Jacinda Duran, essential worker and truck driver, presents the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie to Uzo Aduba for Mrs. America at the 72nd Emmy Awards.

Jacinda Duran, essential worker and truck driver, presents the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie to Uzo Aduba for Mrs. America at the 72nd Emmy Awards.

John Oliver

John Oliver accepts the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series from David Letterman

Fill 1
Fill 1
September 20, 2020
Awards News

HBO, Pop TV Lead the Way at the Socially Distanced, Socially Aware 72nd Emmy Awards

It wasn’t just the pandemic that made this year’s Emmys groundbreaking. HBO's 11 wins — including four for the limited series Watchmen — topped the technologically ambitious night, and the Pop TV comedy Schitt's Creek scored a record-setting sweep with seven wins in seven categories.

The 72nd Emmy Awards had no red carpet, but it was hard to deny the show was intensely watchable — if not for the high fashion (though there was some), then for the unpredictable nature of what was dubbed a historic awards show before it even started. Featuring everything from an amiable alpaca to appearances by essential workers ranging from an astronaut to a female truck driver, plus a remarkable — and record-setting — awards sweep, this year's Emmys managed to deliver surprises that, thankfully, unlike most of 2020, were more upbeat than unsettling.

Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel from the stage of a mostly empty Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles, the show, which aired live on ABC, was a massive undertaking by any measure, with 138 stars (some stopping by the arena, others on their couches at home) in 114 locations across the globe. Executive producers Guy Carrington, Reginald Hudlin, David Jammy, Kimmel and Ian Stewart took on a formidable task when they chose to have the statuettes brought to the winners by hazmat-suited delivery people. These official Emmy emissaries (driving Kia automobiles to many locations) visited each nominee, only giving the gold to winners.

Among platforms, HBO led the telecast with eleven Emmys. Combined with its nineteen awards during the five nights of Creative Arts shows, the premium cabler topped the year with thirty, followed by Netflix with twenty-one and Pop TV with ten.

Excitement came early on Sunday night when a trashcan fire started during a comedy bit featuring Kimmel and Jennifer Aniston, star of Apple TV+'s The Morning Show (and a nominee for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series) seemed resistant to efforts to snuff it. The fire — started by Kimmel in an effort to "sanitize" the envelope revealing the winner in the first category, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series — was finally doused after several attempts by an unflappable Aniston, who wielded a fire extinguisher as a voice offstage urged her to "put it out."

Also resisting dousing was the winning streak by Pop TV's Schitt's Creek, which delivered performer wins for Catherine O'Hara (Lead Actress in a Comedy Series), Eugene Levy (Lead Actor), Dan Levy (Supporting Actor) and Annie Murphy (Supporting Actress), as well as taking awards for writing, directing and, ultimately, comedy series.

"You see? I told you I was good," Eugene Levy joked as he accepted his award.

Later, in the media room, his son, Dan, added, "I think my father put it best earlier tonight when he said, 'It feels like a dream you don't want to wake up from.'"

Schitt's Creek's sweep of all seven of its telecast categories was an Emmy first, and with two other wins during the Creative Arts week, it set a new record for most wins by a comedy series in a single year with nine — Amazon Prime Video's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel took home eight in both 2018 and 2019. 

Even an appearance from Hamilton powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda and Count von Count from Sesame Street praising the FX vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows wasn't enough to top Schitt's Creek. Not only did legend Elton John speak up for the series, it capped what Kimmel jokingly dubbed a "Schitt's-krieg" when it landed the award for Outstanding Comedy Series. In accepting the award, Dan Levy praised the Canadian-produced show for its "castigation of homophobia" and its pivot during six seasons into gay-friendly storylines.

Even with the domination of Schitt's Creek, the telecast was not without surprises. Twenty-four-year-old Zendaya became the youngest winner for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for her role in HBO's Euphoria, taking that distinction from last year's winner, Killing Eve star Jodie Comer. Comer, who was twenty-six when she won, was also nominated this year. Zendaya was also only the second Black woman to win in the category — the first was Viola Davis for ABC's How to Get Away With Murder in 2015.

Also a first-time winner was the streaming service Apple TV+, which took home an Outstanding Supporting Actor award for The Morning Show's Billy Crudup, and had eighteen nominations on the year. Previously, Apple (the company, not the streaming service, which has only been available for ten months) won for Short Form Variety Series in 2018, 2019 and 2020 for Carpool Karaoke: The Series).

This year also marked a record number of Emmy nominations and a record number of wins for Black performers, who scored thirty-five noms and seven wins. The previous high for Black performers was six, in 2016.

HBO's limited series Watchmen and drama Succession were also powerhouses during the evening. Watchmen took home four Emmys (Lead Actress for Regina King, Supporting Actor for Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, writing for Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson and Outstanding Limited Series) on Sunday night to add to the seven it had already won during the Creative Arts Emmys shows earlier in the week. King wore a T-shirt commemorating Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black medical technician who was shot and killed by three Louisville, Kentucky, police officers, who raided her apartment.

In her acceptance speech, King urged viewers to take a stand. "Gotta vote. Have a voting plan," she said, mentioning the voting website Ballotpedia.org. "Be a good human. Rest in power, RBG," she added, referring to former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died two days earlier.

In the media center later, King explained the significance of her shirt: "The cops still haven't been held accountable. She represents decades, hundreds of years, of violence against Black bodies, Breonna Taylor does. And the show, I felt this was perfect wearing Breonna's likeness, representing her and her family, and the stories that we were exploring, that we were presenting, that we were holding a mirror up to in Watchmen; it felt appropriate to represent with Breonna Taylor."

King also had high praise for Watchmen executive producer Damon Lindelof, who admitted in the media center that, despite the high praise the show had received (and his own wins for both writing and the limited series as well as a 2005 Outstanding Drama award for ABC's Lost), he plans to take a step back in the future, in part to let underrepresented people take center stage.

"In terms of what's next, I love the medium of television... [but] I'm moving into a curating phase of my life. I'm hanging other peoples' art for a while.... When Watchmen premiered in October, Watchmen wasn't trending [on social media], but Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Massacre" — which were depicted in the show — "were. It showed that there was a hunger for missing pieces of history; we just need to find ways to tell them."

Like King, fellow winner Uzo Aduba (who took home her third career Emmy, this time for Supporting Actress in a Limited Series for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, in FX's Mrs. America) wore a shirt commemorating Breonna Taylor (presenter and nominee Sterling K. Brown also wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt). In the media center, Aduba explained her choice, saying, "It's a wonderful evening, but I would be remiss not to bring in some of what's happening in the streets... to people who look like me."

With 2020 being an election year, it was no surprise that politics were brought into the conversation several times throughout the evening. Among those emphasizing the need to vote was Mark Ruffalo, who won his second Emmy — and his first as a performer, following a win as a producer of the HBO telefilm The Normal Heart in 2014 — for his dual role in the HBO's I Know This Much Is True, for which he nabbed Lead Actor in a Limited Series. Ruffalo urged viewers to "come together and fight for each other" and decide whether to be a country of division or love and to "get out and vote, and vote for love, compassion and kindness."

More pointed with criticism was Succession creator and executive producer Jesse Armstrong, who chose to "unthank" President Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the global pandemic and media moguls in his acceptance speech. Succession, which won Outstanding Drama Series, as well as lead actor (Jeremy Strong), directing (Andrij Parekh) and writing (Armstrong), took home a total of seven awards between the telecast and the Creative Arts Emmys.

The evening included one special Emmy, the prestigious Governors Award, which was given to writer-producer-director-performer-philanthropist Tyler Perry for both his artistic and altruistic achievements. Accepting the honor, Perry, who was introduced by Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock, told a touching story about his grandmother giving him a quilt she had made that he treated shabbily. Years later, he saw one just like it, made by a freed slave, displayed prominently in a store, where the shopkeeper explained to him how each square represented an important moment in that woman's life. The experience shamed him, as he realized how he had not properly valued his grandmother's gift.

"I dismissed her life and her story because I didn't think it looked like I thought it should," Perry said, before describing how everyone is making their own quilt all the time, and how he has created his own quilt offering jobs to a diverse spectrum of people in his Atlanta studio that was built on land that was once a Confederate army camp. During the evening, The Chi creator Lena Waithe and Insecure creator Issa Rae also shared stories about their challenges being Black in Hollywood.

In addition to the acknowledgment of Perry's many good works — as an individual and through his foundation — philanthropy was woven into the ceremonies through a campaign on behalf of No Kid Hungry, an organization devoted to ending childhood hunger through programs that give all young people the healthy food they need to thrive. All nominated broadcast and streaming partners committed to donating $100,000 per Emmy win during the telecast, and the Television Academy pledged an additional $500,000. In all, the Emmys contributed $2.8 million to No Kid Hungry.

The evening went smoothly, especially when one considers a show of this format and technical complexity had never been attempted before. Even when Randall Park, of the ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, presented the award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series with an alpaca (part of a joke about how reading an email too quickly can make "you'll be presenting with an alpaca" look like "you'll be presenting with Al Pacino") didn't fall prey to the usual complications of working with live animals.

Other surprises were more delightful than disastrous, as when one nominee's children began jumping up and down on a sofa. Other light moments were more planned, as when former Friends co-stars Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox pretended to be living together with Jason Bateman "until he goes off to college."

A bit in which celebrities revealed what they'd been doing during the pandemic was more than a little relatable, with Perry Mason costar Tatiana Maslany saying, "I've been making wine in my bathroom toilet... and it's not good," while comedy legend Bob Newhart deadpanned that the only changes he's made are that, "I gave up skydiving and cancelled my alligator wrestling class, but that's about it." 

Though nominees were welcome to wear what they liked during the show, the majority seemed more than happy to dress up (let's face it — we're all sick of sweatpants at this point). To wit, a nattily suited RuPaul Charles accepted the award for Outstanding Competition Program for VH1's RuPaul's Drag Race. Charles, who was named Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program during the Creative Arts Emmys, offered young viewers words of comfort. "Kiddo, I know how you feel right now. Just know that you are loved — and don't give up on love," he said in his acceptance speech.

It was a gentle note that captured the tone of a 2020 Emmy Awards that deftly bridged the serious and the celebratory, with television as a unifying presence throughout.

Watch all the Presentations and Acceptance Speeches

A complete list of winners is available here.

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