Critic's Notebook: Sloppy SAG Award TV Nominations Exclude 'Pose,' 'Americans' Stars

It's bizarre that an award-winning group of actors has never nominated Keri Russell or Matthew Rhys or Donald Glover, nor did they recognize the excellence of the 'Pose' ensemble.
JoJo Whilden/FX
'Pose'

Let me begin by tipping my hat to the couple things that the Screen Actors Guild Awards TV voters did right in their nominations, which were announced on Wednesday morning:

* After the Golden Globes left Better Call Saul, consistent and reliable instead of shiny and new, out entirely last week, the SAG Awards gave Bob Odenkirk his normal place in the male actor field and extended the show's recognition into the best ensemble category. I'm going to pretend that that ensemble nomination is primarily long-overdue recognition specifically for Rhea Seehorn and nod encouragingly.

* If any actor from Ozark has been deserving of recognition for the show's first two seasons, it has been Julia Garner, and so seeing her in the female actor in a drama series category is a good thing. The SAG Awards lack any capacity to note that Garner was also great this year in Waco, Maniac, The Americans and Dirty John, so this is a body-of-work nomination of the highest order.

* Neither The Americans nor Atlanta had ever been nominated for a SAG Award, and now the acclaimed FX shows have been nominated for drama and comedy ensembles and that's right and good. Patting SAG Awards voters on the head for suddenly noticing two of TV's best shows sounds condescending, but here we are!

That's all, folks.

Don't get me wrong. Lots of the other TV nominations given by the SAG Awards voters on Wednesday are reflective of TV's best shows and performances. I haven't suddenly decided that Elisabeth Moss and Sandra Oh and Rachel Brosnahan and Bill Hader and Alison Brie aren't superb. Of course they are.

It just happens that the Screen Actors Guild, despite the percentage of its membership that is finding employment on the small screen in this era of Peak TV, isn't equipped to honor TV properly in its annual awards show and does a disappointing job given its restrictive parameters. Period.

Does anybody want to make an argument for me in favor of this thing the SAG Awards do where the movie field acknowledges supporting performances, but the TV side does not? Is it as simple as the SAG Awards not wanting to expand their running time? I understand the pleasures of a tight awards telecast, and I guess I understand a fear that adding two more categories to TV might cause the show to get imbalanced toward TV, but how can you look at these clumps of lead actors and TV actors and tell me that they're doing the same things as the people they're competing against? The example I've always given is that there were multiple years Dame Maggie Smith was nominated for SAG Awards (and at least one in which she won) for female actor in a drama series for Downton Abbey in which her three-to-five minutes of Dowager Countess snarking had to be compared to actresses who were leading their shows.

The lack of supporting actor fields for TV becomes especially galling when the SAG Awards refuse to expand beyond five nominees per category and voters are so enamored by multiple actors on the same shows that vast swaths of TV get squeezed out entirely.

So not only did Garner get a nomination for Ozark that actually makes me happy, but Laura Linney gets a nomination that I can't really grumble about too much because she's Laura Linney, but that means 40 percent of all recognition for female actors in dramas are now going to Ozark, a show which, quite frankly, has a wonderful female ensemble that it barely knows what to do with. If any drama on TV deserved two nominations in this category it was Killing Eve, where Jodie Comer continues to get overlooked, while Oh is at least getting her due. Joining Comer on the outside looking in are women like Julia Roberts for Homecoming and Keri Russell for The Americans. Russell's The Americans partner-in-crime Matthew Rhys was also excluded, and although no show received double recognition in the male actor in a drama category, my eyebrow is raised in bafflement at nominations for the sturdy-but-unremarkable John Krasinski for Jack Ryan and the negligible-and-supporting Joseph Fiennes in The Handmaid's Tale.

Male actor in a comedy doubled down twice with Hader and Henry Winkler nominated for Barry and Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas nominated for The Kominsky Method. Both Winkler and Arkin are being treated as supporting actors by other award shows, and giving 80 percent of male acting in a comedy nominations to two shows forced the exclusion of, among others, Jim Carrey of Kidding, Ted Danson of The Good Place and Donald Glover for Atlanta.

To repeat: If your awards show can't find space for individual recognition for anybody from the Rhys/Russell/Glover troika, you've done something improperly.

The female actor in a comedy field also had an 80 percent block for only two shows, with Alex Borstein and Brosnahan for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda for Grace and Frankie. Sorry, then, to Kristen Bell, Rita Moreno and every actress on a broadcast TV show, because SAG basically decided broadcast doesn't exist other than This Is Us, across-the-board snubbing that doesn't bother me as much as some of this other stuff.

There are a dozen little quibbles I could point to: No Succession anywhere, especially ensemble? Ignoring Regina King for both If Beale Street Could Talk and Seven Seconds? Antonio Banderas for Genius: Picasso and Anthony Hopkins for a 90-minute King Lear nobody noticed, but not Benedict Cumberbatch for Patrick Melrose or Ben Whishaw for A Very English Scandal?

I could really go on and on, but I haven't gotten to the one snubbing that I'd promised would get me to write a SAG Awards rant and without which I might not have even bothered: If you are an awards organization that recognizes ensemble casts — and more awards groups probably should — and you leave out FX's Pose, that is proof that you do not understand what an "ensemble" is.

For these purposes, I want to leave aside the historical significance of the Pose ensemble, featuring the largest cast of trans actors in television history as part of possibly the most inclusive and varied group of actors assembled. That's notable and important and not SAG's job to recognize.

What should be SAG's job to recognize is that the Pose ensemble is as pure and deep and world-building as any on TV. It's a triumph of casting, with the assemblage of a group that, for the most part, is made up of unknowns to most casual TV viewers once you get past Evan Peters, Kate Mara and James Van Der Beek. Much of the credit there goes to casting director Alexa L. Fogel for finding these actors who most TV shows and movies didn't know existed, and then to creators Steven Canals, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk for making sure that once they were there, they had parts to play, characters to embody.

Remarkable Tony winner Billy Porter snagged a Golden Globe nomination for Pose last week and he did it in the lead actor category, which caused me a little bit of confusion because I'd considered Pray Tell, fabulous MC on the New York City ball circuit, as a supporting role. As I thought back, though, I realized that Pray Tell absolutely had an arc in which he was the show's lead character, just as MJ Rodriguez's Blanca, Indya Moore's Angel, Ryan Jamaal Swain's Damon, Dominique Jackson's Elekra and Peters' Stan could claim lead status at different points. To me, the key to a great ensemble is that any actor can carry an episode or arc if required and when a supporting player isn't in the spotlight for a while, you have to believe that their characters are going on with their lives fully. On Pose, no matter how thin their prior CVs may have been, every actor has stepped up whenever asked to shoulder the weight of drama or comedy and every character has given the impression that they eat, sleep, work and love even if we're not watching. With Ozark, I always suspect that there's a poorly lit shed in which all of the other characters just sit and mumble quietly to themselves when the A-plot is Jason Bateman's Marty furrowing his brow and whispering about accounting loopholes.

Ozark, to me, is an example of how to cast a great ensemble and generally squander them. Pose is an example of how to compose and use an acting troupe or, as I'm sure some of the people associated with the show would prefer to have it described, a TV family. It shows.

This is frustrating for me, because as much as I enjoy it and respect it, Pose isn't quite making my Top 10 for the year, and if you asked me to list my five favorite dramas currently on TV, it might be just on the outside of that group. If your category is just "drama series" and you leave Pose out, I probably just shrug or express slight disappointment. 

But if you're a body of actors, though, and your goal is recognizing ensembles of actors and you can't see how what Pose has done as an acting ensemble goes beyond "good" or "great" into being genuinely unique and special, I wonder why I'm dedicating 1,000-plus words to talking about your nominations at all.