Equal Treatment: SAG delivers Disappointing TV Nominations

The other day, I tore into the Golden Globes for being star fetishists, arguing that their choices reflect a clear lack of interest in actually honouring the best in television (when Entourage is your default, there is something very wrong). However, I think sometimes we pick on the Golden Globes so much that we forget that other award shows which actually have some shred of credibility are just as capable of proving disappointing.

And so I feel I need to provide equal treatment, and criticize the Screen Actors’ Guild for a bizarre set of nominations (click the link to read if you want to know all of the context for the below rant) which seem to indicate that they’re not actually watching television at the moment. While the rut SAG has fallen into is less egregious than that of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, its relative credibility makes its shame a definite disappointment during this end of year awards season.

I don’t want to repeat the same arguments I made in the Globes post (in other words, my annoyance with a lack of Sons of Anarchy and Friday Night Lights remains intact), but I do want to focus on two fundamental failures of the SAG awards nominating structure. While the Globes are weird enough with their amalgamation of supporting roles in series/movies/miniseries, SAG does away with lead and supporting altogether, throwing all candidates into “Actor/Actress in a Drama/Comedy” categories. And also, instead of an award for “Outstanding Series,” since these are acting awards after all, the nominations go to “Best Ensemble in a Drama/Comedy,” which brings in a new kind of objective criteria to consider.

However, this year the limitations of this format were revealed.

First and foremost, there is not a single supporting actor or actress in the series television categories. Not one: no Michael Emerson, no Neil Patrick Harris, no Jane Lynch, no Cherry Jones, not anyone. All four acting categories are entirely populated with lead actors, and while there are a huge number of lead actors who are doing amazing work right now, there are other lead actors who are not on the same level as some of the stunning supporting players currently working in the television industry. And so while no one is going to argue that Michael Emerson should bump Jon Hamm or Bryan Cranston from their sports in Actor in a Drama Series, would anyone really argue that Emerson gave an inferior performance to Simon Baker in The Mentalist? As someone who likes Baker and that show (even if I kind of gave it up this season), that just seems wrong to me, the same way that Charlie Sheen grabbing a nomination over Neil Patrick Harris just doesn’t seem right.

It creates a perception that being the “star” of your show effectively makes you a better actor, which to me seems to be way off base for what the categories are supposed to achieve. By equalizing the category, you’re saying that all work done by actors on television is equal and that someone filling a supporting role should be judged fairly with those in lead ones. However, because acting is inherently political, it seems as if only those who have their name appearing first in the credits are capable of breaking into these categories. There are a number of amazing actors working in ensembles today who are putting in far more interesting with than Patricia Arquette in Medium or Christina Applegate in Samantha Who? (seriously, SAG?), and who are taking far more risks than Tony Shalhoub on Monk.

But, SAG would argue, that is why the Ensemble awards exist – they honour every single cast member, which means that those who are unable to break into the crowded acting categories can still get their trophy. And to some degree, those nominees do take care of some of the snubs: Glee has an Ensemble nod for Comedy (which could award Jane Lynch for her great work on the show), while Mad Men (where the entire supporting cast is fantastic, and where both January Jones and Elisabeth Moss were not nominated in Lead Actress) grabs a nomination in Drama. And a show like Modern Family, with a number of great performances, gets a deserved spot on the list. And if we look at the comedy list, rounded off by 30 Rock (which one can’t argue with), Curb Your Enthusiasm (which is strange when you consider it includes no guest stars, but show is enjoyable)  and The Office (again, a great ensemble), you’d say that my criticism of SAG is unfounded.

However, when you look at the Drama category, everything falls apart. I like The Good Wife, but is there any scenario where its ensemble is superior to that of Breaking Bad, or Friday Night Lights, or Sons of Anarchy (okay, so I am going to complain about those shows, sue me)? And while Kyra Sedgwick’s performance is much lauded, is there any universe where The Closer has a stronger ensemble than Lost? And while John Lithgow, Jennifer Carpenter and Michael C. Hall put together some great performances this year, can we honestly say that Dexter has a strong ensemble with anything not involving those characters this season was a fundamental waste of time? When True Blood is the nomination I find least offensive (in that the show’s cast of supporting characters is perhaps its greatest charm), you know that something feels really wrong here.

The problem is that SAG’s reputation and standing create expectations that their nomination structure only expands on: by suggesting that they’re going to actively consider the ensembles of various shows, you hope that they’ll look to see what shows have the deepest bench and which shows are really clicking. And while in a category like comedy it seems like they “got that” with the Ensemble awards (I’d probably have found a way to get Community in there, but snubs are expected), the Drama nominees indicate that they didn’t get it at all. There are shows I am disinterested in (see: Damages) that unquestionably have better performances than The Good Wife (a well-executed but simple drama series), so it’s not as if I expect the show to match up with my tastes.

However, if they’re going to create expectations of equality or recognizing the work of an entire cast, their nominees need to offer a better reflection of that before I elevate them above the Globes based on past behaviour alone.

Cultural Observations

  • It didn’t fit into the narrative of this particular rant, but if SAG voters are seriously watching enough CBS to nominated Baker, Margulies and Sheen, that they didn’t nominate Jim Parsons is downright confounding. I was hoping that at the very least the actors would take Parsons’ amazing performance more seriously than the Globes, but apparently even actors have no souls.
  • Lead Actress Drama is probably the worst category overall: Arquette, Hargitay, Segwick and Hunter are all boring nominees who have been doing the same thing throughout their shows’ runs, so for them to grab nominations over people like Jones and Moss from Mad Men, or Katey Sagal from Sons of Anarchy, or even the Big Love wives (Tripplehorn, in particular, from what I hear of the third season), is getting to be more than a little bit frustrating. It’s not often I’d accept a Grey’s sweep, but give me Chandra Wilson/Sandra Oh here any day.
  • I know Lithgow was great this season on Dexter, so I understand the ensemble nod to some degree, but I’d have easily placed Lithgow into the main acting category and been done with it, personally.

1 Comment

Filed under Award Shows

One response to “Equal Treatment: SAG delivers Disappointing TV Nominations

  1. Jeremy

    These nominations read like the nominations from 2 or 3 years ago. Drama is especially disappointing. It’s not so much that it’s boring, but we’ve just seen it so many times over the past couple of years.

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