At the Tony Awards last week, Broadway's latest season was labeled "the year of the actor." The same could be said for the past season of network television -- yes, good old commercial network prime-time television.
This year, not all the great performances were on "Great Performances." In fact, the quality of TV acting is going up.
That may be because, as network executives struggle to halt the stampede of audiences to other forms of TV, they begrudgingly give writers, directors and producers more latitude to create distinctive, sharp-edged programming. Thus were born, in recent seasons, shows like "Twin Peaks," "China Beach," "The Wonder Years," "thirtysomething," "L.A. Law," and "Roseanne."
Actors become the beneficiaries of trickle-down freedom passed along by the creators of the shows. Under this new openness, prime time becomes less of a fast-food drive-in, more of a gourmet restaurant.
From Jamey Sheridan and Elizabeth Pena's sexy cat-and-mouse match on "Shannon's Deal" to Diana Muldaur's scintillating skulduggery on "L.A. Law" to young Jaleel White's spectacular splash as nerdy Steve Urkel on "Family Matters" to the wickedly funny vocal performances of Dan Castellaneta and Nancy Cartwright as papa Homer and son Bart on "The Simpsons," it was a year of at least 100 stars, probably more.
TV movies and miniseries offer actors the most prominent of TV spotlights, and one of the most shattering, most unforgettable performances of the season came in a TV movie as the season ended. Barbara Hershey was brilliantly chilling in the CBS docudrama shocker "Killing in a Small Town," a real-life horror movie about a Texas homemaker who abruptly ended a neighbor's existence with 42 chops of an ax.
Ever-faltering CBS, perhaps fearful of adverse reaction to the film's explicit violence, sneaked it onto the air with insufficient promotion. Anyone who managed to see it had to be jolted by Hershey's transformations from classically repressed homemaker ("a spectacular example of denial," as a shrink in the film described her) to helplessly enraged ax-wielder. This was a performance to raise goose bumps the size of lemon drops.
Second only to Hershey's triumph in "Killing" was Christine Lahti's elegant heartbreaker as a homeless mother in the CBS film "No Place Like Home," a daringly downbeat look at one unfortunate family's descent into hard-luck hell. Lahti was painfully moving without stooping to pathos.
Other movies and miniseries gave performers golden opportunities to shine. Annette O'Toole and William Petersen were both pretty golden as Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy in ABC's miniseries "The Kennedys of Massachusetts," which suffered from the network's last-minute decision to reduce its running time from 11 hours to six.
Perhaps the most memorable of the season's troubled couples were Lindsay Wagner and Michael Nouri as Charlotte and John Fedders in "Shattered Dreams," a CBS movie that brought domestic violence frighteningly close to home. Wagner's victory was particularly sweet considering the dismal failure of her blank and bland CBS series "Peaceable Kingdom" earlier in the season.
Meanwhile, Walter Matthau was a rumpled joy as a crusty, fusty southern attorney in the CBS drama "The Incident"; Susan Dey imbued the cliches of deathbed heroics with new dignity in ABC's "I Love You Perfect"; and Connie Sellecca had and gave a wonderful time in the sumptuous NBC fantasy "Turn Back the Clock," directed with high style by the versatile Larry Elikann.
On NBC, Bernadette Peters was so bouncy and resourceful playing Tammy Faye Bakker in the network movie "Fall From Grace" that she made you glad there was a Tammy Faye Bakker. Disappointing ratings for the film suggested the viewing public felt it had viewed enough of the Bakkers' public lives. Alas, millions missed out on a whale of a portrayal.
If movies and long-form programming are actors' preferred arenas on TV, the really tough acting is still done in the trenches: the weekly series, where performances have to be stretched out for weeks on end. Nobody stretched more flavorfully and zestfully this season than Diana Muldaur as that classy barracuda Rosalind Shays on NBC's "L.A. Law."
But there was another example of guest-star heroics on "L.A. Law" that went largely unheralded, and that was Veronica Cartwright's razor-edged performance as the obsessive, close-minded prosecutor in the Earl Williams case, a story line that continued over several of the best "L.A. Law" episodes. Cartwright was dynamite.
ABC's "thirtysomething" is populated with roles that are difficult and delicate. Some of the cast members seem determined to be as irritating as possible. Others explore nuances with a subtlety rare for episodic television. This season's two standouts in that regard were Patricia Wettig as Nancy, who learned midway through the season that she had ovarian cancer, and David Clennon as the mercurially menacing Miles Drentell.
The show was always better when either of them took center stage, and the season's closing episodes, in which Miles fought a corporate takeover, showed him to be the equal of "L.A. Law's" Rosalind in the love-to-hate department.
Michael St. Gerard logged a credible and heartfelt portrayal of Elvis Presley on ABC's stubbornly ill-fated serialized biography "Elvis." Joe Morton gave weight and impact to the character of prosecutor Michael James on ABC's overwrought "Equal Justice." And Jamey Sheridan and Elizabeth Pena, as noted, set off colorful sparks as a lumpen lawyer and his sassy secretary on NBC's "Shannon's Deal."
NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, in a recent interview, said the work on "Shannon's Deal" was as good as that on ABC's "Twin Peaks." Nevertheless, the slippery little mackerel refused to put "Shannon's Deal" on the network's fall schedule, underlining suspicions that Tartikoff's much-ballyhooed commitment to "quality" is now a ghost of seasons past.
Good actors can, of course, elevate even less-than-wonderful shows, the way Valerie Bertinelli does each week with the slack CBS sitcom "Sydney," or the way Pamela Reed does on NBC's disappointer, "Grand" (here's a bet that she'll be featured even more prominently next season). Or the way Alex Rocco roared a riotous path through the insufficiently engaging CBS sitcom "The Famous Teddy Z." Rocco may return in a spinoff that's All About Al.
Chris Burke, the actor with Down syndrome on ABC's "Life Goes On," was an illuminating marvel. Dana Delany continues to excel on ABC's "China Beach." And Neil Patrick Harris was lithe as a feather on ABC's "Doogie Howser, M.D."
But making an impact in a TV series isn't always about the vaunted thespian art. Take the case of "Family Matters," a likable sitcom about a lovable inner-city family that still wasn't exactly lighting up the sky like a comet.
Then Came Urkel. Or rather, then came teenager Jaleel White as Steve Urkel, a lad-next-door whose nasal-twanged klutziness can turn even so-so dialogue (and much of it is) into socko boffo stuff. ABC executives are wild about this bright and funny kid, who appeared in nine episodes this season but is likely to appear in almost all the episodes next season. Maybe he's not a great actor, but he's a joy to watch.
One of the truly outstanding weekly performances in television this season was done entirely with a voice, because the character exists only on paper. Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson on Fox's animated mega-hit "The Simpsons," has helped make Homer our most poignantly funny working-class hero since Ralph Kramden.
And Nancy Cartwright (though obviously female) put just the right spin on the voice of the mischievous and insouciant Bart, Homer and Madge Simpson's scallop-topped son and, almost officially, our new National Brat.
The most talked-about, argued-about and written-about series of the season, ABC's fabulously nutty "Twin Peaks," features a huge cast so uniform in its lunatic excellence that it's hard to single out any of them. Hard, but not impossible. Probably the most arresting performances were by Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper; Kimmy Robertson as loopy Lucy, the receptionist; Dana Ashbrook as Bobby, the feral teen; and the monumentally provocative Sherilyn Fenn as ultra-naughty Audrey Horne, brothel novitiate and peeping Tomasina.
Not to mention Piper Laurie, Joan Chen, Eric Da Re, Russ Tamblyn, Wendy Robie and Michael Ontkean. But they should be mentioned. So should Sheryl Lee in the pivotal role of the dead Laura Palmer and her living look-alike cousin. Or is Laura Palmer really dead???
For all the bests, there were plenty of grievous, agonizing worsts.
Shelley Long was beside herself, several times over, in ABC's ludicrous "Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase"; Charlton Heston came up mighty short as Long John Silver in TNT's botched and treasureless "Treasure Island"; Karen Allen goofy-grinned her way through ABC's "Challenger"; and non-actor Shadoe Stevens non-acted up a squall in the stupid CBS action series "Max Monroe: Loose Cannon."
Anybody who saw that one would have to think, "CBS Programmers: Loose Screw."
Robert Reed sleepwalked his way through CBS's embarrassing revival of "The Bradys" (maybe he knew what he was doing). Ben Gazzara stalked the dreadful NBC miniseries "People Like Us" like a zombie looking for a lost collar button. Mike Farrell was his usual sanctimonious self in TNT's treacly-preachy "Incident at Dark River." Valerie Harper was an icicle in the CBS sitcom "City." And Robert Loggia, for all his roaring and bellowing, couldn't breathe a peep of life into NBC's absurd "Mancuso, FBI," another of Tartikoff's inexplicably cherished causes ce'le`bres.
Usually, bad acting on TV stays at a level of numb mediocrity, like most TV programming does. Every now and then, though, comes a festive howler to spike the punch. Not to be unkind, but NBC's dismal remake of Tennessee Williams's "Sweet Bird of Youth" offered a double whammy: Elizabeth Taylor as a bovine floozy and Mark Harmon as her degraded and denuded lover.
Together they achieved a level of gosh-awful garishness unmatched even by Vanna White in "Goddess of Love." Vanna probably didn't know any better, but Mark and Liz should have. While they didn't quite prove that bad can be good, they did give credence to the idea that bad can be fun.
If it couldn't be, some of us would have been cured of television dependency years ago.