IDRIS ELBA on "LUTHER"
After two seasons, viewers of BBC America’s “Luther” may think they know all there is to know about Idris Elba’s Detective Chief Inspector John Luther: He’s a troubled cop, a man who is in a hurry to see justice done and will bend the rules and the law if it prevents even the possibility of any more damage being inflicted upon an innocent. Luther’s conflicted psyche is best summarized by his attraction to sociopathic killer Alice, the Catwoman to his weary Batman. But in the third season of “Luther,” Elba still managed to surprise us all. His Luther is simultaneously less tortured and more conflicted than before. He’s being hounded by an internal investigation even as he tries to stop a vigilante killer (the irony of that quest is never overplayed) and connects with a beautiful blonde who’s so sweet and kind that Luther can’t bring himself to believe she belongs with him—and he’s equally unwilling to relent his grip on her.
All of this builds to a tense and genuinely shocking finale that Elba makes seem utterly unavoidable. Tortured cops are a dime a dozen on TV, but Luther is an exception, a man who is as tortured by the knowledge of the darkness inside him as he is by the job. There is a moment when Luther must choose between his new squeeze and Alice, a choice he hesitates over for too long to mark him as anything but an uncomplicated hero. But Elba adds another layer to that: His Luther knows that he’s taking too long to be a true hero, and he’s as agonized by that as he is by the choice.
Elba never makes Luther seem like a cliché or a superhero; with his tired eyes and hangdog expression, Luther is one of the more believable law enforcement officials on TV—which is the truest example of Elba’s talent. Anyone can wear an overcoat like a cape and save the day, but it takes a real actor to make that man seem like an everyday citizen.—Mark Peikert
JOHNNY LEE MILLER on "ELEMENTARY"
When half the world is in love with Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s awfully hard to be Jonny Lee Miller. After all, Cumberbatch’s turn on the BBC’s “Sherlock” is what created his crazed fan base, and for a certain population, Miller’s performance as Sherlock Holmes on CBS’ “Elementary” will always require nitpick-y comparisons. (Cumberbatch has even gone on record saying he’s sad that he and his friend are going to be scrutinized for simultaneously playing the same character on different shows.)
Credit Miller, then, for crafting such a memorable version of the famous detective. Over a season and a half, his Sherlock has become a fascinating study of a brilliant man who’s learning to make sense of his heart.
As he wrestles with drug addiction, for instance, Miller’s Sherlock occasionally descends into vulnerable panic, but because he’s so intellectually controlled, he never conveys his dismay with sobs or sighs. Mostly, he tightens his face or fixes his gaze on something in a mournful way, and the change registers even more powerfully because it’s so subtle. (There’s a similar pleasure in watching his gentle teasing of Lucy Liu’s Watson. Every now and then, Miller uses a half-smile to let us know Sherlock enjoys being an impish troublemaker.)
In its second season, “Elementary” has introduced Rhys Ifans as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, which has created delightful moments of sibling rivalry. It’s hard to remember another Holmes who has been reduced to the role of bratty younger brother, but Miller’s snippy, eloquent fits make it a welcome new facet of his persona.
There are indications, however, that Mycroft is going to betray his brother, just as Sherlock’s great love Irene Adler eventually revealed herself as his nemesis Moriarty. That could give Miller another chance to play the wounded betrayal that gave the end of the first season such unexpected heft. And that would make Sherlock’s flawed genius even more compelling to observe. —Mark Blankenship
MATTHEW RHYS on "THE AMERICANS"
When initial casting was announced, you could have been forgiven for wondering if Matthew Rhys was the right fit for FX’s “The Americans.” After all, the Welsh actor was best known to Yanks for playing Kevin Walker, the gay, emotionally volatile lawyer on ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters.” And while he was certainly empathetic, he hardly exhibited the ass-kicking intensity of a Russian spy who’s undercover as an average American in Reagan-era D.C.
Obviously, he just needed a chance to show his underbelly. As covert agent Philip Jennings, Rhys plays the show’s cloak-and-dagger scenes with intimidating stillness, suggesting he can kill an enemy (or even a nosy neighbor) without wasting a single twitch of his trigger finger.
In the end, though, Rhys also calls on that Kevin Walker sensitivity. Because when he’s not trying to take down the government, Philip is deeply committed to his superspy wife, his children, and the suburban dream he once only pretended to love. Rhys’ moments of paternal tenderness and his anguish as his marriage falls apart make him more than a typical antihero or a blunt symbol of America’s perceived enemies. He’s a man we can actually understand, a man who’s trying to decide where his loyalties should lie.
Rhys deserves extra credit for his scenes with Alison Wright, who plays poor Martha Hanson, a lonely government cog who falls for (and even marries) one of Philip’s aliases. In their scenes together, Rhys depicts two sides of a divided self—the calculating agent who needs information and the kindhearted gentleman who recognizes another drifting soul. It takes remarkable subtlety to let us see both Philips at the same time. —MB
ANDRE BRAUGHER on "BROOKLYN NINE-NINE"
"it’s over, Disco Man. Put down the yo-yo and back away from the girl.”
The funniest line in any comedy pilot in 2013 is, admittedly, funny all on its own. You don’t need to know the context. You don’t need to hear it spoken aloud. But put Daniel J. Goor and Mike Schur’s words in the mouth of Andre Braugher—and put Braugher in vintage ’80s hair, mustache, glasses, and broad necktie—and you’ve got the start to a “Simpsons”-style flashback aside that ensures people will be talking about your new comedy series from the very first episode.
Braugher, of course, is probably the best television actor never to star in a hit show. Yes, people loved to praise “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Men of a Certain Age,” but they did not love watching those series. Yes, he graced the casts of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “House,” but those were never his shows—he was always just passing through.
Finally, after decades spent wandering in the wilderness, Braugher has found his television oasis in the most unlikely possible place: playing straight man to Andy Samberg on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Part buddy-cop show, part workplace comedy, the fact that “Brooklyn” may be the best new comedy of 2013 isn’t a surprise. Goor and Schur made “Parks and Recreation” sing, after all. What is surprising is that it isn’t The Andy Samberg Show. Fresh off of “Saturday Night Live,” where he and his Lonely Island playmates helped invigorate the late-night mainstay with their digital shorts, Samberg could have likely placed himself squarely at the center of whatever he did next. Instead he chose, wisely, to co-lead an ensemble comedy with Braugher. Samberg’s Jake Peralta is a cuter, less dangerous Riggs. He’s funny, but he wouldn’t work at all without Braugher playing Captain Ray Holt as a more sensitive, more uptight Murtaugh.
Braugher is, from his first moment in the pilot, clearly the most committed, the most confident actor in his role. Remove him from any episode of “Brooklyn,” and you get the flailing horror that was the first season of “Parks and Recreation.” Instead, thanks to Braugher, you get instant comedy gold. Who knew? —Daniel Holloway