Best TV Performers of 2003

by Michael Abernethy


The performance of the year was Edie Falco’s in the “Whitecaps” episode of The Sopranos. At least, that’s what I heard. I didn’t see it. Consequently, you won’t see it on my list of the best of 2003.

Instead, for me, HBO’s incredible Angels in America offered the best work by actors

. While the script was occasionally long-winded, there’s no denying that Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Justin Kirk, and Jeffrey Wright were magnificent, and Mary Louise Parker was phenomenal. Angels was a bright spot in an otherwise drab season that will be remembered for giving the useless Paris Hilton a series, wasting some of Hollywood’s brightest stars in weak shows, and forcing viewers to look to old favorites and cable to find noteworthy performances. (My list excludes non-fiction programming, or Ellen DeGeneres would be near the top for her new talk show.) Some of those mentioned have already reaped attention, while others have gone largely unrecognized, but each has offered something special.

Series regulars:

Zach Braff (JD) and Sarah Chalke (Elliot), Scrubs (NBC)
Braff and Chalke have the unenviable task of making insecure, immature characters look competent enough to be doctors. They pull it off with a mix of buffoonery and sincerity. They are the best, most likable clowns on tv.

Felicity Huffman (Lorna), Out of Order (Showtime)
Whether playing comedy (Sports Night, Frasier) or drama (The Golden Years), Huffman is always a pleasure to watch. As a bipolar screenwriter trying to hold together her marriage and career, Huffman has never been stronger than in this limited Showtime series.

James Marsters (Spike), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (UPN) / Angel (WB)
Last season on Buffy, Spike’s trip through Hell allowed him to become the hero and save the world. This season on Angel, his trip back from Hell has started the destruction of the world. Poor guy just can’t catch a break. In both situations, though, Spike is fascinating to watch, equal parts tormented soul and humorous smartass.

Adrienne Barbeau (Ruthie), Carnivàle (HBO)
Quite a few cast members from HBO’s bizarre new series could make this list, particularly Clancy Brown (Brother Justin) and Michael J. Anderson (Samson), but I picked Barbeau because, well, who knew she could pull it off? Best known as Carol on the ‘70s sitcom Maude, Barbeau reinvents herself as a strong, sensitive snake handler. Her eulogy for a slain co-worker was simply and beautifully delivered.

Megan Mullally (Karen), Will & Grace (NBC)
Poor Karen lost her husband but gained his fortune, so it all worked out in the end. She also became a little less shrill and more compassionate. Mullally finally has a story arc that grabs the spotlight from the show’s two leads, and she’s made the most of it, making Karen more amiable without losing her edge.

Debra Jo Rupp (Kitty), That ‘70s Show (Fox)
If people would divert their attention away from the over-hyped Ashton Kutcher for just a moment, they might notice the remarkable job Rupp has done. Kitty is part Betty Crocker and part Gloria Steinem, the glue that keeps her family together. And Rupp is the best reason to tune in.

Michael Rosenbaum (Lex), Smallville (The WB)
Lex got married, his wife tried to kill him, he crashed in the ocean and got dysentery on a deserted isle, his bodyguard drugged him, he went insane, and his father locked him away in an asylum. It’s been a busy year in for young Luthor. Rosenbaum made his transformation from glowing groom to paranoid refugee totally believable and far more interesting to watch than Clark and Lana’s perpetual sexual tension.

Wanda Sykes (Wanda), Wanda at Large (Fox)
When you talk about great actresses on tv, you’re not talking about Wanda Sykes. No matter what part she plays, she’s playing Wanda Sykes. But that’s okay, because Wanda Sykes is damn funny. As a hard-drinking, dope-smoking, big-mouthed commentator on a D.C. news program, Sykes offers a good interpretation of what the news would be like if everyday people reported it. Sadly, the series is cancelled.

Notable guest performances:

Alfre Woodard (Denise Freeman), The Practice (ABC)
Any time David E. Kelley writes a part for Woodard, we’re in for a treat. Such was the case with her appearance as a mentally disturbed woman on death row. There’s no doubt that Woodard is one of the best dramatic actresses of her generation.

Dan Futterman (Barry), Will & Grace (NBC)
For a fleeting moment, it looked like Will might actually get a boyfriend, in the form of his own Eliza Doolittle. As Barry, initially an awkward, timid fashion disaster, Futterman’s performance was equally endearing before and after his transformation into a beautiful swan.

Lily Tomlin (Debbie), The West Wing (NBC)
No matter how many changes The West Wing underwent this season, one constant is Tomlin’s portrayal of the President’s secretary. Her dry and amusing delivery provides further evidence for why she is this year’s winner of the Mark Twain Prize for Humorists.

Movies and Miniseries:

To be honest, I don’t watch many tv movies and miniseries, having been burned once too often. Still, I did find two performances outside of Angels that are worth mentioning:

Maggie Smith (Emily Delahunty), My House in Umbria (HBO)
Maggie Smith could play the lead in The Christina Aguilera Story and pull it off. In lesser hands, Mrs. Delahunty would have come across as bitter or ditzy, but Smith’s version is complex and compassionate. If I’m ever on a train that blows up in Italy, I want to recuperate at her house.

Lee Pace (Calpernia Adams), Soldier’s Girl (Showtime)
Adams is a former soldier, now female impersonator, having a romantic relationship with a soldier who’s not sure of his sexual orientation. Pace (a male actor) is wholly believable as the female Adams in this true story of the murder of Pvt. Barry Winchell, whose relationship with Adams led to his death at the hands of fellow soldiers.

Beef of the year:
Judge Judy is obviously not going away any time soon. Neither is Fear Factor, which is television at its worst. So, my beef for 2003 is the annoying tendency of all networks to shrink a show’s closing credits to a third of the screen, in order to promote another program. I realize that closing credits don’t usually make for gripping tv, but occasionally there is a name—an actor or a song—that I want to read, and that’s impossible when the script is reduced to the size of the print you’re reading now.

Closing note:
This year’s crop of midseason replacement shows is worth keeping on the air for more than a few weeks. If we can have that one gift (along with world peace and a U.S. Presidential election not rife with scandal and doubt), it truly will be a happy new year.

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//Mixed media