TV

10 TV performances that stand out in 2009

Democrats and Republicans can unite on one matter: Hands down, the biggest media star of 2009 has been President Barack Obama.

Love him or loathe him, Obama has managed to run the country while logging more TV hours than Regis Philbin, yukking it up with Jay Leno, hijacking prime-time with three news conferences and turning C-SPAN into the "Barack Obama Telethon."

Of course, he's the commander-in-chief. We're obligated to tune him in. It's not so easy for the other personalities who have stood out during the past five months.

As the 2008-09 season comes to a close, we salute those who gave command performances.

Joe Frazier, Thrilla in Manila: The one-time heavyweight delivers a roundhouse punch to Muhammad Ali's saintly image in HBO's riveting documentary about the fight that changed the sport of boxing and the fortunes of the two men who were in the ring. Frazier, now living in a bare-bones apartment above his gym, tells his side of the story and, in the process, delivers one of the most moving sports stories since Brian's Song.

Drew Barrymore, Grey Gardens: The actress who titled her autobiography Little Girl Lost is all grown up in HBO's reimagined version of the 1975 documentary about the Beales, a mother-daughter duo too optimistic, too headstrong to recognize they're living in squalor. That Barrymore manages to recreate an iconic figure and keep up with her celebrated co-star Jessica Lange might be this season's sweetest surprise.

George Clooney, Julianna Margulies and Susan Sarandon, ER: Last month's finale of the long-running NBC drama was outclassed weeks earlier by a simple story — a mother who can't let go of her brain-dead son — delivered by award winners who left their hardware, and their egos, at the door. The three, who could have coasted along on Clooney's eyebrows, gave modest, understated performances that reminded us that nothing is more glamorous than good old-fashioned acting.

Susan Boyle, Britain's Got Talent: YouTube, the warehouse of crotch-kicking jokes and faded TV clips, finally does something noble by turning a 47-year-old Scottish woman into an overnight sensation. The British reality show milked her performance of I Dreamed a Dream for everything it's worth.

Michael J. Fox, Rescue Me: Denis Leary's dark dramedy has long been the go-to destination for actors eager to scuff up their image, but the idea of Alex P. Keaton playing a hard-headed, alcoholic, womanizing jerk is a bit like casting Jimmy Stewart as Jack the Ripper. Fox pulls off the challenge with so much gusto, you quickly forget that he's somehow managing to keep the bottom half of his body still (his character is a paraplegic) despite his real-life struggle with Parkinson's disease.

Joan and Melissa Rivers, Celebrity Apprentice: An insecure daughter and an overprotective mother teamed up to deliver this season's guiltiest, most garish pleasure. Mean-spirited insults and temper tantrums may not be welcome at parties, but they're exactly what we crave from low-rent reality shows.

Jane Lynch, Party Down and Glee: The long underappreciated 48-year-old veteran of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries brought her unvarnished wit to Starz's little-seen but appetizing series about sloppy caterers as well as Fox's promising new dramedy about school nerds. Anyone making any type of comedy would be a fool not to squeeze Lynch into the cast.

Timothy Hutton, Leverage: It's been nearly 30 years since Hutton won an Oscar for Ordinary People, so you could be forgiven for forgetting what a talent he is — until now. In TNT's Leverage, Hutton gives us a complex yet cool leading man, oodles of fun compared with the dour, dark do-gooders from the CSI and Law & Order factories. Time to add an Emmy to the trophy shelf.

Mary McCormack, In Plain Sight: Kyra Sedgwick's Brenda Johnson on The Closer might get the lion's share of attention, but of all the tush-kicking, tough-talking females on TV today, I'd want McCormack's Molly Shannon by my side, not only because she's 10 times as brave as I am, but also because no one would be more fun tossing back a few shots with after the chase.

Portia de Rossi, Better Off Ted: De Rossi's turn in this just-renewed ABC sitcom as a frosty ice queen gave me the shivers, in a good way.

Tori Spelling, 90210: Just kidding.

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