Let's face it: Awards shows are popularity contests, media coverage is usually a matter of who has the best publicist, and the networks let the prettiest actors on a particular show dominate the ad campaigns. But when you get right down to it, some of the greatest working thespians today choose to hone their craft, not on the stage or silver screen, but on the boob tube.
Here they are every week, bringing class and complexity to the vast wasteland. Many of them are middle-aged, realistically normal looking, and enigmatic; others are stars on the rise, deserving of more screen time. Either way, we think it's time to cut through the hype. So we humbly submit our list of The 10 Greatest Actors on TV Right Now:
CCH Pounder ("The Shield") For six seasons, Michael Chiklis has been the recipient of well-deserved praise and awards; co-stars like Jay "Dutch" Karnes and Kenny "Lem" Johnson earned loyal fan followings, while guest stars from Glenn Close to Forest Whitaker have excelled in memorable (and too-brief) story arcs. But make no mistake: Without Pounder's Claudette Wyms, "The Shield" could never have been so compelling over such a long period. Harnessing equal amounts of sympathy and strength, the veteran actress has created the vital, solitary character on the show who refuses to indulge in the moral gray areas that make everyone around her so fascinating (hell, even Dutch once strangled a cat for kicks). With an iron fist and an unwavering resolve, Pounder has painted a staggeringly complex portrait of a middle-aged, twice-divorced, terminally-ill black woman navigating a man's world. The Emmys should be ashamed of themselves for giving her no more than a single nomination a few seasons ago.
Michael Emerson ("Lost")
As Benjamin Linus, the leader of The Others, much of the "Lost" tension has been on the shoulders of this veteran supporting star, an eerie actor who convincingly walks the line between being philanthropic and diabolical. For proof of Emerson's talents, look no further than the recent scene in which Linus apparently killed paraplegic John Locke (Terry O'Quinn), which mixes paranoia, jealousy and blind fury to create the potent mix that would expose a major plot point. Arguably, he's the best love-to-hate-him actor on TV right now.
James Morrison ("24")
Sure, Kiefer Sutherland gets his face on all the billboards and DVDs, but if there's one thing "24" fans have learned, it's that each season sinks or swims based on the character actors who bring Jack Bauer's dangerous world to life. It's no coincidence, then, that burly, tender Morrison has been heading up CTU during the same seasons when the action show has reached its creative (and ratings) peaks. Bringing life to Bill Buchanan, Morrison is a master at letting the weight of his difficult decisions wash across his face; from the death of Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) to his repeated incarcerations of Jack, he has brought added weight to so many moments. When Buchanan has been allowed to leave the office, Morrison has proven an able-bodied action hero -- and his conflicted marriage to Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) became an unexpected high-point recently. It's no coincidence that the recently-concluded season stumbled during the episodes when Buchanan was relieved of his command; let's just hope that the character's recent forced retirement doesn't stick, or Jack may encounter a threat far worse than the Chinese next season.
Nicholas Lea ("Kyle XY")
At first, we thought he was trying to kill the mysterious teen known as Kyle XY (Matt Dallas); now, he has become his unlikely protector. Lea's Tom Foss is a killer -- he's ruthless -- but ultimately he has a good soul. Veteran "X-Files" actor Lea has become a standout on the cult show, bringing far more substance to the role of his detective/bodyguard than one would ever expect from its teen-targeted storylines. For two seasons, the sci-fi show has been promoted with the tagline, "Who is Kyle XY?". But we defy you to watch a single episode without wondering about the identity of this compelling supporting actor.
Creed Bratton ("The Office")
While we all love John Krasinski, Steve Carell and Jenna Fischer, the biggest scene-stealer on NBC's hit comedy has turned out to be the demented-yet-lovable elder statesman of the Dunder-Mifflin family. He's creepy, apathetic, bizarre and quite possibly homeless. He was in an iron lung as a teenager, bathes in the office water cooler, and has a crush on Pam but seems to have forgotten who she is. Creed is also the most technologically-savvy of the group, contributing regularly to a blog that is really just a Word document set up by Ryan the temp. (In real life, Creed's blog is a must-read, offering such pithy observations as, "Winning is everything when it comes to Russian Roulette.") We don't know if the real Creed Bratton is anything like the TV Creed Bratton and, quite frankly, we're afraid to ask. But when all is said and done, Creed is a wholly original concoction simultaneously unlike anything we've ever seen, and familiar to anyone who's spent time in an office alongside a very strange co-worker. In short, Bratton might be the best actor on TV who isn't acting.
Julianne Nicholson ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent")
She has the face and figure of someone you would normally want to protect from the scumbags she deals with on a regular basis. But behind those hazel eyes is an intelligence and intensity that ranks her among the most interesting actors to ever inhabit Dick Wolf's universe. Nicholson and partner Chris Noth have taken the long-running "Criminal Intent" to a new level over the past few seasons, with his sizable stature balanced well by her disarming innocence. Following a vague season finale and a real-life pregnancy, fans are speculating that Nicholson might not return after her hiatus; while the "Law & Order" franchise has proven resilient, her loss might be a tough one to overcome.
Chandra Wilson ("Grey's Anatomy")
When Dr. Bailey speaks, the interns (and attendings, and even the chief of surgery at Seattle Grace Hospital) listen. The straight-talking, take-no-crap, moral rock of "Grey's Anatomy" cuts through the unending love-triangle melodramas of the popular ABC show, offering real words from a refreshingly relatable character. Although her character may be nicknamed "The Nazi" for her unemotional, stoic reactions to the childish antics of the surgery ward, the veteran actress does a superb job of balancing that persona with the warmth of a mother hen. Wilson consistently steals scenes, often with little more than a no-nonsense stare that would make any corner-cutting intern cough up their indiscretion. Now, with at least two main characters leaving the show, here's hoping the "Grey's" producers realize that this is one doctor who needs to be in.
Robert Knepper ("Prison Break")
He's known as T-Bag, but Robert Knepper is anything but watered down. He does the crazy psycho guy, and the sympathetic schlub, somehow simultaneously. While being reminiscent of Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear," Knepper has still made the character very much his own -- and revelations about his own backstory of sexual abuse have made him a remarkably sensitive character. In particular, T-Bag's flashback scenes with his girlfriend have a tenderness to them that make Knepper much more than a jail-yard bogeyman. We wouldn't mind seeing another 5-to-10 sentence with this guy.
Hugh Laurie ("House M.D.")
Most people would never want an ass like Dr. Gregory House as their physician; subsequently, most people would be dead. Hugh Laurie brings a credible intelligence to the character who always seems one step ahead of the medical community, and as a result has made his character's ill-advised bedside manner incredibly tolerable. It's no secret that Laurie is a great actor. He's already been nominated for an Emmy and won two Golden Globes, but it isn't overstating things to say that we may be witnessing the birth of the latest classic character from the "Columbo" and "Kojak" mold. Let's just hope that the show influences a generation of real-life doctors in the intelligence department, and not in their attitudes.
Jack Coleman ("Heroes")
First, he was the most despicable character on television. Then, within a matter of weeks, he became one of the most sympathetic. You can call him Mr. Bennet, you can call him HRG, or you can even call him Noah. But whatever Coleman's character is named, he's unlike anything we've ever seen on television. Originally, Coleman's mysterious company man was only supposed to be a minor character. But after producers saw the narrative gold mine of family, loyalty and fear that the veteran actor was tapping into, they understandably decided to keep him around. Come to think of it, the work of Coleman is even more amazing when you realize that he's one of the few actors on the hit show who doesn't have whiz-bang special effects to fall back on. In a world full of super-heroes, it's ironic that the man without powers is the strongest of them all.