The 2020 Primetime Emmy nominations were announced today. James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons, two television critics for The New York Times, conducted a brief conversation about puzzling picks and oversights, the rise of the limited series and what a virtual Emmy ceremony would — or should — even look like.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: So it's still unclear what sort of TV we will have, or be making, in the fall, but we will at least have Emmys. Which is where I feel I should kick this off.
I care a lot about TV. I have a harder time caring about TV awards even in the best of years. And this, you may have noticed, is not the best of years! I'm really dubious about the idea of an awards gala while the industry is still largely shut down (among other, more consequential things).
That said, I also care about the people who care about TV, the people who make it and the people who watch it. If this helps them — and us — get through all of this a little more happily until we come out the other side, that's something.
MARGARET LYONS: I guess, though I wonder if awards show enthusiasm should get categorised with pinchy shoes, tedious grooming regimens and pointless commutes — I get why we did it, but we're not going back to that. We have a chance to do things another way! I love TV, too, but there's not a straight line between that and thinking the Emmys are a worthy pursuit. Anyway, no Rhea Seehorn, what a shame.
PONIEWOZIK: As for the nominations themselves: I have probably said before that limited series have taken the cultural spot from TV movies, a category that's almost an afterthought now. But looking at the nominees this year — not to mention what wasn't nominated — arguably they are also stealing the heat of drama series, too.
You look, for instance, at Mrs. America, a historical drama from a writer of Mad Men that took some of that show's themes of feminism (and the reaction to it) forward another decade. Watchmen, arguably the show of the season well before the George Floyd protests underlined its relevance, a one-off season from Damon Lindelof of Lost and The Leftovers. I was also glad to see a nomination for Unorthodox, which I loved but was afraid was too quiet to get notice. American TV is really discovering the power of the one-and-done.
(And yep: I am extremely Kim-Wexler-yells-at-Howard.gif over Seehorn's omission.)
LYONS: Yeah, last year we both thought that the limited series category was better than the drama category, and this year … that might be true again, partially because lots of great dramas did not get nominations. I know we both love David Makes Man, and I was surprised that The Good Fight didn't get any traction. I don't understand who thinks this season of Handmaid's Tale was good. On the variety sketch front, how can Sherman's Showcase and At Home with Amy Sedaris be shut out? This process is not healing me during quar! It is angering me, or at least making me wonder what people are getting from Mrs. Maisel that I am definitely not.
PONIEWOZIK: There's always an inertia issue with the Emmys, so for instance I guess Handmaid's has locked in the "important and relevant" niche in the minds of voters, however much it turns into an erratic dystopian roller coaster. Maybe "The Good Fight suffered from having an incomplete season? (I only hope the voters were paying that much attention.) Pose deserved the Handmaid's spot for its even stronger second season. Sherman's deserved to be in a category that weirdly had a grand total of three nominees — and I would love to see the talk category add some new blood, like a Patriot Act or Desus and Mero.
On a positive note, I always like to see credit due for great performances in less-great shows. I did not love The Morning Show, but Jennifer Aniston's portrait of a pressured, morally compromised star was terrific. (Steve Carell's shouty co-star turn, less so.) Black Monday is just a solid B show for me, but I do love Don Cheadle's swaggery energy in it. But man, while I'm turning to comedies, Pamela Adlon should file an insurance claim for the robbery that Better Things suffered.
LYONS: Better Things deserves, yep, better. Lodge 49 getting shut out is a bummer — I wasn't expecting it to clean up, but it was entered as a comedy, and I think there's room in those categories for, oh, less Kominsky Method. I am delighted to see What We Do In the Shadows do so well, though. I like comedies that make me laugh, not just think "oh, that's funny," or "how clever" — you know, the surprise and joy of true laughter! What a comedy can sometimes elicit!
If I had one wish, I'd wish that BoJack Horseman, which was nominated for best animated program, gets the "uh oh, it's your last season, and even though it was not the best season of the show, how can we let it go by completely? Oh, what fools we've been" win, like Kyle Chandler finally getting an Emmy for FNL.
PONIEWOZIK: Even at that, a BoJack win will still be shunted off to the side, because of its category, when what it has actually been for six seasons was one of TV's best comedies. The Emmys often feel a little tangential to the TV conversation of the moment — especially in terms of the categories that get prime-time attention.
This wasn't the case with Watchmen, of course, but I read an interesting LA Times piece noting how the Emmys seems not to know what to do with documentary series — despite how much bandwidth shows like The Last Dance take up. Even as someone who ultimately didn't like Tiger King (he's weird, we get the point), it does feel like one space where the Emmys are overlooking where TV is in 2020. (While devoting a lot of attention to Dead to Me.)
LYONS: Tiger King got seven nominations. Is that really overlooked? I will probably be stewing over snubs for a few more days — Never Have I Ever, High Maintenance, My Favorite Shapes, I honor you in my own ways — but maybe it's also time to be curious about what the actual Emmy ceremony will or should be. Calling in to a Zoom or whatever to lose an award feels incredibly stupid, but avoiding dumb things is not our culture's forte.
PONIEWOZIK: I get the "The show must go on" spirit. But a lot of things aren't going on now, with good reason, and maybe the Emmys should be one of them. I don't want to deny anyone their awards! (Send them FedEx!) But a virtual Emmys, without the crowd dynamics that the acceptance speeches thrive on, might just uncomfortably remind us of everything that's missing.
But I reserve the right to be surprised by an ingenious production idea. Maybe they can find a way to hold the whole thing inside Animal Crossing.
Written by: James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES
Watchmen is available to stream on Neon.