You want short? I could keep this really short:
Ann. Freakin’. Dowd.
I can’t recall the last time a TV actor had this remarkable a year, in this many roles, stealing shows without starring in them. (Did she and Margo Martindale have some kind of bet?) Where wasn’t she this year? Dowd’s standout work was as Guilty Remnant leader Patti Levin in The Leftovers, a role she had to perform mostly without speaking; she conveyed the fervency of a true believer with the steel-eyed resolve of a revolutionary and didn’t need a legal pad to spell it out for us.
That contrasted with her returning role in Masters of Sex as Bill Masters’ mother, who evolved beyond her starchiness and sunny denial to show a complexity that surprised both us and her still-bitter son. But wait, there’s more! Here she is with a small but chilling role in the under-the-radar death-penalty drama The Divide as the morally compromised mother of a death-row inmate; there she is swinging lumber with the thespian Murderers’ Row of Olive Kitteridge. I can’t even blame her for makin’ flowers in the ludicrous incest subplot of True Detective. After a 2014 like this, I will forgive her anything.
Like you, Willa, I’ll skip over some of the names I and others have widely, rightfully praised this year—I’ll see your McConaughey and Tolman and raise you a Gina Rodriguez and Jeffrey Tambor—but here are a few more of my supporting all-stars, in hail-of-bullets form:
- I will mourn The Bridge, even if—or because—it never quite lived up to its potential as The Wire of the borderlands, but also because of how well, especially in its second and final season, it showcased Demián Bichir. His work as Marco wasn’t great just for his soulful intensity but also for the delicacy with which he portrayed his lawman as two different men, depending which side of the river he was working on—diplomatic and careful in Texas, outraged and sometimes reckless in Mexico. That is a leading man; somewhere there is a parallel universe in which he is opening tentpole thrillers every summer.
- OK, this is as much casting praise as acting praise. But as terrific as the regulars of Transparent were top to bottom (Judith Light’s “Mmm, I just ate the tushy!” is in my audio scrapbook for 2014), how uncannily fantastic were the children cast as the Pfefferman kids in the flashbacks, particularly the remarkable “Best New Girl” episode? It wasn’t just physical resemblance; Kelsey Reinhardt channeled Amy Landecker as exasperated older sis Sarah, and Emily Robinson gave us the kernel of restless, experimental Ali, as if they’d lived with their older models a lifetime. It underscored the show’s theme of how people constantly change but are also constantly drawn into their pasts.
- I praised the show last year, and I may seem like a crank about it at this point, but I don’t care: People should be watching Bob’s Burgers, and one reason is the impeccable voice acting and line readings. I could go on, but instead let me just direct you to this YouTube compilation of H. Jon Benjamin (also Archer’s title character) saying, “Oh, my God,” a phrase he can coax as many shadings out of as Bob has names for his specialty burgers.
- I want to cheat a little more and throw in a few nonacting TV “performances,” because we haven’t much covered nonscripted TV yet. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the revival of Cosmos, made high science approachable and wasn’t afraid to take some swings at anti-science. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes, again, made it confounding that every other awards production seems to find it so damn hard to put on a decent show. In cable news—I am going to say something nice about cable news!—Jake Tapper was an island of dry-witted sanity amid the facepalms and missing plane hunting of CNN. It’s been a dry spell for compelling new reality shows, but the optimistic, supporting kids of Masterchef Jr. make me cry every week. And I will tip my hat again to the passionate comedy explainers of John Oliver, because he deserves it and because it will help this post with SEO.
- I feel like an Oscar winner at the podium—I really didn’t prepare for this! I know I’m going to leave somebody out!—so let me just throw out some final names. Annet Mahendru on The Americans: Good God, you are transfixing! Josh Charles exiting The Good Wife: Pouring one out for ya, Will! Cristin Milioti: Neither the end of How I Met Your Mother nor the cancellation of A to Z were your fault! Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones: I was crushed when your head was! Barbara Rosenblat of Orange Is the New Black: Don’t fear the reaper! Oh, and—
But I should play myself off. Willa, Mo, and June, I thank you for ending my 2014 with some fun, and for shaming me with your acute insights. I already have a crush of screeners for 2015—Fox’s hip-hop soap Empire, Sundance’s Babylon, a small mountain of HBO material—and they’re not going to watch themselves. But spoiler alert: I’m already excited.
Smoking and staring at you from across the street,