1. Stephen Dillane, Game Of Thrones
In a show as epic in scope as Game Of Thrones, it’s natural that some characters will be underserved, which can work to the detriment of the narrative. One noteworthy example: Stephen Dillane’s Stannis Baratheon, one of the five figures claiming kingship of Westeros and the vaguest in terms of his motivations. Most of what the show has disclosed about Stannis’ nature and his flaws came from the words of other characters, like his brother Renly and his knight Davos, as opposed to anything Stannis actually did or said. Too often, Dillane is merely asked to sit and look implacable while other actors command the conversation and light the fires. Some blame goes to the source material, since Stannis isn’t a point-of-view character in any of the original George R.R. Martin books, but Game Of Thrones has found plenty of ways to redevelop original conceptions without sabotaging the story. As the ranks of would-be kings continues to thin, the King in the Narrow Sea deserves more time in the spotlight—so Westeros can find a reason to follow him and so viewers can find more reasons to care.
2. Kelly Macdonald, Boardwalk Empire
The biggest knock on Boardwalk Empire from the critics (including The A.V. Club’s Genevieve Valentine) is that it’s consistently good, but rarely great. Despite the top-notch cast, crackling dialogue, and impeccable period set design, the show doesn’t have the thematic depth of Mad Men or Breaking Bad. But the second-biggest criticism is that the show doesn’t know what to do with women who aren’t half-naked, a problem best typified by Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret. Originally one of the leading lights of the cast, Margaret was set up as a love interest for Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson. But once they got together, she didn’t fit into the story. One week she’d be very savvy about Nucky’s illegal business dealings; the next she’d be a wide-eyed innocent naïf. Then the pair got married, and Margaret had even less to do, as she got shuttled into a storyline that wasn’t connected to any of the other characters, even her husband. Eventually, Margaret she was written off the show for half a season.
3. Lamorne Morris, New Girl
New Girl's five-person ensemble is a web of relationships: Nick and Jess are the central will-they/won’t-they couple. (Spoiler alert: They did.) Nick and Schmidt are the often co-dependent best friends. Jess and Cece are also best friends. Schmidt and Cece have an on-again/off-again love/hate relationship. And then Winston is… also on the show. From the beginning, Lamorne Morris’ character has been the perpetual fifth wheel, getting the silliest storylines—when he gets one at all. The uncharitable explanation was that he was simply a token black guy the writers didn't know what to do with. But when Damon Wayans Jr. returned to the cast as Coach, he jumped in with a fully formed character and a solid storyline every week. So the next logical conclusion is that the writers hate Morris, although he usually does well with what material he’s given. Still, a fun way to watch the show is to pretend Winston is a ghost only Nick can see—it works in about half the episodes.
4. William Sanderson, True Blood
In an A.V. Club interview conducted between True Blood’s first and second seasons, William Sanderson said his character, Sheriff Bud Dearborne, “doesn’t do much in the books.” If Sanderson took the part because he assumed that the producers wouldn’t want to waste an actor of his gifts on a character who didn’t get to do much in the TV series either, he had plenty of company in the viewing audience. In theory, Sanderson, who got his start playing redneck psychos in exploitation films, was a witty choice to represent the law in a rural Louisiana town that’s a hot zone for occult activity. But in practice, it became frustrating to watch him spend three years standing on the sidelines, with nothing to do but scratch his head over all the weird goings-on. A couple of years after he left the show, he made a return appearance, where it was revealed that Bud had become a member of a murderous anti-shape-shifter gang, and was killed by his former deputy. It didn’t make any sense, but maybe it gave everyone a sense of closure over the waste of his time.
5. Harry Lennix, The Blacklist
Harry Lennix has played more than a few military officers, political figures, and all-around badasses in the course of his career, which is understandable: With his commanding presence and quiet self-assurance, he makes a very convincing authority figure. Those qualities continue to serve him well in his role as an assistant director of the FBI on The Blacklist. What does not serve him well is the show itself, which is designed as a showcase for James Spader as a preening, condescending criminal mastermind. Since Spader gets all the good lines and his character always turns out to be right about everything, Lennix’s role could just as easily be played by a cardboard cutout with a dialogue balloon reading “D’oh!” attached to its mouth. It’s too bad that the producers didn’t choose to make better use of him by hiring him to play one of the guest bad guys who tangle with Spader, because that might have been some contest. On the other hand, maybe not; the villainous performance Lennix gave in Julie Taymor’s Shakespeare movie Titus would have eaten Spader’s character on this show for breakfast.
6. Carl Lumbly, Alias
The central male characters on Alias tended to be defined simply, according to what they represented to the heroine, played by Jennifer Garner—the distant, emotionally elusive father; the more effusive but ultimately untrustworthy surrogate father figure; the hunk; the comic-relief tech-geek eunuch. That left Carl Lumbly—a warm, highly skilled actor whose best roles have ranged from a dreadlocked alien in The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai to a secretly literate slave in Charles Burnett’s TV film Nightjohn—stuck playing the dutiful, loyal, competent man who keeps his head down and quietly gets the job done while everyone else is having big moments. The show’s creators were not entirely blind to the fact that they had a major, minimally tapped resource at their disposal, and every season or two, they’d try to shake things up by having Lumbly’s wife murdered or his kids put in danger. Lumbly would get to explode for part of an episode, but then he’d invariably vow to deal with what he was feeling by pouring his energies into his work, keeping his head down while quietly getting the job done again.
7. Jeremy Sumpter, Friday Night Lights
Over its five memorable seasons, Friday Night Lights erased a number of characters with nary an explanation. There was Santiago, the troubled Latino youth from the wrong side of the tracks who found a temporary home with enthusiastic booster Buddy Garrity. And who can forget Hastings Ruckle, the improbably named basketball player-turned-star wide receiver who was presumably meant to replace a graduated Tim Riggins in the hearts of America’s female population? (The answer to that question, by the way, is “everyone.”) But no disappearing act was more noticeable than that of West Dillon quarterback J.D. McCoy, memorably played by Jeremy Sumpter. In the show’s signature heel turn, McCoy went from reserved daddy’s boy to arch jock evildoer, culminating in a megalomaniacal rant directed at everyman hero Matt Saracen. From there, the show built toward a showdown between scrappy East Dillon and this would-be small town despot, but when the big game finally arrived, McCoy was nowhere to be found. Some other guy is taking snaps for the Panthers, even though by the show’s own timeline McCoy should only be a junior. Did he transfer? Is he injured? Did he burn himself out in an ego-driven supernova? With no McCoy to humble, East Dillon’s victory over the Panthers rings hollow. There’s no comeuppance, and Vince—East Dillon’s star QB—is robbed of his chance to prove he’s the best play-caller in town.
8. Scott Adsit, 30 Rock
Watching 30 Rock’s crackerjack ensemble working together, it’s easy to forget the bumpy road toward assembling that cast. First, the character of Jenna was reconceived, and recast, with Jane Krakowski. Original actress Rachel Dratch was kept around in season one as a utility player, showing up as a different character each week, but the show didn't really know what to do with her and eventually let her go. The show also had problems with Scott Adsit’s Pete Hornberger, who was originally set up as the Rhoda to Liz Lemon’s Mary—the levelheaded best friend. But the show quickly realized it had struck gold with the chemistry between Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin’s corporate shark Jack Donaghy. As the boss, Donaghy was clearly intended to be, if not an outright villain, at least a frequent obstacle for Lemon. But he quickly took over the best-friend role, as he became the Mento to Liz’s manatee, and as the Liz-Jack relationship became the axis the rest of the show spun on, Adsit and the rest of the show-within-a-show’s writers and performers, including Lonny Ross (who was also let go) and Judah Friedlander, got pushed to the margins.
9. Jasika Nicole, Fringe
The pilot for J.J. Abrams’ cult hit Fringe quickly set up the show’s emotional underpinnings with a few key relationships that pushed what could have been a rote procedural into something with unexpected depth. Anna Torv is a serious-minded FBI agent who can’t solve her latest case without the help of the mad scientist (John Noble) who experimented on her as a child. But she can’t get to him without the help of his estranged son (Joshua Jackson). Stern boss Lance Reddick blames Torv for putting a friend of his behind bars, but needs her to crack the case. Torv, Noble, and Jackson set up shop in a dusty lab that will serve as the home base for their investigations. From the very beginning, Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) is there. But there was no explanation as to who she was, or where she came from, until a few episodes into the show’s run. (In short: a fellow FBI agent who is tasked with keeping an eye on Noble and keeping him tethered to reality.) But that’s all mentioned in passing, and while Astrid spends the series as Noble’s lab assistant, she rarely gets much to do besides give Noble someone to bounce wonderfully daffy reparteé off of. Jasika Nicole brought enough warmth to the role that Astrid ended up being Noble’s chief emotional support, but she never really got a storyline or a chance to do much heavy lifting. She always hinted at having the chops to be able to handle more material, but the show never delivered. (Reddick was also underused, but he at least got some weighty material playing his character’s doppelganger from an alternate universe, a storyline that wasn’t nearly as silly as it sounds.)
10. Julie Benz, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
“The Darla Problem” is an issue shows face when they kill off theoretically important characters before they’re actually important on the show. Witness Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which took Julie Benz’s Darla, a minor henchman in the first season, and had her killed in order to demonstrate reformed vampire Angel’s commitment to the side of good. That was all well and good, but in the second and third seasons, as Angel became increasingly important as the villain and soon-to-be star of his own spinoff, his past with Darla turned into a problem. She was his vampiric sire, his mentor, his lover, and his best friend—but because she’d been disposed of in the show’s seventh episode, she wasn’t around to add that depth to Angel’s character. Buffy did the best it could at working around its Darla Problem with flashbacks and by adding other characters from Angel’s past, but it was never quite enough. Only once the Angel spin-off began was Benz re-integrated into the narrative proper, and her presence directly coincided with Angel's leap into greatness. Better late, and on a spin-off, than never.
11. Andreas Katsulas, Star Trek: The Next Generation
The Romulan Tomalak, as played by Andreas Katsulas, was a fascinatingly nasty and charismatic foil for Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was the antagonist in two of the show’s best episodes (“The Enemy” and “The Defector”), but he disappeared from shortly afterward. The loss of an effective recurring antagonist is reason enough to miss Tomalak, but the reason he left hurts Star Trek more—Andreas Katsulas departed for science-fiction competitor Babylon 5. There, Katsulas played an initially similar character—manipulative, capricious, seemingly smarter than his human counterparts but for his Shakespearean flaws. But over time, Katsulas’ Ambassador G’Kar shifted from villain to anti-hero to redeemed prophet, a character arc that established G’Kar as the best character on the show, and proved Katsulas a genius at acting under science-fiction prosthetics. That ended up quite well for Babylon 5, yes, but Star Trek: The Next Generation could have done that with Katsulas itself, and failed.