By now, more than a year deep into the social disruption wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had several examples of awards shows trying their best to accomplish something like the traditional experience for viewers at home.
What we hadn’t seen, exactly, was a show deciding to lean into the alienation and isolation of the past 13 months, and to put everything on remotely. After the Emmys and Golden Globes — both of which had substantial in-person elements and worked hard to convince us they were worth our time — the audience could be forgiven for being worn out. Viewers curious about what a truly socially-distanced awards show might look like were likely well-served by this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.
This year’s SAGs were short — a mere hour — but elegantly produced, once one got the hang of the ceremony. There was no host, but a suite of celebrities opened the show, and went on to open up over the course of it. The show is notorious among awards-watchers for opening with monologues from SAG card-holders: This year, Daveed Diggs, Jimmy Fallon, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno and others delved into embarrassing early headshots between award presentations. They also, deep into the ceremony, spoke to their hopes for the coming year (with Mirren kicking off the segment by saying she couldn’t wait to be in a movie theater).
This may all have been elegant scaffolding around a set of winners who didn’t necessarily need it. It can feel unfair to rate awards ceremonies by the speeches of their winners, but stars including Daniel Kaluuya (of “Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Viola Davis (of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) had the opportunity to shine even without a stage. And Yuh-Jung Youn of “Minari” made not merely for a surprise winner but for a charming Zoom presence.
This was, like all awards ceremonies during this era, a show that took a moment to learn how to watch. (Civilians who have struggled with knowing how to log off of a remote work meeting can only empathize with losing nominees trapped in a Zoom room with the person who beat them.) But its tightness, between speeches, suggested a flexibility that looks good on a venerable televised franchise, especially compared against its closest rival. The Golden Globes were not merely less adeptly produced — dropping audio at key moments — but they also had far less of a sense of occasion. In forcing stars to gin up enthusiasm and hours-long presence at a ceremony that couldn’t exist in real life, the Globes exhausted viewers.
SAG Awards, by contrast, are a show whose viewership, in the best of times, is made up of awards-ceremony die-hards — those who must know who is ahead in the Oscar race, or who might next win an Emmy. But they are also kudos voted on by more than 100,000 members of a labor union, given by actors to actors. At a time of global pandemic and so many other social ills, these trophies might seem less urgent than ever. After all, even the Oscars are in flux. But the SAG Awards organizers, insistent on solidarity and on putting on a show, made their case in a year in which red carpets and seated dinners were not an option. They delivered a ceremony that put the emphasis on thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit.