When the 2020 Emmy Awards began on Sunday night, I felt that I had briefly time traveled. Jimmy Kimmel was giving a monologue on-screen to robust laughs, the camera cutting to a full house of well-dressed and un-masked celebrities clapping along. It all seemed eerily normal until Kimmel noticed himself in the audience shot, while he was also talking on stage. “Of course we don’t have an audience,” Kimmel said, revealing that the awards show had just been using old stock footage and applause to give the spooky illusion of one. In reality the theater was stocked with cardboard cutouts of nominees, fake stand-ins who wouldn’t be able to deliver the one thing that makes tedious awards shows any good, the secret glue that holds them together: rude audience reaction shots.
Actors and professionally beautiful people are experts at knowing where the camera is, whether it’s on set or waiting for them outside the exit of the West Hollywood Whole Foods, and largely how to act in front of one. That is unless they’re in the dimly lit audience seats of a major awards show televised to millions, and then all bets are off. Chris Pine openly weeping while watching a John Legend and Common performance? Sounds good. Chrissy Teigen looking sort of disgusted as her husband takes his award? Yes please. Taylor Swift dancing at the Grammys like your wine-drunk aunt Carol after she hears the first few notes of “I Gotta Feeling” on a wedding party dance floor? I would like to see it.
There are moments of gold in the sometimes incensed, raw reactions of losing nominees who know they’re on camera: Samuel L. Jackson mouthing “shit” after losing to Martin Landau at the 1995 Academy Awards, Faith Hill flipping out (and then denying she flipped out) after Carrie Underwood nabbed female vocalist of the year at the CMAs. But an awards show is best when its cameramen are roaming the aisles looking for unaware victims like a sports arena kiss cam. Sometimes the moments that are caught in the audience tell me more about the stars than whatever acceptance speech they’re preparing to give. For example, I now know that Nicole Kidman, who I already adore, claps like a mannequin whose arms are being tapped together so to “protect her rings” and is cool with kissing her co-workers in front of her husband. And what was going on exactly when Leonardo DiCaprio gave Lady Gaga a snide look after she won a Golden Globe for American Horror Story? I can recall how the horror of the Moonlight and La La Land Oscar mix-up registered on everyone’s faces in the audience in 2017, but couldn’t even tell you who won in any other category that night.
Awards shows, no matter how glam, are always a bit silly: stacked with confusing wins made by voting bodies that don’t reflect real fans and audiences, boring comedic monologues, tedious acceptance speeches. Viewers know this, participants know this, but it’s the latter who has to pretend that they’re princesses invited to the ball while the rest of us poor and Botox-free peasants stay stuck at home and yell what we really think at the screen. But sometimes the curtain drops, and the camera finds Rihanna staring unamused at Miley Cyrus “twerking” at the VMAs, Issa Rae openly checking her phone at the Emmys, or Idina Menzel taking in Eminem performing at the Academy Awards like she’s watching a car crash in slow-motion. Suddenly the venn diagram of celebrities who hate this and viewers who hate this briefly becomes one beautiful circle, a blinding eclipse caught on camera that suddenly makes a three-hour program run time worth it. Stars, they’re just like us!
Such moments can’t exist, understandably, at the quarantine awards show. There were no live audiences at this year’s VMAs, BETs, or ACM awards, and it’s unclear what the plan is for future spectacles like the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, both of which have been pushed back to later dates. But for now I long for a safe future in which an awards show ceremony can once again become a voyeuristic safari for locals at home, a place to see C-listers and A-listers mingle awkwardly for one night as they dodge the danger of becoming a meme the next day.