11. Jason O’Mara (‘Vegas’/’Terra Nova’/’Life on Mars’) – O’Mara should consider firing his agent. The actor’s last three series were all unceremoniously cancelled. O’Mara does his best to make poorly written and unbelievable material (time travel, dinosaurs) work. In all three shows, O’Mara played law enforcement officers, so maybe it’s time to branch out. He’s never overly intense, and he’s demonstrated an appealing humor or playfulness in at least two of his roles. O’Mara would be a great fit on ‘The Following’ or ‘Hannibal,’ but the handsome actor should consider ditching the gun and badge altogether.
12. Katharine McPhee (‘Smash’) – Granted, it might not have seemed like much of a stretch for McPhee to play ingénue Karen Cartwright, a small-town girl trying to make it big on Broadway. After all, she got her start on ‘American Idol.’ McPhee was a stand out in a cast that included Angelica Huston, Debra Messing and some extremely talented singers and dancers. The role was tailored to fit McPhee’s strengths. She was mesmerizing in the musical numbers and managed to be charmingly naïve without seeming stupid. As Cartwright gained experience in the politics of show business, she became savvier without coming across as jaded. The show fell apart, but McPhee remained one of the few highlights. It will be interesting to see if McPhee actually heads to Broadway or takes on a part where her singing talents are not a factor.
13. Adam Scott (‘Parks and Recreation’/’Burning Love’/’Party Down’) – Scott possesses the gift of making geek chic. As Leslie Knope’s former colleague turned husband, Ben Wyatt, Scott reminds us of the cute guy who can’t get out of the friend zone. Scott’s comedic talents don’t lie in the physical realm. He’s so subtle, especially in relation to several of his co-stars, that he almost comes across as the straight man. But therein lays the genius of Scott’s performances. He doesn’t rely solely on the punch line or overt sarcasm; his whole persona is cerebral and dry without being droll.
14. Joseph Morgan (‘The Originals’/’The Vampire Diaries’) – Morgan made Klaus such a complex villain that he’s been shipped off to New Orleans to star in his own ‘Vampire Diaries’ spin-off, ‘The Originals.’ Klaus has committed so many loathsome acts, but Morgan has been able to expose the rawness left inside the hybrid by his daddy issues. He can be charming and witty even in the wake of a killing spree. Perhaps it’s the English accent or the chiseled cheekbones, but Klaus is a mesmerizing character.
15. Laura Carmichael (‘Downton Abbey’) – Carmichael’s performance as the Jan Brady of the Crawley household makes her someone all sisters can relate to. Lady Mary’s constant abuse of her youngest sister does not go unpunished. Edith had only the slightest hesitation before anonymously casting very vindictive aspersions on her sister’s character. Carmichael’s Edith is like a nervous bird. She’s eager to soar but scared to completely leave the nest. While Sybil was very vocal about her political beliefs, Edith is more likely to lay in wait to spring her news of driving a tractor or writing for a newspaper when it will garner the most attention. Carmichael’s performance makes viewers want to shake Edith and tell her to stop being so meek and stop settling for second best. Carmichael makes Edith an interesting dichotomy; often forgotten but very much present.
16. Max Thieriot (‘Bates Motel’) – Thieriot plays Dylan Massett, Norma’s oldest son, who is both disturbed by and jealous of the relationship between his mother and half-brother Norman. There are distinct oedipal undertones in Dylan and Norma’s relationship. In one episode, the two fought, and Dylan pushed Norma up against a wall and restrained her arms. There was a sexual tension that Thieriot made palpable in a way that was almost acceptably erotic. While Norman’s mental instabilities are mostly masked by a “nice boy” façade, Thieriot holds nothing back. Dylan is more like his mother than either would like to admit, and Thieriot’s reactions to situations, his good looks and the way he interacts with others, constantly serve as reminders of Vera Farmiga’s performance as Norma. They are believable as mother and son.
17. Melissa McBride (‘The Walking Dead’) – Since Lori’s death, McBride, who plays Carol, has taken on the role of sole matriarch of the group. She’s not the strongest physically, but she has withstood the death of her abusive husband as well as the loss of her only daughter. McBride has retained Carol’s femininity and softness in spite of her harsh circumstances. McBride’s presence is vital since she demonstrates hope that even in a zombie-filled post-apocalyptic world; it is possible to retain one’s humanity. Carol may not shout the loudest, but when she speaks, her words have impact.
18. Jennifer Carpenter (‘Dexter’) – It is possible that Carpenter’s Debra Morgan has the foulest mouth of any woman on TV. Carpenter’s adept handling of playing such a flawed and complicated character is often overlooked compared to Michael C. Hall’s since he is the title character. The adoptive siblings are symbiotic, or at least they were until recently. Carpenter has maneuvered Debra through a masterful journey from someone with unwavering principles regarding justice into someone who has had to change her entire belief system. It isn’t unusual on TV to see women trying to mask or hide their vulnerabilities, but rarely has a protagonist suffered such consistent and shocking betrayal, loss and been more lonely than Debra. It’s only due to Carpenter that Debra’s fortitude is believable.
19. Lizzy Caplan (‘Masters of Sex’/’True Blood’/’Party Down’) – Caplan is probably best known for playing Amy Burley on ‘True Blood.’ Her character tripped on vamp blood, had some crazy sex, kidnapped a vamp and then got murdered. Up for anything and everything and fueled completely by raw sexual energy, Caplan’s performance made any man understand why Jason Stackhouse would just go along for the ride. She’ll be infusing her distinct sexuality into a juicy new role, that of Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s upcoming series ‘Masters of Sex.’
20. Mireille Enos (‘The Killing’/’Big Love’) – Enos, as detective Sarah Linden, is something of an anomaly among more recent leads in crime shows. While Will Graham, Ryan Hardy and Sherlock Holmes all vocalize their thoughts for the benefit of the audience, Linden is more of an observer. You can see on Enos’ face that the wheels are turning as she tries to piece together information. Like the often gray, rainy backdrop of Seattle, Linden is a drab character. She puts little effort into her appearance, often wearing shapeless sweaters and windbreakers.. Understated performances may draw less attention, but they are almost always more riveting.
21. Shawn Ashmore (‘The Following’) – In a show with multiple serial killers and a high body count, it’s difficult to form an attachment to any characters, much less a secondary one. Eager and earnest in early episodes, Ashmore made certain Weston’s demeanor changed as the case progressed. Weston became more aggressive; more prone to violence, after his run ins with both Joe Carroll and his followers. Weston was no longer above reproach. Ashmore has viewers wondering is Weston who he seems, or is he cracking under the stress? Is Weston doomed to end up like Ryan Hardy?
22. Michael Rooker (‘The Walking Dead’) – It’s hard to conceive a more surprising anti-hero than Merle Dixon. On a show flush with zombies and teaming with unsavory characters, nobody left a worse taste in viewers’ mouths than Merle. Rooker’s portrayal of the racist, sadistic redneck and “The Governor’s” lead henchman made him the villain you just loved to hate. Rooker revealed Dixon’s self-loathing incrementally, starting shortly after he was reunited with his brother and peaking as he faced certain death alone.
23. John Slattery (‘Mad Men’/’Desperate Housewives’) – As Roger Sterling, Slattery plays a flawed but accessible man’s man. Free from the constraints of political correctness, Slattery can be a womanizer who likes to drink and smoke too much and be acceptable, even likable. He expresses little or no remorse and commands respect. Slattery has played politicians on two previous occasions, and both times, he had an affable public persona but a seedier personal life. Roger is a perfect representation of the men of his generation. Slattery isn’t forced to overthink his character.
24. Tatiana Maslany (‘Orphan Black’) – Some actors fail to convincingly play one character, whereas Maslany had the distinction of playing seven different women: Sarah, a con artist and drifter posing as her look-a-like Beth, a mentally troubled detective who committed suicide, Allison, a suburban housewife, Cosima Niehouse, a biology student, Helena, an assassin, and a German woman named Katja. These weren’t just various aliases or identities but actual living breathing people, more specifically, clone. Maslany may just be getting started because the number of clones worldwide remains unknown. She is best when playing Sarah but is able to turn into Allison without a glitch. Malaney is the new “Black.”
25. Lily Rabe (‘American Horror Story: Asylum’) – Rabe’s portrayal of the nasty, possessed nun Mary Eunice made her a standout among an assortment of other vile characters. Rabe’s fragile features and porcelain skin were a stark contrast to the vitriol she spewed from those sneering lips. Rabe’s talent was most on display when the true Sister Mary Eunice appeared, unable to fight for her own soul. It was a reminder of the once easily intimidated and bullied woman who just wanted to do what was right. Unlike Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist,’Rabe accomplished her demonic transformation without the aid of make-up and cheesy special effects.