Abortion, Racism, Sexual Assault and National Security: How Sentinel Awards Honor TV’s Toughest Topics 

I May Destroy You - Publicity still - H 2020
Laura Radford/HBO

At 98 years old, people would likely forgive Norman Lear if he decided to take a night off here and there.

But Tuesday night, the legendary TV creator not only showed up to the Sentinel Awards, he turned on the charm by complimenting co-host Rainn Wilson on his comedic work and summed up the experience of attending as “one of the highlights of my life.”

The virtual gathering marked the 20th anniversary of the Sentinel Awards, an event that recognizes outstanding TV storylines that inform and motivate viewers. It is presented by Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, hence why he got asked to be there in the first place.

Speaking of questions, during a brief kick-off conversation, Wilson asked Lear why he opted to tell stories on television rather than any other medium. His answer: “Life just sometimes happens.”

There was more meat to his response, which included details of a brief detour as a press agent before landing in creating television, but that succinct version applies to why everyone gathered to honor impactful episodes. Life sometimes happens and TV’s storytellers are there to process and present stories to audiences no matter how challenging the subject matter.

Norman Lear Center founding director Marty Kaplan said two sets of judges sorted through 140 submissions to honor “the cream of the crop” based on accuracy and entertainment value. “Not preachy, but compelling, rich, funny material that holds audiences' attention,” he added. In total, 13 shows were singled out and various members of each production’s creative teams offered virtual acceptance speeches including actors, writers, executive producers and show creators.

Highlights of the event are below.

Orange is the New Black actress Laura Gomez presented to executive producer and writer Carolina Paiz for the episode “God Bless America” dealing with immigration. Paiz praised Immigrant Defenders Law Center and immigrant detention center insiders that generously offered insight and help in crafting the episode and long-running storyline on the Netflix hit. “As storytellers, we need to shine a light, not only on the immigration crisis but also how we got here,” she said. “Enough with the storylines about glorified CIA and DEA cowboys.”

The Good Fight creators Michelle and Robert King were logged on to accept an award for “The Gang Gets a Call From HR” for tackling racism. They shared the spotlight with the episode’s writer Davita Scarlett, who praised her bosses for being so committed to showing all of their characters in their full humanity, “which is really refreshing.” She added that in these turbulent times, a bonus of working on that show is that “all of the writers selfishly use the show to process current events.”

Michaela Coel was not on hand to accept an award for her buzzy breakout I May Destroy You on HBO for how it tackled sexual assault. But her producer Simon Meyers was. He encouraged viewers to vote and expressed gratitude that Cole’s vision was so warmly embraced by critics and audiences. The episodes singled out were “Someone is Lying” and “…It Just Came Up.” Said Meyers: “We are so delighted it resonated, particularly in America but also around the world, and the nuance and detail of her storytelling has been so appreciated.”

Allison Janney, Jaime Pressly, Mimi Kennedy, Beth Hall and Kristen Johnston sat together on the set of Mom on the CBS set to extend thanks for their show being honored for its authentic portrayals of alcoholism and recovery, specifically on the episode of “Higgledy-Piggledy and a Cat Show.” Isaac Wright, Jr. — the man who inspired the ABC series For Life — joined creator Hank Steinberg in accepting the award for the pilot episode of the ABC series.

All Rise won an award for how the CBS series tackled maternal health in the episode “What the Constitution Greens to Me.” Star Simone Missick accepted by saying how honored she was to accept for an episode about the dangers African American mothers face in an unfair health care system. “This is a subject matter that is near and dear to my heart and one that brought me great pride in bringing to our audience.”

New Amsterdam director Peter Horton presented to the show’s Erika Green Swafford for NBC’s episode “Righteous Right Hand,” a script Horton called fabulous and so good that he selfishly picked it up and wanted to direct it. Swafford said she was humbled and honored to receive the award, especially at a time when there are systemic challenges facing the U.S. healthcare system. “The culture of health in the United States is abysmal and the current pandemic has shown that it should be a right and not a privilege. This was a chance to amplify the inadequacies.”

Actress Kayla Cromer of Everything’s Gonna Be OK accepted for the team from Freeform. She praised creator Josh Thomas and the team for allowing her, an actress who is on the spectrum, to play a character who is on the spectrum — a first for TV. “I had always planned for my first role to be a homicide cop or psychopath in a horror movie or a live-action princess. [My character] has zero super powers but she really does, in a way.” She thanked Freeform for always striving for diversity and inclusion, and for letting creator Thomas get away “with the weird stuff he gets away with on the show.”

Madam Secretary writer and consulting producer Keith Eisner accepted for his CBS show for the episode “Killer Robots,” a show that tackled issues of national security. “Technology should serve humanity,” he said in accepting, not the other way around.

Sandra Bernhard, who plays Judy Kubrak on FX’s Pose, presented to the series co-creator Steven Canals for the episode “In My Heels” for its HIV/AIDS storylines. Canals said his intention with the arc was to show that HIV isn't a death sentence but a reason to live life more fully. “Pose is a love letter to our forebearers who, in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with no resources, no support from the government, and a lack of access to quality medical care still managed to forge a way out of no way. From their stories, we have all learned so much more about love, family and resilience.”

Normal People breakout Paul Mescal, who earned an Emmy nomination for his work on the Hulu hit, accepted the award for his show for “Episode 10” for tackling mental health. “We hope this can be an example to young people all around the world,” he said.

Dr. Zoanne Clack, an executive producer and writer on Grey’s Anatomy on ABC, accepted for the episode “Papa Don’t Preach,” which tackled home abortions. She noted how they wanted the story to be a grounded and truthful story about a home abortion gone wrong coupled with technical expertise. They were clear they wanted the character to be someone who was already a mother to bring another layer of authenticity to the story. “We are so proud to be recognized for this award,” she said. “To do justice for such an important topic.”

This is Us star Mandy Moore presented to Julia Brownell, Kevin Falls and Jonny Gomez for how they crafted her aging/Alzheimer’s storyline on multi episodes for season four. “When our show decided to take Rebecca and her family on this terrifying journey, of course, we immediately called Hollywood, Health & Society and their help made all the difference in getting these episodes right,” said Moore. “Not that long ago, senility and the image of a doddering, mentally challenged senior citizen was played for cheap laughs on TV comedies, but with its characteristic sensitivity and honesty, three episodes of This is Us — 'So Long Mary Ann,' ‘Clouds,’ and ‘New York, New York’ — took viewers through the fear and resentment and conflict Rebecca feels as reality slowly unravels around her.”

Gomez said, “It is such an honor to write for a show unafraid to roll up its sleeves and dive into the deep end of human emotion. This is Us, led by the mad genius creator Dan Fogelman, shows us that even in sadness there is light, even in tragedy there is joy. and in a world full of chaos, the love that binds family together, the love that connects us all, is the only constant.”