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The 10 Most Underappreciated TV Performances of 2013

Tywin Lannister - HBO

The holiday lights are off, but the ball has yet to drop. It’s the perfect time to use 2013’s remaining shine on some of its least-heralded performers. What follows isn’t a list of the year’s best TV shows (already done!) or the best actors on those shows. These are simply 10 of the performances that resonated the most with me — and that are unlikely to be rewarded with statues or plaques at any of the onanistic industry events held in the next 12 months. The latter point is important: To the surprise of many, some of the year’s finest performances have actually been recognized as such. So, sorry, Orphan Black truthers, you won’t find Tatiana Maslany below; she was nominated for a Golden Globe a few weeks back. And though I’ve long held that Corey Stoll was the only source of warmth on the otherwise chilly House of Cards, I had to leave him out as well, due to the munificence of the otherwise sketchy and terrifying Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (As for the lack of The Americans, well, sue me: Like the Kremlin, I just couldn’t choose between Matthew Rhys’s Phillip and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings.) These are some of the unnoticed and the underappreciated — and those far too good to stay that way for long.

Charles Dance

Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones

There are bigger parts on Game of Thrones (the third season was dominated by the excellent Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and there are smaller actors who loom impossibly large (Peter Dinklage, Maisie Williams). But not one of them could go toe to toe with Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister, the epistolary Machiavelli of Westeros. Who but Dance could make the simple act of sitting behind a desk so terrifying? (Things TV has taught me: Never go with a hippie to a second location, and never step into Tywin’s office, baby.) In a year dominated by longreads, only Tywin’s prose had the power to save kingdoms and ruin families. A sprawling story and pricey production values make Game of Thrones worth watching, but it’s the assured mastery of actors like Dance that make it worth savoring.

Allison Janney

Margaret Scully on Masters of Sex
Bonnie on Mom

There were many delightful surprises to be found further down the Masters of Sex call sheet: Heléne York, Caitlin FitzGerald, and Annaleigh Ashford were all outstanding and deserving of greater attention and acclaim. But it was the most familiar name in the cast that delivered a performance so affecting, it inspired this entire column. As Margaret Scully, the prim and put-together wife of Washington University’s provost (played by Beau Bridges, in his best performance in years), Allison Janney was as she always is: strong, funny, and graceful. But as the truth about her picture-perfect marriage was slowly dragged out of the separate bedrooms and into the light, she attained another level, finding both a sexual power and an emotional vulnerability that no role had previously allowed her to express. By the time the season finale arrived, Janney was able to dig deep enough to locate the root that can sprout into both love and anger, and she hung onto it for dear life.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Janney’s new day job, as the caustic, barely sober Bonnie on CBS’s better-than-good Mom. I’d like to think Margaret Scully would be proud, if a little shocked, to see a world where a grandmother who looks exactly like her can brag about picking drugs out of a shag carpet and casually bed the barista. At the very least she, like me, would be awfully impressed.

Betsy Brandt

Marie Schrader on Breaking Bad
Annie Henry on The Michael J. Fox Show

Lost in the (justified!) celebration of Breaking Bad and the epic transformation of Walter White from (say it with us one last time!) Mr. Chips to Scarface was a slightly subtler metamorphosis occurring on the margins. In the early seasons of the show, Betsy Brandt’s Marie struck many as a purple-clad afterthought, a shrill kleptomaniac mainly there to give Skyler someone to scold in the days before the car wash. But not only were Bad‘s writers too clever for such limited thinking, Brandt herself was also too smart and sensitive of an actress to play one note for long. By the time this year’s final, breathless spate of episodes arrived, Marie was the only moral conscience left in Albuquerque and her tragic marriage to Hank was revealed to be more than a joke: It was a deeply committed partnership. We never got to see Marie’s epilogue, though perhaps that’s a good thing. To see her dressed in black would have been as upsetting as seeing Junior hooked on the blue.

Which leads us to the present day. NBC’s broad and baggy Michael J. Fox Show isn’t particularly good, but it is an excellent showcase for the versatile charms of its lead actress. Freed from the oppressive horror of Heisenberg’s machinations, Brandt is warm, sexy, and funny as Michael J. Fox’s wife. Regardless of my feelings about the show, I’m happy to see her give up on Grimace as her fashion icon and embrace life as an Upper West Side karaoke queen. She’s earned it.

Abigail Spencer

Amantha Holden on Rectify

Rectify, the first original, unlimited series on the suddenly relevant Sundance Channel, was one of the year’s most striking experiences. The story of a man freed after close to two decades on death row, the show is slow and sensuous. The electric jolt running through this torpor is his sister, Amantha, played by Abigail Spencer. Best known as Don Draper’s free-spirited-teacher fling, Spencer crackles here with a mix of loyalty and resentment, both directed at her family and at the small town that can barely contain her. She’s a fire in a locked room, liable to burn the entire show down around her. But what a way to go!

Peter Mullan

Matt Mitcham on Top of the Lake

Sundance Channel’s haunting and harrowing Top of the Lake was my favorite show of 2013, in part due to the remarkable performances of its many female stars, from Elisabeth Moss to Holly Hunter. But the most fascinating figure orbiting around Paradise, New Zealand, was the man who played the snake to their Eves: Matt Mitcham. Veteran Scottish actor Peter Mullan’s machismo was both terrifying and oddly neutered in a town and a story so dominated by the rhythms of women. Even more unsettling than his violent lows were his highs: The episode in which Matt — shirtless, weeping, popping Molly like Miley — temporarily falls in love was one of the strangest and most memorable hours of the year.

Various

The inmates of Litchfield Correctional Facility on Orange Is the New Black

The richness and depth of the cast Jenji Kohan assembled for Netflix’s surprise hit almost aren’t fair. Every time I thought I’d settled on my favorite inmate, I was reminded of another. Orange is the rare show in which every secondary character can step into the limelight when necessary; in fact, as the season progressed, it became clear there were no secondary characters at all. Every prisoner has a story to tell: They all stare at the same walls, but are weighed down by very different, very personal chains.

Star Taylor Schilling is herself an underdog; her pre-Orange career tarred her with the same Barbie brush that greeted Piper Chapman on her first day inside. I’m not sure anyone other than Kohan would have seen this sort of cut-glass intensity and lack of vanity in her before; I’m not sure we’ll ever not see it now. (The Hollywood Foreign Press agreed: Schilling was a surprise Golden Globe nominee.) Natasha Lyonne and Taryn Manning, back from exile, have never been better, and Kate Mulgrew has never had more fun. But I can’t get over the new faces: Danielle Brooks, so vibrant and alive as Taystee; Uzo Aduba finding the hyper-aware Suzanne behind her Crazy Eyes; and Dascha Polanco’s sad, sensitive Daya. See — I’m already forgetting the wonderful Laverne Cox as Sophia, TV’s first transgendered character, and Selenis Leyva as the wise, cutting Gloria. Ah! What of Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore)? And Big Boo (Lea DeLaria)? Am I really leaving off kooky Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman)? And proud Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst)? It’s wonderful and perfect that, thanks to its incredible cast, a show about jail feels limitless.

F. Murray Abraham

Dar Adal on Homeland

I’m on record with my opinion that Homeland‘s recently concluded third season was more or less a disaster. But even through the smoking ruins it was impossible to avoid F. Murray Abraham’s feral smirk. His Dar Adal — that name! — was introduced in Season 2 as a waffle-eating spook of the oldest school who trafficked only in the blackest of ops. This year, he was reduced to playing Mandy Patinkin’s lapdog, a well-groomed accessory that was all bark and no bite. But thing about a wily pro like Abraham is, no matter what he’s doing in the scene, he’s always showing you his teeth. As the nation-building hijinks of Carrie and Brody reached skyscraping levels of insanity and delusion, Dar was the only character on Homeland having any fun. I hope the writers planning the fourth season have enough good sense to let the rest of him take flight.

Olivia Colman

DS Ellie Miller on Broadchurch

Broadchurch is, like so many recent TV shows, about the fault lines of shame, violence, and sin lurking just beneath the surface of a small town. What elevated it above those other series was the way Broadchurch also gave a face to all the trust, warmth, and friendliness — and that face was Olivia Colman’s. As DS Ellie Miller, the veteran English actress was a revelation. Over the course of eight hours, Colman took an apparently simple character — a dependable grinder who saw the best in everyone and refused to take her work home with her, until it knocked down the front door — and created such depth within her that when the bottom dropped out of her world, the shock was both palpable and devastating. This was a performance of such restraint, focus, and humanity that it’s hard to imagine it being equaled. Anna Gunn, recently announced as the inheritor of Colman’s part in the upcoming Fox adaptation of the series, has her work cut out for her.

Matthew Lillard

Daniel Frye on The Bridge

A decade ago, the odds of Matthew Lillard emerging from the morass of millennial teen movies that made his name and and establishing himself as a versatile and subtle character actor were remote. From cuckolding George Clooney in an Oscar-baiting flick to bringing pathos and charisma to a potentially negligible part as a boozing-and-using journalist burning himself out in a border town? I would have been less surprised if those parts had gone to the talking dog. But here we are. Thanks to Lillard, Daniel Frye was more than just a sad-sack foil for The Bridge‘s lead investigators. He was a not-terrible party guy who kept raging long after the lights of his life were turned out. Paired with the equally fine Emily Rios and given a chance to steer Frye toward sobriety, Lillard emerged as the show’s kicky heart: His banter and cerveza-soaked scenes with Adriana’s family in Juárez were among the most memorable of the season and helped hint at the grounded, naturalistic, and more interesting show The Bridge is slowly becoming. I’m happy to say Lillard will be back as a regular in Season 2, only this time he’ll be investigating the drugs he once gleefully snorted.

Niecy Nash

Didi Ortley on Getting On

After years as the boisterous Deputy Raineesha Williams on Reno 911!, Niecy Nash would get attention for even the slightest modulation of her performing volume. Even so, there’s little precedent for what she’s doing as Didi, a kindhearted nurse stuck in a world of shit. Nash has a stillness and reserve to her that is both unexpected and beautiful; her reactions to the incompetent striving of her coworkers are as cutting as any punch line. Without her, Getting On could easily tip over into cruelty or wallow in cringiness. Instead, it glides with its own loopy grace. I only hope the HBO higher-ups will take notice and give Nash a chance in one of their precious dramas. She’s that good. I’d liken her transformation to Metallica going acoustic — but only if the end result were the discovery that James Hetfield could sing like Cat Stevens the whole time.