The Jimmy Kimmel-hosted show triumphed over coronavirus precautions with witty flair, even if it couldn't always live up to its profound ambitions.

By Darren Franich
September 21, 2020 at 08:28 AM EDT
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I’m not sure we’ve even scratched the surface with Watchmen, really. HBO’s remarkable miniseries took home four big Emmy awards on Sunday, and its winners ruled the ceremony’s middle hour with vital speeches and direct calls to action. Ever-victorious Regina King wore a Breonna Taylor shirt while reminding viewers to make voting plans. Her onscreen partner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II thanked West Oakland and New Orleans, “a lot of people where I’m from making a lot of noise right now.” Writer Cord Jefferson honored the victims of 1921’s Tulsa Massacre, an act of terror nearly scrubbed from history that Watchmen helped recontextualize into an origin story for this quilt that is America. Winning the top limited series prize, the show’s creator Damon Lindelof delivered an inspirational warning to his fellow creatives and nice white people everywhere: “Stop worrying about getting canceled, and start worrying about what you’re doing to get renewed.”

Credit: Invision/AP/Shutterstock

This is what success looks like for a nine-hour superhero sequel about generational trauma, white domestic terrorism, police brutality, squid rain, Vietnam, and Jeremy Irons’ grandiloquent gas. And still there are levels of Watchmen discourse we’ve barely tapped yet. The series’ foundational genius was to set itself in an alternate universe that looks, in some ways, like a utopia. Everyone drives electric cars. The handsomest president ever has instituted a sweeping system reparations. Nobody tweets, and Donald Trump’s existence was avoided thanks to the actions of a gay Black anti-racist crusader. The world’s wealthiest person is a woman who delivers miracle babies to infertile doorsteps when she’s not conducting interplanetary rescue missions. Violent racism still exists, but at least it’s not a nationwide campaign strategy. Appointment TV is still apparently a thing. In the premiere, King’s Angela Abar walks past a guy waving a sign that says “The Future is Bright.” This isn’t just an optimistic world; it’s a world where optimists stage public demonstrations promoting good vibes.

That's far afield from the nuke-haunted America envisioned by Alan Moore in the perfect original Watchmen comic. And it certainly doesn’t describe the America we are currently living and dying in. A good day now is a day with only two ongoing disasters. Plague and environmental cataclysm backdrop state-sponsored violence and rampant political division. This year’s Emmys had to work around COVID-19 precautions, sealing host Jimmy Kimmel into a fortress of semi-solitude surrounded by video links to homes and hotel rooms. There had to be a significant acknowledgement of the global outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter, which meant finding space for serious conversations about diversity in an awards show that spent the ‘90s over-celebrating Frasier. All this on ABC, a network whose anxious censors wouldn’t allow the title Schitt’s Creek to be said without a chyron: “Just in case you were wondering why network television is almost dead!” said Kimmel.

The ceremony could have been a glitchy nightmare. It wasn’t. Credit Kimmel for turning his hosting gig into a brisk showcase for deadpan nonsense. He had playfully distant interactions with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, both on their way to the latest partial Friends reunion. The usual presenter banter had a sharper edge, even if it was weird that both Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson played the role of, like, “The Person Upset About 2020's Calamities Until Jimmy Kimmel Coaxes Them Back On Track.”

It was delightful to see the nominees dressed up or down, on couches or at desks, surrounded by loved ones or the occasional pet. Uzo Aduba yelled “Mom, I won!” when her name was read, and I swear you heard a voice offscreen yell “Whaaat?John Oliver thanked his wife for becoming his on-call makeup designer — and for keeping their kids out of daddy’s filming void. Succession creator Jesse Armstrong accepted the evening’s climactic award, and his phone rang. The cast of Schitt’s Creek partied together; Canada looks lovely. Every category demanded multiple pauses for hidden gems: weird furniture, political messages as background tapestry, cute kids, stuffed bookshelves. I’m sad Ramy Youssef didn’t win anything, but I was hypnotized watching the left corner of his frame, where some faceless pal sat lounging on a floor cushion.

For many of the people on screen, this year entailed a work-stoppage and a monthslong lockdown in bigger homes than yours. Champagne problems compared to the struggles of the country’s non-millionaires — and so essential workers were called upon to introduce a few awards. A nurse practitioner named Katie Duke recalled working in New York City during the early days of the crisis. She developed crippling body aches and had to spend time cut off from her family in an isolation room, pumped full of steroids to fight off COVID pneumonia. I had already cried a bit when Regina King told Ruth Bader Ginsburg to rest in power — am I effectively shrouding my political affiliation, gang? — but I was flat-out bawling when Duke described her journey through coronavirus infection, a hell that too many numbskulls keep insisting doesn’t actually exist on the unmoderated message board that is modern American discourse.

Then Duke got to her concluding remarks: “I hope that moving forward we are all reminded how special life is. On that note, I am incredibly excited to present to you the nominees for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.”

The space between those two sentences is vast. The first was a hard-won bit of existential wisdom from the frontlines of COVID-era essentiality. The second turned into a reminder that snoozy seasons of Big Little Lies, Westworld, and The Handmaid’s Tale earned why-not nods from a voting body whose taste runs the gamut from “suspicious” to “late” to “surprising” to “do they even watch these shows?” to “does anyone actually watch The Morning Show?” Even without any major technical issues, this year’s ceremony still could feel off, visibly struggling to throw a party in a pit of quicksand. The pivots could be strenuous. When Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, and America Ferrera appeared for breakaway storytelling segments, the presentation felt more dutiful than inspired, as if the TV Academy sensed in advance that the night’s non-Limited categories would be dominated by shows about rich white people.

So, yes, Schitt’s Creek won everything in the Comedy continent, and Succession took home another big Drama prize following its Golden Globes win. They are both not my thing, even if I respect the fandom behind their victories. Schitt’s Creek originally aired on CBC and Pop TV, but it’s really another defining Netflix success story, rescued out of cable-y cult status by the streaming service that simply is television for anyone Zendaya or younger. It seems obvious that the seven other competitors in the Outstanding Comedy category were competing not just against Creek’s last season but against the entire run of the series, as experienced by Emmy voters in a ravenous quarantine binge.

That’s not fair, but nothing about the Emmys is technically fair. There’s no way for anyone to watch even a tiny percentage of the television on display. Succession continues the sacred tradition of prestigious HBO Sundays. I respect that tradition, and I continue to believe no one could honestly cast a vote in its direction after seeing this uncanny past season of Better Call Saul. Do Succession viewers watch Better Call Saul? Will they catch up with it on Netflix?

“Television has always been the medium that helped us understand each other,” said TV Academy Chairman Frank Scherma. That was one of many noble declarations throughout the night about the transformative power of the small screen. Kimmel’s opening monologue put it more simply: Television is “a friend who’s there for us 24 hours a day.” He was sort of joking; I don’t know. Television has surely played its own role in splitting our species into separate silos, and Kimmel introduced the Outstanding Competition Program category by noting that “past losers of this category have gone on to become President of the United States.” That’s a funny line, but it also got you thinking about the medium’s truly destructive possibilities, and all the ways TV helps us to aggressively misunderstand each other. In a playful early Watchmen montage, we find out that seemingly everyone in the show's world— young, old, lonely, coupled up, Black, white supremacist, cop, revolutionary — watches the same show (American Hero Story) at the same time. This shared experience has notably not fixed the world's differences; indeed, Watchmen is the rare piece of superhero entertainment that makes a convincing case against the empowering nature of superhero entertainment, insofar as it worries openly that racists will feel empowered, too.

Maybe exploring television's failures would require a more reflective awards show. My own alternate universe Emmys would honor the profound self-inquisition of The Good Fight, and ignore any TV series about Nicer Boba Fett guarding Cuter Yoda. In this universe, it was mostly possible to sit back and enjoy the ramshackle glamour of the Pandemmys. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington insistently celebrated New Year’s in a backyard fancy enough for a lion-face fountain. Tyler Perry accepted the Governors Award with a thoughtful speech about his transformative career, and you could admire his journey while wondering if “filming three to four episodes in a week” was a recipe for a quantity-quality imbalance. Zendaya made history with a surprise win and swore that the youth aren't quite as crazy as they look on Euphoria. Margo Martindale drank wine out of the bottle while tending her garden, which is surely one vision of heaven. Armstrong wrapped the night by sidestepping the usual get-out-and-vote euphemisms, un-thanking a litany of personal demons: the coronavirus, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, nationalist governments, media moguls. Were any viewers put off by that final bit of anti-namedropping? I doubt it. The 2020 Emmys seemed to assume anyone watching shared a common enemy or three.

Which brings me back to Watchmen, the only show about cops to win any big prizes this year. I'm glad the series has become a watchword for timely entertainment, but part of me wonders if it contains a deeper meaning that's still years away. 2020 is the kind of horrific time period that requires even the most staid awards-granting institutions to find room for profound conversations about blind spots while offering up the promise of necessary improvements. On Watchmen, a brighter world casts much darker shadows: Klan robes hiding in a closet, pleasant politicians with plans toward repressive godhood, the eerie possibility that the vengeful striving of a heroic Black woman is part of some mysterious higher power's maniacal plan. It turns out even a much better version of America's future would still have to grapple painfully with our calamitous past. The miniseries lands on an ambiguous ending that strikes me as way too hopeful, but the overall message of the nine-hour odyssey is a bracing combination of far-seeing optimism and further-seeing cynicism: Beware the dark days when everything seems to be going well.

That's worth remembering, I think, if "everything going well" is ever a conventional mood again. For now, Emmy viewers had to settle for sharp wit and sincere self-importance, while the show worked overtime to prove its medium is an important message. “The world may be terrible,” Kimmel said, “But TV has never been better.” I agree with the first part. B+

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