Admit it, Emmy voters, there’s a very slim chance you’ll have enough time to binge all the terrific new and returning dramas available via broadcast, cable and streaming this season. And how to prioritize, really? Yellowjackets should be a mandatory first stop, but you might want to cleanse your palate with The Gilded Age and Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty before moving back to something dark and heavy like Euphoria. Allow us to offer some assistance: We’ve highlighted some of our favorite actors and what made their work so special over the last year. Our recommendations should never serve as a substitute for a good binge session; God forbid we should deprive you from attending a Christine Baranski masterclass. But when it comes to great performances, we know one when we see one.
The Leading Ladies
If you’ve yet to check out Yellowjackets, The Gilded Age, Yellowstone and Euphoria, allow us to provide you with four good reasons to rethink your bingeing schedule: Melanie Lynskey, Carrie Coon, Kelly Reilly and Zendaya. As an unhappy homemaker named Shauna, Lynskey is terrific as a trauma survivor with a steely edge. Coon, as new-money socialite Bertha, is typically excellent as a singularly focused social climber. Reilly’s Beth Dutton plays an irresistible, man-eating businesswoman, and Zendaya is the prescription-drug popping Gen Z-er who cannot be ignored. Together, these four actresses offer an important reminder when it comes to making great drama for television: If you want something done right, ask a woman.
The USC School of Cinematic Arts should start a class called ‘How to Make it Look Easy’ and check on the availability of Christine Baranski and Giancarlo Esposito as adjunct professors. As the star of The Good Fight, Baranski’s ax-throwing, Donald Trump-loathing, Kurt McVeigh-loving Diane Lockhart is the primary reason why the Robert and Michelle King legal drama makes it into critics’ top 10 lists year after year. And for the love of baby Yoda, what villain hasn’t Esposito played? When he wasn’t appearing as the menacing Moff Gideon in The Mandalorian over the last year, he was wrapping up his role as drug kingpin Gustavo Fring on Better Call Saul while reprising his part as the antagonistic Stan Edgar on The Boys. Come to think of it, forget about the USC class. Maybe just give these two seriously overdue actors an Emmy, for crying out loud.
Sterling K. Brown will probably be the first to say that he doesn’t deserve more trophies for his role as Randall Pearson on This Is Us. In fact, the four-time Emmy winner—two of which were earned for his terrific work in the NBC drama—recently posted a heartfelt message on Instagram that implored Emmy voters to recognize the Emmy-starved Mandy Moore. Not to take anything away from his terrific co-star—who played his mom despite being eight years younger—there’s just something about Brown and the way he commanded our attention for six hanky-soaking seasons. As the brother we wished we had and the husband that most women can only dream about, Brown was a true force of nature in the way he made us feel and got us to laugh. The voters had it right all along; if anyone on the show deserved to be just sick with Emmys, it was Brown.
Perhaps it’s better to start by asking what veteran actor Gil Birmingham hasn’t been in this season. Best known to the younger set as Jacob’s dad Billy Black in the Twilight saga, Birmingham is busier than ever these days, thanks to the ease with which he plays a stalwart leader or hardened law dog. In Yellowstone, he’s Thomas Rainwater—the vigilant leader of the Broken Rock Indian Reservation. In Under the Banner of Heaven, he plays a gruff detective named Bill Taba who helps Andrew Garfield’s Jeb Pyre catch a Mormon killer. And in Pieces of Her, he’s a thoughtful agent with the witness protection program who aids Toni Collette’s Laura.
The Dynamic Duos
No one consistently invites questions like, “How do they do that?” more than the married-writing teams of Michelle and Robert King (The Good Fight; Evil) and Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (Yellowjackets). Let’s be serious here: does anyone really think they can work effectively with one’s spouse? But something clearly clicks for the Kings and the Lyle/Nickerson duo: the former team is responsible for some of the most critically-acclaimed shows on television (not to mention the most egregiously overlooked at Emmy time), while the latter is behind this season’s biggest breakout. Maybe it’s high time that more wannabe hitmakers steal a page from these four. “We really share one brain,” a wry Robert King says. “If one of us had to do it, we’d fall apart.”
The Life of the Party
John C. Reilly always looks like he’s having the time of his life. Whether playing a blockheaded country-rocker who becomes a huge star, or a dimwit race car driver named Cal Naughton Jr., Reilly is a maestro at digging up roles that showcase his most valuable instrument: the ability to make people smile. Granted, Winning Time: The Rise of the Laker Dynasty is not a parody like some of Reilly’s other films. But it’s hard not to laugh at—and love—Reilly’s crackerjack depiction of Jerry Buss, a cunning businessman disguised as a frolicsome man-child. No wonder Winning Time’s executive producer Adam McKay, who directed Talladega Nights, was eager to play ball again with Reilly.
Among all the great performances of 2021, two are big stand-outs for us: Lee Jung-jae’s tour-de-force role as a down-on-his-luck gambler in Squid Game, and Nicola Coughlan’s delightful turn as Penelope Featherington-cum-Lady Whistledown in Bridgerton. South Koreans would likely find it laughable that their beloved Jung-jae is considered a hot new thing in the U.S.—he’s one of the country’s biggest stars thanks to films like Deliver Us from Evil and the Along With the Gods franchise. That’s OK; we own our naivete and welcome Jung-jae into Hollywood’s A-list. As for the magnificent Coughlan, where have you been all of our lives? Working regularly in Europe, it seems, where she continuously brings the house down for her role in the Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls. Lucky for us, both actors have signed up for new seasons of Squid Game and Bridgerton, respectively.
With inclusivity efforts at an all-time high in the industry, As We See It represents a big step for neurodiversity. Based on an Israeli format, the Amazon Prime comedy from the prolific Jason Katims features three actors on the spectrum who play autistic young adults struggling to navigate the world. There’s Jack (Rick Glassman), a whip-smart web designer who can’t pay his bills; Violet (Sue Ann Pien), who is aching for a boyfriend; and Harrison (Albert Rutecki), a hypersensitive love bug who can barely tolerate a barking dog. The trio are tended to by Mandy (Sosie Bacon), a home healthcare aid with a big heart. Though it’s next to impossible to fully capture the true complexities of autism, Katims—who has a son on the spectrum—does his admirable best in this true labor of love.
Before we discovered Severance on Apple TV, we knew Adam Scott as a lovable nerd who captured Leslie Knope’s heart on Parks and Recreation. And until he had us on the edge of our seats with HBO’s We Own This City, Josh Charles played the sexy Will Gardner who stole Alicia’s heart on The Good Wife. So much for sticking with what they know: Scott is mesmerizing as an everyman who works for a company that offers to surgically separate work memories from personal ones. Charles plays Daniel Hersl, an unscrupulous cop in Baltimore who takes casual glee in beating up the not-so-great folks of Charm City. Together, these actors make a potent argument for getting out of one’s comfort zone.
Andrea Martin has brought the funny to practically everything, from her career-making role as Voula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding to playing Briga Heelan’s overprotective mom in Tracey Wigfield’s NBC comedy, Great News. So, it was more than a little surprising—but no less welcome—to see the her cast as Sister Andrea in Evil, the Paramount+ freakfest from Robert and Michelle King. The diminutive nun who councils Mike Colter’s David Acosta is a pillar of strength (note the way she stabbed a bat-devil with a crucifix in the Season 2 finale). But she’s also a bonafide scene stealer, so it’s no wonder the Kings upped her to series regular in Season 3.
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