Emmys 2020: ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ ‘Watchmen,’ Netflix, and Lessons From a Pandemic

The Emmy season didn't have a ton of internal coherence, much like the rest of 2020.
Watchmen Episode 2 HBO Regina King
Regina King in "Watchmen"
Mark Hill / HBO

2020 has been a real mindfuck.

I mean, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. The year has been defined by the world being turned upside down, all while remaining exactly the same. Many Californians are still sheltering in place, caught between the old normal and whatever way we’re living now, but fire season comes regardless. Yes, millions of people are unemployed, driven largely by an insufficient pandemic response made at the highest levels of government, but taxes still have to be collected. People take to the streets night after night to protest systemic racism and police misconduct, but officer-involved shootings persist. Sports leagues have been forced to great lengths to transform their respective games to make environments as safe as possible, playing to empty stadiums, while fans are still as anxious as they’ve ever been to watch athletes play ball, regardless of the circumstances. Everything is falling down around us, but the world keeps spinning.

Nothing is normal, but everything is the same.

So it’s probably unsurprising that this was the overarching feel of the 2020 Emmy Awards season as well. Through thick and thin, the Emmys persisted, adjusting the FYC season, reimagining both the Creative Arts and Primetime Emmy Awards traditions, but never wavering from their commitment to deliver the Emmys on time. Which was pretty strange, in retrospect.

With all the upheaval in mind, it became a very difficult game to try to predict what would happen with the awards themselves, not so much in delivery, but in recipients. Without the thrum of FYC season and the second- and third-hand conversations and speculations that happen within a fully operational entertainment industry, it was difficult to ascertain where voters heads — and hearts — were at while filling out their Emmy ballot.

For me, that meant constantly hoping against hope that the picture would become clear. And what do I have to show for my hope the day after the Primetime Emmy Awards? Absolutely nothing. Thanks, 2020.

But after a night spent examining all of the evidence, trying to come up with a grand unified theory of the 2020 Emmys, I’ve finally drawn some conclusions and am here to share this wisdom with others looking to make sense of a TV awards season like we’ve never seen before.

"Schitt's Creek"
Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in “Schitt’s CreekPop TV

Resolved: The Emmys Love Celebrating Series Swan Songs

What else could you possibly conclude after an evening that began with a literal trash fire and also Pop TV’s “Schitt’s Creek” winning every single Comedy award? “Schitt’s Creek” first moved the needle at the Emmys for its penultimate season last year, garnering four nominations and no wins, before its historic night sweeping the comedy categories when the show’s final season earned nine wins for 15 nominations.

That’s not even the first time in recent Emmy history that a show concluded on a high note and was roundly celebrated despite previously going largely unacknowledged. Amazon Prime TV’s “Fleabag” was similarly embraced last year for its second and — creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge swears — final season. Though not precisely the same situation, the two comedies winning Outstanding Comedy Series in back-to-back years suggest that maybe TV Academy voters are growing softer in these difficult times, more appreciative of things they might have overlooked before.

Even FX’s “The Americans” saw more love in its final season than it had previously nabbed. The show, arguably one of the best drama series of the modern era, earned four Emmys for the entirety of its run, with its two biggest prizes, for Lead Actor and Writing in a Drama Series, received in its final year of eligibility.

Resolved: Unless They Don’t

Of course, lost in that framing is the fact that “The Americans” was only nominated for Outstanding Drama Series twice, that Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings never won an Emmy, and that the series absolutely joins the ranks of some of the best shows on television never getting their due at the Emmys.

If my “Americans” fan-girling doesn’t persuade you, consider NBC’s “The Good Place.” Nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series alongside “Schitt’s Creek” for the last two years, “The Good Place” also had its final season in the past year, but unlike its sweeping counterpart, it left Sunday night’s ceremony with exactly as many overall Emmy wins as it had the entirety of its run: zero.

We want to believe that the Emmys carry with them a sense of institutional memory, looking to right perceived wrongs, often at the last possible moment. How else, we tell ourselves, could you explain Jon Hamm finally winning an Emmy for his last season playing all-time TV antihero Don Draper on “Mad Men”? Or “Friday Night Lights” winning Drama Series Writing and Lead Actor for its final season, after only having won a single Emmy prior, and that for Casting in its first season?

Final seasons don’t matter. Except sometimes they do. It can be both.

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in “Ozark”Netflix

Resolved: The Biggest Is the Best

When Emmy nominations were revealed at the end of July, there was Netflix and then there was everyone else. The streaming behemoth had amassed a record 160 nominations, far surpassing the previous record of 132, set only the year before by an HBO riding high on the dragon after the conclusion of “Game of Thrones.”

Resolved: But Not Always

Nominations, of course, are one thing, but wins are another. When the dust settled on Sunday night, it was HBO standing head and shoulders above its competitors. With 30 overall wins, the prestige TV mainstay also made a strong argument for quality over quantity on Sunday, taking home trophies in five of seven categories for both Limited Series and Drama Series.

Nominations are great and suggest an unparalleled breadth of programming that no other outlet could rival. But wins matter, too.

Resolved: Vote Splitting Is Insurmountable

Nothing good happens when a show scores multiple nominations in the same category. The reason is straightforward. When people are fans of a show, their loyalties are split when a single category has multiple choices from that show they can choose. Inevitably, the divided loyalties dilute the popularity of the show to the extent that someone else wins, even if most of the overall votes went to a slew of different players on a single series.

We saw it time and again on Sunday night. FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” had three nominations in Comedy Writing and lost. The same goes for HBO’s “Watchmen” in Limited Series Directing. Neither Lead Actress in a Comedy nominee from Netflix’s “Dead To Me” won. Neither did either Lead Actress in a Drama nominee from BBC America’s “Killing Eve.” The same goes for the nominated directors of Prime TV’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the supporting actresses from “Maisel,” the supporting actors of “Succession,” or the drama directors of AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and Netflix’s “Ozark.”

This phenomenon is so prevalent, it sparks some shows to limit the number of entries submitted for nomination consideration. You can’t split the vote if you only have a single entry in contention and it’s a strategy that sometimes yields great dividends. (See also: Jesse Armstrong’s consecutive Drama Series Writing wins for “Succession.”)

THE 72ND EMMY¨ AWARDS - Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the "72nd Emmy¨ Awards" will broadcast SUNDAY, SEPT. 20 (8:00 p.m. EDT/6:00 p.m. MDT/5:00 p.m. PDT), on ABC. (ABC/Frank Ockenfels)JEREMY STRONG
Jeremy Strong, “Succession”ABC

Resolved: Except When it Isn’t

The problem with all that conventional wisdom is that it just isn’t always the case, which was proven time and again at the Primetime Emmys. Both Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress in a Limited Series — Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from “Watchmen” and Uzo Aduba from “Mrs. America” — faced not just one, but two co-stars in their respective categories, and both were still victorious. Yes, “Ozark” and “Better Call Saul” had two episodes nominated for Drama Directing, but so did “Succession” and that didn’t stop Andrij Parekh from winning.

Vote-splitting is real and it’s terrifying (thanks again, Jill Stein). But sometimes it’s not. It can be both.

That’s so 2020, right? Like an Emmy ceremony that’s kind of like every other Emmy ceremony you’ve ever seen, except for all the ways it’s completely, profoundly different.

With that said, there is a single idea that I’ve taken away from this year’s Emmy season.

Regina King Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Watchmen”Mark Hill/HBO

Resolved: Television Is the Only Constant

I admit it: The hype for “Schitt’s Creek” was real. As was the passion for “Watchmen” and the obsession with “Succession.” In this year, when people didn’t know where else to turn, they turned to television. When they wanted to better understand those people making the decisions that kept an entire country in peril, they looked to the Roy family and “Succession” for insight. When they were trapped in their homes for weeks on end or coming home from 12-hour shifts at the hospital and desperately needed comfort, they turned to the Rose family and “Schitt’s Creek.” When they needed to find the strength not just to persevere, but to rise up, speak out, fight back against the racist institutions terrorizing our brothers and sisters, they turned to Sister Night and “Watchmen.”

The Emmys are neat. They’re a fun distraction to the extremely real life problems that plague our every waking moment. But what is truly transformational is a medium bringing stories directly into your home and offering something to invest in, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, that allows viewers to realign their empathy and recharge their batteries and even to safely explore the issues we find ourselves mired in, through the remove of narrative.

What we learned from this Emmy season is that TV in general is still the greatest show on Earth. And so long as we’re watching, we’ll always be connected.

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