Critic's Notebook: The Most Indelible Performance Details on TV Right Now

THR's chief TV critic singles out the small-screen acting nuances he's loving these days on shows like 'Atlanta,' 'Barry' and 'Killing Eve.'
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Ciaran Hinds on 'The Terror.'

It's probably more a function of fatigue than of synapses misfiring in the old brain pan, but one of the hidden problems of watching a seemingly endless (well, no, it's actually endless) amount of Peak TV is that sometimes plot details go missing, particularly if, say, you watched the first five episodes of a series a month before it even aired.

All of a sudden someone at a party will say, "I can't believe Character X died. That was shocking." And it's like this: ignition switch flipped, brain warming up; pause, rewind, scan, delete random images, sharpen focus and, "Oh, yeah, right — that was brutal."

Ah, but this column is about something very memorable — the little character/performance quirks/traits that delight and remain long into and perhaps after a season. These are not fully categorized Emmy-worthy acting moments. They are fleeting expressions on a face, gestures, the walking or talking that stands out, the reactive voice a character uses repeatedly in funny/disturbing scenes. It's a catalog of moments that are just that — little things that stay with you.

Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge's array of facial contortions as she looks directly into the camera on Fleabag or Andre Braugher's litany of hilariously expressionless looks that he gives Andy Samberg on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Every show has this element. It's what you remember that matters. Here are the current images bouncing around in my brain from the recent past that no amount of Peak TV can thankfully undo.

1. The way that Donald Glover, in FX's Atlanta, gets exasperated with people who say and do things that are not a thing. It's one of his defining characteristics as Earn, at least to me. It usually starts when he's listening to someone and his eyes narrow and his furrowed brow suggests he's dubious about what he's hearing. Then he'll start to tell the person that whatever they are suggesting is not true, or completely backward, but the person invariably cuts Earn off and doubles down on the nonsense. He just gives up, defeated, most of the time. In Atlanta, there's a lot of bullshit that a person has to live through. But I always watch for the scenes when Glover gets to project his frustration with a world that doesn't know its ass from its elbow most of the time.

2. J.K. Simmons' sublime ability to differentiate the two Howard Silk characters in Starz's Counterpart. In this instance, sure, it's actually part of an Emmy-worthy performance — a master class in acting. But specifically, I love how Simmons changes his gait, his breathing, the way he slouches — the super subtle elements — more than the more hilariously obvious ones such as when "dark" Howard is annoyed at how milquetoast "light" Howard is. No, that's not an official description of the characters; it's how I got through a season of confusing appearances by two mostly identical characters. 

3. How Jodie Comer has a flirty glint in her eye right before she kills someone and how delighted she is when the world around her is in shambles on BBC America's Killing Eve. I'm not sure you can teach what she's projecting. A different actress might have a completely different take on the character using the exact same dialogue. But check out Comer's lightness of being, her innocence, happiness and sexiness — all things not normally found in a brutal assassin. That look lingers.

4. Semi-related to Comer, how absolutely delightful Evan Rachel Wood is as season 2's Dolores on HBO's Westworld. Yes, in season one she was brutalized episode to episode, with a cruel sense of scattered memories and false hope peppered into those tough scenes, but now, in season two, it's controlled vengeance. But it's the confident look on her mostly placid face that you can still see the next day.

5. How Henry Winkler in HBO's Barry is so perfectly spot-on as a not very good actor who gives acting lessons. For starters, the key is being absolutely convinced he's brilliant when the audience knows that he's not (and this is confirmed when he goes on an audition — he's at best effectively rote). That's a funny enough joke and a send-up of the side economy that exists in that world, and having Winkler be absolutely fantastic in every moment doesn't hurt. But the cherry on top is the fact that his character, Gene Cousineau (the name is also perfect), ends up, weirdly, giving beautifully precise and helpful direction and meaning to his students. The acting advice is spot-on, even if the teacher giving it can't duplicate it in his own life.

6. As I move through AMC's The Terror, there's so much to digest — it's like a stage play on frozen seas — but what really sticks in the mind is how Ciaran Hinds and Jared Harris are able to hide the horror they know, initially, from those around them. Hinds' character innately understands that his hopeful bluster will soon be revealed and Harris' character knows his unheeded skepticism is about to play out tragically. These men know. It's all over their faces. And that, in the early going, are the images seared into the mind.

7. Hayley Atwell's direct bluntness in Starz's adaptation of Howards End that basically says, Don't treat me like I'm not as smart as you are because I'm a woman or think that I can't handle something because I'm a woman. It's a sly performance because Kenneth Lonergan's version is not, of course, a fully modern take on the story — so the overt-feminist-strength angle has to be alluded to, not driven home, and Atwell is resolute in her ability to transfer this information scene to scene. Her Margaret was absolutely note perfect in telling Matthew Macfadyen's Henry that she knew what he was trying to say/bumble about wanting to marry her. (Interestingly, the promo people cut the scene to make it look like his marriage proposal had caught her by slight surprise or she was emotional when hearing it — almost the exact opposite of how it actually goes down.)

8. In Netflix's Ozark, I love how Jason Bateman's lower lip curls up like he's intently listening to the characters around him, perhaps even in agreement with what they are saying, only to then respond that it's actually the opposite and they've said something stupid. And he's having none of it — and verbally eviscerates them. This is, in some way, the full circle of Glover in Atlanta

Sometimes it's not necessary to look at every performance in the context of whether it will get an Emmy nomination or not and, instead, just appreciate those little moments that linger in the memory.