Can you believe it? The year in television is nearly complete! Soon the credits will roll on 2014. (And then time, like Hawaii Five-O, will reboot itself with a flashier, potentially disappointing follow-up.) Over the past few weeks I’ve discussed the highs and lows of the past 12 months, not to mention the great, wide weirdness that existed between them. Yet one more roundup remains: Like last year, I’d like to use the last few minutes of our broadcast year to throw the spotlight to 10 performers not accustomed to basking in it. The actors on this list aren’t the flashiest and they aren’t necessarily stars. What they are is terrific and worthy of more attention. As time ticks away in 2014, surely we can spare them what little we have left?
You can feel the dust coming off the name: Tcheky Karyo. It’s buried in your mind somewhere, isn’t it? All those hard “k”s jutting out of the ground like dinosaur bones. It’s the sort of name you can’t forget but attached to a face and a time you just can’t quite remember. Wasn’t he the bad guy in Bad Boys? (He sure was!) Didn’t he once shake up James Bond? And freedom fight with Mel Gibson? (Da and oui!) Maybe you can place him as Vincent van Gogh or l’homme standing next to La Femme Nikita? That wasn’t him … singing, was it?!?
Let’s hope not. The point is, all of that was a very long time ago. Long enough for one to accidentally assume that the title of the excellent new Starz show The Missing might refer to Karyo himself. It doesn’t. From the moment he comes limping into the frame as the dogged Detective Julien Baptiste, he owns the scene, the episode, the entire series.
The Missing is a punishingly dark show. It’s about the abduction of a child and all the horrible things that happen afterward. Karyo’s Baptiste — with his gentle bearing, his logical mind, his love of bees — is no fossil. He’s the viewer’s rock, an old-fashioned noir hero shoved into a gray, unsentimental world. Without him, The Missing would be hopeless. When he trudges forward, we bear up and trudge along with him.
Tracee Ellis Ross
The hardest thing for a comedic actor to do is to let other people be funny. It takes an ocean of patience and a reservoir of faith. It becomes even more of a challenge when one is part of a deep ensemble. How difficult it must be to hang back in the outfield, watching all the action at the plate, and keep yourself from screaming, “Hit the ball to me!”
Tracee Ellis Ross isn’t the funniest cast member on ABC’s promising Black-ish. (Which isn’t to say she can’t turn on a fastball when she gets one. The other week she uncorked an Oprah imitation so majestic it had Tom Cruise jumping on couches.) She’s not the noisiest. But she just might be the most important. There’s an enormous generosity to her performance as Rainbow “Bo” Johnson, an anesthesiologist and mother of four. She hangs back and lets the kids — particularly the preternaturally sassy Marsai Martin — rake. When Anthony Anderson erupts like a science fair volcano, she beams. When Laurence Fishburne spins like a crank, she defers. Blessed with timing and experience, she’s the stolid utility player that keeps Black-ish from floating away into abstraction or vamping into unpleasantness.
The Honorable Woman
The first time we meet Stephen Rea, as a career spy named Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, he’s about to be fired. Not that he’s all that exercised about it. His face puffy and still, his voice a tremulous woodwind, Rea appears resigned to his fate. One episode in and he’s already an afterthought.
Think again. Of all the brilliant twists contained within The Honorable Woman — my no. 4 series of the year and currently the best thing streaming on Netflix — my favorite just might be the way Rea hides his brilliance in plain sight. Amid the explosions that dot the Middle East in Hugo Blick’s cerebral thriller, Rea is a dogged, flickering match. Hayden-Hoyle is humiliated by his peers, used by his boss, cuckolded by his wife, and generally ignored by those he has sworn to protect. And yet he keeps coming. He’s not nearly as flashy as those that surround him: not as committed as Nessa, not as rich as Ephra, not as strong as Atika, not as ruthless as Dame Julia. Sir Hugh is merely right — not right away, but eventually and absolutely. The Honorable Woman is a jewel box of performances and ideas. Just understand that Rea, with his quiet strength, is the box.
The real star of The Knick isn’t Clive Owen. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s camera. Like a heat-seeking missile, it moves through the halls of the Knickerbocker Hospital searching for succor — or at least something of interest. One of the best aspects of The Knick is this visual impatience. If a character or story line isn’t bringing it, Soderbergh spins the camera violently in the opposite direction.
Generally, that direction has led to André Holland. If Soderbergh wanted fire, Holland doused the set in emoji flames. His Dr. Algernon Edwards, a brilliant doctor forced to operate in secret because of racism and the even more virulent ego of his boss (Owen’s Dr. Thackery), burns with intelligence. He is the steadiest hand in a hospital full of head cases and drug addicts, and he is the least appreciated. It’s no wonder why, when he returns to his Harlem rooming house and the bars that surround it, that hand has a tendency to curl into a fist.
Holland never wavers in his performance — which is precisely what makes his fall all the more agonizing. He’s a heart surgeon unafraid to hold the scalpel to his own chest.
Masters of Sex and The Red Road
Julianne Nicholson is an actor’s actor. Her reputation has long been larger than her celebrity. It’s wrong to say she disappears into roles, because one of her greatest attributes is presence. When Nicholson takes hold of a character, she practically throttles it. She doesn’t play the leads. She plays the people who make the leads pay attention.
Across two seasons of Masters of Sex, Nicholson played Dr. Lillian DePaul, a crusading ob-gyn who crashed hard into the low glass ceiling of the 1950s before being stymied further by her own failing health. In the wrong hands, Dr. DePaul could have been little more than a well-educated stick in the mud for Lizzy Caplan’s self-taught Virginia Johnson to navigate around. Instead, Nicholson was at first a worthy foil, then a kind of partner, and, ultimately, a very real friend. Masters of Sex, though spotty in Year 2, has always been a strongly feminist show: Two female characters don’t have to square off over a man to share screen time; in fact, they don’t need to talk about men at all. A great deal of that strength came from Nicholson.
In The Red Road, a mediocre series that premiered on SundanceTV in February, Nicholson is an Olympian loitering with the JV squad. She plays Jean Jensen, an emotionally troubled alcoholic whose bad decision-making sets the show on its grinding, inevitable course. She’s terrific, of course. But it’s hard to watch her stuck playing crazy Bertha in the attic when she’s talented and interesting enough to play Jane Eyre and Rochester both.
Here’s the thing: Jay Duplass doesn’t even act! It’s his brother Mark who takes all the parts. Jay is happy to write, direct, and otherwise stay silent. Sure. And Jay Z once told us he wasn’t a rapper.
Nearly every performance on Amazon’s intimate, brilliant Transparent was a revelation, from Jeffrey Tambor’s career-capping turn as Maura Pfefferman straight down the line to Judith Light (never better), Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann, and Maura’s ex-wife and kids. But Duplass was the biggest surprise on a series full of them. Josh Pfefferman is a ridiculously challenging role: He dresses like a douchebag; he sleeps with everything in sight; he smears barbecue sauce on his beard like war paint. And yet Duplass was able to locate the scared little boy inside those L.A.-inappropriate cardigans, the emotional reason why Josh buttons his Steven Alan shirts all the way to the top. Do you realize how hard it is to make someone who works in the music industry appear human? There was no artifice to Duplass’s performance, only art.
Contemporary TV has no shortage of villains, from the elegant killers on Hannibal to the brutal hangovers on Mad Men. Yet there has never been an antagonist quite like Fausto Galvan, the cigar-chomping, fjord-pining narcotraficante at the dark heart of FX’s The Bridge. What made the brilliant, now-canceled border noir so remarkable was the way it celebrated the idiosyncrasies that define real life but tend to confuse network executives; showrunner Elwood Reid filled the narrative margins with a noisy, blissfully human cacophony. And so it was that Ramón Franco, a veteran actor previously best known for his work on the late ’80s Vietnam series Tour of Duty, was given enough room to stretch Fausto from a cardboard bogeyman into a uniquely magnificent bastard.
From beneath the brim of his trademark sweat-stained cap, Franco glowered with Shakespearean gravitas. When he talked, people jumped. When he fell silent, they ran. Though capable of great atrocities, Fausto was also surprisingly introspective, keenly aware of the personal tax to be paid for all of his murderous business. In the season’s most remarkable scene, Fausto interrupted a village quinceañera — not to wreak havoc, but to lose himself in normalcy, if only for a moment. With elegant focus, Franco was able to reveal the twisted root of his character’s evil: a gnarled hunk of something that once, just maybe, looked an awful lot like decency.
Andy Daly is adaptable. Put him on Reno 911! and he’ll give as good as he gets. Throw him into Kenny Powers’s orbit and he’ll run off with half his scenes — wearing extremely unflattering spandex to boot. Heck, you can even toss him onto some schmo’s podcast and he’ll light up the room (even if he’s wearing shorts).
Because of this, I had plenty of faith that Review, Daly’s first proper starring vehicle, would be entertaining. A comedy about a mild-mannered newsman named Forrest MacNeil who decides to devote his life to Yelping the universe (racism: 0.5 stars!), Review is custom-fitted to his chameleonic talent. And yet as MacNeil pushed his quest past the breaking point and the emotional wheels began to come off his life, Daly was able to find another gear. The sight of a grown man eating 15 pancakes is funny. The sight of a grown, suddenly divorced man forcing himself through 30 pancakes is the sort of stuff that inspires Smokey Robinson. By the end of the first season (a second is coming in 2015), it was clear I had underestimated Review. It wasn’t a sitcom about rating life. It was a surprisingly dark dramedy about enduring it. There’s real skill, not to mention a kind of cracked nobility, in playing the sort of punching bag that keeps popping back up. Andy Daly bruises easily — and oh so well.
Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker
There are practically no constants on Louie. Sometimes it’s a bawdy comedy. Sometimes it’ll go weeks without drawing a single laugh. Characters come and go. Occasionally Louie has a brother. Most of the time — and thankfully, most of the mealtimes — he doesn’t. F. Murray Abraham is either Louie’s dad or an elderly swinger in New Jersey. The show is either the best or the worst — often depending on which blogs you read the next day.
Thankfully, the two most consistent fixtures on the show are also the most delightful. Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker, who play Louie’s daughters, Lilly and Jane, are afflicted with none of the myriad quirks that can make lesser young actors intolerable. They don’t mug for the camera; they don’t recite their lines like scripture or mumble them like homework. The two are fantastically funny and alive in every scene they’re in. In Louie’s fourth season, Delany and Parker were given considerably more responsibility. Lilly experimented with pot, sending her father down a rabbit hole of unaddressed shame. And Jane went AWOL on the subway (“I’m still dreaming!”), driving her dad completely mad.
But it’d be a disservice to their performances to suggest that Delany and Parker are there solely to nudge their slothful TV father into something approaching action. Louie is a show primarily concerned with the interior of one man’s digressive mind. By imbuing Lilly and Jane with such personality and verve, Delany and Parker serve to remind those on the other side of the screen — not to mention the man behind the camera — why it’s worth stepping outside of yourself every once in a while.
The Walking Dead
A lot has been made this fall about The Walking Dead being more popular than football, but come on — it is football. The individual players don’t really matter that much. All that matters is that someone gets crunched.
Even so, the fifth season of The Walking Dead has taken a remarkable shuffle forward into respectability — and a big reason why is the monstrous show’s sudden interest in humanity. After years of offering up characters who were little more than krill with overactive sweat glands, The Walking Dead has begun to give us people we might like to spend time with even if they weren’t blessed with video-game aim. Tyreese, Sasha, Abraham, and a few of the other recent recruits are all worthy companions. But to my mind the show’s hardiest survivor (and secret MVP) is Melissa McBride’s Carol.
It helps, of course, that Carol might just be the only cast member with an honest-to-goodness arc. (The rest of them have express elevators that only travel straight down.) In the nearly 60 hours of television since the show’s premiere, Carol has evolved from a silent victim of domestic abuse to a pistol-packing inspirational figure, able to single-handedly detonate a prison camp full of cannibals. What I appreciate most about this journey is the way McBride, a former casting director, never lets Carol’s past leech out of her performance. There’s a tightness to her face and movements. Earlier this season, when Carol led Daryl through the rotting streets of downtown Atlanta toward the one safe spot she knew — a shelter where she and her daughter had taken refuge for a night back when the larger world was “safe” but hers was anything but — there was a pathos and desperation on display that had nothing to do with being eaten alive. No one else on The Walking Dead is as attuned to the relatable anguish of actually living. The show has plenty of guts. She’s the heart.