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2009's breakout TV stars

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Whether playing a certified slacker, a catty publicist, a cutie crooner, a reformed criminal mastermind, or a model trapped in a lawyer’s body, these are the actors who ruled in 2009

Aziz Ansari, Parks and Recreation
As inept government employee/aspiring playa Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari is committing wanton acts of scene theft (”On a scale of 1 to Chris Brown, how pissed off is he?”) while creating TV’s most likable D-bag. ”He doesn’t have that voice in his head that tells him, ‘That vest and fedora look really cool on Justin Timberlake, but not on you,”’ notes Ansari, 26, who starred on MTV’s Human Giant in 2007-08. ”He’s not completely aware of who he is, but that’s part of the fun.” — Dan Snierson

Katie Cassidy, Melrose Place
It’s hard to imagine the Melrose Place apartment complex being big enough for two bitchtastic blondes in heels, but Katie Cassidy’s Ella Simms is giving Heather Locklear’s Amanda Woodward a run for her money. After spending much of this past summer running through the woods screaming on CBS’ Harper’s Island, Cassidy is the breakout player on The CW’s reboot of the ’90s series — and she’s having a blast as ruthless publicist Ella. ”It’s fun to play the villain,” admits Cassidy, 23. ”I wanna do it more [laughs].” — Tim Stack

Lea Michele, Glee
We all knew someone like Glee‘s Rachel Berry growing up, and it turns out the character hits close to home for Lea Michele, too. ”Rachel is like me when I was younger,” admits the Golden Globe nominee, 23. ”I was very determined, very driven. As I got older, I took a backseat more.” But thankfully, the Spring Awakening star is still front and center on Fox’s Glee, turning in a sharp comedic performance (”There is nothing ironic about show choir!”) while delivering powerhouse vocals on songs like ”Take a Bow.” Take one yourself, Lea. — Tim Stack

Matt Bomer, White Collar
The reality of Matt Bomer’s 2009 — which saw the Chuck supporting player nab a starring role on USA’s White Collar — is not lost on him. ”I’m still pinching myself,” says the 32-year-old of his slick turn as Collar‘s dashing resident scoundrel Neal Caffrey — a convicted felon who helps the FBI. ”On one hand, he’s a smooth, hyperintelligent, fast-talking con artist,” says Bomer of his character. ”On the other, he’s really this die-hard romantic.” Maybe that’s why audiences are falling for Bomer on White Collar. — Tanner Stransky

Brooke Elliott, Drop Dead Diva
For her first major TV role, Brooke Elliott picked a challenging one: playing a character within a character. But the actress, 32, makes portraying a thin, ditzy model named Deb trapped inside the body of plus-size lawyer Jane look effortless. One minute she’s vapidly spouting beauty tips, the next she’s nailing a killer closing argument. So which personality does the former Broadway singer relate to more? ”I’m very girly like Deb is, but I think some of what Jane goes through I’ve experienced as well.” Looks like another split decision. — Lesley Savage

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