Arts, Culture & Entertainment

#NormanDidItFirst: Sentinel Awards celebrate Norman Lear’s legacy, diverse storytelling

The awards show recognized 12 television shows that accurately and respectfully portrayed different health and social issues.

A photo of Folb, Brown and Kaplan on the red carpet at the Sentinel Awards

On a night celebrating some of television’s most trailblazing pioneers, practically everyone had something to say about Norman Lear. Quinta Brunson, creator and star of “Abbott Elementary” and an honoree at the 22nd annual Sentinel Awards, was one of many who paid her respects to Lear.

“Norman Lear was a big part of my childhood. … I didn’t know his shows would change my life,” Brunson said at the Television Academy’s Wolf Theater Tuesday. “[Lear’s] shows taught me that care and comedy were not mutually exclusive. They could exist together.”

The ceremony and gala event, presented by the Norman Lear Center, hence his recognition throughout the night, celebrated television that champions social issues through its content. Honorees included “Abbott Elementary,” “Dopesick,” “Never Have I Ever” and nine other “inspiring” series.

The ceremony and gala event was presented by Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the Norman Lear Center – hence his recognition throughout the night – and it celebrated television that champions social issues through its content. Honorees included “Abbott Elementary,” “Dopesick,” “Never Have I Ever” and nine other “inspiring” series.

Hollywood, Health & Society, part of the USC Annenberg Lear Center, provides resources and guidance to television creators and writers to ensure accuracy on social and health issues.

Over his illustrious career, Lear set a precedent of respectfully including issues such as racism or abortion in his television shows. The awards bear his name and honor his legacy.

“From episodes about LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, exposing racism, mental health challenges, caring for the planet and so much more, Norman Lear’s TV shows put meaningful content front and center 50 years ago,” said Yvette Nicole Brown, the event’s host. “His shows were always funny, always brilliantly produced, always on the cutting edge.”

Brown, of “Community,” “Drake and Josh” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show” fame, kept the evening going with enthusiasm and zeal. Her humor also shined through her commentary, and she joked that posts from the night should use the hashtag “#NormanDidItFirst” to honor his innovative body of work.

In the spirit of his work, the honorees were recognized for addressing topics like discrimination based on age and race (“Hacks,” “Harlem”), physical and mental health and reproductive rights (“Dopesick,” “The First Lady,” “Never Have I Ever,” “A Million Little Things”) and economic disparities (“Abbott Elementary,” “The White Lotus”).

Regardless of what topic the honorees were recognized for, reproductive rights and mental health dominated their speeches throughout the night. Chris Schleicher, an honoree and writer for “Never Have I Ever,” spoke about the importance of therapy and equal access to mental health treatment in his acceptance speech.

“Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher were adamant in wanting to show that therapy is for everyone, not just rich white people who vacation at the ‘White Lotus,’” said Schleicher. “I hope that by showing a South Asian teenager being helped by a compassionate therapist, we’ve been able to destigmatize getting help for mental health, especially in communities that haven’t always seen themselves centered in discussions of mental health care.”

The biggest honor of the night went to “Reservation Dogs,” as its first season was recognized for depicting “native characters with more nuance and respect,” as Brown said.

“When we set out to make this show, [we wanted] to really just celebrate our culture and humor. But you can’t make a show without tackling bigger issues,” said Sterlin Harjo, the creator, director and writer of “Reservation Dogs,” via video. “We don’t necessarily just approach [the show] as entertainment. We approach it as saving people’s lives and making people feel seen and giving people something that they can relate to from all backgrounds.”

“Reservation Dogs” also showed off their spirited team, as cast members Lil Mike & Funny Bone performed at the ceremony, much to the audience’s delight. Initiated by the cast of “Harlem,” all audience members were on their feet by the end of the rap and dance performance.

This lighthearted and amiable energy captures the heart of the Sentinel Awards – an evening honoring representation, ardor and the power of storytelling.