Scenery chewing not a mandate for attention

No one was more surprised than Rachel Griffiths when she received an Emmy nomination last year for her turn in ensemble drama “Brothers & Sisters.”

“After ‘Six Feet Under,’ I wanted to do more subtle things and not as gymnastic. It was where I was interested in taking my work,” Griffiths explains. “I thought I would never get an award again, and I was OK with that. I thought since I was working quieter and deeper — not as showy — no one will notice, but people really came along on the ride.”

Femme ensembles were rarely better than this past season, where many shows, including “In Treatment,” “Mad Men,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” “The Office,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Tell Me You Love Me,” “Desperate Housewives” and others, showcased the work of supporting actresses at the top of their game.

“You’re seeing women (characters) you never saw before on television,” says Melora Hardin of “The Office.” “I think it’s quite special the way they write Jan. When I read the episode I submitted for the Emmys, my mouth was watering. It was a dream to be able to play this.”

Emmy voters are faced with the daunting task of narrowing down the field to just a handful of finalists, which brings up the question of how to choose from so many deserving supporting performances this year.

“What seems to happen with all these ensemble shows is the ‘Golden Girls’ effect, which basically gives each one of them their turn at taking home an Emmy,” says USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco. “The field is getting more crowded these days, and it’s more difficult to predict which performance will capture the voters.”

Sandra Oh of “Grey’s Anatomy” says that while flashier roles get the most notice, voters should remember a good supporting role gives a series depth.

“You have to imagine this show could not go on without this person, because what they bring is so invaluable and unique,” Oh says. “But, as a voter, I’m also influenced by an actor’s body of work, because you need more than what you can get in a screener. You need to see the progression of the character, not just one good episode.”

It’s that knowledge of past performances — and using that as a partial criteria for nomination purposes — that makes “Lost” actress Yunjin Kim believe she may be at a disadvantage at Emmy time. Much of her prior work came while living in South Korea, and hasn’t been seen by a vast majority of American audiences.

“I understand the reason for voting on body of work, because it obviously makes you feel more comfortable voting for that person,” Kim says. “I think if you have been doing good work for 20 years, it should count for something and be part of the equation, but not the sole criteria.”

Ensemble pieces can muddy the water when deciding if an actress should submit as a lead or supporting.

Last year, Connie Britton of “Friday Night Lights” entered the race as a lead, and her exclusion from the list of five best actress noms seemed surprising to many. This year she changed gears and moved to supporting. At this time, it’s impossible to say if the move was a good one.

“Right now we have so many rich female ensemble roles in television. We are redefining the term ‘supporting character,'” Britton says. “It’s amazing to see these emerging roles for women, and the great blessing of TV is that it has really become a place where women can shine in multifaceted, complex roles.”

Ellen Gray, TV critic for the Philadelphia Daily News, says any move that helps Britton receive Emmy attention is fine by her. But, in a larger sense, she’d like to see any rich performance rewarded.

“Voters are more inclined toward people who chew scenery than to those who hold it up,” Gray says. “Maria Doyle Kennedy was the most dignified part of ‘The Tudors,’ and without her, the series just feels like (a bad interpretation) of British history. Yet I don’t think the Emmy voters will recognize her because she’s so subtle in her acting.”

Then there’s the strike factor. Can the performances of supporting thesps still resonate with voters after a stunted TV season?

“A lot will depend on the ability of those shows to remind voters they were there,” Bianco says.

Many viewers decided not to return to their favorite shows after the strike. Whether voters do the same and disregard post-strike performances remains to be seen.

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