The Long Haul — Freddie Highmore in Bates Motel

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates in Bates Motel (2013 – 2017)

In direct opposition to the apparent certainty that it is easy to replicate bygone creative achievements, there are a multitude of challenges built into the ongoing pop culture trend of prioritizing recognizable brands above all. Familiarity might make wary audience members, balancing finite available time and budgetary limits, more inclined to make an initial sampling, but a rebooted or remade property is sure to face comparisons to the predecessor that feeds it. For actors, the shadow is surely longer and darker. If the role they’re playing reverberates with echoes of iconic earlier work, the performer trying on the costume of a thespian ancestor can be understandably held back by the need for some amount of reverential duplication, constrained from the exploration and personal invention required to make a portrayal truthful.

Freddie Highmore wasn’t born yet when Anthony Perkins first played Norman Bates, troubled hotel proprietor. Nor was he around for any of the other times Perkins circled back to the role, with diminished returns. But whether or not Highmore was intimately aware of the character’s onscreen history, Norman Bates came with more baggage than could ever be loaded into the rooms of his roadside business. Developed by Carlton Cuse,
Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano, Bates Motel positioned itself as a prequel of sorts to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, albeit time-shifted to today. The series begins with Norman’s motherly best friend, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), still a genuinely living presence around the freshly-purchased motel of the title. The wounds on Norman’s psyche are just being formed. Highmore has to play what’s come before, but suss out what the character would be like before scenarios that had played out in earlier fictions. Norman is drifting in the direction of the deep end, yet to slip off it.

Through the initial episodes of the series — arguably through the initial seasons — Highmore builds his performance around an intense restraint that can appear to be flatness, especially when compared to the beautifully unhinged work of Farmiga. In Highmore’s rendering, Norman has a tentativeness that suggests inner wounds. The operatic sordidness largely happens around him, and he seeks out means of finding inner peace, through hobbies and attempts at connecting with others that are shaded with creepiness because of his earnest, doe-eyed social awkwardness. Creepiness settles into Norman slowly, like puberty taking over and changing his center of gravity. Unburdened by the need to capture the whole character in the space of a two-hour movie, Highmore lets his inner tremors of disturbance out slowly.

As the show moves into its final couple of seasons, the series bends to the requirement to decisively escalate the stakes and draw Norman closer to the character he simultaneously was, in earlier cinematic efforts, and will be, in the context of the fictional narrative. Highmore responds by maintaining his previously established emotional volume, while revealing graver and wider dissociation with his inner being. Reality is elusive for Norman, and Highmore shows how he wanders in his own head, adopting another persona as an instinctive defensive mechanism.

Given the floridness of tone inherent to Bates Motel, it would make sense for Highmore to press his performance to keep pace, which would have pushed it close to camp. Instead, he takes his cues from the murmur of an unwell mind he established earlier. By the end of the series, Norman has committed brutal, unspeakable crimes, but Highmore defines the characterization by the mounting terror Norman feels in himself, the sense that he’s not only lost control, but lost a mental grasp on what control might even be.

With fine patience and impressive modulation, Highmore achieves what any actor must hope for when they sign on for a role that’s already been memorably, famously played by another. Blessed with the time to do it right, Highmore makes Norman Bates his own.

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—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
—Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory
—Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

The Long Haul — Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Rob Delaney as Rob Norris in Catastrophe (2015 – 2019)

The television comedy Catastrophe begins with a one-night stand, or at least what seems to be an instance of strangers falling into bed together with a negligible likelihood of any sort of romantic reunion in the future. Rob Norris (Rob Delaney) is visiting London for work and meets schoolteacher Sharon Morris (Sharon Horgan) in a crowded pub. The post-tryst parting is significantly complicated by the eventual discovery that Sharon got pregnant from the encounter. Instead of a fleeting, arousing encounter, Rob and Sharon declare a bond of intended permanence by choosing to marry and start building a family. They barely know each other — and aren’t even entirely sure they like each other — but they lock in together anyway.

An unromantic comedy of sorts, Catastrophe draws much of its humor from the simmering hostility in the central relationship. Across four seasons, Ron and Sharon form an undeniable bond, but it’s crisscrossed by hairline cracks. The relationship seems ready to shatter at any given moment, sharp perspectives and a mutual capacity for moments of volcanic temper constantly exacerbated by the usual messiness of modern life. The show depicts every day as the twenty-sixth mile of a marathon staged during a heat wave.

The success of Catastrophe is heavily dependent on the two leads, who also co-created and co-wrote the series. Both are strong in their roles, but Delaney brings an added level of tangled contradiction and whiplash unpredictability to Rob. A recovering alcoholic whose emotional scars are often as visible as the Flintstonian shadow of permanent whiskers on the lower half of his face, Rob is routinely wrenched by the challenges in his life: verbal skirmishes with his wife, the aggravations of emotionally stunted friends, the depth charge pressure of trying family members. His reactions are those of a man whose feelings roil just under the skin and surge straight out when the proper catalyst is introduced. He roars, he sobs, he convulses with laughter, he swells with ardor. Rob is a carnival ride without a regulator, and Delaney plays every moment with amazing conviction.

There’s another critical component to Delaney’s acting that takes the character — and the show — in uniquely comedic directions. Delaney often plays an emotion with an opposing external expression: jovial in his anger, weary in his excitement, or powerful in his collapses into vulnerability. It’s a rare version of comic irony, completely inverting the well-establishing model of using distinct contradiction to put some distance between the performer and sincerity. Delaney’s approach has the opposite impact: By playing against the norm, he heightens the sense that Rob is providing an unguarded view of his inner self. The disparate pieces of Rob’s inner being obviously intermingle. Delaney takes the bold step of keeping them hopeless ensnarled as they come out, too. The choice is jarring, exciting, and consistently hilarious.

As a character should, Rob grows and changes. But he’s also recognizably himself to the very end, including an especially tumultuous journey in the final episode of Catastrophe. Difficult lives don’t suddenly grow easier just because a narrative is coming to an end. Delaney plays the tough moments and the redeeming moments with equal poignancy. In his portrayal of Rob, Delany keeps the truth hard and moving right up to the very end.

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—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
—Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

The Long Haul — Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Kaley Cuoco as Penny in The Big Bang Theory (2007 – 2019)

Before Penny, there was Katie. Well ahead of the time The Big Bang Theory became the modern rarity that is a broadcast network series capable of enticing several million people to click to it on a regular basis, it was a failed pilot, rejected for the 2006-2007 television season. In the original iteration, Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki still played scientist roommates whose staid, somewhat insular existence is upended by the arrival of an attractive young woman. A wreck found crying outside their apartment building, Katie (Amanda Walsh) is streetwise and caustic, a party girl who might be enduring a spell of bad luck, but who also operates with a level of confidence that almost comes across as bullying behavior. Written by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the clear intent is to develop the type of friction that can lead to endless possibilities for comedic storytelling, but the balance is all wrong.

The show was rejiggered and a new pilot shot the following year, this time adding a couple friends for the roommates and, more importantly, softening the outlook and demeanor of the woman who is introduced to the main characters’ lives, setting the series in motion. There was still a reliance on a contrasting lack of refined knowledge held by the newcomer, and the creators still seemed to have only the vaguest idea of who this character might be beyond a figure that set the various socially awkward gents’ libidos aflutter. But there was also an easy charm and an evident unschooled intelligence immediately at play in the role, which exemplified the better show The Big Bang Theory was in this second try. The critical recasting of the female lead pointed to further improvements to come, indicating the overlooked secret of the show’s monumental success. Parson won the Emmys, and Galecki and later addition Mayim Bialik were the other regular cast members who received acting nominations from the Television Academy, but it’s the performance of Kaley Cuoco as Penny that truly made the show work as well as it did.

While wildly popular, The Big Bang Theory also stirred up a lot of animosity, mostly from people who saw nasty mockery in the depiction of, for lack of a better term, nerd culture. To my eyes — which have spent a decent amount of time scanning comic books and other associated fare — the show always seemed to take an affectionate if gently jibing approach to the geekier culture favored by the characters. And I can further attest that the jokes were far more accurate than the usual detached snark equating comics and science fiction with hopeless arrested development. Even so, the detractors weren’t entirely without justification, especially early the show’s run, when Penny’s bafflement at the pile-ups of arcane information positioned her as a stand-in from viewers who were only just beginning, for example, to become acquainted with the concept of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Critically, though, Cuoco played the character’s struggles to interface with her new friend group with more sweet uncertainty than eye-rolling contempt. The appreciation she felt for these people was evident and pure.

What best illustrates the value of Cuoco’s performance is how much better The Big Bang Theory got as it expanded the number of female supporting characters, providing Penny with a more varied cadre of companions. To a large degree, Amy (Bialik) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) were introduced to the show as love interests for male characters, but they flourished because of the naturalness of the friendship developed with Penny. The Big Bang Theory had elements of a workplace sitcom and was sometimes driven by the same romantic relationship questioning that has been injected into the veins of practically every network comedy since at least Cheers, but it was first and foremost about people simply hanging out. And Penny, more than any other character, was the hub of the wheel, drawing everyone together in a convincing fashion.

None of this would have worked if Cuoco didn’t deliver the most grounded performance in the show. All the other characters had some amount of wackiness to them, and initially Penny skewed to a similar easy shorthand, maintaining vestiges of the wild child of her rough draft predecessor. The recently aired finale hinged its emotional climax on the growth of Parsons’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper, but it’s Penny who grew up most realistically across the show’s twelve seasons, settling into a recognizable version of adulthood, marked by the kind of compromise that can feel initially disappointing before revealing itself as a relief. Cuoco was only twenty-one years old when The Big Bang Theory premiered, and the progression through which she carried Penny reads as a proper rendering of easing away from spirited youth to a different state of being that preserves a useful gleefulness and open-hearted camaraderie while finding firmer ground.

In the broad strokes of The Big Bang Theory, Cuoco added a vibrant humanity that kept the show from straying too close to the cartoonish, which remained a perilous risk throughout the run of the show. When Sheldon’s collection of antagonistic traits sometimes teetered near caricature, it was the clear fondness Cuoco’s Penny retained for him that carried the narrative through. Penny never seemed a mismatch among these markedly different people, mostly because she exhibited an intuitive grasp that they were, like her, people in need who didn’t quite know how to express it.

There’s probably no more pivotal moment in the whole length of the series than the scene in the season two episode when Penny gives Sheldon an especially well-chosen Christmas gift. There’s kindness and happy generosity of spirit to her gesture, and she also has a slightly amused confusion at the heightened level of his reaction. The wonderful cap to the scene is Penny’s overjoyed pleasure as Sheldon clumsily pushes past his own aversions to give her a hug of thanks. Whatever antics and comic conflicts were at play, The Big Bang Theory prevailed because it was primarily about people who simply liked each other, and that progressed to be the familial love that defines a group of close friends. It’s Cuoco’s performance that provided the path to that fine outcome.

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—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

The Long Haul — Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.


Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation (2009 – 2015)

Sometimes I feel like Parks and Recreation was single-handedly saved by the intense dedication of its lead character. In positing this, I don’t mean Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, somehow toiled away, overstuffed binders at the ready, to whip the series into shape, in some meta creative magic. Instead, I think there was something very special in the character that carried the program away from what seemed to be its original intention, replicating the withered cynicism of The Office in a civic government workplace. For much of the show’s short first season, the depiction of Knope was problematically close to Steve Carell’s take on Dunder Mifflin manager Michael Scott. Leslie’s enthusiasm for excelling in her low stakes job was simply another version of Michael’s intense neediness, positioned in the narrative as fodder for mockery.

As was the case within the fictional municipal office, where Leslie’s earnest devotion to improving her community gradually won over her coworkers, so too did the creative team behind Parks and Recreation come to realize — more quickly, praise be — that the central Type A tsunami of accomplishment with the smart pantsuits was a figure worthy of admiration. The wry assessment of haplessness and snickering piercing of uncompromising certainty that served Parks and Recreation creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels well on The Office was out of place in Pawnee, Indiana, at least when it was directed at the main characters (other, more obscure denizens of the town were fair game for this brand of comedy, especially if those characters didn’t properly recognize the charms of Leslie and her crew). Without jettisoning the need for conflict to drive story and perks of judgment in bolstering comedy, Parks and Recreation prospered when it shifted from the bleating lament of perpetual defeat to resounding pride for jobs well done.

Poehler, it seems, understand that from the jump. She’s written about the immediate connection she felt with Leslie. Out in the real world, Poehler is known for sharp opinions and an emotionally generous brand of pragmatic kindness. Self-assurance is a virtue, even if — perhaps pointedly because — it is not always easy to come by. Social forces are continually pushing back against those who assert themselves, with women often getting the worst of it. But the personal progress that is earned shouldn’t be denied just because opponents of change are yelling louder through faces scrunched like fists. In Parks and Recreation, Leslie faces down more than her fair share of those moral miscreants. Poehler shows the fire that sustains the character and the grace that usually wins the day, even if the day appears to be officially tallied as a setback.

Leslie isn’t portrayed as some paragon of virtue. She can be impatient, obstinate, and inconsiderate in her rush to keep scratching checkmarks onto her to-do list. All those impulses are given there due by Poehler, with the confidence that the more nettlesome qualities of the character make her more complete, and therefore bring added heft to her triumphs. They, too, are part of the ongoing effort to improve herself, her department, her community.

When Leslie finally fulfills a longed for goal, casting a vote for herself in a hotly contested local election, the wash of emotion that comes over her is beautifully truthful, a proper culmination of character’s experiences to that point. Poehler plays it to perfection, conveying the collapsing relief at crossing a certain finish line, as well as how even hope can carry a heavy weight. The moment might work fine on its own, but its hammer blow effect is because of the long, artful journey Poehler has taken with the character, the life she’s injected to the role.

In the early episodes of Parks and Recreation, the validity of Leslie’s perspective sometimes got obscured by the natural instinct — very much in keeping with the prevailing comedic voices of the time — to layer on the snark. Poehler helped shift those winds. Her emphatic, empathetic performance gave the series something truly special: a open-hearted embrace of the sheer value in belief.



Keri Russell in The Americans

The Long Haul —Keri Russell in The Americans

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans (2013-2018)

When The Americans made its debut on FX, a mere five years ago, its premise of Russian agents operating covertly on U.S. soil seemed like almost quaint in its Cold War retrospection. Set during the nineteen-eighties, an era when President Ronald Reagan set rhetoric against the U.S.S.R. to a low boil, the series brought a bruising authenticity in its depiction of street level spy trade, but the yet tougher drama is reserved for the family dynamics of the Russian agents who’ve set up residence in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C.

Series creator Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner, Joel Fields, were always clear in their intent to use the high stakes of geopolitical intrigue to examine the equally fraught terrain of human relationships. It was part metaphor and part wry parallel. And as the show really found its thematic footing, the approach provided opportunities for its actors to dig into uniquely layered characters. Some — like Matthew Rhys and season two addition Costa Ronin — were strong from their first moments, and others — notably Noah Emmerich and Holly Taylor — developed crafty complexities as the the series proceeded. Even as widely distributed praise is merited, no performance across the run of the series was as consistently impressive as that of Keri Russell.

As Elizabeth Jennings, the matriarch of the implanted nuclear family with a secret mission, Russell arguably rides the most pronounced character arc of the series — from a unyielding true believer of the early episodes to a weary survivor at the end — but the fiercely contained nature of her performance is necessarily free of the showy moments that signal a change in inner being. Transformation plays out in flickers across her tensed face, certainty giving way to doubt with mere tremors of conflict in her bearing.

The character never becomes warm, exactly, never succumbing to a familiarized appreciation for the United States like her partner, cover spouse, and eventually actual husband, Philip (Rhys). He finds stabilizing solace in touchy-feely encounter groups, but Elizabeth is steely to the end. She does, however, grow to have affection for her family. Much of the agony of the later episodes comes from the strange tangle of emotions she feels for those around her, especially as she grooms her daughter, Paige (Taylor), to join the family business even as her prior ruthlessness ebbs when it comes time to share the most unsavory details.

Gifted with a good length of time to develop Elizabeth’s shifts and intelligent writing that generally favored nuance over clamor, Russell takes a character that could have been a gimmick and makes her piercingly true. As The Americans drew to a close, suddenly against headlines that seemed to forecast the fraught plot lines that could drive a rebooted version a couple decades from now, the facile observation touted the unexpected newfound relevance. Such critical punditry foolishly elided the fundamental spirit of the series. More errantly, it shortchanged the impact of Russell’s performance. She already made the material real as the daily sunset through sheer force of her acting.

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Other posts this series can be found by clicking on the tag “The Long Haul.”