13 Standout New Performances of Summer 2014

Ah, fall – the leaves turn, kids go back to school, and DVRs begin to fill up with the much-anticipated returns of our favorite network series. But, before we settle down in front of our television sets with pumpkin-flavored everything, let’s take a moment to reflect and celebrate the fact that summer 2014 television was actually pretty great. With the increase in short-order cable series, seasons of streaming series released en mass, and year-round programming, summer TV is not longer just a wasteland of horrible reality shows and reruns (although there’s still plenty of that too). In fact, during summer 2014, a number of film stars made their first outings into series television, including Halle Berry (Extant), Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honorable Woman), and Clive Owen (The Knick). TV stalwarts like Taye Diggs (Murder in the First) and Radha Mitchell (The Last Ship) also returned with new series.

Even with a surfeit of known talent to watch, one of the best things about summer 2014 television was the quantity of new, lesser known actors who surprised us with their talent. Some shone on critically-praised hits, while others stole the show on under-the-radar gems. Below is a list of thirteen of our favorite new-ish performers (in alphabetical order), all of whom (with one exception) appeared in brand new roles this summer.

1) Joe Anderson – Terry Kucik, The Divide (WEtv)

9efefc_de7c5e4f7f924ce1afe4a40aec99042cAnderson plays a man serving life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, who’s given a chance for both freedom and revenge when an Innocence Project-like organization takes up his case. It’s a character that could have easily been either unsympathetic or trite, but in Anderson’s hands, Terry is a good man haunted by both the things he did to survive in prison and what he wants to do to those who sent him there.

 

2) Annaleigh Ashford – Betty DiMello, Masters of Sex (Showtime)

9efefc_683083a4fedf4cc286e600241a56a399Yes, Betty appeared briefly in the first season of the drama, but it was only in the second season this summer that Ashford got the chance to shine. Playing a hooker turned housewife turned business manager, Ashford balanced Betty’s brashness with her pain as she tried desperately to hide her past and lesbianism to fit into the mold of a perfect society wife. When it all falls apart, her head for numbers and sharp business acumen make her an indispensable part of Masters and Johnson’s operation, and the most unpredictably exciting character on the show.

3) Caitriona Balfe – Claire Beauchamp Randall, Outlander (Starz)

9efefc_4ce846cc6ae946f5b58c49737c5858e3We could have picked almost anyone from the cast of Outlander for this feature, but the fact is the show sinks or swims on the performance of Irish actress and former model Balfe as protagonist Claire. Luckily, the role fits Balfe like a glove. In her hands, Claire roars to life as a fiery-tempered, intelligent, witty, vivacious, capable woman who struggles to balance her 20th century self with an 18th century Scotland that’s uninterested in female self-reliance. Balfe can be both steely and warm, sometimes in the same scene, making Claire a flawed but compelling lead.

4) David Bradley – Abraham Setrakian, The Strain (FX)

9efefc_e9aac265c5544d7999afded067290fdbBradley is hardly unknown to American audiences, particularly from his turns as Argus Finch in the Harry Potter films. But as grizzled vampire hunter Setrakian in The Strain, Bradley is the most riveting person in an often uneven show. Bradley nails Setrakian’s no-nonsense, brutal approach to exterminating vampires, while letting us see how the weight of his own tragic past seeps through to drive his quest. Not to mention the fact that Setrakian is a total badass fighter to boot, something the 72-year-old Bradley handles like he’s been doing it all his life.

5) Santiago Cabrera – Aramis, The Musketeers (BBC America)

9efefc_fb2802e39b3b471c83104e3935edefadAlmost any adaptation of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers involves a degree of scenery-chewing, and the part of amorous Aramis can easily be reduced to kissing hands and sultry eyebrows. However, Cabrera isn’t satisfied with only embodying the musketeer’s physical charms, instead giving him an underlying warmth and compassion that also informs his steadfast loyalty to his brethren. Despite his smoldering love affairs, he’s the most level-headed of all his companions.

6) Aya Cash – Gretchen Cutler, You’re the Worst (FX)

9efefc_28ce7eb7587c4c809f968920cbefccc9You’re the Worst is another show where we could have easily selected any of Cash’s fantastic co-stars, but her turn as callous PR exec Gretchen edges them all out simply due to the freshness of her performance. As the title suggest, Gretchen is the worst, a drunk-driving, commitment-phobic woman who rejects all responsibility and lies to everyone, including herself, about what she wants from life. Getting us to root for such a despicable person is tricky, but Cash’s subtle depiction of her reluctantly growing affection for the equally toxic Jimmy makes us understand that although Gretchen may be terrible, she’s not a lost cause.

7) Carrie Coon – Nora Durst, The Leftovers (HBO)

9efefc_199b5c19edc54f2a96070e0955e5b0b2Hands down, the best episode of The Leftovers this season was the one focused on Nora, who lost her entire family to the departure. It would be simple to play Nora solely for sympathy, but Coon brings a hint of hardness and callousness to the character. Coon makes it clear that all of Nora’s wounds weren’t created after the departure, but rather exacerbated by it. And if the scene of her collapsing, silently screaming, in the first season finale doesn’t break your heart, I’m not sure what will.

8) Eva Green – Vanessa Ives, Penny Dreadful (Showtime)

9efefc_5f2808e8db28438583453d51dcc486552014 was quite a year for Green, as she was also the best-reviewed actor in the sequels to both 300 and Sin City. But it was her turn as the mysterious, tortured mystic Vanessa Ives that demonstrated the range and ferocity Green is capable of achieving. Green found the fragility in Vanessa’s fury, as well as the resolve in her breakdowns, going for broke in some of the most haunting possession scenes ever to be filmed. Add this to Green’s palpable chemistry with all her co-stars, and you get one of the most fascinating, dangerous women on television.

9) André Holland РDr. Algernon Edwards, The Knick (Cinemax)

THE KNICKIf I was forced to pick my absolute favorite new character of the summer, it would probably be Dr. Edwards. The lion’s share of credit for this needs to go to Holland, who manages to blend Edwards’ determination, hubris, anger, and exasperation into a tightly wound portrayal of a man with something to prove. As the lone black medical employee at the Knick hospital, Edwards works thrice as hard for none of the credit, trying to balance his fight for social justice with his desire to advance his own reputation. With every stare, smirk, and eye-roll, Holland conveys the weariness of a man caught between worlds, belonging fully to none, yet able to recognize and appreciate the absurdity of his situation.

10) Keegan-Michael Key – Mark Rodriguez, Playing House (USA)

9efefc_9768524cee2c444787153774dd66c068Key isn’t exactly a new kid on the comedy block, being known best for his sketch work as one half of Key & Peele. The two even had a dryly funny guest turn in 2014 on the critical hit Fargo. But in Playing House, Key was charged with playing semi-straight man Mark to the over-the-top silliness of leads Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham. In less capable hands, Mark could have been a killjoy, but Key injected a wry humor into the ever-exasperated police officer. When Mark got caught up in the girls shenanigans, Key made Mark’s descent to their level believable and not abrupt, and he deftly captured the pathos of being torn between the wife he loves and the ex-flame he misses.

11) Igal Naor – Shlomo Zahary, The Honorable Woman (Sundance)

9efefc_e6144ee76f8146c1a7bcafd64e3ea295On a show whose central thesis is questioning whom you can trust, nobody captured that ambiguity better than Israeli actor Naor. As a long time friend to the Stein family at the heart of the show, Shlomo is either their most steadfast ally or their secretly traitorous enemy – you don’t know until the end. Naor walks this tightrope beautifully, alternatively radiating wounded pride, hardened rage, or genuine affection for the children of his dead friend. Shlomo is a man used to living with danger and betrayal, and Naor’s performance convinces you that he’s a true survivor.

12) Alex Saxon – Max, Finding Carter (MTV)

9efefc_4c6b395c580e4d09ba1be6f002de69ebThrough Saxon’s skill, Max, best friend to protagonist Carter, has evolved from a sideline character to become the much-loved emotional center of the show. Max is, on the surface, a friendly stoner, but Saxon brings compassion and a moral center to complicate the role without veering into after-school special territory. Saxon’s work proves that likablity and goodness doesn’t have to be shallow or simple.

 

13) Lorraine Toussaint – Yvonne ‘Vee’ Parker, Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

9efefc_d4da4b11042647cb9951314722d0d6a5Toussaint is less of a new TV standout than a returning one. Vee’s arrival upended the social hierarchy in the prison, as she cruelly manipulated the younger women to help build an empire. Yes, Vee was a villain, but Toussaint brought a world-wearied practicality to the role, suggesting that criminal acts can be a way for those on the fringes of society to build a family. Underneath Vee’s cool menace, Toussaint made it clear Vee was desperate not to be alone. Let’s hope she brings the same layers this fall to ABC’s Forever.