I was putting together a list of the best TV performances of the year, combing through names such as Elisabeth Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Alexander Skarsgard in “Big Little Lies,” Laura Linney in “Ozark,” and David Thewlis in “Fargo.” I ran across the name Ted Danson, and I stopped.
How easy it would be to pass over a performer who is so familiar to TV viewers from decades of shows, currently including NBC’s “The Good Place.” We sometimes take the stalwarts for granted, or assume that, since they may have won kudos early on — Danson, for example, was awarded two Emmys in the 1990s for his Sam Malone on “Cheers” — they’ve gotten their due.
But the more I thought about Danson, the more my respect deepened. Like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, his TV career has been a journey from strength to strength, and his work has only improved as he’s aged. Most of his strongest performances have been in the past decade, long after “Cheers” bowed out in 1993 with Sam telling a customer, “Sorry, we’re closed.” Of course there have been exceptions and missteps along the way; I’m not a “Becker” fan, and “CSI: Cyber” was a bust, although Danson’s work on it and “CSI” was better-than-respectable procedural acting. But the number of his memorable turns since 2007 is remarkable.
On NBC’s “The Good Place,” Danson is magisterial as Michael, the architect of “the good place,” which, we learned in the season one finale, is in fact “the bad place.” The show, from Michael Schur of “Parks and Recreation,” is a lighthearted farce that traffics in big ideas about life, death, the afterlife, ethics, deception, and memory. It’s a half-hour of existential whimsy and woe, one that reinvents its premise over and over again. As the man trying to play his four humans like puppets, Danson presides over the show like the old pro that he is, wringing laughs out of all the absurdity, turning Michael into a brainy buffoon as he strains to maintain standing with his supervisors while desperately colluding with his humans.
His Michael bears a resemblance to many of his comedic roles. Danson is an expert at playing men who are full of themselves, my favorite of which was his high-powered editor, George Christopher, on HBO’s three-season cult fave, “Bored to Death.” George is a literary fool on the show, a denizen of Manhattan cocktail parties who drinks too much, smokes too much pot, and talks too much about his sex life. In one unforgettable scene, he asks Jason Schwartzman’s Brooklyn bohemian writer Jonathan to punch him in the mouth — in order to hide a herpes sore.
With his thick mane of white hair and his height, Danson generally towers over his costars, and that seemed doubly the case — and doubly comic — in “Bored to Death,” with Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis. He can come off like a big, vain, and ultimately endearing galoot. In “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Danson plays against that type as a sensible version of himself who usually looks good compared with his friend Larry David. This past season, he continued to be the thorn in Larry’s side — actually, one of the many thorns in Larry’s side — as he dated Larry’s ex, Cheryl. But signs of the galoot always peeked through.
Watch him in the scene in which Larry tells his friends, including Ted and Cheryl, that he may be working with Lin-Manuel Miranda. “You’re meeting with Lin-Manuel Miranda,” Cheryl coos, dazzled and impressed. In that moment we can see Ted neurotically scoot just a bit closer to Cheryl at the table, quietly threatened by her gushing at Larry. It’s a tiny, but expertly comic, moment.
The same features that can make Danson funny, not just the height and the white hair but the need for attention, can also add a threatening quality to his dramatic roles. One of his best performances was on the 2007-12 series “Damages,” which started on FX and ended on DirecTV. He played bad guy tycoon Arthur Frobisher as a hedonistic, greedy, cowardly, narcissistic fellow — not unlike some of his comic creations, but with an underlying coldness that was the opposite of Sam Malone. Frobisher had murderous intent and a taste for snorting cocaine off the breasts of a teen girl. Danson was chillingly effective on the show.
At this point, having resisted being stereotyped as his most famous sitcom character, refusing to succumb to the classic-sitcom curse, Danson can seemingly step into any kind of role. His performance on the brilliant second season of “Fargo” was yet another highlight from the past 10 years. He played a gentle cop, grieving over his wife while working with his son-in-law on a case. In retrospect, he was the heart of the story, the hero who lingers in memory.
Watching him on “The Good Place,” game for all the silliness and agile with the philosophical themes, is pure pleasure. I was making a list of the best TV performances of the year recently, and I’m so glad I put Ted Danson on it.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.