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Brian Williams, Viola Davis among most fascinating TV people of 2015

Viola Davis became the first African American woman

Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win a best actress Emmy for her role on "How to Get Away With Murder." Credit: ABC / Mitchell Haaseth

What is “fascinating?” Or rather, who is? Someone on TV who broke out, who raised questions, or answered them? Someone who tapped into cultural preoccupations, or changed them? Barbara Walters has hers, which she’ll present Thursday night at 9:30 on ABC/7. And I have mine:

15. Tracee Ellis Ross What must it be like to be the daughter of Diana Ross? To make your own way in the world? Discover your own talent? Create your own niche? Ross — Rainbow Johnson on “black-ish” — did just that this season, as a breakout character on a breakout show.

14. Oscar Isaac Between his movie “A Most Violent Year” and his future movies (“Star Wars,” mostly) Isaac made an HBO miniseries, “Show Me a Hero.” A standout, as tragic Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko, it also served as a reminder that the big screen’s gain is the small screen’s loss. Here’s hoping he comes back.

13. Rachel Bloom She writes! She sings! She’s funny! She’s beautiful! She’s a mad talent and also the star of The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Irrespective of this show’s fate, a fascinating future awaits.

12. Viola Davis Wins an Emmy as best actress for “How to Get Away With Murder” and in one unbelievable moment breaks one unbelievable record — the first African American woman to win this.

11. Stephen Colbert Ends nine years as “Stephen Colbert” to become Stephen Colbert — and David Letterman’s replacement. Colbert’s challenge remains — can the Real Him ultimately make people forget the Old Him? The process will continue to be — all together now! — fascinating.

10. Jon Stewart Leaves “The Daily Show” at the top, but will jump back in the stream, literally, in 2016 — to produce/star in streaming content for HBO, just in time for the election.

9. Zahn McClarnon Tossup between him and Bokeem Woodbine, both standouts on the second season of “Fargo,” but a finale twist ensures a spot on this list. (His character, Hanzee — played by a different actor with a different name — actually appeared on the first season!) An excellent actor, McClarnon is also a rarity — a Native American actor on TV. (He’s also on “Longmire.”)

8. Jill Soloway Creator of “Transparent,” Amazon’s Emmy-winning comedy/tragedy about a transgender person and her semi-functional family, Soloway is riding the crest of Hollywood’s Transgender Moment.

7. Krysten Ritter Talented actress (“Gilmore Girls,” “Breaking Bad”) finally locates her sweet spot with Netflix’s “Jessica Jones.” Two outcomes are ensured: a role in Netflix’s forthcoming “The Defenders”; and an Emmy nod.

6. Eddie Huang Writes a best-selling memoir on Asian-American assimilation; sells series to ABC; gets only the third network show ever on Asian-American families; then, in a New York Magazine attack essay, he hates on ABC and the pilot, calling it “19 minutes of shiny suit-bubble goose bounce;” quits the show.

5. Priyanka Chopra Bollywood superstar gets her first role on an American TV series, “Quantico,” which subsequently becomes one of the breakout hits of the 2015 season. Chopra conquers U.S. TV! The show destroys Grand Central, but she looks smashing in the rubble!

4. Ellie Kemper Like Bloom, one of those she-can-do-it-all-super-achiever types. Kemper (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) comes from old money (the Kempers of Missouri), went to Princeton, got into improv, onto “The Office” and the rest is about to become history, too — she’s one of TV’s finest comic actresses.

3. Jeffrey Tambor Won his much-deserved Emmy for “Transparent,” but in some sense, that was also a career achievement award — for all the brilliant work that has come before, from “Hill Street Blues” to “The Larry Sanders Show” to “Arrested Development.”

2. Lester Holt Another first — first African American anchor on a nightly news program. Holt’s run at NBC News was steady and reliable, but his run at “Nightly” has been absolutely seamless.

1. Brian Williams The most spectacular flameout in network news history reminds everyone why network TV news is still so important and vital. Meanwhile, Williams has now begun the long road back to redemption on MSNBC as breaking news anchor during the day. His fall and (let’s hope) his rise are epic, and also instructive: For a newsman, truth is all that matters.


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