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The SAG Awards and Ensemble Acting: There is no "I" in 'Game Of Thrones'
December 16, 2019  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominations have been announced — think The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselFleabag, don't think Succession — and once again media attention is on the movie nominees, as with the Golden Globes, and not so much the TV nods.

That's understandable in a way: Movies are a one-off, and as the Oscars have shown, a win can mean the difference between breaking even and box-office obscurity for a well-done film that otherwise might be struggling to gain traction with a paying audience.

It's different for TV, because TV shows — most of them, anyway — are more marathon than sprint, and are designed to last several seasons.

The SAG Awards are different, too, in that they've set aside a separate category for ensemble performance, in both film and television, drama and comedy. Most actors, if they're honest, will tell you it's not about them; it's about their fellow cast members, and how they work together. Michael Chiklis, back when he was winning best actor awards for The Shield, likens it to "playing tennis;" he never enjoyed playing tennis as much, and as hard as he did, he said at the time, when Glenn Close joined The Shield for a season of playing anti-heroine boss to Chiklis' antihero worker bee Vic Mackey. 
The ensemble award — voted on by active members of the Screen Actors Guild, who number in the thousands — is part popularity contest among fellow actors, and part signpost to how well a cast is working together, which is not always a given on even successful films and TV shows.

It's more telling in TV, too, for the precise reason that, unlike a movie — sequels aside — the cast will be back to perform the next year, except on those occasions when a long-running TV show decides to step down or is cancelled.

As with the Emmys, Netflix is proving hard to beat in the numbers game: The industry-dominating streaming service leads all comers with a lucky 13 nominations, followed by industry perennial HBO with 10 and relative newcomer Amazon Prime with seven. The CrownGame of Thrones — not surprisingly — and Stranger Things are the cat's meow when it comes to the drama nods; as already mentioned, Mrs. MaiselFleabag, and The Kominsky Method are the shows to beat in the comedy categories.

Interestingly, though not so much so that it can be considered a new trend, the broadcast networks have taken a beating, Sterling K. Brown's nod for This Is Us being the sole mention for any broadcast network — which puts the SAG Awards one-up on the Golden Globes, which failed to recognize a single broadcast-TV performance in its own nominations.

That's a shame, though — because if any broadcast-network drama deserves merit for its ensemble, it has to be This Is Us, just as, in comedy, the Big Bang Theory cast was always greater than the sum of its parts. (As good as Jim Parsons was in that now-retired sitcom, and he was very good, the show itself was only as good as how Parsons played against Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco.)

Movie actors steal scenes; TV actors let their fellow cast members steal scenes. Even a supposedly two-person show like The X-Files is immeasurably improved by how those two actors play against their supporting cast, and not just themselves. In terms of my own formative years of watching TV, the great dramas — LostThe SopranosThe West WingER, all very different, all brilliant with sprawling, exceedingly talented ensemble players, many of whom were virtual unknowns when they first signed on  — were about the collective, not the individual. The longest-lasting TV dramas — the ones you wouldn't hesitate to watch again today — have it both ways, with individual characters you love and can relate to on a personal, one-to-one basis, and yet enjoy seeing together, often in a work environment, much like The Office.

This year's drama ensemble nominees are, alphabetically — because that's how the nominations list is read out — Big Little LiesThe CrownGame of ThronesThe Handmaids Tale and Stranger Things
The comedy ensemble nominees are BarryFleabag, The Kominsky MethodThe Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Canadian upstart Schitt's Creek, which is doubly meaningful in this context, not just because it's an upstart but because it brings back together some of the leading lights of the sketch-comedy classic SCTV.

Anyone who watches TV that's worth watching on a regular basis can probably name any number of candidates worthy of joining this list — the cast of Chernobyl, for example, or the aforementioned Big Bang Theory. Still, as always with nominations lists, the line has to be drawn somewhere, and for every addition made, an active nominee would have to be taken away. And that would be especially churlish this year because every single nomination, in both drama and comedy, is well deserved — and hard-earned.

The Emmys have created a new category for casting in recent years, but have drawn the line on acting ensembles. Casting is a specific category in its own right, and most casting directors focus on the specificity of what an actor brings to the role — what's interesting about it is that bad casting jumps out at you, whereas good casting, like refereeing an NFL or NHL game, you don't notice until something goes wrong.

The ensemble is very different: It's a team effort. The best quarterback in the world isn't going to throw too many touchdown passes if he's left unprotected and continuously hammered by the opposing defensive line.

Possibly one of the best examples going of an effective cast ensemble — though it rarely gets award mention — is the ensemble Ryan Murphy has put together for American Horror Story, and to a lesser extent, American Crime Story. Not since Orson Welles assembled his Mercury Theatre players in the golden age of American moviemaking has a writer-producer put together such a singularly competent, charismatic group of players who keep coming back, season after season, in often very different roles — Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy, Denis O'Hare, Emma Roberts, Jamie Brewer, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and many less-well-known, below-the-line, supporting players and walk-on characters.

Perhaps one year – and American Horror Story may still be on the air – an ensemble will get the Emmy nod. Until then, hide and watch.

This year's SAG Awards will be presented on Sunday, Jan. 19, and broadcast live on TNT and TBS

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