Last summer Nathan Rabin introduced "Portraits Of Awesomeness," a recurring blog feature that so far has yielded just his one entry. Perhaps nobody wanted to follow Nathan's choice for awesomeness immortality, the only and only Sterling Hayden, a towering character actor best known for starting a nuclear war in order to protect his precious bodily fluids in Dr. Strangelove. It's a daunting task following that guy, but I think I've found another great, underappreciated character actor to add to the exclusive "Portraits Of Awesomeness" canon: Ray Wise.
Like all great, underappreciated character actors, Wise's face is probably more recognizable than his name. His resume is all over the map. He has appeared as a guest star on everything from 24 and The West Wing to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He's done a lot of genre work–notably, he was a bad guy in RoboCop and a good guy turned monster in Swamp Thing—as well as prestige projects, playing TV anchor Dan Hollenbeck in Good Night, And Good Luck. Wise's most famous role was Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks, and if you watched that show, you won't have any problem buying into Wise's latest role as The Devil on the CW's ratings-deficient comedy-horror show Reaper, which I write about for T.V. Club and returns with new episodes tomorrow. (Hint, hint.)
Let's go back to Wise's face for a second. It's an all-American, classically handsome, deceptively bland mug, custom-made for life insurance commercials and '50s sitcoms. If that's all there was to Wise, he'd probably have the same career as Alan Thicke. What makes Wise truly a portrait of awesomeness is how he uses his façade of humdrum, everyday mediocrity to portray the barely controlled mania just below the surface. Coming from Wise, a nice smile, firm handshake, and easygoing demeanor are the marks of pure, bottomless evil. If there's such a thing as "hysterically normal," Wise is it.
Wise's epic, scenery-chewing work as Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks might be the most courageous performance I've ever seen on TV. In Wise, David Lynch found a perfect actor to express his obsession with the grotesque side of everyday life. From episode one, when his daughter Laura Palmer is found dead, to the middle of season two, when [SPOILER ALERT!] Leland dies tragically after he's revealed as Laura's killer, Wise fearlessly dances on the edge of "good" acting, emoting wildly and embodying his character's terrifying inner demon(s) with unselfconscious abandon. He feels real and surreal at the same time, with a face too honest to not believe, making his outsized pathos impossible to laugh off. This comes across really well in one of my favorite scenes from the series, from episode two:
On Reaper, Wise's role calls for even more evil but more restraint. As The Devil, he forces a 20something slacker named Sam to work as a reaper because his parents sold his soul before he was born. It's a hoary cliché to portray The Devil as a slick, charming, captain of industry type, but the show is greatly helped by the considerable malevolence Wise can conjure up just by standing tall in a sharp suit with a shit-eating grin. So far, Reaper hasn't exploited his effortless menace enough, though Wise is so good he can add a sinister subtext to the show's most innocuous situations. Check out this scene, which also showcases Wise's previously untapped talent for comedy. He's hilarious on Reaper, playfully turning his creepiness on its head, and displaying a unique ability to turn a melanoma joke into a cute little zinger.
Reaper isn't a great show, but it's a good show with the potential to become a great show. Whether it will get the chance, though, remains to be seen. (The CW officially hasn't made a decision on the show's future yet.) Like a lot of new shows, Reaper wasn't helped creatively or commercially by the writers' strike, and it's roughly 3 million weekly viewers is paltry even by CW standards. I hope the show makes it, but if it doesn't, how about a new show called The Devil where Wise goes around being evil and funny and killing bad people? Talk about a portrait of awesomeness.