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.

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  • 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.

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