Sunday, April 17, 2016

Series: This Week's TV MVPs - Week 35

Much like Taylor Swift in the GIF above, around here, we are dancing too — because the TV MVP Series is back at it again this week! And many thanks to Rae for filling in while I was at the beach last weekend. As we begin to approach sweeps and finale dates and descriptions are being released, performers are bringing their A-games to their shows, whether comedy or drama. And this week, we have some fantastic performers to highlight. Let's kick it off, then!

Joining me are:

Jenn's MVP: Lindsey Morgan as Raven Reyes (The 100)

Why she's the MVP: It's no surprise that The 100 has been generating a lot of buzz recently, and most of it not-too-positive. But if there is one thing that should be generating buzz after this week's episode, "Nevermore," (brilliant title, by the way, for an episode about Raven) it's the incredible performance of Lindsey Morgan as Raven Reyes. Raven has always been an incredible character — resilient, brilliant, and with an incredible heart and dry wit. This week, however, we saw another layer of Raven: namely, a layer that was not her own. Lindsey Morgan had the task this week of playing Raven Reyes, but as a young woman possessed by artificial intelligence antagonist, A.L.I.E. While under the influence of the A.I., Morgan's Raven thrashed around, bit, kicked, and screamed. And all of it was quite terrifying and also extremely heartbreaking. As the team rushed around, trying to fulfill Raven's initial pre-A.L.I.E. plan, Raven drew blood from every character — literally and figuratively.

Lindsey Morgan is impeccable in her portrayal of Raven. She intimately understands the heartache, determination, and extreme intelligence that motivates her character. Raven is such a dynamic and important character, and this episode was all about her — but in a light entirely new, and equally as compelling. The Raven we saw in "Nevermore" was brutal. Morgan growled her lines, and delivered barbs with pin-point accuracy and venom. The fight and drive we are so accustomed to seeing in Raven's work translated to her anger and frustration. Morgan played possessed extremely and painfully well. It's difficult to watch a character on television inhabited by someone else — another voice or personality — and often it can come across as campy. But what Lindsey Morgan managed to do was solidify what we knew all along: Raven is a fighter. She does not give up. She did her very best to fight tooth and nail against A.L.I.E., and this episode showed us that A.L.I.E. was using Raven to fight right back. But what makes Lindsey Morgan's performance so stellar is that she totally and completely understands the innerworkings of her character and can play possession one moment, and physical weakness (while still maintaining her dry humor) the next. Raven is freed from A.L.I.E. by herself (which is just so brilliant and a testament to her character) and her own plan, executed by her friends.

And Lindsey Morgan's effortless transition from that angry, animalistic version of Raven back into the character we knew and loved deserves all of the accolades.

Bonus MVP: Stella Maeve as Julia Wicker (The Magicians)

When The Magicians aired its season finale this past Monday, it did so with a viewer discretion warning at the top of the hour. I hid under my blanket a little further. After the show returned from a commercial break close to the end of the episode, it aired another viewer discretion warning, which I assumed meant that blood and gore would be running rampant. After all, the series was preparing to culminate in the battle between the Brakebills students and The Beast — a horrific, terrifying monster and master magician who brutally murdered others in his wake with relative ease.

But what the warning ended up being for was a rape scene in which Julia was the victim. Though extremely difficult to watch, this episode solidified the fact that Jules has grown as a character, magician, and woman throughout the course of the series. I haven't been her biggest fan this year — her storylines were separated from the other characters' and the show focused on magic being like a drug for Julia — but her character in the finale and Stella Maeve's performance of her was spellbinding (pun sort of intended). Though Julia is a victim, she is never THE victim. The reason she is violated is in an effort to save Kady's life (which she does). Julia allows pain and trauma to be inflicted upon her so that she can save the life of someone she cares about. And it breaks her, understandably. Which is why she begs for Marina to block her memory of the experience (and of the traumatic experience that preceded even that one).

In all of this — and in the rest of the episode — Maeve does a fantastic job of portraying Julia as both desperate to retain her happiness and also incredibly broken by it. She's a survivor in a lot more ways than one, and she is desperate to cling to any semblance of hope or happiness she can find. But when her memories are unblocked, Maeve conveys not just the emotional and harrowing depth of Julia's pain, but also the depth of her desperation. Because in the end, Julia chooses to use her experience as leverage with The Beast. Julia turns from pain and anger to bitterness and a thirst for revenge.

Stella Maeve really made me care about Julia in this episode, but not only did she manage to do that — she also managed to portray the depth of pain and strength in Julia that is both terrifying and also immensely captivating. I can't wait to see where her story progresses in season two.

Amir’s MVP: Riley Keough as Christine Reade (The Girlfriend Experience)

Why she’s the MVP: It’s all in the eyes. Riley Keough has mastered the ability to visually convey thinking without uttering a word or raising a finger, leaving all of the acting to her eyes and facial expressions, which can shift from confusion, anger, annoyance, and content in one swift motion. Take for instance one of the first scenes of the pilot of The Girlfriend Experience, where we see her eyes lock onto a man across the bar. It’s very much like a bird of prey — no words need be said about the interaction; once she sees what she wants, she gets it and silently revels in the control she has. Using her assertiveness and sexuality to her advantage which displays a sense of untapped potential, Christine is established as a woman that can do anything she wants because she can.  

Any first episode is heavily reliant on how we, as an audience, can relate to its protagonist and Christine is about as relatable as they come, as we see her going through a job fair, expelling knowledge that her employers would want to hear in an effort to get an internship. Riley plays the scene with a sense of assured confidence and a tired "how much longer until this is over?" look in her face. And though she would have been a one-dimensional character in the hands of another actor, Riley takes the character of Christine Reed to new heights. As Christine is introduced into the life of high-end escort services, we too are learning along with her, our curiosity being satisfied, with us yearning for more. 

There’s a genuine sense of wonder to a world we know nothing about; naturally it’s why many will end up watching the show. Riley allows herself to be immersed in this wonder, learning more and more as she gets deeper into it, while never over-exaggerating or telegraphing her emotions. Riley allows her character to feel human, overly prideful when declining to take a generous gift from a friend (played with refreshingly casual by Kate Lyn Sheil who also deserves a mention), amused when she gets lectured by her boss, and calculating when she decides she wants to give the escort life a try. She not only feels like a living, breathing woman in the — she IS a living breathing woman in the world.  

In an age when it’s not uncommon for actors to speak their emotions and for viewers to be led by the hand, it’s refreshing when a show and its participants allow breathing room — to have a character go from one end of the spectrum to the next, and to fully take itself seriously. The Girlfriend Experience sets up an intriguing premise with a well-defined character that Riley brings to life with such authenticity unmatched by many of her young peers. There’s no way one can turn away from such a performance. And really, why would you want to?

Julia’s MVP: Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Gotham)

Why he’s The MVP: Not only is Cory Michael Smith the MVP of Gotham every week, but he is also one of the best actors on TV, and Smith never gets enough credit for his work. He has the honor of playing the multi-personalitied Ed Nygma, who struggles between being himself as a man, and embodying the infamous Riddler. This week’s episode put Smith’s brilliant acting to the test as Nygma fulfills his destiny in becoming his supervillain alter ego.

Since Gotham began in the fall of 2014, Smith’s acting has stuck out as the diamond in the rough of the show. Even when the writing and stories aren’t very strong, Smith seems to shine in all his scenes. This season has begun Smith’s on-screen transformation from innocent to murderer. To me, it takes a lot of skill to play the same character in two different ways during the same scene, and it’s not often that an actor can change between two personalities in the middle of a scene. Smith goes from being calm and level-headed to crazy and unreasonable after a few seconds — all without missing a beat, which is truly impressive.

Most of Smith’s scenes prior to this week’s episode consisted of him playing the innocent Nygma. With Nygma’s transformation into The Riddler, Smith is able to showcase his full acting repertoire. It’s obvious that he has a lot of fun playing his character and being on the show, as he puts 110% into each episode. What’s also impressive is the way Smith plays different sides of Nygma, depending on who he shares the screen with: when Nygma is at the precinct, Smith acts cheerful, happy, and like a misfit. When Nygma is at home, Smith morphs into the sadistic Riddler. When he is with Jim Gordon, Smith balances both the clever and sadistic behaviors perfectly. Smith is by far the best part of Gotham, which is why he is always the MVP of the show and never more so than this week. 


Jon’s MVP: Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran (American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson)

Why he’s the MVP: With the recent boom of fact-based criminal shows, American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson stands out among said shows due to its brilliant writing, tension-filled moments, and fantastic acting. While there was definitely no weak link among any of the cast members on the show, there certainly have been stand-outs. One of those standouts has been Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, one of the lawyers on Simpson’s defense team. 

What’s so admirable about Vance’s performance throughout the series is the passion he shows in the case; from the moment he was prank-called, he sees an opportunity to get people talking about the African-American community and to get them to listen. Vance shows that passion throughout the series, in the courtroom and outside of the courthouse.  

However, that passion also presents an interesting transformation of his character during the show. When we first see Cochran, Vance portrays him as an opportunist, someone who wants to fight for the rights of African-Americans everywhere, especially in regards to treatment by law enforcement. 
But as the series progresses, he’s still trying to fight for those same reasons, but is now willing to do whatever it takes to win — even if that means stooping to some low points. In essence, this could make Cochran a character of contradictions. And one of the greater moments for his character comes at the very end, when Cochran celebrates his victory. He sees a report by the president on the racism within police departments toward African-Americans. 

In a powerful final scene, Cochran then remarks that people finally see this corruption within the police departments, since even the president now knows. While people finally do know about the racism in the LAPD due to Cochran’s efforts, at what cost did it take for them to know? How far did he have to go in order to shed the light? Courtney B. Vance did an amazing job conveying all of this.

Jen W.’s MVP: Kerry Washington as Anita Hill (Confirmation)

Why she's the MVP: Yesterday, the movie Confirmation premiered on HBO and I was already excited for it. In anticipation of the movie, I'd been reading about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas and the issues surrounding his confirmation hearing. I was only six years old, and I barely understood what was happening, but still remember my mother and aunts talking about the trial, about Anita, and about the now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I was ready to be transported and entertained, but I ended being angry and awe inspired.

Kerry Washington put in an incredible performance as Anita Hill. She displayed strength and vulnerability, tenacity and reticence in a way that made you feel every ounce of what Anita went through during that time. Watching Kerry portray this woman who was taken through the Washington smear campaign, battered under Senate judiciary committee questioning, and called every name in the book was a gift. It was also a beautiful reminder of how real and pervasive this situation really is. Kerry's performance was Emmy-worthy, and powerful in its stillness and inner strength. I was exceptionally moved by her.


Megan’s MVP: Kristen Bell as Jeannie Van Der Hooven (House of Lies)

Why she’s the MVP: We all know Kristen Bell on television as the witty detective Veronica Mars or as the voice narrating the scandalous lives of Manhattan elite. Both roles that are fantastic. But what’s better than a Kristen Bell on The CW? That would be Kristen Bell on a no-holds-barred premium network show.

Having previous experience with Kristen’s television roles, I was excited to see her as a main character on Showtime’s House of Lies, a show about the cutthroat and devious world of management consulting, when it premiered in 2012. I watched with rapt attention and was pleasantly surprised when she delivered her foul-mouthed lines and was every bit of a strong, bossy female that TV had been lacking up until that point.

After her pregnancy was written into last season, the season five opener last Sunday sees Jeannie months later, no longer with Kaan & Associates. She’s now the CFO of a drug company and juggling her new boyfriend Mark and her new family dynamic with Marty and their daughter. When the group walks in, Jeannie is in full glam mode, getting ready to give a pep talk to the company. But business is still always on her mind. Jeannie is a well-written female character who, as previously stated, is business-minded, driven, and a total boss. Not even having to breastfeed during their meeting stops her.  

But what made Kristen Bell stand out for me this week was her total lack of shame. When Jeannie does go and give the pep talk to the company, it’s this absurd dance/rap number about the drugs they sell. It’s so funny for us to watch, and something that took a totally secure human being to put onto tape. Later in the episode, Jeannie accidentally calls her new boyfriend "Marty" instead of "Mark," and Bell does an incredible job of striking the confusing and awkward balance between being happy with your new beau, and still harboring feelings for your old one. Bell makes those feelings believable when that’s hard to achieve. It can often come off as trite and eyeroll-worthy, but I thought she did a really fantastic job.

I’m excited to watch Kristen Bell totally own this season and once again show us how she can deliver any line the writers give her with pizzazz. I’m thrilled this show is back and can only hope for more really terrible dance numbers. You go, girl. Ain’t NO shame in YOUR game.

Who were your TV MVPs this week? Hit up the comments and let us know! :)


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