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TeeVee Awards '03: Best Half-Hour Actors

In case it wasn't obvious from the quality of the content, this web site is run on a pretty tight budget. You could say we're on a shoestring, but even Emmanuel Lewis' shoes aren't quite that small. "Penny ante" would be a pretty accurate description; except that sort of implies that after pitching in our ante we'd have some pennies left over to at least get around the table once, which, sadly, is not the case.

The point is, while a few of the Vidiots are content to subsist on a diet of tap water and Top Ramen, those of us who prefer to avoid scurvy have had to get real jobs. This means that, as much as we would like to, we simply can't spend all day fartin' around in front of the TV, poring through every single episode of every single half-hour sitcom. Even if we did, the subsequent binge on scotch and painkillers required to burn out the memory of a whole season of According to Jim would leave us in no state to write anything.

So we have to focus our viewing habits, filtering out the utter drivel and concentrating our scant free time on only those television comedies that entertain us most, or at the very least don't leave behind much lasting psychological trauma.

Which is why when it comes time to hand out our award for Best Half-Hour Actor, no cast member from Yes, Dear or Hidden Hills or any other carbon copy major network sitcom has a snowball's chance in hell. Frankly, apart from the contractually required couple of episodes we have to suffer through in order to render a decent review, we can't bring ourselves to watch the shit. So while there may be a brilliant comic actor frantically tunneling his way out of the comedic dung heap that is Good Morning, Miami, he's just going to have to keep on tunneling without an award from us. That may not seem entirely fair, but we believe that having the good sense to steer clear of any Mark Feuerstein vehicle is one of the essential qualities of a truly great actor.

As for us, we so loathe Feuerstein and his ilk that we steered ourselves clear across the Atlantic Ocean.

You see, here at TeeVee we're comedy people. Without a regular fix of the funny, we become belligerent and bitter and just generally unpleasant; more so than usual, even. If we can't get a decent supply of comedy from any of the major suppliers, we have to pursue alternate sources. And this year, the American sitcom supply finally got so bad that we had to outsource our needs to offshore labor.

More specifically, we spent a lot of time watching BBC America. Nestled unassumingly up in the triple digits of our channel lineups, BBC America surreptitiously rebroadcasts various high quality shows from the U.K. Among those are two comedies, Coupling and The Office, which rank as some of the most entertaining stuff we've seen in years. So entertaining are they, in fact, that when the votes for this year's Best Half-Hour Actor award were counted, we had a three-way tie on our hands, and no fewer than two of the winners were bleedin' limeys.

Now we realize that this move to internationalize our awards is bound to be controversial; it even spawned a bit of lively debate from some of the more rabidly patriotic Vidiots. So we'd like to take a moment to anticipate and proactively answer a few of the angry e-mails that some of you will no doubt send our way. As a service to you, we'll also take this opportunity to proactively fix your terrible spelling and grammar. You're welcome.

E-mail #1:

"Just wanted to let you guys know that the season of The Office that was on this year originally aired in Britain way back in 2001. So you just gave an award for the 2003 season to a two-year old show."

Our Response: Yes, we know how to use the IMDB, too. Anyway, the first exposure American audiences had to The Office was this year, during the 2003 season, so we don't see a problem.

E-mail #2:

"In these uncertain economic times, how can you hand out awards to British shows? They're taking up awards slots that should rightly be filled by deserving American programming! Award American, you pinko bastards!"

Our Response: It's called the free market, dude. When American television makes a product worth consuming, we'll consume it like the dickens. Until then, we'll gladly take bangers and mash.

E-mail #3:

"You're really comparing apples and oranges when you match British television up against American television. A British season, called a series, usually only runs somewhere between six and ten episodes in length. American writers have to come up with enough content to fill more than 20 episodes. The content naturally suffers as a result."

Our Response: Yes, season three of Coupling ran only seven episodes and season one of The Office ran only six. But if you can find any American sitcom that aired three hours this season that were as consistently funny and enjoyable as either of those two shows, we'll eat our collective hat.

Besides which, this is an acting award. British actors have considerably less time to bring their characters to life, so that compressed season actually makes the winners' respective achievements more impressive, not less.

E-mail #4:

"I read your article calling Buffy fans the Most Annoying Fans of 2003, and I just wanted to say, 'Fuck you.'"

Our Response: Oh, for God's sake, that was over a week ago! Don't you get to irritate enough people on your message boards each day? Give it a rest, already.

E-mail #5:

"In case you didn't know, Coupling is a blatant rip-off of Friends, proving once again that every other country in the world is unable to innovate. Instead, they have to steal our designs and improve on them."

Our Response: Far better for the U.K. to steal one of our designs and improve upon it than for the U.S. to steal that improved design back and turn it into crap (see Coupling, coming this season to NBC Must-See Thursdays!) But thank you, imaginary future e-mailer, for providing the perfect segue into our discussion of Coupling.

True, Coupling began its life as Britain's attempt to replicate the huge success of Friends. But the show differs from Friends in several important ways. For one thing, after three seasons on the air, Coupling is still funny; about a gazillion times funnier than Friends ever was, actually, thanks to sharp, clever writing from series creator Steven Moffat. Also, the actors are talented and likeable enough that even the purposefully obnoxious characters never become tiresome and irritating, unlike certain people on Friends we could mention -- yes, we're talking to you, entire cast of Friends.

Coupling is still similar to Friends in one way, though: at its core, it's an ensemble show, with each character given approximately equal representation. The six main characters have all had their share of great dialogue and their own dedicated plot lines, and each of them is enjoyable in his or her own right. But whenever we reflect on what's great about Coupling, the first thing that springs to mind is always the same: Jeff Murdock.

Jeff is essentially the unholy spawn of Friends' Ross and Seinfeld's Kramer. Like Ross, he's a born loser, stunningly inept with the ladies and in a constant state of bafflement as to why life seems to have it in for him. Like Kramer, he has a singularly bizarre worldview and highly unfortunate hair. He's the consummate wacky sitcom buddy, unremittingly horny, always making inappropriate comments when the subject of those comments is standing directly behind him and doing profoundly ridiculous things to further the plot. And if you're thinking that this exact character was already pretty much played out by Larry on Three's Company twenty years ago and by about a dozen other sitcom characters since, we can understand your apprehension.

But you obviously haven't seen Richard Coyle play him.

Coyle chews into his role with such awe-inspiring gusto that he somehow manages to makes this highly implausible character plausible. Much of what the script requires Jeff to do is completely ludicrous; the typical wacky sitcom buddy stuff that no real person would ever actually do. That we come to believe Jeff would honestly do every last bit of it is a testament to Coyle's genius.

That genius is at its most obvious when Jeff is carrying out one of Coupling's somewhat forced, Seinfeld-like attempts to inject new terms into the popular lexicon. Tasked with introducing such ridiculous concepts as the sock gap, the giggle loop, porn buddies, and the melty man, most actors would play it with a wink and a grin, as if to say, "I realize this is preposterous as hell, but here it is anyway." Not Coyle, though. He imbues these monologues with such total seriousness and almost religious fervor that one can't help but believe that Jeff really sees the world in such terms. Any man who can utter the sentence, "Under the sexual arena of earthly delight, there lurks a deadly pit of socks," and look like he really means it, is an acting force to be reckoned with.

The most impressive thing about Coyle's performance is that while making this peculiar little man seem genuine, he also manages to give him an extra layer of depth. With minimal assistance from the script, Coyle, through subtle body language and deft facial expression, reveals that the source of Jeff's weirdness is a deep-seated fear of women and a heaping helping of insecurity. And that gives Jeff such an air of human vulnerability that you can't help but root for him.

Take one of the most memorable Jeff episodes, "The Girl With Two Breasts," as an example. In one scene, Jeff tries to work up the courage to talk to a beautiful woman at the pub. Given that Jeff has a history of saying wildly inappropriate things about nipples during such encounters, you would expect him to be a bit timid about doing so. But the way Coyle plays it, Jeff looks absolutely petrified, as though he's about to throw up all over himself at any moment. True to form, when Jeff does finally talk to the woman, he launches into an embarrassing stream-of-consciousness soliloquy that somehow concludes with him announcing that he collects women's ears in a bucket. But just when it seems that all is lost, it is revealed that his companion doesn't speak English and has no idea what he has been saying. The sudden transformation of Jeff's demeanor from utter humiliation to joyful relief is fascinating to watch. And only then do you realize how petrified, humiliated, and relieved you've been right along with him.

Moments like these are the reason that the episodes featuring Jeff consistently rank as the most memorable of each season. This year, Jeff was given the lion's share of a two-part episode and some more interesting subplots involving a steady girlfriend. His dealings with his girlfriend, and her eventual dumping of him for an ex, gave Coyle a chance to bring out more of the inherent sadness in Jeff's condition, and Coyle was more than up to the task, making us both laugh and... well, laugh, but at the same time feel really sorry for the guy.

Coyle is one of the best things about a show that's chock full of good things, and if the American version of Coupling crashes and burns spectacularly this fall, it will largely be because he is absent. That's why, limey or no, we honor Richard Coyle with one-third of this year's Best Half-hour Actor award.

Coyle caught our attention by playing a character who is horribly aware of his own shortcomings. Our other British winner, on the other hand, plays a man who is wholly ignorant of his shortcomings, though they are appalling and all-encompassing.

On The Office, David Brent, manager of the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg paper merchants, is the world's best boss. He's a dependable manager who looks out for his staff. He's prized for his strong leadership abilities and camaraderie with his subordinates. He's a laugh-riot with a razor-sharp wit. Hell, he's even one heck of a good songwriter.

That's what David Brent thinks, anyway. Everyone else thinks he's a total cock.

In reality, Brent embodies every bad quality you could think of in a boss. He's a boorish idiot who is convinced that he's exactly the opposite, and he spends most of his workday wandering through the office looking for self-validation from his underlings. He thinks he's side-splittingly funny, despite the fact that his jokes usually elicit little more than embarrassed looks and courtesy laughs from his captive audience; and that's when they don't elicit abject shock for their inadvertently racist or sexist content. He's also entirely incompetent at his job, as evidenced by the fact that the company seeks to Peter Principle him into upper management at the end of the season.

Ricky Gervais, The Office's co-creator and co-writer, plays Brent, and he gives the most pitch-perfect portrayal of a complete and total asshole that we've ever seen. Of course, TV assholes are a dime a dozen. The television landscape is littered with the likes of Louie DePalma, Archie Bunker, Frank Burns, even Britain's own Basil Fawlty. But all of these were obvious grotesques. Brent is the real deal. He's an asshole that each and every one of us has run across at some point, and Gervais does a fantastic job of bringing him to life.

Gervais brings so much to the table that it's hard to pinpoint what it is about his performance that's so damned good. Some of it is his mastery of the smug, self-satisfied smirk, certainly, and the way he preens for the camera. That he tries vainly to be funny, then looks from person to person in expectation of a laugh is also a nice touch. But the thing that really puts Brent over the top in terms of sheer assholiness is that Gervais has chosen to play him as a man who is in complete denial about being such an insufferable prick.

With this one nuance added to the character, Brent becomes a workplace Mister Magoo. He crashes through the office like a bull in a china shop, leaving horrified employees and pissed off secretaries in his wake, but he's totally oblivious to the irritation he's caused. Brent only ever seems to register that he's not completely adored when one of his employees comes right out and calls him a pathetic fool. The brief flicker of horrified realization that flashes across Gervais' usually smug face during these moments is priceless.

The irony of a show like The Office that relies on pathos to provide humor instead of jokes is that when the show is at its very best, it's at its most painfully difficult to watch. Every moment that the Brentmeister General is on screen is a deliciously excruciating experience, and for that, Ricky Gervais takes his rightful place in our troika of award winners.

Sadly, not all of the Vidiots have had the opportunity to enjoy Gervais' work. Owing to the fact that their cable or satellite package is not premium enough to include BBC America, they've had to make due with the two or three decent offerings that the networks make available. And as it turns out, there were just enough of those cheap bastards to vote in a third winner -- this one a red-blooded 'mer'can.

We used to think Malcolm in the Middle featured one kid too many. You had Frankie Muniz as the titular lead character, Christopher Masterson as the juvenile delinquent son, Erik Per Sullivan as the weird kid, and Justin Berfield as... well... er... nobody knew exactly, least of all the show's producers. As played by Berfield, the character of Reese was a ne'er-do-well... but so were many of the other characters. He was a bully... and not a particular likable one. He was constantly getting into trouble... as was every other kid on the show. But above all else, Reese was mostly redundant. And Berfield wasn't doing much to make him stand out from the furniture.

We still think Malcolm in the Middle has one kid too many -- but we've covered that award already -- but the extraneous offspring is no longer played by Justin Berfield. Somewhere along the way, as we hoped for the special Sweeps episode where Reese was abandoned at a roadside rest-stop never to be heard from again, Berfield began a weekly pattern of turning in funny performances. The next thing we knew, he's the reason we're tuning in to the show, and we're writing strongly worded letters to Fox asking them to change the name of the program to Reese Just Off To the Side of the Middle or That Guy Next to the Middle? That's Reese.

How the hell did this happen?

Looking back, it probably started with the driver's education episode from a few seasons back. Reese, now sporting a learner's permit, was taking a driver's education class. In a move born out of stupidity and poor planning -- two hallmarks of the character -- Reese sped off when his instructor got out of the car. He then proceeded to lead police on... well, not a high-speed chase, really, but an observing-the-speed-limit chase complete with proper turn signals and right-of-way yields. This was a driver's education class, after all.

It was at that moment that Berfield seemed to discover his character. Reese, as Berfield plays him, is a violent, easily outwitted idiot. But he's a violent, easily outwitted idiot with a rich, inner life.

Any idiot, after all, could think up ways to get out of taking his girlfriend to the prom. Only an idiot of Reese's caliber would decide his best course of action would be to lop off his own foot. And only Berfield's delivery can help lighten such a dark scenario -- "Let's see you chicken out this time," he hisses at himself as he nails his shoe to the chopping block. Yes, the writers give Berfield a lot to work with. But the ease with which Berfield handles this material -- the nonchalant way he tosses off even the most horrific of Reese's observations -- makes him the most valuable player in the "Malcolm" cast. In an episode from late in the season, the Wilkerson family -- bet you forgot that was their last name, huh? -- joined a church solely for the purpose of taking advantage of the free day-care service. The jokes were rather tired and forced, the story was choppy and rushed, and the whole thing was almost entirely forgettable -- all except for Berfield. In the episode, Reese undergoes a temporary spiritual apotheosis -- it ends in disaster, naturally, when he crashes through the church window in an effort to fly up to heaven in a balloon-powered lawn chair -- and the look of blissful stupidity on his face the moment he undergoes his moral awakening salvaged an otherwise substandard half-hour.

It says something that in a cast that includes Masterson, Sullivan and Bryan Cranston -- no slouches when it comes to bringing the funny -- Berfield is the standout performer. He's a gifted comic actor who knows when to play things broadly and when less is more. He also happens to be the best actor in a half-hour show this past year... at least on this side of the Atlantic.

Additional contributions to this article by: Steve Lutz.


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