Catherine O’Hara of Schitt’s Creek summed up the pandemic edition of the Emmy Awards: “These are the strangest of days.” Well-put, Ms. O’Hara. Everything about the annual TV ceremony felt extra weird this year, for obvious reasons. The Covid era forced everyone to take an experimental approach — but that’s a welcome change for the Emmys, always one of the least creative and least fun of the big-deal award shows. For once, the broadcast was an enjoyable night of TV. Now that’s strange.
Host Jimmy Kimmell began with the quip, “Welcome to the PandEmmys,” in a Staples Center that was nearly empty except for cardboard cutouts and a real, live Jason Bateman. “Of course we don’t have an audience,” the host reassured viewers. “This isn’t a MAGA rally — it’s the Emmys.” Jennifer Aniston joined him for a comedy bit about sterilizing the award envelopes by “burning off the germs,” which looked scarily like it was about to turn into the next West Coast wildfire. (Jen’s many skills do not include knowing how to use a fire extinguisher.)
It was a night full of near-sweeps, and the big winners were Schitt’s Creek, Succession, and Watchmen. The glory for Watchmen felt especially resonant this year, with Regina King accepting Best Actress in a shirt honoring Breonna Taylor. When Yahya Abdul-Mateen II won for playing Doctor Manhattan, his speech was easily the highlight of the night. He hit deep notes emotionally and politically, saying, “I dedicate this award to all the black women in my life, the people who believed in me first. I call you my early investors. I love you, I appreciate you, and this one is for you.”
Schitt’s Creek swept the comedy categories, fitting for a year when so many Americans are looking north with serious Canada envy. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara have been ridiculously overqualified for Emmys ever since SCTV, but it was really poignant to see them win. Levy quipped, “Ironic that the straightest role I ever played lands me an Emmy for a comedy performance. I have to seriously question what I’ve been doing.” Somewhere out there, the late, great Johnny LaRue must have been proud.
Zendaya won for Euphoria and noted, “There is hope in the young people. I know our show doesn’t really show that.” Uzo Aduba won for playing Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America, in a “Breonna Taylor” T-shirt that Chisholm would have admired. Stillwater guitarist Billy Crudup won for The Morning Show, fresh from celebrating the 20th anniversary of Almost Famous with Cameron Crowe. Julia Garner won for Ozark, one of the few repeat winners on this most repetition-addicted of award shows. (Other well-deserved repeat victors: RuPaul’s Drag Race and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.)
The night was full of tiresome comedy bits that dragged even worse than usual. (Turning the Schitt’s Creek sweep into a hockey gag felt like the first lame idea someone might yell out in a writers’ room, if writers’ rooms were still a thing.) But the Friends mini-reunion was charming — Aniston is having quite the Jennaissance this week, after her Emmy-worthy star turn doing the Phoebe Cates role in the Zoom table read of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And with Brad Pitt as her Judge Reinhold, no less. (Seriously, doesn’t anyone knock any more?)
David Letterman did a few leftover jokes from his Eighties hosting stint — it was good just to see him again, rocking his white beard. Jason Sudeikis got a Covid-test nose swab on live TV. Randall Park appeared with an alpaca. Anthony Anderson led a “Black Lives Matter” chant and got bleeped when he recited a few choice lyrics from “WAP.” Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong gave a timely speech of “un-thank-yous”: “Un-thank you to all the nationalist and quasi-nationalist governments in the world who are exactly the opposite of what we need right now. And un-thank you to the media moguls who do so much to keep them in power.”
The awards got spread out over the weekend. RuPaul stole the show at Saturday’s Creative Arts Emmys, with his deeply moving speech. “I’ve always said every time I bat my false eyelashes, I’m making a political statement,” Ru said. “Tonight, the only political statement I want to make is this: love. Love for our LGBT brothers and sisters. Love for black queens and brown queens. And love for the United States of America, where a little gay boy with nothing more than a pussycat wig and a dream can build an international platform that celebrates sweet, sensitive souls everywhere.”
Dave Chappelle also gave a bang-up Saturday speech, ranting against critics and thanking his wife, who “has to endure the pains of living with the greatest comedian ever.” Puffing a cigarette, Chappelle put way more laughs into his three-minute speech than his actual comedy special. “I’d like to shout all the other nominees tonight: Tiffany Haddish, Patton Oswalt, Hannah Gadsby, Brother Mulaney. You guys are an inspiration to me, and I’m honored to be nominated with you. I’m sorry that you didn’t win tonight, but who gives a fuck anyway?” Has John Mulaney ever been called “Brother Mulaney” before? As his heroes Steely Dan would say, this brother is free!
Geek note: Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson won for The Mandalorian after winning an Oscar for Black Panther and a Grammy with Childish Gambino, which means he’s now three-quarters of the way to an EGOT. But given the state of Broadway, he might have to wait a while for that Tony.
The “In Memoriam” tribute began with Regis Philbin, Naya Rivera, and Adam Schlesinger, while H.E.R. sang “Nothing Compares 2 U,” ending fittingly with Chadwick Boseman. As always, it was touching to see names and faces from all over TV history: George Constanza’s dad Jerry Stiller, Maude’s husband Bill Macy, variety-show madman Rip Taylor. Buck Henry and Fred Silverman — both SNL legends in their different ways. (They bizarrely left out Monty Python legend Terry Jones, but he probably would have loved that.) And of course, it was touching to see a shout-out out to the late great Ja’Net DuBois, who not only played the iconic no-bullshit neighbor Willona on Good Times, but sang (and co-wrote) the greatest TV theme song of all time, from The Jeffersons. Thanks for the good times, Willona. Keep moving on up.
And just to put all this prestige TV in perspective? Just a few clicks away, the Lifetime Movie Network was going up against the Emmys with a marathon of Psycho Party Planner, Psycho Wedding Crasher, and Psycho Yoga Instructor. Never change, Lifetime Movie Network. Seriously, don’t. You might be our last hope.