Clever but not too cool, daffy but not slapstick, NBC’s 30 Rock has evolved from a hot-and-cold comedy into the funniest sitcom on TV. Wolf-infested Pennsylvanian towns, muffin-top dances, the firm of DateRape, Cokington, Cheeseball, and Jag, avian bone syndrome — you in yet, Academy? The supporting cast is glorious, while leads Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin have developed a surprisingly grounded rapport amid the lunacy. Rock‘s Thursday neighbor The Office deserves plaudits as well.It provides loads o’ belly laughs, while engaging your emotions: Michael’s unexpectedly fraught relationship with Jan? Pam’s breakthrough on the beach with fiery coals? Hot stuff. And speaking of hot stuff (don’t groan!), The Sarah Silverman Program is an utterly arrhythmic comedy, in the best way. The Comedy Central series takes the usual sitcom format — Sarah gets into trouble (wa-waaa!), Sarah gets back out of trouble — and then tap-dances gleefully all over it. Along the way, the comedian satirizes everything from self-righteous philanthropists to orange-level panic. Oh, and she sings, too!
As bluff, hapless, obsessive network (and microwave oven) exec Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin has turned into a wonderfully bizarre leading man on 30 Rock. Teasing Tina Fey, raging against Isabella Rossellini, doting on Emily Mortimer, and kowtowing to Elaine Stritch, he’s an impeccable, unprideful partner for any comedic actress.
Given her potty-mouthed stand-up act, you’d expect Sarah Silverman to push taste boundaries; what we like about her eponymous sitcom is that the naughty pixie can also be so silly-warm, and such a terrific reactor to others’ jokes. Then, too, we’d love to see Lauren Graham of The CW’s Gilmore Girls rewarded for her heartbreaking karaoke’d ”I Will Always Love You” in the penultimate episode alone (really!). But come on — how about handing Graham a trophy for seven seasons of subtle, witty, underrated acting?
Best Supporting Actor/Comedy
As the definition of the unpredictable uncle you may not want around your kids, Justin Kirk injects Showtime’s Weeds with a jittery, smarmy, hilarious presence. His lecture to his naive nephew about the finer points of self-pleasure was one of the great solo acts of 2006. A horndog of a different breed is Neil Patrick Harris. Everybody talks about how his skirt-chasing Barney Stinson coins new comic phrases, but the real pleasure of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother is watching Harris react with dismay or delight to everyone around him — he’s a star as an ensemble player.
Best Supporting Actress/Comedy The classic comic leading ladies — from Lucille Ball to Julia Louis-Dreyfus — are brassy broads. Jenna Fischer of The Office is exploring new territory: the funnywoman as a humble, sensitive soul. Her Pam elicits laughs from delighted camera glances and low-key sarcasm, while also winning our hearts…and an Emmy?
HBO’s The Wire dredges the mucky workings of big-city Baltimore: drug dealers who are savvier than politicians, politicos with the cynicism of street-corner pushers, and, in last season’s particularly gutting plotline, four inner-city schoolkids who stumble into very different destinies. Addictive, thrilling, crushing, buoyant, dirty, utterly genuine — The Wire is television at its finest. In a close second place, we’d happily settle for some danged recognition for NBC’s Friday Night Lights. Chronicling the Dillon Panthers high school football team, FNL‘s first season dealt with more emotions, themes, and characters than most series tackle in four. It managed to be the network’s best teen and adult drama, and to maintain a feature-film look with the best TV narrative momentum.
Denis Leary’s achievement on FX’s Rescue Me is to make you see the hurt behind the fiery eyes, the self-loathing beneath the bragging. Leary’s Tommy Gavin hit bottom this last season — falling on and off the wagon, getting involved with too many women — but Leary himself was truly at the top of his game. On a quieter note, let’s give some due respect to Law & Order‘s Jesse L. Martin, who has coolly become the anchor of the entire franchise. After eight seasons, Martin, who eschews Meloni-esque scenery chewing and D’Onofrio-style quirks, still never fails to steal a scene, even when he’s just smirking in the corner.
Hands-down prime-time wife and mother of the TV season, FNL‘s Connie Britton is no-nonsense, playful, sensitive, and sexy — sometimes all in the same hour. Particularly in her scenes with the also excellent Kyle Chandler, Britton’s romantic-comic timing was a wonder to behold. As another mother to behold, Sally Field infused Nora, the matriarch of ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, with wisdom, flaws, and a tough-minded serenity. At age 60, the actress is reinventing herself again on TV as this generation’s nighttime-soap star — no Dynasty flourishes, just nuanced acting. Speaking of acting, on FX’s The Riches, Minnie Driver portrays Dahlia Malloy as a wary ex-inmate, a struggling meth addict, an alienated wife and mom, and, eventually, a woman on the edge of finding herself again — each step believable and utterly fascinating.
Best Supporting Actor/Drama
After five seasons of playing The Shield‘s macho hothead so enthusiastically, Walton Goggins finally got the chance this spring to show his range in revealing Shane Vendrell to be a guilt-ridden, soul-torn, corrupt cop whose anguished eyes haunt us. And in the newcomer category, we like Maestro Harrell. Seeing as The Wire boasts an ensemble of 30-plus pitch-perfect actors, it’s hard to stand out. But Harrell dominated the 2006 season with his performance as 14-year-old Randy — a wiseass, hustling, joyful kid whose life goes off the rails. Give this young actor some more work. Now.
Best Supporting Actress/Drama
On CBS’ CSI, a series that’s not too concerned with personal lives, Jorja Fox has made her Sara a tough, world-weary pro who’s also a vulnerable woman hopelessly involved with her enigmatic equal, Gil Grissom. Hopefully, her previous shunning by the academy is a crime that Emmy voters will take time to investigate — and solve.