The weirdest Emmy Awards ever provided the perfect forum for television to let loose about the weirdest year ever.
The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel on Sunday from the nearly empty Staples Center in downtown L.A. and attended by nominees via video conferencing, was a mix of dark quarantine humor, requests for kindness and humanity, jokes about lack of representation, pleas to get out the vote and poignant commentary about social justice and racial reckoning.
Essential workers, including a USPS delivery person, a rancher, two doctors, a teacher, a truck driver and a nurse practitioner, served as presenters. But before introducing categories such as supporting drama and comedy actor, they spoke about what they’ve been doing in their respective jobs to keep the country running during the COVID-19 pandemic. When Kimmel used hand sanitizer onstage, the dispenser was the coveted gold statue repurposed for the pandemic. And many of the winners accepted their awards from their living rooms, in clothing that real humans might wear.
These changes-by-necessity grounded a celebration that might otherwise have had the potential to appear totally out of touch. Giving out awards during a viral plague has “disaster” written all over it. Throw fabulously beautiful celebrities into the mix and you risk appearing like the captain of the Titanic. “Keep playing and maybe no one will notice the rising water...”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the television industry looking like total self-centered jerks. The Emmys used the opportunity to do what television has done for stir-crazy Americans since March: entertain the masses with whatever you have — an empty theater, video-conferenced acceptance speeches, jokes and meaningful comments about the chaos of 2020.
"Of course, I'm here all alone,” Kimmel joked during the show’s opening. “Of course, we don't have an audience. This isn't a MAGA rally — it's the Emmys."
There were, however, plenty of social distancing challenges, which red state Twitter likely seized upon as examples of Hollywood’s hypocrisy.
“I’ve just touched my face and hugged you like three times, so from a COVID perspective, this is terrible,” "Schitt's Creek's" Andrew Cividino said to Dan Levy when they won for directing a comedy series. Members of the cast of the quirky comedy, which won seven primetime awards, were all seated in their own socially distanced party room.
Other timely issues that made their way to the forefront of the live broadcast were familiar subjects on the Emmy stage.
“This was supposed to be the Black-est Emmys ever, but because of COVID, we can’t even get in the damn building,” Anthony Anderson of “black-ish” joked in a pre-scripted part of the show. He was one of a handful of nominees — plus an alpaca — who showed up in person onstage to help Kimmel keep the three-hour show going. But when Anderson called it a “llama,” and Kimmel corrected him, he snapped, “Don’t whitesplain to me, Jimmy! It should have been a pit bull. But no, not tonight!” Then he led Kimmel in an awkward #BlackLivesMatter chant.
It was one of many ways to bring levity to a deadly serious year. Divisive governance, systemic racism, the rise of white nationalism and the terror of police brutality was hardly lost during a ceremony in which the poignant limited HBO series “Watchmen” won several awards.
Starring Regina King, the sci-fi series revisited the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, bringing light to an ugly chapter of history that many white Americans were unaware of before the show ran. When accepting the award for her lead performance in a limited series, King donned a “Say Her Name” Breonna Taylor T-shirt under her blazer in honor of the unarmed Black woman who was killed in her own apartment by police serving a “no knock” warrant.
After referring to “Watchmen” as “...a journey where we could bring art to truth to power” King said: “Gotta vote. I would be remiss not to mention that being a part of a show as prescient as ‘Watchmen.’ Have a voting plan.” She ended her speech with a shoutout to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Rest in power, RBG."
“Watchmen’s” Damon Lindelof, who won along with Cord Jefferson for writing for a limited series, also forewent the traditional award night tuxedo for a “Remember Tulsa ‘21” T-shirt and blazer. “I’d be remiss if we didn’t recognize all the men and women who died in the Tulsa massacre in 1921,” he said when the show won the Emmy for limited series. “The original sin of our show. This country neglects and forgets its own history at its own peril, often, and we should never forget that.”
Uzo Aduba, who won her limited series supporting actress Emmy for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm in FX’s “Mrs. America,” pointed to her “Breonna Taylor” T-shirt during her acceptance speech and said, “Let’s go change the world.”
The Emmys were short on immigrant stories among its nominees. One of the year's best comedies, Mindy Kaling's “Never Have I Ever,” wasn’t nominated, which became a bone of contention for many fans of the Netflix show. But “Succession’s” Andrij Parekh, an American of Ukrainian and Indian descent, spoke to the issue during his acceptance speech for his direction of an episode from the HBO drama. “I want to dedicate this Emmy to all the kids whose names like mine are difficult to pronounce,” he said. “To those who don’t look like their classmates and are defined as outsiders, as hyphenated Americans, and not simply as Americans. This is proof that you belong and this Emmy is ours.“
The upcoming election was also at the forefront of nominees’ and winners minds. Though most did not specifically endorse a particular political party or candidate, many who spoke via Zoom (or whatever it was) took the time to encourage unity.
Mark Ruffalo, who won for his performance in the HBO limited series "I Know This Much Is True," in which he played adult twin brothers, one of whom struggled with mental illness, aimed his speech at Nov. 3. “How are we going to heal and honor and take care of each other and our most vulnerable people? We do that with compassion and by fighting for them,” he said from what appeared to be his home couch. “We have a big, important moment ahead of us. Are we going to be a country of division and hatred, a country only for a certain kind of people? Or are we going to be one of love and strength and fighting for all of us. Get out and vote. Vote for love, compassion and kindness.”
Members of the cast of Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” nominated for three Emmys including limited series, took another approach to 2020. Gathered in what looked to be someone’s backyard and socially distanced, they were dressed in New Year’s Eve regalia. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington wore sparkly party hats and “2021” glasses. When Kimmel asked what was up, they answered: “We’re having a New Year’s Eve party, because we’re ready for this year to be over.”
— Hulu (@hulu) September 21, 2020
Cue up "Auld Lang Syne."