As we approach a new year, television is a tangle of trends: Networks began “unbundling” their streaming services from their television channels. New (and old) platforms broke ground with scripted series — “Transparent” put Amazon in the Emmy’s race and “Outlander” gave Starz a big hit.
Comedies like “You’re the Worst,” “Broad City” and “black-ish” took on experimental tones and tactics. The CW got surprisingly hot with “The Flash” and “Jane the Virgin,” while transgender characters became almost as common as the newly resurrected miniseries.
Underlying it all, however, is the most satisfying and continuing development of them all: the rise of the character actor.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” finally made Andre Braugher a big star, “The Walking Dead’s” Norman Reedus continues to be a god, and Ann Dowd of HBO’s “The Leftovers” got more critical shout-outs last year than most headliners. Newcomer Allison Tolman blew everyone away in “Fargo,” as did industry stalwart Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent,” and even the ubiquitous Zeljko Ivanek got a steady gig in “Madam Secretary.”
Ten years ago, I wrote a piece about how tough it was for character actors to find work. This was particularly the case in television, where, at the time, reality shows ruled and most scripted series were procedurals, which burned through noncast performers on a one-and-done basis. The piece centered on Michael O’Neill, an actor fine and brave, who despite good reviews and years in the business was finding it hard to make a living.
This year, O"Neill co-starred in SundanceTV’s small but amazing “Rectify” and CBS’ big summer sci-fi series “Extant.”
And he wasn’t the only double dipper, not by a long shot. Many performers are making their mark concurrently in cable and broadcast. Chris Messina co-stars in “The Mindy Project” and HBO’s “The Newsroom” (two years ago, “Damages” was part of the list as well), Dean Norris ripped up the screen in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and CBS’ “Under The Dome,” and James Wolk appeared in “Mad Men” and “The Crazy Ones.”
The beloved but too often narratively neglected Margo Martindale starred in FX’s critical darling “The Americans” and the broad comedy “The Millers.” She was joined there by Beau Bridges, who also has a breakout role in “Masters of Sex” (though his character did not appear often enough this season), in which he is married to Allison Janney’s character, also too AWOL this season, presumably because she too was co-starring in “Mom.”
This year, Janney won two Emmys, one for a comedy, one for a drama, making her this year’s patron saint of character actors.
Aside from audiences, no one has benefited more from television’s age of expansion and exploration than the thousands of wonderful performers who, for whatever reason, never quite fit into television’s often ridiculously narrow, appearance-focused and financially cautious definition of leading men and women. Boiled down to simple math, more television means more roles.
But it’s more than that. The increasing artisanal quality of television also demands a level of craft that cannot be expected from the latest cavalcade of hot young things.
Beginning with “The Sopranos,” most premium series, be it “Breaking Bad,” “Fargo,” “Game of Thrones,” or “Orange Is the New Black” have been lauded for the sort of scene-specific performances that rely on brilliance from the main and supporting cast. Period dramas like “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Hatfields and McCoys,” “The Americans,” “Masters of Sex,” “American Horror Story” and “Downton Abbey” leaned even more heavily on character actors, with their ability to transcend time.
The rise of sci-fi fantasy, comic book-based and otherwise, also requires a high level of nuanced performance; it takes a lot of emotional resonance and character believability to sell a story set in an alternative universe.
In other words, as the writing and general creation of television have gotten better, the roles have become not just more numerous but more demanding, which means that talent and ability are now just as, and perhaps even more, desirable as youth, good looks and even a big name.
There were many breakout performances like Tolman’s and Dowd’s this year, and many bit stars, like “The Honorable Woman’s” Maggie Gyllenhaal and “Olive Kitteridge’s” Frances McDormand, we hope to see again.
But many of the new faces to watch for in 2015 are in fact familiar faces, finally getting the screen time they deserve.