They're not stars, but we can't keep our eyes off them. Ten superlative TV supporting actors who keep us watching.
By Jonathan Storm, Inquirer Columnist
The stars get all the adulation and most of the money, but without help, they would be nothing. Hundreds of supporting actors, in all shapes, colors and ages, provide the spice that makes TV so tasty.
In some of the bland stews that pass for shows, they provide the only taste at all, but most of these 10 have helped elevate their series this season to must-see status.
We can't send money, but maybe, for nine of them, at least, this recognition will help a little more of it come their way. The 10th and final candidate might feel happier if he weren't so famous, but his work is just too good to ignore.
A few years ago, a list like this would have had to stretch to be sure to include minority actors. But TV, in the supporting ranks at least, has made remarkable progress. There's no affirmative action here. Just work of outstanding quality.
Maria Lark (Bridgette Dubois, Medium, NBC). Even if she doesn't know what it means, 9-year-old Maria brings an unself-conscious insouciance to the character of the delightfully distracted middle child in a family with a psychic mom.
Medium is much more about family than crime, or life beyond the veil, and Maria and the three kids who portray her two sisters - 4-year-old twins play the youngest - help create a grounded and believable family atmosphere that perfectly counterbalances the often grim supernatural adventures of the mystic mother (Patricia Arquette).
Peter MacNicol (Tom Lennox, 24, Fox). He won an Emmy for oddball John Cage in Ally McBeal. Now he goes a different way, as a presidential adviser who pretended to be partners in an assassination plot.
MacNicol shows his tough side in 24, which has provided marvelous opportunities for actors to reintroduce themselves, as it has chewed through characters all day long, year after year. Jean Smart, for instance, was scintillating as an unstable first lady last season.
Chandra Wilson (Miranda Bailey, Grey's Anatomy, ABC). TV actors are rarely believable as professional sorts. (Rob Lowe as a presidential candidate on Brothers & Sisters? Puh-leeese!) But Wilson brings a refreshing verisimilitude to her role as the demanding chief resident at Seattle Grace.
Despite her small stature, she's a powerhouse with a scalpel-sharp tongue. Everything about her forbidding manner, from her truculent posture to her barking diction, suggests that you'd better bring your A-game to work at the hospital. Part mother hen and part drill sergeant, she's the perfect antidote to the flighty and indulgent pack of interns she supervises.
Wilson's Dr. Bailey is prime time's most lovable medical grouch since Dr. Mark Craig made the rounds on St. Elsewhere.
Andy Samberg (Saturday Night Live, NBC). SNL hasn't exactly been lighting up the scoreboard recently, but mop-top Samberg has scored big. An established online video maker (if there is such a thing), he helped introduce a comedy form to SNL last season with the breakthrough digital short "Lazy Sunday," and his videos continue to provide the show with about the only edge it has these days.
But his live stuff's fun, too. Whether he's playing a too-clever-for-his-own-good kid trying to buy beer, Britain's Prince Harry, or American Idol heartthrob Sanjaya Malakar, Samberg's a laugh magnet.
Wanda Sykes (Barb, The New Adventures of Old Christine, CBS). Wisegal Wanda has a writing Emmy (1999, HBO's Chris Rock Show). She's an established stand-up, and she wrote, produced and starred in Fox's Wanda at Large four years ago, as well as serving as Larry David's skeptical foil on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
But in Christine, she plays it straight, a sensible friend to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' volatile flibbertigibbet. Her observations may be deadpan, but they boost the laugh quotient of one of TV's few decent sitcoms.
Robert Knepper (Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell, Prison Break, Fox). Unassuming and slightly built, Knepper has crafted a character who is so compellingly evil that he stands out in the Prison Break menagerie of felons, and the even more chilling lawmen and security specialists who pursue them.
For a second there, when he gave up dreams of becoming a family man - and the family he had kidnapped - and visited a therapist, it seemed that he was seeking redemption. Nah. He beat the shrink over the head with a statue and stole his ID. Pure T-Bag.
Vanessa Marano (April Nardini, Gilmore Girls, CW). She played a younger version of Lacey Chabert in Christopher Reeve's last project, A&E's The Brooke Ellison Story, and she's so good she's in two pilots for next season.
The daughter specialist has been Anthony LaPaglia's child (along with her younger sister, Laura) in Without a Trace, and Lisa Kudrow's stepdaughter in HBO's Comeback. Now she pumps a little air into this declining show as the long-lost spawn of diner dude Luke, a sort of second-generation Gilmore Girl: smart, confident and, above all, loquacious.
Gary Anthony Williams (Clarence/Clarice, Boston Legal, ABC). Journeyman guest actor, known best for voice-over work, shows up for one episode, as a larger-than-life transvestite who wants to sue after his employer fired him for using the ladies room. He does so well, he lands a steady job.
Williams impressed everybody at Boston Legal, and he's still doing it for viewers seven months later. Yet another unique character, bizarre on the outside, but thoroughly sympathetic on the inside, from producer David E. Kelley.
Roselyn Sanchez (Elena Delgado, Without a Trace, CBS). The Puerto Rican actress is on everybody's top-whatever list of the most beautiful women on television, but Sanchez is not just another pretty face.
She joined the show near the start of last season as a rookie agent. This season, she went undercover as a stripper, but also showed significant acting chops when her character's young daughter went missing.
Alec Baldwin (Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock, NBC). Don't yell at your daughter on a voice mail, Baldwin has learned. His network boss Jack Donaghy is so much funnier dealing with underlings in the new NBC sitcom that has plenty of critical raves, but could use a few million more viewers.
Baldwin skillfully treads the line between suavity and oafishness, and he accomplishes a TV rarity, instilling audience love for a meanie. It's a performance that this roundup, and Emmy-givers this summer (if they can forgive his questionable parenting skills) cannot possibly ignore.