Midseason TV All-Stars: The Small Screen’s Best, Brightest, and Most UnderappreciatedElias Stein
Last week, the NBA held its annual All-Star Weekend festivities in my city of residence. It was, as always, a fun, noisy celebration of the best of the best: the athletes, the sharpshooters, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam that make basketball the easiest professional sport to enjoy, on the court and off. It also got me thinking: Don’t the hard-working grinders of scripted television deserve a similar midseason break? A chance to fete the breakout stars, the resurgent veterans, and the all-around talents who are running the small screen in 2015? (OK, to be honest, it also got me thinking about the time last year when I had the exact same idea.)
Unlike the voting bloc that powers the NBA All-Star Game, I am just one, extremely partial man. I can vote only for players I’ve seen in action. So despite fervent clamoring from the editorial peanut gallery, sweet-shooting luminaries like Justified’s Joelle Carter, Sam Elliott, and Mary Steenburgen are snubbed. And because of my own arbitrary rules, there are no legacy All-Stars: If you made it last year, you are automatically disqualified from making the squad again. I’ve divided the teams into cable and network for clarity’s sake and to leave it to readers to decide which side would prevail. Surprisingly, I think the two teams are fairly evenly matched. But then again, that’s just the kind of boilerplate you’d expect out of a proud league commissioner on the happiest and least competitive day of the year.
Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat
Going by the volume of pre-premiere buzz, it appeared that the breakout star of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat wasn’t even in the cast. Eddie Huang, the restaurateur turned author, host, and all-around brand-builder, was so far out in front of the story about how network TV tried to neuter his memoir that he was running laps around it in immaculate throwback Jordans. (That was him promoting the show by way of apologizing for it in New York magazine; that was him again breaking critics’ ankles at the winter press tour.) Then Fresh Off the Boat premiered and all that was really worth talking about was how (a) it’s actually quite good, and (b) Constance Wu is actually great.
Wu, a 26-year-old theater actor from Virginia, plays Jessica, Eddie’s mother, with a ferocity usually reserved for pitch-black cable dramas, not cheery family sitcoms. Never mind that she’s far too young for the part or that she’s saddled with a challenging accent that, in the wrong mouth, could tumble over easily into caricature. In every episode, Wu pulls off the neat trick of raising both the dramatic and comedic stakes of every scene she’s in. She’s equally funny dressing up to impress family or dressing down her hip-hop-loving son. Fresh Off the Boat is deservedly a hit. The surprise is that it’s Wu’s voice, not Huang’s, that’s still ringing in my ears.
Zachary Quinto, The Slap
Look, I’ve already beaten this horse, killed it, then turned the meat into artisanal jerky to be sold in Greenmarkets all across Brooklyn. The Slap is an awful show, one of the worst in recent memory. But not even a smug waterfall of yuppie backwash can drown Zachary Quinto or his ferocious, borderline satirical performance as Harry, the cad responsible for the wallop that gives The Slap its title. While a repertory company of gifted actors paddle around him morosely, as if The Slap’s dreadful scripts were some sort of restorative Swiss lake, only Quinto realizes he’s bodysurfing through the Drake Passage. It’s possible to discern the barest flicker of awareness and, dare I say it, fun in Quinto’s eyes as his Harry skinny-dips with blocks of ice, browbeats his son into punching a teammate, and, drunk on tequila and the heady, leather aroma of the classic cars he peddles, bangs his employee on the floor. (And let’s not even get into the moment when he turns a vintage chair into sawdust using only the power of his righteous anger — and, OK, also his right foot.) The Slap will quickly, and rightly, be forgotten. Quinto’s epic performance is the only thing about it that will leave a bruise.
Donal Logue, Gotham
When I say Gotham may be a lost cause, I don’t intend to sound like one of the overmatched and underslept law enforcement professionals tasked with protecting it. I just mean that the show’s eye-catching but ultimately unsustainable conceit — here’s the world of Batman just before anything interesting started happening to it! — is fraying at an alarming rate. (The nadir may have been last week’s Kid-Joker-But-Not-Really-the-Joker tease. Can’t wait for Season 9 when Bruce Wayne is finally old enough to drive the Batmobile over to engage with him!) Thank goodness for the rock-solid presence of Donal Logue as Detective Harvey Bullock. In a sea of half-formed supervillains and poorly considered fan service, Logue is a full-fledged human being. He plays this not-so-sweet, occasionally tender hooligan with the same empathy and consistency that he brings to all of his work. It’s the sort of professionalism that can pay your mortgage but not really get you noticed in Hollywood. (And, in the case of Logue’s best-ever work on FX’s brilliant Terriers, it can’t even get you a second season.) The problem with Gotham is that I’m not interested in watching any of its pip-squeaks mature — especially when they’re taking precious screen time away from the actual, fascinating grown-up lurking just over their shoulder.
Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation
Nick Offerman will likely win no Emmys for his seven seasons of work on Parks and Recreation. When the series comes to an end next week, he will not be feted as a once-in-a-generation supernova of wit and positivity like Amy Poehler nor paid like the next Harrison Ford à la Chris Pratt. He doesn’t have selling out Madison Square Garden to fall back on, like Aziz Ansari. No, in place of these luxuries, all Offerman will have to comfort himself with is the reality that he is chiefly responsible for one of the great sitcom characters in TV comedy history: Ronald Ulysses Swanson.
Offerman has always been brilliant, of course: the imperceptible mustache twitches, the hard-earned, helium-inflected giggle, the way even his eating habits are memeworthy. But as Parks has wound into the homestretch, the depth of Offerman’s performance has been on full display. “Leslie and Ron,” the final season’s fourth installment, was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a sitcom. It took a well-established character-based conflict — in this case, the collision between Leslie’s optimistic liberalism and Ron’s grim libertarian streak — and mined it for emotional truth instead of easy jokes. (Could you imagine a bottle episode of Cheers in which Cliff and Carla hugged it out?) Offerman’s turn in “Leslie and Ron” was so layered, so present, and so true it was worthy of inclusion in The Center for Art in Wood. In that episode, Ron watched with horror as his beloved unexploded claymore mine detonated with a surprise burst of confetti and good cheer. I can think of no better way to describe all seven years of Offerman’s understated, delightful performance.
Taraji P. Henson, Empire
Is it even possible to choose the emoji that best describes Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Cookie? The flames don’t reach high enough. The fist doesn’t hit hard enough. 100 is far too modest a number. If only there were a way to stack them, like hundred-dollar bills. Perhaps the jewel atop the crown atop the bicep? Maybe the explosion laid over the exclamation point topped off with the nail polish? You know you’re dealing with something epic when words fail and then the jovial cartoons specifically invented to replace words fail even harder.
When Empire launched in January, Henson’s inspired scenery chewing served as a necessary counterpoint to all the weighty exposition. Now she’s chomped her way right to the very heart of the show. How else to explain the prevalence of gonzo soap bubbles usually reserved for Seasons 5 though infinity? I mean, Raven-Symoné as an aggrieved baby mama? A stray rose inspiring a homicide? Courtney Love as anything at all? I think Empire is plenty good and the lessons to be learned from its stratospheric, record-breaking ratings are even better. But the most important thing of all is that Empire is a fun show and knows it. If you ask me, it was Henson’s initial gusto — and insatiable appetite for the aforementioned scenery — that sealed the deal.
Frank Langella, The Americans
My opinions on The Americans — now in its third season — are well known. I think it’s the best show on TV, full stop, and a large reason for that is the unsettling subtlety of the lead performances. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are exceptional in their roles as restive KGB sleeper agents in Reagan’s America. Noah Emmerich, as the lonely G-man tasked with catching them, is often even better. But cut off as it is from larger audiences and flashier guest stars, The Americans can often feel claustrophobic, like a closed circuit. The core trinity dive so deeply into the emotional nooks and crannies of their characters that it’s almost possible to lose sight of them completely. Are they playing at the highest level achievable? Or is it just that they are in a league all of their own?
One of the best ways to determine individual skills, of course, is to start playing against a master. And that’s been the core takeaway from Frank Langella’s addition to the cast. The veteran thespian is remarkable as Phillip and Elizabeth’s new handler, Gabriel. His gentle courtliness is both alluring and terrifying, like a butcher knife wrapped in velvet. Facing off against such talent, both Rhys and Russell have elevated their game to cosmonaut levels. Yes, Margo Martindale is coming back, but I hope Langella gets to stay beyond his one-year contract. Right now he’s the elegant straw that’s stirring The Americans’ drink. But I have a feeling that when things go sideways, he’ll be unmissable as the icy, deadly chaser.
Amanda Peet, Togetherness
There’s a strong case to be made for Steve Zissis as the representative of HBO’s excellent half-hour dramedy. After all, it was Zissis’s own professional predicament, as well as his long friendship with the Duplass brothers, that inspired the show in the first place. And Zissis is plenty great as Alex, a sad sack who is actually kind of cheerful. But Amanda Peet is downright revelatory as Tina, the sister of Melanie Lynskey’s unhappy housewife. Zissis deserves his spot on the All-Star bench. Peet is a lock to start and possibly shatter a few backboards in the process.
When we first meet Tina in the pilot, she’s in the process of getting dumped by a speedboating dunderhead and generally coming apart at the seams. Within weeks she’s shotgunning beers in a public park and wrestling with a quickly deflating bounce house. What makes her stand out, even as the fourth wheel of what quickly becomes a rumbling minivan of disappointment and ennui, is Peet’s radical vulnerability. Tina is a fortysomething woman who knows herself all too well: the way her looks have gotten her everything except the respect and contentment she most desires; the way any situation, no matter how dire, can be bullshitted through with enthusiasm and a fake rictus grin. Tina is constantly unmasking herself around Zissis’s Alex: casually flashing him in return for a favor, wildly flirting at a honky-tonk bar out of jealousy and spite. She plays the inner turmoil of a professional extrovert with a cracked-glass intensity. “I’m dead inside,” she told Mark Duplass’s Brett in Sunday’s episode. Every second Peet is onscreen is devoted to proving otherwise.
Geno Segers, Banshee
A larger-than-life show demands a larger-than-life villain. And it’s hard to find one larger than Geno Segers, a 6-foot-4 former rugby player with a voice deeper than the Mariana Trench. On Cinemax’s terrific Banshee, Segers plays Chayton Littlestone, the leader of a separatist gang of Native American criminal-warriors. In the Season 2 finale, Chayton snapped an MMA fighter’s neck like a raver’s glow stick. In the Season 3 premiere, he took out a police cruiser with a bow and arrow. The only thing not welcome in a town like Banshee, Pennsylvania, is subtlety. Segers’s ecstatic, violent physicality goes down smoother than the whiskey at Sugar’s bar.
I’ve written a lot about Banshee’s lusty, pulpy over-the-topness. But just because a show goes big doesn’t mean it isn’t also considered and controlled. The same is true for actors. Segers brings a charisma and an elegance to everything he does; though built like a Carolina Panther, he moves with the surprising grace of a house cat. (That Segers, in real life, is exceedingly polite is a bonus, amusing incongruity.) In what was the most memorable episode of what is shaping up to be a tremendous season, Chayton painted himself like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and led an outrageous, armed assault on police headquarters. (If you think body art like that is easy to pull off, I have a Johnny Depp movie to sell you.) Chayton is currently holding the title of TV’s best villain because not only does he appear unstoppable, but his brutal actions are increasingly unimaginable. He’s a force of nature and exhibits considerably less mercy.
Russell Tovey, Looking
Looking is such a modest, unassuming show that it feels almost impolite to mention how outstanding it’s become in its second season. Few half-hours on television are so observant and precise about the foibles of casual interactions or as grounded in a fully realized place — both physical (San Francisco) and societal (a community of young, gay men). Nearly every choice made by producers Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh in Year 2 has been the right one, including moving ahead with the August-December relationship between Dom (the great Murray Bartlett) and Lynn (the phenomenal Scott Bakula), elevating the tart Lauren Weedman to the regular cast, and easing Frankie J. Alvarez’s Agustín from selfish prick to recovering asshole.
The performance I’m most struck by, however, is that of Russell Tovey as Kevin, the boss turned temptation of Jonathan Groff’s mild-mannered Patrick. Tovey is well known in his native U.K. for roles on shows like Being Human (he played a werewolf) and Annually Retentive (he played a game show producer). But on Looking, Tovey is tasked with playing an actual person: Kevin is a successful, charming video game developer who wears the right sweaters and has the right long-term boyfriend. As Kevin’s feelings for Patrick deepen, Tovey has been able to play the underside of stability with tremendous grace. He lets his guard down gently and by degrees: a stray touch here, a Take That dance routine there. Tovey is able to communicate the bright high of flirtation with a clear knowledge of the darker places it can often lead. He’s not just looking, he’s living.
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, Broad City
Like it would be possible to pick just one! Ilana and Abbi go together like handbags and Canal Street, like sex and weed, like weed and sex. I was a casual admirer of Broad City’s first season but have fallen deeply in love with its noisier, dirtier, New Yorkier second. What was the moment that sealed the deal for me? Was it Abbi nude-krumping in her apartment to Lady Gaga? Or Ilana wearing a “white power suit” — comma definitely needed — while both mocking and exploiting the joke that is unpaid internships? Actually, if you must know, it was the cosmically perfect casting of Susie Essman as Ilana’s knockoff-coveting mother and the sight of her daughter twerking with delight in an underground purse bunker. But we all have our own gateway drugs.
Broad City is utterly sui generis; it’s not about anything so much as the crazy, occasionally illegal chemistry between its two BFF costars. There’s such joy in the friction between Ilana and Abbi, such irresistible intimacy, that it honestly doesn’t even matter what misadventures befall them next. The best TV shows are able to observe the ultra-specific in such a way that it feels universal. Thanks to Glazer and Jacobson, Broad City takes the sticks and seeds of twentysomething existence and blows them out into a billowing cloud of sweaty, freaky fun. Teamwork like theirs doesn’t necessarily get you to the All-Star Game — but who cares? On TV and in the NBA, it’s what wins you championships. Just don’t ask them to pee in a cup.
Filed Under: TV, NBC, Midseason TV All-Stars, Fresh Off the Boat, ABC, Constance Wu, Eddie Huang, zachary quinto, the slap, Donal Logue, gotham, Fox, Nick offerman, Parks and Recreation, Taraji P. Henson, Frank Langella, The Americans, FX, Amanda Peet, Togetherness, HBO, Geno Segers, Banshee, Cinemax, Russell Tovey, Looking, ilana glazer, broad city, comedy central, abbi jacobson