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TeeVee Awards 2000: Best Actress, Hour

There's a staple scene in most movies from the 1940s and 1950s where an awkward and ungainly young woman -- dressed drably and sporting hideous glasses -- somehow contrives to lose her glasses. Bystanders are immediately bludgeoned about the head and shoulders with the realization that Miss Mousy is actually a bombshell, and the ugly duckling swans off into the sunset with her man.

That scene dropped out of favor, thank God, surfacing only on hack shows like Saved by the Bell. This year, two ugly ducklings are taking home the Best Actress award for one-hour shows. Both women did it by showing how much beguiling an awkward misfit can be.

By all rights, Allison Janney isn't known for her misfit roles. She's known for slinking onscreen and stealing every scene she's in, infusing her roles with dryly bemused delivery and wonderfully natural body language. Six feet tall with a voice that can dip from silky menace to racous laughter, Janney is the kind of actress who can intimidate simply by showing up on screen.

It's a testament to her talents that she takes those qualities and uses them to make C.J., the beleaguered press secretary on The West Wing, so very endearing. Janney has always appeared to be hyper-aware of how other people in the scene regard her character, and that acute self-consciousness is turned inside out to good effect on the show: C.J. lacks the self-assurance she deserves, and watching her struggle to build it while working in a fishbowl is simultaneously touching and frustrating. Janney works hard to show C.J.'s unconscious strengths -- like her one-line smackdowns of coworkers Josh and Toby (Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff) -- as well as her crises of confidence whe her boss calls her on the carpet.

If Janney's effortless ability to become the heart of every scene she's in don't convince you that she deserves the award, consider this: she had to kiss Timothy Busfield this season. Repeatedly. They gave Patricia Wettig an Emmy for doing that; at the least, we can only hope Janney's getting hazard pay for her Busfield bussing.

One can also hope Linda Cardellini will eventually be able to listen to Styx without shrieking in secondary embarassment; God knows we won't. Cardellini, who shares the best actress award for her portrayal as Lindsay on Freaks and Geeks, also turned in a sympathetic performance as an ugly duckling struggling to remake herself as a swan.

In a show filled with good actors and better writing, Cardellini stood out as the emotional center. Lindsey was our ticket into the separate freaky and geeky circles: she had one foot in each of them and had no idea where she wanted to step next.

We knew this because Cardellini's face broadcast Lindsay's every move. Although her death ray glare -- directed most often at her dad -- was eerily reminiscent of the same look we shot our parents as teenagers, Cardellini was equally capable of broadcasting indecisiveness and, too rarely, unguarded joy, with a few subtle shifts of her features. She managed the rare feat of letting the audience know what she was thinking without sacrificing believability in scenes where her costars were required to misunderstand her.

Cardellini did her job because viewers ended up getting their hearts stomped on when she did; she made us empathize with her, and she made us feel good for doing it.

Cardellini and Janney were birds of a feather this year: actresses giving exquisitely rendered portraits of people oblivious to their own beauty.

Additional contributions to this article by: Lisa Schmeiser.


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