The character Patrick Jane is all about layers. A former professional psychic until an unthinkable tragedy caused him to denounce the magical lies he had built his life on, he now works with the police helping to solve murders—mainly in the hope they'll catch the serial killer who destroyed him. On the surface, he's a playful Puck who delights in teasing and astonishing all who meet him and who does not care a thing about the rules other people live by. Just underneath is a carny-trained con man racked with guilt over the years he spent duping his marks. But below that is what makes this character truly a masterpiece: a vast, bottomless lake of pain and grief, the unending agony of a man who discovered his wife and child tortured to death. And swimming in this lake is a raw and primal desire for revenge.
Simon Baker inhabits this character, owning it completely and playing it like a charming and elegant burlesque dancer, showing us a glimpse of this aspect, a flash of that one. Just as his character has control over the people he interacts with, Baker has control over us, making us love a severely flawed man, allowing us to squeal with delight over his antics and cry in sympathy with his grief.
Show creator Bruno Heller talked to The Hollywood Reporter's Live Feed last year about what Baker adds to "The Mentalist": "As it turned out, he brings whole other stuff to the role that I hadn't imagined. It needed somebody with grace—physical and spiritual grace. I imagined a Cary Grant type of role. Somebody who moves and looks graceful, because those guys—mentalists and psychics—they have to be people you'd want to get close to, because that's what they are trying to do with you. Simon has those things in spades."
For this role, Simon Baker was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2009 and has been nominated for a Golden Globe this year.
—Sarah McKinley Oakes
Bryan Cranston, 'Breaking Bad'
When Walter White first appeared onscreen, he was driving an R.V. through the desert wearing only tighty-whiteys and a gas mask. We would come to know him as an overqualified teacher, a devoted husband and father, and the world's least likely maker of crystal meth. We had already seen him as a man with nothing left to lose, but in the second season of "Breaking Bad," we saw something new emerge in Walter: a badass.
To call Bryan Cranston's performance as Walter fearless is nothing new. Even when he was shooting at the police and purposely interfering with DEA investigations, it was ostensibly to protect his family.
But jump forward to "Over," the 10th episode of Season 2, when Walter realizes that a couple of guys are buying supplies to make meth in his neighborhood. He reacts not as a father, teacher, husband, or taxpayer. He walks up and stares them down, uttering five words: "Stay out of my territory." He reacts as a kingpin.
Cranston is showing us a man who has fallen farther than he ever thought possible, finds he likes the dirt, and keeps digging. A man who will not only damn himself but all of those around him—and then be powerless to do anything but watch the carnage. Since "Breaking Bad" premiered, a major strength has been the plot twists. As deeply tragic and demented as anything you'll find in Greek mythology, they are believably rooted in reality. The same goes for Walter.
We've all known someone who was stuck in life, someone who seemed to have nothing but bad luck. Someone who wants so badly to help, he'll forget or dismiss the consequences of his actions. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Cranston has shown us a man who can't keep from driving down that road, even if only in his underwear and gas mask.
For this role, Bryan Cranston won Emmy Awards in 2008 and 2009.
Michael C. Hall, 'Dexter'
From the first day on set, Michael C. Hall surely must have wondered if viewers would tune in to the tale of a serial-killer psychopath for the long haul. Four seasons later, his answer is a resounding yes. And Hall's indelible portrait of Dexter Morgan's complicated life and complex mind is the reason why.
This year more than any other, Dexter's in- and out-of-control psychopathic life ride has been a thrill. Early on, he seemed to have it all in check: the wife, the new kid. Hall scored early in this season of peace, smiling, laughing, convincing viewers of the different life to come. But by season's end, Dexter's reeling arc had come full circle to a horrific place—one he never saw coming, one he knew all too well. Given a tremendous range for anyone to play, Hall brought viewers to their emotional knees in the season's final scene, in which Dexter walks in on the ultimate personal tragedy: his own son surrounded by a pool of his mother's blood.
Hall's Dexter is as human as he is chilling—a reflective man with dozens of secrets he must keep. Hall plays Dexter's complexity so well, viewers comfortably love and loathe him at the same time. The actor consistently shows Dexter to be a skillful chameleon, a difficult attribute to convey without it becoming cliché or unfeasible. This year in particular, Dexter relied on his smarts and cunning to survive, inner workings usually hard to depict on any size screen. But Hall did it convincingly and with aplomb; he was never over-the-top or obvious. It was a challenge that Hall took on and mastered, making this season's "Dexter" the best to date.
For this performance, Michael C. Hall was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2008 and 2009 and for a Golden Globe from 2007 to 2009; he has been nominated for a Golden Globe again this year. He won SAG Awards in 2003 and 2004 as a member of the "Six Feet Under" ensemble. He was nominated in 2007, 2008, and 2009 for "Dexter" and in 2002, 2005, and 2006 as a member of the "Six Feet Under" ensemble. He is also nominated this year as a member of the "Dexter" ensemble.
Jon Hamm, 'Mad Men'
In this season of "Mad Men," Jon Hamm had one of those moments when an actor reaches through the screen, pries your jaw open, and extracts words to the effect of "Holy crap, this guy is amazing" from your mouth.
It comes when Hamm's restless midcentury American man, Don Draper, is confronted by his wife, Betty (January Jones), about his supersecret past. Dapper Don tries to work his magic—he is cursed with the power to make people give him whatever he wants, only to find that he never wants what he can have—but Betty shuts him down. Having spent the whole season being reduced by the writers to a childlike state, Betty, born anew in anger, makes clear that she is reclaiming power in the relationship. That's when Don realizes that the delicate and increasingly complex architecture of his big lie has failed him—and his face melts. Hamm seems to become physically smaller. One of the most notoriously manly men on television transforms, in one shot, into a child, switching roles with his co-star. The two actors then engage in what may be the best kitchen-table scene in TV history and go about silencing anyone who ever doubted either of them—if such fools exist.
Don Draper is less a character than a mask worn by another character. What Hamm shows us this season is that mask slowly crumbling away, until it finally falls off in the aforementioned confrontation. The Don we get in the two episodes that follow is more vulnerable than any we've seen before. He has lost the family he created with Betty, and in reaction he makes a high-stakes gamble to hold on to his other, more-real family at the office. With his life finally unraveled, Don is left with so much less than he had before. And Hamm, for the first time, lets us feel optimistic about the character's future.
For this role, Jon Hamm won a Golden Globe in 2008, was nominated in 2009, and has been nominated again this year. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for the role in 2008 and 2009. He won a SAG Award in 2009 as a member of the "Mad Men" ensemble and was nominated individually in 2008 and 2009 and as a member of the ensemble in 2008.
Hugh Laurie, 'House'
Imagine the network pitch meeting in 2003 for "House": a procedural medical drama concerning a rude, boorish, sarcastic but genius physician in his middle years, fighting a prescription drug problem almost as big as his penchant for solving the most complex (read: hard-to-follow) medical mysteries. And starring in this sea of malice and medical mumbo-jumbo will be the famous-overseas-but-not-in-America thespian Hugh Laurie. Whoever green-lighted the show obviously rolled the dice on pure talent to win the day and find an audience, and he or she was brilliant to do so.
In carrying "House," Laurie has become a beloved fixture in American homes by convincingly playing the most flawed television protagonist this side of "24" hero Jack Bauer. But Laurie doesn't just carry "House"; he propels it forward with ferocity and honesty and the darkest sense of humor seen on the small screen. Even after five years, House never fails to shock us with his callous honesty or his ability to deconstruct people and relationships into further problems that he can solve just to keep his twitchy mind focused on something else.
In the past year, audiences have lived with House as he lost a key member of his team to suicide, hallucinated and checked himself into rehab, and learned that his team was responsible for the assassination of a foreign despot (played by no less than James Earl Jones) seeking treatment at the hospital. And after five years of Laurie playing the most emotionally bulletproof cynic to be found as the lead character on a TV series, in 2009 House did the unthinkable for him. He finally chose to allow his friends—and the audience—in.
For this role, Hugh Laurie won Golden Globes in 2006 and 2007 and was nominated in 2008 and 2009; he has been nominated for a Golden Globe again this year. He was also nominated for Emmy Awards in 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009. He won SAG Awards in 2007 and 2009 and was nominated individually in 2006 and 2008 and as a member of the "House" ensemble in 2009.