Vets, newbies feast on a potpourri of juicy parts

It’s been a banner year for breakthrough performances.

Actors such as Jon Hamm, Jeffrey Donovan, Lee Pace and Katee Sackhoff all proved that brave casting choices can make both critics and viewers sit up and take notice.

“There’s too much money at stake in film, but TV can take chances” when it comes to casting, says Jenny Cooney Carrillo, chair of the television committee for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. “That’s what’s so exciting. Someone you’ve never heard of can blow you away.”

Despite the presence on the 2007 TV scene of heavy-hitters such as Glenn Close, the star of FX’s acclaimed “Damages,” and Holly Hunter, the title character of TNT’s edgy “Saving Grace,” quite a few less familiar names — some of them veteran actors sinking their teeth into plum roles — garnered a lot of press and critical kudos.

Though Cooney Carrillo couldn’t talk about specific performers, the HFPA has always been receptive to newcomers, especially in the TV realm. She cites America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”), Claire Danes (“My So-Called Life”) and Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) as just a few of the performers the HFPA recognized well before other awards-giving groups did.

“They were not necessarily the names that people would automatically think of” in the years those actresses were nominated for Globes, she notes.

Hamm, who gave a charismatic performance as secretive, soulful ad man Don Draper in AMC’s critically adored “Mad Men,” is a name several critics automatically think of when the subject of breakthrough roles is brought up.

Pace, who plays the sad-eyed piemaker Ned in ABC’s colorful “Pushing Daisies,” is another critical favorite.

“He’s so effortlessly appealing, and yet so damaged, you want to give him a hug, except you fear it might kill you,” says TV Guide senior critic Matt Roush.

Critics also had kind things to say about Ally Walker, whose last smallscreen starring role was in the ’90s NBC series “Profiler.” HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me,” in which Walker played dissatisfied wife Katie, gets a lot of attention for its graphic sex scenes. But the emotionally vulnerable work by Walker and Tim DeKay as Katie’s husband, Dave, has made a more lasting impression.

“With delicacy and fearless intimacy, she captured the pain of someone who’s afraid to confront the emptiness of what appears to be a full married life,” Roush says of Walker’s brave, nuanced performance.

Fans of Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” have long known the talents of Katee Sackhoff, but she got a much bigger showcase as the villainous, part-machine Sarah Corvus on NBC’s high-profile fall series “Bionic Woman.”

“Talk about stealing the show — the bad bionic woman is so much more fun than the good bionic woman (Michelle Ryan),” says Ellen Gray, TV critic for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Veteran character actor Ray Wise is no stranger to the bigscreen or smallscreen, but as the Devil in the CW’s “Reaper,” he’s having a ball as the most evil character on TV.

“A character actor who often plays the heavy, he’s finally found a role that allows humor to underscore the menace. It’s an irresistible combination,” Roush explains.

Donovan is another veteran actor whose new role fits him like a beautifully tailored suit. As ex-spy Michael Westen on USA’s addictive “Burn Notice,” Donovan effortlessly switches between spy sequences, action capers and wryly comedic interludes with his best pal.

Other breakthrough performers from the past year include Damian Lewis of “Life,” Zeljko Ivanek as lawyer Ray Fiske in “Damages,” Zachary Levi of NBC’s “Chuck” and the droll Jim Parsons of the new CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory.”

Ryan is television critic for the Chicago Tribune.

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