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TeeVee Awards '03: Best Hour Actor

Acting on television has become something of a lost art. It's not for lack of talent; despite what your film snob friends might tell you just before flitting off to catch the premiere of "Gigli," there are many fine actors working in the medium. But their ability to excel in their craft is increasingly hampered by an almost total lack of character development in the shows they populate.

In half-hour sitcoms, the reasons for that are simple enough. Foremost among them is every producer's wet dream, syndication, which for some reason mandates that the characters begin and end every episode in exactly the same state, living out their three- to seven-year existence in perpetual limbo. Then there are the evil forces set into motion by the success of Friends, which put forth the notion that as long as characters are attractive and say funny things, they don't really need to do much of anything else. And if you're wondering to yourself what happens when the attractive people run out of funny things to say, kudos to you for having more foresight than some of the brightest minds in television.

But in hour-length dramas, where characters have traditionally been afforded some depth, you would expect good actors to have the opportunity to shine. Unfortunately, thanks to the enduring popularity of shows such as ER, Law & Order, and CSI, Hollywood has spent the last couple of years cranking out stylish ensemble dramas that emphasize situations -- violent crime, unexplained murders, extractions of foreign objects from the lower bowel -- over character. And while this format can certainly be entertaining, it very rarely lends itself to great acting.

The problem is that in ensemble dramas the characters only exist as a means for the writers to show off their cleverly devised crime scenario, or to advance whichever simplistic sociopolitical aphorism they're touting that week. The actor becomes a mere puppet, capering from crime scene to crime scene at the behest of the writer's insistent hand. Effectively reduced to well-paid props, all but the very best actors simply go where their strings pull them, week after week giving wooden, by-numbers performances that are less nuanced than the work put in by Grover during your average episode of Sesame Street.

And the very best actors? Those are the ones who manage to make an end-run around their puppet masters, who subtly impart that beneath their clichéd exterior lurks a genuine human consciousness instead of a monkey with a typewriter. The motivations and back-story that the script will not allow them to express, they surreptitiously suggest with a sideways glance, a stutter, or an awkward movement. In puppet terms, that's the equivalent of Grover successfully conveying, through understated body language and tone of voice, that there really isn't a hand jammed unceremoniously up his ass.

Without a Trace's Anthony LaPaglia is just such a puppet. In his role as Senior FBI Agent Jack Malone, he infuses crime show cliché #117 (High Ranking Law Enforcement Official Whose Brilliance And Dedication To His Work Stands In Stark Contrast To His Shambles Of A Personal Life) with more heart than it probably deserves.

LaPaglia's portrayal of that hackneyed persona is pitch perfect, but his internal struggles with his collapsing marriage, a clandestine affair with one of his agents, and his frequently less-than-uplifting caseload are much more impressive. We hear actual dialogue about Malone's personal problems only very rarely, but LaPaglia's demeanor makes it clear that he carries those problems with him always, boiling away just below the surface and gnawing at his guts like two cans of Coke and a handful of Pop Rocks.

One especially noteworthy window into Malone's dark side is a harrowing scene in which Malone cons a pedophile kidnapper into revealing the location of his victim by pretending to be a closeted pedophile himself. LaPaglia pulls this intensely creepy speech off so convincingly that one wonders whether playing a priest in "The Garden of Redemption" might have rubbed off on him a bit.

Normally, that would be good enough to garner LaPaglia the widely coveted TeeVee award, but for a surprise development that relegated him to the coveted-by-none position of runner-up. You see, evidently ignorant of the official Hollywood template for hour-length ensemble crime dramas, the creators of Monk went and made themselves a show that isn't about crimes that some guys solve, but about a guy who solves crimes. And then they went and hired Tony Shalhoub to play that guy brilliantly.

Monk, in case you've missed our glowing reviews, is about Adrian Monk, a former police detective whose wife was killed by a car bomb intended for him. The resulting trauma cost him his job and left him with a nasty case of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a barrelful of assorted irrational fears and affectations. He still applies what's left of his brilliant mind to investigating cases, but Monk's intense fear of germs, dirt, snakes, death, heights, off-brand bottled water, people, and pretty much everything else makes actually solving them quite a bit more difficult.

It's a clever idea that could so easily have gone awry. The show's insistence on focusing heavily on the character and his cornucopia of psychoses leaves scant time for the mysteries, resulting in cases that are about as puzzling as the average Scooby Doo caper. "Let's see, so far Monk has questioned Mr. McGreevy, who is ugly and weird and was seen running from the crime scene with a bloody chain saw, and kindly Farmer Brown, who has an airtight alibi. Which one of them killed the trapeze artist, I wonder?"

That means that the success of the show rests heavily on the shoulders of the actor playing Adrian Monk. Fortunately, Shalhoub is fantastic. A lesser actor might have overplayed Monk's mannerisms for comedic effect, turning the character into a one man freak show. Shalhoub, though, gives him a remarkable amount of depth and humanity, elevating Monk from a caricature defined by his quirks and tics to a complex man who has been nearly consumed by them.

Not that Shalhoub holds back on playing up Monk's weirdness; indeed, he can flinch dramatically from the sight of a nose-picking toddler or gape with bug-eyed horror at the discovery of a poorly organized filing cabinet with the best of them. But he tempers these over-the-top moments with subtler, far more effective ones. When he finds himself in a situation that offends his delicate sensibilities, Shalhoub exposes his severe discomfort not with unwieldy exposition or unrealistically self-aware dialogue, but by gradually morphing his face into the expression of a man who has suddenly become aware that a cluster of centipede eggs has hatched in his boxers.

Shalhoub says more with his body language and facial expressions than we could communicate in five paragraphs -- which may have something to do with why we're not getting paid for this, come to think of it -- and nowhere does he apply that skill more effectively than when he is bringing out the sadness in Monk's condition. When Monk happens across a happy couple, for instance, that rubbery face of his somehow manages to simultaneously express gladness for the couple, desperate longing for the dead wife he still deeply loves, and the terrible, soul-crushing loneliness of an eternal outsider who feels he may never again engage in normal social interaction. Not that any of us know what that's like, mind you.

No question, Monk is a great show, the kind of show we wish there were more of. Credit the creators and the writers for trying to bring real, old-time character development back to the stick figure-populated world of television. But credit Shalhoub's sublime, sad, discomfiting, and utterly hilarious performance for making the damned thing actually work.

You don't get that kind of performance from a puppet. Therefore, Tony Shalhoub, we salute you with your very own TeeVee award. Congratulations, you're a real boy at last!

Additional contributions to this article by: Steve Lutz.


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