Straightforward SAG Awards telecast rightly focuses on honored performances

The Screen Actors Guild Awards are a low-key affair compared to higher-profile events like the Golden Globes, which in recent years have been even more greatly publicized because of buzzworthy hosting stints by Ricky Gervais, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey. SAG, on the other hand, has no host, airs under the radar on basic cable, and hands out its 13 prizes in a brisk two hours.

There are advantages to the pared-down approach. This year’s telecast was efficient and well-paced, with producers not so preoccupied with entertaining us that they forget why we’re watching in the first place. A frequent sticking point, seemingly minor but one I’ve often heard echoed by other passionate awards watchers, is the typical lack of footage of the nominated performances; in ceremonies intended to honor the year’s best work, the first thing that usually gets cut in the mad dash to finish on time is the year’s best work.

Thankfully, the SAG Awards included footage of the nominees’ memorable scenes during each category, and isn’t it more rewarding – if you’ve seen the films and TV shows, but especially if you haven’t – to get a glimpse of the nominated performers before one of them is handed a trophy?

The rest of the night kept the focus where it belonged: on the nominated actors, programs, and films; the acceptances of the winners, none of whom were played off; and the Screen Actors Guild as a whole, whose recent merge with the American Film, Television, and Radio Artists union (AFTRA) was explained in a taped package describing the organizations’ work and the artists they now jointly represent.

The show opened with testimonies from some of those artists, in a familiar but welcome SAG Awards tradition in which various union members explain how they entered the business, from relative newcomer Darren Criss to seasoned veteran Hal Holbrook. The best of these testimonies were by Jane Krakowski, who was first cast as Chevy Chase‘s niece and any day now expects to play his mother, and Sofia Vergara, making the rare joke about her voluptuous figure that felt fresh.

A simple, respectful “In Memoriam” segment paid tribute to performers including Whitney Houston, Larry Hagman, Sherman Hemsley, and Lupe Ontiveros, while Dick Van Dyke, still full of youthful energy at age 87, was honored for his life achievement as an actor.

The best presenters were Amy Poehler and Neil Patrick Harris, who parodied award-show patter by uttering arbitrary nouns and adjectives intended to sound vaguely like praise of the Best TV Drama Actor nominees: “Midnight … Murder … Sandwich!”

Whether she’s a presenter, host, or nominee, it seems almost unnecessary to explain that Poehler is the highlight of an awards show, though sadly the one thing we haven’t heard from her yet is an acceptance speech. Since her breakthrough on “Saturday Night Live,” she has yet to win a single Emmy, Golden Globe, Television Critics Association Award, or any guild award for her various work as a writer, producer, or actress; she did, however, win an MTV Movie Award for peeing in a sink in “Baby Mama.”

But it’s hard to begrudge the woman who beat her for Best TV Comedy Actress: her friend and Golden Globes co-host Tina Fey, who gave one of the night’s most gracious acceptance speeches, while begging TV viewers to watch the upcoming “30 Rock” series finale and just tape “The Big Bang Theory” for once. It has been several years since “30 Rock” was a dominant player on the awards scene, and she seemed genuinely surprised by the honor; you often get the best speeches from the people who least expect to be giving them.

Consider also Phyllis Logan, accepting on behalf of the surprised and delighted cast of “Downton Abbey,” which won Best TV Drama Ensemble. Only a handful of cast members were on hand to accept, though if the entire massive ensemble were in attendance SAG might have had to book an entire second venue to accommodate them.

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