Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Who’s your favorite action star on TV? Why? Old, current, and upcoming shows count as long as you’ve seen screeners. (This means actors on TV who do action, not big-screen action stars who are guest-starring on a show like “This Is Us” or balling hard on HBO without the action.)
Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote
“Alias'” Sydney freakin’ Bristow is the action hero I still secretly aspire to one day turn into. She was the girl next door who could take down anyone, whether it was a doppelgänger of her best friend or a family member. (It’s been nearly 15 years since I first saw the first season on DVD, and I still frequently think about the incredible fight sequence in the very first episode.) She was a deceptive (snarky) badass who could save the world. Ugh, I miss Sydney so much.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone
Even if I’m disqualifying someone like Dwayne Johnson because he doesn’t do action things on “Ballers,” or someone like Bruce Lee because “The Green Hornet” was before my time, TV sure doesn’t lack for action heroes. You could just follow the lineage of female action heroines, from Diana Rigg kicking ass in a catsuit in the ’60s, to Lucy Lawless and Sarah Michelle Gellar battling evil in the ’90s, to Jennifer Garner making running cool years before Tom Cruise did, to the abundant riches of the ’10s with Danai Guirira swinging her katana against zombies, Ivana Milicevic being one of the best parts of the incredible band of fighters on “Banshee,” to Maisie Williams and Gwendoline Christie showing (occasionally in full view of Diana Rigg) that you can swing a sword at any size.
Or I could choose among the action heroes of my youth: Mr. T shoving open the saloon doors on “The A-Team,” or David Hasselhoff or the “Dukes of Hazzard” leaping cars over ditches. Depending on how we’re defining action hero, James Garner — who played characters who tended to get beat up by the bad guys before winning through brains over brawn — might be our winner, since “Maverick” and “Rockford Files” combined easily give him several “best ever” titles. Or should it be Kiefer Sutherland, since one of the most important traits of any action hero is the ability to make even the dumbest, most ridiculous plot twist feel real and dangerous?
Any of these would be a fine choice. Ultimately, I’m going to go with Jennifer Garner, who also had a flair for turning the implausible into something exciting, who did a lot of her own stunt work, and was so convincing that it’s hard to watch her play more normal characters than Sydney Bristow without expecting her to start beating up everyone else in the scene.
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
This week’s question has inspired a deeper query: What makes a great action hero on TV? I’m going to say it’s a tough-to-define combo of physicality (can they pull off the action?), the impact of the role (how much do we love them?) and sheer badassery (how much do I love them?). Even with all those caveats, I can’t pick just one. So I’m going to lay out my top faves, in no particular order.
Bruce Lee as the “Green Hornet’s” sidekick, Kato: Let’s be honest; Van Williams’ Green Hornet should have been Lee’s sidekick on this series, which hit TV in 1966, as ABC’s campy take on Batman was exploding. But since TV is often a white guy’s game, Lee, a legendary martial arts master, played chauffeur and sidekick Kato — assembling fight scenes that still look amazing, tossing around throwing darts shaped like little insects.
Sarah Michelle Gellar as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Gellar’s teen hero redefined action and horror on TV, while creating a groundbreaking female character and rescuing a smart B-movie concept from pop culture obscurity. Best of all, she subverted the idea of who the leading character could be in a horror story, turning the kind of girl who usually got killed in such tales into the invulnerable hero.
Mr. T as B.A. Baracus on “The A-Team”: He’s one of my favorite ‘80s action heroes, simply because he came out of nowhere with a mohawk and an attitude in a way that left audiences unsure for years whether he was playing a role or was seriously unhinged. It’s tough to remember now that he’s embraced his own kitschy image for so long, but Mr. T. first gained fame as winner of an extreme bouncer contest, coming across as angry and unstable in interviews. He didn’t really develop his more lovable side until “The A-Team” brought him into America’s homes every week.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
Hey, remember when “Star Trek: Discovery” gave us the gift of Michelle Yeoh kicking the crap out of dudes on camera? Yeah, me too. Forever and ever. Thank you, “Disco,” for that wonderful present. It was much appreciated.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
Wesley Snipes, my dudes! Don’t be a “Player” hater! Now where is the “Blade” TV series?
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
I don’t have a particular favorite action TV star. Instead, I have a favorite action TV show, and that is the late great Cinemax drama “Banshee.” The fight sequences of “Banshee” were the most incredible fight sequences I’ve ever seen on TV. Whenever I’m asked for recommendations on great action shows, “Banshee” is the first thing I suggest. (To be honest, it’s one of the first shows I suggest regardless of whether or not someone is looking for action, because it was a brilliant show all around and everyone who hasn’t seen it yet should definitely check it out.) What I love about “Banshee” and its action scenes, though, is that they aren’t limited to just Antony Starr’s badass sheriff Lucas Hood, though he obviously has quite a few; Ivana Miličević’s Carrie Hopewell is equally impressive while holding her own against even the most ruthless opponents. She’s given just as many moments to shine throughout the show’s four-season run as any of the men. However, neither is actually present for the show’s very best fight sequence, which features Matthew Rauch and Odette Annabel. Please, just go watch “Banshee” already.
Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Freelance
More people should be talking about Caity Lotz. Going on seven years now, she’s been the crown jewel of CW’s Arrowverse – as Sara Lance, first the Black Canary on “Arrow” and the White Canary on the deeply silly and amazing “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” Lotz manages to combine a wry, sexy sense of humor with impressive physicality in episode after episode of superhero action. With a background in dance, and a practitioner of everything from Muay Thai to parkour, Lotz is so impressive to watch in the hours of on-screen martial arts she’s had to perform over the course of her tenure. She’s got a dancer’s grace, and a fighter’s power; since Lotz clearly does almost all her own stunts, we get plenty of chances to see those qualities up close. Not only that, she’s a formidable presence on screen, “Legends” skyrocketing in quality once they realized the wry, laconic Sara deserved to be the captain of the show’s roster of time-traveling misfits. As the Ass-Kicking Bisexual Time Goddess of one of the silliest shows on television, Lotz deserves a place alongside Daniel Wu and Ming-Na Wen as some of the most skilled, dedicated action stars on television.
Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider
Both Keri Russell (“The Americans”) and J.K. Simmons (“Counterpart”) were absolutely thrilling in their action roles this year, as both are masters of giving their characters so many layers and so much depth, making you fully feel the tension of their action sequences in the most anxiety-inducing ways. No matter how skilled they may be wielding weapons, it’s the weight of the emotions that they imbue their characters with that leaves the most lasting impression.
Having said all of this about some great humans, I want to point out that there is another action star who deserves her own TV show and/or movie: Dita, the outstanding war dog (a Belgian Malinois, to be specific) in CBS’s “SEAL Team.” Folks, Dita parachuted from a helicopter, climbed ladders in a combat zone, and was lowered from a building in a harness, all while totally keeping her cool. She does all of her own stunts! Seriously, where is our “Rin Tin Tin K9 Cop” remake? Give Dita her own show — she is a 14/10 hecken pupper.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
There’s a recency bias-fueled answer that wants to properly recognize David Boreanaz for his 87 consecutive years as a primetime network star and says that “Buffy,” “Angel,” “Bones” and “SEAL Team” maybe aren’t all pure action shows, they’re all close enough that Boreanaz has cemented his position as his generation’s key genre TV figure. My own instinct, of course, is to steer away from recency, though the further you go back the more ambiguous “action” becomes. Are “Maverick” and “Rockford Files” really “action”? Surely they’re close enough that mentioning James Garner feels essential (plus “The Great Escape” is always my dark-horse answer as the greatest action film ever made). I like the idea of answering Diana Rigg, who was uncontestably an action star in “The Avengers” and then got to be a very different kind of action star decades later in “Game of Thrones.” Once I’ve made it across the pond, though, I keep getting hung up on Patrick McGoohan, who between “The Prisoner” and “Secret Agent” (or “Danger Man,” if you prefer), surely has a resume worthy of recognition. I think there are all sorts of good off-menu answers if you start saying, “But what about all the times Lassie saved Timmy from falling down wells?” or “Shouldn’t animated TV shows count?” or “Is KITT really the action lead in ‘Knight Rider’?” But before I start voting for Benji or Speed Racer or Airwolf, I should probably just say, “Patrick McGoohan!” and be done.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
Maggie Q. of CW’s “Nikita” TV series fame gets this accolade from me. It is the year of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and dammit I want more Asians cast in film and TV… end stop! She’s a Hawaiian with Irish and Vietnamese heritage and I love that. That’s us, the collective U S of A us. And it’s the only thing that’s going to save us as a nation. More women in action in politics and power, more Asians in the entertainment media in front of and behind the cameras, more Tiger Moms of all races kicking kids asses to do better in math and science (we are so behind as a nation). So for all of that and the fact Maggie Q. is an amazing action star, I’m with her.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
Did it have its cheesy moments? For sure. But “Alias” was one of my favorite shows of its era — and its star, Jennifer Garner, brought an emotionally grounded sense of self to what could have otherwise been complete ridiculousness. I keep waiting for her to return to this sort of role, to the degree that I’m seriously contemplating seeing her new movie Peppermint, even though it looks awful. But, really, it won’t be the same if she’s not tearfully telling Michael Vartan that she would. have. waited.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I have to give this to Stephen Amell. If it weren’t for his Oliver Queen on “Arrow,” if Amell hadn’t nailed the role and invigorated a character long-backburnered by the comic books, if he hadn’t taken the idea of playing the Green Arrow so intensely and physically that he turned his body into a superhero’s, we would not have the current wave of supershows that give me so much joy. It all began when he stepped into the green leather suit and started kicking-swinging-firing his way through cinematically staged fight sequences like a boss. He is basically the godfather of modern TV action, and it’s thanks to him pulling off the balancing act of brawn and drama that we now get the fluid, high-energy adventures of “The Flash,” the graceful aerial battles of “Supergirl,” the sheer shit-kicking brutality of “Black Lightning” and the misfit fun of “Legends of Tomorrow,” which is more entertaining with every season. In fact, I would also credit Amell with opening the door for comic-book shows like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Preacher,” as well. Not too bad for a guy who’s most notable action before this was of the pay-by-the-hour variety on the gigolo dramedy “Hung,” right?
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
As much as I’d like to single out the heroic efforts of Jared Harris as Lane Pryce, my honest answer has to be Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison. Every mission is personal to the CIA, turned ex-CIA, turned-CIA-again agent, and not just because of her romantic entanglements with various team members or targets. She’s such a beacon of patriotism I’m pretty sure she only drinks red, white, and blue wines. (Presumably, her white wine turns blue when she mixes in her meds.) But Carrie gets the job done, and watching Danes go full-boar into every scene helps make them all gripping. You can feel every ounce of passion through her performance, and that’s what makes for great action: when the stakes are high, and you know it.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Better Call Saul” (five votes)
Other contenders: “America to Me” (three votes), “Castle Rock” (two votes), “Insecure,” “Magic for Humans,” and “Sharp Objects” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.