Welcome to the TV in 2012 roundtable. I’ve assembled nearly 20 of my fellow critics, scholars and friends to reflect and review the year in television. Between now and the end of the year, the group will discuss various topics covering the highs, the lows and everything in between. See previous entries of the roundtable here.
Today the roundtable continues with a chat about the best performances of the year. And again, people cheated. They can’t resist breaking the rules, apparently.
Cory Barker: Following the singular moment thread, let’s think about great individual performances. There were–as there always are–a slew of unbelievable performances in 2012, some of them very expected and some of them very unexpected. Whose work stands out to you the most, whether across an entire season or in just a single episode?
Adam Wright: As I mentioned in my previous post, Jennifer Carpenter deserves all the credit in the world for her performance on the resurgent Dexter. But since I don’t want to repeat myself, I’ll throw in another worthy candidate. This past season of Justified had the tough task of toping the epic Margo Martindale season. But the gun- slinging series didn’t lose any steam and delivered one of its best seasons. And much of the credit falls on the brilliant performance by Neal McDonough.
McDonough played Robert Quarles, one of five bad guys writing saw this past season. Or was it six? Anyways, my point is Quarles was one badass mother, and it was quite a thing to witness. And who can forget his very last scene? It’s too bad he was cut.
Noel Kirkpatrick: Tough call, but I’m going to go with Anna Gunn’s work on Breaking Bad this year, particularly her work in “Fifty-One.” The choice is as much about Gunn’s performance in that episode, which is astoundingly good (stop the video at the 1-minute mark), as it is about the realization that I’d been oh-so-very-wrong about my attitude toward both Gunn’s performance, and the character, since I first started watching the show. I hate that it took 50 episodes to come to my senses about it.
Mark Waller: As much as I rag on Adam Braverman of Parenthood being an unrepentant a-hole jerk who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anybody but himself (cuz he’s, y’know, a jerk), I’m beginning to see the tolerable in him in the latest season. And, it’s a testament to the performances (and writing) on Parenthood that I even feel as strongly for any particular characters over others, which makes it difficult to single out just one of the cast members. But Peter Krause’s work as the most pompous Braverman has been exemplary all season, especially because his character, despite pushing all my buttons, has busted through my extreme reservations and made me sorta like him. Sure, it helps that he’s doing amazing work treating his wife with cancer, but it’s a step in the right direction for him that he steps up to the plate and does a whole bunch of stuff and (mostly) holds it together, even when Max is doing something incredibly grating. (Plus, Adam dressing in hip-hop clothes was truly bizarre and embarrassing.) And any(fictional)body who parented a great kid like Haddie Braverman deserves a gold star. Gold star to you, too, Peter Krause.
Andrew Daglas: The writing on Happy Endings walks a precarious tightrope – whether it hits or misses, it does so hugely and with no shame. That sort of material demands an exceptionally game and skillful cast to carry it off. While everyone in the ensemble has had dynamite moments in its second and third seasons, I have to highlight Elisha Cuthbert’s work as Alex. For those of us who remember her primarily as the original weak link on 24, her emergence as a comedic five-tool player has been one of the biggest (and most welcome) surprises on TV in ages. Let us pour out a plate of ribs in her honor.
Andrew Rabin: When Chyler Leigh first appeared on Grey’s Anatomy as Lexie Grey at the end of season three, I thought she was just a new cute and cheery presence to replace what Izzy once was. And while she served as that at times, she became something much deeper. Meredith’s relationship with her half-sister was always far more compelling to me than her more central relationship with Cristina, and Lexie brought out various elements in George and Alex that were not seen in their other relationships. But it was her relationship with Mark Sloan that defined Lexie’s time on the series. Lexie and Sloan went through a number of stages, from her asking him to “teach” her, to them splitting twice over Mark’s two children (one who was nearly Lexie’s age). And it was that relationship, and the potential of them finally reuniting at the end of season eight, which made her death all the more heart-wrenching. As she and Mark shared their final declarations of love, Chyler Leigh closed a wonderful five year story within Grey’s.
Greg Boyd: As Noel said, this is very hard.. But for me, it has to be Amy Poehler’s performance on Parks and Recreation. She’s always been great, but to me this year saw her portrayal of Leslie reach unforeseen levels of brilliance. To begin with, it gave us two of the most powerful moments of the year: the voting scene and her reaction to Ben’s proposal. But while Poehler always nails these sorts of huge emotional moments, she’s also delivering one of the most consistently funny pieces of acting on TV right now, as her hilarious fight with Tammy II in the most recent episode showed. The show is likely to end up being one of my five favorite small screen comedies of all time, and while Poehler’s hilarious and moving performance isn’t the sole reason for that, it’s definitely one of the biggest ones. And like her series, she just keeps raising her game.
Cameron White: Forget about any problems you have with The Newsroom. It’s loaded with a great cast that somehow manage to pull emotion from out of nowhere, which is exactly what this show needs. Olivia Munn, playing economics mastermind Sloan Sabbith, is one of those cast members. But what stuck out to me more about Sloan, the thing that made me grow to love her quite a lot, is how socially awkward she is. It takes a lot to cast someone who was previously at the puppet’s end of G4’s strings as what can only be considered a stereotypical nerd role, but she manages to be funny without having to force or punctuate the punch-lines, and without making Sloan seem like the type of person who is completely out of control of her own life. I can appreciate that, whatever other problems I may have with the show itself.
Les Chappell: Thrilled to see we’re talking up a lot of very solid actresses in this category, and I need to recognize one of them who won an Emmy for what she did last year. I’ve sadly joined the group of those who have turned on Homeland in its second season for having some really awful plotting and straining credibility a bit too far, but the performances remain unimpeachable and none more so than Claire Danes. Carrie Mathison is one of the most fascinatingly fucked-up characters on television right now, and Danes sells what could be an over-the-top performance with the perfect amounts of kinetic energy and emotion (and a crying face which Emma and Julie have recognized many times as unbeatable). The last-minute smile at the end of the season premiere, her suicide attempt and tearful “I was right” at the end of “State of Independence,” her mix of truth and lies in the Brody interrogation of “Q&A” (Eric justifiably recognized Damian Lewis when picking that scene in the last discussion, but Danes was every bit as potent), talking Brody through his dilemmas, her sense of betrayal and loss after the events of the season finale—I could just go on and on and on. I don’t know what kind of show Homeland will be in its third season, but as long as Danes is at the center of it, it’s a show I’m not going to miss.
On the comedy side of things, this was a year full of great performances, but my favorite has to be Jake Johnson on New Girl. Nick Miller is one of the most unique characters to pop up on a sitcom in years, with his bizarre mix of self-sabotaging every part of his life and his stubborn commitment to the worst ideas ever (Zombie novel! Real Apps!). Johnson’s a performer who can be given an idea and simply roll with it, and Nick’s most bizarre moments have led to some of the show’s funniest highs (his prerecorded breakdown in “Backslide,” believing one of his bar customers is him from the future in “Katie,” confiding in a stranger in “Menzies”). At the same time, he can still bring across some of the more emotional moments, and his breakdown in “Injured” was one of the rawest scenes I’ve seen in a sitcom all year. New Girl shook off so much of its early stumbles in large part by finding the strength of its ensemble, and he’s become an indispensable part of it. It’s Nick Miller time!
Julie Hammerle: Schmidt may get all the press and accolades for New Girl, but for my money the MVP of the cast is Jake Johnson as sad turtle, Nick Miller. The man has insane chemistry with Zooey Deschanel, he rivals the cast of Parks and Recreation in the category of “drunk acting,” and can do a mean Bill Cosby impression when necessary. His presence on the show is the main reason why New Girl has quickly moved up to the top of my DVR rotation. He’s the still-off-the-wagon Sam Malone to Deschanel’s quirkier, perkier Diane Chambers. Just to prove my point, there are a whole slew of “Nick and Jess in Love” tribute videos on YouTube, because if anyone can be called an arbiter of talent, it’s a person who makes slashfic tribute videos on YouTube.
Andrew Rabin: Oh we’re doubling down for comedy and drama now? Well if that’s the case, then I want to put in a vote for a supporting character on a show I don’t really like. While critics everywhere were lauding the brilliance of HBO’s Girls, I was not particularly a fan. But Zosia Mamet, as Shoshanna, was often part of a different show. While many viewed that as a negative, I often preferred what she was doing. Her bubbly energy brought a welcome diversion to the group, and her crack freak out was central to convincing me to stick with the show.
Wesley Ambrecht: Ugh. Singling out just one performer is so hard. I’m glad Les and Julie both picked Jake Johnson, because he has been dynamite this fall. Same goes for Daglas’ pick of Elisha Cuthbert in Happy Endings. Were I to tap a comedy performer, I’d be hard pressed to pick between Zosia Mamet of Girls and Ben and Kate‘s Echo Kellum, so instead I’m going the drama route.
No one has moved me more in 2012 than Monica Potter. Her work on Parenthood this season has been nothing short of perfection. The raw emotion that she’s brought to Kristina each week, as the character learns to grapple with the cancer overtaking her body, has been terrific. Typically, I find cancer arcs cloying but Parenthood has done a fine job making theirs feel authentic/emotional and Potter is responsible for much of the credit. I really wanted to embed the scene where Kristina explains to Adam why Max must go to the dance, because it damn near broke me. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be on YouTube. So, I’ll instead leave you with her pre-taped video message from the Christmas episode.
Chris Castro: Everyone on Treme has been outstanding this past season, but Khandi Alexander has turned in some especially astounding work. From dealing with her stuck-up in-laws and hen-pecked husband, to gathering the courage up to run her bar again only to have it become a source of pain again, Alexander made LaDonna’s strength, resolve and resignation palatable all season long. Alexander made me feel everything LaDonna was feeling through ever setback and small triumph. It was a blessing and a curse to watch someone so electric and confident go through so much in just ten episodes.
Eric Thurm: Veering into animated territory here, I think it’d be a crime for no one to mention Amber Nash’s performance as Pam on Archer, which has seriously taken it to another level this past season, to the point where Pam could just read a grocery list and it would be the funniest thing on television. Pam truly broke out as Archer‘s secret weapon in last season’s “El Secuestro,” but “Crossing Over,” the episode in which (spoiler?) Pam finally hooks up with Archer might just have topped that episode with a strangely perfect Pam/Archer relationship and endless laughs. Outside of “Crossing Over,” Nash saved “Drift Problem,” the season’s worst episode, by getting Pam really, really into drag racing. Though Pam will always be more of a secondary character than, say, Lana or Malory, Nash proved that injecting her into the background of any scene on the show to just spew one-liners would elevate the work the rest of the already-stellar cast was doing, 100%.
Kerensa Cadenas: I had a really hard time trying to decide on one performance because this year has provided so many great examples from Lena Headey on Game of Thrones, Amy Poehler on Parks and Recreation (Retta too!) and Blake Lively on Gossip Girl (jk). One of my favorite performances of the 2012 was hands down, Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper on Mad Men. Shipka has always been terrific but this season I thought she really shone. From her terror during the Speck murders in “Mystery Date,” her reaction upon witnessing Roger’s illicit sexual encounter with Megan’s mother in “At the Codfish Ball” and her attempts at becoming a grown-up in “Commissions and Fees” which are suddenly too real with the arrival of her first period. While Shipka isn’t a main player on the show, she makes Sally Draper’s journey through the dirty city, encounters with her crazy parents and friendship with weirdo Glen while tumbling into adolescence one of the main joys and heartaches while watching Mad Men.
Danny Grinberg: To have any hope of tracking the byzantine plots of Revenge, I’d need Carrie-Mathison-off-her-meds-style charts covering every wall of my apartment. But no matter which shadowy conspiracy the Initiative is hatching or how many nefarious corporate takeovers are concocted from week to week, I can always count on Madeline Stowe’s Victoria Grayson to steal the show. This is the kind of woman who’ll pull you in for a kiss only to select the perfect blade to plunge into your back. Oh, and she’ll be wearing a designer ballgown and hosting a charity fundraiser as she does it. Victoria’s Maleficient-level evil anchors all of the other implausible hijinks in the Hamptons, and Stowe delivers a vicious iciness that makes every devastating insult sting even more.
As much as we love to hate Victoria though, Stowe’s performance goes beyond simple villainy. Revealing a precious few glimpses of humanity per season, she shows us a vulnerable woman who had to become ruthless to survive. (Not unlike our favorite heroine, Emily Thorne.) Most powerfully, in the flashback episode “Lineage,” we learn that Victoria’s mother, Marion, emotionally abused her and made Victoria take the blame when Marion murdered her lover. As present-day Victoria gets revenge on Marion the best way she knows how—through an elaborate and diabolical scheme, of course!—Stowe makes every emotion from heartbreak to cold-hearted hatred ring true.
Sabienna Bowman: I was a Miranda Hart fan before I watched Call the Midwife, but even I had my doubts about her ability to pull off a role that wasn’t straight up, slapstick goofiness. Then she made her entrance as Camilla “Chummy” Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne in episode two and promptly proved that she is, in fact, good at everything.
Where her comedic performance on her sitcom Miranda is all unbridled enthusiasm and energy all of the time, as Chummy, Hart turned all of that manic zeal inwards to deliver a performance that was sweet, restrained, and overflowing with a warmth that made Call the Midwife a pleasure to watch. Whether Chummy was talking a mother (and herself) through a complex breach delivery, falling in love with charming police officer Pete, or stunning her co-workers with tales of her posh upbringing, Hart rose to the occasion and along the way she revealed that her acting chops extend well beyond pratfalls and puns.
Emma Fraser: Like everyone else I had a hard time picking out one single performance and deciding between these two terrific Danish actresses was difficult. While I could easily pick Sofie Gråbøl for her excellent work as Sarah Lund in the third and final season of Forbrydelsen (The Killing), I’m going for another woman who delivers a powerful and compelling performance in the Danish political drama Borgen (airing on LinkTV and BBC4). Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Denmark’s first female Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg and while it could be seen as another role where the (irritating) ‘Can a woman have it all?’ question is raised it goes way beyond that. Yes, Nyborg has to deal with an assortment of factors such as raising her children, trying to maintain a happy marriage and managing a messy and contentious coalition government, but it goes way beyond this empty question. Nyborg succeeds and falls short of some of these things and it is in the moments when she is trying to work through a problem that Knudsen excels. After each episode I want to compose a love letter to this character and Knudsen’s nuanced performance and the writing on this show are the reason why and I’m glad I get to do so here.
Cory Barker: I need to stop posing these questions without having an answer in mind. And I’m just going to ignore that so many of you CHEATED and picked multiple performances. Abide by the rules, LES.
The one performance from 2012 that sticks out to me is Adam Driver’s work on Girls. His Adam character ran the gamut from asshole to weird to disturbed to unbelievably charming and warm in just 10 episodes, seemingly without any difficulty. His was a surprising performance that never stopped being surprising, even as the season came to a close. Throughout Hannah and Adam’s constant arguing and awkward courtship, Driver was honest, natural and even though it’s dumb to say this, real. By the time that Adam and Hannah had their major blow-up in the season finale, I realized that there were few television couples I cared about more, and that’s a testament to Driver, his co-star Leah Dunham and their tremendous chemistry. Ultimately, the actresses on Girls deserve tons of credit for their real and often raw performances, but it’s Driver who stands out the most.
Next up: Most surprising show