10 Underrated TV Actors Who Deserve More Recognition in 2021
Plenty of actors have gotten the kudos they deserve for what’s been an astoundingly good year for television. But it’s clear that some actors, and the characters they play, have been vital to a show’s success, yet remain underestimated or just plain underrated. We’d like to fix that.
The standout characters below don’t get top billing on their shows, nor do they get Emmy voters’ attention (with the rare exception), but we’d give them all the awards if we had sway in Hollywood.
Diane Johnson, Black-ish (ABC)
One of Black-ish’s youngest characters happens to be the smartest … and perhaps the most diabolical? This Marsai Martin character is the type of teen who owns three crowbars and a pair of nunchucks. The type who’s on the TSA’s “No-Fly” list. The type who belongs to a fight club. The type who gains energy from her enemies. (Can we get an Evil-ish spinoff?)
Esteban “Lil Papi” Martinez-Evangelista, Pose (FX)
Pose features television’s best representation of transgender characters — in both quantity and quality — and shows that trans folks deserve to be loved as fiercely as Papi loves Angel (Indya Moore). The Angel Bismark Curiel character isn’t just Angel’s fiancé and her manager, he’s her biggest fan and most dogged advocate.
Julia Sweeney, Work in Progress (Showtime)
Playing a fictionalized version herself on Work in Progress, Julia Sweeney revisits her real-life history as a ‘90s Saturday Night Live star — and the harm she inadvertently inflicted on people like Abby (Abby McEnany) with her popular “It’s Pat!” sketches. (On a lighter note, however, the character is married to Weird Al Yankovic, portrayed on the show as a total bore.)
Levi Schmitt, Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)
Once the bumbling intern whose glasses fell into a patient’s body cavity (and, later, onto Jo’s face mid-hookup), this Jake Borelli character has grown into a self-assured surgical resident, confident in what — and who — he wants. Special points for being Grey’s Anatomy’s first gay male regular.
Lily Iglehart, Sex Education (Netflix)
It’s hard to pick one standout character out of Sex Education’s batch of horny teenagers and lovelorn parents. But this Tanya Reynolds character — with her alien erotica career, her hodgepodge fashion, her cosplay hobby, and her attraction to “girls who smell like vanilla pods and sometimes car air freshener” — steals every scene she’s in.
Malika Williams, Good Trouble (Freeform)
A lot of TV shows gave lip service to the Black Lives Matter movement this year, but Good Trouble walked the walk. For two seasons now, this Zuri Adele character has been a tireless activist against police brutality and systemic racism. But the Freeform show also shows the physical and emotional toll of such activism, especially when so few white folks are willing to share the burden.
Mia Jordan, The Morning Show (Apple TV+)
In the spirit of Network’s Howard Beale — another harangued TV news employee — Karen Pittman’s The Morning Show character reaches a “mad as hell and not gonna take it any more” moment when she gets fed up with office gossip and chews out her colleagues over the TV studio’s P.A. system. “Some of you hate me, some of you pity me, some of you think I’m a victim, some of you think I’m a slut,” the producer says. “Everybody’s got their f—king opinions, and you know what? Have ‘em.”
Maysa Hassan, Ramy (Hulu)
The overbearing, meddling mother is a TV trope by this point, but Hiam Abbass brings complexity to the archetype as Ramy’s (Ramy Youssef) mom on Ramy — an Egyptian-raised woman struggling to understand American culture (and become a U.S. citizen to vote Donald Trump out) while worrying about her children’s love lives, enduring her lifeless marriage, and trying her best to be a well-reviewed Lyft driver.
Phyllis Darby, Better Things (FX)
Played to perfection by Celia Imrie, Phyllis is Sam’s (Pamela Adlon) always inappropriate, often nude, sometimes racist, increasingly senile, and desperately lonely British mother, who lives across the street on Better Things and just wants to be included in her daughter and granddaughter’s lives.
Vic Hughes, Station 19 (ABC)
Not only is Vic a firefighting hero and the backbone of her station, and not only has she shown incredible resilience both on the job and in her personal life, but she happens to provide so much of the comic relief on both Station 19 and Grey’s — thanks, in large part, to Barrett Doss’ comic timing.