The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards reflected the ways we watch television in quarantine. They were dominated by a handful of shows with hugely acclaimed seasons that earned them “must-watch” status, making them marathon series of choice during our long Covid-19 nightmare (a nightmare that was acknowledged over and over and over again all night long, but rarely overtly).
The biggest winner of the night was PopTV’s Schitt’s Creek, which became the first comedy series ever to sweep the seven categories presented during the televised awards. The show was a frequently cited comfort watch for viewers just looking to find something warm and inviting in these uncertain times.
And the biggest winner of the 2020 Emmys overall — HBO’s Watchmen, which won four awards during the televised ceremony and seven at the earlier Creative Arts Emmys, for a total of 11 — is a series about America’s history of racial oppression where almost everybody wears masks, making it a series that resonates with the moment. (The Emmys’ other big winner, HBO’s Succession, is about a family of rich people that’s ruining the world, so it’s of course not relevant right now.)
But the 2020 ceremony reflected other ways that our viewing habits are changing. Consider the presence of Chadwick Boseman in the night’s In Memoriam montage; Boseman’s death from cancer was a shock to his fans, but those fans largely knew him for his film work, not his handful of television appearances in guest roles and forgotten series that were quickly canceled. He would obviously be a great fit for the Oscars’ In Memoriam montage, but why the Emmys?
And yet it would have felt deeply wrong if Boseman hadn’t been recognized, because the lines between film and television are collapsing in the quarantine era, when movies intended for the big screen are opening in our living rooms. Boseman’s last major screen credit before his death was in Spike Lee’s terrific film Da 5 Bloods, which premiered on Netflix in June and will likely never play in theaters. Does that make him an icon of film or TV? Does it matter?
The dissolution of the boundary between film and TV — the boundary that once held so firm that the Emmys almost reflexively gave huge prizes to movie stars who would deign to appear on television — was already happening before Covid-19. After all, this year’s made-for-TV movie winner, HBO’s Bad Education, was made to be released in theaters but was then acquired by HBO for TV, long before the pandemic broke out worldwide.
But the mere existence of quarantine, and the fact that everything is sort of television now, made for an evening where the Emmys felt almost like the Oscars+. Soon, everything will just be something of an undifferentiated chunk of content, and we’ll all watch as much as we want to watch before going to sleep. As a fan of long-form storytelling that sprawls across years and years and years of a TV show, this trend chills me (critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) to my bones, but what am I going to do? Go to a movie theater? At least where I live, in Los Angeles, they’re all closed.
But you know what? We’re not here to talk about TV’s future. We’re here to talk about its extremely recent past — here are six winners and five losers from the 2020 Emmy Awards!
Winner: Schitt’s Creek
For a series that received zero Emmy nominations for its first four seasons, then received four nominations for its fifth season in 2019, but didn’t win a single Emmy until it took home two trophies at this year’s Creative Arts Emmys (for casting and costume design), Schitt’s Creek sure went out with a bang.
The show’s sixth and final season, nominated 15 times, won nine Emmys total, including all seven of the awards presented during Sunday’s televised awards. It won so many that creator Dan Levy won four prizes (Outstanding Comedy Series, Supporting Actor, Writing, and Directing), one more than Phoebe Waller-Bridge did in 2019 when Fleabag swept it all. Waller-Bridge, after all, didn’t direct her show. (But like Fleabag, Schitt’s Creek is also an import, hailing from the distant shores of Canada.)
Only one other TV show has ever swept all seven televised awards in its category: HBO’s 2003 adaptation of Angels in America, which dominated the miniseries categories at the time. And yet those categories existed in an era when miniseries and made-for-TV movies were all but dead, so there was very little competition. Schitt’s Creek was up against contenders like The Good Place and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
To some degree, this is a bit of over-hype: Few TV shows could possibly live up to such a high level of acclaim without leaving a lot of viewers to grumble, “That was it?” But Schitt’s Creek’s fans are persistent, and they are legion, and they are now apparently every member of the television academy’s voting body. —Emily VanDerWerff
Loser: Known Schitt’s Creek skeptic and Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff
I mean really. It’s a nice enough show. But this show? It’s completely fine, but it’s so light and fluffy that it might just fly off into space! I would gladly accept it winning a few of the awards it won — even Outstanding Comedy Series — but all of them? This will not stand! I am writing a sternly worded letter about this. —EV
Winner: HBO (especially Watchmen and Succession)
For many years, HBO has ruled the roost at the Emmys, but when the nominations for 2020 were announced in late July, its perch was threatened by those upstarts at Netflix, who absolutely demolished the record for the most nominations ever received by one network. Was HBO’s status as king of Emmys mountain threatened?
Well, as I predicted on nominations morning, not really. The network won 30 Emmys total across the Creative Arts awards and the televised Primetime Emmys ceremony; Netflix came in a distant second with 21 prizes. The gap is even more pronounced if you just look at the awards handed out during the televised ceremony, where HBO won 11 awards to Netflix’s two.
Most of HBO’s strength was thanks to Watchmen and Succession, which won four prizes each during the televised ceremony. The limited series comic book adaptation was perhaps an unlikely choice to become a runaway Emmy favorite — much less the year’s most rewarded program — but Watchmen bore eerie relevance to the world today, even before everybody started wearing masks. And Succession’s sharp-tongued barbs and darkly funny rich people punctuated a story about the rot at the heart of modern capitalism.
This is to say that both shows had that lightning-strike quality that the best television often has, and that lightning-strike quality so often seems to crop up on HBO, which still maintains a high level of quality control over the programming it produces. That’s one thing it still has over Netflix, which greenlights a much wider range of programming and thus has a more varied level of quality, and it’s one thing that keeps HBO winning Emmys.
Of course, HBO’s Emmy successes went well beyond just Watchmen and Succession. The network was also behind the most surprising win of the night. —EV
Zendaya celebrated her 24th birthday on September 1. Nineteen days later, she won an Emmy. That’s a pretty dope belated birthday gift, made even sweeter by the history-making honor attached to it. Zendaya became the youngest winner ever of the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series prize for her turn in HBO’s teen dramedy Euphoria. And it was truly the most adorable moment of the show, and not just because of Zendaya’s ceaseless charm and genuine excitement:
Look how happy everyone is for her! And with good reason.
Euphoria’s first season was fierce and funny and often quite stunning, buoyed by Zendaya’s performance as the drug-addled queer high schooler Rue. Yet it was shut out of all other major categories at the Emmys, save for Zendaya’s big nomination. For her to beat out such well-known competition — including The Morning Show’s Jennifer Aniston, Ozark’s Laura Linney, and last year’s winner Jodie Comer of Killing Eve — is a huge victory. And it feels even more special that it was a young, biracial woman of color who won the category over her otherwise mostly white competition. —Allegra Frank
Based entirely on the results of the televised awards ceremony, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that Netflix garnered 160 nominations and absolutely dominated the 2020 Emmy race overall. Because during the televised awards ceremony, Netflix won just two prizes — Direction of a Limited Series or Made-for-TV Movie for Unorthodox, and Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Julia Garner’s work on Ozark. In fact, Garner’s award was Ozark’s only win, despite being Netflix’s most nominated show with 18 nods.
Not only did Netflix lag behind HBO during the televised ceremony, but the world’s biggest streaming service couldn’t even catch up to PopTV, which had the Schitt’s Creek seven-Emmy sweep. (Making matters worse: Netflix popularized Schitt’s Creek but had nothing to do with producing it.) And Netflix did not win in the three big series categories, where both Hulu (via its drama The Handmaid’s Tale) and Amazon (via its comedies The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag) have won.
I honestly don’t know what to attribute Netflix’s struggles to, except to say that the streaming service has also struggled to break through at the Oscars in similar fashion. Perhaps that’s because HBO’s stranglehold on the Emmys is unbreakable, or perhaps it’s because Netflix is good at securing awards nominations but bad at campaigning for wins. But I think it might be that once the nominations campaigns are over, once everybody actually watches the shows that get nominated, they see something like Ozark and say, “Wait. That’s it?” But that’s just me. —EV
Winner: Black Lives Matter
The story of 2020 has been defined as much by the renewed energy around the Black Lives Matter movement as it has by Covid-19. That was not lost on this year’s Emmys. In addition to honoring several Black winners in big categories, the ceremony gave the topics of equality and inclusion special attention throughout the evening.
There were moments that felt like nods toward the Black Lives Matter movement, like giving Issa Rae and Lena Waithe solo segments to discuss their creative processes; those felt like overdue recognition, and underlined the difficult path toward achieving equitable racial and LGBTQ representation in Hollywood. Winners Regina King and Uzo Aduba wore shirts honoring Breonna Taylor, giving the 26-year-old victim of police brutality a large presence during the ceremony. Damon Lindelof, creator of Watchmen, wore a shirt referencing the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, a shocking yet under-discussed historical event that the show is built around. Lindelof’s co-writer Cord Jefferson also dedicated a portion of his speech for their Best Writing win to the importance of elevating Black voices. And Zendaya gave a shout-out to protesters for “doing the work in the streets.”
In case these moments were too subtle, Black-ish star Anthony Anderson came onstage to chant “Black lives matter” with Jimmy Kimmel.
“Say it with me, Jimmy,” Anderson said, after explaining to Kimmel that this year’s Emmys had the most Black nominees of any ceremony in the show’s history. (Thirty-three Black actors were nominated this year, with Black actors representing 34 percent of nominees.) “Louder, Jimmy. Say it so that my kids could hear it. Because Black lives matter, Black people will stay at home tonight to be safe, which is fine, because guess what? Y’all don’t know how to light us anyway.” —AF
Loser: The Good Place
It’s a little bonkers that in a year where Schitt’s Creek did so well, the highly acclaimed final season of another feel-good comedy couldn’t so much as register, but The Good Place’s final season of afterlife shenanigans didn’t win a single Emmy, leading to a 0-for-14 record for the series across its four seasons. I had a lot of complaints about that final season, but the fact that The Good Place didn’t win anything is the hardest thing to stomach about Schitt’s Creek’s sweep. —EV
Loser: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
A couple of years ago, when Amazon’s show about a 1950s housewife who becomes a stand-up comedian won eight Emmys for its first season, it seemed like a surefire awards magnet for years to come, sort of a funnier Mad Men. But its second season got buried under Fleabag mania, and now its third season has been completely swept aside by Schitt’s Creek. Indeed, despite Maisel’s 20 nominations in 2020 — the most for any show not named Watchmen — it received only four wins, all at the Creative Arts Emmys. For whatever reason, this so-called Emmy magnet just never became an Emmy magnet after season one. —EV
Winner: New streaming services
If you didn’t pay attention to the Creative Arts Emmys (and who does?), you probably missed that Disney+’s The Mandalorian made for the best first year ever for a streaming service, garnering seven total prizes for the brand new Emmy player.
But it wasn’t just Mando and his tiny Yoda-like friend. AppleTV+ didn’t win a lot of awards at the 2020 Emmys, but it did take home a surprisingly big prize with a victory in the Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category for Billy Crudup’s work as an agreeably oily TV exec on The Morning Show. And then there’s Quibi, which won two Emmys at the Creative Arts Emmys for two actors in its bite-sized series #FreeRayshawn. (Disclosure: Vox has its own show on Quibi.) —EV
Winner: The show’s unorthodox presentation
A virtual awards show shouldn’t have worked. And there were times when the virtual Emmys didn’t quite work. The choice to cut together Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue with footage of attendees at prior Emmy ceremonies laughing and applauding his jokes was one of those gags that went on a little too long. But the payoff was almost worth it, for the eerie, chilly look at Kimmel all alone in a mostly empty Staples Center, occasionally joined by celebrities who stood all the way across a giant stage from him.
After Kimmel’s opening monologue, however, so many of the show’s choices were wonderful. From the little glimpses we got into the nominees’ homes (and, uh, that giant Canadian castle the Schitt’s Creek team rented out) to the introductions from essential workers on the front lines of Covid-19, the ceremony was successful, by and large. Not everything was perfect — those essential worker introductions sometimes felt a little haphazard — but it was also just nice to see an awards show that didn’t look like every other awards show.
The surprising innovation of the virtual Emmys was perhaps best underscored by the In Memoriam segment, which let H.E.R. play “Nothing Compares 2 U” first on a piano and then on an electric guitar as the faces of TV legends who died in the past year (including Carl Reiner and Carroll Spinney, the man behind Big Bird) floated on a big screen behind her. Occasionally, those images were superimposed over the sets that made them famous (as when Spinney was shown with the Big Bird costume standing in the far background of the picture of him used for the reel). At the end, the camera retreated from H.E.R. down a long, empty hallway. It was resonant and lovely, in a way awards shows rarely get to be.
Anyway, I hope the Oscars were taking notes. Because this was a terrific show. —EV
Loser: Delicious, delicious chaos
For an unprecedented virtual Emmys ceremony, this was a surprisingly well-oiled machine of an awards show. Which is good for the hosts, the nominees, the winners, and the production crew! But for viewers at home who sometimes tune into awards shows hoping for a little bit of disaster, it was kind of a disappointing watch. We were ready for spotty wifi connections, random kids showing up on screen, and people getting a little too drunk a little too early from the comfort of their couches. Where’s the fun in perfection? We demand way more messiness next year to compensate. —AF