID it’s not going to put out the fires, but it’s fun. And right now we need fun. My god do we need fun,” he said. “We’ve been quarantined and locked down, we’ve been confined to our homes like prisoners and a dark and lonely tunnel, and what did we find in that dark and lonely tunnel. I’ll tell you what we found. A friend who’s there for us 24 hours a day. Our old pal television.”

Jennifer Aniston joined him onstage and, in a bit spoofing the extreme safety measures required at an awards show during a viral pandemic, set the envelope on fire _ an apt metaphor for the entire evening.

Winners _ watching at home, in hotel suites or at small, distanced gatherings in unnamed locations _ were handed trophies by ushers in hazmat suits styled like tuxedos. Many laughed at the strange circumstances; still more urged viewers to make a plan for voting this election year. Most nominees opted for relatively casual attire, and many covered their faces in masks. At least two _ Regina King and Uzo Aduba _ wore Breonna Taylor T-shirts.

In lieu of presenters awkwardly bantering at lecterns before introducing a new category, stars such as Zendaya and Tracee Ellis Ross appeared solo. For several categories, essential workers around the country were given the honor. There was a DJ instead of an orchestra. And for some reason, there was also an alpaca.

A historic sweep by “Schitt’s Creek,” the warm-hearted sitcom about a once-wealthy family forced to relocate to a small town, showed the appeal of TV comfort food _ and also Canada _ at a time of unrest. The series, which airs on cable network Pop but became a binge-watching favorite once it became available on Netflix, dominated the first hour of the telecast. It won for comedy series, directing and writing and also clinched all four acting prizes (becoming the first show to win all seven categories in a single year), with father-son duo Eugene and Daniel Levy won the lead and supporting actor awards.

“Our show is about the transformational power of love and acceptance _ and that is something that we need more of now than we’ve ever needed before,” said co-creator Daniel Levy as he accepted the series prize at a cast gathering in Toronto.

He also urged viewers to vote _ one of many urgent calls to political action throughout the night.

The year’s honorees largely reflected the tense mood in the country. “Watchmen,” an audacious superhero drama dealing with the legacy of race and violence in the United States, was the most nominated series of the year going into Sunday evening. The HBO drama, featuring masked police officers, raining squid and a harrowing recreation of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, won for limited series while star Regina King won her fourth Emmy.

Creator Damon Lindelof dedicated the Emmy for limited series to the victims and survivors of the Tulsa massacre. “The fires that destroyed Black Wall Street still burn today,” he said. “The only way to put them out is if we all fight them together.”

Lindelof was one of several winners to invoke themes of racial justice and tolerance.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death on Friday has heightened an already contentious election, was also recognized throughout the evening.

“Succession,” an acerbic drama about a conservative media mogul and the children he pits against each other, won the Emmy for drama series. The series concluded its second season on HBO last fall.

Although Netflix had a record number of nominations this year (160), it was once again HBO’s night, as their shows dominated the drama and limited series categories.

The Emmys had the relative advantage of following a handful of socially distanced awards shows, including the BET Awards and the VMAs, as well as the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, which combined pre-recorded segments with live content. Most late-night shows, including Kimmel’s, have been in remote production since March, and some are just beginning to return to the studio without an audience.

In contrast to these other broadcasts, most of the Emmys ceremony was live except for a few packaged montages.

“We’ve been watching all these other shows that have happened virtually,” executive producer Reginald Hudlin told the Times in an interview last week. “We’ve learned a lot. We’ve produced shows in this environment. So we’re taking the collective learnings of everything we’ve done so far and applying them to the first large-scale show where the awards are front and center.”

Going into Sunday night, event producers emphasized the unprecedented nature of the event. In a teleconference with reporters, executive producer Ian Stewart described it as a “logistic nightmare” and seemingly braced viewers for technological mishaps.

“Wherever possible, we are just going to go live, watching the wheel fall off and trying to put it back on and hope there’s enough wheels to keep the whole thing running.”

The show came together via more than 100 camera feeds around the world, including cities as far-flung as Berlin, with nominees encouraged to set up their cameras wherever they felt most comfortable. Some opted for generic backdrops, others huddled cozily at home with spouses or children. Christina Applegate sat fireside; Issa Rae stood in an empty stadium; Jennifer Aniston was joined by her “Friends” costars Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow.

Producers sent nominees kits that included high-resolution cameras, ring lights, laptops and microphones. The goal was to ensure high-quality images and sound. “We’re not making the Zoomies; we’re making the Emmys,” Hudlin told the Times.

This year’s ceremony was broadcast from The Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, rather than its usual home, the Microsoft Theater, because the facility had the technical ability to handle the many incoming and outgoing feeds.

The broadcast came together without any major technological blunders, aside from a few glitchy images and momentarily dropped sound.

At a time when domestic production has just started to resume and thousands remain unemployed, some winners spoke of a desire to return to normalcy and resume the collective experience of making television. Accepting the prize for variety talk series for “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver thanked his staff and noted he hadn’t seen them in six months. “I miss you so much and I honestly cannot wait until we’re in the same space together,” he said, “whenever that is.”

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