Emmys 2020: Critical Last Looks on ‘Watchmen,’ ‘Succession,’ ‘The Mandalorian’

Watchmen The Mandalorian Baby Yoda
Courtesy of HBO/Disney+

The 2020 Emmys feature a slate of exciting nominees, from first-timers to veterans getting their due. Variety’s chief TV critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke discuss.

Daniel D’Addario: It’s been a while since we’ve had categories of just five nominees, but one thing I’m struck by this year is just how big the Emmys feel. Both drama series and comedy series, for instance, made room for one genuinely surprising nominee — Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian” and FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” respectively. It’s not that these shows don’t deserve to be there, but both shows, in their own manner, significantly expand the definition of what it means to be “an Emmy show.”

For that reason, I’m kind of rooting for “The Mandalorian” to take the top prize. Part of it is the why-not factor — it would be a genuinely fun further surprise for an awards ceremony that, over the past half-decade, has tended toward predictability in the drama category, with years of “Game of Thrones” dominance interrupted only when that show went on hiatus. It also would represent the Emmys catching viewers where they are: It’s hard to think of a more dominant cultural figure, pre-pandemic, than “Baby Yoda,” the little guy who ensured Disney Plus’ launch was a success and who may be remembered as having saved the “Star Wars” franchise. Whether either of those accomplishments are net goods for an IP-choked Hollywood is up for debate, but inasmuch as an awards show is setting out to capture a moment, “The Mandalorian’s” power to intrigue and to move using the tools of a seemingly exhausted franchise is hard to deny.

But maybe I’m being purposefully obtuse in ignoring “Succession.” What are you rooting for?

Caroline Framke: As much as I would love to root for Mando and “The Child” — i.e. the Disney corporation’s insistent name for the creature we all know is Baby Yoda, timelines be damned — you caught me. I’m a “Succession” stan all the way. It’s hardly an underdog at this point, given its Golden Globe win and general pop-culture cachet, but no matter. The second season of “Succession” is a fine-tuned triumph, both for its sum and its parts. Each episode is distinct, hilarious and pointed in its own way, collectively building to a last-minute twist that manages to be both shocking and entirely justified. If “Succession” cleans up big time on Emmy night, I will neither be surprised nor mad about it.

That goes, too, for the “Succession” actors, almost all of whom got a nomination after the Academy shut them out for the first season. I suspect that Brian Cox will be hard to beat, and that his biggest competition may indeed be his co-star Jeremy Strong, both of whom would be worthy winners. But for my money, the most surprising and yet most deserving “Succession” nod went to supporting actor Matthew Macfadyen, whose sniveling Tom is a truly unique character unto himself.

Who are you rooting for in the acting categories, Dan? I know we’re both thrilled to see first-timers like Yvonne Orji and Zendaya get recognized — and I’d probably award both the win.

D’Addario: Dead-on, and agreed on both counts: Orji and Zendaya would both be electrifying winners. Elsewhere, favorite nominees of mine include Orji’s “Insecure” castmate Issa Rae, so overdue; Sarah Snook of “Succession” (nominated alongside Laura Dern and Meryl Streep of “Big Little Lies” — remember last summer?); and Jeremy Irons and Jean Smart of “Watchmen” (the latter only because Smart’s own castmate Hong Chau was left out in the cold).

Which brings us to the story of the evening, “Watchmen,” a show that feels startlingly dominant as we look over the nominations. I wish there were an obvious place to award what is probably the second-most-acclaimed limited series of the season, “Mrs. America,” but even Cate Blanchett’s anchoring performance as the assuredly insincere Phyllis Schlafly ultimately feels less nourishing than Regina King’s powerful hero’s journey as Sister Night. You’re more “Watchmen” hive than I (a convert to the cause after initial skepticism): Would you be happy if the “Watchmen” actors swept? And any other performers you want to advocate for?

Framke: This year’s limited series categories are even more stacked than per usual. “Mrs. America” would undoubtedly make a huge dent in any other year, and even though “Unbelievable” feels very far away now, it deserves more hardware than it will likely get. But the pull of “Watchmen” should prove too great, and I will be thrilled if King and at least one of her castmates walked away winners (my pick would be Jovan Adepo, so good in his stunning spotlight episode).

Going back to the comedies, Orji’s biggest competition for supporting comedy actress in my personal rankings is Annie Murphy, whose deft turn as Alexis Rose in “Schitt’s Creek” has been vastly underrated up to this point. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over this show’s trajectory from little-known Canadian darling to behemoth due to its second run on Netflix, and will be interested to see if its final season will bring it a storybook ending come Emmy night.

Honestly, there are just so many good, deserving, different nominations this year that the only way I’ll be disappointed is if the Academy goes down familiar roads. There’s plenty else to reward without throwing more accolades at “The Crown” (with no offense meant to its worthy performers, love you both, Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter!).

D’Addario: I would be totally fine with either royal winning over some of the alternatives (I watched the whole thing and don’t, on a fundamental level, “get” “The Morning Show”), but I take your point. This year — with no “Game of Thrones,” no “Veep,” and so many compelling first-timers — feels like a moment for Emmy to take big swings. The fact that we’re discussing as awards heavy-hitters a superhero-race relations allegory and a heartfelt Canadian family sitcom suggests that the era of any one thing looking like obvious Emmy bait is over.