Variety’s Chief TV Critics Break Down the Weirdest, Smartest Emmys Ceremony in Recent Memory

A particularly strange year in television and beyond got a fittingly strange Emmys show to match, with nominees awaiting the results from home while Jimmy Kimmel threw jokes into an empty Staples Center. But with a smart, lively production and a string of winners both expected and surprising, the 2020 Emmys ended up more memorable for what they got right than wrong. Variety’s chief TV critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke discuss.

Daniel D’Addario: Am I wrong to think that was the best Emmys ceremony in years?

Obviously, it’s desirable to have everyone back in the same room together for many reasons. But within the constraints of the present moment, the producers pulled off a compelling, intriguing show, one that kept you watching to see what would happen next (and not just in a train-wreck sense). There was genuine whimsy to, for instance, the hazmatted trophy presenters and the exploding boxes containing trophies. And the at-home setting seemed to allow presenters to be franker, more candid and more thoughtfully politically engaged than they otherwise might, speaking without the ceremony — and without the glaring lights — of the stage.

This is all to say that much of what worked about traditional awards shows was replicated, down to a very satisfying list of winners. While the first hour’s “Schitt’s Creek” sweep felt to this viewer repetitious after not too long, the limited series and drama categories reflected a pleasingly broad consideration of what was good on TV over the past few years, from plenty of “Watchmen” and “Succession” representation to Uzo Aduba of “Mrs. America” to — my favorite win of the night, in part because of the surprise of it — Zendaya for “Euphoria.” Well-produced or not, an awards show with only expected winners can’t help but be a dud, and the shock of Emmy crowning a 24-year-old rising superstar over more established TV figures was a delight.

I know you’re a Zendaya admirer as well; did any other moments stick out to you?

Caroline Framke: Zendaya’s win, in a blunt word, rules. “Euphoria” is a deliberately punishing, divisive show, but no matter what you think of it, watching even just a few minutes makes it clear just how good she is in that lead role. I truly think the show would collapse under its own ambitious weight without a performance that sharp at its center, so I was thrilled to see the Academy agree in no uncertain terms. That she’s also the youngest recipient ever, and the category’s second Black honoree, period, only underlines how invigorating this win is.

As for the rest of the show, I was just as impressed as you by the production of the ceremony, which could have just been a monotonous string of Zoom calls (though just as with our banal daily Zoom calls, there was still some fun in getting even a sliver of a peek at everyone’s home setups, which were largely charmingly lo-fi give or take a “Schitt’s Creek” ballroom). The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic keeping everyone as separate as possible clearly inspired the Emmys team to come up with solutions that weren’t just feasible, but creative. Obviously, I hope things are back to normal, whatever “normal” means, next year. But I also hope that this level of ingenuity sticks around no matter what.

Going back to the winners, though, the night was both more and less interesting than I expected. With “Schitt’s Creek,” “Watchmen” and “Succession” winning their respective categories as predicted, that Zendaya win was the biggest upset. (The other, to me, was Maria Schrader winning directing for a limited series over a formidable “Watchmen” trio and a posthumous nomination for Lynn Shelton.) But I’ll admit that even though I figured “Schitt’s Creek” would do well, I was nonetheless floored by just how thoroughly it dominated. The show became a genuine phenomenon thanks to the perfect marriage of its comforting vibe and prevalence on Netflix, but it began as a low-rated, hidden Canadian gem on the now effectively defunct network Pop TV. Its trajectory from that to record-shattering Emmy darling is unprecedented, extraordinary stuff. (For what it’s worth, my favorite of those many “Schitt’s” wins is Annie Murphy’s supporting turn, long the most underrated element of the show’s success.)

Forgone conclusions or no, how did you find the “Watchmen” and “Succession” wins, Dan?

D’Addario: Yeah, none of the top wins came as big surprises. But “Watchmen” and “Succession” both struck me as shows being awarded in — and this is not common for Emmy — the exactly right moment. “Watchmen” grew over the course of its season into a series of startling power and weight, addressing America’s history of racist exclusion as these issues grew more urgent in the national discourse. So too grew “Succession,” whose burnished but uneven first season gave way to a second that combined the show’s careful eye for detail with a splashy adventurousness when it came to character, location and story.

It was interesting, though, that neither “Watchmen” nor “Succession” swept as “Schitt’s” had. The dominance of “Watchmen” relented somewhat to allow acting wins for Mark Ruffalo of “I Know This Much Is True” and for Uzo Aduba of “Mrs. America” — the latter an especially happy result for a consistently great performer and for a series that, in other years, would likely have run the table. And, while Julia Garner is a bright spot in what is for me a dim “Ozark,” I wished Sarah Snook had received the win, though “Ozark” is winding down while “Succession” has seasons more to go.

That final comparison — “Ozark,” which has won prizes over the years but never pieced together a best drama win, vs. “Succession,” which has seemed to roar into the spot previously reserved for “Game of Thrones” — draws out an interesting subplot of the evening. HBO is thriving as an awards force, and the greatest visibility for rival Netflix was for a Canadian sitcom the streamer popularized in second run but did not itself produce. Not for the first time, the morning after an awards show seems a disappointing one for the service that would be the dominant force in entertainment. Which means next year’s Emmys will be a fascinating continuation of this plotline, assuming there’s enough new TV to reward.

Framke: That’s a big assumption — though not for nothing, one of the only networks to have plenty of content banked to roll out during the pandemic has been, in fact, Netflix. So I would be surprised if it doesn’t make a stronger showing in 2021. But I’ll also just be interested in general to see if the next round of winners will be quite as representative of the year in which they premiered as this year’s, which as you said, ended up so perfectly tailored to reflect the time. Going forward, will TV work to confront this tumultuous period head-on, or will it linger behind in the world that came before? I’m not sure which I’d prefer at this point, but can’t deny how curious I am to find out.

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