The Emmys 2020: The Great Leveller

The ceremony, otherwise inaccessible to the general public, felt like one giant Zoom Call. Even the awkward mistakes felt warm and choreographed
The Emmys 2020: The Great Leveller

Maybe it's fitting that the cast and crew of Schitt's Creek – the charming Canadian sitcom that bid farewell with a history-making final season – received their Emmys in Canada. In a makeshift tent. With makeshift joy. Together. Like David Rose's originally planned wedding. The masks looked like a natural extension of Moira Rose's eccentric attire. David's kilt was a sight for sore eyes. Every time the broadcast cut to co-creator Dan Levy taking the "stage" for yet another award, it looked like an unaired episode of the tiny town's afterparty. It was meant to be – the Roses aren't ashamed of their setting anymore, and there's no way they would come to glitzy California for a fancy ceremony. Instead, we went to them. For a brief moment, it felt like the family was still in Schitt's Creek, making everything out of nothing. For a brief moment, the Roses restored our rose-tinted view of the past. Everything has changed, yet nothing did. The show won 7 Primetime Emmys, becoming the first comedy to sweep all the four acting categories. 

Maybe it's fitting that, seconds after defeating his father, Succession's Kendall Roy held his prize – a legacy rightfully his – and spoke into a camera. He had announced the end of his father's reign on live television; life had come full circle. This time, he didn't tear up the envelope and walk away. He stood still, waited, trembled…smiled. At long last, he was everyone's number 1 boy. Actor Jeremy Strong, overwhelmed by emotion yet succinct in language, took home the big one: Leading Actor in a Drama Series. But one could be forgiven for mistaking this moment as a scene of narrative succession from the next season, whose production has been delayed due to the pandemic. He may not have been announcing this to a room full of flashing light bulbs and admirers, but we sense – for both character and artist – that an isolated room is perfect for such a personal triumph. For a brief moment, Kendall took us to the past by entering his future.

Watching the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards was, for better or worse, an unforgettable experience. A year ago, we might have scoffed at the prospect of an "online" awards ceremony. But here we are. The logistics manufactured the drama. Trophies, and in some cases camera crews, were dispatched to over 100 locations across the world, to the houses of almost all the nominees. This courier service came with a twist: The 'trophy delivery' people in hazmat suits waited outside the doors. The winners got their trophies, but the losers – as Ramy Youssef recorded on Twitter – had the distinct privilege of watching the trophies leave with the delivery men. The nominees' faces looked like ours on small screens, as they peered into their webcams and sat with their loved ones on couches. Some were all dressed up with nowhere to go; others were dressed down with nowhere to be. Mark Ruffalo's wife looked at him emotionally – reminding us of the personal – as he delivered a politically searing speech on his finest moment. Serial winner Regina King's t-shirt, featuring the photograph of the late Breonna Taylor, made a statement from the sacred confines of her home. There was something about watching these artists being able to express themselves in the company of only those who matter, from private spaces they usually seek refuge in after months of shooting. It was like watching a behind-the-scenes documentary of how showbiz would probably look if remote rehearsals made the final cut.

In a nice touch reminiscent of John Krasinski's Some Good News (incidentally the first show to evoke the limitless potential of lockdown technology), brave Americans on the frontline – teachers, doctors, postmen, truck drivers – introduced the main categories and announced the winners. As a result, the ceremony, otherwise inaccessible to the general public, felt like one giant Zoom Call. Even the awkward mistakes felt warm and choreographed. It's only fair that a sense of occasion felt diminished in a year where senses have been recalibrated. It's also only fair that host Jimmy Kimmel walked onto the stage and delivered an opening monologue for the "Pandemmys" to a packed house. Reactions from previous years were spliced into his speech: a melancholic throwback to the age of frivolous human contact.

Kimmel cracked jokes, famous faces laughed. The same polite but wry chuckles, the dignified gaits, the "must always smile lest the cameras catch me" stiffness. The old normal. It looked like the "Expectation" panel before the "Reality" panel took over. When the bubble burst and the camera panned to reveal an empty auditorium, it was meant to be a tragic moment. But it was oddly relieving. The facade had broken. Suddenly it was Kimmel, alone on stage, delivering a monologue designed to accommodate audience reactions. It didn't feel like a stage anymore. Maybe this was the "Expectation" panel we imagined for years. Unlike sports stadiums where the crowd creates the atmosphere to inspire the participants, the atmosphere of award ceremonies have always been provided by the participants themselves. For once, the viewers could finally hear themselves. There was no stratosphere anymore, it was just separate atmospheres.

For some reason, the "In Memoriam" section of the Emmys felt the most unsettling – and the most therapeutic. Kimmel kicked it off by honouring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the legendary jurist who had nothing to do with the entertainment business. In a year where grief has reduced professional identity to obscure footnotes, greatness has become a more democratic emotion. The faces of James Lipton, Jerry Stiller, Naya Rivera and Kirk Douglas among others flashed on screen. The montage closed with Chadwick Boseman and his voice – a reminder that even death and loss, like the life and victory on display during the Emmys, have felt closer and more distant than ever before. Storytellers have passed, but it's our stories that have perished.

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