MARTHA PLIMPTON on "RAISING HOPE"
After an impressive Broadway run that earned her three consecutive Tony nominations from 2007–2009, Martha Plimpton has used the Fox sitcom “Raising Hope” to cement her status as a late-blooming powerhouse. Sure, she was a lovable pistol in ’80s movies like “The Goonies” and “Parenthood,” but now she’s matured into an actor who matches raw charisma with spectacular technique.
On a recent episode of “Raising Hope,” for instance, her character Virginia Chance, a blue-collar rent-a-maid who lives with roughly 32 generations of her extended family, discovered she was getting health benefits for the first time. In the course of one speech, she went from self-assured dismissal of the health care system to terrified wonder that she might be dying and not know it. She clarified every emotional beat, which made her dawning horror even funnier.
Even better, after the doctor gave Virginia a pair of glasses, Plimpton nailed the broad comedy of realizing her house is filthy, then added a quieter layer of dread that she herself was more broken-down than she realized.
And that just barely evokes the complexity Plimpton brings to the role. On one hand, her face can light up with mischievous joy as she and her husband scheme to have sex in an ambulance, but on the other, she can shrewdly handle her dementia-addled grandmother. She might say “illusions of grandeur,” but she can also create an elaborate bartering economy just so she can get free lobster.
In other words, Plimpton makes Virginia seem real, which is no small feat for a series that insists people should sleep with pantyhose over their heads in case spiders crawl into their mouths. It takes remarkable craft to make sense in an insane world but still seem like the gal pal that everyone wants to drink boxed wine with on a Friday night.—Mark Blankenship
UZO ADUBA on "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK"
Imagine this: A prisoner is so obsessed with a fellow inmate that she announces the woman is her wife, and when the woman resists, the prisoner pursues her anyway. And then after getting forcefully rejected, she urinates in front of her wife’s bed, either to mark her territory or get liquid revenge. (Or maybe both?)
Revolting, right? And probably grounds for a lawsuit.
But when this story unfolds on “Orange Is the New Black,” the Netflix dramedy about a women’s prison, it’s actually pretty charming. That’s due partially to the writing and partially to Taylor Schilling’s deer-in-headlights turn as Piper, the unwilling wife. However, without Uzo Aduba’s performance as Crazy Eyes—a socially inept and mentally unstable romantic—this entire subplot of the series would collapse.
Crucially, Aduba makes it clear that Crazy Eyes isn’t a violent predator. In her own mind, she’s a ladykiller, rocking the gals with sweet talk, physical affection, and original poetry. Even at her most intense, even when her eyes are bugging out in the creepiest way, you can see how delighted she is by her own smooth style, and it’s hard to resist her naive confidence.
As the season progresses, it’s also hard to begrudge Crazy Eyes her moments of happiness, since Aduba reveals the hurt and anger ringing in her ears.
Case in point: When she’s feeling especially close to Piper, she gets up the courage to ask why everyone calls her Crazy Eyes. (Her real name is Suzanne.) You see her tentative fear of the answer, and as you look at her open, innocent expression, you realize she honestly doesn’t understand how she picked up the name. Your heart breaks for this woman who wants to be loved so badly that she terrifies the people around her. —MB
VERA FARMIGA on "BATES MOTEL"
When it comes to mothers, only Joan Crawford can approach Norma Bates in terms of failing her children. We never see or hear Norma in “Psycho,” but the result of her motherly love on Norman is all too obvious. And though Vera Farmiga didn’t have the memory of another actor to compete with when she took on the role for the prequel A&E series “Bates Motel,” in some ways her job was harder than Freddie Highmore’s as Norman. After all, who could possibly make Norma into a sympathetic character as she stifles Norman into a future serial killer?
As it turns out, Farmiga could do it easily. Her Norma is so high-strung she makes Highmore’s nervous Norman appear stable. Whether she’s viciously killing a man in the first episode, storming into the police station on the offensive, or finding a corpse in her bed, Farmiga manages to convince us that Norma sees herself as normal, even a martyr. Is it her fault that life in their new town turns out to be a lot deadlier than they had expected? Is it her fault that Norman has fugue states, where he doesn’t remember killing people? And is it her fault that the cop she’s sleeping with to protect Norman turns out to be a murderous sex slaver? No, Farmiga says emphatically. These things just happen.
In other hands, Norma could become camp, but Farmiga wisely makes her as desperate and impulsive as she is un-self-aware. Other people can easily see that her relationship with Norman teeters on the verge of physically inappropriate (never mind the emotional dependency), but Norma is so eager for attention and so disappointed in everyone around her that we understand why she clings to the soothing, agreeable Norman. And, at Norma’s worst moments, we understand why Norman becomes what we know he will eventually become. —Mark Peikert
ROBIN WRIGHT on "HOUSE OF CARDS"
Forget for a moment Kevin Spacey’s turn as a premium pork product on the first season of Netflix’s groundbreaking series “House of Cards.” If you want to binge-watch some first-class acting on the Show that Changed TV Forever, keep your eyes on Robin Wright.
As Claire Underwood, the power-wife-with-a-steel-spine of Spacey’s Southern-fried puppet master congressman, Wright is more than just Lady Macbeth in heels. She’s a study in how to play a character who, beyond obvious good looks, has no obvious tools at hand with which to win over the audience, but absolutely must accomplish that task for the piece to work.
As Frank Underwood, Spacey has it easy. He plays a megalomaniac for whom the selfish end justifies any and all means—a role fitting with the vogue for TV antiheros such as Don Draper and Walter White. It would be a tough job, except that “Cards” scripts are constructed to allow Spacey ample time to mug and preen for the camera, addressing audiences with entertainingly snide asides and long, grandiose soliloquies. It looks like fun because it probably is.
Wright’s role, on the other hand, is hard work. Claire is every bit as driven as Frank, and every bit as willing to steamroll her opponents to get what she wants, no matter how pure their motives. But she gets none of the meaty moments that Spacey does with which to entertain the audience with wicked glee. To watch “House of Cards,” you have to invest yourself in not just Frank but also in Claire. To get you to do the latter, Wright must rely on her own skills to inspire in the viewer empathy for a character for whom sympathy is an impossibility.
She has the skill in spades. Just watch episode three for proof: Claire has just fired most of her staff in the most cold-hearted way possible. We are starting to get the sense that she’s capable of even worse. And yet she wins the audience over by…jogging? It looks stupid on paper, because it is. But great TV actors, even in the new age of TV, have to sell such moments time and again. And Robin Wright is one of the greats. —Daniel Holloway