The annual awards show is reimagining the ceremony through mailed wine and futuristic production.

How do you have a party without people? That’s the question at this year’s Emmys. “TV’s biggest night” is essentially a celebration: for the actors and directors, but also for vicarious viewers across the country—who especially crave escape this year.

Traditionally, the event is held at the Microsoft Theater in downtown L.A., a stone’s throw from USC. Traffic is clogged all day as hundreds of nominees make their way through the policed maze, entourage in tow. The red carpet is both a prelude and a main event. But the real party begins after the awards, at the Governor’s Ball next door. There, Joachim Splichal turns out his Michelin-starred fare. The chef is best known for his L.A. restaurant Patina, which was awarded a Michelin star in both 2007 and 2008, before Michelin left the city for a decade. Although Patina is no longer—it closed a few months ago, apparently for good—Splichal’s halo is barely dimmed. This would have been his 25th straight year cheffing the Emmys.

Emmy statuette
Credit: Robyn Beck / Getty Images

In other years, he’d wander the warehouse-like expanse behind the ballroom, overseeing cooks tweeze gold foil onto pastry. Caviar, lobster, and truffle would make liberal appearances. Tablescapes are festooned with as much gold and glitter as you’d expect, with enough flowers to furnish a Pinterest-worthy wedding. Wine flows. For the past four years it’s been from Sterling Vineyards, in Napa. The sparkling wine is poured from century-old Italian producer Ferrari Trento—no relation to the car company. (There are guests who, nevertheless, resist these temptations in preference of Weight Watchers; in these situations, Splichal, without blinking an eye, texts someone at the store he has on standby.) 

This year, the signifiers of celebration—food and drink, the red carpet, ball gowns—have disappeared. The decision to go virtual was not surprising when it was announced in late July; but the “how” seemed up in the air. How do you have a party without partygoers? How does one recreate that buzz of beautiful bodies, all in one room?

It’s been a strange year; and for California, an even stranger month. Wildfires ravaging the west coast turned San Francisco’s skies Blade Runner-red. Los Angeles was beset with persistent haze. Given this, the glam of the Emmys is either trivial indulgence or welcome distraction. Maybe both. But the question remains: how do you recreate it? 

In past years, shared food & drink have been indispensable to setting the sage. Flowing wine and lobster canapés pivot the seated ceremony into a full-out celebration. Here, cameras are limited, the pressure is off. 

This year, nominees were mailed the wine they would have been served: a 2016 cab sauv and a 2017 chardonnay, both from Sterling Vineyards. The idea of a communal drink—partaking of wine—is a poetic thought. For those who want to sip along, it might be possible to find the bottles locally, given the brand’s nationwide distribution. To pair: winemaker Lauren Kopit recommends the cab sauv with sausage pizza; for the chardonnay, a triple cream brie. She was in the middle of harvest when we called, and came in from the fields with the happy news that, despite the wildfires, the sky in Napa that morning was a crystalline blue.

This year, in the absence of a shared meal, Splichal shared recipes instead. Beef tenderloin, potato gratin, mac and cheese: family-sized meals, aimed at comfort. They’re all more or less straightforward to cook, but it’s doubtful that nominees will, being occupied with hair and makeup. (“Our informal theme for the night is ‘come as you are, but make an effort!’” host Jimmy Kimmel’s invitation reads.)

“I know that certain people have had special pajamas made,” Guy Carrington reports. He’s an executive producer for the event, along with Kimmel himself. Over the past week, he and his team have shipped out hundreds of camera kits to nominees worldwide. Better video quality than a laptop, these cameras are wheeled in on a trolley, complete with lighting, and set up by a professional. After the event—during which no camera crew will be present—the setup will be shipped back. 

The result: hundreds of live feeds streaming into the Staples Center, ready to be blasted onto larger-than-life screens. “It's kind of like Mission Control at NASA,” Carrington says, when we reach him backstage on Thursday. “We have, like, hundreds of screens.”

Nominees will be as far flung as Tel Aviv and London—camera kits have been shipped to 12 cities overall. With very few exceptions, all guests will be live. While some have recorded pre-packaged acceptance speeches, they actually don’t know if they’ve won. No one does, outside the Television Academy. 

Most nominees will be broadcasting from their homes, although “we don't want all of our them set up in their office, in a big chair with a bookshelf behind them,” Carrington says. “One of the things we've said to everybody is like, we want the atmosphere to be fun. We want that to be energy.” 

At the end of the day, even without the red carpet, the flowing wine, and a packed theater, “the truth is it’s still the Emmys,” Carrington says. “It's kind of the biggest TV award you can win, right?”