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The Five Most Shocking Moments at the 72nd Emmy Awards

Sweeps, surprises, and social distancing highlighted the most unusual Emmys in history.
  • Eugene and Dan Levy accept the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series at Sunday night's Emmy Awards. (ABC)
    Eugene and Dan Levy accept the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series at Sunday night's Emmy Awards. (ABC)

    Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz, so who better to break down this year's precedent-breaking Emmy broadcast, one that managed to break so many long-established rules of televised award shows?

    We had no idea what the 72nd annual Primetime Emmy Awards was going to be, all we knew was that they were going to be different, distant, and heavily scrutinized. As the biggest awards show to take place during pandemic times so far, the Emmys had to completely overhaul itself for a remote presentation that felt celebratory, yet mindful of current events; that felt responsible yet fun; that felt cognizant of the changing landscape of television; and that wouldn't make us all think we're watching amateur hour on Zoom. In most respects, the 2020 Emmys was a huge success. Pulling together remote setups from more than 100 locations, the show's producers patchworked together a ceremony that, while bizarre in any other context, felt communal and celebratory, even as almost everybody involved with the show was flung to the far corners of the earth.

    With only a handful of celebrities there in person to help Jimmy Kimmel hand out awards — and all the winners and nominees appearing via video link-up to their homes — this was unlike any other Emmys, which at times felt appropriate considering that the roster of nominees and winners — the first since Game of Thrones and Veep ended — represented a new wave of acclaimed television. Among the acting honorees, only one of the night's winners (Julia Garner for Ozark) was a repeat winner, which quite simply almost NEVER happens at the Emmys.

    The most nominated show, HBO's Watchmen, took home the awards for Outstanding Limited Series, Lead Actress (Regina King), Writing, and Supporting Actor (Yahya Abdul-Mateen). It was all part of a big night for HBO in general, as Succession scored wins in Drama Series, Writing, Directing, and Lead Actor (Jeremy Strong), Mark Ruffalo won Best Actor in a Limited Series for I Know This Much Is True, Zendaya scored an upset win in Lead Actress in a Drama for Euphoria, and Last Week Tonight once again triumphed in Variety Talk Series.

    Most of the winners used their time to both show gratitude but also acknowledge the myriad events happening in the world in one way or another. The gamut was run from the usual well-meaning but vague nods towards virtues like diversity and inclusion to more specific calls to awareness and action. Winners Regina King and Uzo Aduba (Mrs. America) both wore shirts in support of justice for Breonna Taylor; Damon Lindeloff accepted his award for Watchmen in a shirt that read "Remember Tulsa '21," a reference to the Tulsa Massacre of black business owners that was depicted on his show; Ruffalo spoke passionately and at length in a call to vote in the upcoming election.

    On a night when almost everything that happened had no precedent, from the presentations to the winners it's hard to choose which moments contained the most shock value, but here are the ones that took us the most by surprise:

    The Creativity of the Production

    The Jimmy Kimmel-hosted show was definitely not flawless, with more than a few bits that dragged on past their expiration date (specifically a monologue delivered to audience footage from last year's telecast, and at the end of the show when Sterling K. Brown emerged to present Outstanding Drama and pretended like he was accepting that same award for This Is Us). But for a show that had no in-house audience, no in-house speeches, and only the smallest handful of in-house presenters, ABC's production team did a genuinely admirable job of keeping the whole endeavor from seeming like the sad remnants of an Emmys that might've been.

    Having all the nominees appear from their homes was a great idea that led to fascinating glimpses of how each celebrity presented themselves, be it Alex Borstein lounging in a boudoir to various semi-small watch parties in living rooms to the A-Listers like Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Jackman who were just home chilling, to the Schitt's Creek party in Canada, where the evening's big winner in comedy (we'll get to it) appeared to have gathered at a small reception.

    More than just the nominees, though, the producers kept a fairly open mind in the way they tackled the mechanics of the show itself. Certain awards were presented by essential workers across the country, we got a moment of David Letterman standing by a road in the middle of nowhere, waiting to open an envelope and killing time by recycling jokes from when he hosted the Emmys, in 1986. Things got off to an inauspicious start with Kimmel and guest Jennifer Aniston going through a bit where Kimmel disinfected and then set fire to an envelope to kill its germs, only to have the flaming envelope be remarkably resistant to Aniston's extinguisher blasts. We often SAY we'd like to burn the whole thing down, but we can agree that taking that literally on the Emmys stage would be bad.

    The presentation of the awards themselves was rather creative, with trophy-wilding people in haz-mat suits standing by to either hand a trophy to a winner or coldly walk away.

    From Randall Park with an alpaca to Barry's Anthony Carrigan as a Russian postal worker (in a bit that delivered the rather dubious message that we shouldn't trust the mail for voting?) to H.E.R. delivering a stirring "Nothing Compares 2 U" for the In Memoriam, Margo Martindale in her garden, America Ferrara and Issa Rae speaking candidly about their struggles to get their careers off the ground in Hollywood, there was a lot going on, and enough of it worked to keep things moving and entertaining. It'll still be nice to get back to regular award shows, whenever we can, but hats off to the Emmys for trying so many new things when they had to.

    Schitt's Sweep

    It wasn't entirely unexpected to see Schitt's Creek, one of the most-nominated comedies, come up big in the comedy categories. But by the end, the sum total of Schitt's Creek's Emmy triumph was indeed a surprise. No comedy has ever swept every single award in the main Emmy slate, but that's exactly what the dearly departed Canadian series did, winning for Outstanding Comedy Series, Writing, Directing, Lead Actor (Eugene Levy), Lead Actress (Catherine O'Hara), Supporting Actor (Dan Levy), and Supporting Actress (Annie Murphy). For a show that was all but completely ignored by the Emmys up until last year's penultimate season, its ride to not only Emmy triumph but unprecedented dominance is gobsmacking. The last show to sweep every major award in its given medium like this was HBO's Angels in America, which puts Schitt's Creek in elite company indeed.


    Of all the acting category wins, the biggest shock was Zendaya winning for her performance in Euphoria. In a category that included Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, Emmy winners Jennifer Aniston and Laura Linney, last year's winner Jodie Comer, and the perpetually overdue Sandra Oh, Zendaya's mere nomination felt like victory enough for HBO's small show about teens. But then Zendaya's name was called, and her friends and family gathered behind her screamed in joy, and Zendaya herself gave such a lovely, excited, passionate speech in support of her show and her generation, and suddenly the impossible was possible, and that was something we all desperately needed on a night like tonight, even if we didn't know it.

    ABC Nearly Beats HBO Max to the Friends Reunion

    It was very nearly the rug-pulling moment of the year, as Kimmel linked up with Jennifer Aniston at her socially distant viewing situation … only to see her soon joined by Courteney Cox … and then Lisa Kudrow. HBO Max has been touting plans to produce a Friends reunion all year, but when Jason Bateman emerged as the punchline to the segment, and it initially seemed like he might've been Matthew Perry, HBO execs' Central Perk coffee mugs must've all hit the floor. If ABC had indeed pulled off that coup and reunited the Friends cast first, and all in service of a dumb bit at the Emmys, there would have been some highly emotional meetings in the HBO offices come Monday.

    Morgan Freeman's Channel Surfing

    Before the presentation for Outstanding Comedy Series, we got a cute little package about various celebs who are fans of the nominated series. Shaq loves Curb Your Enthusiasm, Zooey Deschanel is into Dead to Me, and J.J. Watt is somehow a huge Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fan. Somewhat more expectedly, Morgan Freeman spoke about his affection for his pals Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin on The Kominsky Method … only he framed it rather interestingly. Specifically by saying that he discovered the show while he was "channel surfing." The Kominsky Method being a Netflix series, it would normally not be available to just surf past on your cable dial. This seemed curious at best, dubious at worst, or perhaps just reminiscent of how your parents ask you what channel Netflix is on and you have to once again explain how a Roku works. Then again, perhaps the explanation is that Freeman, having played God so many times, simply can make Netflix series show up wherever he wants them to. And if the Emmys can take place in Mark Ruffalo's den, Margo Martindale's garden, Issa Rae's viewing party at the new Los Angeles football stadium, or Uzo Aduba's mom's house, then Morgan Freeman can channel surf past Netflix if he wants to.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, The Kominsky Method, Schitt's Creek, Succession, Watchmen, Courteney Cox, Dan Levy, David Letterman, Jennifer Aniston, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Morgan Freeman, Zendaya