Emmys 2020: Five Things to Know, From HBO vs. Netflix to Red Carpetless Fashion

By John Jurgensen

Will “Watchmen” be the show of the year? What series will take the crown long held by “Game of Thrones?” Can Netflix finally win an Emmy for outstanding drama or comedy series? Can “Schitt’s Creek” cap its run as a cult favorite with a haul of trophies?

Before any results at the Emmy Awards Sunday on ABC, producers will settle the biggest question looming over the first major award show of the coronavirus era: How the heck will it work?

There won’t be the typical red carpet procession leading to a celebrity-packed theater. Instead, the ceremony will unfold remotely, by way of about 130 separate camera feeds from the nominees’ homes—or wherever they’ve chosen to appear when the awards are presented.

Though some segments are being recorded in advance, most of the show will be live, including bits by host Jimmy Kimmel. Rules forbid producers from knowing winners in advance, which means they will be reacting to results in real time with the nominees.

“A train wreck? Could be. Hope not. But if I was a viewer I’d tune in for that,” says executive producer Ian Stewart.

Maybe an intervention is exactly what the Emmys needs in its 72nd year. In 2019 the audience for TV’s celebration of itself hit a record low of about 7 million viewers, 33% less than the year before, and down from the most recent peak of 17.7 million viewers in 2013. This leaves producers of the show with nothing to lose by blowing up its format in response to the pandemic.

Even if the decentralized proceedings and the nominees’ DIY settings are a step down from the usual Emmy glitz, they bring a potential for surprise on par with any of the awards categories themselves. With that in mind, here are five things to watch for during the show.

The Format

Emmys producers didn’t want the show to look like a celebrity Zoom meeting. So they shipped out about 130 sterilized field kits, setting up nominees in 10 countries with high-end cameras, lighting and sound equipment. In some cases, technicians showed up to bolster their internet connections, which the show will depend on for live transmissions to its production hub at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

“We went to them—instead of them coming to us,” says Mr. Stewart.

That means that the look of the telecast is largely in the hands of the nominees. They decided where to situate themselves on camera and with whom. (Friends? Pets? The kids they’re always telling to go to bed in their acceptance speeches?) Expect to see backyard parties and nominees playing up the fact that they can wear, eat, drink what they like during the ceremony; also, more somber references to the pandemic and other events that turned everything, including the TV world, upside down in recent months.

Orchestrating a live visit with dozens of celebrities at home and in far-flung settings, along with performances and various other bits, has been a logistical nightmare, Mr. Stewart says. However, for a show whose format hasn’t changed much since the first one, it’s also an opportunity. Even if that comes with high risk for awkward moments and technical mishaps, he says: “We’re not trying to make Emmys light, we’re trying to make Emmys different.”

Red Carpet-less Style

Red carpets are the lifeblood of the celebrity style economy, so the lack of one Sunday has the whole system in the lurch. Fashion experts who normally weigh in on the gowns and tuxedos of award show attendees don’t know what to expect from an Emmys with a wide open dress code. “If people decide to show up in their hoodies to accept awards, we would roll with that,” says Tom Fitzgerald, who does style commentary with his spouse, Lorenzo Marquez, under the moniker Tom & Lorenzo.

While couture and dripping diamonds don’t seem appropriate for the new format, the duo believes viewers have had enough with work-from-home garb. “That’s why people watch these things, for the glamour, otherwise they’d just read the list of winners the next day,” Mr. Marquez says.

The remote video appearances that became standard for celebrities in recent months gave onlookers (and social media accounts like Room Rater) a new way to judge their style, based on the books, furniture and other stuff arranged behind them. The Emmys will show whether stars are planning their backdrops as carefully as their outfits.

“God help us, if we’re still doing these kind of remote red carpets a year from now,” Mr. Fitzgerald says. “Then I think there will be a whole industry of home décor stylists taking over the backdrops of these people’s lives.”

HBO vs. Netflix

Once a sign of how cable networks had eclipsed major broadcast networks in terms of prestige, the Emmys are now a measure of the streamers’ clout. One way to quantify the competition: the annual jockeying between Netflix and HBO for the most total nominations and wins.

Last year, HBO led on both fronts with 34 wins out of what was then a record-high 137 nominations. Netflix, which puts out more series across more genres compared with HBO, broke that record with 160 nominations this year. The streamer is still seeking its first ever win for best drama or best comedy, but will likely have to wait until next year for a shot at best limited series. HBO’s “Watchmen,” which leads all series with 26 total nominations, seems to have that category locked up.

And the Next ‘Games of Thrones’ Is…

After winning the best drama award for each of its final four seasons, “Game of Thrones” is out of the picture. That leaves the race open for this year’s eight nominees, most of them veteran series and repeat Emmy contenders, including “The Crown,” “Stranger Things” and “Better Call Saul.” Leading the pack based on critics’ predictions are two series about family business—one corporate (HBO’s “Succession”) and the other crime (Netflix’s “Ozark”). Both shows have devoted followings and, with 18 nominations each, they further the HBO vs. Netflix narrative. But other nominees could surprise, such as “The Mandalorian.” As the only first-year series in the running, the Disney+ hit amassed 15 nominations, and combined old-school TV storytelling and the high-end visual effects that the “Star Wars” franchise is known for.

Cult Comedy Seeks Establishment Glory

For a comedy about a family’s reinvention in a town called Schitt’s Creek, a win on Sunday would be a fitting end to the show’s own Cinderella story. It’s a Canadian production created by father-son duo and co-stars Eugene Levy and Dan Levy. Over a six-season run, it went from cult obscurity (on the cable network Pop TV) to critical darling (with viewership boosted by reruns on Netflix). “Schitt’s Creek” faces tough competition from a past comedy series winner, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and other respected shows, including “Insecure,” “The Good Place” and “Dead To Me.”

No matter who actually wins, the comedy categories might be critical to a telecast that is counting on nominees to carry the show. Cue Catherine O’Hara and her “Schitt’s Creek” wigs.


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