The more content we have, the more our “to watch” lists rack up shows that we may never get to touch. That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to have more than we can find time to watch than too little, but it’s important to share those series and performances that move us. Sometimes we find these where we don’t expect.
I’m not a big TV comedy watcher, in part because I prefer shows that are willing to tread into the absurd. That hasn’t been the style the last decade. When we’ve standardized even the mockumentary format, we need to find new approaches before it’s tired out. Yet this year has shown a tendency to do just that, not just navigating into far more absurd and satirical waters, but also changing formats and genres on the fly without worrying about whether each half hour forms a complete thematic arc.
There are so many other performances this year that don’t make a list like this. When you highlight the individual, you can overlook the ensemble, and “Abbott Elementary” boasts one of the best ensembles of the year, led by Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams. (I know I just complained about standardized mockumentaries, but this one shines through the format.)
Similarly, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” has no weak spot in the cast. Anson Mount may be trying to make himself my new favorite captain in the franchise, but as “Star Trek” often is, the show is a resounding group effort.
I didn’t really dive deep into voice acting, but I do have to highlight Rie Murakawa’s work as the gender-expansive Osana Najimi on “Komi Can’t Communicate”. Few convey the balance of care for others with the pure, willful chaos that she does.
There are also those performances that might not ask their actors to stretch too far because that’s not what the show needs from them in that moment. They’re examples of perfect casting nonetheless. I think of Hazal Kaya’s charismatic light mystery turn as Esra in the Turkish “Midnight at the Pera Palace”, Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian and Jordan L. Jones’s Jazz on “Bel-Air”, and Alan Ritchson’s Jack Reacher on “Reacher”.
There are several performances I want to highlight even more than these:
Emmy Rossum, “Angelyne“
You could dismiss Emmy Rossum’s performance in “Angelyne” as that of playing a ditz, but this would overlook an incredibly complex role. The story of an 80s celebrity famous for being famous is described through various conflicting recollections. These different perceptions, including Angelyne’s own, each change who she is and her path to celebrity.
There’s a scene where Angelyne sits down with Playboy owner Hugh Hefner. He’s surrounded by an entourage of women, and Angelyne counters with her own entourage of men – both retinues are only there for show. He wants her to pose nude, but it quickly becomes clear he’s outclassed. He’s part of an old-fashioned misogyny that trades fame for ownership and exploitation. She’s pioneered the trade of exploiting celebrity itself, without the need to answer to someone like him. It’s here that her ability for negotiation, cutthroat attitude, and business acumen all bite, where her airhead presentation gives way to a keen understanding of Hollywood and how to beat men at their own game.
Don’t get me wrong – Angelyne comes off in many other situations as a narcissist and manipulator, but not because she’s a sociopath. She ditches who she once was and embraces a celebrity persona as an escape from abuse, itself a re-enactment of generational trauma. Her performance serves as both a critique of New Age commercialism and the influencer culture that evolved from it, and an understanding of the desperation that drives people to chase it as a survival mechanism. That Rossum’s performance utilizes camp as well as drama lends a stunning flexibility to the series. Rather than portraying someone who’s conflicted, she portrays someone who conflicts us: she’s deserving of our horror and judgment as well as our empathy and admiration.
Jabari Banks, “Bel-Air”
The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is good, and it does the difficult, thought-out work of adaptation well. Do we need a second take on “Fresh Prince”? How could it not ruin what came before? Won’t it complicate my nostalgic understanding of the character to have a completely different actor play him? I lament this difficult question so much I can barely pay attention to movies containing anywhere between three and seven Spider-folk.
“Bel-Air” updates many things that wouldn’t be said on TV in the early 90s, advancing conversations about racism into today’s media and political climate. At the show’s heart is Jabari Banks’s performance of a young man who’s torn between versions of who he wants to be, who both admires and resents the wealth that suddenly surrounds him and is wary of the self-hate that social acceptance in white circles demands of him.
Banks captures so many of the tics and nuances in the actor Will Smith’s original performance, while still giving his interpretation of the character Will Smith. You can emulate someone else’s performance with nods to their movement, but Banks encodes it into his performance in a way that feels much more natural and internal than an acting nod. The characters don’t just act similarly, they think similarly. “Bel-Air” leans on a strong cast with a number of good performances, but Banks’s is a captivating interpretation that drives the show.
Barbara Liberek, “Cracow Monsters“
“Cracow Monsters” is a Polish horror series that’s more fantastique than fantasy. Based on Polish folklore, the series hearkens back to the moodiest and most atmospheric habits of 90s horror with quick and harrowing bursts of action. Barbara Liberek plays Alex, a medical student who fears the onset of schizophrenia and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. She’s revealed to have a power that can help hunt otherworldly creatures, and grudgingly works with a group of similar students.
Alex’s curiosity, earnestness, and frustration are balanced against a tendency for self-destruction and isolation. She wants to survive, but is so afraid that she’s on the cusp of repeating her mother’s mental illness and suicide that she also wants to destroy herself in what time is left to still control her own fate.
Liberek realizes a character who’s dreaming yet terrified her dream is doomed, rushing against the clock to become a doctor before the onset of schizophrenia. She takes care of others, yet aggressively rejects anyone attempting to aid her, lest they get invested. She couldn’t care less about helping anyone hunt demons until her curiosity drives her enough to tolerate having to work with other people. Alex is the kind of standoffish, matter-of-fact, justifiably resentful noir character that women rarely get to play, but Liberek realizes her in both humanizing and iconic ways.
Claudia O’Doherty, “Killing It”
Claudia O’Doherty possesses that rare Madeline Kahn ability to exist in the show’s story so completely that she’s naive to it, while at the same time sitting outside of it and pointedly commenting on it. It’s one of the toughest demands in comedy because it asks the actor to simultaneously portray two extremes that each comment on the middle ground where all the other characters live.
O’Doherty achieves both the character and the meta extremes, whether it’s fulfilling a dead man’s last wish by eating his identifying information, or dragging a bag full of dead snakes through a convention hall where the wealthy con their worshippers. She delivers an outsized portion of the absurdism in “Killing It”, while existing inside of it as someone who’s completely normalized to it.
One of the midseason episodes, “The Task Rabbit” involves O’Doherty’s Jillian housesitting in a mansion, and coached by Zoom call to pretend she’s rich and cutthroat for a wealthy date. It’s an acidic take on “Cyrano de Bergerac” that becomes a half-hour of modern science-fiction as pointed as anything I’ve seen this year. It entirely relies on O’Doherty’s ability to comment on the story even as she suffers it.
You may also recognize O’Doherty as Stede Bonnett’s wife Mary in “Our Flag Means Death”.
Kheng Hua Tan, “Kung Fu”
“Kung Fu” is an important show, but not necessarily a great one. It’s the kind of CW fare where you can drop in on an episode and know everything that’s going on in the first three minutes, chiefly because all the characters repeat it over and over again. Nonetheless, I love it, in large part because its cast is so incredibly charming.
As their kids run around having adventures, it’s the parents played by veteran actors Kheng Hua Tan and Tzi Ma who anchor often-poignant B-plots. The main plot about artifact trails, all-too-convenient clues, and insta-hacking can get very silly, but they often serve as an opportunity to open up points about Chinese history in the U.S., racism, and fighting gentrification.
Preserving one’s culture in a society determined to assimilate and re-purpose it hides traumas both historical and personal. Where Tzi Ma’s emotionally open Jin abides and understands, Kheng Hua Tan’s Mei-Li is more intense and guarded. Those scenes when she opens up enough to speak about her own history provide some of the clearest and most resonant moments happening on TV.
Taika Waititi, “Our Flag Means Death“
“Our Flag Means Death” lets director and Oscar-winning writer Taika Waititi stretch his legs as an actor. His improv and comic timing are impeccable. On the surface, his character of Blackbeard is a man for whom nothing is a challenge anymore. He’s grown numb to life, and wants to retire and enjoy his wealth. Yet this numbness hides something else – a growing attraction to the incompetent gentleman-pirate Stede Bonnett.
Paired with Rhys Darby’s Bonnet, Waititi’s Blackbeard offers a lens on two ways that men are taught to deny their homosexuality. In Stede’s case, it’s trying to fit into a suffocating heterosexual lifestyle – acting the part in regards to wife, children, place in society.
In Blackbeard’s case, the metaphor is that of suppressing who he is through a psychological self-mutilation, an inwardly turned hate and cruelty that bubbles to the surface and has to find other targets beyond himself – thus reinforcing the expectations of who he should be and how he should act.
Stede is an escape from that, but both struggle to escape the cages of expectation they’ve lived in most of their lives. They’re each expected to act a certain way, and do massive harm to themselves and those around them just to keep up the facade. To find each other and accept who they are is a kindness for both of them and their communities. That this is presented so well in the storytelling of a satirical sitcom is remarkable. Waititi is surrounded by an excellent cast, but it’s his performance that gives the series its pace and rhythm.
Minha Kim & Youn Yuh-jung, “Pachinko“
Minha Kim and Youn Yuh-jung play young and elderly versions of Sunja, in a story that follows her family across half a century. “Pachinko” uses this family as an opportunity to look at the Korean diaspora, some of which fled Korea during a brutal occupation only to suffer more hate and racism in Japan and the U.S.
Kim and Youn (along with child actor Yuna) realize the same woman across half a century, keeping and evolving mannerisms, showing how physicality changes without losing what makes that physicality unique. The way each glances, considers a silence or speaks before thinking, the way each enters a space, looks out for someone else or forgets to…it’s all the same person. It’s all the same character in a way that goes beyond two actors finding something shared. There’s an essence on-screen, something that we talk about when we think of movie magic, that these two actresses evoke.
There’s no suspension of disbelief needed. They’re the same person. In the emotional, gut reaction we have as viewers, there’s an instinct in me that would sooner believe they’re the same person across decades than that this could possibly be a character played by different actresses. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever felt that before.
Alan Tudyk, “Resident Alien“
“Resident Alien” might be the best thing SyFy’s managed in years and years. The comedy about an alien who’s crash-landed and has to live among the humans he was sent to destroy had a strong first season last year. This year’s been a little more up and down, but Tudyk’s performance continues to be a comedic goldmine.
The evolved-octopus-out-of-water story asks Tudyk to be doing outlandish physical comedy constantly, and the man hasn’t hit a wrong note. The series is edited for a sense of irony, and this only helps. It’s the kind of show where it would be very easy to chase a joke that doesn’t work. Very occasionally, it will do that for some of the other characters. The series centers on Tudyk’s Harry first and foremost, though, and a live-action series anchoring itself to this much physical comedy is nearly unheard of today. That’s because it needs someone with Tudyk’s skill to pull it off.
Bridget Everett & Jeff Hiller, “Somebody Somewhere“
The way these two characters appreciate and speak to each others’ unique way of looking at the world – and their anxiety at not finding a place in it – helps them find a joy that’s otherwise blocked.
Stuck in small town Kansas, and struggling with a rural environment that often feels claustrophobic, Jeff Hiller’s Joel is the only person around who treats Bridget Everett’s Sam as if she’s somebody admirable and worthy of notice. It’s not a romance. Joel is gay and he has a boyfriend, though the rest of the town is so willfully blind to this fact that they all just assume it’s a “corrective” romance for both.
Their friendship opens up a level of acceptance and self-acceptance that both have trouble finding elsewhere. It enables them both to not just help each other up, but to foster the beginnings of community within a community where they’ve rarely fit.
Andrew Garfield, “Under the Banner of Heaven“
I opened my “Under the Banner of Heaven” review by calling Andrew Garfield a beautiful performer. The crime scene that opens the show is horrific – you just don’t ever see much of it. We see its corners and edges, but we never leave Garfield’s Detective Pyre. It’s his reaction, the plaintive eyes that he can’t disguise, the bodily shudder, the beginning of erosion in someone’s beliefs played out in his carriage…it tells me so much more about the effect of that crime scene than the goriest image ever could.
It shook me from the beginning. Pyre’s caring but insistent manner is ideal in a detective, and arises from his faith even as it readies to be ripped to shreds by the realizations he’ll make about the brutal, misogynist Mormon fundamentalism he investigates. Pyre’s a walking emotional and spiritual sacrifice, and there are points where even he knows this. Yet he’s played with a care and gentleness that’s more admirable and capable than the blunt, desensitized cops that are worshiped on so many other shows. (The only flaw I find in his performance is how much he looks like Jimmy Carr in this hairstyle.)
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