Top Ten Underrated TV Actors

Ah, ’tis the season. Christmas trees and menorahs are household decorations, Dick Clark is emceeing his 93rd Annual New Year’s Eve Bash, and critics are pumping out Top Ten lists faster than you can say “year in review”. As we approach the beginning of the real new millennium, we have the opportunity to look back on television during the year 2000 and analyze the good, the bad, and the ugly. But we’re going to ignore the bad and the ugly. After all, if you watched any television this past year, you know that there was enough ugliness on TV this year to fill up several “Worst of” lists; an overview of the media’s coverage of the presidential election alone would provide enough material for three or four “Worst of” lists.

So, we’re going to focus on what was good on television this past year, specifically those performers who excelled but didn’t necessarily get the kudos that were due them. It could be that they were overshadowed by other cast members, they shone in less than admirable projects, or they are just so consistently good that they are taken for granted. Whatever the reason, these ten (plus) stars just didn’t attract enough media or public attention for their incomparable artistry. Hopefully, 2001 will see them and their work get the attention they deserve. (Incidentally, there is no particular order to these choices, and I realize that I have probably missed some of your favorites simply because I didn’t see them. But let’s be real — I don’t watch television all the time. I’ve tried, but it upsets my boss so much when I do.)

1. Calista Flockhart, Bash: Latter Day Plays (Showtime)
Perhaps because it is a filmed play as opposed to a made-for-TV movie, Bash did not get the big promotion that a lot of Showtime projects do. What a shame. Medea Redux, the second play in this trilogy of one-acts, features Flockhart as a cigarette-smoking, tough-talking felon and unwed teen mother. She’s mesmerizing in the part, recalling her character’s affair with one of her teachers and resulting pregnancy at age 13, and the revenge she sought that has landed her in jail. Flockhart accurately portrays all the disheveled despair of a woman defeated by circumstance. You may never view Ally the same way.

2. Michael Emerson as William Hinks, The Practice (ABC)
By far, the creepiest “bad guy” on TV this year has been Hinks. This ingenious serial killer is as meticulous in his crimes as he is gruesome, and Emerson’s brilliant control as an actor highlights how frightening this sort of madman can be. The Practice has garnered a reputation for strong guest performances (by Beah Richards, Marlee Matlin, and Henry Winkler), but none will stay with you longer than Emerson’s.

3. The cast of Oz (HBO)
If Sam Peckinpah had ever directed a soap opera, it probably would have turned out something like Oz. This limited series features recognized and respected stars (Ernie Hudson, Rita Moreno), but it is the entirety of the ensemble that makes the show so captivating. The animosity and interaction between the characters is so believable that it provides television’s best statement on why you should stay out of prison since the first Scared Straight was made back in 1979.

4. Charisma Carpenter as Cordelia Chase, Angel (WB)
How do you keep a show about a brooding 700-year-old vampire from becoming an exercise in goth angst? Give him a free-thinking assistant with a wry perspective on the battle of good vs. evil. Carpenter’s wide-eyed delivery is ideal, as a woman whose psychic visions guide her do-gooder boss. More mainstream viewers (i.e., those not watching for vampiring tutorials) will find that Carpenter brings just the right touch of levity to the show.

5. Loretta Devine as Marla Hendricks, Boston Public (Fox)
You know who Loretta Devine is, even if no face comes to mind when you hear the name. She was the one who wasn’t emaciated in Waiting to Exhale. Or you may know her from Urban Legends, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, or Down in the Delta. Now you can find her beautifully playing a high school teacher whose frustration level is exceeded only by her ideological commitment to her profession. In the third episode, her fiery defense of herself, and teachers in general, was so powerful that this teacher applauded his TV set.

6. Mili Avital as Sheherezade, Arabian Nights (ABC)
There were plenty of odd casting decisions made for Arabian Nights (Rufus Sewell as Ali Baba??), but one dead-on decision was the casting of the largely unknown Avital. She plays the legendary storyteller as a woman of independence and intelligence, without an air of modern-day feminism that would have been inappropriate for the time period.

7. Martin Starr as Bill Haverchuck, Freaks & Geeks (NBC)
In my high school class, it was Don, the skinny geek who was the brunt of everyone’s jokes. Every high school has at least one “Don,” and on Freaks, he came in the form of Bill Haverchuck, touchingly portrayed by Starr. His droll delivery was always amusing, but never let viewers forget the tender soul hiding under the awkward exterior. Now that Freaks is gone, I hope the lanky actor will continue to find more work that does his talents justice.

8. Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman, The West Wing (NBC)
Last season’s assassination attempt cliffhanger was The West Wing‘s only contrived storyline. However, the aftermath of the shooting has allowed Whitford the opportunity to add needed depth to his character, and the actor has made the most of his chance to shine. Alison Janney’s delightful, Richard Schiff is great, Martin Sheen is the Prez we wish we could have elected in November, but so far this season, it is Whitford who has kept me riveted.

9. Mitch Pileggi as Assistant Director Walter Skinner, The X-Files (Fox)
Due to the attention focused on Mulder and Scully, Skinner has been on the backburner for most of the show’s seven-plus seasons. Still, Pileggi has been a consistent player, and has made Skinner’s slow transition from skeptic to believer a fascinating, and vital, part of this sci-fi series.

10. Leah Remini as Carrie Heffernan, King of Queens (CBS)
The idea was that Jerry Stiller, fresh from Seinfeld, would attract viewers, who would then fall in love with lead Kevin James, as postal carrier Doug Heffernan. But it’s Remini who is the best reason to watch this show. As Doug’s wise-cracking and levelheaded wife Carrie, Remini delivers this weak series’ few genuine laughs.

And, of course, the honorable mentions, for those performers who would have made the cut if this were a Twenty Best list: Linda Hunt as Judge Hillar, The Practice (ABC); James Marsten as Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB); Farrah Fawcett and Keith Carradine as Lily and John, Baby (TNT); Ving Rhames and Alfre Woodard as Holiday and Wanda, Holiday Heart (Showtime); Sharon Gless as Debbie, Queer as Folk (Showtime); Colin Mochrie on Whose Line Is It Anyway? (ABC); Lisa Nicole Carson as Renee, Ally McBeal (Fox); and Shelley Morrison as Rosario, Will and Grace (ABC).

With any luck, all of the actors listed above will continue to shine in the coming year and give us more reasons to watch TV, other than to see what fool can last longest in the Australian outback. So pour yourself a tall eggnog, grab the remote, and tune in to see who keeps us entranced.