It is that time again folks! The end of the year is upon us and that means it is time to look back on the highs, lows and WTFs in television from the past 12 months. There is a lot to reflect on in regard to television 2011. Charlie Sheen went crazy. Well, crazier. Comedy supposedly made a big comeback. We found out what The Event was, I think. Steve Carell and Michael Scott said goodbye and we were sad. The guys from Entourage also said goodbye, and we were less sad. AMC tried to break a Guinness Book World Record for number of stupid PR disasters by a cable network.
This year brought us a number of great new series such as Homeland, Happy Endings and Game of Thronesand a slew of horribly awful ones such as The Paul Reiser Show, How to Be a Gentleman and Charlie’s Angels.True Blood and Glee kept getting worse while Community and Justified kept getting better. 2011 was the year of Louis C.K., the year of sexposition and the year of The Killing. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting all sorts of lists, podcasts and pieces reflecting back on the year that was. So join me in saying farewell to what was a very compelling year in television. There will be so many lists.
2011 featured a slew of great individual performances. Today, I’m going to discuss 20 performances that I really, really loved this year. I have chosen 10 performances in comedy and 10 in drama. To avoid any dominance by one series or another, I decided to keep it to one great performance-per series. Of course, just because I picked one person from Community, that doesn’t mean I didn’t love everyone else in the cast as well. I am going to split these 20 performances into two posts today. I tackled comedy earlier and now it’s the drama-side’s turn. Just like on with the comedy list, I started with a master list that was much longer and in a few cases, I had even more trouble deciding which cast member from your favorite great drama series I would choose for this list. But here we are. Again, no order.
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad: You might imagine that it was very difficult to pick just one actor from Breaking Bad’s fourth season to make this list. Bryan Cranston always does all-time work and Walt’s frustrated, but purposeful descent into pure villainy went off without a hitch. Giancarlo Esposito brought humanity, complexity and emotion to one of television’s greatest antagonists. And the rest of the cast was similarly tremendous this year. Yet, I can’t not put Aaron Paul on this list. It’s become old-hat at this point, but his work as Jesse Pinkman continues to be my favorite performance on all of television. Season four required Paul to take Jesse to his darkest place ever and then slowly find some life and light in the aftermath of shooting Gale and the actor was obvious up to the challenge. Jesse’s become the sympathetic and emotional lead of the Breaking Bad story and considering where the character came from, you can’t help but laud Paul’s work.
Claire Danes, Homeland: Claire Danes’ crazy eyes are probably right up there with the Situation’s abs as the most impressive (and consistently seen) body parts of the year. More seriously though, Danes’ work as Carrie Mathison has her primed to win a boat-load of award hardware come next year and my goodness is it all earned. Danes’ performance always teetered the line between full-blown insanity and mangled control and she only dipped one way or another at a few perfect moments throughout the season. Carrie is far from perfect. She’s a mess, she’s overly paranoid and she fell in love with the one person she couldn’t have. And yet, she’s also an extremely smart, powerful woman. The Homeland writing staff did good work, but this feels like the role Claire Danes has been waiting for since the late-90s.
Margo Martindale, Justified: If it weren’t for Claire Danes’ layered, manic work on Homeland, I’d have no problem calling Margo Martindale’s powerful turn as Mags Bennett my favorite female performance of the year. It really doesn’t matter though, Martindale was similarly fantastic throughout Justified’s glorious second season. Any time that Mags was on screen, Martindale had full command of the screen, just as her character had full command of all the other people in the quaint, dangerous section of Kentucky. Even when Mags was at her most overtly villainous, Margo Martindale found the humanity and matriarchal tendencies within the character that made it impossible to really think of Mags as a villain at all. I know that it makes for a great ending to the season and a nice thematic bow for the narrative, but I do wish that Mags was around to cause more trouble for her family and for one Raylan Givens. Martindale couldn’t have deserved that Emmy win any more.
Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy: Mediocre finale and ultimately disappointing season four aside, Sons of Anarchy had a strong, powerful run of episodes going this fall. The series always has 14 motorcycle gang-related stories going on and a weird relationship with its own history, but Sons works best when its actors are just allowed to sit down in a room and talk to one another. Critics have been praising Katey Sagal’s work for years now, but this season, her on-screen son Charlie Hunnam became the series’ strongest performer. Charlie Hunnam’s grown dramatically as an actor in four seasons on the series and it feels like this year was when it all fell into place. His portrayal of Jax Teller was more complicated than ever and perhaps most importantly, a lot more subtle than simply loud and overtly expressive. He won’t ever crack the Emmy ceiling and there are probably tons of great reasons for that, but Hunnam was great this season.
Connie Britton, American Horror…just kidding, Friday Night Lights: Choosing between Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler is basically like choosing between which one of your own parents who like better, but I decided to give Connie the nod because Kyle Chandler won the Emmy anyway (you know, because the honors are completely equal folks). Britton got a teeny bit lost in the story shuffle in the first half of Friday Night Lights’ fifth season and that was mostly a byproduct of the important focus on football and the kids. In the second half though? Dang. The mounting tensions between the Taylors as the story came to an end were, unsurprisingly, real, raw and utterly relatable. I never expected a divorce or even a separation, but Britton helped take me up to a point where I was almost convinced otherwise. She never allowed Tami to become a shrill, a nag or annoying whatsoever. She was an honest, intelligent and strong woman who knew what was right and fair for her family and for herself. Beautiful work.
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones: You folks know that I had no prior knowledge of Game of Thrones or its characters coming into my viewing of the first season this spring. Thus, I didn’t know that people often pictured and vouched for Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Now, though, I know why. Though I had my issues connecting to many of the series’ characters in the early part of the season, Tyrion was the one I felt for. Dinklage’s performance is simultaneously funny and affecting, making his character the perfect sympathetic entry point into a world of political maneuverings and deadly backhanded dealings. Like Margo Martindale, Dinklage’s Emmy win this past fall was totally warranted.
Anna Torv, Fringe: I’ve had my problems with Fringe in its fourth season that began this fall, but I cannot take away from the great work Anna Torv did this year. Although the beginning of season three that aired in 2009 featured most of her obviously great performances (forget all the different identities, see her emotionally-wrenching work in “Marionette”), Torv still did lovely work embodying Fringe’s 193 versions of Olivia. Torv can – and has – done it all over the last few years. Her chemistry with Joshua Jackson is sufficiently electric and moving, helping create one of the best romantic duos on television. She handles mythology-based exposition with no issue. And for a few episodes, she helped make one of the oddest plots in science fiction somehow work because she could do a solid Leonard Nimoy impression.
Michael Pitt, Boardwalk Empire: You’re still upset. I’m still upset. RIP Jimmy Darmody. Michael Pitt’s damaged, stoic and detached gangster fully grabbed hold of Boardwalk Empire’s “best character” title in 2011, which of course, makes it all the more sad that Jimmy met his demise at the end of the second season. As the story progressed this year and we learned more and more about Jimmy’s past, Pitt moved outside of his steely disposition and showed substantial range. He was mostly asked to be ponderous and introspective, but Pitt helped make Jimmy one of the deepest characters on television with great command of his eyes and his body movements. He will be missed in 2012, that’s for sure.
Laura Dern, Enlightened: Listen, I know. HBO wants you to think that Enlightened is a comedy. It’s 30 minutes! It’s wonky! No. I don’t care how many Golden Globe or Emmy nomination the series gets in the Comedy section, Enlightened is NOT a comedy. As I said yesterday, I’m not really sure what the hell Enlightened is, but I know it’s infinitely compelling and curious. No matter what the series is, the stature of Laura Dern’s performance is completely visible. Amy is a difficult character to get a handle on: She’s oftentimes very grating and unsympathetic and she makes really odd decisions without much outward context. Nevertheless, Dern has been able to keep adapting to whatever she and Mike White come with in the script stage and the unpredictability (but not insanity) of the Amy character is just so…engaging. This feels like a role tailor-made to Dern’s different skills and mannerisms.
Josh Charles, The Good Wife: Julianna Marguilies is fantastic and Alan Cumming gets great material as Eli Gold, but Josh Charles did some really strong work as Will Gardner in 2011. The series made a point to dive deeper into Will’s past and although I think they could have done an even better job with those stories, Charles brought some intriguing tidbits about his character to light without losing the strong-willed complexity we already saw in him. Will Gardner isn’t an especially good person, but he’s also not scenery-chewing evil either, which makes the character difficult to pin down for the audience. I’m certain than in lesser hands, Will wouldn’t work, or at least wouldn’t be as deceptively admirable.
There you have it. Your top dramatic performances?