As we said yesterday when we were running down the best TV shows of the last year, the season is officially over, and Emmy voting for the 2013 installment of the awards closes tomorrow. Having run down our favorite series, we wanted to turn our attention to some of the performers who’ve been appearing in them.
With returning Emmy favorites like “Mad Men,” “The Good Wife,” “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland” and “Modern Family” often dominating the awards, it can be hard for relative newcomers — or even for long-running shows that never worked up a head of steam — to break in. So as we did last year, we wanted to use the occasion to highlight some of our favorite small-screen performances that don’t have much chance at earning nominations, but certainly deserve them. Check out our picks below, and let us know who you’d be casting your votes for in the comments section.
Peter Capaldi – “The Thick Of It”
It’s not all that easy for actors in British productions to break into the Emmy field, but thanks to the likes of “Downton Abbey” and “Luther” of late, the gates are a little more open than they used to be. And it feels like the right time to highlight one of the best TV performances of the last few years — Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed Machiavellian spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in Armando Iannucci‘s phenomenal sitcom “The Thick Of It” (as well as the movie spin-off “In The Loop“). From his first appearance, Tucker was an indelible character; a terrifying terrier of a man, albeit with the choicest selection of insults around (“You look like you’ve shat a Lego garage” et al.). But as the style of politics that inspired him fell out of favor with the passing of New Labour, Tucker had to be on his way out, and season four of the show saw his long-awaited fall, falling victim to a Leveson-style public inquiry. And as his powers failed, and past victims got to indulge in shameless schadenfreude, Capaldi found new notes to a character who lesser actors would have let dip into caricature long ago. His desperate attempt to find a quiet, dignified exit, and the way it was utterly thwarted, humanized and dimensionalized the character in a way that only serves to make us miss him more, and it would be a shame if Capaldi (who has a BAFTA, but no Emmy nomination) went unrewarded for his work.
Hugh Dancy & Mads Mikkelsen – Hannibal
As we said yesterday, “Hannibal” turned out to not just be one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, but one of the year’s very best shows. And while the writing and directing were both top-notch, so much of the show’s appeal comes to the performances. From memorable guest appearances by Eddie Izzard and Lance Henriksen to great regular work from Caroline Dhavernas, Gillian Anderson and Laurence Fishburne (the most engaged he’s been in years, it seems to us), there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. But it all comes down to the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, and at the end of the first season, it’s hard to think of better alternatives than Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen. The latter’s casting was something of a surprise, given his flourishing big-screen career, and that it came hot on the heels of his Best Actor win at Cannes. But it’s not difficult to see why he signed on: creator Bryan Fuller has found a new take on cinema’s most famous cannibal, and by getting to see Hannibal in the wild, and embodied by the cheekboned Dane, it’s the most complete portrait of the character to date. Mikkelsen can be charming, sexy even, but the beast underneath isn’t too far from the surface, even if the other characters can’t see it yet. That was to be expected to anyone that knows his work, but Dancy, who’s often been overlooked despite strong turns in the likes of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” is the revelation here. It’s an incredibly difficult role — a man so empathetic that he can imagine himself committing the murders he investigates, yet not really able to relate to the people around him. But Dancy just keeps it this side of full-on crazy, with a puppy-dog vulnerability and moral center that makes him a legitimate hero even as he comes to doubt himself. As many have pointed out, it’s not a dissimilar turn to Dancy’s wife Claire Danes on “Homeland,” and if we had our way, the two would both be nominees (along with Mikkelsen) on Emmy night.
Laura Dern – “Enlightened”
One of the great things that television can do is give new leases of life to careers of actors who might once have headlined movies, but now find work to be somewhat scarcer. Laura Dern never exactly disappeared, but before “Enlightened,” her most notable role since “Inland Empire” had been in “Little Fockers,” of all things. But in “Enlightened” she found a part that sits alongside Lula Fortune, Ellie Sattler and Ruth Stoops as the ones she’ll be remembered for. Almost more than any other show on TV, “Enlightened” is a laser-focused character study on Dern’s Amy Jellicoe. A once ambitious executive at a company, Amy has a nervous breakdown after sleeping with her boss (a breakdown aided, we discover later, by various substances) and has gone away to a rehab center, where she’s returned from with a new age-y look on life and a desire to do good. The trouble is that she’s an awful person; a selfish, petulant, self-absorbed giant child, albeit one with good intentions. There’s an amazing lack of vanity in Dern’s performance, a remarkable unwillingness to be liked by the audience, and despite that, or maybe because of it, she manages a sympathy that you wouldn’t have imagined from the character, and you really do want Amy to turn it around. Dern won a Golden Globe in 2012, and picked up a Critics’ Choice nomination earlier in the year, and will likely be on the outside in a tough category at the Emmys, but there are few more deserving nominees.
Ron Eldard – “Justified”
The recurring players of “Justified” have been reasonably well-rewarded since it began, with Emmy wins for Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies along the way. This year could see Walton Goggins pick up another nod, and Jim Beaver deservedly has a good chance at a nomination for Guest Star, but there’s one performer who joined the show this year that we think deserves consideration too, in the shape of veteran character actor Ron Eldard. He’s a familiar face on screen thanks to the likes of “Sleepers,” “Black Hawk Down,” “House of Sand and Fog” and, maybe most notably, “Super 8,” but Eldard was almost unrecognizable, long-haired and grunge-y and looking like a sort of paunchy bear, when he turned up in Harlan County as Colton ‘Colt’ Rhodes. Colt was a military policeman who’d tangled with Goggins’ Crowder when they were both in the service, but now he’s been demobbed, and has come to Harlan looking for a job. As it turns out, he’s pretty unstable due to a heroin problem, and proves to be more of a liability than asset. Eldard didn’t last long on the show, but made a real impression, creating a deeply sad, wounded man who has less killer instinct than he’d like you to think. His final, desperate confrontation with Marshal Tim Gutterson was one of the best bits of acting we’ve seen all year, and while it’s unlikely to result in awards attention, we hope it gets the revelatory Eldard a lot more work down the line.
Derek Luke – “The Americans”
It’s hard to tell if “The Americans” will break into the Emmys this year — as a new series, it has a trickier path than some, but we think that the critical acclaim could be enough to get it attention for leads Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, and maybe even the superb Noah Emmerich too. But someone who’s likely to miss out, due to being caught in that tricky wasteland between guest star and a regular is Derek Luke. Best known for his movie work in the likes of “Friday Night Lights” and “Captain America” (the short-lived paramedic series “Trauma” is his major incursion into TV to date), Luke only cropped up a few times as Gregory, a D.C. radical who was one of the first people that Philip and Elizabeth recruited into the KGB. But what Philip didn’t realize is that his wife/partner had fallen in love with Gregory, and they’ve had an on/off affair for over a decade. The central spy duo were essentially put in an arranged marriage, but are now starting to fall in love for real, whereas Elizabeth and Gregory are somewhat the reverse; he was her first love, but while he still adores her, she wants to be all business. With relatively little screen time and set-up, Luke breaks your heart a little, even when he’s petulantly telling Philip that he was screwing his wife. And when the net closes in on him later in the season, there’s a dignity and sense of sacrifice that makes you wish he’s been around a little bit more. He won’t be back, but it’s a reminder of what a consistently undervalued talent Luke is.
Zosia Mamet – Girls
Though “Girls” took a tiny bit of a dip quality-wise in its second season, following one of the best debut runs we can remember, there’s not much shame in that. Plus for the occasional wrong turn it took, there were many right ones, not least in developing some of its more neglected characters. In the first season, Zosia Mamet‘s Shoshanna stole scenes, but didn’t have much dimension; she was the Phoebe or the Charlotte of the group, good for comic relief, but not necessarily given the depth of the others. Mamet continued to bring the comedy gold this time around, but also got to stretch her dramatic legs a little more too, as she embarked on her first relationship with Alex Karpovsky‘s Ray, only to find that she wanted something more. Mamet did a lovely job at showing that Shoshanna was more than just a naive princess, all the while continuing to be one of the more original comic creations of the last few years. Mamet might have had some bad press in the last few weeks due to her ill-advised Kickstarter plan, but so long as she keeps knocking it out the park like this, we don’t care too much.
Tatiana Maslany – “Orphan Black”
Star-free, vaguely premised and in a less-than-spectacular Saturday timeslot on BBC America (admittedly after “Doctor Who,” but still…), “Orphan Black” turned out to be something of a gem, with an ever-growing cult. And Tatiana Maslany‘s central performance isn’t just the best thing in the show, it is the show. To begin with, she’s plays Sarah Manning, a con-artist and foster child who returns to Canada to reunite with her daughter, only to witness the suicide of a woman who looks identical to her. It’s already an impressive performance, but then you discover that Sarah is one of a series of clones, and Maslany does-quintuple duty as a German whistleblower, a Ukranian assassin, a Canadian soccer mom and an American scientist, each entirely distinct in personality. And it gets more complex when the characters start impersonating each other. It’s head-spinning stuff just to watch, but to be switching between them on a dime, and in turning in such truly excellent performances while carrying the entire show on her back, the mostly-unknown Maslany is deservedly becoming a star. Of everyone on the list, she probably has the best chance of actually getting an Emmy nod — there’s been a steady swell of buzz behind her, and a lot of critical support. If it happens, it’ll be the most deserving nomination all year.
Tracy Morgan – “30 Rock”
No one can say that “30 Rock” has been overlooked by the Emmys: it’s won ten trophies over the years, and has broken the record for the most nominations in the comedy category twice, with 17 in 2008, and a whopping 22 in 2009. That said, it’s dropped off of late, failing to win any for a few years now, and despite this year’s season being the last one, it’d be a surprise to see it return to former glories. In particular, there’s one performer on the show who’s never quite got the awards acclaim he deserves — Tracy Morgan, as semi-namesake Tracy Jordan. Morgan did pick up a nomination in 2009, but that remains his lone nod, and if season seven made anything clear, it’s the monumental contribution that he makes towards the show, at least on a par with more lauded co-stars Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Jane Krakowski. Perhaps he’s overlooked because of the similarities between his public persona and character, which are often deliberate, but his arc this season (which saw Tracy set up his own Tyler Perry-style movie studio, complete with Madea-esque Aunt Phatso character) hammered home that whatever the links, it’s always been a performance, and always a deeply brilliant one. It’s hard to imagine the show being the same without him, and it’d be a shame to see him go unrewarded again. Especially as it would put Morgan on the path to a real-life E.G.O.T.
Peter Mullan – “Top Of The Lake”
It’s hard to know how Emmy voters will take to “Top Of The Lake,” which we named the best show of the 2012/2013 season. On one hand, the miniseries/TV movie category is a bit thinner, on the other, it was a foreign-made Sundance Channel series barely watched by anybody. We suspect it’ll pick up some nods, but if Peter Mullan doesn’t get one — in fact, if he doesn’t win — it’ll be a downright tragedy, because the ever-undervalued Scottish actor gave probably the greatest performance in a career already full to the brim with great turns. At first glance, it’s the kind of thing Mullan’s done plenty of times before (indeed, there was something similar on British TV only just before “Top Of The Lake” aired, in ambitious but middlingly-executed miniseries “The Fear“); a Scottish-accented, thuggish crime boss. But Matt Mitcham was a different kettle of fish altogether. He was terrifying, yes, notably in a scene where he kills a dog in front of police inspector Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss, also superb, and probably getting a nomination). But he could also be tender, as when he strikes up a relationship with an American woman and takes ecstasy with her, or with what seems to be genuine love for his daughter Tui. But that tenderness only goes so far, and within seconds, Matt could be flagellating himself on his mother’s grave, or threatening violence. It was a spectacularly complex role, truly one for the ages, and you couldn’t ask for a better actor than Mullan to pull it off.
Meg Chambers Steedle – “Boardwalk Empire”
“Boardwalk Empire” has such depth in its ensemble that you’re surprised that no-one except Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald have picked up Emmy nominations in the past; every week brings great turns from Stephen Graham, Shea Whigham, Gretchen Mol, Jack Huston, Bobby Cannavale and more. But our favorite performance in season three came from someone we’d never heard of before, but will certainly be keeping an eye on going forward — Meg Chambers Steedle — playing Nucky’s new mistress, and aspiring actress Billie Kent. Steedle has almost no credits so far, bar a one-shot appearance in “Body Of Proof,” but as with much of the cast of the show, she broke out in New York theater, having made a splash as the lead in a revival of Neil Simon‘s “Barefoot In The Park.” And the instant she appears on screen as babyfaced, flapperish free-spirit Billie, you know she’s going to be a megastar at some stage — it sometimes feels like the casting directors found some previously unknown silent movie star frozen on ice, dethawed her, and let her loose in front of the cameras. She was a breath of fresh air to both the audience and to Nucky, and her explosive death at the hands of Gyp Rosetti is one of the most bruising of the series’ many grisly endings.
Honorable Mentions: James Wolk and Linda Cardelleni from “Mad Men,” Anna Torv and John Noble from “Fringe,” Dakota Johnson from “Ben & Kate,” Kate Mara in “House Of Cards,” Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza in “Parks and Recreation,” Charles Dance in “Game Of Thrones,” and Luke Wilson in “Enlightened.” Anyone you think deserves some recognition? Agree with our picks? Weight in below.