Michael Emerson: As Ben on "Lost," Emerson is the creepiest deadpan villain since Hannibal Lecter. The ultimate evil dweeb, emotionally scarred by his mother's childbirth death, Ben looks like your seventh-grade science teacher but is capable of just about everything, including patricide. It would have been so easy to turn Ben into a cartoon but Emerson gives him just enough humanity to make him truly frightening.
Kate Burton: As Ellis Grey on "Grey's Anatomy," Burton gave viewers a welcome break from the salacious shenanigans of all those interns. A brilliant surgeon lost to Alzheimer's, she anchored the show's main character, daughter Meredith, in a reality that was truly heartbreaking. She was killed off this season but not before she delivered one of the most breathtaking moments on network television -- having regained lucidity for an entire day, she loses it again.
Michael C. Hall: The serial-killer-as-Robin-Hood premise of "Dexter" simply would not work without Hall as its lead. The writing is brave and direct but Hall's performance as a sociopath attempting to navigate the world without hurting anyone decent is astonishing.
Lisa Edelstein: Here is proof positive that the Yanks can go toe to toe with the Brits, at least on Tuesday nights in "House." Dr. Lisa Cuddy is Gregory House's match in everything from blazing blue eyes to sardonic sexiness to comic timing, and Edelstein manages it all in heels.
Jason Isaacs: The black sheep brother wreaking havoc in Providence, R.I., on Showtime's "Brotherhood," Michael Caffee is the hottest bad guy on television. Isaacs, who has played bad guys as varied as Captain Hook and Lucius Malfoy, makes him a vicious thug with a heart, if not of gold, than at least of damaged flesh and blood.
"The Wire": This was an astoundingly complex and rich season of the HBO series, swirling around the cops, the pols and the pushers in Baltimore. Rarely on TV is there such a marriage of journalism and drama, or such a layered look at the various forces at work amid a drug-torn neighborhood and the authority figures charged with governing it. And last season's addition of four kids, partly portrayed through their experiences with their teachers at Tilghman Middle School, was tough, balanced and, ultimately, heart wrenching.
Michael K. Williams: Can you nominate the entire cast of "The Wire?" If not, Williams, who plays the fierce and almost regal ghetto lord Omar Little, gets my vote. But, surely, somebody from this cast is Emmy-worthy.
"30 Rock": The NBC sitcom practically became, by the end of its first season, the second coming of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," with star Tina Fey and co-star Alec Baldwin doing a Mary Richards-Lou Grant riff.
Connie Britton: Her role as Tami Taylor, wife of football coach Eric Taylor on NBC's "Friday Night Lights," bloomed as Britton's character also became a high school guidance counselor. For a show about the life lessons that emanate from the football field, she's the series' unsung hero.
Given that television is an ensemble medium, and that it's the mark of a good ensemble player to knit seamlessly and selflessly into the group, TV
is perhaps defined by performances not designed
to inspire the words "Emmy-worthy." Here are some actors who stand out for me precisely because they seem to do so little, yet embody much.
Justine Bateman on "Men in Trees": In a recurring role as the globe-trotting pregnant ex-girlfriend of Anne Heche's sometime love interest, Bateman's Lynn (who squeaked into the show at the end of last year) has been required only to state her case and be relatively reasonable. But there is something deep and authentic about Bateman's work here, which goes beyond performance to real presence.
Tina Fey on "30 Rock": She's surrounded by an excellent cast of strange characters, but Fey's almost-normal Liz Lemon is what holds them all together. At the same time, she's no mere straight woman: This is a comic turn as dry as yesterday's toast, and does not look like acting at all.
Robert Sean Leonard on "House": The job of sidekick or sounding board is often a thankless one, but as House's personal Dr. Watson, Leonard manages to make a meal of it -- in a non-lip-smacking sort of way. Given a crisis of his own to weather, he still underplays.
Ana Ortiz on "Ugly Betty": As beautician Hilda Suarez, Ortiz makes what might easily have become a wild caricature into a grounded, nuanced character -- a sister, daughter and mother -- with no sacrifice of tropical color or comedic extravagance.
Yunjin Kim on "Lost": Although Kate is the girl the boys want, Yunjin Kim's Sun seems to me to be where the power resides: She has a concentrated stillness that gives "Lost" soul, and her recent scenes with the also excellent (and similarly centered) Elizabeth Mitchell, as Juliet, were among the season's best.