The Best Television Performers of 2008

It was a busy year for television — a writer’s strike, the unveiling of the networks’ new year-round programming, Lindsay Lohan’s firing from Ugly Betty, and enough reality television to prove that someone will make a series about anything (Parking Wars… really? What next, The Real Housewives of Boise? And who exactly is Rachel Zoe?). Oh, yeah, there was an election. I seem to recall something on TV about that.

While many Americans were watching their personal savings wither, political journalists and pundits were seeing their fortunes grow, appearing on television with increasing frequency as the election process proceeded. Some, it seemed, were inescapable, such as Andrea Mitchell, voicing the concerns of the upper-class, surgically improved crowd, and Andrew Sullivan, representing the vast English gay conservative demographic here in the States. For 2012, news outlets could hire an elderly Hungarian gypsy woman with a crystal ball and a pack of rabid, mutant dogs, and it’s doubtful we’d notice any difference in coverage.

Television will be different without Tim Russert, though, a classy and savvy journalist who will be missed. Here’s hoping David Gregory can craft his own noteworthy legacy on Meet the Press. Another journalist standout was Gwen Ifill, whose Washington Week was one of the few news shows offering regular deep discussions of issues other than the election. And who would have thought that it would be Joy Behar of The View asking John McCain the tough questions?

The television star of the year was an emerging comedienne, whose comic portrayal of a clueless politician raised serious questions about the qualifications required to govern the U. S. I’m talking about Sarah Palin, and I don’t mean Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation. The real Palin was the comic highlight of the year, with her Joe Six-pack colloquialisms and rambling attempts to answer questions. Unfortunately, the fact that Palin’s act was no act made the whole thing rather terrifying, allowing Fey to claim the actual title for Performance of the Year. Nothing on television this year made me laugh harder than watching Fey’s take on the Republican VP candidate.

However, over on little seen LOGO, two performers did give Fey a run for the title. Caroline Rhea and Beth Grant, as redneck, trailer park neighbors Noleta and Sissy on Sordid Lives, have been outrageously funny. It is especially nice to see Grant, who has guest-starred on almost every series of the last two decades, finally step into a role so well suited to her Southern-fried talent.

A bit more sophisticated than Rhea and Grant have been Loretta Devine and Victor Garber on ABC’s recently cancelled Eli Stone. I originally wasn’t impressed with Garber’s performance, but this season gave Garber a chance to stretch, showing his character’s softer side. Devine has run the gamut this season, handling both drama and comedy with equal skill. ABC should keep the show on the air just to allow these two song and dance vets the chance to strut their stuff.

The same could be said of ABC’s cancelled Pushing Daisies; Kristen Chenowith’s rendition of The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” was haunting and heartbreaking.

The Breakout Star of the year is Simon Baker. Though he’s hardly a TV newcomer, The Mentalist has allowed him to put his Aussie charm and grit to their best use yet. Just think how much better the show would be if Baker had a costar with whom he had some chemistry instead of the wooden Robin Tunney.

Nerds have become more numerous on TV in recent years, but today’s nerd not only comes with a wealth of technological skills, he or she also has tattoos, piercings, multi-colored hair, and other manifestations of nonconformity. Two of the most appealing of this crowd are Kirsten Vangsness, Garcia on Criminal Minds, and Pauley Perrette, Abby on the surprisingly hot

NCIS. Both provide needed comic relief, but also bring to their respective shows a sense of innocence missing in some of the “hardened” detectives.

Over in Nerdville, The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parson’s socially inept Sheldon gets most of the attention and laughs, but it is Johnny Galecki’s Leonard who is the show’s heart. Galecki makes Leonard the most sympathetic character on the show, despite Leonard’s high IQ.

Far from nerdish, True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten wins the award for the TV star whose butt appeared on screen most often, not that anyone was complaining. Still, the show’s scene stealers were Nelsan Ellis’ flamboyant yet macho Lafayette and William Sanderson’s weary Sheriff Bud Dearborne. Sanderson has become a master of understated comic delivery.

Among guest stars, Jane Lynch was a standout as both doctor and patient, playing Charlie’s sarcastic psychiatrist on Two and a Half Men and Spencer’s crazy mom on Criminal Minds. Tom Cavanaugh also got to show his dramatic skill, playing Eli’s drunk, visionary father on Eli Stone, while Frances Sternhagen and Barry Corbin were a blast as Brenda’s loving, meddlesome parents on The Closer. Another TV vet, Daniel J. Travanti, was moving (and unrecognizable) as a patient suffering from a chronic headache for years on Grey’s Anatomy.

In reality programming, I’m still trying to tell the difference between David Cook and David Archuleta. Let’s see — one of them won American Idol and the other won Simon Cowell’s undying devotion? Oh, that’s right — I don’t care. The reality star of the year had to be Cloris Leachman, who won more fans in a few weeks on Dancing with the Stars than she had done in 60 years in the biz. Still, no one gets bigger props than Marlee Matlin, who not only held her own on Dancing, but did a better job than many of the hearing contestants.

I do have high hopes for the coming television year, particularly if an actors’ strike doesn’t plummet us into another abyss of desperation reality programming like the one endured this past year. I hope that February hurries up and gets here and the Obama administration doesn’t put off the switch to digital signals, so I don’t have to look at any more scrolling reminders about it. I hope that whoever decided to revive Mr. Bill’s career doesn’t have any more dumb-ass ideas. And I really hope that networks with the words “movies” and “classic” in their names will adopt stricter standards of what constitutes a “classic” — FYI, St. Elmo’s Fire isn’t one.

More than anything, though, I wish all those political pundits would take some time off, to rest and let their vocal cords recuperate. That truly would make for a happy new year.