The 10 Most Underrated Cable TV Actors & Actresses

July 22nd, 2012 12:00pm EDT

Xander Berkeley There are a lot of talented actors and actresses in Hollywood - probably a lot more than you think. For every big name you remember, there are five or ten who don't get their due. While we don't have the space to recognize all the actors we enjoy, here's a short list of the ten that are most glaringly overlooked...

In alphabetical order:

1. Xander Berkeley

Where You Should Know Him From: As Percy on CW's Nikita. Also George Mason on FOX's 24, and the flicks Gattaca, Air Force One, A Few Good Men and Terminator 2: Judgment Day...just to name a few.

Xander Berkeley is one of those actors who's been in everything, or at least it feels that way. There was one time I saw him in six different things in one week. Yet that's a good thing, because he's also one of those actors that you can always count on to give a good performance, no matter how major or minor the role.

Stepping into the function first inhabited by Eugene Robert Glazer in USA's La Femme Nikita was a tall order indeed, but Berkeley was the right man for the job. Over two seasons on CW's Nikita, he was the bad guy that you loved to hate - and although we knew he inevitably had to go, there was still a great deal of sadness when Percy was killed off in the second-season finale, as it meant the show was losing Berkeley's considerable talents.

Berkeley seems to be cast in a villainous role more often than not, but he's equally as good at playing heroes and humanizing all kinds of characters. Perhaps the best example of this was the two years he spent on 24; George Mason began as a stock antagonist to Jack Bauer, but ended the show a hero himself as he sacrificed his life to safely detonate a nuclear weapon. One of the great awards-show snubs of all time was that Berkeley wasn't even nominated for a supporting actor Emmy for a season that saw Mason crumble, literally and emotionally, in front of our eyes.

Chances are, you've seen Berkeley somewhere, probably more than somewhere, and you've just not known it. That's the trademark of a veteran actor. He's able to play dozens of differing roles and we still don't know that it's him. But we ought to learn his name if only to thank him for all of that hard work.

2. Joelle Carter

Where You Should Know Her From: As Ava Crowder on FX's Justified. Also guest spots on TV shows like Cold Case, Third Watch, CSI: Miami, Law & Order and the film High Fidelity.

FX's Justified is one of the best scripted series ever to have aired on television, and plenty of much-deserved love is given to its two leads, Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins. This isn't to say that those two gentlemen don't deserve all that praise, because they do and then some. But how about a hand for the lovely Ms. Carter, who took a role that could have been the biggest cliche and has over three seasons transformed Ava Crowder into a force to be reckoned with?

At the start Ava was a character that seemed almost stereotypical: the hometown girl who quickly became a love interest for Raylan Givens. Yet when the show decided to have Raylan cheat on Ava with his ex-wife Winona, and to make their relationship a major focus of the series, Ava was actually better off. She became more than just a love interest, and grew much stronger as a character. One of the true joys of Justified's second season was seeing Ava find herself...her shotgun-toting, much more assertive self. That continued into season three, where alongside her new beau Boyd Crowder, she became a major piece of Harlan County's criminal enterprise and wasn't afraid to smack some people around if need be.

It's been a juicy role for Carter, who's provided the perfect blend of beauty and toughness, sympathy and self-confidence. Ava has had the most growth of any of Justified's characters, and Carter has taken the audience along for the journey so that we really see how she's changed and how that change really affects her emotionally. She is no longer a stereotype or a shrinking violet, and that's because Carter has truly taken advantage of Justified's excellent writing. Ava may now be one of the strongest female characters currently on the small screen.

3. Jason Clarke

Where You Should Know Him From: Previously played Det. Jarek Wysocki in FOX's The Chicago Code and Tommy Caffee on Showtime's Brotherhood.

The most shocking cancellation in recent TV history was FOX lowering the axe on The Chicago Code. Brilliantly written by Shawn Ryan and perfectly cast, it was an unappreciated gem - and one of the major reasons was the heavyweight performance of Jason Clarke in the lead role of Chicago cop Jarek Wysocki.

Jarek was written as one of the best there is at what he does - a common descriptor of many TV characters, who are imbued with this almost mythic status but rarely prove themselves worthy of it. As written by Ryan and as played by Clarke, Jarek was absolutely believable as a larger than life crusader out to take back Chicago from its crime and corruption. He was intense, imposing, and almost obsessively dedicated.

He was also a lot more than that, though. Over the course of the season we saw not just the results, but the human being who paid the price for them, whether it was in an ill-advised affair with his ex-wife that blew up in his face or constant friction with his more naive partner. Jarek didn't always have the answers; he made a lot of mistakes, and most importantly, he was honestly affected by those mistakes. Just because he was the hero of the piece didn't give him a free pass. Sometimes we disagreed with him, sometimes we might not have liked him all that much, but that's because while he was a hero, that didn't excuse him from being human.

Clarke was the perfect actor for the role, with the physicality to be taking down bad guys but the ability to break down that strength within moments and show us a broad range of emotions from fear to self-loathing. He was the show's center, a true leading man with presence and versatility who disappeared completely into his character.

Prior to The Chicago Code, Clarke also turned in a magnetic performance opposite Jason Isaacs in the similarly underappreciated Showtime series Brotherhood. Can someone find this gentleman another TV series, please?

4. Sarah Clarke

Where You Should Know Her From: As Lena Smith on USA's Covert Affairs. Also Katya Udinov on CW's Nikita, Nina Myers on FOX's 24, and guest spots on TV shows like House, Karen Sisco and Sex and the City.

Like many people, Sarah Clarke first came to my attention when she played Nina Myers on 24. I loved Nina, then I loathed her and really wanted to see her killed. Over the course of one season Nina went from being the show's chief heroine to its most despised villain. Talk about a major arc for an actress! And it wouldn't have worked if Sarah Clarke hadn't sold us on both sides of her duplicitous character.

Since then, she's taken some time away from acting to start a family with her husband, the equally underrated Xander Berkeley, but we've still had the pleasure of seeing her appear in a few projects that have continued to broaden her resume. She dropped in on her husband's show this season, playing the previously missing mother of Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca), which was a total departure from the badass spy-turned-mole Nina. This time, she was having to be rescued...and we believed that, too.

Now she's in the middle of an extended guest run on USA's Covert Affairs, back to playing a spy, the ambitious and dedicated Lena Smith. It's been wonderful to see her in charge and playing a character that we can root for once again. (Let's hope Lena doesn't turn out to be a mole.)

Sarah is one of my favorite actresses, because she's such a chameleon. We've seen her play heroes, villains, and damsels in distress, and she's done it all very well. It's unfortunate (but also perfectly understandable) that more people don't know of her since we haven't seen as much of her recently. Yet that's also a testament to her talent, because she's left us wanting more.

5. Tim DeKay

Where You Should Know Him From: As Peter Burke on USA's White Collar. Also Jonesy on HBO's Carnivale and guest spots on TV shows like Seinfeld, Sports Night and Standoff.

There's a lot of love for Matt Bomer when it comes to White Collar, and again deservedly so; he's immensely talented and also a great person off-screen. Yet with all the fuss over Bomer, and all the ladies falling over his alter-ego Neal Caffrey, it feels like the other half of White Collar's dynamic duo gets a little bit lost. There wouldn't be a show without the grounded presence of FBI agent Peter Burke.

Sure, Neal is the one who's much more fun: charming the ladies, pulling off the sleight of hand, showing off his worldly knowledge. But Neal owes a lot to Peter, who is himself such a well-developed character. He's not just a stuffed suit; we've seen his love of baseball, his healthy marriage, his pretty sharp wit and this season, he's also a half-decent bartender. Peter is the perfect complement to Neal, and vice versa; the two really do need each other, and DeKay and Bomer function as a fantastic team, playing off each other well and sharing the stage like partners who've worked together a lot longer than three seasons.

DeKay is one of those character actors who's worked very hard for a long time and not gotten that much credit for it. I still remember him as an ill-informed network executive in the Sports Night episode "Cliff Gardner" more than a decade ago, and he's done countless other guest spots throughout his lengthy career. It's fantastic that White Collar has brought him some renewed attention, but it wouldn't hurt for fans to appreciate him just a little bit more.

6. Julie Ann Emery

Where You Should Know Her From: As Vanessa on the first season of USA's Suits. Also appeared in several ABC series (Line of Fire, Commander in Chief, Alias) as well as the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Taken and the film Hitch.

Julie Ann Emery is one of those actresses that, when I see her name in the credits of something, I get excited. That's because she's just so darned interesting to watch, whether she's a lead actress busting bad guys (as in the late, great Line of Fire) or even in a small guest role (can we get her back on Suits already?). No matter how long she's on screen, she makes an impression. I have not yet, for the life of me, figured out why someone has not cast her as a regular in another TV series, because she's certainly worthy of that.

Like Sarah Clarke, Julie Ann has a pretty interesting roster of role choices. She played a heroic nurse in Taken, a butt-kicking FBI agent in Line of Fire, an unlucky-in-love best friend in Hitch, and popped up recently as the enigmatic Vanessa in Suits. I never seem to be able to predict what she'll do next. But whatever she does, she's got a charm and a warmth that comes with her, even when the character is not necessarily sunshine and roses. She's one of those people you just want to like.

In addition to being a talented actress Julie Ann is also a writer, working on the web series Then We Got Help and Drifter. She's a multi-talented woman who should be able to make her own opportunity if no one is smart enough to give her one.

But someone absolutely should, because she's talented, she's smart, and she's hardworking. She doesn't just know good acting, she's a student of writing and directing and everything else that it takes to put a production together. She's made the effort to learn beyond her role as an actress and that only makes her even more valuable. Add that to the fact that she is a wonderful actress, and you should definitely remember her name, because we should be hearing it more than we do.

7. Christian Kane

Where You Should Know Him From: As Eliot Spencer on TNT's Leverage. Also Lindsey McDonald on WB's Angel.

The entire cast of TNT's Leverage could feasibly be on this list, but amongst the bunch it's Christian Kane who gets the nod, because this man apparently does more things than a Swiss Army knife. His Eliot Spencer is best known for bringing the muscle - which he does very well - but Kane is also a capable actor who's made Eliot a multi-dimensional character who fights, loves, sings, and is handy in the kitchen. What more can you ask an actor to do?

Kane was great as a bad guy (turned good guy turned psuedo-bad guy again) in his lengthy tenure on Angel, where his Lindsey McDonald was undoubtedly the show's breakout character. He appeared in more than 20 episodes over seasons one, two and five, going through all sorts of mystical shenanigans and being that guy we loved to hate more often than not. Yet who wasn't just a little bit affected when he was killed in the series finale?

It was therefore really great news when Kane signed on to Leverage, because we already knew that he was capable of plenty of action and also conveying real moral ambiguity (not just the convenient kind all too often used for dramatic effect in many series). Leverage has really used Kane to the best of his ability, making Eliot a great action hero but also someone who is not always heroic, and who also has an interesting and constantly developing backstory. As fun as he was to watch on Angel, we've seen a lot more of what he can do...which is a lot more than most actors would be able to pull off.

While all the Leverage cast could be considered underappreciated (other than Timothy Hutton, there's not necessarily a "name" among them), it's Kane who's really made a strong impression as the character we love to watch and wouldn't exactly mind being either. Hopefully as Leverage continues into its fifth season, more people will find out about him.

8. Sarah Rafferty

Where You Should Know Her From: As Donna Paulsen on USA's Suits. Also guest spots on TV shows like Numb3rs, Bones, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Practice and Without A Trace.

I've rhapsodized at length about how the two leads of Suits are TV's best duo, but the MVP of season two thus far is Sarah Rafferty, who plays Harvey Specter's loyal assistant Donna Paulsen. As commanding a character as Harvey can be, Donna can hold her own with him and isn't afraid to stand up to him when somebody needs to. She's been there since before Mike, before he came to work for Jessica; one could argue that nobody knows him better - and we get a real sense of that watching her and how they interact together. Writers can put it on the page that there's a history between characters, but it's just words unless you get actors who can make that feeling happen.

If you weren't already drawing that conclusion from season one, season two has shown us that no one else could play Donna but Ms. Rafferty. Last week's episode "Break Point" put a big fat exclamation point on that statement. Her scenes with Gabriel Macht were absolutely spot-on perfect, enhanced by the fact that the actors have decades of friendship between them - something you can't teach and can't fake. In addition to working so well with him, she's outstanding on her own. This week we saw her completely unravel the character of Donna, and it was impossible not to just feel for her, but to understand her.

I was lucky to see Ms. Rafferty on stage last year, when she was the lead actress in the South Coast Repertory production of How The World Began. Theater is, in some sense, the truest medium in which to evaluate talent, because there are no retakes and there's much less to hide behind. I can say that she was just as impressive there as she is on Suits each week. She was basically the center of the entire play, and she carried it wonderfully. She is a pleasure to watch no matter what the project.

As far as her role on Suits, there have been a lot of witty assistants on television, but there has never been a better one than Sarah Rafferty playing Donna Paulsen. As much as I love Macht and Patrick J. Adams, I'm also very thankful that she's there with them - not just supporting them, but as an equal alongside them.

9. Michael Trucco

Where You Should Know Him From: As Justin Patrick on USA's Fairly Legal. Also Samuel Anders on SyFy's Battlestar Galactica and with extended guest arcs on ABC's Castle and CW/WB's One Tree Hill.

USA's Fairly Legal might center on Kate Reed, but for my money, it's her ex-husband Justin Patrick who keeps me tuning in.

Here's a supporting character that you could build a whole separate series around. There's so much going on with Justin, and not just in his relationship (or lack thereof) with Kate; it's been intriguing to watch him determined to bust the bad guys, even if it ticks off everyone else around him and lands him in the hospital. That's the kind of lawyer I'd want on my side.

It's a bit of a departure for Trucco, who's still best known for being a Cylon in the remade Battlestar Galactica. I can thank him for pushing me onto the BSG bandwagon - and watching the show also gave me a greater appreciation of just how good an actor he is. Finding out you're a robot, getting a bullet in the back of the head, and sacrificing yourself by flying an entire fleet into the sun...that is some complex and heavy material. That is not for rookie actors. And he nailed it. There are only two character deaths that have ever affected me so deeply that they've actually kept me up at night, and his in BSG is one of them.

So what does he do for his first series regular role after that? He goes and plays a lawyer with a dysfunctional personal life. Fairly Legal couldn't be more different, and that's the point. It's an accomplishment for an actor to be able to play one role well. It deserves recognition when an actor can play more than one at the same high level, even moreso when he or she is working at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

I love that Michael Trucco has made me fall in love with two totally different characters. I admire that he can make me cry, and yell at my TV when I think Justin is doing something stupid, and root for him to be happy. He's not just perfectly executing these parts, but he's wonderfully great at creating that emotional connection between the character and the audience. (Also, he happens to be an equally awesome person in real life.)

Despite a major subplot that involved him running for District Attorney, Justin still felt a little underused in season two, as he became part of a love triangle with new character Ben Grogan and Kate was clearly insane to have dumped him (again). Here's to hoping that if/when Fairly Legal comes back for season three, we see a lot more of him, because Trucco is somebody who deserves a lot more attention.

10. Shane West

Where You Should Know Him From: As Michael on CW's Nikita. Also Dr. Ray Barnett on NBC's ER, Eli Sammler on ABC's Once and Again, and the films A Walk To Remember and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Shane West has gotten somewhat of a lukewarm reception as the male lead of CW's Nikita, and for the life of me I can't understand why - because as much as I appreciate the show's strong female ensemble, it's Michael who's my favorite character. This coming from someone who'll admit that Michael was my least favorite character in USA's La Femme Nikita.

What changed? The "new" interpretation of Michael took a different route than the "classic" one - West put more heart and soul into Michael, and I responded to that. The previous Michael, as played by Roy Dupuis, was supposed to be enigmatic and that worked for that series. But as West played him, for the first time I was in Michael's head, seeing his inner conflict and caring about the choices he made. He's still just as lethal and just as imposing (c'mon, he sounds like Batman!) but he feels much more fully formed.

And much of the credit for that needs to go to Shane West, because if you watch anything else he's been in, you realize that's sort of his stock in trade. He is never just taking up space. Whether he's the focus of a scene or merely in the background, he makes every moment count and almost says more when he's not saying anything. As much as he conveys with dialogue, there are subtle choices that he makes with other elements that enhance his performances even further.

I have never seen West play a role that has turned out exactly as I expected, and that's what I really appreciate about him. No matter what the part, I know he's going to do something different and I look forward to seeing what that is. Now if only more people would take notice of his talent.

Until next week...

For more from Brittany Frederick, visit my Starpulse writer page and follow me on Twitter (@tvbrittanyf).

(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.

Related: Christian Kane, Jason Clarke, Joelle Carter, Julie Ann Emery, Michael Trucco, Sarah Clarke, Sarah Rafferty, Shane West, Tim DeKay, Xander Berkeley, Starpulse Exclusives, Television, Celebrity, Movies, ABC, FOX, Showtime, USA, TNT, The CW, Evergreen

© 2012

Photo Credits: CW, FX, USA, TNT

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