On TV, dramatic acting is flourishing

Samira Wiley (left) in “Orange Is the New Black.”
Samira Wiley (left) in “Orange Is the New Black.”Jessica Miglio for Netflix/Netflix

One of the loveliest things about season two of “Orange Is the New Black” is watching Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington. With each episode, Wiley reveals more of her character’s humanity, exposes more of her hidden pain. It’s like watching an iris bloom across the season, purple petals unfurling in time-lapse photography. Poussey’s bravado, so confidently established in season one, takes on shades of heroism as she tenaciously resists the savage magnetism of the bad mother, Vee.

It’s one of the most faceted performances on the Netflix series, and on TV in general. Wiley is one of many actors who are embracing the medium’s great advantages — the wealth of screen time to flesh out a character, the opportunity to earn every inch of a character’s transformation, the synchronicity of having a screenwriter writing specifically for them as the seasons accumulate, the nimbler pace than on movie sets, and the sweet mystery of exactly what stories will be coming down the pike.


Wiley isn’t playing a character whose arc has been predetermined from the start, as she would in a movie or a play. With her wide-open, expressive eyes, she is playing a woman whose actions and emotions are evolving through the series with no clear endpoint; it’s more like life, in that way. As an actress unaware of her character’s future, she is forced into the moment and into a close reading of the script. Even Poussey’s backstory, involving her military family and an early affair with a German girl, didn’t emerge until the middle of season two, like a lurking memory that jumped to mind. Wiley’s fine performance is a particularly TV-esque performance, too, a kind of organic unfolding over time.

For decades, dramatic acting on TV was considered the garish, disreputable cousin to film and theater acting. And that was a largely valid opinion, as TV actors’ faces would tighten and jaws would drop in the build-up to each commercial break. TV wasn’t a place an actor went to explore the corners of a character. It was rooted in radio soaps and vaudeville, where staying on the surface and directness were critical. As the TV writers banged out boilerplate murder cases and feel-good family tales, the potential for an actor to develop a twisty interior life for a role was limited. Character drama, the kind that has been so nuanced and riveting in shows such as “In Treatment” and “Six Feet Under,” was not really a TV thing.


Before the cable explosion, the creators of network shows were avoiding subtlety in order to attract as many viewers as possible. The stories and the acting had to be obvious, so as not to confuse the less sensitive or less sophisticated audience members. Robert Young played decency and patience — and little else — as the star of “Marcus Welby, M.D.” He was endearing and admirable, but one-dimensional. If the doctor had done a few unsavory things along the way, mainstream viewers might have had trouble processing them. Welby’s a good man, but he did a bad thing? Say what? Now, of course, we’re accustomed to characters who cross into gray areas and travel through moral labyrinths, who reflect a truer sense of human nature.

Characters from the old days were written to stay essentially the same throughout the life of a show. There was little of the development and transformation that is now a highlight of great TV dramas, the kind of shift we watched Bryan Cranston navigate as Walt on “Breaking Bad.” People change in life, from day to day and year to year, even while much can stay the same. That realism is now a celebrated part of series TV, and the best TV actors, including Jon Hamm on “Mad Men,” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on “Game of Thrones,” Jeffrey Tambor on “Transparent,” and Michael Sheen on “Masters of Sex,” work hard to earn every inch of their character’s transformation.


Coster-Waldau has been a standout as the evolving Jaime Lannister on a show filled with indelible performances, including Peter Dinklage as Tyrion and Emilia Clarke as the increasingly empowered Khaleesi. He has made each step of Jaime’s journey so rich and believable, from the incestuous creep who pushed Bran Stark out of a window to the humiliated “kingslayer” missing a hand. In the world of Westeros, he has been a monster and, later, a decent man with principles, and Coster-Waldau has shown us the truth behind each of those Jaimes. Tambor, too, makes each one of his character’s many steps from Mort to Maura, from the transgender closet into the public arena, into a revelation.

Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.”
Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.” Beth Dubber/Amazon Studios

Both Emmy Rossum in “Shameless” and Elisabeth Moss in “Mad Men” play women who were nicely established early in their respective series, but who have grown significantly over the seasons. As Fiona Gallagher, Rossum has moved from bitter survivor to self-aware blunderer heading toward some kind of reckoning, with all of the one-step-forward-two-steps-backward pacing of real-life change. As Peggy Olson, Moss — also extraordinary in the Sundance series “Top of the Lake” — has progressed from a mousy secretary who didn’t even know she was pregnant into a sharp, professional powerhouse. Peggy is written as a symbol of women’s liberation in the 1960s, but Moss particularizes her beautifully, as an ordinary, deeply sympathetic person.


Olivia Colman, as Detective Ellie Miller in “Broadchurch,” also took her character from point A to point C, or D, or E, with emotional precision and power. By the culmination of season one (the show returns to BBC America on March 4), she was, tragically, a changed person, hurled into the darkest of realities by the truth about her family.

Olivia Colman in “Broadchurch.”
Olivia Colman in “Broadchurch.”Patrick Redmond/BBC America

Some actors and actresses bring such naturalism to their roles that you can’t really see them acting. While Sheen as the whisper-to-a-scream Bill Masters in “Masters of Sex,” Walton Goggins as the slippery Boyd Crowder on “Justified,” Tatiana Maslany as the multiple clones on “Orphan Black,” Travis Fimmel as the trippy-eyed Ragnar Lothbrok on “Vikings,” and Aden Young as the childlike Daniel Holden on “Rectify” are all astonishingly good, they’re good in a more actorly way. You’re aware of their skills while you marvel at the strength and meticulousness of their performances.

But watching Jon Voight as Mickey Donovan in “Ray Donovan,” Edie Falco as Jackie on “Nurse Jackie,” Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings on “The Americans,” and Gaby Hoffmann as Ali Pfefferman on “Transparent,” you can forget they’re acting. The actors have disappeared, or, to look at it another way, they seem to have become one with their characters, effortlessly and seamlessly. Falco, in particular, is remarkably present and reactive in every scene of her series, which begins its final season on Showtime on April 12.


A number of supporting actors, along with Wiley, also manage to build full-size characters. Maura Tierney brought slow heat to a full boil on “The Affair,” nearly stealing the show from the leads. Laila Robins, as the US ambassador to Pakistan in “Homeland,” was heartbreaking as the wife of a coward. She added much-needed poignancy to the tone of the fourth season. Despite smallish roles, the fierce Pamela Adlon on “Louie” and the louche, world-weary Jemima Kirke on “Girls” deliver in a big way.

Both provoke new sides in their respective leads, in the fluid, bottomless world of contemporary TV acting.

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.