Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top 10: Television Acting Performances of 2013

While I'm in list-making mode, I figured I'd tackle TV actors. These were my favorite television performances of the year. My apologies to fans of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and whatever other shows I haven't made the time to watch. Even I can only waste so much time in front of the boob tube.

10. Andre Braugher - "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
Braugher was also good in the short-lived drama "Last Resort," but most of that fell in 2012. I don't think people typically pay as much attention to acting ability in comedies, but Braugher does a fantastic job of playing the straight-laced police chief to Andy Samberg's goofball detective. This entire show was a big surprise for me, as it wasn't originally on my list of new shows to watch.

9. (tie) Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen - "Masters of Sex"
I'm still not sure how interested I am in continuing to watch this series about sex research pioneers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. I'm also not sure about how much of the content is based on actual events, and how much is thrown in for entertainment value. What I do know, is Sheen and Caplan have an undeniable chemistry as Masters & Johnson, and they absolutely nail the versions of those real-life people that the writers are intending to present.

7. Mandy Patinkin - "Homeland"
For me, Patinkin has been the anchor of this less-than-stellar show from the beginning. I know most people would choose either Claire Danes or Damian Lewis for that honor, but as usual, I beg to differ. I probably won't come back for Season 4, as I think they really went off the deep end with the most recent storyline. But I think Patinkin proved he's one of the best actors on TV in his turn as CIA operative and then director, Saul Berenson.

6. Josh Charles - "The Good Wife"
As has been noted in several media write-ups, it's quite rare for a television series to undergo as extreme a rejuvenation so deep into its run as "Wife" has in the first half of its fifth season. After a strong first couple of seasons, 3 and 4 for me were really starting to drag. Most boring of all was the cliche "will they or won't they" extra-marital tango between Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick and Josh Charles' Will Gardner. Then they did, and I still didn't care. The writers also started to squander a really strong supporting actress in Archie Panjabi's portrayal of law firm investigator, Kalinda Sharma. Now, suddenly, Margulies' and Matt Czuchry's characters break away from their law firm to start their own, and all hell breaks loose. Finally, the dramatic tension is back, and leading the charge, in my estimation, is Charles' fiery performance as name partner, Gardner. The utter betrayal he conveys on screen once Gardner and Christine Baranski's Diane Lockhart uncover Alicia's scheme to take many of the firm's major clients on her way out the door, is pitch-perfect. Gardner isn't just out for revenge. He's out to single-handedly DESTROY the new firm. This is high quality stuff.

5. Tate Donovan - "Deception" and "Hostages"
Donovan is one of those guys you know you've seen in stuff, but probably don't know him by name. He's been doing movies and TV since the mid-80's, but it's only with his featured roles on a few television series over the past several years, that I took note of his talent. He was great in the first couple of seasons of the Glenn Close-led drama, "Damages." This year, he's been been outstanding in two different shows. Unfortunately, the performance that really stood out for me was as a brother of a young woman who was murdered, the crime at the center of the storyline for the only season of NBC drama, "Deception." This show deserved a longer run. I came close to including Victor Garber from that show on this list as well. I think Donovan was really the standout there, though. He has a smaller, but still pivotal role, as the father of the family who are the titular "Hostages" in another series that will likely only last one season. I'll be looking forward to seeing what Donovan does next. Hopefully, it will last longer.

4. Chi McBride - "Golden Boy"
Won't go into too much detail here as you can read more about this performance at #8 on my Top 25 One-Season TV Shows of All-Time post. Another example of a supporting performance that really carried a storyline to a higher level.

3. Peter Sarsgaard - "The Killing"
Like Tate Donovan, Sarsgaard is another one of those "I know I've seen that guy before" actors. Believe me when I say, I will now know him by name. His performance as death-row (and most likely innocent) inmate, Ray Seward, in season 3 of AMC's "The Killing," was a career-defining one. The show has, from the beginning, struggled to find its way, leading to it being cancelled and brought back not once, but twice. I'm glad it came back the first time, if for nothing else, than to enjoy this electrifying turn by Sarsgaard. Mireille Enos' Detective Linden was responsible for getting Seward convicted some years ago, but now finds similarities in a current case involving murdered teenage runaways that lead her to believe that Seward did not, in fact, kill the mother of his now 10-year-old son, Adrian. The story arc surrounding Seward gets somewhat lost as a secondary plot to the case involving the runaways, but I feel like Sarsgaard was the one who elevated the entire season to a level to which it would not have come close without him. Nowhere was this more evident than in the third to last episode, "Six Minutes." A brutally emotional back and forth, featuring Linden's last minute attempts to exonerate Seward, as he is scheduled to be hung shortly. Seward is a man torn apart by simultaneously believing he was innocent of this particular crime, but guilty of so many other things, including miserably failing his son. In what was an otherwise flawed season of an otherwise flawed show, this was one of the most compelling hours of dramatic television I've seen.

2. James Spader - "The Blacklist"
Here's a guy who came to fame in 80's flicks like "Pretty in Pink" and "Sex, Lies & Videotape." Not exactly roles that would earn consideration as an amazing actor, but he was certainly known. Then, it seems, he ended up doing nothing of any real consequence throughout the entire 1990's. Suddenly, he pops up as ethically-challenged attorney, Alan Shore, to revive "The Practice" for its final season in 2003-2004, which led to multiple Emmy Awards, for both that performance, and for portraying the same character on spinoff, "Boston Legal." Although, I believe that David Kelley and his team squandered the chance to develop a complex and intriguing character, by turning "Legal" into farcical satire, rather than straightforward drama, it still became crystal clear, that Spader's talents were at a level not previously evident. Now, he's back as a former government agent-turned most wanted fugitive-turned FBI informant in "The Blacklist." This was a stroke of casting genius, as Spader outshines everyone else on the screen, but at the same time, appears to enhance their performances as well. As with most of the other examples on my list, "The Blacklist" would most likely be a much lesser show without Spader. He deserves the upcoming Golden Globe for which he's nominated, although the Screen Actors Guild members were apparently watching TV with blindfolds on this season, as he was mystifyingly snubbed there.

1. Tatiana Maslany - "Orphan Black"
If you're saying "who?" you're apparently not alone. This sci-fi human cloning saga has been relegated to BBC America, which undoubtedly has limited its exposure in this country. It's actually a Canadian series, featuring Maslany, a Canadian, in the lead. Scratch that...make that the SEVEN leads. Throughout the first season, Maslany had to, at various times, get into character as seven separate clones, including four central characters that appeared in the majority of the episodes. So, on sheer level of difficulty, I'm selecting her for my #1. A Canadian playing a British, street-tough, single mother, a Canadian soccer mom, a Ukrainian nutjob assassin, and an American PhD student in easy task. There were times where the accents started to blend together, but overall, it was a masterful job. One has to wonder what Emmy voters were thinking when they failed to even NOMINATE Maslany for lead actress this past September. She is up for a Golden Globe, where I expect her to lose to Julianna Margulies. Unfortunately, "Orphan Black" is, like so many other cable series nowadays, being produced in limited-episode groupings, which require that you wait nearly a year between seasons. I don't think I'm going to care enough to return to this one when it picks up in April.

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