The year-end TV nominations for 2020 will surely be impacted by a number of production delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer programs will be eligible than in the past, which may lead to openings for other series that haven’t been recognized to break through and earn a spot. The window has been extended through the end of February 2021, so it’s always possible a few series that aren’t yet slated to return or premiere could do so by then.
The 26-year history of the SAG Awards offers plenty of clues for what to expect. It used to be that only broadcast series were included (The Sopranos was the first cable show nominated, in 1999), which meant that two halves of separate seasons were cited in each calendar year. Though both Chicago Hope and ER contended for the first halves of their inaugural seasons during the debut year of SAG’s honors, the next time a non-cable show pulled off that feat was The Good Wife fifteen years later. Most cable shows have been nominated for their first seasons, though certain popular shows, like Homeland, Dexter, and House of Cards, have first been sidelined for a year or two despite acclaim from other awards bodies.
Onetime nominees are extremely rare. The first such instance wasn’t until 2003, with Without a Trace. Two bizarre late-run inclusions are House, for part of its fourth and fifth seasons, and Deadwood, for only season three. The most unusual example is The Americans, which didn’t place until its sixth and final season in 2018. Big Little Lies technically counts as well, though its first season would almost definitely have been nominated if a limited series equivalent to this race existed. Even if previous nominees fall out of favor with other groups, they sometimes earn attention for every season with SAG, like Six Feet Under and Boardwalk Empire, which each won this prize twice and contended for the entirety of their five-season runs.
There is one important parallel in a potential contender for this year. Major Emmy winner Breaking Bad wasn’t nominated here until season four, and was nominated for its final two sessions after that. Better Call Saul, its prequel series, also earned its first bid for season four, which aired in 2018. It took a hiatus in 2019 and returned with eligible episodes this year. Ozark was also included for the first time in 2018, for its second season, and is newly in the running for its third season this time.
As a result of those two shows taking a year off and The Americans ending, only two of the previous year’s nominees were eligible in 2019. Surprisingly, This Is Us, which had won twice in a row, wasn’t nominated again, and only The Handmaid’s Tale made the cut. The fourth season of the dystopian drama won’t premiere until sometime in 2021, and the same thing is true for Stranger Things, which earned its third bid after airing no new episodes in 2018. Game of Thrones is over, and there’s no sign that Big Little Lies will have a third season.
That leaves The Crown, last year’s winner, as the only potential consecutive returning nominee. Its fourth season just debuted on Netflix, and there’s no reason at all to think that it wouldn’t be nominated. As mentioned above, Better Call Saul and Ozark both stand a good chance to return, and it’s possible that This Is Us, the lone broadcast representative of late which is currently airing new episodes, will be invited back to the party for its timely fifth season. There’s only one other show that has previously been nominated that could be cited again, and that’s Westworld. The sci-fi series was a nominee in 2016 for season one, and earned only a stunt ensemble bid for season two, which was in 2018. Two years between each season doesn’t help much with institutional memory, and though I personally liked season three, I believe I’m in the minority.
Presuming Westworld doesn’t make the cut and This Is Us isn’t a sure thing, that leaves two spots potentially open for new or existing shows. Killing Eve has had both of its lead actresses nominated by SAG – one each year – and season three could break through here. The Mandalorian would be a strange choice given that, aside from its star, few performers appear consistently across multiple episodes.
Looking at the past decade, there are only six shows that have made it in for their first seasons. Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale both had the arguable benefit of contending at the Emmys first, while Boardwalk Empire, The Crown, Stranger Things, and Westworld all premiered in the second half of the year. There isn’t likely to be anything from early 2020 with enough buzz, unless SAG voters suddenly remember that Hunters existed. Which of the recently-premiered series can match the pedigree of the esteemed series on this select list? It’s worth remembering that The Morning Show, which earned three individual nominations last year, still missed out in this category despite a spectacular ensemble (season two has yet to premiere). And Succession, which earned nine acting bids at the Emmys, where it won Best Drama Series, wasn’t even nominated in any category.
The two strongest contenders look to be Lovecraft Country and Perry Mason. Both HBO freshmen earned great reviews and feature large casts with plenty of standouts. Ratched might also earn votes, though Ryan Murphy hasn’t had as much success with SAG as he has at the Golden Globes, with Glee as his only show to earn an ensemble bid (for comedy).
In order of confidence, here are my current predictions for this category:
- The Crown (Netflix)
- Ozark (Netflix)
- Better Call Saul (AMC)
- This Is Us (NBC)
- Perry Mason (HBO)