On May 30, actor, writer and director Bo Burnham launched a surprise sneak attack on a category that’s already one of the most competitive at this year’s Emmy Awards. That day, Netflix dropped “Bo Burnham Inside,” a comedy and music special that dissected life during the pandemic, won rave reviews and seemingly became a major player in the Emmys’ Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) category.
In a year of shows that surveyed our troubled existence in the face of COVID, “Inside” might well be the COVID-iest of all. Written, shot and performed by Burnham over the course of a year from inside a single room, it’s a twisted musical-comedy meditation on isolation, social media and the sociopolitical currents of our time.
It pretends to be a soul-baring examination of Burnham’s mental turmoil during lockdown, but it also mocks all that soul-baring; it’s supposed to be a record of what he did to get through the pandemic, but it also makes fun of what people like him (privileged white people in showbiz) do to get through the pandemic.
“Inside” a piece of utter self-absorption that wins points for being so aware of that self-absorption, and then piles on by relentlessly analyzing its own awareness of its self-absorption. Eventually, it’s like being in a fun house of mirrors where you see so many reflections and refractions that you have no idea where the real Bo Burnham is. (The answer, I suppose, is that the real Bo Burnham is everywhere, and so is the fake Bo Burnham he’s created for “Inside.”)
Anyway, it’s thrilling and exhausting, engaging and annoying. (If you’re in the right mood, very thrilling; if not, very annoying.) Plus it’s got a beat and you can dance to it, assuming you’re up for dancing to Burnham’s synth-pop songs about sexting and white women’s Instagram accounts.
But is it a slam-dunk Emmy contender — or even, as some have suggested, a sure winner? Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dave Chappelle, Beyoncé and a whole lot of other people might have something to say about that.
The bottom line is that this was a slow year in the Outstanding Variety Special (Live) category, because live shows were difficult to pull off during the pandemic, but a very strong year in the Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) category.
For starters, “Inside” will be competing against the long-awaited filmed version of “Hamilton,” certainly one of the highlights of pandemic-year TV. And against “8:46,” the new comedy special from Chappelle, who’s won two of the last three awards in the category. And against the “Friends” reunion special, the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunion special, the “West Wing” reunion special and the “30 Rock” reunion special.
On the music front, there’s Beyoncé’s elaborate “Black Is King,” Spike Lee’s David Byrne concert film, “American Utopia,” “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You” and offerings from Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes, among others. The comedy arena sports specials from Kevin Hart, Yvonne Orji, Sarah Cooper, Michelle Buteau, Chelsea Handler, Jim Gaffigan, the all-female lineup of “Yearly Departed” and many, many more.
This year’s strongest contenders also include a pair of stage shows adapted for small screen: Frank Oz’s version of “Derek DelGaudio’s In & of Itself” and Marielle Heller’s film of Heidi Schreck’s Pulitzer Prize-finalist Broadway production “What the Constitution Means to Me.” And then there’s “Borat Supplemental Reportings Retrieved From Floor of Stable Containing Editing Machine,” a special made up of unused and newly filmed material related to the Oscar-nominated film “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”
It’s a formidable lineup in a category that has mostly stuck to honoring stand-up comedy specials, “Carpool Karaoke” specials and the Kennedy Center Honors. Since the category was split off from the Outstanding Variety Special category in 2018, comedy specials have scored more than half of the 16 nominations, with music landing nods courtesy of Beyoncé, Springsteen and James Corden.
While “Bo Burnham Inside” is far from a conventional comedy special, it’s funny enough, in its weird, zeitgeisty way, to satisfy voters who are looking for humor in the category. And as a late-May release that built buzz in the two weeks before voting begins on June 17, the shock of the new may give it a boost as well.
Will it be enough to knock off “Hamilton” or Dave Chappelle or Beyoncé? It’s way too early to know how “Inside” will be viewed in two months, when final voting begins, but it’ll certainly be in the thick of nomination voting, at least with adventurous members of the Television Academy.
Besides, we really shouldn’t underestimate Burnham. Just three years ago, we knew the guy as a YouTuber-turned-comedian and actor, and then he made his feature directorial debut with 2018’s “Eighth Grade.” It not only proved that he was a sensitive and gifted director, but it won him the Writers Guild Award for original screenplay and the Directors Guild Award as the year’s best first-time director. He even beat Bradley Cooper for “A Star Is Born.”
So when he drops a surprise on us the day before Emmy voting ends, we probably ought to pay attention.