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The pandemic made live events surprising again

Why the Oscars and the DNC were so great in lockdown and the Golden Globes and RNC weren’t.

Angela Bassett and Daniel Kaluuya talk at the 93rd Annual Academy Awards, shortly after Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Richard Harbaugh/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The 2021 Oscars were likely the last major live event to have to drastically alter its traditional presentation in accordance with Covid-19 safety protocols. Though you can certainly still see scattered spectators in the stands at sporting events — socially distanced due to the pandemic — the ways in which those events are presented haven’t changed much for viewers. A baseball game in 2021 looks a lot like a baseball game in 2020, except for those limited crowds.

But multiple events that typically rely on crowd reactions, at least to some degree, were forced to wildly rethink how they were staged across the last year. The 2020 political conventions and the run of awards shows from the 2020 Emmys to the 2021 Oscars all had to grapple with what they could possibly look like. Some of them reimagined themselves better than others, but all will stand as YouTube time capsules of this very unusual moment in human life.

Seeing Succession creator Jesse Armstrong accept an Emmy for Drama Series from what appeared to be a very uncomfortable chair in his own home or a parade of delegates nominating Joe Biden via short videos filmed from their states and territories or an entire Oscar ceremony held in a train station underlined how strange this year has been without also italicizing that point. The visuals were enough. We know how these events are supposed to look, and it’s not like this.

Yet these reimagined events made me excited and invigorated by the new methods they invented for presenting TV moments we’ve seen hundreds of times before. Moments as disparate as Kamala Harris accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president and Taylor Swift performing a medley of songs from her albums folklore and evermore at the Grammys gained power from how different they were from what we are used to. Normally, Harris would be in a room thronged with people, and Swift would be performing on a stage full of musicians and maybe even dancers. The forced intimacy of these moments offered a gravity that suited the times. But that gravity never overwhelmed the proceedings either.

The live events that rethought their core reasons for being amid a pandemic fared best. The Emmys, Grammys, and Oscars were significantly stronger than the Golden Globes, which offered an awkward attempt at sparking chit-chat among the nominees over videoconferencing software, seemingly in the hope of capturing the chumminess of the usual Globe ceremony.

Contrast the Globes with the much more entertaining Oscars, which put the focus squarely on the films and people being honored, giving winners ample time for their speeches and placing nominees at tables scattered around Los Angeles’s Union Station. The ceremony wasn’t a radical reworking of the typical Oscar ceremony, but the show’s producers (Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher, and Steven Soderbergh) and its director (Glenn Weiss) clearly had a take on what the Oscars could and should be. The unusual nature of producing an awards show in a pandemic allowed them to zero in on that take, without need for the elaborate performances and skits that have typified past awards shows.

As another example, the Democratic National Convention in 2020 really did mostly take place over Zoom, a choice that could have been disastrous. But the event subtly created a case for nominee Joe Biden over then-president Donald Trump: We wouldn’t even have to have a convention over Zoom if Trump hadn’t handled the pandemic so poorly. Free of the pomposity that greets even the best political conventions, the DNC ended up tapping into the frustration and grief felt by so many Americans at the end of a summer marked by social isolation and mass death.

In contrast, the 2020 Republican National Convention offered a show that was mostly business as usual. Even Trump’s acceptance speech — delivered, atypically, at the White House — crammed in enough of an audience to suggest a vague approximation of a normal speech. The strategy was obvious. By pretending that, sure, things were different but not that different, the RNC could make the aesthetic argument that Trump had handled the pandemic about as well as anyone could have, and anyway, he was a strong leader who wasn’t afraid of no virus. But the “normal convention just scaled down” visuals only ended up feeling hollow. And Trump went on to lose the election, so whatever his pitch was intended to be didn’t work in the end.

The viewership numbers for the awards shows, at least, were terrible. (The DNC and RNC fell a bit from 2016’s conventions, the RNC especially, but neither had as steep a ratings slide as the awards shows.) And in the case of the Oscars, my favorite of all these reimagined events, the viewers who did watch gave the telecast an F. So I might be in the minority when it comes to my appreciation of the ways these awards shows switched things up.

Plus, it seems highly likely to me that everything will be back to business as usual as soon as possible. The 2021 Emmys in September will probably be the first major awards show that largely looks like old awards shows, and given the ratings slumps, it seems likely that producers will try their level best to woo potential viewers by promising “normalcy” and making everything look the same as it was before.

But I think that would be a mistake. The ratings declines don’t reflect distaste with changed presentation but, rather, the fact that all major events have been down in the past year. Even the normally impervious Super Bowl had a significant ratings slide. It is safe to say that we are exhausted, and it’s safe to say that in the midst of a pandemic, a lot of our normal escapism has felt not as escapist as usual.

Many of these “cherished traditions” had become so hidebound that it was impossible to see what had grown stale about them; rushing back to the way things were will only serve to further highlight that staleness. Sure, bringing back some of the comedy skits for the 2022 Oscars will bring a bit more brightness than the 2021 show had on hand. (It was my favorite Oscars ceremony ever, but it was a little self-serious.) But why not keep shifting the Original Song performances to a pre-show, where they had room to shine and could be performed in full? And why not keep shooting the awards like a movie being made in front of you?

The biggest and most obvious change about many of these events — the videoconferencing hook-ups around the world that allowed people to attend remotely — will probably disappear. But do they have to? Why not let nominees from Europe or Asia attend from their home countries? Why not have fun with the idea of the entertainment industry as one that is increasingly global? Why feel so beholden to the events happening on a political convention’s floor instead of all around the country?

The Covid-19 pandemic offered a distinct opportunity for these productions to rethink themselves. The programs that did the most to embrace change were the most creatively satisfying, and I hope they don’t lose sight of what was fun and invigorating about their pandemic presentation. So many of them still had a feel of desperately trying to turn lemons into slightly sweeter lemons, but maybe after the pandemic, we can finally get around to making some tasty lemonade.

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