Every fall, TV is inundated with fresh faces and a lucky few are plucked from the rabble and praised for their work whether it is by critics, fans or both. Others are the equivalent of one-hit wonders whose shows flop, and they’re never heard from again. There are a handful of talented character actors who consistently hand in impressive and even stellar performances. You may recognize some and have never heard of others, but they all deserve praise for their artistic contributions and for making the TV landscape a better place.
1. Lauren Graham (‘Parenthood’/’Gilmore Girls’) – Lauren Graham might be the hardest working fictitious mom on television. For seven years she played the coffee addicted, sharp witted, inn owner and mother to her whiz kid namesake, Lorelai Gilmore. As Sarah Braverman on ‘Parenthood,’ she’s parenting less angelic and more rebellious teens. Sarah is attractive and smart but has struggled to find the right man or the right job. Graham has managed to infuse charm, vulnerability and individuality into two characters, both of whom could easily be considered a stereotypical archetype. Even with good writing, Graham deserves props for her performances as both of these memorable moms.
2. Rachel Bilson (‘Hart of Dixie’/’The OC’) – During Bilson’s four years playing Summer Roberts on ‘The OC,’ she transformed a superfluous rich girl into someone far more in-depth and likable. Her whip smart, back and forth repartee with co-star Adam Brody provided a much-needed respite from the angst-ridden performances of Mischa Barton and Benjamin McKenzie. As Dr. Zoe Hart on ‘Hart of Dixie,’ Bilson has proven she is a master of subtle character transformation. Zoe has gone from being an uptight doctor on the fast track to an integral resident in a small, eccentric, southern town. Bilson might be petite, but she packs a punch as an actress.
3. Nestor Carbonell (‘Bates Motel’/’Lost’) – Like everything else on ‘Lost,’ Carbonell’s character, Richard Alpert, was far too complicated to easily summarize. Alpert was ageless, spiritual, and mysterious. His actions could be contradictory to his beliefs. As Sheriff Romero on ‘Bates Motel,’ Carbonell is again playing a shadowy figure. Aware of the corruption that is pervasive in his town, he doles out justice in non-traditional ways. Romero is succinct when he speaks, and as in ‘Lost,’ he answers to a higher power. Carbonell plays authoritative characters well. He is masculine without being macho. His dark good looks are an asset as they beckon those around him to try and get closer to find out what’s hiding underneath.
4. Justin Kirk (‘Animal Practice’/’Weeds’) – Other than the monkey, Kirk was the only good thing about the short-lived ‘Animal Hospital.’ As Nancy’s brother-in-law, Andy Botwin, on ‘Weeds’ Kirk played a shiftless slacker with no moral compass, but he was unflinchingly loyal to his deceased brother’s family. Kirk’s charm and charisma explained Nancy’s willingness to forgive his mistakes. In love with his dead brother’s wife and failing to fill his sibling’s shoes, Kirk effectively demonstrated Andy’s numerous attempts to break free from familial obligations, but his inevitable draw to Nancy always pulled him back in. Kirk was funny when warranted, industrious when necessary and never “played” a pothead. Kirk made Andy’s love of marijuana a personality trait.
5.Timothy Olyphant (‘Justified’) – As Raylan Givens, Olyphant plays a coal miner turned deputy U.S. marshal who is often busting pill heads, meth dealers and murders whom he’s known the majority of his life growing up in the hills of Kentucky. Forget the long, lanky frame and the devastating good looks. Olyphant can’t take credit for genetics. He plays Givens as a quintessential southern gentleman/Wyatt Earp hybrid. Olyphant manages to make Raylan both impenetrable and forthright at the same time. His law man is unlike any other on TV.
6. Courtney Cox (‘Cougar Town’/’Friends’) – While Cox has never suffered from lack of notoriety; she didn’t get the recognition she deserved for her role as the Type A personality chef Monica Gellar on ‘Friends.’ During her stint on the hit sitcom, she received one Screen Actors Guild Award, but had to share it with the rest of her castmates. Cox’s character was the heart of the show, providing food, and at times shelter, for her friends. Again, Cox who plays Jules on ‘Cougar Town,’ is the maternal core of a tight-knit group of pals. This time she’s less neurotic and more of an alcoholic (the lady loves her wine). While many actors fail to distance themselves once they’ve played an iconic character, Cox has managed to make sure not an inkling of Monica creeps into her performance.
7. Mindy Kaling (‘The Mindy Project’/’The Office’) - Kaling did her best work off camera as a writer for ‘The Office.’ But as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, Kaling has proven she has on-screen talent as well. As OB/GYN who suffers from a certain lack of common sense and emotional maturity, Kaling’s character’s failings in her personal life don’t affect her competency as a physician. Kaling makes sure that Lahiri doesn’t appear impervious to her own flaws. It’s also nice to see a strikingly attractive woman of color with a real woman’s curves instead of what is considered the gold standard of beauty. Kaling’s career trajectory and talent are destined to someday soon be on par with the likes of Tina Fey.
8. Jake Johnson (‘New Girl’) – Jake Johnson plays Nick Miller on ‘New Girl.’ Nick, a Gen Z slacker, is cerebral, funny, neurotic, insecure and attractive in a slovenly way. His performance is similar to Ethan Hawkes’ as Generation X slacker Troy in the film ‘Reality Bites,’ but Johnson is less condescending and more angry than edgy. Nick’s attraction to his polar opposite female roomy Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) is best showcased when the two argue. Johnson’s got ambivalent down pat, but he has the ability to be a panty dropper when he exposes Nick’s vulnerable side.
9. Eliza Coupe (‘Happy Endings’/’Scrubs’) – It will be hard to ever forgive ABC for letting ‘Happy Endings’ slip through its metaphorical fingers. The show about six friends/lovers/spouses was nothing like ‘Friends,’ and made for the the perfect showcase for Eliza Coup’s comedic talent. Coup played Jane Kerkovich-Williams, a perfectionist with a pathological need to always be in control. Her multitude of talents even caused her friends and family to refer to her in supernatural terms. Coup was able to sand down some of Jane’s rough edges, especially in her scenes with co-star Damon Wayans, Jr. who played her husband Brad. Coup went balls to the wall in her portrayal of Jane. She embraced Jane’s brashness and was still able to convey her overall good intentions. Coup was able to stop just short of going over the top, allowing her co-stars to not be overshadowed by Jane’s domineering personality.
10. Walton Goggins (‘Justified’/’Sons of Anarchy’/’The Shield’) – While people may argue you’d be hard pressed to find a criminal mastermind residing in the hills of Kentucky, Goggins portrayal of Boyd Crowder would make anyone a believer. It’s an accomplishment to play someone, who despite being a reprobate with a higher than average I.Q., viewers don’t want to see wind up behind bars. Goggins also appeared in a cameo on ‘Sons of Anarchy’ as Venus Van Dam, a transgendered hooker with an impressive set of breasts.