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Awards Season

Screen Actors Guild Voters Guide 2012: Television

Screen Actors Guild Voters Guide 2012: Television
Photo Source: Fox
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series

Kathy Bates, "Harry's Law"

Kathy Bates has shone before as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners career woman; her recent turn as a dog-loving CEO on "The Office" was so entertaining, one hoped she might be chosen to replace Steve Carell when he signed off. Instead, Bates took her special brand of tough-talking wit to her own show, "Harry's Law," where she plays lawyer Harriet "Harry" Korn.

A successful patent attorney until her boss catches her smoking marijuana in her office, Harry reinvents herself as a criminal defense attorney. This gives the eloquent Bates the perfect platform to deliver rousing courtroom speeches, a specialty of creator David E. Kelley ("Boston Legal," "The Practice"). But Bates is equally adept at the light stuff. Whether quipping, "Now excuse me, I'm going to go pass a kidney stone," or snapping, "You can't unsleep with somebody; trust me, I've tried!," Bates is consistently entertaining and relatable.

She's a woman unlike any other currently on TV, perhaps because the character was originally written as a man. When Bates received the revised script and saw the character name changed to Harriet, it was she who insisted they keep the name Harry, believing it perfectly summed up who this woman was. Bates' love for Harry shows through in every scene; it's clear she is having a great time. As she told in a recent interview, "Which one of us doesn't want to be able to just say exactly what's on our mind and still be loved anyway?"

For this role, Kathy Bates was also nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. She won SAG Awards in 1997 for "The Late Shift" and in 1999 for "Primary Colors." She was nominated in 1998 as a member of the "Titanic" ensemble, in 2000 for "Annie," and in 2003 for "About Schmidt" and "My Sister's Keeper," and she is nominated this year as a member of the "Midnight in Paris" ensemble.

Glenn Close, "Damages"

In Season 4 of the tense legal thriller "Damages," Glenn Close's performance as high-powered attorney Patty Hewes continues to be a marvel: sharp, shrewd, and invigorating. But perhaps most impressive are the ways in which Close keeps building on this iconic character, keeps adding unexpected turns.

When Patty must deal with the mysterious illness of her granddaughter, Close ably conveys the irrational worry that springs from pure love—and better yet, the fact that icy Patty doesn't quite know how to deal with such forceful, uncontrollable emotions. Of course, that doesn't mean Close ever allows the character to go soft. Whether Patty is maneuvering her trickiest case yet, attempting to mentor her less crafty protégé (Rose Byrne), or calmly and cruelly dismissing a nanny who has the gall to point out her shortcomings, Close lets us see every wheel that turns, every scheme that's hatched, in the character's massive, calculating brain.

And when Patty gets a true surprise at the end of the season, Close gives us a subtle yet undeniable flash of the panic worming its way through her gut. It's enough to make us worry for Patty a little. Yet thanks to Close's assured work, we never doubt that she'll eventually come out on top.

For this role, Glenn Close won Emmy Awards in 2008 and 2009 and was nominated in 2010. She won a Golden Globe Award in 2008 and was nominated in 2010. She won a SAG Award in 2005 for "The Lion in Winter" and was nominated in 1996 for "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story," in 1998 for "In the Gloaming," and in 2008, 2010, and 2011 for "Damages." She is also nominated this year for "Albert Nobbs."

Jessica Lange, "American Horror Story"

It's not every TV series that can kill off virtually all its leading characters and yet continue blithely on its narrative way, but creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, those guys from "Glee," have turned that neat trick in creating this enthusiastically Grand Guignol supernatural exercise. The Harmon family lives on because all died in a haunted house that keeps its still very corporeal ghosts trapped within it. Practically the only living principal left at the end of Season 1 was Jessica Lange's grandly gothic Constance Langdon, a fading Southern belle with dead family, including her mass-murdering teenage son, residing in the house that Constance once owned and longs to regain.

"American Horror Story" will never be accused of depth or subtlety, but it is broadly entertaining, and Lange pitches her scene-stealing work as the murderously maternal Constance at the requisite level, all flashing eyes, extravagant gestures, and a Southern accent that could feed a family, delivering a devilish turn with—there's no other word for it—glee. It's high-risk acting on the intimate canvas of your living-room television, but she calibrates it all faultlessly.

When, at the end of the first-season finale, Constance returned home to discover that her blond and beaming 3-year-old grandson—sired by her dead son when he raped Vivien Harmon while wearing a head-to-toe black rubber S&M suit (Vivien thought it was her husband spicing up their love life)—had murdered his nanny, the priceless look on Lange's expressive face was more than enough to guarantee a legion of viewers returning for Season 2.

For this role, Jessica Lange is also nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She was nominated for SAG Awards in 1995 for "Blue Sky" and in 2010 for "Grey Gardens."

Julianna Margulies, "The Good Wife"

In the third season of "The Good Wife," Julianna Margulies infuses Alicia Florrick with a consistent strength as she continues to deal with the aftermath of her estranged husband's betrayal. Caught between a job she loves, wanting to be there for her children, and a new, complicated workplace romance, Alicia is constantly struggling to strike the right balance.

Though it is always delightful to watch Alicia sparring in the courtroom, such as with Michael J. Fox's cutthroat Louis Canning, watching her navigate the new landscape of her family life without her best friend, Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), is fascinating. The undercurrent of emotional tension at the office from Alicia's strained relationships with Kalinda and her employer Will provides a powerful dynamic. Whether Alicia is being the fiercely protective mother, letting her hair down and sharing drinks with her brother Owen, or trying to slip back into a somewhat normal relationship with her husband, Margulies imbues each interaction with complexity and authenticity.

For this role, Julianna Margulies won an Emmy Award in 2011 and was nominated in 2010. She also won a Golden Globe Award in 2010, was nominated in 2011, and is nominated again this year. She won SAG Awards in 2010 and 2011 for "The Good Wife," in 1998 and 1999 individually for "ER," and in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999 as a member of the "ER" ensemble. She was nominated individually in 1996 for "ER" in 1995, 2000, and 2001 as a member of the "ER" ensemble; and in 2010 and 2011 as a member of the "Good Wife" ensemble. She is also nominated this year as a member of the show's ensemble.

Kyra Sedgwick, "The Closer"

In the final season of the TNT procedural cop drama "The Closer," the consequences of Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson's unconventional methods are catching up with her. Kyra Sedgwick plays the razor-sharp Southern detective, bringing layers of doubt and uncertainty below the surface to the apparently confident chief.

As the series comes to a close, the challenges are mounting for Brenda: She faces a federal investigation, a mole on her team, and her father's diagnosis of cancer. But in typical Brenda fashion, she refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of the issues and continues with business as usual. Sedgwick puts Brenda's passion for what she does in the spotlight but shows the cracks in her shield, bringing a relatable vulnerability to the character.

The chemistry of the ensemble lends itself well to the now close-knit team of detectives as they stand by their fearless leader, even in the face of subpoenas and federal charges. In fact, the biggest hole in Brenda's shield might well be the trust she puts in her team. Sedgwick portrays Brenda's pain in not being able to trust her "family" as she turns to the only person left whom she can truly trust—her husband, Fritz (Jon Tenney).

For this role, Kyra Sedgwick won an Emmy Award in 2010 and was nominated in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. She won a Golden Globe Award in 2007 and was nominated in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. She was nominated for a SAG Award individually in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 and as a member of the show's ensemble in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series

Patrick J. Adams, "Suits"

In previous roles, Patrick J. Adams has tended to radiate such a good-guy aura that it's at first a little startling to discover him playing a duplicitous rascal on "Suits." In this mix of sophisticated bromantic comedy and legal drama, the manipulative sides of the main characters—a superstar New York attorney, Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), and his opportunistic new partner, Mike Ross (Adams)—merely add to their roguish charms. Chemistry between them is a crucial element in the series, and the actors make a terrifically effective pair.

Ross is an ambitious young man with a photographic memory, whose financial problems have led him into ethical breaches in college and illegal endeavors. Though he was expelled, he finagles his way into the firm headed by Specter, pretending to have a Harvard Law education. As we learn that the inexperienced Ross and the slick Specter have more in common than was at first apparent, the men begin combining their formidable wits to survive, and ultimately thrive, in a cutthroat work environment.

A key reason that Ross is likable is the puppy-dog vulnerability that Adams exudes. As this guy bluffs his way through his lack of knowledge about his duties and scrambles to recover from mistakes—sometimes rescued by others and sometimes by his ingenuity—one can't help rooting for him to succeed. Ross is genuinely smart and talented, and beyond the job technicalities he proves to be an asset to the firm in helping solve tough cases. The wry banter between Specter and Ross smoothly counterbalances the serious issues they deal with. In a role with many dimensions, Adams doesn't miss a beat in amplifying the nuances of the show's intelligent scripts.

Steve Buscemi, "Boardwalk Empire"

Enoch "Nucky" Thompson is a cerebral man. After all, you don't get to be the boss of Atlantic City by letting your emotions rule you. But as "Boardwalk Empire" made its way through its second season, holes started to appear in Nucky's armor. In these moments of vulnerability, Steve Buscemi showed us how a man's undying faith in human nature, yet total lack of faith in human beings, could be both his damnation and his salvation.

For Nucky, Season 2 was a chess match. There were challengers to his throne coming from every angle, and though all were long on ambition, Nucky was without peer when it came to strategy. Some actors might play this on the surface, making sure the audience is able to see the wheels turning. Buscemi, however, trusts the audience and the storytelling enough to keep all of that inside. Nucky Thompson is always being watched, and he knows it. For as long as he has been drawing breath, he has been taught that you never show your hand, never betray a single thought to anyone, not even those you believe you can trust.

And because Buscemi understands that every great performance is an exchange with the audience, if you lay the foundation, put up the walls, and make sure the roof is sturdy, the audience will live in it with you—maybe even finding corners you didn't realize you'd made.

For this role, Steve Buscemi won a Golden Globe Award in 2010 and is nominated again this year. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2010. He won SAG Awards in 2011 individually and as a member of the "Boardwalk Empire" ensemble and is nominated again this year as a member of the ensemble. He was nominated in 2005 as a member of the "Sopranos" ensemble.

Kyle Chandler, "Friday Night Lights"

For five seasons, Kyle Chandler has given one of the most perfectly understated, deeply felt, and purely moving performances on television. His Coach Eric Taylor is a gruff, no-nonsense sort, but Chandler always lets us know just how much the character feels: the fierce love for his wife and daughters, the unflinching dedication to the players on his team. It's easy to see why so many of these players end up seeing Coach Taylor as a father figure.

Chandler believably embodies Eric's role as husband in one of the truest portrayals of marriage on the small screen. He and Connie Britton (as Tami Taylor) work wonderfully in concert, conveying the lived-in feeling of a couple who have their problems but are still completely crazy about each other. This was mined especially well in the show's final season, wherein the Taylors had to deal with a plum job offer for Tami that would require them to move. Chandler made Eric's inner struggle all too apparent, in every line, in every hushed argument, in every frustrated glance. He and Britton were so believable, there were a few moments when we were a little afraid that Eric and Tami might not work it out. But when they did, Chandler made Eric's pure joy infectious.

Observing him in the show's final moments, it's impossible to keep from smiling while simultaneously holding back tears: We just want to keep watching him forever as he brings Coach Eric Taylor to vibrant, thoroughly authentic life.

For this role, Kyle Chandler won an Emmy Award in 2011 and was nominated in 2010.

Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad"

His portrayal of Walter White has already earned Bryan Cranston critical and fan praise, and last season the actor continued to make it a pleasure to watch this chemistry teacher–turned–meth producer break bad with the best of them.

Despite his working with one of the most talented ensembles on television, it is hard to avoid singling out Cranston's captivating performance. This past season, White fully embraced becoming a villain, transforming from a reluctant criminal into a methodical and dastardly fiend: He spun lie after lie, poisoned a child, and murdered without remorse. Cranston, however, still finds a way to convey his character's actions as understandable, albeit terrible, and leave viewers rooting for him.

After an explosive showdown in the season finale, White says, "I won," in a relieved and sinister manner. Those two words showed that not only has Cranston once again succeeded in playing one of the most complex characters on television, but the audience has won the experience of great drama.

For this role, Bryan Cranston won Emmy Awards in 2008, 2009, and 2010. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 2010 and is nominated again this year. He was nominated for SAG Awards in 2010 and 2011. He is also nominated this year as a member of the "Breaking Bad" ensemble.

Michael C. Hall, "Dexter"

Michael C. Hall kills it once again as lovable murderer Dexter Morgan. Though Hall always plays Dexter as an alien to the human experience, he also continues to humanize the character, keeping him relatable, likable, and someone the audience roots for. Although Dexter continues to kill numerous people, we never think of him as insane, because Hall never lets you forget that Dexter is also a father, a brother, someone who works hard and lives by a code of ethics.

Last year, Dexter was faced with the foreign experience of religion in his life. Though the character questioned his faith and the faith of others, Hall let the often unmoved Dexter emotionally experience religion in a very human way. As usual, it was at arm's length, but it gave the audience a glimpse into Dexter's soul.

In one Season 6 episode, instead of being guided by the memory of his father, Dexter's "dark passenger" was his brother, another serial killer. Despite the exploration of the character's humanity this season, Hall fully embraced Dexter's dark side in acting against his brother, and we saw what a codeless, moralless Dexter would be like. It's a sign of a great actor when the audience is rooting for a character to discover his own buried humanity and be saved.

For this role, Michael C. Hall won a Golden Globe Award in 2010 and was nominated in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011. He was also nominated for Emmy Awards in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. He won SAG Awards in 2003 and 2004 as a member of the "Six Feet Under" ensemble and in 2010 individually for "Dexter." He was nominated in 2002, 2005, and 2006 as a member of the "Six Feet Under" ensemble; in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011 individually for "Dexter" and in 2009, 2010, and 2011 as a member of the "Dexter" ensemble. He is also nominated this year as a member of the show's ensemble.

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series

Julie Bowen, "Modern Family"

Claire Dunphy of "Modern Family" is a little high-strung, to put it mildly. She stresses over anything and everything, but somehow the audience does not hate her. Julie Bowen shows us that, despite all of Claire's rants and disapproving stares (normally directed at her husband, Phil), she just wishes for everything to be perfect, because she wants the best for the people she loves.

For example, last year Claire took on a crusade to put a traffic light at a dangerous intersection in order to protect her children. Her determination had hilarious results, including running for City Council, though she eventually lost. On the surface Claire seems like a typical demanding mother, but Bowen's willingness to be put in embarrassing situations allows her character to be likable and entertaining. In one episode this season, Claire spent an evening drinking and dancing with a man she believed to be gay. When she realized that he was straight, her reaction was priceless. Among other things, she said, "I took fashion advice from you! Oh my God, do I even look good in this dress?," like a shocked and insecure teenager.

Bowen understands that the comedy lies in the moments when Claire's attempts to be perfect reveal her imperfection, and the actor brilliantly exploits those moments for the audience's pleasure.

For this role, Julie Bowen won an Emmy Award in 2011 and was nominated in 2010. She won a SAG Award in 2011 as a member of the "Modern Family" ensemble and was nominated in 2006, 2007, and 2008 as a member of the "Boston Legal" ensemble, in 2009 as a member of the "Weeds" ensemble, and in 2010 as a member of the "Modern Family" ensemble. She is also nominated this year as a member of the show's ensemble.

Edie Falco, "Nurse Jackie"

Jackie Peyton's baroquely complicated life continued its slow-motion disintegration in Season 3 of "Nurse Jackie," ending with her husband's confession of an affair (Jackie thought the conversation was going to be about his discovery of her infidelities) and her terse instruction to him to pack his bags. With her speed addiction, punishing work schedule, and troubled young daughters—one is on meds, and the other is starting fires at school—Jackie is hardly in a position to succeed as a single parent, yet Edie Falco's potent cocktail of grit, determination, and intensely focused energy thoroughly convinces us that she will be foolish enough to try.

Despite the colorful supporting cast that surrounds her, Falco remains the rock-solid center of this serial comedy-drama, offering a high-wattage likability that makes us still relatively sympathetic to this compartmentalizing, narcissistic, deeply dishonest, yet altruistic woman. One main reason we keep watching is we know that Jackie won't be able to keep up such bad behavior forever, and we want to be there to see the riveting Falco handle the inevitable implosion. And though after three seasons we know a lot more about Jackie than we did before, Falco somehow maintains a sense of mystery about the character and her self-destructive conduct, still keeping us guessing about what Jackie really wants and why. No sooner is a layer peeled away than another confounding one appears, supported by the specificity and detail in Falco's confident thesping.

It's rare for such an unsympathetic character to retain audience appeal after we've spent this much time with her, and the reason can be summed up in two words: Edie Falco.

For this role, Edie Falco won an Emmy Award in 2010 and was nominated in 2011. She was nominated for Golden Globe Awards in 2010 and 2011. She won SAG Awards in 2000, 2003, and 2008 for "The Sopranos" and in 2000 and 2008 as a member of the "Sopranos" ensemble. She was nominated in 2010 and 2011 for "Nurse Jackie" in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2007 individually for "The Sopranos" and in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007 as a member of the show's ensemble.

Tina Fey, "30 Rock"

Tina Fey has had quite a year. From penning a bestseller to welcoming her second child, she makes snagging another SAG Award nomination for playing her "30 Rock" alter ego, Liz Lemon, seem like just another thing to check off the list. Fey has created a fixture of prime-time television, however, and with so many quotable zingers, she will inevitably remain a pillar of the modern cultural zeitgeist for years.

The heart of the series is the twistedly entertaining relationship between Lemon and executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). Last season, their relationship got even closer and weirder. The two accidentally got married. They had an awkward sex talk in the back of a car. And Liz gave Jack's baby daughter advice on being a woman ("Bandanas are a fun accessory!"). Fey's uncanny chemistry with co-star Baldwin makes this relationship asexually sizzle.

Fey is a generous performer. She always accentuates the strengths of her fellow actors and remains the center of the show without dominating it. Her spot-on comic timing and physical comedy make her endlessly memorable, and with lines like "I want to go to there," "That's a deal breaker," and "Blerg!," she has added many new expressions to our lexicon. But what really makes Fey's performance stand out is Liz's Everywoman persona. Fey's chronically single, frazzled workaholic character takes the troubles of today's urban woman to comic heights, and whether she's using her treadmill as a hanger, battling sexism in the office, or binging on junk food—Sabor de Soledad, anyone?—viewers see themselves in the flawed and lovable Liz.

For this role, Tina Fey won an Emmy Award in 2008 and was nominated in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011. She won Golden Globe Awards in 2008 and 2009, was nominated in 2010 and 2011, and is nominated again this year. She won SAG Awards in 2008, 2009, and 2010 individually and in 2009 as a member of the "30 Rock" ensemble. She was nominated in 2011 individually and in 2008, 2010, and 2011 as a member of the show's ensemble. She is also nominated this year as a member of the ensemble.

Sofia Vergara, "Modern Family"

As Gloria on "Modern Family," Sofia Vergara repeatedly shouts. Whether they're exclamations of anger or just "talking" to her husband (played by Ed O'Neill), Vergara shows that nearly the entire emotional spectrum can be conveyed by yelling and cause laughter. In the show's third-season premiere, Gloria briefly loses her hearing but later sings—loudly and off-key, mind you—even after her family members have stopped.

"Modern Family" also uses Vergara's deftness with physical comedy. One of the funniest moments of last year came when Gloria attempted to convince her husband's dog to eat his shoe. She went so far as to chew the loafer herself to lead by example. To the show's benefit, Vergara commits to these extremes of vocal and physical comedy, no matter how ridiculous or humiliating. As a result, viewers admire Gloria's tenacity and understand her frustration at times. Her thick Colombian accent is often used as a punch line—an episode this season featured jokes about whether Gloria was saying "Look" or "Luke," creating a sort of "Who's on first?"—but such repartee could not be accomplished without Vergara's calculated pronunciation and delivery.

In all of these instances, especially those that mock Gloria's Colombian heritage, Vergara demonstrates her deep understanding of comedy. She enacts what could be considered Latina stereotypes so naturally that her character avoids becoming a caricature and is instead a fully realized human being.

For this role, Sofia Vergara was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2010 and 2011. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 2011 and is nominated again this year. She won a SAG Award in 2011 as a member of the "Modern Family" ensemble and was nominated individually in 2011 and as a member of the show's ensemble in 2010. She is also nominated this year as a member of the show's ensemble.

Betty White, "Hot in Cleveland"

During Betty White's long and distinguished career, there's been a sweetness to many of her roles, but she has often seasoned the syrupy with a tinge of the bitter. As caustic man-chaser Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," that sugary persona completely gave way to a barracuda, to sidesplitting effect. On "Hot in Cleveland," White taps into the myriad expertly honed comic devices that have served her over the years. She plays the feisty apartment caretaker Elka, a golden-age mother hen to a household of 50-something single women from the big city on the prowl for male companions in Middle America.

The premise feels like a variation on White's hit 1980s series "The Golden Girls," though now White gets to play a shrewd cookie rather than a dingbat. She remains the indisputable master of the punch line—the more sardonic or salty, the better. There's obvious humor in an elderly character spouting raunchy or startling comments (think Estelle Getty's choice part as Sophia on "The Golden Girls"), and White touches on that approach in "Hot in Cleveland." Yet there's a snap in her comic timing and an endlessly energetic spirit about her that transcend what might be thought of as the easy way to a laugh. One never has the feeling that White sacrifices the ring of truth for the sake of a broad gag.

For this role, Betty White was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. She received a SAG Life Achievement Award in 2010. She won a SAG Award individually in 2011 for "Hot in Cleveland" and was nominated as a member of the show's ensemble. She is also nominated this year for "Hallmark Hall of Fame: The Lost Valentine."

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series

Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock"

For an actor, it has to be frustrating to watch Alec Baldwin play Jack Donaghy on "30 Rock," somewhat akin to how a blues guitarist must feel watching Stevie Ray Vaughan shred his way through a performance of "Texas Flood," but with one difference: Two minutes into "Texas Flood," the sweat is running down Vaughan's nose from the exertion; with Baldwin, playing Jack appears effortless.

After five seasons, it probably is. Baldwin is a master at squeezing every drop of humor from his lines, delivering jokes that a seasoned "30 Rock" watcher can see coming a mile off in a way that still manages to elicit racking spasms of laughter. He can surprise you, even when the script doesn't. In other words, there's a reason Baldwin has won the SAG Award for this role five years straight. There are other nominees, sure, but they're much like the people sitting opposite Jack Donaghy at a negotiation: You can't like their chances.

For this role, Alec Baldwin won Emmy Awards in 2008 and 2009 and was nominated in 2007, 2010, and 2011. He won Golden Globe Awards in 2007, 2009, and 2010, was nominated in 2008 and 2011, and is nominated again this year. He won SAG Awards in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 individually for "30 Rock" and in 2009 as a member of the show's ensemble. He was also nominated in 1996 for "A Streetcar Named Desire," in 2001 for "Nuremberg," in 2004 for "The Cooler," in 2005 as a member of the "Aviator" ensemble, in 2007 as a member of the "Departed" ensemble, and in 2008, 2010, and 2011 as a member of the "30 Rock" ensemble. He is also nominated this year as a member of the show's ensemble.

Ty Burrell, "Modern Family"

Phil Dunphy really wants to be cool, and in that way he is like many of the viewers of "Modern Family" at some point in their lives. He wants to be the awesome dad, the loving husband, and the great son-in-law. Phil cannot quite manage to pull off all three, but it's hilarious to see him try. Ty Burrell wonderfully portrays all of Phil's insecurities, not in a way to cause the audience to pity him, but so it understands him.

In one episode this season, Phil and his son decided to walk on a tightrope across their front yard. The idea is irrational, but believable for Phil, whom Burrell portrays as a sort of man-child. At first Phil failed with multiple falls, which Burrell executed realistically and hilariously. At the episode's end, however, he succeeded in walking across the yard on a high tightrope in front of his family. They cheered for him, and so do we, because he achieved his crazy dream. Though Burrell's enthusiastic willingness to fall repeatedly is a pleasure to watch, his ability to deadpan is also a wonderful source of comedy. He often takes simple lines and turns them into punch lines. When Phil says we'll never know what happened to the Titanic, his wife says it hit an iceberg, and Phil responds, "Maybe."

Burrell clearly conveys that Phil is a simple man with insecurities and big dreams. His performance this season pulls off a difficult feat: showing that Phil's pursuit of approval from others and himself makes him the most relatable and human character on the show.

For this role, Ty Burrell won an Emmy Award in 2011 and was nominated in 2010. He won a SAG Award in 2011 as a member of the "Modern Family" ensemble and was nominated individually that year. He was nominated in 2010 as a member of the "Modern Family" ensemble and is nominated as a member of the ensemble again this year.

Steve Carell, "The Office"

"The Office" may soldier on, but it will never be the same: Steve Carell has left the building. Carell made Michael Scott's final stretch at Dunder Mifflin touching and hilarious, a true tour de force that demonstrates the lasting comedic power of a character who could have been merely ridiculous.

Michael's obstacle-laden wooing of longtime ladylove Holly Flax (Amy Ryan) was at the forefront of Carell's final arc, and the actor infused every word, every longing look, every confession of devotion with a heartfelt sincerity that made us root for him, even when his actions weren't entirely sympathetic (Michael's careless sabotage of Holly's previous relationship comes to mind). But that doesn't mean Carell neglected the painfully awkward humor that made us love Michael in the first place. One of his last episodes had the character screening his so-bad-it's-hilarious action movie, "Threat Level Midnight." Carell accomplished the trick of giving a performance within a performance, good-naturedly showing us Michael's game yet limited acting ability.

It's this balance—earnest crossed with awkward, sweetness crossed with a willingness to thoroughly embarrass himself—that has us missing Carell's presence at Dunder Mifflin every week.

For this role, Steve Carell was nominated for Emmy Awards in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. He won a Golden Globe Award in 2006 and was nominated in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. He won SAG Awards in 2007 as a member of the "Little Miss Sunshine" ensemble and in 2007 and 2008 as a member of the "Office" ensemble. He was also nominated individually for "The Office" in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 and as a member of the show's ensemble in 2009, 2010, and 2011. He is nominated again this year as a member of the ensemble.

Jon Cryer, "Two and a Half Men"

In the first eight seasons of the sitcom "Two and a Half Men," Jon Cryer has been playing underdog Alan as the luckless, graceless, dorky sibling to Charlie (Charlie Sheen), the self-centered hedonist who walks over everyone and seems to end up getting all the breaks. The odd-couple chemistry between Cryer and Sheen became a thing of the past, however, when Sheen was fired from the show last year, leaving its future in limbo for many months.

In the season that began last fall, with the death of brother Charlie and the introduction of a goofy new character, Walden (played by Ashton Kutcher), a billionaire beach bum coping with a broken marriage, there are interesting changes going on with Alan. And Cryer is rising to the occasion, finding ways to bring fresh aspects to the role. Alan is still in many ways a schlemiel. After all, a leopard never truly changes its spots. But in a highly touching scene in the season opener, he spoke lovingly to the can of ashes containing Charlie's remains, as we saw more admirable and more mature sides to Alan's character. Furthermore, with the socially inept Walden as his new landlord (or perhaps more correctly, his benefactor), Alan is becoming a bit less of a childlike goof-off as he tries to guide Walden in his affairs of the heart.

Cryer is an actor with exquisite comic timing and a masterful capacity for finding undercurrents of resonant truth beneath the conventions of a raucous and sometimes raunchy sitcom.

For this role, Jon Cryer won an Emmy Award in 2009 and was nominated in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011.

Eric Stonestreet, "Modern Family"

Eric Stonestreet is at his best when his "Modern Family" character, Cameron, is histrionic. Take the episode this season when Cameron called for a dog named Stella while dressed in a white undershirt. He immediately saw the parallels between himself and the character Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and, like Marlon Brando, began shouting "Stella!" throughout his suburban neighborhood.

Cameron's mannerisms and exclamations are not Stonestreet's only source of comedy. He is also gifted at deadpanning lines and giving stares that speak a thousand words. This season the audience learned that Cameron has a tendency to dress up like a clown while he sleeps. Stonestreet's delivery of Cameron's confession, "I sleep-clown," was simultaneously heartfelt with shame and hilarious in execution. Cameron is a unique character in that he tries to demonstrate that a gay man can also be manly, sometimes with disastrous and comic results. When he attempted to drive a large truck through a crowded parking lot to show his masculinity, he crashed it but refused to ask for help. Stonestreet was able to convey through Cameron's "confident" voice his grave embarrassment, adding nuance to the performance.

The touches that Stonestreet sprinkles in his portrayal, such as his eyelash flutters and hand gestures, make the character more relatable and human. Cameron wouldn't be Cameron without those tiny additions.

For this role, Eric Stonestreet won an Emmy Award in 2010 and was nominated in 2011. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 2011 and is nominated again this year. He won a SAG Award in 2011 as a member of the "Modern Family" ensemble and was nominated as a member of the ensemble in 2010. He is nominated again this year as a member of the show's ensemble.

Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series

"Boardwalk Empire"

Watch an episode of "Boardwalk Empire," any episode, and try to pick your favorite character. Maybe it's Michael Stuhlbarg's Arnold Rothstein, who can look so amused whilst dropping incredible bits of wisdom on people he couldn't trust or respect less. Or Michael Shannon's Agent Nelson Van Alden, who struggles through moral and professional quagmires, all the while making mincemeat of lines like "I will get lemons." Or Kelly Macdonald's Margaret Schroeder, whose guilt has transcended merely Irish and Catholic guilt and who has found a whole new array of colors by which to be troubled. Shea Whigham's Eli Thompson, always a frustrated man, discovered that he's capable of much, much more than he thought, even if he can't quite admit it yet.

And those are just a few of the principals with whom audiences were already pretty familiar. Dabney Coleman's Commodore and Gretchen Mol's Gillian Darmody both showed the faces on which their masks have long rested. Perhaps most interesting of all was Jack Huston's Richard Harrow, a war hero whose physical scars only hint at the emotional damage done by his time in combat. Season 2 saw the world of this Prohibition saga expand, with new figures popping up constantly to fill out the corners of Atlantic City that had heretofore gone unexplored. Even smaller roles, lasting only an episode or two, were complete people who brought their own circumstances and difficulties with them.

Everyone is part of the swirling chaos that is the Atlantic City boardwalk, but the first two seasons of "Boardwalk Empire" were, at their core, a story about two men: Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody and Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson—both of them defined by ambition and ability. Darmody's seething expressiveness and palpable rage run counter to Nucky's constantly calculating demeanor. It may not be right to say nothing happens on the boardwalk that they don't affect, but it's safe to say everything that happens has origins and consequences that reach further than anyone could reasonably suspect.

The ensemble of "Boardwalk Empire" won a SAG Award in 2011. Steve Buscemi is also individually nominated this year.

"Breaking Bad"

Many television shows in their fourth season begin to decline creatively, but not "Breaking Bad." Despite all its laurels and fans, it has not yet cooled down, especially thanks to its talented cast. Bryan Cranston is the name often associated with the series, and rightly so; the actor deserves praise for his portrayal of the show's fiendish protagonist, Walter White. But "Breaking Bad" is not a one-man vehicle. After watching the fourth-season premiere, "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof tweeted, "Every potential Supporting Actor Drama nominee for 2012 who watched 'Breaking Bad' tonight just quietly muttered, 'S--t.' " And for good reason: The supporting cast is exceptional.

Throughout the season, Anna Gunn found a way to bring a bright cleverness to her character, Skyler White, as she became a full-blown accomplice in her husband's crimes. Aaron Paul's Jesse became the show's moral center. Though such a position would seem ironic given his character's occupation as a meth dealer, Paul's portrayal is so earnest in Jesse's struggle between good and evil that viewers sympathize with him. Dean Norris, as the traumatized Hank, and Jonathan Banks, as the gritty Mike, also gave powerful performances as three-dimensional tough-guy characters on different sides of the law.

Last but definitely not least is Giancarlo Esposito as Gus. Underneath the character's finely pressed suit and calm exterior beats the heart of a menacing, calculating villain. "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan told Back Stage that Esposito is "a study in stillness and economy and then underplaying." Even though Gus succumbed in the season finale, he still managed to do it with style, straightening his tie one final time before meeting his end.

This year the show's actors came together to produce one of the most compelling and entertaining seasons of television, leaving audiences and critics in awe of their talent.

Bryan Cranston is also individually nominated this year.


Last season, Dexter Morgan's belief in his "code" was tested, and he questioned his morals and values while considering a higher power. But despite this exploration of the character's humanity, Michael C. Hall fully embraced Dexter's dark side in acting against his brother Brian, giving us a glimpse of what a codeless, moralless Dexter would look like.

It wasn't just Hall who had to deal with inner turmoil. His fellow cast members each also addressed conflicts and crises. As Dexter's sister Deb, Jennifer Carpenter in particular let fly a truly vulnerable performance, showing the stress of Deb's promotion to lieutenant, another failed relationship, and her growing feelings for her brother. Her struggles boiled over in her mandated therapy sessions. Joey Quinn, another character in turmoil, supplied Desmond Harrington with a lot of acting fodder. Torn up over Deb's refusal to marry him, Quinn spiraled out of control, and Harrington perfectly played a man on the edge of losing himself. Portraying Angel Batista, the rock of the department, David Zayas showed vulnerability in Batista's relationship with his sister, the sweet Jamie (Aimee Garcia), while worrying about his partner Quinn's mental status.

In two of the most exciting cast additions of the year, Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks arrived to take on Dexter and Miami Metro as the Doomsday Killers. The combination of Olmos' gravitas and Hanks' wide-eyed innocence became even more exciting when the story line was flipped on its head. Hanks' boyishness made his performance all the more eerie.

The ensemble of "Dexter" was nominated for SAG Awards in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Michael C. Hall is also individually nominated this year.

"Game of Thrones"

How exactly did the cast of "Game of Thrones," perhaps HBO's biggest hit in years, manage to get nominated for best ensemble in a drama series but not score any individual nods?

Don't blame Peter Dinklage, whose part-comic, part-tragic turn as Tyrion Lannister won him an Emmy for best supporting actor in 2011 but not a SAG nomination. And it can't be the fault of Sean Bean, whose Eddard Stark devolved beautifully over the course of Season 1 from sturdy protagonist to defeated pawn. And anyone who could find fault with the performances of Lena Headey, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, and Aidan Gillen is not a person whose judgment should be trusted.

Individual snubs notwithstanding, it's a bit of a miracle that the talented "Game of Thrones" ensemble overcame the stigma that accompanies a sword-and-sorcery epic that's heavy not just on swords and sorcery but also on blood and sex. For those who could look beyond all the flesh wounds and bared flesh, the series proved to be a well-acted and solidly written political drama—arguably a better one than its more lauded network kin "Boardwalk Empire." The actors who helped make it such are indeed deserving of the recognition they have received, and more.

"The Good Wife"

Now in its third season, CBS's "The Good Wife" continues to mix legal procedural with continuing story lines. With the characters being pulled in fewer directions, the family drama remains as intriguing as the courtroom drama.

With Derrick Bond no longer a partner, Christine Baranski's Diane Lockhart has taken charge and leads the firm, providing wisdom and support for her associates. Diane is a powerful force; she keeps a close eye on the office, and when she detects a problem, such as the burgeoning relationship between Josh Charles' Will Gardner and Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick, she doesn't hesitate to step in. Archie Panjabi, as the firm's in-house investigator and Alicia's former best friend, infuses Kalinda with a cool demeanor that lightly masks the emotional tension still simmering between her and Alicia. Meanwhile, the addition of Alan Cumming's Eli Gold to Lockhart Gardner brings a new dynamic and energy.

As Cary, Matt Czuchry remains a thorn in the firm's side, and Cary has added to his entourage with the help of Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), who is on the offensive against his estranged wife's new love interest. Noth's intensity at the office is tempered by his affection for his children. Alicia's struggle to find balance between work and family has resulted in problems with her daughter, Grace, portrayed by Makenzie Vega, and eventually Alicia decides to put her family first, ending her relationship with Will. Rounding out the principal cast is Graham Phillips as Alicia's son, Zach, who has matured and stepped up to offer support for his mom and sister as they navigate their difficult new family dynamic.

The ensemble of "The Good Wife" was nominated for SAG Awards in 2010 and 2011. Julianna Margulies is also individually nominated this year. 

Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series

"30 Rock"

In its fifth season, "30 Rock" continued to deliver some of the most outlandishly absurdist stories on television. While the sheer weirdness of the show provides endless delight, it simply would not work if the cast weren't so good at maintaining a balance between off-the-wall shenanigans and emotions grounded in reality.

Take the episode wherein Tina Fey's well-intentioned Liz Lemon tries to advance the cause of women in comedy…and ends up messing up royally. Fey has honed Liz's single-minded (usually misguided) focus to a well-crafted point, and though it's funny to watch her fail on her quest, Fey's total commitment to the performance also makes it kind of heartbreaking. In the same episode, Alec Baldwin mixes hilarity with genuine yearning as he revisits megamogul Jack Donaghy's unlikely childhood dreams.

Although Fey and Baldwin are the major axes around which "30 Rock" rotates, the show wouldn't be nearly as engaging without its top-notch supporting cast. Jane Krakowski (as daffy Jenna Maroney) and Tracy Morgan (as beyond-egomaniacal Tracy Jordan) elevate something as simple as a fight over a sweatshirt into an epic battle of larger-than-life comedic wills; Jack McBrayer continues to charm as an innocent among sharks; and Grizz Chapman and Kevin Brown pack a boatload of humor into their limited screen time as Tracy's loyal posse.

All of these performances make for characters that are completely off-kilter yet also feel like people you'd be lucky to know in real life.

The ensemble of "30 Rock" won a SAG Award in 2009 and was nominated in 2008, 2010, and 2011. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin are also individually nominated this year.

"The Big Bang Theory"

After four and a half seasons and 100 episodes, the cast of CBS's hit nerdcom "The Big Bang Theory" is finally getting some SAG love. Why the voters have waited so long to nominate this hilarious ensemble is a mystery.

Emmy and Golden Globe winner Jim Parsons' freakishly intelligent and equally obnoxious Sheldon Cooper remains the funniest neurotic on television since Tony Randall's Felix Ungar. The interaction between him and Kaley Cuoco's simplistic yet sharp-tongued Penny is one of the great duo acts on the air. Johnny Galecki continues to bring depth to Leonard's struggle to find love after getting over Penny and working through a long-distance relationship. Simon Helberg adds shading to Howard Wolowitz's growth from a clueless boor who thinks he's a ladies' man to the loving future husband of Bernadette (Melissa Rauch). Kunal Nayyar has deepened Raj from a one-joke character (he can't talk around women unless he's drunk) to a fully fleshed individual with as many quirks and foibles as his compatriots.

Perhaps it's the beefing up of the roles played by Mayim Bialik and Rauch that turned the tide. Bialik's brilliantly deadpan Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon's sort-of girlfriend, is the ideal foil for Parsons, perfectly timing her zingers, like a geek-chick version of Megan Mullally's Karen Walker on "Will & Grace." Rauch's petite but powerful Bernadette can alternate between cute-as-a-button sweetness and tiger fierceness without missing a beat. Incidentally, where's the nomination for Carol Ann Susi, who provides the hysterical offscreen growl of Wolowitz's unseen mother? That would make the "Big Bang" ensemble's honor complete.


Perhaps the greatest testament to the strength of the massive, sprawling ensemble of "Glee" is this: Even when new characters are added, the overall power of the performances ensures that we never feel like our old favorites are being neglected.

For instance, we continue to marvel as Jane Lynch brings new layers to acerbic cheer coach Sue Sylvester, as she did so memorably in the Season 2 episode "Funeral," dealing with the painful death of Sue's beloved sister Jean. We're riveted when Naya Rivera finally gets to display her impressive emotional range, infusing closeted cheerleader Santana's coming-out story with authentic anger and hurt and joy. And we can't help choking up when Harry Shum Jr. ably conveys dance maven Mike Chang's deeply felt desire to pursue his art, even when his parents issue nothing but crushing disapproval.

And yet it's equally delightful to watch some of the newer faces make the show their own: Darren Criss, whose stunning charisma lights up the screen; Ashley Fink, whose flinty attitude and unabashed confidence make Lauren Zizes an attention-commanding force of nature; Dot-Marie Jones, who conveys heartbreaking longing and passion in one breath and takes down a bunch of rowdy football players in the next. These newer players blend in seamlessly with the actors who have been there since day one, making for a group that truly feels like an ensemble, a cast that works together like a well-oiled machine. The sheer size of that "Glee" machine means there are weeks when some characters are barely seen at all—but we always know they're there, waiting for their turn in the spotlight, making McKinley High one of the most interestingly populated locales on television.

The ensemble of "Glee" won a SAG Award in 2010 and was nominated in 2011.

"Modern Family"

Besides the terrific writing and the often relatable situations—even, somehow, the ridiculous or outlandish ones—what makes "Modern Family" succeed is its strong ensemble cast. Week in and week out, the actors play off each other expertly, never purposely stealing the spotlight and always supporting one another by knowing just when to hold back or react. Still, each one has carved a comedy niche for him- or herself.

As Phil Dunphy, Ty Burrell has proved to be a master of physical comedy. Julie Bowen, as his control-freak wife, Claire, is genius at bottling and releasing her frustration. Eric Stonestreet, as drama-queen Cameron, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, as pragmatic Mitchell, are a modern-day Laurel and Hardy. Ed O'Neill, as family patriarch Jay, is the straight man scratching his head at his family's antics. As Gloria, Jay's younger wife, Sofia Vergara has proved to be so much more than sexy eye candy; her wit exceeds her cup size. As for the younger performers—Rico Rodriguez, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, and Nolan Gould—each has carved out a distinct personality for his or her character.

In 2011, the cast of "Modern Family" continued to hit home runs in the comedy arena with episodes like "Caught in the Act," in which Gloria accidentally sends an offensive email to Claire, leading Gloria and Jay to drive over to Phil and Claire's house to try to delete it, only to find that pandemonium has struck the Dunphy household after Phil and Claire's kids walked in on them while they were having sex. As Luke, Phil and Claire's youngest child, Gould delivers the zinger line of the episode: "Whatever it looked like, Dad was winning."

The ensemble of "Modern Family" won a SAG Award in 2011 and was nominated in 2010. Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, and Sofia Vergara are also individually nominated this year.

"The Office"

For years, Steve Carell's Michael Scott was the heart and soul of Dunder Mifflin's merry band of misfits on "The Office." His sendoff performance in Season 7 was everything viewers could have hoped for: heartfelt and very, very funny. But it also raised an important question: Could this show survive without him?

The deeply talented cast of "The Office" rose to the challenge in Season 8, bringing new depths to already engaging characters. Putting Andy Bernard front and center as the new regional manager has allowed Ed Helms to ably amp up the character's endearing need to please and carve out a space for himself. Helms plays particularly well off new addition James Spader, who gives CEO Robert California a delectably unhinged quality: We never know exactly what he's going to do, which brings a freshness to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, the rest of the cast continues to shine in various standout moments. As sweet receptionist Erin, Ellie Kemper depicted a memorable moment of epic drunkenness during Dunder Mifflin's typically disastrous holiday party, somehow packaging suppressed rage, giggly hilarity, and a touch of melancholy into one fearless performance. Rainn Wilson and John Krasinski keep us entertained with Dwight and Jim's long-running battle of the wills, Jenna Fischer has taken us believably through Pam's second pregnancy, and no one delivers a peppy one-liner quite like Mindy Kaling.

"The Office" may not be the same without Carell, but the cast ensures that we're still fully invested in the lives of these well-established characters.

The ensemble of "The Office" won SAG Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was nominated in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Steve Carell is also individually nominated this year.

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries

Diane Lane , "Cinema Verite"

"An American Family," the first successful reality television series, chronicled the life of the Louds, a middle-class family in Santa Barbara who let cameras into their lives for seven months in 1971. "Cinema Verite" delves into the stories of the people involved in the groundbreaking project and explores what may have been their motivations for being involved.

Diane Lane plays Pat Loud, the matriarch of the family, who agrees to allow cameras into her home for reasons unclear. Did she think the Louds were the perfect American family? Was she just charmed by grinning filmmaker Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini)? Or did she hope the project would keep her husband, whom she suspected of cheating, close to home? Lane is a master of dealing with inner conflict, and she plays all sides of Mrs. Loud, matching the real person's mannerisms perfectly.

In the most climactic moment of the film, which mirrors the most climactic moment of the series, Loud tells her philandering husband, played by Tim Robbins, on camera to move out of their home. Lane and Robbins re-create this scene flawlessly, leaving the audience on the edge of its seat, waiting to see what each will do next, just as it was when it aired on "An American Family."

For this role, Diane Lane was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011 and is nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She was nominated for a SAG Award in 2003 for "Unfaithful."

Maggie Smith, "Downton Abbey"

Maggie Smith is the genius comedic actor of her generation, and creator Julian Fellowes wrote the role of the dowager countess of Grantham just for Smith. But these truths alone don't ensure a SAG Award nomination. Smith needed to ply her signature acerbic delivery and fully charge her malleable facial expressions to do what the dowager Violet does: outfox all obstacles on the way to the prize.

Violet once had status and power—at least as much as a woman in Edwardian England could have. Since the death of her husband, Violet is no longer the lady of the house. But her mind retains all the confidence and expectations her former status gave her. Smith combines the steel of the "Harry Potter" franchise's Professor McGonagall and the not-yet-faded prime of Miss Jean Brodie to create the soon-to-be-iconic crusty wag of the BBC series. The actor not only makes Fellowes' best bons mots zing but turns lines that could be read as naiveté or ignorance into acid-tongued wit. And yet, that twinkle in Smith's eye trumps all.

Violet is possessed of the wisdom of her age and experience and thus a problem solver. Smith is possessed of a rich résumé and thus able to land a punch in her every onscreen moment, whether tender or comedic. Only Violet could advise her granddaughter on being kissable. Only Smith could sweetly revel in a spin on that newfangled contraption the swivel chair.

Trying to hold on to the rapidly disappearing Edwardian lifestyle yet willing to bend with, even manipulate, the new era, Smith's Violet is a woman for all seasons. Imagine the bemusement she would show in noting that the dowager countess of Grantham has her own Facebook page and spawned a "What Is a Weekend?" coffee mug.

For this role, Maggie Smith won an Emmy Award in 2011 and is nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She won a SAG Award in 2002 as a member of the "Gosford Park" ensemble.

Emily Watson, "Appropriate Adult"

While "Appropriate Adult" may tell the story of Fred and Rose West, a couple responsible for at least 11 murders between 1967 and 1987, the film belongs to Emily Watson, who plays Janet Leach. Janet is the social worker who agrees to sit in on police interrogations of Fred, which is known in the U.K. legal system as being an "appropriate adult." Watson is stunning in the role, perfectly capturing Leach's excitement and horror at this title. She conveys the power Leach feels being placed in such an important position. It seems as though Leach has something to prove—to others and to herself—by sticking with the case, even when she is offered the chance to leave.

In real life, Leach spent more than 400 hours with Fred during the investigation. Watson's scenes with Dominic West, who plays Fred, are electric. The two bait and push and manipulate each other throughout the film, and their verbal sparring is exhilarating. Watson helps us understand why this woman is drawn to this monster—so much so that she continues to visit him after the case is over.

For this role, Emily Watson is nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She won a SAG Award in 2002 as a member of the "Gosford Park" ensemble and was nominated in 1999 individually for "Hilary and Jackie."

Betty White, "Hallmark Hall of Fame: The Lost Valentine"

Since she launched her career in 1950s sitcoms, Betty White earned and retains a reputation as one of show business' funniest ladies. Dramatic roles haven't been her stock-in-trade, though in the long-running sitcom "The Golden Girls," she effortlessly navigated adept transitions from hilarity to heartbreak.

In "Hallmark Hall of Fame: The Lost Valentine," White gets to sink her teeth into an old-fashioned tearjerker, and she brings so much likableness, honesty, and dignity to her plum role that it almost feels like a career breakthrough. TV journalist Susan Allison (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is pursuing a profile of a widow, Caroline Thomas (White), whose naval serviceman husband was declared missing in action during World War II and was never found. The blossoming love between Susan and Caroline's protective grandson (Sean Faris) is played out alongside flashbacks to Caroline's undying love for her husband. Each Feb. 14, Caroline pays a visit to the train station where the spouses said their last goodbyes.

White gives a hauntingly lovely portrayal, convincingly conveying the spiritual bond that has existed in her heart for more than six decades. Brimming with grace and emotional depth, this characterization has to be considered a high point in an acting career filled with triumphs. One shouldn't even think of sitting through the climactic scenes without a huge box of tissues on hand.

Betty White received a SAG life achievement award in 2010. She won a SAG Award in 2011 individually for "Hot in Cleveland" and was nominated as a member of the ensemble. She is also nominated this year individually for "Hot in Cleveland."

Kate Winslet, "Mildred Pierce"

With Oscar in hand for "The Reader," Kate Winslet chose something ambitious and unexpected—a TV miniseries. But Todd Haynes' luxurious HBO adaptation of the 1941 James M. Cain novel "Mildred Pierce" is no typical TV serial. It is in many ways the cinematic equivalent of the novel form: a contained story told at a more leisurely pace than a feature film but with a tighter structure than a "What will we do next season?" TV series. It is a rare piece of art, and so much of it hinges on Winslet's performance.

As Mildred, a self-sacrificing mother who is betrayed by the daughter she goes to extreme lengths to provide for, Winslet is, of course, amazing. She is, after all, Kate Winslet. The title character was played in the 1945 film adaptation by Joan Crawford—who was, of course, no slouch as an actor. Comparing the two turns, the Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara wrote, "Where Crawford's Mildred was clearly a victim, a lady hiding her klieg light under a bushel basket, Winslet's is a subtle, sweaty and compelling mess." Winslet, of course, is just the opposite of a mess when it comes to her craft.

For this role, Kate Winslet won an Emmy Award in 2011 and is nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She won a SAG Award in 1996 for "Sense and Sensibility" and in 2009 for "The Reader." She was nominated in 1996 as a member of the "Sense and Sensibility" ensemble, in 1998 individually and as a member of the "Titanic" ensemble, in 2001 individually for "Quills," in 2005 individually for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and as a member of the "Finding Neverland" ensemble, in 2007 individually for "Little Children," and in 2009 individually for "Revolutionary Road."

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries

Laurence Fishburne, "Thurgood"

The HBO broadcast of "Thurgood," about the life and times of the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, starts off with two strikes against it. First, it is the filmed version of the play by George Stevens Jr., and stage-to-screen translations can be tricky. Second, the play is a one-man show, so its success rests almost entirely on the shoulders of one actor.

But what an actor. Stepping into the title role is Laurence Fishburne, and he guides this history lesson with a calm, assured confidence that draws in the viewer. Fishburne is no stranger to portraying real-life figures; he earned an Oscar nomination for his spectacular work channeling Ike Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It" He nails Marshall's look, speech patterns, and cadence. More than that, he embodies a man who enjoys himself and doesn't take himself too seriously—although he always takes the work seriously. When discussing the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, Fishburne is simply riveting. And even though we as an audience know how the story turns out, Fishburne's performance keeps us on the edge of our seats.

For this role, Laurence Fishburne was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. He was nominated for SAG Awards in 1996 individually for "The Tuskegee Airmen," in 2004 as a member of the "Mystic River" ensemble, and in 2007 as a member of the "Bobby" ensemble.

Paul Giamatti, "Too Big to Fail"

Paul Giamatti is the best Paul Giamatti we have, and that could not be higher praise. His screen time in "Too Big to Fail" may not be extensive, but his presence hangs over every proceeding. His Ben Bernanke is not a man of many words, but every one of them carries immense weight. Even a casual suggestion to try oatmeal for breakfast is acted on without hesitation. He's a man willing to sit back and let others debate their hypotheses, and a man who knows the exact moment to lean in and remind everyone of the incredible stakes at play in every decision made.

The global economy is like a clock. It's composed of a million moving parts, and if they all function properly, then most people don't even realize anything is happening. But let just one of those pieces falter, and it all comes crashing down. In Giamatti's eyes, we see that Bernanke is constantly going over the variables, seeing the countless ways it could all fall apart, and working to stay at least one step ahead of that. Internal processes like this are not the easiest to portray and are seldom recognized come award season. That Giamatti makes it look so easy is why he's one of the best working actors today.

For this role, Paul Giamatti was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011 and is nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He won SAG Awards in 2005 as a member of the "Sideways" ensemble, in 2006 individually for "Cinderella Man," and in 2009 individually for "John Adams" and was nominated in 2005 individually for "Sideways."

Greg Kinnear, "The Kennedys"

In "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," a character says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So many performances in biopics seem to follow that advice, and few American legends loom as large as John F. Kennedy. That is why it's so refreshing to watch Greg Kinnear dig deeper and find the man at the core of the legend. At the end of the day, JFK was just that: a man. A flawed man, who often used his confidence (some would say arrogance) to mask how overwhelmed he was by the expectations of those around him. He lived at the intersection of those who have greatness thrust on them and those who achieve greatness, and Kinnear ably puts a human, relatable face on this dynamic. He finds a way to deliver historically significant, almost universally known lines without hindsight or pretense. And at the end of the day, when he's just a guy in a shirt and tie with a lot on his mind, Kinnear never plays it larger than life, keeping in perspective that he's one of several dozen men who will occupy this office. But he occupies it now, and that's not nothing.

For this role, Greg Kinnear was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. He won a SAG Award in 2007 as a member of the "Little Miss Sunshine" ensemble and was nominated in 1998 individually for "As Good as It Gets."

Guy Pearce, "Mildred Pierce"

How good is Guy Pearce in director Todd Haynes' "Mildred Pierce"? So good that when New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley roughed up the HBO miniseries in her review, she took a break from bashing everything from the script to the costume design to write, "Mr. Pearce … is good in everything and manages to be shiftily appealing as Monty, the polo-playing Pasadena gigolo." Maybe "shiftily appealing" doesn't sound like the highest praise, but it's quite the compliment. As Monty, Pearce must be both villain and charmer, seducing not just Mildred (and other characters) but also the audience.

Haynes' take on the 1941 novel by hard-boiled fiction writer James M. Cain is a super serious affair. Pearce's Monty is a rare and important breath of fresh—if somewhat heavily cologned—air. Everything about Monty is a contrast to Winslet's tightly wound Mildred and her "dowdy necklines," which Stanley finds contemptible. Though Winslet has to spend a great deal of time playing subtle and seething, Pearce gets to go big—and big he goes, to fantastic effect. It's the type of role actors champ at the bit to play, and Pearce makes the absolute most of it.

For this role, Guy Pearce won an Emmy Award in 2011 and is nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He won a SAG Award in 2011 as a member of "The King's Speech" ensemble and was nominated in 1998 as a member of the "L.A. Confidential" ensemble.

James Woods, "Too Big to Fail"

Sometimes, over the course of a career, an actor develops a persona that can seem almost inescapable. Comments such as "They're just playing themselves" or expectations for a "so-and-so moment" can be equal parts help and hindrance. James Woods, having worked consistently for decades, has cultivated such a persona. One expects dubious morality, a man so comfortable in shades of gray that it's difficult to imagine him in anything else. To watch Woods' performance as Richard Fuld in "Too Big to Fail" is to watch a man expertly subvert his persona by giving the audience exactly what it wants and then going further and finding the nuance in every nook and cranny of the man. His screen time even begins and ends with the same expletive, delivered with the kind of relish you'll only get from Woods.

Fuld's time as CEO of Lehman Brothers saw the firm go from massively successful investment bank to bankruptcy court, due in part to his arrogant and unrepentant handling of matters both professional and interpersonal. In the current economic climate, to see a man of such ego get his comeuppance is satisfying. Yet Woods finds a way to make him sympathetic, maybe even a little relatable—and in the process, show us a side of him we haven't seen. It's a rare treat to watch an actor, 40 years into his career, continuing to find ways to surprise us.

For this role, James Woods was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. He was nominated for SAG Awards in 1996 as a member of the "Nixon" ensemble and in 2001 individually for "Dirty Pictures."

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