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This year's Emmy ceremony will be unlike any other

Jimmy Kimmel will host this year's Emmy Awards

Jimmy Kimmel will host this year's Emmy Awards from a largely empty Staples Center. Credit: ABC/Jeff Lipsky

At last, the 72nd Annual Primetime Emmys will arrive Sunday night (8 p.m., ABC/7) Where oh where to begin?

With COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter?

With all those new streaming services and the explosion in "content?"

With declining viewers and diminished importance?

Or with that pervasive sense that television's most important awards body can't reverse those trends?

Even without a pandemic, the 72nd Emmys promised to be the most challenging in its history. With the pandemic, that promise has already been fulfilled — and how. Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel from a mostly empty Staples Center, these awards will be virtual and global. They will be complicated and intricate, stalked by Murphy's Law minute by minute, or second by second. One-hundred-and-thirty camera crews will be dispatched to the homes of 130 nominees where 27 will learn that they are winners. To paraphrase the title of one of those nominees, there's the potential for little fires everywhere.

Looking on the bright side, as well he must, this year's producer, Reginald Hudlin, told The Los Angeles Times recently that "every genre needs a reinvention at a certain point [and] to quote the great [filmmaker] Melvin Van Peebles, 'trouble is opportunity in work clothes.' This is forcing us to question all the tropes of awards shows."

But to further quote the great Melvin Van Peebles, "scars are the price you pay for success."

What scars might we anticipate Sunday?

To a large extent the problems facing the Emmys were building regardless. With exceptions like "Game of Thrones" and "Stranger Things," TV's annual self-congratulatory bash has slowly been turning into a zero sum affair in which mostly niche shows are celebrated by their mostly niche fan base which tune in to see if their personal passions are validated. Even with "Got," last year's show was seen by seven million, or half the total audience from five years earlier.

Albeit to a lesser degree, the same has happened to other awards shows, but ones like the Grammys, CMAs, even the Tonys have succeeded simply by turning their parties into rollicking entertainment/variety spectacles. The Emmys have no such option. The awards must be given, those speeches rendered, and the same tired tropes applied (or the same tired tricks, like handing out the major awards three minutes before 11 p.m.).

The paradox is that TV is better than ever, vastly better, with the quality often cinematic, the options endless — freshman surprise nominee "The Mandalorian," for example, clear proof of both. By contrast, consider the 25th annual Emmys when that night's big cliffhanger was "Columbo," "Hawaii 5-O" or "Kung Fu?" (None of them: "The Waltons" was crowned that year.)

Meanwhile, our splendid movable TV feast doubled in size almost overnight. The last 12 months saw the launch of some five massive streaming services, each with their own new series scrambling for Emmy love.

Thus overwhelmed, the 19,000 Emmy voters, being human like the rest of us, took the path of least resistance. Those shows they already loved took precedence over those they had no interest in. Also like the rest of us, they followed buzz — those "what's cool?" and "what's hot?" lists pushed by influencers and social media portals that affect choices (including presidential ones) more than most Emmy voters might care to admit.

But what's actually remarkable, maybe laudatory, is how well those voters succeeded this year. Each of the nominees in each of the major categories are good, just about any of them deserving of an Emmy, from "Schitt's Creek" to aforementioned "Little Fires." That's another welcome reversal from past years, when the occasional stinker got past those "blue ribbon panels," or when the distracted Emmy voter put a check mark next to the same reliable name they checked off the year before (and the year before that).

But stinkers and (let's hope) endless repeats no more. With so many good shows to choose from, there's simply no excuse for laziness.

Nonetheless, this year's Emmys face another challenge as if all these aren't enough. Until recently — very recently — the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has done an execrable job at diversifying nominees and a worse job picking the winners over the decades. For example, only two Black male performers have won best actor in a comedy, and only one Black female (Isabel Sanford, in 1981). As a reminder, that's over a 72-year stretch.

During the July morning nomination ceremony, TV Academy chief Frank Scherma said "this year we are also bearing witness to one of the greatest fights for social justice in history [and] it is our duty to use this medium for change."

Which raises its own questions: Can the TV Academy change Hollywood culture itself? Can the tail wag the dog? The membership has certainly made the effort. Some 34% of all nominees this year are Black, with 38 actors alone, far and away a record. Olivia Spencer got a nod for "Self Made," while Billy Porter ("Pose") is looking for a best actor repeat. Kerry Washington picked up two nods ("American Son," "Fires.") "Watchmen'' was a veritable mother lode, with Regina King, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jovan Adepo each getting nods.

So, this Sunday, will the 72nd Emmys — with so much else to worry about — start to reverse a sorrowful legacy?

Let's go to Van Peebles on that one: "Worry is a funky luxury when a lot has to be done."


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