TV in 2013: Standout Performances

roundtable

Welcome to the TV in 2013 roundtable. Like last year, I’ve assembled a group of critics, friends, and television lovers to reflect on the year that was. Throughout December, we’ll discuss a variety of TV-related topics, covering the highs, lows, and everything in between. You can find all the entries here.

Cory Barker: Let’s move on to stand-out performances!

Emma Fraser: I’ll kick this off with the person who has taken 2013 by storm and that’s Tatiana Maslany. We’ve seen others take on the multiple roles in one show and feature in scenes where they’re playing more than one part (Nina Dobrev and Anna Torv for example), but not in the same volume as Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black. Each episode pretty much includes more than one character for Maslany and she’s often sharing a scene with at least one of the other clones, so herself. One way to measure how successful an actor is at playing multiple parts is if you forget that they’re being played by one person and I can say with certainty that this happens on a regular basis with Orphan Black. It goes one step further when she’s playing one of the clones impersonating another clone; Sarah has to be Alison at her suburban potluck and Alison has to be Sarah so she doesn’t lose her time with her daughter. On each of these occasions she demonstrates just how different she’s playing each character and it’s mesmerizing. Costuming helps with the process, but without a talented actor it’s just going to read as the same person in a different wig and coat. Maslany also flexed her comedy chops on Parks and Recreation and gave yet another kind of performance, so really she’s my performances of the year.

One other person I want to mention and that’s John Oliver (prompted perhaps by his farewell retrospective on The Daily Show). Oliver filled in for Jon Stewart over the summer (while he was off directing a film) and while I don’t think anyone thought he would do terribly, he did a whole lot better than expected. Stories like the Royal Baby, Carlos Danger (cue the music), and Edward Snowdon gave him a lot of material to work with, but it takes more than just a good story to make a successful host and John Oliver shone in this role. It’s also nice to know that if/when Jon Stewart leaves they’ve got an excellent replacement in the wings.     

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Greg Boyd: When I think great 2013 performances, one of the first names that springs to mind is Betsy Brandt. The entirety of Breaking Bad‘s ensemble raised their game to new levels during this final half-season (Dean Norris especially has never been better), but that goes double for her. She’s always been really good on this show, but the narrative’s focus on Walt, Skyler, Hank, Jesse, et al. hasn’t exactly been conducive to consistently giving her the same level of meaty dramatic material as the rest of the cast. Until Hank sat down on that toilet, of course. What followed was a series of scenes over the next seven weeks that saw her confront her sister, silently react to the evil of that videotape in “Confessions,” take solace in coming up with ways to kill Walt, and finally lose her husband. And Brandt aced every single one of these intense moments, providing a masterclass in communicating emotion through the eyes and tone of voice in the process. 

The fall, meanwhile, brought us one of the finest new comic performances in recent memory, in the form of Terry Crews on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Playing the incredibly high-strung Sergeant Jeffords, every week he seems to get funnier and funnier. The Thanksgiving episode was probably his finest showcase to date; denied food, he rapidly becomes completely unhinged, dumping a whole bowl of pretzels into his mouth, grabbing a bunch of olives after being kicked out of a bar, and finally threatening to remove someone’s arm if they don’t get out of the way and let him eat. There are many reasons to love this show—it’s the finest new comedy I’ve seen in years, and the whole cast (sorry haters, but that includes Andy Samberg) is amazing—but seeing what Crews is going to do next is at the top of the list. 

Les Chappell: Boardwalk Empire‘s always a show packed with great performers, and this season saw some of the best work from its regular cast: Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Shannon, Jack Huston and Stephen Graham were all at the top of their games. But the best performance on the show this year came from the cast’s newest member, the always excellent Jeffrey Wright, playing suave Harlem gangster/social activist Dr. Valentin Narcisse. He was a polar opposite to last season’s boorish gangster Gyp Rosetti—a brilliant, patient man who was capable of playing the long game, someone who played himself as cultured and above it all but betrayed a serpentine ruthlessness when crossed. I got chills every time the word “Libyan” rolled off his tongue, or when he quietly turned on his enemies/associates to ask “What shall we do now?” I expected either him or Chalky to bite the dust at the end of the season, but they’ll both be back to continue their war, and I’m thrilled this monstrous figure will remain part of the ensemble—and very intrigued to see how he’ll deal with being brought to heel by J. Edgar Hoover.

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But in terms of performers, 2013 belongs to the ever-wonderful Patton Oswalt. He’s a guy I just grin widely every time he pops up on my television, and this year he knocked it out of the park on no fewer than seven shows. Constable Bob on Justified was a spectacular creation as I mentioned in our episodic chat, but that was just one credit: he was the master of the Evites on Portlandia, an HR exec on The Newsroom, a prickly fire marshal on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a man with socks for arms on Axe Cop, and the Daniel Stern-esque narrator on The Goldbergs. And he also created what was arguably 2013’s finest moment in his epic Star Wars filibuster for Parks and Recreation, a moment that deserves an Emmy for Best Extended Scene if such a category existed. Part of me wishes he had his own show, yet I’m also thrilled he doesn’t because it means he gets to keep adding flavor to shows across the networks, a crusader of nerd culture and comedy that viewers underestimate at their peril.

Andrew Rabin: Really thought Greg was going to go all in and that second paragraph was going to be praising Brandt on The Michael J. Fox Show.

Kids, in the spring of 2013, How I Met Your Mother was going through a rough patch. Season nine had been announced as the final season, and while the story was moving towards the end game, momentum was not building. And then, on May 13, at about 8:28 p.m., it happened. As The Shins’ “Simple Song” played, we saw a girl with a yellow umbrella walking through Penn Station. But rather than another tease, the camera turned around and we saw Cristin Milioti for the first time. “Hi. One ticket to Farhampton, please.”

The promise brought by the appearance of Milioti’s still nameless Mother (man, she does not like playing characters with names) has not been met by season 9, but the high points of this final season have almost all involved Milioti. We have now seen her meet Lily, Barney, and Marshall, and each interaction has been more electric than any other scenes this season.

We have also gotten to see a little bit of the eponymous Mother with her future husband, Ted. Their scene together, one year in the future, at the close of the season’s second episode, “Coming Home,” demonstrated the magical chemistry series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas described from the screen tests. While I am glad the upcoming How I Met Your Dad is not a spin-off, I would certainly be happy to see more Milioti on my television.

themother

Even though Milioti is on a departing series, she is still a new performance, and there is one performance that ended in 2013 that I would like to give a quick word of recognition to. It took nine seasons for me to realize, but Jenna Fischer as Pam Beesly/Halpert on The Office carried that series through its weakest points, and proved to be the central character and the heart of the show in its final season.

Wesley Ambrecht: I always find this particular category difficult because singling out just one person for the venerable field of TV stardom is hard. I actually had to comb through our old posts to see who I said back in June, and then I chuckled upon reading that I had cited Chris Diamantopoulos for The Office. Part of me may have been trolling.

With that in mind, I am going to use this category to talk about two little watched shows with really compelling lead performances, Hello Ladies and Family Tree. None of HBO’s comedy series are setting the world on fire ratings-wise, but these two shows seemingly came and went with no fanfare and that’s crazy to me. I’ve been very upfront about falling behind on TV in 2013 but I binged my way through Hello Ladies last week and it had me in stitches. Stephen Merchant has spent most of his career living in the shadow of Ricky Gervais, which makes Hello Ladies something of a coming out party. It is his brainchild and he is squarely at the center of it. The vulnerability that he brings to episodes like “The Drive” paired with the zaniness of say “The Date,” cement Merchant as someone who can ACT. Meanwhile, Chris O’Dowd was so warm and earnest on Family Tree that it made the show a pleasure to watch. We often overlook the skills it takes to play the straight-man in a kooky comedy but we shouldn’t. Take a look at the work O’Dowd does in the clip below. There is a real nuance to it. Back at the summer TCA, HBO execs made it seem like The Family Tree was done for, which is saddening. I just hope Hello Ladies lives to see a season two.

Kerensa Cadenas: This is such a hard question because there were SO many great performances on television this year–the entire cast of Breaking Bad, the entire cast of Enlightened–but I’m gonna choose two more under the radar performances. 

First of all, Bellamy Young is doing some of the best work on television as Mellie Grant, the first lady on Scandal. A lot of viewers seemed to write her off at first, I think mainly because she was an obstacle to Fitz and Olivia’s romance. As the show has progressed, Young has added complexity and nuance to a character that could be a one-note pissed off wife. Mellie has become, at least for me, in Scandal’s third season one of the most realized and complex female characters on television. She’s still in love with a man who doesn’t love her, harboring her own traumatic secrets, power hungry. Young always stands out, but her scene where she gives Fitz some drunk real talk was completely phenomenal. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for Mellie in 2014. 

And I want to give a shout out to my girl Hayden Panettiere, who I picked at the end of June for our last roundtable. As Nashville gets more ridiculous (pig blood anyone), Hayden is still the constant as the formidable Juliette Barnes.

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Cory Barker: It’s kind of wild that we’ve made it through a number of these chats and not mentioned Broadchurch at all. 2013 was dominated by short-run murder mysteries, but ITV/BBC America’s eight hour offering was definitely my favorite and neck and neck with Top of the Lake for the straight-up best. One of the really great things about Broadchurch was how it seemed so set up to be David Tennant’s big post-Doctor Who role as the burned out, formerly-great detective. And though Tennant was actually wonderful as Alec Hardy, he ultimately couldn’t touch Olivia Colman’s work as Ellie Miller, the local detective with ties to every possible suspect in the primary crime (ultimately even more than she initially thought). Colman did really great stuff in the first half of Broadchurch’s run, but once mysteries started to reveal themselves, she hit another level that was sometimes hard for me to watch because it was just so raw and amazing. The fact that Anna Gunn, one of 2013’s other dominating performers, is taking on Colman’s role in the US version of the series and I don’t think she’ll be quite as good as Colman is very telling.

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