Call them the COVID Contenders.
The coronavirus pandemic has fueled a boom in creativity since mid-March, with stay-at-home orders leading to some unique and completely unexpected programming in the past few months. Prior to mid-March, who would have predicted a “Parks and Recreation” reunion, or the fact that we would soon get to know what Ryan Seacrest’s home kitchen looks like?
None of these recent specials was planned, which is what makes this year’s Emmy race so unique. Most of the newfound specials and events created in the wake of COVID-19 — even the ones that have streamed only online — could be eligible for Emmy consideration. They might potentially upend the variety special categories and even the short form variety race.
The case of “Parks and Recreation” is unique. The beloved NBC comedy ended its run in 2015, but the cast and producers got back together last month to tell one more story. “A Parks and Recreation Special” showcased the series’ characters in present day as they communicated over videoconferencing in the midst of the pandemic. The telecast raised at least $3 million for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
It also opened the door for “Parks and Recreation” to get one last shot at finally winning an Emmy. The show was nominated 14 times during its run — including twice as outstanding comedy — but never prevailed. This time around, NBC can submit it in the variety special (pre-recorded) category, which last year went to “Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool.”
Also, star Amy Poehler, who never landed an Emmy as “Parks and Rec’s” Leslie Knope (despite six noms as lead actress in a comedy) might see voters correct that injustice, but via the limited series/TV movie actress category.
That variety special (pre-recorded) category might get tight, however, with the sheer number of COVID-related entries — including versions of awards shows that were supposed to be live but were reconfigured into pretaped at-home events, like Fox’s “iHeart Living Room Concert for America” (where Seacrest, presenting from his kitchen, was among the guests). And incumbent winner James Corden is still in the hunt, with CBS’ “Home-fest: James Corden’s Late Late Show Special.”
Both of those specials ran in March, when the quarantine led to a DIY mentality toward production, a lot of which was shot on celebrities’ personal iPhones. Voters might have a particular affection for those early events, especially before virtually everything on TV was shot, well, virtually.
As the weeks have progressed, and equipment has been shipped to various homes, the quality has dramatically improved. But even as the programs get sleeker, they’re still taking place mostly where people live, with very little physical interaction.
ABC has now aired two editions of “The Disney Family Singalong,” while there have been several music specials geared toward charity — most notably, the April 18 event “One World: Together at Home,” which aired across multiple broadcast and cable networks. In 2002, the post-9/11 multi-network event “America: A Tribute to Heroes” won the variety special Emmy, although similar specials after other tragedies haven’t.
Meanwhile, there are also many series that have done remote production of episodes, mostly due to the shutdown. The three “Saturday Night Live” at-home installments could add to its front-runner status in variety sketch and even give a leg up to the cast and guest stars who shone in those episodes. Competition shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” have figured out how to trade shiny floors for authentic shots of contestants performing at home. And of course, variety talk shows (including four-time top winner “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”) have completely changed their formats over the past two months, which could also mix that race up.
Where there may be the most opportunity, though, is in the short form categories. As celebrities like John Krasinski (with his “Some Good News” web series) and various musicians take to the web in lieu of touring (some, like Rufus Wainwright, playing a song or two every day), there could be many unexpected Emmy contenders this year — as long as they submit their entries before the June 5 cutoff date.
The TV Academy confirms that programs like “Some Good News,” which are self-published, will be eligible at the discretion of the org. Per the rules, programming without financial or creative involvement from a network or studio must be approved for the ballot before being entered.
Insiders have jokingly called that new vetting process the “Megan Amram rule,” given that the Academy has twice changed the eligibility rules after Amram’s “An Emmy for Megan,” which pokes fun at — and uses — loopholes to get an Emmy nomination, twice did just that.
Amram hasn’t yet revealed whether she has a coronavirus-themed Season 3 of “An Emmy for Megan” on tap. But even if she doesn’t, she might have another thing to root for on Emmy night: Amram was part of the team that helped write “A Parks and Recreation Special.”