Netflix Strives for a Kooky SAG Awards, While Hollywood Superstars Fran Drescher and Barbra Streisand Brought the Award Show Gold

Netflix made clear from the start that they were running a different kind of awards show.

Presenter and quasi-host Idris Elba indicated to the attended nominees that, in their speeches, they were free to let expletives fly, but that none of them should say anything “you wouldn’t say in front of Oprah.” (Shortly after that, Meryl Streep walked directly into the mic stand — seeming to suggest a kooky and wild awards show that didn’t quite arrive.) After the SAG Awards had fully moved to streaming — after a liminal year, in 2023, in which the ceremony had aired on Netflix’s YouTube channel, preceded by a long tenure on the Turner cable networks — it felt like a sort of safe space for speaking frankly.

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But shifting the script doesn’t necessarily match the priorities of actors during awards season. And while the ceremony deserves some credit for reinventing itself, its primary function was fueling the conversation about the forthcoming Oscars. In this, it provided plenty of fuel — with Lily Gladstone and Cillian Murphy winning the top film acting prizes in hotly contested races. (Both of them gave lovely speeches, too.)

The everything-goes atmosphere promised at the top of the show wasn’t what made Netflix’s SAG Awards distinctive. What was unique was the decision to have it be all content, no breaks: What would have historically been spaces for ads were filled by post-win interviews, conducted by “Queer Eye” star Tan France, with the likes of Ayo Edebiri and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. (France, for instance, asked Edebiri what she thought Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep thought of her acceptance speech; Edebiri was pleasantly, and predictably, self-deprecating.) Both gave lovely interviews; both seemed vaguely dazzled and surprised by the new requirement that an on-camera interview, post-win, as part of the ceremony, is part of awards season.

Which meant that awards fans were strapped in for the duration, one that stretched beyond the stated two-hour mark. Even an ad-free broadcast, it seems, isn’t immune to bloat. “Wow,” winner Jeremy Allen White, of TV’s “The Bear,” said, after graciously thanking many people, “they give you a lot of time at this one, but that’s all I have!” (He was later brought back to be interviewed by France at some length during the space of a commercial break, and seemed benignly and pleasantly happy to be involved.)

Some additions to the SAG platter seemed like self-inflicted wounds — a video piece in which “Abbott Elementary” performer Lisa Ann Walter revealed what she’d recorded her conversations with fellow nominees via a hidden mic felt dull (you mean to tell me Robert Downey Jr. is cordial?) made one long for the days of commercial breaks

The SAGs were at their best — and perhaps this comes as no surprise — when digging into the fundamentals of what makes an awards show an awards show. Reorganizing the show such that there were no ad breaks, the show had to deal with people randomly getting up and wandering around during set pieces honoring the Best Ensemble nominees; the lack of discipline, too, allowed for meaningful speeches, including a stem-winder from lifetime-achievement award winner Barbra Streisand that may be the best of its kind since Jodie Foster’s at the 2013 Golden Globes. Streisand spoke frankly about the escape movies represented to her as a kid, an emotion likely replicated by most of the people in the room.

What made Netflix’s SAG Awards distinct was the space it gave to its winners. At times, though, the space may frankly have been too much — while the speeches onstage were terrific, the relitigating of what was said and how it was said, as part of the broadcast, felt meta to a fault.

Not that the night’s big winner cared. The Screen Actors Guild are an awards-giving body, but SAG-AFTRA is a labor union — and the best speaker of the night was, of course, the winner of the summer of strikes. No better performance was given from the stage than union president Fran Drescher, in a red sequined dress, telling the gathered audience that “you are the champions.” Her characteristically emphatic speech took on the threat of artificial intelligence, which might, in her terms, “entrap us in a matrix where none of us know what’s real.” She concluded her speech with the hand-heart gesture, before blowing kisses at the audience.

A bit silly, perhaps, but fitting the mood of the room. Coming in over (if only just) a two-hour runtime, this show had room to cut — but was filled with a try-anything energy that suited Netflix fine. If the post-game interviews with winners weren’t exactly penetrating, they were certainly more comfortable than what emerges from the scrum in the Oscars press room. If SAG aren’t quite the champions of awards season, no one, watching Netflix’s presentation of a better-than-it-needed-to-be ceremony, would call them the losers.

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