As soon as this morning’s announcement of the 22nd Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations began, it was clear that 2015 would not be the year of the big shakeup for SAG that it was for the medium in question. The mostly baffling choices (full list here) betrayed an old-fashioned approach to what qualifies as the “best” when it comes to TV’s increasingly wide range of performances—and a dispiriting retreat to the familiar rather than a determination to highlight the new.
The biggest surprises came in the miniseries/TV movie categories, where strong performances by David Oyelowo (“Nightingale”), Mo’Nique (“Bessie”), Claire Foy (“Wolf Hall”), and Oscar Isaac (“Show Me a Hero”) went unmentioned in favor of flashier fare and recognizable stars. Great acting may be in the eye of the beholder, but the nominations for Nicole Kidman (“Grace of Monaco”), Susan Sarandon (“The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe”), Ben Kingsley (“Tut”), and Bill Murray (“A Very Murray Christmas”) smack of laziness, as if voters with too many options in the age of “peak TV” checked off the names they already knew.
The same could be said of the all-too-familiar slates of nominees in the comedy and drama series categories. It’s hard to criticize SAG for honoring regulars like Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”), Louis C.K. (“Louie”), Claire Danes (“Homeland”), and Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”), as worthy as ever for their long-running roles. But overall, the nominations suggest a lack of imagination. In fact, with the exception of a few names—most obviously the boys from “True Detective” Season 1—the major individual and ensemble categories are close replicas of last year’s.
In an ecosystem with hundreds of original scripted series, this isn’t just boring boilerplate: it’s something of a sellout, too. Maybe I’m a victim of my own wishful thinking, but I’d hoped that actors themselves would reward the subtle chill of Keri Russell’s performance in “The Americans,” or bring attention to the ferocious ensemble of “The Leftovers,” or recognize the importance of Tituss Burgess to the zippy hilarity of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The TV Academy has the Emmys for this sort of bland acceptance of tradition. (It’s worth noting here that the Hollywood Foreign Press, whatever its foibles, has caught on to the televisual revolution the quickest—perhaps because it’s so small and idiosyncratic, it allows for the unexpected, like wins for Ruth Wilson of “The Affair” and Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin.”)
There were bright spots in today’s SAG nominations, of course: Jeffrey Tambor is magnificent in “Transparent,” and both Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) and Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) are deserving first-timers; the out-of-left-field ensemble nomination for Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” is the kind of bold choice even the most persnickety critic can approve of. But if SAG is, in the main, going to stick with what it knows instead of exploring TV’s ever-expanding far reaches, “Outstanding Performance” may no longer be the appropriate label for its awards. “Most Watched Performance” or “Most Well-Known Performer” sound closer to the truth.