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October 08, 2015

Faces of Fall

Meet a dozen dazzlers who’ll be shining in new fall shows.

Mark Morrison
  • Jake McDorman

    Robert Ascroft
  • Josh Peck

    Robert Ascroft
  • Raza Jaffrey

    Robert Ascroft
  • Stark Sands

    Robert Ascroft
  • Sullivan Stapleton

    Robert Ascroft
  • Philip Winchester

    Robert Ascroft
  • Melissa Benoist

    Robert Ascroft
  • Priyanka Chopra

    Robert Ascroft
  • Yaya DaCosta

    Robert Ascroft
  • Rachel Bloom

    Robert Ascroft
  • Jaina Lee Ortiz

    Robert Ascroft
  • Rebecca Rittenhouse

    Robert Ascroft

Jake McDorman

Limitless, CBS

You can’t hold it against Jake McDorman for having starred in the first series to be canceled last season. Manhattan Love Story wasn’t exactly Sex and the City, but neither was it Joanie Loves Chachi.

Nobody seemed to say so at the time, but it had its charms. One of them was McDorman. If ever there was a can-do team player, he’s it. Did you see him in American Sniper, doing his best to be taken seriously as Ryan “Biggles” Job, holding his own opposite a pumped-up Bradley Cooper?

Well, now it’s time for payback. In his new series, Limitless, McDorman takes on the role that Cooper played in the 2011 sci-fi theatrical — that of struggling writer Brian Sinclair (named Eddie Morra in the movie), who takes a pill that allows him to access the full capacity of his brain.

He becomes a financial whiz and thus enters dangerous territory. It’s tricky stuff for a TV drama, but it works, thanks in large part to McDorman’s ceaseless energy and modern everyman appeal. And, unlike Cooper, he does it without the benefit of screen time with Robert De Niro.

Instead, McDorman gets to again play opposite Cooper, who has a recurring role (in addition to executive-producing the series, as he did the film). Happily, McDorman has enough scruffy slacker cred to bring to the role. So his scenes with Cooper play less like the passing of the torch and more like sparring between brothers.

Josh Peck

Grandfathered, Fox

It’s every guy’s nightmare: some kid you’ve never seen before walks into your life one day and says, “Hi, I’m your son.” But the new Fox comedy, Grandfathered, takes it one step farther — the son also comes with a toddler daughter. And in a flash, Jimmy, a confirmed bachelor and restaurateur played by the ever-ageless John Stamos, becomes an instant grandpa. (Call it Bachelor Grandfather?)

We’ve seen Stamos play slickster roles like this before (ER, Jake in Progress, Glee). But this time he has a first-class comic foil in Josh Peck as his son, Gerald.

Best known for roles as a bullied fat kid in Mean Creek (2004) and an awkward teen in Nickleodeon’s Drake & Josh series (2004–07), Peck slimmed down by the time he starred opposite Olivia Thirlby in the 2008 coming-of-age dramedy, The Wackness.

Having acted professionally since he was 12, he is all the more fun to watch as a young dad who desperately needs a male role model in his life. With his easy, low-simmer style and personable screen presence, he is an almost cuddly counterpoint to Stamos’s smooth operator.

How great that he doesn’t physically resemble his TV dad (Paget Brewster plays his mom). He’s more of a Romeo in the rough. And their scenes together crackle with a father-and-son charm that is all the more refreshing for their differences.

Raza Jaffrey

Code Black, CBS

Where have I seen that guy before? It’s a question you might find yourself asking when you see Raza Jaffrey as the buttoned-down Dr. Neal Hudson on CBS’s Code Black.

The hospital drama is based on a documentary of the same name from doctor-turned-director Ryan McGarry about the L.A. County/USC Medical Center emergency room, the busiest ER in the country.

If you’re an Anglophile, you might know him from the BBC One spy drama Spooks. Then again, maybe it was as the French supervillain, Cain, on the short-lived NBC superhero drama The Cape (2011). Or there was his thankless turn as Katharine McPhee’s straight-laced fiancé, Dev, in the first season of NBC’s Smash (2012).

Most likely, though, you remember him from Showtime’s Homeland, where last season he played Pakistani Lieutenant Colonel Aasar Khan, another by-the-book type who befriends CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and is torn between political loyalty and doing the right thing.

The son of an Indian sea captain and a Liverpudlian mum, Jaffrey grew up in London and later appeared on stage in everything from Romeo and Juliet to Mamma Mia! Tall and dignified, he is like a modern-day David Niven, a man of morality and class caught in the web of chaos and contradiction around him, unable to make sense of the rules, yet unable to willingly break them — which makes him altogether human and heartbreakingly real.

Stark Sands

Minority Report, Fox

With a name like Stark Sands, he sounds more like a barren desert hideaway than a two-time Tony-nominated actor starring in a TV adaptation of a Tom Cruise movie.

As Dash in the Fox version of Steven Spielberg’s futuristic sci-fi film, Minority Report, Sands plays one of three siblings — and half of a set of twin brothers — who grew up as “precogs” and can see murders before they happen. Only they were hidden from the world, in a place where they were studied and trained, unable to actually use their gift to prevent these crimes and save lives.

Now grown, Dash escapes his handlers and ventures into the outer world to both find his missing brother and try to prevent the murders he envisions. He reaches out to the lead detective (Meaghan Good) on these cases and inadvertently becomes her unofficial partner (shades of Sleepy Hollow).

But he lacks the social graces and conversational skills to fit in — the source of some amusing faux pas. But his is an existential dilemma: “My future is the one thing I can’t see, but I’m still haunted by everybody else’s,” he says.

Sands has the man-boy innocence and appeal to make the part of a social freak with a passion for classic rock believable — and also keep the audience involved and entertained. Oddly, he is older than he looks (he’s 37). Yet, this works well for him — it gives him a depth of understanding he might not otherwise have.

Sullivan Stapleton

Blindspot, NBC

Some people are born to be action heroes — American action heroes at that. In Cinemax’s recently ended British-American military series, Strike Back, Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton played an ex–Delta Force operative.

In his new series, Blindspot, he plays another Yank, FBI special agent Kurt Weller, a strong, silent, brooding type with a hard-boiled macho attitude and animal magnetism to spare — think Russell Crowe with a touch of Tom Ford. Which perhaps makes him damaged, yet dedicated and somehow more sensitive than he lets on. S

tapleton is a natural in this department. He has an explosive physical presence that doesn’t require him to say much to hold the screen. After all, we know from his breakthrough performance in 2010’s Aussie crime drama, Animal Kingdom, just how volatile he can be. So when he speaks, you listen, because this is not a guy who suffers fools gladly or otherwise.

In Blindspot, Weller’s name has been tattooed on the back of a naked mystery woman (Jaimie Alexander) who turns up in New York’s Times Square with amnesia.

While she has perhaps the most beautiful eyes on television, Stapleton offers perfect counterpoint. He has a steely squint that makes him look perpetually suspicious, and while he doesn’t seem to trust anyone, you know at a glance he’s totally trustworthy.

When he says, “You’re going to be okay,” you believe him. Because Stapleton is so straightforward, you can’t possibly believe otherwise. And that’s what an action hero is all about.

Philip Winchester

The Player, NBC

He’s something of an old-school Hollywood leading man. Tall, strapping, fair-haired, Montana-raised, he got his start playing a young militiaman in the Revolutionary War film, The Patriot, when he was 14 — and perhaps the altruistic tone just stuck.

He later surfaced as Robinson Crusoe in NBC’s 2008 action-adventure series, Crusoe, and, in Cinemax’s Strike Back, as Sergeant Michael Stonebridge, who takes a chance on Sullivan Stapleton’s disgraced ex-Delta Force operative.

He was also Leontes, the bravest of knights who pledges his loyalty to King Arthur in Camelot, Starz’s 2011 historical fantasy-drama series.

Little known fact: he starred in the pilot of Mark Burnett’s autobiographical sitcom, Commando Nanny, as a former British military man who works as a manny, but he had to drop out when he broke his foot (he was replaced by Owain Yeoman, but the series was shelved before it ever aired).

Winchester, whose mother is British, studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and played Edmund in a 2007 production of King Lear starring Sir Ian McKellen.

Still, he’s a red-blooded All-American sort. And in The Player he finally becomes, well, a show-biz player as Alex Kane, a former intelligence office who works as a security expert in — where else? — Las Vegas. He has a quick Rockford-like ease with a throwaway line and an athletic Steve McQueen–like physique, shown to advantage in a street chase dressed only in boxers.

And like those old-school guys, he makes the job look easier than it is and more fun than any grown man has the right to.

Melissa Benoist

Supergirl, CBS

To look at her, you wouldn’t know how much weight is on Melissa Benoist’s shoulders. First, there’s the pressure of playing Supergirl at a time when DC Comics and Marvel superhero movies have raised the bar — and fans’ expectations — so much.

There’re also the inevitable comparisons to her super predecessors, whether it be Laura Vandervoort on the CW’s Smallville or the movie version with Helen Slater (more about her later).

And then there’s the challenge of bringing a character to life without being too sexy or too soft, too cute or too comic. But if there’s a young actress who knows how to dazzle and still keep things real, it’s Benoist.

In addition to playing nice girl Marley Rose on two seasons of Glee, she was memorable as the girl who got away from Miles Teller in Whiplash. And she all but stole this year’s The Longest Ride as a sorority sister who likes to party.

Here, she steps into the pivotal role of Kara Zor-el, the last survivor of Krypton, who has come to Earth and been raised by Jeremiah and Eliza Danvers (played by ex–TV Superman, Dean Cain, and former big-screen Supergirl, Helen Slater). Originally sent to protect her baby cousin, Kal-el, she discovers he has grown up and is doing just fine without her.

Working incognito at a newspaper, not unlike her cousin, she is an assistant to the mercurial editor, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart, like you’ve never seen her). But it’s Benoist who keeps the show airborne, even-keeled, balanced and flying at just the right speed.

Priyanka Chopra

Quantico, ABC

Suffice it to say that Priyanka Chopra is more famous in India than she is in the United States — so far.

One of Bollywood’s most popular (and highest-paid) stars, she has played everything — romantic comedy, superhero stories (in 2006, her movie Krrish achieved blockbuster status), action roles and thrillers.

In 2008, her performance in Fashion — a drama about the Indian fashion industry in which her character rises from a simple background to become a supermodel — earned her several honors, including the National Film Award and the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Her 2012 film, Barfi!, was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film and ranks as one of Bollywood’s highest-grossing films ever.

Chopra has also voiced animated characters, is a successful TV host and singer (her single, “Exotic,” pairs her with American rap star, Pitbull) and has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Child Rights.

Despite all this, Chopra may be best known in America for winning the title of Miss World in 2000 (two years before her first film). That should change quickly, thanks to her starring role as Alex Parrish in Quantico, ABC’s series about young FBI recruits training at the academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Her character is part Indian, part Caucasian and all woman — viewers meet her as she engages in an anonymous sexual encounter with hunky costar Jake McLaughlin. Yet Chopra manages to be as serious as she is sultry. And, as Parrish, she is a force (and a beauty) to reckon with.

Yaya DaCosta

Chicago Med, NBC

Don’t mistake Yaya DaCosta for your ordinary model-turned-actress. The America’s Next Top Model runner-up, who’s appeared in ads for Oil of Olay and Garnier, started acting 10 years ago.

Daytime viewers got to know her as Debbi Morgan’s daughter on All My Children in 2008; primetime viewers saw her as Vanessa Williams’s daughter during the fourth season of Ugly Betty. In Lisa Cholodenko’s acclaimed 2010 indie, The Kids Are All Right, she was memorable as Tanya, Mark Ruffalo’s workplace hookup.

With her large almond eyes and high cheekbones, DaCosta starred as Whitney Houston in this year’s Lifetime biopic Whitney, directed by Angela Bassett.

But her real breakthrough promises to be as can-do nurse April Sexton on Dick Wolf’s newest series, Chicago Med. In her hands, Sexton is the person you want on your team in any emergency — she’s got great instincts and nothing throws her. When she says, “I’m on it,” you know you don’t need to ask twice.

The Harlem-born beauty brings surprising authority and immeasurable compassion to every line, whether she’s calming a frightened child or consoling a wounded fireman. And despite her dramatic beauty, she feels real and relatable.

And it’s no wonder. Born of African-American, Brazilian and Nigerian descent, DaCosta majored in Africana studies and international relations at Brown University and speaks Portuguese, French, Spanish and Japanese, in addition, of course, to English.  Which makes her appeal pretty universal.

Rachel Bloom

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW

You gotta love Rachel Bloom. She seems so driven, she almost doesn’t give you any choice. In her new musical-comedy series, she plays Rebecca — a fast-lane New York attorney who makes partner, but decides to chuck it all to follow a guy she hasn’t seen in years to godforsaken West Covina, California.

Bloom embraces the absurdity of it all — and somehow keeps the story from feeling as out there as it is. Is Rebecca crazy? Is she lost? Is she having a breakdown or breakthrough or premature midlife crisis? Or is she just trying to exercise her modern female prerogative and reinvent herself?

It doesn’t really matter. Bloom may be taking us all for a ride — she is an executive producer on the show, after all — but she’s smart and funny and knows how to belt out a song during several seemingly impromptu production numbers. Which makes you feel like you’re in good hands, so sit back and enjoy.

An alum of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the Upright Citizens Brigade and Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, this actress-writer-comedian is a nice Jewish girl from Manhattan Beach who loves Ray Bradbury, which suggests that she’s got good taste and a curious mind — even when you’re not sure she’s all there.

Jaina Lee Ortiz

Rosewood, Fox

Sure, the show is called Rosewood and it stars Morris Chestnut as the title character — an overly ingratiating know-it-all private pathologist-for-hire. But what would House be without Dr. Lisa Cuddy? What would Castle be without Detective Kate Beckett? Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, Jr., knows he’s met his match in Annalise Villa, the youngest beat cop ever promoted to detective in the NYPD, who transfers to Miami PD after her husband dies.

As Villa, the Bronx-raised Jaina Lee Ortiz plays ying to Chestnut’s yang, and she grounds the show with her sensible attitude. She’s the straight man to his jester, yet is no mere foil. She’s smart and serious but also knows how to throw a punch. And it helps that she looks good in tight jeans and tank tops.

Plus, she moves like a dancer, which Ortiz is, having studied salsa and mambo since she was nine. She began teaching dance at 15 and traveling internationally as a professional dance teacher and performer at 16.

The only child of first-generation Puerto Rican parents (her father is an NYPD detective, which couldn’t have hurt researching this role), she is starring in her first series role here. But from the way she handles herself, you’d never know.

Rebecca Rittenhouse

Blood & Oil, ABC

Playing the ingénue without disappearing into the woodwork isn’t easy. But in Blood & Oil, a family saga set in the oil-boom wildcat country of North Dakota, Rebecca Rittenhouse is the exception, not the rule.

True, as newlywed Cody LeFever, high-school sweetheart, wife and best friend to husband Billy (Chace Crawford), she has to be as fetching as she is faithful. But she earns her real cred as his wing-woman: in a scene where she and Crawford are negotiating with Don Johnson and Amber Valletta, as local power couple Hap and Carla Briggs, she shows what she’s made of, taking her husband’s side but raising the stakes.

There’s also a memorable scene in the pharmacy where she takes a job, in which she craftily puts a guy who hits on her in his place while keeping a smile on her face.

Los Angeles–born Rittenhouse, who costarred last season as a naïve nurse in Fox’s Red Band Society and was in the pilot for Showtime’s The Affair, hasn’t been acting for very long. And in Blood & Oil, she has to be the perfect partner and total team player.

To her credit, she finds just the right line to walk.

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