TV in 2014 Roundtable: Best Individual Performances

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Greetings! Welcome to the TV in 2014 roundtable. I’ve once again convened some of my friends to work our way through the year that was in television. I’ll be posting a few of these conversations the rest of the month, and you can find all of them here.

Cory: Alright folks, let’s move onto our second category—best individual performances. With so many shows out there, and more and more ‘big stars’ making the move to television, there’s a lot of people to choose from. Who stood out the most to you in 2014?

Andrew Daar: I was a little late to the game in Hannibal, but I could not catch up with that show fast enough once I started season one in March. Even as the actions of Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal Lecter shocked and horrified me, I could not look away. His journey through season two, beginning as an inverted The Silence of the Lambs and turning into the story of a dark mentor fighting to corrupt the soul of his protege, was absolutely captivating. He continued to expertly deceive the FBI and Baltimore’s high society, even as he engaged in actions that, at best, revealed just how above other humans he sees himself. He performed all the evil actions one would expect from Hannibal Lecter—murder and cannibalism—but one of his actions that shocked me most was an act of life saving. After being told by Phyllis Crawford of her desire to die peacefully and on her own terms, he revived her,robbing her of her agency. Hannibal is the lord of life and death and won’t let anyone else’s choices get in the way of his design.  Throughout all of this, he remained calm, collected, charming, and, above all, chillingly polite.

Greg Boyd: In the interest of not simply spending this whole discussion talking about how great Broad City is, I won’t go with Abbi Jacobson. (Though seriously, her work in “The Lockout” is one of the funniest comic performances I’ve seen in years. That parkour scene is nothing short of magnificent.) Instead, let’s talk Matthew Rhys in The Americans. Season two saw his character put under what seemed to be an exponentially increasing amount of pressure, as he was forced to kill innocents again and again while simultaneously worrying about his family’s safety. Rhys brilliantly internalized all that emotion for the vast majority of the season, but his finest work comes in the astounding “Martial Eagle,” when those feelings finally find a target other than himself. It’s a terrifying, powerhouse piece of acting, culminating in a confrontation between Philip and a pastor that inspires utter stillness, so that you don’t miss anything Rhys does. His every expression, pause, and breath in that scene is considered and meaningful, and it’s just riveting.

Whitney McIntosh: Jane the Virgin could have been a brush fire of awful. It could have been the CW’s attempt to parody the narrative structure of telenovelas gone horrible awry or worse, insulting. The story could have fallen completely flat, the characters could have been stereotypes gone wrong, and worst of all there could have been a complete absence of heart. The fact that none of these things happened can be mostly attributed to Gina Rodriguez, the likeable and talented lead giving a true breakout performance on the freshman hit. Her warmth, surprise ability to pull off slapstick comedy, and chemistry with every member of the cast is the exact reason she is my first runner up.

Yes, even with all of Gina Rodriguez’s early merits, fellow unknown Allison Tolman on Fargo gave the superior performance. Another show that went from “there is no way this could work” to one of the best shows of the year, Fargo is anchored on her strength in a way that few other shows this year relied on their stars. Previously unknown in television circles, the Chicago actress won the role over hundreds of other actresses and ran with the opportunity from there. Her quiet yet powerful portrayal of a small town cop embroiled in a string of killings both shocking and personally gutting is the stuff careers are built on. She never made Molly Solverson come off as too brilliant for the job or too oblivious to what was going on around her, and not once did it seem false that Solverson values her family and friends over promotions or tying up lose ends. Yes, she personally followed the bread crumbs of Lorne Malvo for a year after he left Fargo but it wasn’t at the expense of her marriage or her sanity. All of this to say that Tolman made Molly human during an age where most characters are rechurned archetypes of “cop” or “lawyer” or “wife”, and gave the most memorable performance of the year in the process.

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Les Chappell: I try not to be surprised by anything that the Emmys do, because it usually frustrates or depresses me that the things I love don’t get recognized. However, I was genuinely taken aback to see Bryan Cranston win another Emmy for playing Walter White, not because he wasn’t transcendent in the final Breaking Bad season (he was), but because I didn’t think anything could beat Matthew McConaughey as True Detective’s Rustin Cohle. McConaughey delivered a tour de force performance as the nihilistic, world-weary Cohle, lending gravitas to Nic Pizzolatto’s dialogue that could have sounded ridiculous in the hands of any other actor: “When you can’t remember your lives, you can’t change your lives, and that is the terrible and the secret fate of all life. You’re trapped by that nightmare you keep waking up into.” Rust was a fascinating, tragic figure both in his 1995 and 2012 versions, and McConaughey expertly drew the difference between both with the timbre of his voice and his bearing in confrontation. The strength of that performance has been undermined by a lot of things over the year—True Detective ending backlash, endless parody versions, McConaughey’s own self-parody in those pretentious Lincoln commercials—but I rewatched a fair amount of True Detective when I was setting up my own Best of 2014 list to reassure myself it was still good, and his performance is still spine-tinglingly captivating.

Also in that vein, it’s important to recognize that Woody Harrelson did similarly terrific work playing Rust’s more down-to-earth partner Marty Hart. While McConaughey had the more memorable material, Harrelson played all of Marty’s frustrations with the investigation and his home life with such intensity that it made a solid balance to Rust’s existentialism. The mix of practicality and philosophy that solved the mystery of the Yellow King needed both men to succeed, and hopefully #TrueDetectiveSeason2 recognizes that the show needs to be about a partnership and not just one man.

Emma Fraser: So I don’t end up repeating everything Greg has already said about Matthew Rhys, I’m instead going to go with what is probably the breakout performance of the year and for me that’s Carrie Coon in The Leftovers. The Leftovers was messy at times and the symbolism was a touch on the nose, but Coon’s performance as Nora Durst never swayed from being exceptional. Whether she was flirting awkwardly with Kevin (I ship it) or holding everything in so she didn’t break into a thousand pieces, I was captivated. In “The Guest” we spend the entire episode with her and it turns out that like Carrie Coon has the Claire Danes ‘when she cries, I cry quality’ and the guttural scream of anguish as she lets it all out turned me into a wreck. O

Andrew Rabin: The last time Andy Daly had a series regular role on television was in 2011’s The Paul Reiser Show. That show lasted two episodes, and even Paul Reiser does not think it should be released on DVD. So it was with that knowledge that I went into Review. (Okay, I did not really remember that Andy Daly was on The Paul Reiser Show when I went into Review) Daly has popped up as a guest star in many sitcoms, but nothing has required him to play the range of emotions that Forrest MacNeil has required, and in fact no actor this side of Tatiana Maslany may have to play the range Daly did. The nature of Review allowed Daly to play off of 2-3 different scenarios per episode, and it’s amazing how differently one man can react to 15 pancakes and 30 pancakes when a divorce is sandwiched between them.

A special shoutout to Megan Stevenson, also of Review, who played MacNeil’s unflappable sidekick A.J.. Limited to only a few lines every episode, Stevenson’s A.J. provided an enthusiastic cheerleader to Daly’s MacNeil even through the most absurd of circumstances. Plus Stevenson appeared on such 2014 hit series as Night Shift and Jennifer Falls, so way to get work, Megan Stevenson!

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Orrin Konheim:  I regularly do a Top 25 Characters of the Year post and each year it gets more agonizing to narrow things down to that number. Ditto Andrew on Megan Stevenson being the hidden weapon of Review and Andy Daly also being great. Daly is so good that he was on some of the more misguided seasons of Mad TV and still managed to make his sketches something worth watching.

I’ll pick an actor and an actress starting with Richard Jenkins of Olive Kitteridge. There’s no debating that Olive Kitteridge is all about Frances McDormand who produced the project and elevated the titular role from cynical bystander in the novel to the central figure on screen. As a result, Olive’s struggle to reconcile her pragmatic worldview with her family’s history of depression and the dreary externalities of small-town life serves as the show’s central theme. With the more downbeat Olive front-and-center, the show’s tone would reach Ingmar Bergman-like levels of depression if not for Richard Jenkins’ kind-hearted Henry acting as a counter balance. Jenkins’ presence here is enormous and he strikes a wonderful balance between somber and sunny to match the tone of the show.

My other pick would be Yael Stone as Morello from Orange is the New Black although, as many critics note, the ensemble is so talented across the board that the case for most engaging female character on television could easily be made for 7 or 8 other characters. Morello’s storyline took a hard turn as it was revealed she wasn’t the most reliable narrator to her own backstory. We came in to the season thinking of Morello as the sweet but impressionable romantic and soon learned that she was Litchfield’s own version of Kathy Bates in Misery. And yet, even though we knew the other side of the story, it was hard to stop seeing her as a sweet well-intentioned character. The show challenges us to take a close look at societal miscreants and reassess whether they really are bad apples to society and Morello’s storyline really fell into the middle of all that with heartbreaking poignancy.

Josh Spiegel: Going off of my choices for best new show of the year, I’ll praise Gina Rodriguez from Jane the Virgin and Andy Daly from Review here. Rodriguez is so winning and utterly charming as Jane, a tricky character who could easily seem too cutesy with the wrong person playing her. But Rodriguez makes Jane as charismatic and delightful as the other characters in her life treat her. Daly, who’s been expertly doing smaller guest work on TV for a long time (remember him as the Ben Franklin impersonator on The Office?), is what makes Review such a brilliant show. His commitment to playing Forrest MacNeil is as impressive as MacNeil’s unwavering resilience in the face of all manner of comically pathetic tragedy.

For returning shows, though there are too many to choose from, I want to give a quick shout-out to H. Jon Benjamin for his work on both Archer and Bob’s Burgers, as well as Julianna Margulies on The Good Wife. Benjamin’s voice is so specific, so gravelly and cynical, and yet with just a twist, he can effortlessly sound like an arrogant spy-turned-drug dealer or a schlubby restaurant owner. Even when the shows he stars on may have slightly weaker episodes, Benjamin’s work is consistently hilarious. Regarding Margulies, what else can be said that hasn’t already about one of the most complex and three-dimensional characters on TV (let alone network TV)? Alicia Florrick is one of the thorniest, most challenging-to-pin-down protagonists week to week, and Margulies continues to bring such depth and ferocity to the part. The Good Wife remains the best show on TV, and while it boasts a ridiculously vast ensemble of players, Margulies is the confident center.

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Cory: There are a slew of leading men and women that are worth celebrating here—I’ll add Kerry Washington, Robin Wright, Lizzy Caplan, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Tambor, and Martin Freeman to the folks that have already been mentioned—but I’d like to give a little attention to some supporting performances that really grabbed me this year. Desmin Borges’ work as Edgar on You’re the Worst gave a comedic twist to some pretty heavy material (PTSD) without losing sight of the gravity of the character’s condition, and I’m not sure we’ve really grasped how difficult that was to pull off. Caitlin Fitzgerald was saddled with a naggy character in Masters of Sex‘s first season, but once she was given much better material this year, her Libby became just as compelling as the two leads—and perhaps more sympathetic than both of them.

Ah, screw it, let’s do a couple more. Christopher Evan Welch was so good during the first half of Silicon Valley that his unfortunate passing left a gaping hole in the show, to the point where it took a tremendous multi-part joke about a group masturbation session in the finale to pull it back from the brink of clichés and HBO dude-bro comedy. And while the final season of The Newsroom has added to my seasonal depression this December, that’s not the fault of Olivia Munn or Thomas Sadoski, both of whom consistently elevate some of the poor material written for them and make Sloan and Don one of the better, mostly functional couples on TV.

Cameron White: Doctor Who has had an amazing year. Not only is season eight Steven Moffat’s best as showrunner to date (just edging out season five, which is still really good!), it’s also given us two outstanding performances in Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. The former probably isn’t much of a surprise: Capaldi’s acting chops are well-known, and he’s taken to the Twelfth Doctor’s darker side with absolute glee, a fact that is evident on-screen at all times.

But he’s helped along in his debut season by the Who veteran, the lovely Jenna Coleman, who has blossomed beyond expectations this year. I always loved Clara, even when she wasn’t drawn very well (season seven was rough for everyone), but with Capaldi, Coleman’s abilities as a performer are absolutely in evidence for everyone else to see. Clara’s fearless and fearful, cautious and wreckless. She thinks she wants to bring out the hidden good in the Doctor, but she doesn’t realize how the Doctor’s own meanness is affecting her, too. Just as Clara’s relationship to the Twelfth Doctor is far different than the one she had with the Eleventh, Capaldi brings out whole new dimensions in Coleman that weren’t possible to explore with Matt Smith, especially considering the baggage the latter had with the departure of the Ponds.

Whatever you may think of season eight’s overarching story, I think it’s a good thing that we’re in the hands of these two actors. There are fewer delights in television than watching a pair of actors develop such a natural rapport with each other on-screen.

Wes Ambrecht: I had kind of just assumed someone would pick Jeffrey Tambor thereby saving me from having to return to the well of treasures that is Transparent. Alas, that did not happen. So, I want to quickly start off by saying that, for me, Tambor was the no holds barred the most captivating performer on TV this year. The ways in which he shaded the differences between Mort and Maura is master-class stuff. If he doesn’t win all the awards for his work in “Best New Girl,” then I pretty much give up.

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For the sake of variety, I would also like to mention Pedro Pascal. I’m relatively certain when we get to Best Episodes of 2014, someone will mention “The Mountain and the Viper” because how could we not? But, Pascal was doing really nuanced work prior to that episode too. He quickly leapfrogged over several longstanding Game of Thrones regulars to become the actor I was most excited to spend time with other than Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke. Still, the speech that Pascal gives in “The Mountain and the Viper” about his deceased sister is incredibly moving. Because that speech and the things around it are somewhat spoilery in nature, I will share THIS scene with y’all instead.

Up next: Best episodes!

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