A Lot of Damn Emoting: Best TV Performers of 2005

This fall, the six major broadcast networks employed 646 actors as series regulars. Add to that those who appeared in guest roles or movies/miniseries, as well as on daytime dramas, children’s shows, cable programming, late night comedies, and those cheesy historical recreations on the History Channel. That’s a lot of damn emoting.

Yet somehow, critics and awards shows pick out a handful and say, “These are the best.” Sure, the Primetime Emmys nominate 85 “best” performances, but most critics limit their lists to 10. We’ll read a top 10 list about anything, and many critics will feel unfulfilled should they go to bed on December 31st without having completed a top 10 list. I’m sure that as I write this, some online critic in Malaysia is making a list of the Top 10 Malaysian Television Personalities. I can’t pick 10. And space won’t allow me to mention every worthy performance I saw this year. So I’m going to start throwing out names, confident that I will forget several people I meant to mention.

Starting with series regulars, none stood out more than Frances Conroy’s wrenching performance as a grieving mother in Six Feet Under. Conroy’s character, Ruth, has not always been the most sympathetic character, often making irrational decisions she quickly regrets, but it was difficult to not feel for her as she mourned the loss of her eldest. On the comedy side, I like Ethan Suplee as Randy, Earl’s (Jason Lee) good-hearted but dim-witted brother on My Name is Earl. While Jason Lee and Jaime Pressly have gotten most of Earl‘s press, Suplee is a delight in every scene.

Equally amusing but far from dim-witted is Kelly Bishop’s Emily Gilmore, Lorelai’s controlling mother on The Gilmore Girls. Emily had a frantic year, putting wedges in her daughter’s relationships with both boyfriend and daughter, and Bishop excels at conveying a Machiavellian personality who is losing control. For a different perspective of control, check out Chandra Wilson as Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy. Guiding her residents through their paces, Bailey is far from frantic, and Wilson portrays her as an acid-tongued ma-ma bear. While you’re watching Grey’s, pay attention to Sandra Oh as well, as a driven but socially inept resident.

Of course, no show can operate without guest stars, and if your show is on NBC, it’s a requirement that you have one major movie star appear at least every other episode (see: Will & Grace, ER, and the Law & Order franchise). The guest performance of the year was Georgia Engel’s in the “Pat’s Secret” episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Aside from Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court, nothing made me laugh harder this year than hearing the soft-spoken Engel growling at her husband (the wonderful Fred Willard).

Another pair of guest stars touched me. As desperate parents waiting for word from their missing son, Matt Craven and Laurie Metcalf were a revelation on Without a Trace. Although both stars have extensive resumes, neither has been better, illuminating the conflicting emotions that consume parents whose children are in danger.

My choices for notable film performances is not as extensive as those from series, as I lost faith in the made-for-tv movie after the horrendous Intimate Agony, a 1983 movie about herpes. Nevertheless, I saw the wonderful S. Epatha Merkerson in Lackawanna Blues. I included her on my list last year for her role on Law & Order, but it was great to see her in another sort of role. I was also impressed with the understated performances of Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald as a most unlikely couple in The Girl in the Café.

I also managed to catch a couple of movies that rivaled Intimate Agony, which leads me to my final grouping: good actors in lousy projects. Certainly Chris Diamantopoulos’ dead-on portrayal of the manic Robin Williams in Behind the Camera: Mork and Mindy: The Unauthorized Story falls into this category. The film will never make it to any time capsules, but the performance shouldn’t be so quickly forgotten. Likewise Kristen Bell’s singing and dancing good-girl-gone-dopehead in Reefer Madness or Richard T. Jones’ quietly loyal best friend in Riding the Bus with My Sister.

On series, I can only hope that one day Jennifer Coolidge, Joey’s manager Bobby on Joey, will find a venue that showcases her considerable comedic talents, perhaps after someone at NBC realizes Joey has reached a vegetative state and is beyond saving. In addition, Ty Burrell deserves better than Out of Practice. Burrell’s Oliver is the clear descendent of John Larroquette’s Dan Fielding (Night Court), a wannabe ladies’ man with a skewed moral compass.

Finally, I need to give a shout to Donovan Patton, Joe on Blue’s Clues. I’m not a regular viewer, as I tend to get pissed when the dog solves the puzzle before I do, but I grew to respect Patton’s hard work while reviewing the show this summer. Because everything is added to the show digitally, Patton spends 30 minutes acting with nothing but a blank screen, making him perfect to be Paris Hilton’s next co-star.

And now, my wishes for the new year on tv. I’d truly be happy if journalists could stay off the government payroll. Make politicians tell their own damn lies — it’s the American way. It would also be nice if tv could scale back the gore. Trust me, we believe the guy on the morgue table was murdered without having to watch the medical examiner boil his head. And speaking of gore, the contest to see which writer can come up with the most gruesome way to murder someone using a common household instrument has been cancelled. Move on.

It is with very little fanfare that I am officially retiring Judge Judy as my selection for the show I most wish would be erased from the annals of tv history. I’ve been bitching about her for years, but the mean old broad has got staying power. At least she has lost her “buzz.”

My final wishes are that some of those I’ve mentioned above can stick around as long as the angry little red-head with the gavel and that all of you can find something to watch this year that you enjoy. Even if it’s Judge Judy.

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