Underrated, Unknown or Unsung: Overlooked Performances in Classic TV Shows.

Adam Fay,

Why is it that the lead actors in our favourite TV Shows get all the glory? Often it is the supporting cast that keep us coming back for more. In fact, some shows would not be half as successful as they are without the breakout performances of the lesser known players.

Here’s a list of what we think are some underrated, unknown or criminally unsung performances from some of the best TV Series ever.

These actors may not be number one on the call sheet, but they are certainly number one in the eyes of fans.

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy:

THE HANDMAID’S TALE

Playing second fiddle to the powerhouse that is Elizabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale has meant that much of the focus is off Yvonne Strahovski. But after 5 seasons (possibly 3 or 4 too many if we are all being honest here) the Aussie actress has consistently provided the glue that has held the series together.

Serena Joy is the nemesis to Moss’s June Osborne and it’s testament to Strahovski’s abilities that we can completely despise her one minute, then somehow sympathise with her the next. Serena’s complexities are captured incredibly well by an actress who, we believe, deserves to at least share some of the limelight with lead Elizabeth Moss.

Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder:

JUSTIFIED

It’s almost impossible to believe that, as per the short story the show is based on, the original plan was to have Walton Goggins‘ Boyd Crowder character killed off in the very first episode of Justified. For fans of the show, this is incomprehensible, as alongside star Timothy Olyphant he is considered the backbone of this beloved series.

Goggins embodies Boyd in a way that makes it hard to imagine any other actor playing him. His sly wit and southern charm can turn to chilling evil in a heartbeat, and it’s not hard to tell that playing the cheeky, but uncompromising villain is what this actor was born to do.

Joe Pantoliano as Ralph Cifaretto:

THE SOPRANOS

Joe Pantoliano, or “Joey Pants” as he is affectionately known within the industry, is a renowned character actor who has featured in some of the most unforgettable films of all time. Everything from Risky Business and The Matrix, to Memento and Bad Boys. For years he was known to many as “That guy from that thing” until his game-changing turn as Ralph Cifaretto in seasons 3 and 4 of The Sopranos cemented his place in popular culture forever.

In a cast with so many unforgettable characters, it’s incredible that Pantoliano’s guest role came in and completely stole the show. His portrayal of Ralph was bone-chilling in his lack of morality, and decidedly gruesome in his brutality. The “stripper incident”, “the weight joke”, “the Pie-Oh-My racehorse”…do these ring any bells? The Ralphie seasons of The Sopranos have become etched in the shows infamy as some of the very best.

John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell:

DEXTER

Thanks mainly to the introduction of the Trinity Killer, played with subtle poise and sophistication by the one and only John Lithgow, season 4 of Dexter was the show at its peak. The series never managed to again reach the heights it did that season (and less said about the terrible finale the better) It just goes to show the power a good actor in a guest role can provide.

Lithgow has always been a reliable actor, bouncing back and forth between wholesome, kind-hearted characters (3rd Rock From the Sun, Terms of Endearment) and nasty, psychopathic madmen (Cliffhanger, Raising Cain) In Dexter, he had the opportunity to show both sides of this coin – a good-guy family-man one minute, a devious serial killer the next. The result was one of the more unforgettable villains in TV history.

Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning:

ORPHAN BLACK

The Canadian actress is currently smashing her way across screens as She-Hulk on Disney+, but it was her tour de force performance in 5 seasons of Orphan Black that really showcased her range.

Yes, Tatiana did get the recognition she deserved with an Emmy win for the role, but even so, it still feels like her performance, where she often played up to 6 or more characters at once (sometimes these characters even interacting together) flies more under the radar than it should. Make no mistake, her performance in Orphan Black is mind-blowing, and not even the accolades she received have made her the household name she deserves.

Peter Sarsgaard as Ray Seward:

THE KILLING

One of the most versatile actors of his generation, Peter Sarsgaard has always flown just beneath the radar of mainstream popularity and fame. His many roles have won him applause, but none have had the jaw-dropping intensity of his turn as Ray Seward in The Killing.

With the series itself having a bumpy history – cancelled after season 2 by AMC, picked up for a season 3 by Fox, cancelled again, then picked up for a 4th and final season by Netflix – it’s possible some of its audience dropped away in the on/off shuffle. Sarsgaard’s season 3 arch as a man on death row is a lesson in powerful, heartbreaking, and by the end, quietly riveting acting. Highly recommended for those who may not have been aware of the series, but essential for anyone interested in the power of acting itself.

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga:

BETTER CALL SAUL

As career criminal Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul, Michael Mando ironically provides a lot of the heart and soul of the series, and can be considered one of the only characters to be “Breaking Good”, with his often futile attempts to leave the drug trade behind him.

His quiet performance, coupled with the nasty deeds he needs to orchestrate, is something not many actors can pull off as successfully, but Mando provides Nacho a cool head and deep intelligence as he navigates the ups and downs of the criminal lifestyle in this unforgettable series.

Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo:

FARGO

Full transparency – I’d watch Billy Bob Thornton recite tax legislation and still be riveted. For me, he’s one of the best, but I imagine his role as contract killer Lorne Malvo in Season 1 of Fargo would have even the most skeptical of viewers kneeling at the altar of Billy Bob.

Lorne Malvo is an uncompromising psychopath. Part con man, part philosopher, and if it wasn’t for his complete lack of human empathy, he might be someone you’d share a drink with. Billy Bob makes Malvo a man of complexity who we want to despise, but simply can’t get enough of. A genius performance that stamped Fargo as a genuine TV contender from the get go.

Victoria Pedretti as Nell Crain:

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

Victoria Pedretti’s performance in The Haunting of Hill House was the kind of breakout role actresses dream of. Following it up in the next instalment, The Haunting of Bly Manor allowed her to flex her acting chops even further.

For those who may have forgotten, Mike Flannagan’s The Haunting of Hill House was that show on Netflix a few years back that scared the living crap out of you. Pedretti’s tortured performance provided many of the scare set-ups…her visions of the “Bent Neck Lady” in her childhood, and now its return to haunt her as an adult, sent chills down our spines throughout the series. It was an anguished role that Pedretti filled with enough realism to make us feel the pain and fear she was going through.

Brett Gelman as Martin:

FLEABAG

A lot of the praise for the brilliance of Fleabag has been laid at the feet of star and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and rightly so..but this is a comedy series that is nothing without the performances of its supporting cast, all of whom are top notch. We know viewers fell in love with Andrew Scott’s “Hot Priest”, but our favourite support in the series is Martin, the greasy haired a**sehole that is Fleabag’s sister Claire’s alcoholic husband. Played with sufficient snarky attitude by Brett Gelman.

Gelman is no stranger to oily, off-the-wall characters, but Martin is the role he seems born to play. Vulgar, rude, loud-mouthed and inappropriate at every turn. It’s a role that sounds on paper to be wildly over the top, but somehow, thanks to Gelman’s spot-on performance, we come away with the feeling that we have all met a Martin in our lives. I know I have.

Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn:

HOMELAND

The Peter Quinn character in Homeland was a bona-fide American hero. Highly trained, super smart and incredibly trustworthy in a treacherous world of assassins, spies and terrorists. Which is why his story arch in season 6 of the series prompted some fans to take out a full page ad in Variety magazine rallying against the Homeland writers and their treatment of their beloved character. No spoilers here, but suffice to say Rupert Friend’s portrayal of Peter Quinn captured the hearts and minds of a legion of fans.

Quinn was more than just the handsome good guy taking out the enemy, Rupert Friend gave him the kind of substance that lifted him beyond the scripted words on the page. At one stage, his popularity even threatening to overtake series headliners Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin.

Susie Essman as Susie Greene:

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

After 11 seasons, you’d think Curb Your Enthusiasm had run out of surprises, but it keeps on delivering thanks in part to the genius of Larry David, but also the hilarious cast of supporting characters that provide much of the shows unscripted, laugh out loud moments.

There’s none better than Susie Essman’s foul mouthed Susie Greene. Her mere entrance to a scene has the power to make a viewer sit up, rub their hands together and say “here we go!”. Of course, when Susie is involved, we know we are going to get something outrageous and special (with some seriously delicious off-colour language thrown in)

Zach Woods as Jared Dunn:

SILICON VALLEY

As the only optimist in the Pied Piper team on Silicon Valley, Zach Woods’ Jared Dunn character takes the full brunt of ridicule and scorn from his colleagues, only to come out with his positive attitude forever intact.

Woods’ performance is truly unique and provides the show a loveable, hilarious anchor. His long, thin stature and endless awkwardness merely adds to the authenticity of his anxiety-ridden role. An accomplished comedic actor, Woods has revealed that incredibly, much of his dialogue in Silicon Valley was improvised.

Charles Esten as Deacon Claybourne:

NASHVILLE

It’s no wonder Charles Esten felt immediately like a perfect fit for the role of Deacon Claybourne on Nashville. In real life, especially since the shows’ conclusion, Esten has essentially become a living version of the baritone voiced country icon, selling out concerts around the world with his original music.

Rewind a few years and many would be surprised to learn that Esten is also a master comedic improviser. His regular appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway have made him a series favourite on that classic show. A man of many talents and often the best reason to tune into Nashville.

Kristen Schaal as Carol Pilbasian:

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH

Criminally cancelled after 4 fun and crazy seasons, The Last Man on Earth was in fact more about the last 6 or 7 men and women on Earth, and none of them had the endlessly optimistic outlook that Kristen Schaal’s Carol had.

She was the loveable cheerleader of the show who took her unfortunate situation and made the most of it. In other words, when life dealt her raisins, she cheerfully made raisin balls. Carol was many things – quirky, law-abiding and devoted – but she was also the backbone to this comedic series that carried the darkest of undertones.

Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden:

BOARDWALK EMPIRE

Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden character in Boardwalk Empire is perhaps one of the most complex characters in television history. An agent for the Bureau of Prohibition in the 1920s and up against some of the most famous gangsters and mafia legends of all time is difficult enough, but being a heavily repressed religious fundamentalist on top of all this certainly didn’t help.

Only an actor like Shannon could capture the inner struggles and demons of a character so staunch and committed to hiding every true feeling he has within. Like a ticking time bomb we watch in awe the evolution of Van Alden from quiet and shy, to explosive and murderous.

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee:

THE WALKING DEAD

Apologies to all current Walking Dead fans, but this series officially died for me when Glenn left. I know I’m not alone in this, as his unceremonious “exit” in Season 7 caused a wave of outrage and disgust. Steven Yeun had beautifully constructed this character over 6 seasons, making him not only a reliable guy you could trust to have your back in any situation, but also a legit survival expert badass, who often topped the zombie kill-rate in the early seasons.

To call Glenn likeable was an understatement. He was a sweetheart with deep intelligence and some poignant philosophical leanings. A character you came back time and again for. We can all forgive when our favourites need to exit a show, but when Glenn left the way he did, it was simply…’not cool’. There, I said it.

Anthony Carrigan as NoHo Hank:

BARRY

Barry is one of the best and most overlooked HBO series with a cast of incredible characters. None have managed to steal every scene they are in, and be so hilariously unpredictable as Anthony Carrigan’s NoHo Hank.

The genius of Carrigan’s take on a Chechen Mob right hand man, who later becomes leader, is that it subverts everything we expect from a character like this. Hank is upbeat, funny with an outlook that can only be described as…positive. He’s polite, sensitive and personable in a way we have never seen a Mob character be. In a show full of great performances from the likes of Bill Hader and Henry Winkler, Carrigan’s NoHO Hank stands tall.

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