By Greg Boyd, Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Andrew Rabin, Anthony Strand, Whitney McIntosh, and Cameron White
Welcome to another round of the This Was Television Hall of Fame, everyone! We had a terrific month in January, as our performance-centric approach delivered an increase in voters and generally positive feedback. Thanks again to everyone who voted and shared, and of course to the Hall of Fame writers for picking such a great crop of nominees. As we’ve always liked to stick with what works here—and we believe very firmly in gender equality—this month we’ll be looking at the other side of the category with Lead Actress in a Drama.
One note before we get into the nominees: those of you who pay attention to such things will notice that many of the nominees this month are performances that are fairly recent, compared to other ballots in the category’s lifespan. Indeed, several of our nominees are only narrowly outside the five-year eligibility window. This is not intended to imply a bias on our part for more comparatively “modern” shows, but more a reflection of the sad truth that for much of its history, both in front of and behind the camera, television has been a chiefly male-dominated enterprise. It’s only been in recent decades that female protagonists have been given the same opportunities and range of material that they rightfully deserve; consequently, the strongest performances that came to mind for a lot of us tended to be more recent ones.
To reiterate the performer-specific criteria set up last month: in order to be considered, a performer must have played the same role for at least one season of a show, and if they appeared as that character on more than one show they need to be tonally similar enough to fit the same category. Five-year eligibility rule is still in play, but it applies to the time a character was on a show, rather than how long the show ran, meaning that characters on shows still on the air can be considered as long as the last time they played that character was 2008 or earlier. And as always, 60 percent of the vote or better is necessary to grant entry to the Hall of Fame.
With that out of the way, let’s get right to it.
Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect (1991–1996, 2003–2006)
If you’ve been reading my Prime Suspect reviews here at This Was Television (returning this week!), you know that the cornerstone of my appreciation for the series is its main character. Helen Mirren’s performance as Jane Tennison is nothing short of a tour de force, laying the groundwork for countless character-driven police procedurals to follow. A driven and intelligent investigator chafing against the chauvinism and bureaucracy of Scotland Yard, Tennison knew that if she couldn’t be liked she’d settle for being respected, and she was an indomitable force both in the squad room and the interrogation room. Mirren invested Tennison with the same dignity and grace she brought to portrayals of three different British queens, and also made her a character who could go from empathetic to heartless without blinking an eye to get a suspect to tell her what she wanted to know.
What further distinguished Mirren’s performance was the way she portrayed the character off the job. Tennison was a driven, career-focused officer, but she was also someone who had sacrificed so much in the course of pursuing this career that she had no personal life to speak of. She regularly burned bridges between friends, family and significant others—“You care about your lads, your rapists and your tarts,” her boyfriend in the first series wearily said right before moving out—and increasingly fell into a lonely existence of whiskey and TV dinners as time went on. Yet you never felt sorry for Tennison because she clearly didn’t feel sorry for herself, she simply became more jaded and quicker with caustic quips as the series progressed.
You might think from the way I’m describing it this was a clinical, emotionless performance, but nothing could be further from the truth—it was simply a performance where the emotions were under a tight leash, making it all the more meaningful when Tennison allowed them out. The little moments, like the quiet “Yes!” in the hallway after being given command of the squad or the genuine effort to blink back tears when the squad unites behind her after she nearly loses that command, are all the more effective because you’ve seen how hard it is for her to let her guard down. And on the other end of the emotional spectrum, the moment in Prime Suspect 3 where Tennison makes the decision to have an abortion and her immediate reaction remains one of the most wrenching things I’ve ever seen on television—a scene made all the more poignant because it went right from there into Tennison interrogating an emotionally distraught drag queen. Tough, intelligent and yet so very human, Mirren’s Tennison is a character at the top of the pantheon.
Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore, Gilmore Girls (2000–2007)
With all due respect to Sutton Foster and Jason Katims (and that’s some due serious respect, that’s a two-time Tony winner for lead actress and an Emmy winner for writing), there is a special spark between Amy Sherman-Palladino and Lauren Graham that neither have quite hit in their latter writer-lead actress relationships. There is a rhythm to ASP’s writing, a speed for the witty sarcasm and overflowing references that, while amusing when coming from the mouths of many actors, is revelatory when spoken by Graham.
To take a step back for a second, it is worth considering whether Gilmore Girls is in fact a drama or comedy. Awards offer little insight; the Golden Globes, People’s Choice Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards consider it a drama, the Satellite Awards settled on comedy. And the Television Critics Awards, just to be annoying, changed year-to-year, including Graham’s two nominations, for drama in 2002 and comedy in 2006. But between Lorelai’s ongoing love life struggles, the growth of her on-again/off-again relationship with Luke, and her relationship with her parents, Graham played a clear role in the dramatic side of this series, while also showing her comedic side in her dealings with the inn. In fact, perhaps Graham’s greatest strength is playing comedic during deeper moments (take this penultimate scene from the finale). It is certainly not clear cut which category this series and performance fall into, but Graham’s performance and character, one often left with broken relationships, leans dramatic.
The actual plot points for Lorelai were not particularly unique. In fact, as I described them above (love life struggles and relationship with her parents) they sound not too far off from Graham’s current television persona on Parenthood. But Lorelai was a fairly unique character. There was something about, not just the references and the dialogue (after all, ASP wrote similarly styled speech for many of her characters) but the way Graham delivered it. There’s a sweetness in Graham’s tone, an energy in her line reading that makes the performance stand out. It is an example of a perfect storm of a terrific actress with the right writer creating a modern classic character.
Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow, Alias (2001–2006)
There are several versions of Sydney Bristow that you see in the Alias pilot and within the first five minutes you get to see two; one with a Run Lola Run look in a dangerous location and the other as a fresh-faced grad student receiving a marriage proposal. It’s these different sides to the character in both Sydney’s work and personal life that allow Jennifer Garner to shine, as she can switch between the sweet and the kickass in a heartbeat. The amount of roles that Sydney plays is endless due to her work in the field; and because of the type of actress Garner is, she can play whatever part is required in that moment. This is because Garner isn’t too much of one thing, even if at first glance she might seem too sweet. Thanks to training and her physicality it isn’t unbelievable that someone like Garner could perform these very physical actions scenes and while she does have a stunt double at times, it is clear that for the majority it is Garner in these sequences.
In the pilot, when Sydney returns home to find her fiancé dead in the bathtub, the reaction that this provokes could challenge anything that Claire Danes has done with her now famous chin quiver. Going from silent horror, to an ear piercing anguish reveals that even though Sydney is an expert in compartmentalizing her emotions she is also capable of feeling deep pain. It also reveals that Jennifer Garner is a really good onscreen crier, something you see scattered throughout the seasons.
For a show that veered into the ridiculous as the Rambaldi web became a tangled mess, Garner always managed to sell the material (along with the rest of the excellent cast) and it’s why Alias was worth sticking with, even when it went past its prime. It’s also why I really wish Jennifer Garner would return to TV, with a project worthy of her talent and she doesn’t even have to kick someone’s ass. (Though she probably still could.)
Linda Cardellini as Lindsey Weir, Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000)
One of the most remarkable things about Linda Cardellini’s work on Freaks and Geeks is just how great an impression she makes over the show’s eighteen episodes. Granted, Lindsay Weir is the main character of the series, but by design the role is incredibly understated. Other characters have their showcase moments, but it’s Lindsay who is the quiet heart and soul of the show from start to finish: something that becomes clear the first time you see that instantly endearing flicker of uncertainty appear on her face in the pilot episode.
Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport, Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)
Veronica Hamel isn’t a name you hear in conversations like this one and there are a few easy reasons for that. First, despite its widespread critical acclaim and awards love, Hill Street Blues was much more of an ensemble piece than a platform for extended screen-time for individuals performers. Second, Hamel’s performance, like so many of the great actors and actresses on Hill Street, was regularly understated and even-keeled. Nevertheless, as Joyce Davenport, the hard-working and tough public defender in a city crumbling due to institutional and social corruption, Hamel almost instantly brought a typically-rote role to life. In her hands, Joyce never relegated to cliched love interest (Joyce’s relationship with Daniel J. Travanti’s Frank Furillo was always treated like an even and adult partnership) or OVERLY CARING public defender (when the show focused on her job, she was regularly portrayed as more than competent). Along the way, Hamel managed to craft a character who really carried the weight of her life with her in every scene we saw, and in the irregular chance the show wanted her to have a more traditional breakdown, she could handle those sequences as well.
It might have been difficult for Hamel to stand out among a show chock-full of fascinating characters—most of them men—but she consistently did. And for some, especially in the 1980s, it might have been difficult to stand out on a police procedural, but she did that too.
Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
It has become my belief over the years that great lead actors or actresses are not inherent. That is, charisma isn’t the natural characteristic that can allow someone to be called out as a perfect choice for a main character role. It requires a good writer at the helm (and most of the shows featured on the list this month had great writers and showrunners) and, most importantly, it requires a belief in the material that goes beyond its selling points to the network.
Joss Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar began their journeys together, in a way. She was on the daytime soap All My Children for quite a while, but Buffy was her first major primetime role; Whedon, meanwhile, was a script doctor after he left work on Roseanne, the show that launched a thousand television writer careers. Even worse, the two were haunted by the 1992 film, which went haywire almost as soon as Whedon sold it. Gellar had to carve her own way through the woods, away from Kristy Swanson; while Joss had to figure out if his character, designed as a response to horror film cliches and a perceived lack of strong female characters on television, could survive on network television.
Whedon succeeded, of course, and that boosted everyone else around him. Chief among them: Sarah Michelle Gellar. Her performance was mostly on point in the first season, but most of the stories lacked the kind of emotional depth that would come to define the show’s later seasons. Despite this, there are some truly spectacular moments for her right from the get-go, from the two-part pilot that settles viewers comfortably in Sunnydale and Buffy’s hero quest all the way to the season finale, when she stares down the Master and says, “I may be dead, but I’m still pretty. Which is more than I can say for you,” or when she confronts Giles about her prophecy: “Giles… I’m sixteen years old. I don’t wanna die.”
From that episode forward, Gellar soared through the show’s best and worst stories, hitting all the right notes (she’s vulnerable in season three’s “Earshot” and “Helpless”, but still remains resolute to fighting the good fight, and fighting for her life, when preparing to tackle the Mayor in the two-part finale) and growing ever more confident as a performer with each passing week. This progress is reflected in her awards history: from Teen Choice Awards winner for the years 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2003 and Saturn award nominations from 1998 onward (winning only in 1999) to a Golden Globe and Television Critic’s Award nominee in 2001.
Gellar has struggled sometimes with the recognition she gets for this role, but that’s no accident. It takes an extraordinary performer to go through literal Hell on Earth season after season, but if there’s one thing Gellar’s intriguing filmography shows, it’s that she was always building towards, then building from, this role. From scream queen to drama queen to indie film’s best-kept secret, Gellar found her acting voice in the eternal struggles of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully, The X-Files (1993–2002)
When a series sees one of its leads more or less jump ship in search of a movie career for the final two seasons on the air, the other lead usually has to work that much harder to maintain the integrity of the show in the face of these changes the best they could. But even prior to David Duchovny’s departure, Gillian Anderson brought more emotion and levity to Dr. Dana Scully than many other equally talented actresses could have. There’s a reason Mulder and Scully will go down in history as one of the greatest “will they, won’t they” situations of all time (not to mention quite probably the origin of “shipping” onscreen couples) and that boils down to the chemistry between Anderson and Duchovny. The Scully half of the relationship always brought both emotion and logic, transforming what could have ended up as a rote love story into a historic pairing.
Throughout the nine seasons of The X-Files Gillian Anderson appeared in 201 of the 205 total episodes, or over 98% of the time. While that figure alone is impressive, what’s more is that she was able to maintain the integrity of Dana Scully and her characterization until the bitter end. It’s not exactly a surprise when sci-fi shows push the envelope of plot lines and character development as the years go on and ideas wear thin, but Anderson never mailed in a particularly far-fetched arc. Which of course, this being The X-Files, there were many. She’s a relapsed Christian! She believes again! Infertile! Pregnant! Cancer! Abduction?!?! Scully was the grounded and scientific half of the show and despite (because of?) this, she was also the one to whom the batshit crazy events always happened. Anderson did a seemingly effortless job making these storylines fit into the show’s already out of the ordinary universe, no matter how weird they seemed to the characters or the audience.
Fortunately for her, the various major voting bodies agreed with me in respect to her dramatic performances. She finished her run as Dana Scully with an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for the 1995-96 season of The X-Files, and an additional three nominations at both the Emmys and Golden Globes. 201 episodes and countless “Oh my God…”s later, Gillian Anderson was still displaying her dramatic chops week in and week out until the bitter end.