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2020 Emmys Review: Chaos Reigned in Primetime, and ABC’s Show Was Better for It

No red carpet, no crowd (save one), no problem. The Pandemmys created finely orchestrated bedlam while also managing to honor its nominees.

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/ABC)JENNIFER ANISTON, JIMMY KIMMEL

Jennifer Aniston and Jimmy Kimmel at the 72nd Primetime Emmys

ABC

Primetime Emmys — Sunday

Like the quiet before disaster strikes, there was a strange moment of clarity about one-third of the way through Sunday night’s 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards. Host Jimmy Kimmel had just announced “Last Week Tonight” as the winner of Outstanding Variety Talk Series, and John Oliver was waiting to receive his trophy. For this particular bit, boxes had been shipped to each nominee, with only the winning candidate’s glossy black receptacle actually containing the coveted trophy. The rest were empty, which added an odd degree of suspense and trepidation to Oliver’s acceptance.

There he was — a winner in the category for the fifth year running, a veteran of awards shows of all forms — cowering in not-quite-anticipation, wondering if the box was actually going to open, and whether there would actually be an Emmy statue inside.

Going into the “Pandemmys,” no one really knew what to expect. Yes, there were initial reports that cameras with laptops were sent to each nominee so they could provide a live acceptance speech (if they proved lucky). Yes, we knew Kimmel was hosting and a few of his pals were bound to show up. We even knew there would be hazmat-suit clad folks handing out Emmys, though it wasn’t clear if the world’s most protective tuxedos (sorry James Bond) were real or part of a gag.

In other words, the 2020 Emmy show could’ve been a disaster (much like the Creative Arts ceremonies that preceded it). They could have been a mystery box with nothing on the inside, or worse still, that didn’t open correctly, if at all. But much like Oliver appeared to feel when the contraption finally sprung, watching the 2020 Emmys was surprising, enjoyable, and messy as hell. What wasn’t pure chaos could’ve been improved — a number of bits bombed and plenty of jokes needed to be workshopped — but this was a memorable, entertaining, and technically immaculate awards show.

So I say, job well done.

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/ABC)JASON BATEMAN

Jason Bateman at the 72nd Primetime Emmys

ABC

If you told me that would be my ultimate reaction after just the first five minutes, I’d have laughed in your face — which is a much stronger reaction than Kimmel’s opening deep fake received. Walking out to a packed theater was obviously a bit, but it went on far too long and the best joke gleaned from all those cutaways to previous years’ crowds was, “This isn’t a MAGA rally, this is the Emmys!” All Kimmel’s preceding jokes were overshadowed by questions about the fake crowd, and looking back, they weren’t great anyway: paying tribute to the prolific Norman Lear with, “The only thing I’ll be producing when I’m 98 is phlegm”? Calling Quibi the “dumbest thing to ever cost a billion dollars”? Eh, that’s fine for Kimmel’s nightly shows, but far from the quality demanded of an Emmys’ opening monologue.

Then things kicked into gear. Kimmel’s bit with Jason Bateman was pretty fun, mainly because of their casual, quippy banter, but it should’ve been better integrated into the overall reveal. (Also, it must be said, Bateman is such a natural actor, I never thought I’d be comparing him to a wooden board, but he did those cardboard cutouts proud!) Even better was the hand sanitizer Emmy station Kimmel used when walking backstage, to his main hosting locale, surrounded by dozens of live streaming nominees. By the time Jennifer Aniston showed up, there had been enough movement, surprises, and wit to pique our curiosity.

And then they set the stage on fire.

To be honest, I’m not sure the Emmys ever got better than that moment. I’m not sure TV will ever get any better than that moment, and believe you me I freaked out when there was an impromptu “Friends” half-reunion later. Kimmel lighting the envelope on fire — a real fire! — was exciting enough. Then he dropped it in a bin filled with… paper? They wanted to fuel the fire further? What? Why? That Aniston couldn’t put it out right away wasn’t surprising, but her diligence and precision with the extinguisher created a spectacle never to be replicated. Jennifer Aniston, star of “Friends,” Emmy nominee for “The Morning Show,” decked out in a sleek black dress… spraying white foam into a literal trash-fire while Kimmel proceeded with the scripted dialogue! (What absolute pros, the both of ’em.)

At one point, the fire was still raging and Kimmel turned to Camera B to keep talking, while Aniston hosed down the flames. For a second, it felt like they might not be able to put it out. That they’d have to cut to the nominees while behind-the-scenes experts dealt with a minor emergency. That’s exactly the kind of chaos the Emmys wanted, and it kept them raging for, well, a while.

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/ABC)ZENDAYA

Zendaya at the 72nd Primetime Emmys

ABC

The “Schitt’s Creek” sweep served as a soft blanket on the flames, as the insanity sparked before Canadian winner after Canadian winner walked to their bubble room’s microphone was tamped down by inevitability. Grouping the night’s presentations by Comedy, Limited Series, and finally the Drama categories may have been necessary in order to hold the at-home stars’ attention; if you know your genre is competing for the next hour, you know to engage with the show during that time. (And go to the bathroom, get a drink, etc. later.) But it also backfired a bit with the vibe producers Reggie Hudlin and Ian Stewart were going for. The old saying goes, “The producers can’t pick the winners,” meaning part of the allure of any awards show is not knowing who’s going to win. So whenever you know who’s going to win, it gets old pretty fast (unless you’re only watching to see that sweep happen).

Kimmel & Co. tried to break it up a bit with Tracee Ellis Ross giving a lengthy intro and “Barry’s” Anthony Corrigan showing up as NoHo Derek, the mailman. (“Everything is OK at the U-S-S-P-S” was a solid line.) Also, shining the spotlight on essential workers by asking delivery drivers, doctors, and teachers to announce the winners was a savvy way to honor the awkward moment of having an awards show amid a pandemic. (It actually worked a bit better than Kimmel’s explanation up top, if only because we’ve heard the argument that “we still need to have fun!” before.)

Still, the decision to make as much of this show live as possible really came up huge. The speeches were far better than most of the pre-taped speeches during the Creative Arts ceremonies (probably because those people didn’t know if they actually won when they were recording). The glimpses into various homes and hotels made every panel of winners more exciting, as we, the audience, studied their set-ups while everyone waited to hear who won. (Props to Betty Gilpin for her “Protect the court, defend the union” sign, which I’m counting as the telecast’s first official mention of RBG, since none of the “Schitt’s” winners said anything.)

Then came the “Watchmen” winners, all of whom raised the bar, speech-wise. Regina King remains a beacon of awards show perfection; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II appeared earnestly surprised by his victory (which is always endearing) before recovering nicely to dedicate his trophy to “all the Black women in my life”; Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson both gave great speeches, and even the non-“Watchmen” winners used their time wisely, like Uzo Aduba (of “Mrs America”) who also drew attention to Breonna Taylor with her ensemble (King did, too) before exiting the frame with a sweet cry for her mom. Throw in Zendaya’s jubilant sprawl later and Jeremy Strong’s sheepish giggle and bam, the speeches did their part to keep the night lively.

Honestly, everything that made it to our screens at all is a credit to ABC and the TV Academy’s tech team. Pulling this kind of show off under these kind of restrictions seemed like a near impossibility beforehand, and, with their insistence on live speeches over pre-taped segments, it often felt like the producers were deludedly clinging to the old model of awards shows. In a way, they were — but they also pulled it off. Sure, there were jokes that could have been sharper. Some bits could have been cut, and others could have been improved. There was room for more surprises and grander ambitions. There could have been more fires, as well as more mystery boxes. But much like John Oliver learned, live, in front of the world, the 2020 Primetime Emmys show delivered everything it promised, plus a touch of chaos. What fun.

Grade: B+

The 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards aired Sunday, September 20 on ABC.

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)JIMMY KIMMEL

Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards on ABC

ABC / Image Group LA

Creative Arts Ceremony, Saturday — Assorted Categories

I blame myself.

After Thursday night’s Creative Arts Awards webscast — the last of the hourlong weekday awards shows — I dared to dream that the two-hour, FXX telecast wouldn’t follow the same format as the YouTube live streams that preceded it. “It’s longer,” I reasoned. “It’s got commercials!” “It’s on an actual network!” “It’s on the weekend!”

But no, of course none of that mattered. The format was firmly in place for Saturday night’s final Creative Arts ceremony, as producers utilized all the segments they’d already aired, enlisted the same presenters, and leaned on commercials to cover a two-hour telecast, rather than try anything original, experimental, or live.

And somehow, despite everything being pre-recorded and everything but the speeches being previously aired, the final night saw more glaring technical glitches than all the previous nights combined.

It also ran long.

Wow.

The most noticeable mistake was arguably the most forgivable. When the telecast revealed the winner for Best Guest Actor in a Drama Series, the onscreen graphic was correct; it listed Ron Cephas Jones, the “This Is Us” veteran, as the winner. But the wrong audio played, and an abrupt cutaway from Jason Bateman’s voice led to questions as to who really won the award. The Television Academy soon Tweeted the answer (and informed reporters in the virtual media room), but I imagine if Jones and/or Bateman were watching, there was a bit of consternation over the honor.

Now, this is the kind of plausible mistake that can happen when those running the telecast don’t know the winners ahead of time, and have to quickly slot the correct graphics package with the correct speech — but it’s still not a good omen for Sunday. Not in a post-“La La Land,” er, “Moonlight” world.

Worse still, that wasn’t the first ugly mistake in the telecast. That dishonor goes to the title card for “Hollywood’s” Emmy-winning hairstyling team. Rather than providing the winners’ names under their acceptance speech, the screen simply read, “Need Names” — an obvious oversight. (Those winners, by the way, are Michelle Ceglia, Barry Lee Moe, George Guzman, Michele Arvizo, and Maria Elena Pantoja — congratulations!)

Soon after, the wrong graphics card ran for Maya Rudolph’s second Emmy win of the year. When she was announced as the Guest Actress victor for “SNL,” the telecast cut to a template that highlighted Eddie Murphy as the show’s host — which is also the title of the episode — and Rudolph’s name was barely visible in the lower left corner. It looked like Eddie Murphy won, but at least his award was (thankfully) announced earlier in the evening.

Combine these mistakes with at least eight reruns of bits, segments, and montages that each ran (twice!) already this week — as well as the return of problematic presenters like Chris Hardwick and Gina Carano, whose past #MeToo allegations and recent hate speech, respectively, should make them unwelcome at any celebration — and the final night of Creative Arts Awards proved to be the worst of the lot; a repetitive, error-filled exercise that couldn’t even cleanly do its primary job: announce the winners.

Now, as I’ve stated earlier in the week, I recognize that the Creative Arts Emmys are not typically broadcast in full. I also recognize the pandemic makes organizing any kind of entertainment broadcast much more challenging, especially when trying to wrangle hundreds of nominees, winners, and presenters. This was not an easy job, and that 90 percent of the telecasts was technically sound should be commended.

The problem lies with the intent. By airing the same introduction five times, the same In Memoriam segment five time, the same fake COVID awards bit three times, and even more reruns that I can’t bring myself to recap, the implication is that those making the show didn’t expect anyone to watch their shows — not every night, not every other night, and not even more than once. But people did, and not just reporters like yours truly. Plenty of nominated series’ producers, showrunners, craft teams, and executives had a vested interest in seeing whether their peers, spread across multiple branches and honored across multiple nights, would win Emmys. This is the highest honor the industry can bestow on its TV artisans, and there was no indication that the TV Academy cared that much about imparting such a feeling to its nominees, colleagues, or viewers in general. The assumption that no one should care enough to watch more than one night of the Creative Arts Emmys works in active contrast to the spirit of the awards themselves.

And also, this final night ran 10 minutes long. That’s probably on me. Earlier in the week, I did say the ceremonies needed more room to breathe. They felt rushed, which felt disrespectful. Little did I know what was coming, and now I live in fear of Sunday night. Good luck to host Jimmy Kimmel and executive producers Reggie Hudlin and Ian Stewart. At least the bar has been set pretty low.

Emmys

Creative Arts Ceremony, Thursday — Scripted, Night Two

The Emmys are far from over. After four straight nights of ceremonies, we’ve only made it through four of the nine hours of Emmy distribution. One more Creative Arts telecast awaits on Saturday night — this one, a two-hour affair on FXX — as well as Sunday’s Primetime Emmy celebration at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. The latter of which has a new host, a new concept, and new talent, so we know that show, at least, will be different.

But Saturday needs to change, too. Be it leaning harder on Nicole Byer’s comic potential as host, giving further (and better) direction to presenters about spicing up their pre-taped introductions, or building more innovative pieces of media to highlight the hard work of those being honored, a longer ceremony cannot simply mean a longer version of what’s been happening at the Creative Arts Awards thus far.

They have, for all the reasons listed below and plenty more elsewhere, been very hard to watch.

Thursday offered the same highs and mostly lows as previous nights, so scroll down for more details. While that’s frustrating enough for anyone who’s had to sit through these first four nights (mainly, reporters and nominees), the real concern remains with the final two ceremonies. After Monday’s event, I mentioned that these super-fast, super-repetitive, super-perfunctory webcasts felt like trial runs for the real thing (aka the Primetime Emmys). That’s its own problem, considering how disrespectful such a perception can feel to those being honored, but looking back, I’m not even sure these ceremonies served as good practice.

Sunday’s telecast will lean heavily on being live — there will be live monologues, live bits, live introductions, and live acceptance speeches. And from a technical standpoint, the most difficult elements of Sunday’s broadcast have to be herding all those live feeds and timing the edits, rhythm, and general feeling of live virtual event.

None of these elements were part of the Creative Arts telecasts. The feeling evoked here isn’t likely to be felt come Sunday because so many of the basic building blocks have changed. So what was the point? What was the goal? What did the TV Academy hope to accomplish over these four both very fast and very long evenings? Yes, they announced the winners. That very essential function was taken care of, but I doubt anyone who didn’t snag a trophy will remember anything positive about these ceremonies. And the TV Academy is still starting from scratch this weekend.

So congratulations to Quibi. Congratulations to Forky. Congratulations to “Schitt’s Creek” (though I’m guessing PopTV will be none too happy if this is its biggest win). To everyone else, let’s look forward to the weekend. At least we don’t know what’s coming.

Creative Arts Ceremony, Wednesday — Scripted, Night One

Hmm… I wonder if that “Succession” win means something.

About midway through the third consecutive night of Creative Arts Emmy Awards, the HBO drama won for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series — the first category to crown a winner with all three of the top dramas in competition. It’s also the only category we’ve seen so far where “Succession” (18 total nominations), “Ozark” (also 18 nominations), and “The Mandalorian” (15 nominations) have competed together, so a win from the win-happy “Mandalorian” (it took home five trophies Wednesday) or even the victory-starved “Ozark” (its best bets are yet to come) could have spelled trouble for the presumptive favorite, HBO’s “Succession.”

Instead, the Emmy went to Bill Henry and Venya Bruk, which kept momentum in “Succession’s” favor… for now. Now, the category isn’t exactly a bellwether for Best Drama Series. In the last 10 years, the winners have only overlapped six times (and three of those were courtesy of “Game of Thrones,” a juggernaut). “The Mandalorian” could still pull an upset if other craft categories favor the Disney+ blockbuster (as they did “Game of Thrones”), but… none of this matters. I mean, it matters — to me, an Emmy prognosticator, and it will matter to the future winners and losers, but it certainly shouldn’t be what people are thinking about when watching individuals win television’s highest honor. This is supposed to be their moment, their time in the sun, their time to be recognized.

Yet, that’s pretty much all that came to my mind Wednesday night, as yet another Creative Arts ceremony rolled out online, the same intro played, and the same high-speed pace made another night of honors feel like another empty gesture.

From the obligatory Baby Yoda joke that Nicole Byer dropped at the top of the ceremony, to the dancing stormtroopers and masked Mandalorian accepting a Visual Effects Emmy via Zoom, Wednesday night’s Creative Arts ceremony was exactly the same as the prior nights, only this time, with “Star Wars”! Reruns plagued another abbreviated run time, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar resurfaced to introduce the same ad for BLDPWR as they aired Monday, Byer’s Kia-sponsored bit on COVID-19 Emmy categories didn’t play as well as the first time, and the In Memoriam scroll got a very minor but critical update — Wilford Brimley’s name was spelled correctly this time, as we requested last night. (Credit to IndieWire’s Steve Greene for the initial spotting.)

The only significant changes were seen in the presenters and winners, and calling those “significant” is a real stretch. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Hilarie Burton Morgan tried to plug their chill, AMC talk show with some chill, unrehearsed banter, but tying the fact that they don’t use visual effects on their show to introduce the awards for Best Visual Effects only emphasized their shameless plug over the Academy’s actual honor. Laverne Cox stumbled in the same fashion later in the show (although for a much more selfless program in the Netflix documentary “Disclosure”), but there have been far too many readings like the Morgans’ too-relaxed video over three nights — eventually, it just seems like the only reason the presenters are there is to plug their shows, rather than because they want to use their profile to bring attention to below-the-line artisans. (And overall, these virtual ceremonies have felt similarly uninterested in paying homage to craft.)

That tonal turn off was only amplified by another couple with nothing to plug: Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne kept things very casual, but they turned their flubbed lines into a cute montage and stayed so joyful throughout that the awards never felt secondary. If the whole show could follow their lead — making (apparent) off-the-cuff references to the art being honored while staying jubilant and innovative — then perhaps these nightly ceremonies would be worth watching. Instead, they remain rather useless, hence my wandering mind.

Again, I recognize (now) that no one is supposed to be watching every night of these, so those tuning in for the first time may have had a pleasant enough experience. But I suspect those tuning in for the first time were nominees (or industry professionals connected to those nominees), and their experience hinged more on whether Emmy voters delivered them a trophy than if Emmy producers delivered a quality program. Folks from “Watchmen” and “The Mandalorian” are probably pretty happy right now — as are Bill Henry and Venya Bruk from “Succession.” I just wish more people knew to be happy for them.

And if you really are interested in reading the tea leaves, head over to Libby Hill’s article. That’s where those thoughts belong.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan Creative Arts Emmys 2020

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Hilarie Burton Morgan

Courtesy of the Television Academy

Creative Arts Ceremony, Tuesday — Variety

Officially, the theme of Tuesday night’s Creative Arts Emmys was “Variety.” Unofficially, it was the opposite.

Repetition reigned on Night No. 2, as reruns of the prior evening plagued another uninspired virtual ceremony. First, the opening video montage of 2019-2020 television shows was the same as what opened Monday night’s event. OK, fine, using the same intro can work as a way of formalizing and uniting these five nights of awards. Host Nicole Byer even leaned into the similarities during her brief opening monologue, quipping, “I’m the same host, this is the same dress.” But then the same clip of Jimmy Kimmel joking about running out of toilet paper played twice — once when the show was up for an award, and then again during a montage of late night series that resumed production during the pandemic.

Later, Jeremy Pope rhymed “lighting” and “writing” while standing in the same place where Byer had rhymed the same two words minutes earlier. Then the same clip of Ernst & Young vote counters wearing yellow Breaking Bad hazmat suits played. Then the same advertisement for the Television Academy’s foundation ran. By the time the In Memoriam segment started, you didn’t have to go to last night’s video to know that yes, it was the same segment as before, highlighting the same random names, from the same lengthy scroll. (To clear up a bit of confusion, those names aren’t actually random. They’re all craft workers who passed away last year, and the other, non-highlighted names are actors and industry members likely to be given their due during the Primetime tribute.)

Spotting these repeated segments, lines, and clips signaled two things:

  1. No one was meant to watch every night of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards.
  2. These ceremonies are just for the winners — and not even all of the winners.

With so much repetition throughout an even shorter show (47 minutes), very low overall viewership (Tuesday clocked less than 1,000 viewers), and another big winner who couldn’t even record an acceptance speech (Lorne Michaels didn’t submit an acceptance speech for “SNL’s” fourth straight Variety Sketch win), Tuesday’s ceremony hammered home who the TV Academy’s intended audience is for these first few ceremonies: the winners. Everyone else is better off looking up the results elsewhere — you can definitely find better reactions via social media — because even sitting through history’s shortest awards show isn’t worth it when so little effort is put in to make the night feel special.

So let’s hear it for Robert Barnhart, the lighting designer who won for his work on the Super Bowl Halftime Show; his pre-taped acceptance speech was a quick, pointed spoof on the virtual Emmys, as Barnhart jogged into frame late, stood in front of a fake curtain, and said, “Even at home they gave me seats in the back row!” He then thanked his colleagues before music overwhelmed the rest of his speech, and Barnhart joked, “Are you really playing me off right now? How’d you get in here?” before it cut to the next award.

Kudos to Ryan Barger of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” for winning Outstanding Picture Editing — and for his extremely colorful backdrop filled with flowers, a not-so-hidden past Emmy, and an excellent miniature skeleton. Props to “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” technical director Eric Becker for telling everyone to “wear a damn mask” after a few musical notes from his piano. And respect to Jason Sherwood, a production design winner for The Oscars who used his speech to embarrass his best friend with earnest admiration.

Along with the more famous faces from “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” like Will Ferrell, Jimmy Kimmel, Justin Theroux, and Norman Lear, who all appeared for a funny acceptance of the Best Variety Special (Live) award, winners like these remind you what an honor it must be to win the most prestigious award your peers can offer. Winners like these are worth watching, and all the winners are worth acknowledging. It’s just a shame the show designed to do just that isn’t interested in courting repeat viewers, and it barely seems interested in entertaining the nightly ones.

One more note: Before the Primetime ceremony on Sunday, someone should fix Wilford Brimley’s name. The In Memoriam scroll spells it wrong, and it has for — you guessed it — two nights in a row.

Television Academy headquarters in North Hollywood, CA

Television Academy headquarters in North Hollywood, CA

IndieWire / Ben Travers

Creative Arts Ceremony, Monday — Reality and Non-Fiction

If you ever wondered what an awards show would look like without all the frivolous time fillers, wonder no more. The 2020 Emmys kicked off Monday night with its first of six virtual ceremonies, and this initial streamlined affair — with pre-taped intros, speeches, and other segments — featured no red carpet, no long walks to the stage, and no flustered, rambling, “Oh, I forgot to thank–” speeches.

It also wasn’t great.

To be fair, the Creative Arts Emmys usually aren’t charged with putting on a show. With so many categories, these ceremonies are primarily focused on getting all the awards handed out, and that’s about it. So finding a fitting way to honor this year’s TV craft achievements without two nights of free dinners and small parties was going to be tricky. The TV Academy could’ve just released the winners via a press release, a la the nominations, and they likely wouldn’t have faced much backlash outside the industry. There’s simply not a huge appetite to watch six nights of TV awards, so the choice to put together virtual, pre-taped, live-streaming ceremonies was a thoughtful gesture and significant investment (of time, production resources, and talent) by the TV Academy. They also offer the added bonus of serving as trial runs for the weekend’s grander festivities, where more people will be watching (one hopes) and more famous folks will be honored (for sure).

But that doesn’t mean it should feel like a trial run. To its credit, the Reality and Non-Fiction section of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards wrapped in less than an hour — an unthinkable feat for any prior awards show — when amiable host Nicole Byer gave her sign-off at 5:55 p.m. PT. But the rapid rate of announcements, combined with the flavorless pre-taped segments, only emphasized the idea that TV Academy technicians just wanted to make sure this whole virtual ceremony thing worked, more than it felt like an opportunity for winners to be singled out, heard, and appreciated.

Does that mean the next five nights are doomed? Not at all! Could there be more ambitious, organic, or otherwise compelling moments in store? You bet! So will viewers come back tomorrow night (and more importantly, tune in for Saturday’s longer FXX airing and Sunday’s big Primetime show)? Well, we’ll see. Here are a few first impressions of the weird debut — for those who missed it, and for those who are thinking about watching later on.

A Quick Ceremony, for Better or Worse

Whoever decided to cap these Creative Arts shows at an hour apiece deserves a medal for courage… if not foresight. Reading previews that claimed each of these first four ceremonies would be over and done in less than 60 minutes made my jaw drop, and few of my fellow viewers believed it was possible until we’d mowed through three-quarters of the categories in 45 minutes.

And yet, the speed ended up working against the special feeling these prestigious awards are supposed to evoke. Don’t get me wrong: A long awards show is tough to sit through, and a short awards show is usually a sign of exquisite planning (and a few lucky breaks). Finding the perfect length for all viewers is an errand so foolish critics should be banned from complaining about award show runtimes.

Still, it’s a big factor this year. The virtual world still can’t compare to the remarkable nature of live, in-person events, so virtual ceremonies are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to making these honors feel as significant as prior years’. Watching winner after winner fly by, with speeches starting as soon as the announcement screen slid away, I couldn’t help but think of past Emmy parties, when someone unknown was announced as the winner, the camera cut to their face, and the people watching stopped chatting or eating or making a cocktail to ask, “Wait, who just won?” That brief exchange usually took place as the recipient walked to the stage, and people would listen to the start of their speech once they understood who they were or, more likely, what they worked on.

The pace of this first virtual ceremony made me forget who won a few seconds after they left the screen. There was barely any time to process winners, let alone ask a friend who was just onscreen or what show they’d won for — and people working behind the scenes typically need a little extra time to be recognized because they’re not famous. I don’t know what the solution is; this could just be an adjustment required for virtual ceremonies, or an attention deficit issue on my end. Bringing in Byer more often could help, especially if she offered a fun fact on the previous winner or their show. Maybe producers could show an extra clip of the winner’s work? (I stand alone on an island whose population loves awards shows that show clips of the nominees.) But Night One went by too fast — longer awards shows are good, actually!

Nicole Byer Nails It

Big surprise, eh? The Emmy-nominated “Nailed It” host wasn’t onscreen that often during the first night (she’ll get more to do on Saturday’s FXX broadcast), but she clearly and concisely explained what was happening, threw in a few affable lines (“Honestly, if you don’t like me now, you won’t like me for the next four days”), and even made a sponsored segment from Kia about fake COVID awards feel more like a reminder of what matters right now than a misguided idea stretched way too thin. (Calling the “Stranger Things” kids “super-spreaders” for participating in “Carpool Karaoke” is always a good joke, though.) Looking forward to more!

In Memoriam Creates More Problems

With only 10 minutes left in the show, just when you thought you might escape an awards show without an awkward “In Memoriam” segment, bam — there it was. A long list of names scrolled down the screen, in no discernible order, as random craft artists were singled out with a picture and a credit for one of their shows. Some got the golden flash over their name that preceded a photo highlight, and some did not. Why? I honestly don’t know, but the segment managed to create the same controversy of so many past, in-person awards shows by choosing which deceased filmmakers got special treatment and which didn’t (much like when guests would applaud for one name more than another during past tributes). Here’s hoping this isn’t a recurring segment.

Some Things Never Change…

Despite acknowledgements that this year’s ceremony was going to be different, as well as promises that producers would lean into the shift to create more exciting changes, the bulk of entertainment from Night No. 1 came from the presenters’ introductions and the recipients’ speeches, and both were largely lacking in originality.

Jim Gaffigan kicked things off with a lengthy plug for his show. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led into a video package on BLDPWR, an organization trying to support Black artists in the Entertainment industry — during a night when very few Black nominees actually won. The “American Factory” directors fell into the 4% of nominees who didn’t participate in pre-taping an acceptance speech, so of course they won.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. Awkward awards banter, talk-heavy video packages, and absent winners are all awards show staples, as are quickly recited “thank you” speeches and stilted “reading off a teleprompter” intros. Very few honorees tried to stand out, many looked tired or even annoyed to be recording themselves, and it led to a rather flat ceremony,\ since these people were its main building blocks.

The one reliable factor of entertainment? Mistakes. Despite six months to learn FaceTime, “Holy Moley” host Rob Riggle still left his hand on his phone’s camera when recording an introduction. When Eric Milano won back-to-back sound awards for “Apollo 11,” they aired the same pre-recorded acceptance speech twice, which meant hearing “Consider going vegan, and let’s get money out of politics!” two times in a row (which, fine — at least he said something unique). There were a few awkward pauses here, and a few obvious edits there, but that only goes to show how polished the whole endeavor felt — a stark contrast to the electricity of a live show. Here’s hoping the coming nights give producers better material to work with.

Viewership and Purpose

The Creative Arts Emmy Awards have never been designed as a mainstream draw, and this year’s ceremonies are no different. Yes, these are the first to air in their entirety, but they’re only available through the Emmys’ website (via a YouTube livestream). That should make them easily accessible for whoever wants to watch (namely, publicists, reporters, and nominees), but Night No. 1 didn’t even seem to attract those key audience demographics. At the 15-minute mark, 1,330 people were watching; at the 45-minute mark, viewers held steady at 1,341. To say those are far from gangbuster numbers misses the point, but it’s worth asking whether or not this version of a virtual ceremony is the best way to honor each winner. Sending out a press release, sharing the news on social media, relying on word of mouth from networks, colleagues, and friends — all of that still happened after the virtual ceremony aired, so it’s hard to say watching it live was anything but a bonus. Maybe it was. New Emmy winner Laura Karpman sure seems happy. But there’s still room for improvement. Bring on tomorrow night.

The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out the week of September 14. The virtual ceremonies airing Monday – Thursday will be streaming via the Emmys livestream. Saturday’s last Creative Arts ceremony will air on FXX. The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place virtually on Sunday, September 20. (See our awards calendar for a more detailed breakdown of important dates.) ABC is broadcasting the ceremony.

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