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Emmys winners 2020: Despite Covid upheaval, wins for 'Watchmen,' 'Succession' felt predictable

Emmy voters stuck to what they recognized, and in the end, it all just felt like more of the same.
Host Jimmy Kimmel speaks to Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington during the 72nd Emmy Awards on Sept. 20, 2020.ABC

Awards shows have seen audience ratings shrink for the last decade, but the Emmys have been sinking since 2013, with last year's ceremony in September experiencing a huge 33 percent drop. This year is no different, as the morning-after numbers for the 2020 Emmys have fallen once again, this time to a dismal 6.1 million, barely on par with new episodes ofn ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” So why aren’t people watching the Emmys? The reason has a lot to do with the intensely conservative and boring choices of Emmy voters.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a few sight gags, a remarkable logistical feat of television felt like a series of missed opportunities.

One of the broadest awards shows in terms of what it covers — which includes everything from 30-second commercials to 30-hour Ken Burns documentary series, although most of these do not make it to the “prime-time” show — Emmy voters tend to nominate and reward the same shows year after year.

This year, the show’s executive producers suggested they would lean in on the absurdity of a star-studded, self-congratulatory three-hour presentation amid a pandemic. But unfortunately, with the exception of a few sight gags, a remarkable logistical feat of television felt like a series of missed opportunities. With every nominee broadcasting at once, the show contained a claimed 114 simultaneous live feeds beaming in from 10 countries. Live TV is hard enough to pull off when everyone is together in the same room. Throw in technology people have only had six months to get used to, and the scale of possible disasters mount. But though the show went fine, the real disaster was that once again, voters insisted of making choices that led to the least exciting television possible.

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It speaks to the professionalism of everyone involved that there were no real train wrecks on Sunday night. There were a few moments of flirting with disaster (setting fire to a Lysol covered envelope, bringing a live alpaca out), but nothing went seriously awry. Even the more reliably “controversial” things, like winners using their allotted speaking time to talk politics, felt merely par for the course. The various pleas to vote were practically perfunctory.

In theory this is what everyone wants — a show that goes off without a hitch and magically ends within a few minutes of its allotted time. But this is a weird time. So it was actually a little disconcerting that the show’s surrealist aspects, like people in Hazmat suits arriving at the homes of celebrities to hand them awards, barely registered after the first one. There was no attempt to play into the weirdness either — for example, to acknowledge that these people in hazmat suits were literally lingering outside the homes of dozens of nominees.

But the biggest problem this year was the winners. For the first time, HBO was not the top nominee, having lost its crown to Netflix. But Emmy voters stuck to what they recognized, and in the end, it all just felt like more of the same. HBO’s “Succession” seems like the successor to “Game of Thrones” in the drama categories. HBO’s “Watchmen” did not sweep the limited series category, but its march to 11 wins felt inevitable from the moment it scored 26 nominations in July. HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” continues to win every year. In the final count, HBO scored the most wins of the night, again.

And when the Emmys did do something different, it overdid it. “Schitt's Creek” is great and has been for six years. But by sweeping the entire comedy category, leaving the first hour of the broadcast to return over and over to the cast gathered together in a Toronto ballroom. (“Schitt’s” stars were able to dress the part and sit together because unlike in the U.S., Canada currently has the virus under control.) Sure, the awards were well deserved, and moreover, this was a historical moment — as no comedy show has ever won all seven major categories in Emmys history. But no one bothered to mention that on air, and in failing to get excited about history, man was it boring. (Also, in a year when Black actors scored the most nominations ever, returning time and again to the image of a room full of white people felt less than ideal.)

The fact that this seven-category sweep was partly making up for the Emmys failing to recognize the show before now (four seasons without a nomination, and shutout last year) highlighted the awards show’s continuing problem with homogenized choices. The Emmys’ whole deal is to recognize great TV everywhere, not just when it becomes the latest show to land an accidental Netflix bump.

The only real shock of the night was the win for Zendaya, for her lead role in HBO’s “Euphoria.” The surprise had nothing to do with her performance; the show doesn’t work without her. Rather, the Emmys are rarely willing to go out on a limb for anyone, let alone an actress who was, up until her “Euphoria” role last year, a Disney child star. So it was great to see the Television Academy step up and recognize a talent on the rise, although less great that such a move would feel unexpected. A little more of these kinds of risky choices would have gone a long way.

So, in the end, was it worth all the effort? On the one hand, in a world that needed a little bit of levity and frivolousness, it was a surprisingly nice break from the doom and gloom. But once again, viewers turning in to the ceremony were reminded of why audiences continue to tune out.