Dual Roles: The Busiest Actors of Peak TV

This week, Kaitlyn Olson began her 12th season of FX's It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, as well as the first season of her new FOX series The Mick. In the age of Peak TV, with hundreds of scripted dramas and comedies being produced by dozens of networks and streaming platforms, acting talent is in high demand. And increasingly, performers are jumping from one project to the next with remarkable speed, whether they’re limited series or substantial guest star arcs, or beginning a new series before the last one has gone off the air. A few years ago, it was considered unusual for, say, Alison Brie, to be on both Community and Mad Men at the same time, but now it's almost routine. The busiest actors of peak TV may not be the biggest stars, but rather the emerging talents and veteran supporting players that casting directors eagerly compete for. 

So, as something of an addendum to my top 50 shows of the year, here are over a dozen actors who starred in full seasons, or the majority of episodes of a season, on more than one series in 2016, ranked vaguely from the best set of roles to the worst. .

Jimmi Simpson: Westworld, Hap And Leonard

Jimmi Simpson has quietly racked up an impressive career as a versatile character actor over the past decade, starring in the little seen A&E series Breakout Kings and appearing in recurring roles in everything from House of Cards to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But 2016 felt like a tipping point year, when Simpson stood out as probably the least familiar major player in Westworld’s cast full of movie stars. And he also chewed the scenery memorably as the villain on SundanceTV’s Hap And Leonard. Given the fate of his characters on both shows, it’s unclear if he’ll appear in the 2017 seasons of Westworld or Hap And Leonard, but it seems certain we’ll be seeing more of Jimmi Simpson on TV somewhere.

Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr.: American Crime Story, American Horror Story

Ryan Murphy is one of TV’s busiest showrunners, and he tends to stick with actors that he likes. Sarah Paulson has reaped the greatest benefits from an alliance with Murphy, appearing in all six seasons of his FX anthology series American Horror Story, each time as a different character, and racking up four Emmy nominations in the process. But this year she finally won for another Murphy anthology series, playing Marcia Clark in American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson. Cuba Gooding Jr. joined the Murphy repertory to play O.J. Simpson, and then reteamed with Paulson a few months later in American Horror Story: Roanoke, where both actually played multiple roles in the show’s dizzying layers of meta.

Hugh Laurie: Chance, The Night Manager, Veep

Veteran British actor Hugh Laurie became one of TV’s most watched leading men in his 8 seasons on the FOX medical drama House. And after a few years away from television, he recently returned in a big way, juggling several roles. On Veep’s fourth and fifth seasons, Laurie became a valuable recurring player as Selina Meyer’s new political foil Tom James. On the AMC miniseries The Night Manager, he was the villainous arms dealer Richard Roper (not to be confused with villainous film critic Richard Roeper). And most recently, he starred in Hulu’s new drama Chance as San Francisco neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance.

Mahershala Ali: Luke Cage, House Of Cards

Few actors have had a better 2016 than Mahershala Ali, and that’s even if you only take into account his roles in two of awards season’s most celebrated films, Moonlight and Hidden Figures. On the TV side, he appeared in two Netflix hits, earning an Emmy nomination for his work on House of Cards and stealing scenes on Marvel’s Luke Cage as the villain Cottonmouth.

Hayley Atwell: Agent Carter, Conviction

Hayley Atwell has had something of a rough 2016, being canceled by ABC twice in the space of six months. First, Agent Carter, the spinoff series for her Captain America character, concluded its second and final season, and then her new fall legal drama Conviction failed to get a full season pickup. Don’t blame Atwell, who lit up the screen on both shows.

Deon Cole: Black-ish, Angie Tribeca

I can remember the first time I saw Deon Cole, a writer on Conan O'Brien's staff, step out on stage to do a bit with Conan, and it seemed so clear that he had this hilarious wild eyed that could take him from behind the scenes to more onscreen work. And this year he continued his third season of entertaining recurring appearances on Black-ish as well as co-star in 2 seasons of Angie Tribeca. 

Michael K. Williams: Hap And Leonard, The Night Of

Michael K. Williams has already had too rich a career to be typecast, but the actor remains best known for his iconic role as Omar Little on The Wire. And this year he took on another role as a gay tough guy, Vietnam vet Leonard Pine, in SundanceTV’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s 1990 novel Savage Season. A couple months later, Williams returned to HBO to play Freddy Knight, a Rikers Island inmate, on the miniseries The Night Of.

Abigail Spencer: Rectify, Timeless

This fall, the acclaimed SundanceTV series Rectify wrapped up its harrowing fourth and final season. But while it aired, one of the show’s stars was already moving onto lighter fare with NBC’s fall sci-fi hit Timeless. And amid all that, she also returned to USA’s Suits, where she’s had a recurring role for five years, for a couple episodes.

Natalie Brown: The Strain, Channel Zero

Canadian actress Natalie Brown has spent most of her career in horror and sci-fi projects, and this year she pulled double duty as the vampire mom on FX’s The Strain and the human mom on SyFy’s creepypasta-inspired anthology series Channel Zero.

Richard Schiff: Rogue, House of Cards, Ballers, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

2016 may have been the busiest year of Richard Schiff’s three decades of television work. He co-starred in the fourth and final season of DirecTV’s Rogue, and made appearances in several episodes each of Ballers, House of Cards, and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. And if that wasn’t enough, he reunited with West Wing co-star Alison Janney on an episode of her CBS sitcom Mom.

Rob Corddry: Childrens Hospital, Ballers

Rob Corddry wrapped up his 7th and final season as the creator and star of Adult Swim’s hilarious medical drama satire Childrens Hospital this year, presumably to make more time for the second season of HBO’s inexplicably successful Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle Ballers.

Gabourey Sidibe: Empire, Difficult People

Gabourey Sidibe has shown impressive versatility in her TV work since debuting in the title role in the 2009 film Precious. But she’s also terminally underused both on Empire, where she plays the assistant turned A&R Becky, and on Difficult People, where her wisecracking café owner Denise got significantly less screentime this year than she did in 2015.

Dennis Haysbert: Undercover, Incorporated

Dennis Haysbert has long been on TV every hour of every day for years as the pitchman in Allstate’s ubiquitous ad campaign. But this year the former 24 star also took on multiple starring roles, appearing as death row inmate Rudy Jones on the BBC miniseries Undercover and as the mysterious head of security Julian on SyFy’s dystopian series Incorporated.

David Schwimmer: American Crime Story, Feed The Beast

In the decade since Friends went off the air, David Schwimmer is the only one who seemed to retreat somewhat from the spotlight, while Jennifer Aniston did films and the rest all starred in multiple series. But in 2016 he returned to TV in a big way, if not necessarily a good way. First, he was the weakest link in American Crime Story’s impressive cast, reducing the late Robert Kardashian to a simp with a skunk stripe in his hair. Then he starred in the absolutely irredeemable AMC drama Feed The Beast, which was rightfully canceled after the first season ended in a cliffhanger that nobody cared to see the resolution of. 
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