We’re kicking off our look back at the year in television by taking some time to salute some of its unsung (or at least less appreciated) heroes, the characters who’ve stolen the spotlight or emerged as far more compelling than anyone might have guessed from their starts. After all, reams have been written about the greatness of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, but no hero or anti-hero stands alone. Here are eight supporting turns worthy of extra praise.
Annet Mahendru as Nina, “The Americans”
She doesn’t get to wear wigs or beat people to a pulp like Elizabeth (Keri Russell) or Phil (Matthew Rhys), but Nina’s journey into double or triple agency was one of the most interesting and unpredictable storylines in the excellent first season of FX’s 1980s espionage drama. Mahendru was able to deftly turn Nina from manipulated to manipulator, taking a character who started as a low-level Russian Embassy worker and revealing her to be a natural spy. Nina was more practical about the realities of her situation than Stan (Noah Emmerich), the FBI handler who put her in her perilous position, and their relationship has been one of power slowly shifting as it turned physical and as Stan’s marriage began to splinter. Mahendru’s been adept at conveying how Nina’s both vulnerable and a lot stronger than Stan understands — one of her best moments came as, early on, she threw in his face what she had to do to get information he wanted, refusing to let him sell a softer take on their dynamic until it eventually suits her. With Mahendru upped to a series regular next season, we can look forward to her being even more integral to the main story and, perhaps, tangling with the leads in some way.
Shea Whigham as Eli Thompson, “Boardwalk Empire”
There are so many flashier roles in HBO’s period gangster drama that it’s easy to overlook Eli, Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) not always trustworthy right-hand man and sibling. When you have Phantom of the Opera snipers and mustachioed Harlem kingpins, being the family man who gets stuck with the bootlegging grunt work isn’t the sexiest of assignments, and Eli’s arc this season even served as a rehash of something he’s done before — betraying his brother. But Whigham did terrific work on the show this year as he was forced to turn on Nucky just as he’d won his way back into the man’s circle of trust. He ended up having to summon up all his previous resentments and pent-up rage against his brother in order to hold back some of the guilt at what, this time, he didn’t choose. Eli’s never been as smart as Nucky, and Whigham practically vibrated with a conflicted, frustrated sense of his own ineffectualness, unable to get out from under the FBI and unable to equal his brother in the eyes of his own son. It all came down to the most cathartic messy brawl the show’s had yet.
Joe Lo Truglio as Detective Charles Boyle, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
Fox’s good-natured cop sitcom has an ensemble of excellent comic actors, hampered slightly by its biggest star, Andy Samberg, never quite fitting into the show’s groove. But of the many funny characters who work in the 99th Precinct, it’s Joe Lo Truglio’s Detective Charles Boyle who’s emerged as the most consistent MVP and workplace punching bag. Boyle is unfailing in his well-meaning obliviousness, whether playing tireless cheerleader for Samberg’s character Peralta or pining over the surly Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz). Lo Truglio portrays Boyle as impossibly guileless and earnest and never quite getting the joke, which has only gotten more entertaining as his character’s gotten weirder, from his dedicated foodieism (that Mario Batali Halloween costume!) to his overpreparing for holiday travel (he has a back-up flight). This week’s episode included a particularly great montage of Boyle asking Diaz out and not registering her rejections and growing irritation, a lovely summation of why the character (and the actor playing him) is so enjoyable.
Bellamy Young as Mellie Grant, “Scandal”
Sporting impeccable giant hair and ferocious ambition, Mellie often comes up as an antagonist in the mire of shifting loyalties that is the “Scandal” D.C. area. First introduced as the other woman in the grand love affair between Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), albeit the one who’s actually married to the man in question, Mellie has gotten spikier over the show’s existence, as she’s accepted that she’s lost her husband’s heart but refuses to let go of her place by his side. Mellie’s at time almost a campy role given her swings in mood and alignment, but Bellamy Young has gotten to seriously complicate the character in recent episodes, especially after a controversial revelation about a rape in Mellie’s past and how she handled it. Despite being cheated on, Mellie tends to have less audience sympathy on her side (the show firmly ships Fitzlivia), but Young’s navigated the reveals about the character’s past wonderfully, never allowing the character to be dismissed even when she’s scheming. A recent scene in which she’s so visibly grateful when Fitz comes to her defense in an on-air interview was quietly heartbreaking.
Albert Tsai as Bert Harrison, “Trophy Wife”
“Trophy Wife” deserves credit for having some usually odd and interesting child characters — for letting Bailee Madison’s initially sulky high schooler Hillary turn out to be a compulsive goody-goody, and for allowing the charmingly bucktoothed Warren (Ryan Lee) to hover between childhood and teenagerdom. But it’s Albert Tsai’s unpredictable Bert who’s the most memorable, as chipper and strange as any kid raised by the flaky Jackie (Michaela Watkins) was bound to be. The unflappable Bert sometimes seems like a real life version of Russell from “Up,” whether terrorizing his class by doing “Bert-wheels” or proving impossible to get to sleep. That episode, in which Bert defied all attempts by Kate (Malin Åkerman) to be lured to bed, was an especially nice showcase for Tsai’s comic timing, from his perky smile as he declared again and again to his stepmother that he was still awake to his limp noodle attempts at playing goalie, exhausted after having spent a night fretting over something he saw on TV.
Caitlin FitzGerald as Libby Masters, “Masters of Sex”
Another “other woman” who’s the wife of a straying main character, Libby Masters is a character who could easily have come across as insipid instead of likable and poignant. As the wife of the closed off William H. Masters (Michael Sheen), Libby doesn’t doubt her love for her husband or his for her, but understands she’ll never be a part of the world of his work, a realm that will always have more of a hold on him than his home. Caitlin FitzGerald fully conveys Libby’s willowy fragility, her fairly sheltered outlook and girlishness — she sometimes calls her husband “Daddy” — while making it clear she isn’t a simple stand-in for conservative values or cluelessness. Instead, Libby understands William all too well, and in a grounded way sees having a baby as the only means to hold on to their marriage, despite their troubles conceiving. FitzGerald makes Libby’s perceptiveness and her transparency clear — in a show filled with women who defy social conventions, she’s the main representative of a traditional female path at the time, and yet there’s nothing easy or cliched about her.
Chris Messina as Dr. Danny Castellano, “The Mindy Project”
The love-hate banter between Danny and Mindy (Mindy Kaling) doesn’t always work — it’s always a bit off from the romantic comedies Mindy adores, with Danny tending to be too mean and Mindy too obnoxious. But the pair’s growing friendship has been increasingly sweet in its off-beat way over this season, and that’s mainly due to Messina’s efforts, as Danny’s become more and more of a grouchy old man in a thirtysomething’s body. Danny’s now just one of many potential love interests in Mindy’s world, and the show’s better for his not having to bear all the pressure of being the obvious Mr. Right for its protagonist, making their bickering funnier and more prickly. Danny’s essentially the grumbly office straight man, but Messina shines when he’s given opportunities to break away from just reacting to the madness around him, from his agony at seeing an art show put up by his ex-wife consisting of nude photos of him to the hilarious and not unskillful dance he did to Aaliyah in this week’s episode.
Aidan Gillen as Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, “Game of Thrones”
The sprawling cast of “Game of Thrones” is packed with so many fan favorites it’s hard to call any character underappreciated, but the smarmy, calculating Littlefinger has certainly been one of the less obvious crowdpleasers in earlier seasons, as fun as it can be to watch him snipe with Lord Varys (Conleth Hill). This year, however, Littlefinger proved himself to be as formidable a foe as anyone else in the series, and that’s no small feat when that includes the likes of the massive, scarred Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) and the imaginatively psychopathic Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon). Aidan Gillen has continued to play Littlefinger’s polished courtliness, even as his character has gotten darker and grimmer, as he had someone brutally murdered simply to prove a point and as Varys declared of him that he “would see the Seven Kingdoms burn, if he could be king over the ashes.” It takes an actor with presence to turn a character from snaky to chilling, and Gillen’s pulled it off admirably — his monologue about chaos being a ladder was one of the highlights of a very strong season.