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Emmys 2020: The best moments from the (mostly) virtual ceremony

"Schitt's Creek" swept the comedy category. Jimmy Kimmel tossed off topical one-liners. The winners gave speeches from homes and hotels.
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The warmhearted comedy "Schitt's Creek" and the acerbic corporate satire "Succession" nabbed top honors Sunday night at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards. The ceremony was unusual this year, to say the least: Jimmy Kimmel, the emcee, took the stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in front of rows of empty seats; winners accepted awards via video feeds from their homes and other remote locations around the world. But for the most part, the telecast unfolded with few technical glitches — along with a mix of show business gags and nods to real-world issues. Here's a look at the five key themes from television's big night.

'Schitt's Creek' sweeps

"Schitt's Creek," a gently absurdist fish-out-of-water comedy that went from cult favorite to mainstream success over six seasons, conquered the major comedy categories. The show earned the best comedy series trophy, as well as six other prizes.

The four leads — Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy — all nabbed awards for their performances on the show, which follows a formerly wealthy family forced to pack its bags and move to a small town.

Dan Levy, 37, a multihyphenate talent who co-created the series with his father, Eugene, claimed four honors: writing, directing, best supporting actor and best comedy.

Eugene Levy, left, and Daniel Levy from "Schitt's Creek" accept the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Serie.
Eugene Levy, left, and Daniel Levy from "Schitt's Creek" accept the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Serie. Invision/AP

"Our show is about the transformational effects of love and acceptance, and that is something we need more of now than we have ever needed before," Dan Levy said in one acceptance speech. (The series has been widely praised for its bighearted message of tolerance and Dan Levy's portrayal of a pansexual character.)

The cast and crew, gathered for a viewing party in Toronto and clad in formalwear, seemed genuinely delighted and surprised by their clean sweep.

O'Hara, perhaps best known for her collaborations with the elder Levy in mockumentaries like "Best in Show," thanked the father-and-son duo for giving her an opportunity to play the imperious family matriarch, Moira — "a woman of a certain age — my age — who fully gets to be her ridiculous self."

"Schitt's Creek," which wrapped this year, reached American viewers on the Pop TV cable channel and later on Netflix. It became gleefully low-stakes quarantine comfort food for many viewers after the coronavirus pandemic reached the U.S.

'Succession' and 'Watchmen' score

"Succession," a foul-mouthed portrait of familial dysfunction, and "Watchmen," a kaleidoscopic indictment of American racism, were repeat winners Sunday.

"Succession" took home the best drama series prize and earned honors for its writing and directing and for Jeremy Strong's performance as the tortured scion of a media empire.

"Watchmen," a nine-episode miniseries, won the award for best limited series, along with accolades for limited series writing, Regina King as lead actress and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as supporting actor.

"Watchmen" has been hailed for its incisive, zeitgeist-capturing exploration of police brutality, domestic terrorism, white supremacy and American racial trauma.

Image: Regina King
Regina King in HBO's "Watchmen."Mark Hill / HBO

The show's creator, Damon Lindelof, has said he set out to tackle modern anxieties around racism in adapting the source material, a 1980s graphic novel of the same name.

"History is mystery," Lindelof said in accepting the award for best limited series, flanked by many of his "Watchmen" collaborators. "It is broken into a million puzzle pieces, and many are missing. We know where those pieces are, but we don't seek them out, because we know finding them will hurt."

Lindelof dedicated the Emmy to the Black victims of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre in 1921, a horrific event that is dramatized in the first episode of the series.

Diversity in the spotlight

The telecast paid particular attention to issues of representation, inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry — both on screen and behind the scenes.

"Insecure" star Issa Rae and actress/activist America Ferrera, who once starred in "Ugly Betty," opened up in recorded segments about their struggles to find a voice in Hollywood as women of color.

The medium-hopping mogul Tyler Perry, accepting the coveted Governors Award, spoke of a metaphorical quilt sewn by his grandmother.

"In my grandmother's quilt there were no patches for Black people on television," Perry said. "But in my quilt, her grandson is being celebrated by the Television Academy."

The slate of acting nominees for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards was notably diverse: 39 performers of color were recognized across 16 acting categories.

But the Emmys have often lagged when it comes to diversity. In analyzing acting nominations from the past 10 years, NBC News found that the vast majority — nearly 80 percent — went to white performers.

Repeated refrain: Vote!

King, Dan Levy and Mark Ruffalo (who won for best lead actor in a limited series or TV movie for "I Know This Much Is True") all implored viewers to make their voices heard in November.

"Have a voting plan," King said in accepting the award for best actress in a limited series or TV movie. "Go to Ballotpedia. Vote up the ballot. Please. ... It is very important. Be a good human."

King, who was honored for her portrayal of a masked vigilante who uncovers a white supremacist conspiracy in alternate-reality Tulsa, then paid tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday.

"Rest in power, RBG," King said. (It was King's fourth Emmy in six years — all of them for her performances in limited series.)

Ruffalo drew a thematic connection between his miniseries and the stakes of the presidential election. "I Know This Much Is True," adapted from a novel by Wally Lamb, centers on a man who tries to care for his mentally ill identical twin; Ruffalo plays both roles.

"How are we going to take care of our most vulnerable people? We have to do that with love and compassion. We are stronger together when we love each other and respect each other's diversity," Ruffalo said in his acceptance speech. "Vote for love, compassion and kindness."

Jimmy Kimmel's 'pandemmys' monologue

Jimmy Kimmel kicked off the night with some one-liners about the odd circumstances of this year's virtual ceremony.

"Welcome to the pandemmys! You can't have a virus without a host," Kimmel said at the top of his monologue, later adding: "It might seem frivolous and unnecessary to do this during a global pandemic. But you know what else seems frivolous and unnecessary? Doing it every other year."

The famous faces in the audience erupted in laughter — but the crowd shots were part of the joke: video from previous ceremonies spliced together. Kimmel did not acknowledge the faux audience until halfway through his opening, when he conceded that he was virtually alone inside the cavernous Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

The producers cut to a shot of row after row of empty seats, with nominated performers embodied by cardboard cutouts — and "Ozark" star Jason Bateman in one of the seats pretending to be frozen in place.

IMAGE: Jennifer Aniston and Jimmy Kimmel
Jennifer Aniston tries to extinguish the fire Jimmy Kimmel started to sanitize the winners' envelope during the 72nd Emmy Awards.

Kimmel ended the opening segment by saying hello to scores of nominees shown on panels of video screens, tuning in live from their homes, hotel rooms and other remote locations around the world. "I feel like I'm in a Best Buy," Kimmel quipped. He was then joined by presenter Jennifer Aniston, and the two proceeded to light an envelope on fire in a nod to pandemic-era health precautions.