Awards Season Television

What Hollywood Can Learn From ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and the Socially-Distant Emmys

The first socially-distant ceremony of the fall awards season wasn’t a disaster; the Oscars should take notes.

The 2020 Primetime Emmys now belong to the history books, and they weren’t awful?

The Television Academy were in the unenviable position of having the first major awards ceremony (the ‘E’ in EGOT) of the pandemic. With Los Angeles still under lockdown and a vaccine nowhere in sight, there was no way the Emmys would look like years past, with television’s biggest names jam-packed into an auditorium in tuxedos and ball gowns, cheering (or internally sneering) as their peers collected their accolades. No, this year’s telecast would be virtual, and with that came all of the dour expectations, which all boiled down to “how messy will this be?”

Jennifer Aniston Jimmy Kimmel Emmys
Jennifer Aniston and Jimmy Kimmel at the Emmy Awards (courtesy: ABC/Getty Images)

The Emmys were actually much less messy than it could’ve been. There were few technical glitches and gaffes. The most cringeworthy moments came from the producers trying too hard to lean into the absurdity they were forced to accommodate, like Randall Park presenting with an alpaca, Jason Sudeikis getting a COVID test live on-air, or Emmy interns giving away statuettes in hazmat suits. The night’s best moments came when planned chaos went gloriously off the rails, like when Jennifer Aniston and Jimmy Kimmel nearly burned down the Staples Center with an ill-advised “sanitizing the envelopes with fire” gag.

But the most intriguing element of the Emmys came from the presentation of the awards themselves. Would the winners remain a surprise, and pray that WiFi held out during an acceptance speech? Or would every nominee pre-record their speeches? The show’s producers rolled the dice and set up the world’s most fraught Zoom call, with more than 100 nominees logged in to see if those hazmat interns would be knocking on their door.

While most of the nominees were at home (or laid out on a chaise lounge, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Alex Borstein), the cast and crew of Schitt’s Creek were clustered together in Canada, dressed as if Hollywood wasn’t still largely shuttered. The first hour of the show was effectively trained on the Canadian feed, as the show made a historic sweep through the comedy categories and Daniel Levy and company celebrated with excited but humble fervor. As our neighbors up north clutched their (hopefully sanitized) statuettes and thanked their loved one, it honestly felt familiar, as if we weren’t completely isolated and that there was something worth cheering for in the midst of the utter insanity outside.

Regina King Emmys
Regina King at the 2020 Emmys (courtesy: ABC)

That bubble burst at the top of the second hour, when the Best Actor in a Limited Series or Television Movie category was announced and the nominees were sequestered in their enclaves with decent to spotty internet reception. I missed the cheerful camaraderie of the Schitt’s Creek group. As delightful as it was seeing Regina King win her fourth Emmy in five years, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II win his first ever, for their extraordinary performances in Watchmen, I wished that we could see the duo celebrate together alongside the rest of the crew. The same goes for Jeremy Strong, winner of Best Actor in a Drama Series for Succession, who acknowledged his co-star and fellow nominee Brian Cox in his speech.

As more winners accepted their speeches from their couches or hotel rooms, I wondered why ABC and the Television Academy hadn’t formalized Schitt’s Creek’s approach and set up watch parties for the major nominated shows (Insecure had a similar set-up at Dodger Stadium; they were victims of the Schitt’s sweep). It might not have been feasible for single-nominee shows like Euphoria (congratulations to newly-minted Emmy winner Zendaya), but Watchmen, Succession, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ozark, The Crown, The Morning Show, and Mrs. America could’ve gathered the cast and crew to enjoy the Emmys together instead of at home (it also would’ve relieved those poor interns of their Kia-sponsored delivery duties). If not officially sanctioned by ABC and the Emmy producers, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO certainly could’ve earmarked parts of their awards budgets for swanky, socially-distanced shindigs in LA or New York.

The Schitt’s model offers interesting possibilities for the awards shows that will follow. A vaccine probably won’t be ready by the time the Golden Globes roll around in the winter, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association won’t want a repeat of the 2010 ceremony that was canceled due to the 2009 WGA strike. The booziest of the awards ceremonies, the HFPA and broadcaster NBC could set up parties for its nominated films and series – perhaps within the Beverly Hilton itself – with champagne free-flowing early to loosen the winners up and give us those wonderfully tipsy moments that we love. Same for the the SAG Awards, but more serious: they are a celebration of actors as a community, and organizing separate actors-focused communes feels on-brand.

Zendaya 2020 Emmys
Zendaya at the 2020 Emmys (courtesy: ABC)

And what about the Oscars, the sun that these planetary ceremonies orbit? While I’m sure members of the AMPAS board are lighting prayer candles nightly in support of a vaccine, Hollywood’s biggest night will probably bear more than a passing resemblance to its cousin. What the Oscars producers have that the Emmy producers didn’t was time. The ceremony was pushed back to April of next year to afford studios more time to introduce their contenders, and they would be remiss not to use the extra time to their advantage. That means figuring out how to preserve the ceremony’s prestige and glamour when packing the Dolby Theatre is still a public health violation. That won’t be found in Tom Hanks’ living room, no matter how well-decorated it may be.

The Academy’s best bet is to follow Schitt’s Creek’s lead, setting up glitzy watch parties for its nominated films and handing the awards out there (hazmat suits optional). While definitely not a normal ceremony, a socially-distant Oscars will at least attempt an acceptable imitation. The logistics and minute details will be difficult, and it might even be more expensive, but it’s a worthy investment of time, energy, money, and compromise, especially when the Academy needs to prove its relevance more than ever.

Of all the surprises that the 2020 Emmys offered, who would’ve guessed that a little Canadian show would lead the way to the near-future of the Hollywood award ceremony?

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