Motion Factory Blog
Industry insights, advice
and general musings
from the Motion Factory Team
Posted by Travis James Annabel
If there’s one thing that can turn a great TV show into something truly special, then it’s performances. Before the HBO induced golden age of television, TV performances tended to be melodramatic and over-acted, which was often a result of the small budgets and tight shooting schedules they were afforded.
Since the late 90’s however, TV has become a medium that some of the industry’s best actors are turning to in order to rejuvenate their careers or to explore new ways and methods of portraying characters. Think people like Kevin Spacey in the Netflix original House of Cards, Anthony Hopkins in Westworld or John Travolta in American Crime Story. Indeed, these days some of the best performances anywhere are coming from TV shows.
So, here’s my pick of the ten best performances in TV. Now I’ve set myself a rule of restricting myself to just one peformance per television show - otherwise the list would probably only comprise of one or two shows!
10. Gillian Anderson as Media (American Gods)
Starz/Amazon’s American Gods is one of my favourite shows currently screening, and Gillian Anderson’s guest performance as the new god Media is a large part of that. Whenever this character is on screen, she is shown as taking the appearance of a famous character or personality from pop culture history - Lucy, from I Love Lucy, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Marilyn Monroe to name a few. And Gillian Anderson manages to nail each and every persona she appears as. Indeed, in one episode she appears as both Ziggy Stardust and Marilyn Monroe, and she is flawless.
Best Line: “Whatever the old guys are giving you, I can give you so much more. You name it, honey. What do you need? Hey, you ever wanted to see Lucy's tits?”
9. Lauren Ambrose as Claire Fisher (Six Feet Under)
Six Feet Under is my number one show of all time, and it features a plethora of incredible performances. One that often flies under the radar and is overshadowed by the bigger-name cast members is that of Lauren Ambrose, who portrays the youngest Fisher sibling, Claire. Over the five seasons of the show, we see Claire progress from a rebellious and an angst-ridden teen who has just lost a parent to a confident woman who pursues her dream of becoming a successful photographer. Throughout this run Ambrose is flawless in the role, and makes the character her own from her very first scene.
Best Line: “I know stealing a foot is weird. But, hello, living in a house where a foot is available to be stolen is weird.”
8. David Duchovny as Hank Moody (Californication)
Hank Moody is the role that David Duchovny was born to play. While on the surface, Hank can appear shallow, nihilistic and narcissistic, Duchovny’s performance manages to add a depth to the character that a lesser actor may not have been able to portray. Indeed, he manages to show Hank as a vulnerable and flawed man who has lost faith in himself. The character does some pretty horrible things during the run of Californication, but Duchovny plays the role with such charisma that just about every heinous act is forgivable. Throw in the fact that his comic timing is brilliant, and he can turn horrible things into a source of amusement and it’s no wonder Duchovny has a Golden Globe in his trophy cabinet for the role - indeed, it’s surprising he doesn’t have more.
Best Line: “I probably won’t go down in history, but I will go down on your sister.”
7. Michael Chicklis as Vic Mackey (The Shield)
As far as anti-heroes go, Vic Mackey is one of the best, and a lot of that comes down to Michael Chicklis’ brilliance in the role. Aggressive, but nuanced, he owns this role in a way that no-one else could. His charisma has you rooting for him, even when you know that he’s a nasty guy, and even when he does something irredeemable you still don’t want to miss the journey. Loutish, boorish and violent, there’s a certain dark enjoyment of watching Mackey continually get away with the terrible things he does.
Best Line: “Good cop/bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.”
6. Brian Cranston as Walter White (Breaking Bad)
To be honest, there’s probably not much I can say about Cranston’s career defining performance as high school chemistry teacher/drug kingpin Walter White that his four Emmy awards haven’t already said. At times powerful, at times funny and at times chilling, Cranston flawlessly steers the character on his incredible journey from a loser family man and school teacher to the ruthless and unforgiving drug cook and kingpin Heisenberg. His most chilling moment, at the end of the season four finale where it becomes clear just how far his character has fallen is one of the best moments in television, and he does it with very few words.
Best line: “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger! A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”
5. Toni Collette as Tara Gregson (United States of Tara)
Any role that requires an actor to portray a character with dissociative identity disorder - with no less than seven alter egos - is going to require someone with some serious acting chops, and Toni Collette nails the role. Actually, she nails seven roles in reality, because each alter that she portrays is a fully realised individual with their own way of speaking, their own themes and their own nuances - and Collette smashes it out of the park. Indeed, watching her on screen you get the impression that she is in her element in her role. It’s a shame that we only got to see this character for three seasons, because I think there was a lot more story to tell.
Best Line: “Why does this feel like a small victory? I bet everyone thought that I would be the one to off myself. But guess what Oak Avenue? The lady with all the personalities is not the most fucked up person on the block.”
4. Tatiana Maslany as the Project Leda Clones (Orphan Black)
In the same vein as the differing personalities that Toni Collette portrays in United States of Tara, Tatiana Maslany is brilliant portraying a whole host of different personalities in Orphan Black - although, instead of being different personas of the same person, they are all different people (albeit clones). I can remember reading that Maslany created a different soundtrack for each of the characters she portrays in this show - and to get into character, she spends time listening to that soundtrack to get in the mindset. It’s a brilliant method of acting, and she nails each and every Clone, all of which are very different people with different accents, different looks and different goals. It’s a credit to Maslany that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching one person rather than five. The video below shows it perfectly - yep, all of those characters on screen are the same person!
Best Line: “You're doing police work, but how long can that last, when the real police find me? You are me, I'm you, we're both the victim and the cop.”
3. Ian McShane as Al Swearengen (Deadwood)
While it certainly helps that this role has some of the best dialogue ever to grace the pages of a screenplay, it takes a special kind of actor to deliver them - and Ian McShane is sublime in his portrayal as the ruthless Al Swearengen. From his ability to bounce off every other character flawlessly, to his ability to switch from quiet sarcasm to heated aggression at the drop of a hat, McShane’s performance is well deserving for the Golden Globe he picked up for it in 2005, and indeed he can be considered unfortunate for not winning the Emmy and SAG awards he was nominated for in the same year. A brilliant performance in every aspect, I could listen to Swearengen’s cursing all day.
Best line: “Every fuckin’ beatin’, I’m grateful for. Every fuckin’ one of them. Get all the trust beat out of you. And you know what the fuckin’ world is.”
2. Elizabeth Moss as June Osbourne/Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale)
Riveting, horrifying, enlightening, terrifying: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing short of pure brilliance. Central to that brilliance is Elizabeth Moss’ incredible performance as the oppressed June Osbourne (renamed Offred). Moss takes complete ownership of this character from the very first scene of the very first episode, and her emotional engagement in the character is incomparable. Whether it’s playing Offred at her most submissive, June at her most rebellious or as the character as the show’s narrator, her performance is flawless. My money is on Moss to take home the 2017 Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy, indeed in my opinion she will have been robbed if she doesn’t. As good as her competition is, Moss’ performance is on a whole different level.
Best line: “It's their fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army.”
1. James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
The simple fact is that without James Gandolfini’s genius performance as Tony Soprano, many of the performances I’ve listed in this article wouldn’t exist. The Sorpanos was the show that ushered in the golden age of television we now find ourselves in, and more specifically the character Tony Soprano made the concept of an anti-hero something that was compelling, engaging and exciting. Without him, there’d be no Al Swearengen, no Walter White and no Vic Mackey to name a few.
Gandolfini won three Emmys for his portrayal as the depressed and panic prone mobster, and they were well-deserved. He plays the role with such nuance and understanding, that even when Tony is at his absolute worst as a human being, there’s something about him that you just can’t not like.
Best line: “There’s an old Italian saying: you fuck up once, you lose two teeth.”
Producer, videographer, editor - Motion Factory's Director of Photography has a huge passion for film making.
Travis james annabel
Filmmaking has been a passion of Trav's for as long as he can remember.