Friday, May 24, 2013

Throwing Awards at Their Faces (Three Actors Who Deserve All the Nominations)

In a world of DVR, Hulu, and – in my case – television streaming, very few people concern themselves with watching television shows live these days. Families have commitments; children have sports practices or theatre rehearsal. College students are cramming for mid-terms or else procrastinating from cramming for mid-terms. And even nine-to-fivers cannot schedule their nights around television programming. We have busy lives and busy schedules, and sometimes (unfortunately) our favorite television shows suffer at the hands of the merciless but elusive Nielsen unicorns because we don’t watch “live.”

There are only three scripted shows that I make the effort to watch live each week: Community, New Girl, and Doctor Who. I’ll forgo watching How I Met Your Mother and then marathon in chunks. I used to skip weeks of The Office and be perfectly content. But the three shows I listed above, I will always make the effort to watch live. I’ll schedule my life around them (which… sounds pretty sad when I type it out like that, actually).

As all three have recently wrapped up their seasons, I thought it would be appropriate to talk a bit about actors within the shows that I feel deserve a lot more recognition and praise than they usually receive. I’m talking, of course, about actors Joel McHale, Jake Johnson, and Matt Smith. And I will be talking about them a LOT in this post – actually, I’m devoting the entire post to them – and how they each deserve to have all the awards thrown at their faces.

Well, not literally at their faces.

… You all know what I mean.

Joel McHale

Known for: His role as Jeff Winger on NBC’s cult-hit comedy Community
Episode(s) he deserves recognition for: “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations”

Joel McHale is one of my favorite people ever.

(I don’t say that jokingly; he is in fact incredibly sweet and generous and humble – though I haven’t had the chance to meet him in person, close friends have and can confirm all of this and he’s always been amazingly wonderful to me on Twitter.)

What pains me so much about Joel McHale is that he has not received the recognition that he deserves for playing a sly, ex-lawyer on Community. And while I would love for any member of the cast of Community or the show itself to receive an Emmy nomination, what I truly lament is that Joel has yet to be praised for his portrayal of Jeff Winger.

Community is, was, and always will be an ensemble show at its core. This is the story of seven people who attend Greendale Community College: an absurd, weird, wonderful place where they learn to grow as individuals and love themselves and one another. But what separates Community from typical ensemble shows is that it has a strong lead actor to anchor the storylines. Much like Jess is involved in nearly every A-storyline on New Girl because she anchors the sitcom, Jeff Winger anchors the episodes. Without Jeff, the study group is… well, off, somehow. (And this raises the question of what exactly they will do in season five now that he is graduated. My speculation is that Jeff will not become a lawyer again, since his degree technically ended up being in Education and will likely return to Greendale as a Political Science professor or something of the sort. Again: purely speculation.)

It’s not just Joel’s mere presence on the series that should earn him an Emmy, however: it’s the emotional nuances and character growth that he has shown in his portrayal of Jeff Winger over the course of the last four years. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’ve never really been able to relate to Jeff Winger. I connect more with Annie Edison on a lot of levels (we’re type A personalities, overachievers, perfectionists, organizers, etc.) But this season is the first season in which I have actually been able to connect with Jeff’s character on a deeper level, and that’s thanks to Joel’s portrayal of him.

“Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” deserves to be the episode that finally lands Joel an Emmy nomination, because his role in it was nothing short of brilliant. In the first Harmon-less season of Community, the show’s writers visibly struggled to find their footing and grasp on the characters and stories. Some episodes were solid, reminiscent of the last three years, while some just fell flat among the viewers. I was looking forward to “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” because it was written by Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane, who wrote last season’s finale and are a wonderful writing team.

There’s something interesting that Basilone and Mebane connected with during the writing of the episode and it’s the idea that Jeff’s relationship with his father really humanizes him. A lot of the time, I cannot connect with Jeff because he is so emotionally and fundamentally different from who I am as a person. It’s hard to connect with a television character when you cannot understand why they behave the way that they do. Jeff has always been the leader and he’s always been a bit selfish and tries to be self-propelling and not need the group. But at the end of most every episode, Jeff ties a bow on the story by delivering a Winger speech – a Band-Aid that fixes the wounds he (or other characters) caused.

There’s this real and true part of Jeff, though, that is emotionally vulnerable and it’s a side that we don’t often see because the character doesn’t allow anyone to see that part of him. In this episode, Jeff admits that he’s afraid to look his friends in the eyes because then they might see that he’s broken. That struck a chord with me because it allowed me to view Jeff Winger in an entirely new way. His brokenness, his vulnerability, and his insecurity make me connect with him as a character. And Joel portrays this brokenness and uncertainty not with oversentimentality, not with clich├ęd fervor but with a raw genuineness that made me, as a viewer, ache when he confronted his father.

Jeff’s confrontation with William occurs in “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations.” After driving away from his father’s house in anger (because William heralded himself as a good father for leaving Jeff and thus causing Jeff to become the self-sufficient man that he is), Jeff returns and delivers one of the most beautiful monologues on the show ever.

Honestly, I cried.

And the funny thing is that I cry at nearly everything – sappy Disney movies, Publix commercials, a really touching television show – but I have never, until “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” overtly cried at an episode of Community. Oh, sure, I have teared up (we all do whenever we hear “Greendale is Where I Belong”) and may have tweeted something like: “ALL MY TEARS.” But Jeff’s speech to William truly made me weep.

The honesty and sincerity and brokenness with which Joel delivers those lines is palpable. And in that moment, I felt pained for Jeff – pained that he is so broken and cannot bring to admit to his six closest friends that he is this way; pained that he felt so unloved as a child that he gave himself a scar so that people would care about him; pained that this is the reason he spent the majority of his adult life searching for things to fill the void that the absence of his father caused. I actually FELT for Jeff Winger and that opened up an entire well of emotion within me – the viewer – and caused me to whimper and weep for this beautifully tragic study group leader.

The fourth season of Community was rocky, but one thing was not: Joel’s commitment to bringing his character to life and his understanding of who Jeff was, fundamentally. That completely shone through in “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations.” So, Joel, I applaud you for that utterly amazing, heartbreaking performance.

(And I would like to throw some awards at your face if that’s okay with you.)

Jake Johnson

Known for: His role as the turtle-faced bartender and zombie novelist Nick Miller on FOX’s adorkable hit series New Girl
Episode(s) he deserves recognition for: “Chicago”

2012-2013 was The Year of Nick Miller on New Girl. Moreover, this year really showcased to the viewers exactly how talented Jake Johnson is as an actor. Recently, he announced that he bumped himself from the Supporting Actor category to the Lead Actor category for the Emmys. I feel like this is one of the best moves he could have possibly made as: a) the Supporting Actor category is overcrowded with Modern Family nominees year after year and b) Nick’s storylines this season placed Jake at the forefront of the series, especially with the focus on Nick/Jess during the latter half of season two.

I’ve never doubted that Jake Johnson is talented. He’s consistently hilarious as the unmotivated, backwards and messy loft roommate. But this season, I was completely blown away by how utterly talented Jake was in his honest portrayal of Nick Miller, and especially in his portrayal of Nick’s relationship with Jess.

Numerous times I have mentioned the fact that I saw chemistry between Jake and Zooey’s characters in the pilot episode and began rooting for them to be together even then. It bears repeating, however, in light of this season’s developments that I saw those sparks and something intrigued me before I even knew the characters. In the first season, the writers hit a turning point with “Injured” (which, don’t even get me started on how Changry I am about the fact that THAT episode doesn’t have an Emmy). In that episode, we – the audience – began to understand who Nick Miller was, fundamentally, as a character. His insecurities and uncertainties about his future peppered that episode. But by the end of “Injured,” he realized that there were people in his life – his four amazing friends – who were willing to support him, no matter what. They cared about him and they wanted to see him DO and LIVE. And they would be there when he failed and when he succeeded. They loved him.

This year furthered Nick’s development as a character when he broke the rule he stated in “Injured.” During that episode, he explained to Jess that he was the kind of guy who stood on the beach, guarding wallets, while everyone else went off into the ocean. He couldn’t jump into something if he didn’t know how it would turn out. That just wasn’t who he was. And I can relate to that aspect of Nick Miller, which is probably why I found “Injured” to be such an emotionally jarring episode: I’m the type of person who does not run on impulse. I’m the girl who is scared to have adventures, scared to be bold and brave. And Nick Miller is the type of person who cannot dive into anything headfirst without knowing the outcome.

… Until “Cooler.”

That episode was the hinge on which Nick/Jess swung this season, and it was beautiful for many reasons. Notably, Nick broke the statement he made in “Injured” – he kisses Jess in “Cooler” (in one of the best television kisses, if not THE best kiss I have ever seen) without thinking about consequences, without thinking what may happen next, without analyzing everything to the point of paralyzation because of fear. He wants to kiss Jess. He’s THOUGHT about kissing Jess. And then he actually DOES and it’s so beautiful and important because of the fact that he just STOPS thinking.

Until this season, I never realized that this is Nick’s problem, fundamentally – he overthinks everything. Jake has such a nuanced and yet gut-wrenching way of portraying this, and does so flawlessly at the end of “Winston’s Birthday” with his final glance at Jess on the roof. You can see in his face, the realization that he is STILL not good enough for her, not because of anything she has said but because of how much he analyzed and agonized over Bob’s statements.

This season, everyone seems to be swooning over Nick Miller (myself included). And there have been many brilliantly written analyzations of his character, detailing WHY we feel the way that we do toward him and subsequently why JESS feels the way that she does toward him. I think that what the fascination with Nick Miller and attraction to him as a character boils down to is this: he is real. Prince Charmings are great and all, and I completely and utterly swoon at romantic comedies where the guy says and does all the right things to win back the girl at the end, but… they’re not real.

Nick is a mess, plain and simple. He’s got the credit score of a homeless ghost. He tries to fix appliances and fails. He is messy and doesn’t know exactly what he wants out of his life but… that’s attractive because it means that he’s not perfect. Every choice that Jake makes as an actor intensifies this. Nick gets angry, he gets frustrated, he gets sad, and he gets weird. But he’s real because he’s flawed and I think that it’s beautiful because through this lens – through the way Jake portrays this character – we can see how honest and raw his feelings are for Jess. There’s no perfect bow we can tie on their relationship. They’re not a fairytale. They’re broken, but together they make each other slightly more whole. And isn’t that what we all desire to find in our own lives? Another imperfect person to become less broken with?

Nick/Jess was handled this year beautifully by the writers, by Zooey, and especially by Jake Johnson. The way that Nick looks at Jess during certain scenes (“Parking Spot,” the end of “First Date,” the moment he says that they’re not in love in “Elaine’s Big Day,” and then the moment a few minutes later before he kisses her, etc.) only serves to confirm that Jake UNDERSTANDS Nick Miller. When an actor understands who their character is, at their core, everything changes. Once an actor or actress is linked and is that connected to the character they are portraying, everything about the scene and episode and series as a whole becomes real: it becomes something not just that your audience can relate to, but that they can BELIEVE.

But apart from all of the romantic stories he’s been able to shine in this year, Jake’s crowning achievement and an episode that he deserves the Lead Actor nomination for, in my opinion, is “Chicago.” In the episode, Nick is forced to return home when his father passes away. Throughout the episode, Nick busies himself with tasks for the funeral, intent on pushing away the fact that Walt has actually passed away. But Jess knows him better than he knows even himself: when he asks her to write his father’s eulogy, she hesitates, wondering if Nick has had any time to process the emotions he must be facing. He swats away her concern, and she agrees to help him because she promised to be there for him throughout the episode, no matter what.

I mentioned the moment that really stuck out to me in my “best of New Girl’s sophomore season” post, and cannot find any way to say it better than I did then:

There’s a moment that really stood out for me (a few, actually, but I’ll talk about the other in a minute), and that’s when Schmidt, Winston, and Nick re-enter the church and see Jess performing at the funeral. I will let Jake Johnson’s face do the talking:

The moment that Nick sees Jess was something that really knocked the wind out of me because I think that he saw, for the first time, how much she cared about him. Jess has ALWAYS taken care of Nick and he’s sort of resented her for that. He’s claimed that he could take care of himself, and a lot of times he cannot. I think that “Chicago” was so integral to this season because it showed us all why Nick Miller is the way that he is. His life is a mess, and it’s because he spent all of his childhood acting like an adult and now spends his adulthood acting (sometimes) like a child. He had to be there for his mother and brother because Walt was not, and that meant that he had to grow up too fast and take care of the people around him.

When Nick begins to deliver the eulogy, he’s finally confronted with a reality that he tried to avoid throughout the episode. There were no more distractions – it was Nick Miller confronting the death of a person who might have been a good guy or might have been a bad guy. Nick admittedly doesn’t know which one of these categories Walt fell into. But he knew one thing: Walt was his father. And he was going to miss him.

Nick pauses to try and collect himself, and that’s when Jess does what she had wanted to do the entire episode: she steps forward and takes his jittering and nervous hand in hers. And immediately, Nick’s anxiety stills. Bonnie, Winston, and Schmidt all look at the pair and you can hear their hearts soften.

There was something so utterly beautiful in the way that Jake portrayed Nick’s eulogy at Walt’s funeral. Again, much like Joel McHale, Jake didn’t attempt to overly dramatize the scene, but the subdued realization that Walt was no longer with him – that his FATHER was no longer with him – punched me, as they say, “right in the feels.” It was beautiful and understated and one of my absolute favorite moments about the funeral scene is something that could have easily gone unnoticed:

It’s this moment that ranks as one of my favorite Nick/Jess moments to date. They’ve shared kisses, they’ve shared looks, and they’ve shared tension. But it’s clear in this episode how much they genuinely love one another and want to support each other. Nick’s hands are literally fidgeting – he is trying to continue with the eulogy, but the emotion is beginning to weigh on him – and they immediately still once Jess’ hands find his own.

In that moment, Nick realized he wasn’t alone and – much like in “Injured” – that there were people in his life who cared so much about him that they were willing to do whatever it took to show their support. Jake Johnson had such a stand-out performance in “Chicago” because of the weight and significance he placed on making sure every line, every facial expression, and every reaction was deliberate and made sense for his character.

And that? That was beautiful. THAT was Emmy-worthy.

Matt Smith

Known for: His role as the eleventh incarnation of The Doctor on the epic BBC series Doctor Who
Episode(s) he deserves recognition for: “The Rings of Akhaten” / “Nightmare in Silver” / “The Name of the Doctor”

A few years ago, I was searching for something to watch on Netflix, when I mysteriously ended up in the British television category. Perusing the list of available titles, I noticed Doctor Who was among them. I had, of course, heard of the series and friends in high school had been obsessed with it (I was in high school when the 2005 reboot kicked off). So I decided to give the series a shot.

… And then I couldn’t stop marathoning.

When it came time to bid farewell to Ten, I stepped away from my computer, tossed away my mountain of tissues, and took a break from my marathon. I knew that if I wasn’t careful, if I picked up series five too quickly, I would still be in mourning over the loss of David Tennant’s presence and would fail to appreciate the new incarnation of The Doctor. It was a smart decision, I found, because when I returned to my marathon, I was still missing Tennant’s quirk but quickly attached to the silliness that Matt Smith brought to Eleven.

It was the ending of “The Eleventh Hour” that really sold me on Matt, to be honest. Eleven spends the entirety of the episode proving to viewers just how silly, fun-loving, and spastic he can be. But then, the Atraxi threaten to destroy the planet and Eleven says this.

As “I Am the Doctor” swelled, I felt the overwhelming sense that though the face of The Doctor had changed, this was still the SAME man – the same person who rescued Rose in that shop, the same one who ran with Martha and Donna. He was Nine and Ten, with a different face. He was The Doctor.

Over the years, I’ve grown to love and appreciate Matt Smith more and more. His performances are always spot-on, even when the writing is a bit rocky. What really impresses me, consistently, about Matt is the quiet intensity that he brings to his role as The Doctor. Christopher Eccleston was magnificent at portraying the anger and self-loathing version of The Doctor; David Tennant knocked every deeply emotional scene out of the park.

But Matt? Well, he is deceiving when you first see him on-screen as Eleven. You underestimate him: he has a boyish face (though over the years it is crazy to me to see how much he has aged in his role), a fun disposition, and rapid-fire way of speaking that makes you think of a giddy child or a sugar-rushed puppy. And then… something happens. It is rare for Eleven to get angry; it is rare for him to break, emotionally. But when he does? Well, when he does it knocks the wind out of my lungs and causes tears to well up in my eyes because yes, his emotions are that raw, that powerful, and that beautiful. It’s amazing to me that Matt can flick on and off emotions across his face as if they were switches. He is, perhaps, the most emotionally nuanced actor I have ever seen and his face tells a story.

“Nightmare in Silver” and “The Name of the Doctor” are two episodes this season that blew me away in regards to Matt Smith and his acting. In the former, Eleven warred against the cyber-planner within his mind. This meant that Matt Smith literally had to play, Jekyll and Hyde-style, against himself the entire episode. What could have delved into absurd or unbelievable territory ended up highlighting just how immensely talented Matt was as an actor – he was able to illuminate the voices of two very distinct characters and carry the story by doing so. “The Name of the Doctor” focused a lot on Clara Oswin Oswald and her relationship with The Doctor, but make no mistake about it: Matt Smith carries this episode too. His scene with Jenna near the episode’s beginning, as he sits on the couch and cries, completely gutted me. It is, like I said, so rare to see this incarnation emotionally paralyzed that when he is, we are too.

But nothing impressed me more this year than Matt’s performance in “The Rings of Akhaten” and this beautifully emotional monologue. Everything about it was phenomenal – the raw, completely vulnerable side of The Doctor that we see just sucker punched me. He’s utterly broken, and we forget that Eleven is just like his former incarnations – he has the same memories, the same demons, the same wars. He has loved and lost and seen so many things in the universe that his hearts DO have slivers of ice in them. He’s wounded and broken but Matt does not portray this melodramatically. No, Matt’s performance is so utterly real that it makes our hearts break. A single tear rolls down his cheek during the scene and it makes US choked up to see The Doctor – to see our hero, our mad man with a box, our Oncoming Storm – this pained.

Truly and completely, I have utter adoration and respect for how Matt Smith has portrayed Eleven. While others may claim that Nine or Ten are their favorite Doctors, Eleven has won over my heart. Oh, sure, I will always be a Tennant girl I suppose – I mean, have you SEEN his hair? – but I feel a sense of attachment to Matt Smith’s Doctor. And a respect for Matt as an actor.

So please, Matt, let me just throw some awards at you as well.

Community, New Girl, and Doctor Who are all entirely different shows. I love each of them for various reasons, and love each of them differently. And Joel McHale, Jake Johnson, and Matt Smith manage to carry these shows – they make us care about their characters, keep us invested in their stories, cause us pain when they hurt and rejoice when they succeed. (And they’re all pretty easy on the eyes, to boot.)

Each of the actors I mentioned are extremely talented, genuinely humble, and deserve a lot more praise than they receive from awards shows. So here’s the 1st Annual A Still and Quiet Conscience Award, presented to Joel McHale, Jake Johnson, and Matt Smith for Lead Actor in a Series (Comedy and Drama). Thank you, three, for the hard work, dedication, emotion, and long hours you have put into each of your characters. Thank you for telling their stories.

Because those stories MATTER, and – even if the Emmys don’t reflect this – so do you.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, yes, and yes. I loved how you describe the highlights that make these actors so great, especially with Matt Smith because even though he's not my favorite Doctor, he has a quality that always brings you back. But please, don't throw awards at their beautiful faces, its called the moneymaker for a reason.