The Julie Taylor Test: How to tell if a TV actor is bad

Find yourself rationalizing a flat character in a favorite show? Here's a test to see if it's you -- or the actor

Topics: revolution, Smash, TV, Television, Game of Thrones, bad actors, julie taylor test, Editor's Picks, Friday Night Lights,

The Julie Taylor Test: How to tell if a TV actor is badEmilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in "Game of Thrones" (Credit: HBO)

Julie Taylor appeared on all five seasons of the late, great “Friday Night Lights.” The teenage daughter of the show’s main characters, the indelibly decent and charismatic Mr. and Mrs. Coach (or, fine, Eric and Tami Taylor), Julie (Aimee Teegarden) had more screen than almost any of “FNL’s” players except her parents. She wasn’t, at first glance, obviously, abjectly terrible, but she was tremendously opaque and flat: the lackluster nature of her performance was quietly mediocre. Whereas everyone else on that show seemed, almost effortlessly, to embody a real, identifiable, understandable and believable person, Julie never even fully registered, except in rare, fleeting moments.

TV is very kind to bad actors. In a movie, when someone is bland or dull or hammy that’s all they have time to be. On TV, as a bad actor appears again and again, you begin to rationalize the badness, their  under-, over-,  or just plain wretched acting. Maybe this performance is inexpressive and uncharismatic because the character is inexpressive and uncharismatic. Some people are! Maybe it’s not January Jones who can’t put over emotion of any kind, it’s Betty Draper who is so flat!

Enter the Julie Taylor Test, an easy way to identify bad TV acting: Ask yourself, is it possible to imagine the inner life of this character? If no, is it possible to imagine the inner life of the characters surrounding him or her? It was all too possible to imagine the inner lives of every character on “Friday Night Lights” but Julie. Ditto every character on “Mad Men” but Betty. (Ditto every character on “The OC” but Marisa.)

Evaluating acting is, obviously, subjective. Some people find Kalinda on “The Good Wife” to be a Julie Taylor-ish cipher. I think, one can, from time to time, get a glimpse inside her mysterious head. Others feel this way about some of the girls on “Girls,” particularly Allison Williams’ Marnie, who I think is perfectly good, and just had to contend with a lot of whiplash writing this past season. Jeremy Piven has been way over-the-top on “Mr. Selfridge,” but you can imagine his inner life — the problem is it’s all in neon. Here are three actresses I think fail the Julie Taylor Test with flying colors. Please, add your own and know that actors are not exempt.



  • Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) on “Revolution.” Conveniently, there is a great example of the power of stillness on “Revolution” itself, in Elizabeth Mitchell who plays Charlie’s mother, Rachel ( and “Lost’s” Juliet). Mitchell has perfected a kind of hyper-calm in her last couple of roles, but one that never obscures her character’s intelligence or efficiency. Mitchell’s characters hold themselves very close, but in a fascinating way: something is going on with her even if we don’t always know exactly what. Not so with Charlie, who is a nothing, no spark, no fire, no zip, dropped into the apocalypse, a charisma black hole. The only indication she has thoughts is when words come out of her mouth. If the world really needed her to get the electricity back on, the world would be in trouble.
  • Karen (Katharine McPhee), “Smash.” The entire premise of Karen Cartwright, the character McPhee plays on “Smash,” was that she had the it-factor, something special about her, the incipient air of the star. Unfortunately, McPhee totally lacks that x-factor, inadvertently helping “Smash” to make its main point, but not in the way it planned: You can’t fake talent. Karen does not have “it” and saying “it” won’t make “it” so. Ivy (Megan Hilty) has “it” dripping out of her pores and is a whir of wants and desires and talent. McPhee is like a walking piece of cardboard, a very pretty zombie, her brains already gone. If she has an inner life, it is an empty box.
  • Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), “Game of Thrones.” This is likely to be a little more controversial than the aforementioned, because Daenerys is a great character, beloved by readers of the books, who just two weeks ago got to burn up some evil slave masters with her super-awesome dragons. But imagine how much awesomer she would be if it seemed like there was someone really smart and sharp behind Emilia Clarke’s very pretty eyes (which are only a little dimmer than John Snow’s very pretty eyes)? Clarke is functional enough to not destroy the show — Dany has too many cool things to do anyway — but if she appeared to have an inner life of any kind she would be worthy of the fan-worship she gets for her work on the TV show, not just residual book love.
Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>