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Thursday, July 31, 2014         

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Young actors bring chops to nuanced TV characters

By New York Times

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With all of the fine grown-up acting on television these days, it's easy to overlook the excellent work being done by the younger set and, in some cases, the considerably younger set.

On dramas and comedies alike, children or slightly older actors playing children are turning in performances that, for the age bracket, are remarkable for their nuance, comic timing or sheer likability. In some cases, these young actors have a lot on their shoulders: The show works only because of them.

It used to be that putting a child on a television show was roughly like putting one into a home video: All the kid had to do was be cute if very young or surly if a teenager. The Beaver was never in danger of winning a best-actor Emmy, and, three decades later, "Full House" ran for years largely on the strength of having one of the Olsen twins walk through a scene and awkwardly deliver a one-liner.

Plenty of wooden child-star performances can still be found on television: "Granite Flats" on BYUtv, with its three kiddie detectives; "The Goldbergs" on ABC; many of the interchangeable shows on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Any kid can memorize a few lines, but it's hard to overcome the "Look at me, I'm on TV" syndrome. Yet a few young performers, including on some of television's newer shows, are doing so admirably.

There is, for instance, Johnny Sequoyah, who plays 10-year-old Bo on the new NBC drama "Believe." It's early yet for this series, which premiered last month, but this actress, who is 11, is pretty convincing in a role that might be a tough sell: Bo has supernatural powers, and some nasty people are after her.

Just as important, she seems utterly at ease on camera, especially in her scenes with Jake McLaughlin, who plays Tate, a death-row inmate who has broken out of prison so he can protect Bo. This series looks as if it will be a two-hander much of the time: Tate and Bo against the world. That's a lot to ask of an actress so young, but this one looks to be up to the task. Her work calls to mind David Mazouz in "Touch," another series about a child (this one nonverbal) with strange powers. Pulling this kind of role off is all about the eyes and the facial expressions; it's a subtle skill that's hard enough to find in grown-ups.

Almost as difficult to master is comic timing, and that's what Benjamin Stockham, who is 13, brings to "About a Boy," another new NBC series. He plays Marcus, the "boy" of the title, who strikes up an odd friendship with his adult neighbor, played by David Walton.

This is a show that depends on repartee, and the Stockham-Walton combination clicks nicely. Their dialogue isn't the simple setup/punch line stuff of old, which often seemed written to minimize the child actor's time on screen. It takes place in extended scenes that work only if Stockham is appealing, and he is.

Comic timing is also on display in "The Neighbors," an underrated ABC comedy about a neighborhood populated by space aliens and one human family. Two young actors consistently impress on this show, playing very different types.

One is Ian Patrick, an 11-year-old portraying an alien child. (His character's name is Dick Butkus; you kind of have to watch the show to understand why.) He doesn't get a lot of lines — the show is focused on the adults — but he makes the most of the ones he does get, delivering them deadpan and managing to project world weariness and vulnerability at the same time.

Clara Mamet (19-year-old daughter of David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon) is a human teenager on the same show, and she has the disaffected-youth persona down perfectly. Plenty of teenage characters have worked the same territory over the years on television, but they're usually required to be loud and irritating, or overly surly.

Mamet finds more in less, conveying contempt and ennui with a mere look. She would be right at home on the show that employs Zosia Mamet, her half sister: HBO's "Girls." If her "Neighbors" character, Amber, were your teenage daughter, you would be both terrified of her and pretty impressed that you had raised such a savvy kid. Amber's on-and-off alien love interest on "The Neighbors," by the way, gets an honorable mention here: Tim Jo, who plays Dick Butkus' older brother, is a quirkily perfect match for Mamet.

Showtime's "House of Lies" can be classified as a comedy, too, but a more weighty and adult, and it features perhaps the most complex young character on television. He's Roscoe Kaan, son of Marty Kaan, the hard-charging consultant (played by Don Cheadle) who is the focus of the series. Roscoe is portrayed by Donis Leonard Jr., who is 14, and in the show's three seasons he has been asked to make quite a journey.

Roscoe has been exploring issues of gender and sexuality since Season 1, when he was auditioning for the school musical "Grease" — for the female role of Sandy. This season he has a girlfriend, though a gender-fluid one.

Marty's home life is secondary to his professional life in this series, but Leonard makes the side trips to the Kaan household fascinating. Fractured or blended families are the norm on TV these days (Marty is divorced), but it's not often that the most interesting person in such a household is a child.

Over on ABC Family, where shows are crammed with young characters, no series is more ambitious than "Switched at Birth," now in its third season, and practically all of its young stars deserve mention. Let's focus here on Sean Berdy, a deaf actor playing a deaf character and doing it with heart and smarts.

The show's premise is that Bay (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne (Katie Leclerc) were switched at birth and raised very differently, especially because Daphne lost her hearing when she was a toddler.

Berdy, 20, plays Emmett, Daphne's friend at a school for deaf students. His character is richly written, with love interests and a complicated family life and, most of all, attitude. Though Berdy speaks, Emmett communicates largely in American Sign Language, and Berdy's expressiveness when using it is stunning. In a series that breaks down a lot of barriers, he is often the one wielding the sledgehammer.

There are others, of course. Long-running shows like "Modern Family" and "The Middle" would not have been as successful without good young actors. But these youthful performers will be interesting to watch as they move forward. The list of child stars who have navigated the treacherous waters of fame and fashioned decent adult careers is fairly short, but the success stories are always heartening to hear.

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times






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