Critics chime in on their favorites for the season

Four member of the Television Critics Assn. were asked to name their top choices in four categories prior to the group’s upcoming semiannual confab and the July 8 Emmy nominations.

Neal Justin on best actor:
Hall shows monstrous side

photos/emmys2010/Dexter-150.jpg” hspace=”3″ vspace=”3″ align=”left”>I make it a rule never to hug serial killers, but in the case of Dexter Morgan, I’m willing to make an exception.

It’s been six months since our hero came home to a literal bloodbath, and I’m still wiping away tears of astonishment. The season, in which Morgan both battled and bonded with a humorless Hannibal Lecter, could have played out like a Roger Corman quickie if it weren’t for Michael C. Hall, an actor more inspired by Shakespeare than slasher films.

The actor has always portrayed the title character as a tragic hero, haunted by the same demons that plagued Hamlet and Macbeth. But this past season, the series dug deeper and grew darker, as Dexter faced his ultimate enemy and paid the ultimate price.

Hall was more than up for the challenge, from his creepy understated voiceover that automatically bars him from ever narrating a children’s tale, to his visceral reluctance to take down the enemy he so eerily resembles.

I initially wondered if Hall was capable of playing such a force of nature. On “Six Feet Under,” his character was so overwhelmed I doubted he could open a casket. Now I’m convinced that he could wrestle an alligator to the bottom of a swamp while slurping a margarita. It helps that he’s always had complex adversaries, such as Jimmy Smits and Jaime Murray. This time he got John Lithgow, the most nimble and notorious of all dance partners.

Both were rewarded earlier this year with Golden Globes. The Emmys may wrap them up in the same, richly deserved embrace.

David Bianculli on best actresss:
Collette has personalities to spare

Best actress on TV right now? There is a dizzying array of impressive options, from the steely seriousness of Glenn Close on “Damages” to the aggressive hilarity of Jane Lynch on “Glee.”

Look anywhere you want, and the female talent is fabulous. In comedy, there’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, worthy of renewal and reward for “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” In drama, there’s the inscrutable poker face of Julianna Margulies on “The Good Wife,” and the heart-melting credibility of Connie Britton as Tami Taylor on the maddeningly Emmy-overlooked “Friday Night Lights.”

Made-for-TV movies gave us Claire Danes in the brilliant “Temple Grandin,” and 30-minute dramadies have given us the jittery, incendiary brilliance of Edie Falco in “Nurse Jackie” and Mary-Louise Parker in “Weeds.” They’ve also given us my candidate for the actress currently giving the best performance on TV: Toni Collette, as the star of another Showtime entry, “United States of Tara.”

Make that performances, because Collette plays, at this point, more than a half-dozen fractured alter egos in the bent multiple-personality prism that is (or are) Tara Gregson. In the hands of a lesser actress, this showy head-case showcase cold have been a gimmick at best, an actors’ class exercise at worst.

But Collette, over the course of two seasons, has breathed not only life, but emotional subtext, into all her alters. Buck, her male counterpart, is vulnerable behind his macho swagger; Alice, seemingly a June Cleaver clone, has revealed both the spine and sass of a much more liberated life force. And on it goes, from a creepy and animalistic alter who’s all grunts and growls to a therapist who is so grounded in the ’70s, she even drinks Tab.

Fans of the show can recognize all these alters as Tara shifts consciousness, without need of costume changes, theme music or other cues — just a different look in Collette’s eyes, a shift of her posture, a slip from smile to sneer or back again. Collette won the Emmy last year, and now she’s added three more roles to her one-woman repertory company.

Impressive? Indeed.

Maureen Ryan on best drama series:
‘Sons’ rides into greatness

Good television is a balancing act — character moments, atmosphere, action and emotional resonance all have to get their due.

Great television, like “Sons of Anarchy,” makes balancing all those things look easy. This FX show is more than deserving of a drama Emmy nomination.

“Sons” is set in the world of biker clubs, so testosterone-heavy rivalries were to be expected, yet the show managed to pack each twist and turn with nuance and ambiguity. Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman, as Jax Teller and his stepfather Clay Morrow, led a spectacular cast in the story of a subculture under siege, and Adam Arkin did a terrifically subtle turn as a white supremacist who pushed his agenda by any means necessary.

But the great shows upend our expectations in the best possible ways, and this drama about biker dudes delivered an amazing showcase for one of television’s most compelling female characters, Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal).

No shrinking violet, Gemma is every bit as tough as the men around her, but she faced an impossible dilemma after being raped by the Sons’ adversaries. If she told her son, Jax, or her husband, Clay, the resulting war would put her loved ones in harm’s way. But staying silent, she found through painful experience, wasn’t a viable option. “Sons” gave viewers a glimpse at an unusual subculture, but it’s easy to relate to the drama’s bigger themes — how loyalty and fidelity can test your sanity and your soul. Even if you don’t ride a Harley.

Diane Werts on best comedy series:
‘Party’ like it matters

Cable channels always want to zig where others zag, then often zig similarly themselves.

While other pay cable laffers obsess over extreme antiheroes who seem certifiable, Starz’s “Party Down” nails a meaty slice of life among adrift misfits whose career meanderings are all too relatable.

They’re Hollywood cater-waiters aiming to be actors, screenwriters, comedians or other credits-worthy creatives. But for now, they’re stuck serving hors d’oeuvres at Steve Guttenberg’s birthday party and porn awards shows. Idling in dream-killing surroundings, they scheme toward achievement, wryly baring their souls and social inadequacies while holding trays of appletinis. Their hearts are true, but they don’t have a clue.

“Party Down” gets real and raucous comedy out of these stunted lives, as writers led by “Veronica Mars” creator Rob Thomas flesh out their simmering resentments, calamitous overreaching and general obliviousness. It’s an always-new stew with fresh ingredients added weekly, when each party’s unique setting and nut job guests juice it up like the stream of strange complainants flowing past the sitcom cops of “Barney Miller.”

Pinpoint performances and sharp single-camera timing (thanks, director Fred Savage) amplify not just the laugh-out-loud lunacy but the underlying humanity. These are sad souls trying to define themselves — at the tipping point of their adulthood — in a dog-eat-dog business, at a cultural moment when chronic underemployment has become hip.

“Party Down” captures their purgatory without pretzel plot twists or self-aware winking. Even with star cameos or standards-pushing salaciousness, this adult comedy never strays so far from emotional truth that we can’t still feel its beating heart. These aren’t losers. They’re just lost. Et tu?

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