I don’t always pay much attention to film acting because it’s an element that’s not always under the director’s control. It’s noticeable when it is unusually bad (any performance by Olivia Munn or TJ Miller, for example) or unusually lifted. Watching TV show performances is different, though, since TV shows are still mostly storytelling vehicles that rely heavily on actors to sell the story.
A solid acting ensemble and the promise of artistic entertainment was the lure that snagged me into watching season two of Fargo. It turned out to be more literary than I expected – that is, it seemed like I was reading a book by watching it on TV. There are strands of theme, characters and pacing that felt drawn out through a more wholistic, comprehensive vision. And mostly, it was successful, thanks in part to some very good to great performances. The one performance that I thought stood out was Cristin Milioti as Betsy Solverson.
Betsy is not essential to the storyline. Her role as a plot device is nominal in that she serves as a glue in her family’s fabric. Betsy is stricken with cancer and the crest of the character’s arc is when she participates in a clinical trial involving a new pill. Is she in the control group or is she receiving that actual medication? As far as her storylines go, they’re stripped of flash and pomp; it’s a woman who’s barely holding on. But good gravy, Milioti inhabits her character’s space as if she wasn’t on set, with no cameras or beaming lights, boom mikes or makeup artists, just her trying to give an honest assessment of her character. It’s remarkable, really.
In her first scene, Betsy follows her husband, Lou (Patrick Wilson), as he walks down the hall, down the few stairs, to answer a call from the precinct. Her hairstyle is like a mushroom cap, her face looks sallow, save her dark, sunk eyes, and nothing about her stands out as anything more than just a regular lady that’s camouflaged in late 1970s clothing. We know by introduction that Lou will be the hero of the show and in their first scene together, Betsy fuzzes out in the background. But instead of fading, she unfolds quietly through a layer of movements. She tenses her hand when Lou briefly turns the conversation to her chemo session while she verbally waves it off; she briefly drifts off in nervous thought before snapping-to with her hand now at her hip, and then, as she follows Lou, she reaches around to her back as she, almost unwittingly, nurses her ailment. Milioti commands these small moments of detail with an insightful consciousness. Her vocal tone is controlled, she plays to the moment and her character never overreaches. She maintains this throughout the season
On a TV show that has a lot to say and a lot of characters to say them, I was really surprised at how a minor character quietly said the loudest things to me. I remember seeing Milioti on an episode of 30 Rock in which she plays a comedy writer with the persona of a hyper-infantilized, oversexed, lollipop sucking Lolita. It was a fairly wild role but her performance was more about portraying the satire than character examination. But I suppose that’s what great actors do. It’s not merely about performance but also about how the character fits into the greater composition of the work.