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.