“I’m so sorry I made this political, but I had to.” — Daniel Levy
The Emmys was a show that didn’t know what it wanted to be. Part pseudo-activism, part pandemic commentary, and yes, at times part award show. These ingredients made for a messy three hours that volleyed between hit-or-miss comedic bits and serious musings on the state of the country/world.
Before we talk about specific wins and speeches, let’s first get the production of the show out of the way. The audience was faked out from the start, being made to believe host Jimmy Kimmel was walking out to an audience when he was really walking out to an empty set; clips of old award show footage was used to further this effect. Once the opening monologue was over, we got started with the awards. At some point along the way, I felt lost, wondering if we’d even made a dent in the major award categories.
This is because the actual award-giving was broken up by various skits and monologues from actors (known or unknown) and….essential workers? Yeah, let’s talk about that. Peppered into the show were segments wherein essential workers (delivery drivers, nurses, and teachers) got to speak about their experiences during the pandemic. I believe these were meant to be hopeful, and some of them were! However, when they weren’t hopeful, they were a little depressing. For example, there was a nurse featured who talked about contracting COVID, and how terrified she felt during the ordeal. She talked for about a minute or so, before transitioning to introducing the next award. Um. Okay…?
The show had a self-awareness in that it poked fun at the absurdity of its own spectacle in the midst of political chaos. And I suppose in theory, that awareness is good. But in execution, it just made the show seem like it was trying too hard to be something I don’t think any of us regular award-season viewers want it to be, which was essentially political satire. Take one sketch with Jimmy Kimmel and black-ish star Anthony Anderson as an example. In it, Anthony mourned the loss of what would have been the Blackest Emmys ever (a nod to the record number of Black actors nominated this year), and then began goading Jimmy into a serious Black Lives Matter chant. He cued Jimmy for the parts where white people would have applauded at his jokes or how loudly to chant about Black lives, and Jimmy acted uncomfortable to sell the awkwardness of the whole bit. It was uncomfortable to watch, and I support BLM. It made you wonder what exactly it was meant to elicit: laughter? Discomfort? Both?
Throughout the night as well, there were three short interview features with showrunners of color in the industry: Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, and America Ferrera. The three of them gave some funny insights on the trials they had to face in the industry to be seen as their authentic selves, ending their tales by stating their intention to create opportunities for their communities. And again, as wholesome as these segments were, we have to question why they were baked into the show. To me, the answer is clear: the Television Academy knew that people of color wouldn’t be represented much in the winners circle, so they featured these three as honorary mentions for “diversity.” Basically, they were “gimmes” to BIPOC viewers, meant to make us feel represented more on the show that would largely have white winners.
Which brings us to what should have been the main attraction to the show: the awards. Schitt’s Creek and Succession stole the night in the comedy and drama categories, respectively. And although these two shows deserved the recognition they were given from what fans and critics say, it made the Emmys predictable to watch. I mentioned on Twitter how incredibly boring and lazy it is for academies to pinpoint one show, musical artist, or movie to award across an entire category. It seems to happen every year, on every Big Four awards show, leading many to question both the validity and relevancy of awards as a measure of success in Hollywood. Schitt’s Creek ate up the entire first hour of the show, and the remaining hours were muddled and unfocused.
There were, however, some marvelous wins for Black actors. Uzo Aduba won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series for her role as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America (notably the only award the show snagged), while Regina King won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series for her role in Watchmen. Both gave heartfelt speeches wearing Breonna Taylor t-shirts.
Elsewhere, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II won the award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series for yet another role in Watchmen, and dedicated his win to Black women, a group whom he credits for providing him love and support for his entire life. Tyler Perry also spoke fondly and powerfully about his own grandmother in his acceptance speech for the Primetime Emmy Governors Award. And perhaps most shocking of all, Zendaya took home the big one, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, for her starring role in HBO’s Euphoria. She became the youngest actor to win the award, and was the only person who won that I screamed for.
Watching her win back the morning after, I found myself actually crying. I pondered why her win felt so emotional for me, and I came to the following conclusion: she won that award for us. Specifically, for Gen Z youth, teens and young adults alike, who are Not Okay. For so many young people, Zendaya was a part of their childhood. She was a Disney Channel kid that grew up to be a legitimate Hollywood star. She grew into adulthood with grace, without any significant public traumas or tribulations, and made a piece of art that a new generation of teens could call theirs. It feels so out of turn for award shows of film and TV to recognize the youth; it seems like an unspoken rule that only “established” actors can win, meaning over 35 and white. But she broke through that expectation as a 24-year-old, brilliant, biracial Black woman. The future is so bright for her, and it was heartening to see her make history in real time, as so many of her Gen Z peers do in the streets in revolution.
Outside of these major acting category wins, BIPOC representation was meager elsewhere. With the remaining exceptions of RuPaul (winner for RuPaul’s Drag Race) and Andrij Parekh (winner for directing on Succession), the winners landscape is still largely white. And perhaps because of that, many white honorees felt obligated to make a political statement with their speeches. To be fair, nearly all of the speeches that night were urging viewers to vote or believe in love, but it felt more ham-fisted coming out of white folks’ mouths. I suppose it is hypocritical to whine about this, when there is real pressure that we put on entertainers to make their political stances known and use their platforms wisely. I guess it’s one of those instances of not knowing what to do with it when you get it. Or rather, when it’s ubiquitous. Some of the notable examples of this were the acceptance speeches from the white creators of Watchmen (Outstanding Limited Series) and Succession (Outstanding Drama Series). The first read like a laundry list of quippy social justice catchphrases, and the second was a short list of “un-thank-yous” to the U.S. and UK government’s mishandlings of the coronavirus.
Which brings us back to the quote that began this article. The Emmys, from its inclusion of essential workers to its BIPOC director features to its acceptance speeches, felt like it was reluctantly politicizing itself. It was both trying to appease viewers of color and assuage the comfort of white viewers, as Daniel Levy did perhaps without realizing. A hallmark of even the most well-meaning of white liberalism is the compulsive need to apologize for being political, as if their everyday existence is apolitical. Who was he apologizing to, really? Because surely it wouldn’t be BIPOC or queer folks, at this point in 2020.
The actor-director even shouted out Issa Rae and Insecure during one of his first speeches, which felt very much like an Adele-shouting-out-Beyonce moment. Something to virtue signal that he both appreciates Black art and feels in his heart, “Oh, I’m happy I’m getting this but it makes me feel guilty that I’m taking it away from a talented and often overlooked person of color.” As clumsy as it sounded in the middle of his speech, that guilt wasn’t misplaced.
And of course, we should celebrate Daniel’s wins because he himself is a marginalized identity in television, that being a gay man. Many Schitt’s Creek faithfuls have pointed out that the show likely swept the comedy awards as an apology for (ironically) being overlooked for so many years. When explained that way, the show can be seen as a redemption story, and who doesn’t love that? But, and this is a big but, that shouldn’t be why we award people. This Emmys felt like an apology in so many ways, and that air of “sorry” rang in so many moments throughout the show’s three hours.
So when we look back at the show that was, despite its efforts, it becomes clear that The Emmys was a show that buckled under the weight of its own reluctant politics. It was a fervent apology for past wrongdoings that in many ways, have still not been corrected. This year’s Emmys broke the record for most wins by Black actors in a single year. The record is seven wins. Seven. No such record even exists for Latinx or Asian folks. So for the television academy’s clumsy execution in telling us that they care about inclusion, their record has a long way to go in proving that. For a ceremony that rewards what we see on screen, the Emmys should practice less telling, and more showing.
The Verdict: Trash