At first we wondered if our eyes and general cognizance were playing tricks on us. But no, that was indeed footage of a theater full of huge stars applauding Jimmy Kimmel as the 2020 Emmys host first walked onstage.
But you only had to vaguely remember what Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep and Gwyneth Paltrow had worn in years prior to quickly be disabused of the notion that there was an audience after all. They had just added the full house as a gag, making it all the more striking when we were treated to Kimmel's vantage point.
Kimmel trotted out the cardboard-cutout audience bit, also implemented by Conan O'Brien on his TBS show in recent weeks, and Conan inspired by the cardboard photos of fans now populating the seats at Major League Baseball games.
But of course it wasn't too risky to have at least a few actual people in the house other than Kimmel and the crew holding the show together at Staples Center, starting with Jason Bateman, who with steely Marty Byrde-caliber determination was full of excuses as to why he should be allowed to stay. "I'm a big washer-upper, always have been," he insisted. "Smell my hands, they're like a garden."
Alas, he wouldn't agree to the one condition, that he dutifully laugh at Kimmel's jokes for the rest of the evening, so the Ozark star was back home in time to await the announcement of Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series with his family. It wasn't his year, but his wife and daughters made for the ideal post-loss support system.
The Moira enunciations! The father-son hugs! The watch-and-win party taking place in Canada! Everything about the extraordinary night had by the cast of Schitt's Creek—much like the show itself about a no-longer-rich family regrouping in the backwater burg that remains their sole remaining asset—was utterly charming. The beloved series of humble origins that put Pop TV on the map swept the comedy portion of the ceremony to the tune of seven Emmys (plus another for casting handed out earlier), including acting wins for Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy—the Roses forever lodged in our hearts.
Father and son creators, executive producers and co-stars Eugene and Dan Levy were respective winners for Outstanding Actor and Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, making them the 14th father and son to both have Emmys—but perhaps the first to each have four Emmys? Dan, also a winner for writing and directing (the latter with Andrew Cividino), caught up with his dad's lifetime total in one night.
Somehow this was O'Hara's first ever acting win, but fittingly her only other Emmy was one that she shared with her frequent collaborator Eugene Levy—Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program for their work on SCTV, in 1982.
We'd shake a stern finger at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for not spotlighting Schitt's Creek sooner (the show finally broke through with a handful of nominations in 2019), but voters did acquit themselves well this year in response to the show's sixth and final season, making 2020 a bit brighter by bestowing 15 nominations on this group, who then set an Emmy record for most wins in a single season for a comedy.
"I also want to thank once again this young man," Eugene said, turning to his son as they capped off their run with the win for Best Comedy Series, "who took our fish-out-of-water story about the Rose family and turned it into a celebration of inclusivity, a castigation of homophobia, and a declaration of the power of love."
Don't get us wrong, we never miss an episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, one of the more useful shows on TV that is technically considered entertainment instead of news, which collected its fifth straight win for Outstanding Variety Talk Series. We just really thought it was Trevor Noah's year.
HBO's Watchmen—the Damon Lindelof-created series that loosely references the events of the 1986 graphic novels and puts a Black woman superhero at the center of the action in a world grappling with racism both systemic and blatant—ended up being categorized as a limited series because, despite it being one of the most lauded, talked about and presciently relevant shows of the last year, Lindelof says he has told all the story he has in him.
Well, Watchmen now has 10 Emmys, including acting honors for Regina King (her fourth Emmy in six years) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, a writing win for Lindelof and the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series. But hey, that same trophy a few years ago didn't stop Big Little Lies from coming back for a second season, so let the campaign for an extended Watch begin now.
After inhaling three seasons of Ozark in quick, er, succession, we would've been good with an overall series win—but we were thrilled that Julia Garner was the winner for the second year in a row for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.
Gone Sunday were the Missouri twang, distrustful sneer and endless slew of F-bombs that turn her into Ruth Langmore. Garner celebrated her big night (on which she beat out the likes of Meryl Streep, Sarah Snook and Thandie Newton) with Gatsby-inspired glam and her husband of nine months, Mark Foster, by her side.
Perhaps the eventual third season of Succession will be the charm for first-time Emmy nominee Snook, but her nifty consolation prize made us enjoy this makeshift ceremony all the more.
Dad tried to give him the shaft, but Kendall Roy refused to be the blood sacrifice—and Jeremy Strong has an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series to show for it. The Succession star got visibly teary-eyed—and paused to give wife Emma Wall a kiss before his speech really got under way, the virtual-Emmys equivalent of making it to the stage and remembering that you didn't kiss your date yet, and going back into the audience to right that wrong.
Zendaya, nominated for her first Emmy, emerged a winner for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her turn as a troubled teen on HBO's envelope-pushing Euphoria. The perfectly appointed (as far as fashion) but sweetly awestruck 24-year-old was beyond thrilled—as were the pals enjoying the party with her. Because it would have been weird for the star of one of the most inclusively peopled shows on TV to go it alone on her big night.
"I'm really, really nervous," shared the former Disney Channel actress and now the youngest-ever winner in this category, adding, "I just want to say thank you to the TV Academy and all the other women. This is crazy...I feel like this is a weird time to be celebrating, but there is hope in the young people out there. I know our TV show doesn't always feel like a great example of that, but there is hope in the young people. And to my peers out there doing the work in the streets, I see you, I admire you and I thank you. And thank you so, so much."
Maybe it was the void, maybe it was the fact that Outstanding Drama Series isn't handed out until the final minutes of a three-hour show—an endurance test even in the best of times. But when Sterling K. Brown strode onstage and immediately started talking about This Is Us's upset win over Succession, first we wondered if there had been a technical difficulty and the presentation portion had been cut. Then we rewound to make sure we hadn't missed something. Then, secure that it was, in fact, a joke, we watched it over again, remembering that This Is Us wasn't even nominated in that category and wondering what the point was.
But at least the show was almost over by then.
After a gripping second season that ended with family patriarch Logan Roy and son Kendall at odds again and the bonds that hold the family's myriad alliances, both business and personal, precariously frayed, Succession triumphed with the win for Outstanding Drama Series for a 2020 total of seven.
But though inspired by an actual family dynasty, ruthless billionaire media moguls and corporate chicanery, it turns out that series creator Jesse Armstrong prefers his eroding democracy on HBO instead of in real life. With a couple people in the room with him and stars Snook, Strong, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin and others supporting him remotely, Armstrong let loose with a series of "un-thank yous" to those he holds responsible for the latest onslaught of dire turns of events.
The sentiment was perfectly punctuated by the ringing of a phone in the background, a reminder that, while the night had its magical moments, nothing was quite as it should be.