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TeeVee Awards '02: Best Hour Actress

Every once in a while, a show will come along in which there is an Actor surrounded by actors. You can usually tell which is which -- the Actor is busy emoting and becoming one with the character and generally putting on a virtuoso performance while those around him simply say the lines and wait for the next cue. Many shows built around high-profile Hollywood names involve Actors among actors -- recent outings by Gabriel Byrne, Bette Midler, Nathan Lane and Tim Curry spring to mind.

Then there is the much more delightful phenomena of a show where one actor is clearly gifted with a talent which surpasses their colleagues, yet they use it in the service of good, if by "good," you mean, "not overtly showing up the other people in the scene." These delightful specimens make a show better simply by subtly elevating everyone around them. Patrick Stewart on Star Trek: the Next Generation was one such rara avis. One of this year's co-winners for Best Actress in an hourlong show is another.

Say what you will about CSI -- it's an armchair detective's guilty pleasure, it's a baffling crowd-pleaser, it's another little franchise machine in the making -- but one thing you can't say about it is that it's an embarrassment of thespian riches. Most of the actors turn in workmanlike performances, working adequately within the limited parameters of writing that's more focused on the case du jour than on character development. That's not the stuff upon which we bestow TeeVee Awards -- if it was, Benjamin Bratt would have gotten the nod way back when -- but what Marg Helgenberger's doing with the raw material she's been given is.

Let's examine the material in question: fairly scanty character development in the scripts, and what's present is stocked with clichés. On paper, Helgenberger's character, Catherine Willows, was created solely with drinking-game potential in mind -- she's a former stripper with a heart of gold! She's a plucky single mom! She's got killer instincts and investigative chops to match!

On screen, however, Helgenberger takes this material and uses it to make Catherine the warm heart of an otherwise lonely show. She's the one who took subplots about kidnapping, rigged evidence, and awkward show spin-offs, and turned them into miniature character studies of a woman who's constantly balancing what her job gives her against what it takes away. This is hard enough to do in shows that are custom-built for relatable characters, but to do so when you're in a show that consciously focuses away from the characters is amazing.

In addition to consistently being better than her material, Helgenberger also makes everyone else around her look better: on their own, costars George Eads, Gary Dourdan, Jorja Fox and William Petersen can come off as wooden, distant, stilted and surly, respectively. With her, however, Eads' character Nick becomes sweetly awkward, Dourdan's Warrick is relaxed, Fox's Sara is an introverted workaholic, and Petersen's Gil is a cool, cerebral counterpoint to her quick, assertive style. Apparently, there's something about Helgenberger's vivid characterization that's contagious.

Best of all, whatever Helgenberger's doing isn't obvious -- she's not Acting, but merely doing her job extremely well to the benefit of those around her. For rising above her material and bringing everyone else with her, Helgenberger gets a stake in this year's Best Actress, Hour Show.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, winner of the left half of the split Best Actress TeeVee statuette (and now a four-time winner of this award), is not one to rise above her material. There have been plenty of godawful Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes and all Gellar has ever managed to do in any of them is gamely play along. She'll spin kick and quip and look good doing it, just like always, but if the writers decide to put her to work in a fast-food restaurant where an old woman with an enormous penis sprouting from her head is consuming diners, well, Sir Laurence Olivier might have stumbled over that, too. All poor Sarah can do is flop around in the muck along with the rest of the cast and pray that the bank cashes her paycheck. The only winners when Buffy goes bad are the people who create drinking games.

But give Gellar the right material -- which, thankfully, Joss Whedon can do at a whim -- and she shines more completely than any other woman on the tube, if you don't count Marg over there, holding the right side of our pathetic little trophy. Gellar may not be the best at any one particular thing, but when you add up all she has to do in her willfully genre-defying show, there is nobody else working today who could fill her shoes.

There are several actresses in the field who can beat the crap out of the baddies, several who can make you cry, and several who are good with a quick line. But Gellar is more than capable at all three, often in the same episode. The range of what she must deal with would leave most actresses flummoxed and exhausted, but Gellar -- more often than not -- pulls it off. And then uses it to hit someone in the head.

Last year, Gellar's stand-out moment was a devastating portrayal of grief in "The Body." This year, it was singing her way through an unwanted resurrection in "Once More, with Feeling." In between, she's managed to believably give us demon-fights, quiet moments of loneliness, rough sex, maternal protectiveness and God knows what else. And all without the soapy sheen of unreality that coats shows far more grounded in "reality," including reality shows and tripe like ER.

No, Gellar isn't perfect. Neither is Buffy. But one of the most enjoyable shows on the tube probably couldn't exist without its star -- we'll see, won't we? -- and there's no greater testament to how good a job she's doing.

Additional contributions to this article by: Lisa Schmeiser, Greg Knauss.


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