It’s been two years since “The Wire,” ran its course over on HBO, and four years now, since the cable network prematurely pulled the plug on “Deadwood.” Inarguably the best two ensemble dramas on television over the last decade, most of us probably assumed that the individual members of each brilliant cast would go on to well-deserved success. Unfortunately, for the most part, these actors returned from whence they came: They are solid character actors that elevate almost everything they’re in (save, perhaps, for Dominic West, whose flaws have been exposed outside the world of Baltimore). Several years after the fact, many of these cast members are still referred to by their character roles in their respective series.
Enough time has passed now since the end of each show’s run that I thought it’d be a good time to take stock of the careers of the more successful alumni of these shows and grade them appropriately. The grades, of course, have nothing to do with their actual talent — with the exception of West, they’d all have very high marks. But the system doesn’t necessarily always reward talented actors with paychecks commensurate with their talent because the world isn’t a fair place.
This is how the seven most successful cast members from each show stack up in 2010.
7. Aidan Gillen (Tommy Carcetti): In the 7th spot, Gillan gets the slight nod over Sonja Sohn, if only because he was a headliner in a bad B-movie, 12 Rounds, while Sohn played a tertiary character in, Step Up 2, her biggest screen feature since “The Wire.” Otherwise, Gillen has been in a TV movie, is currently headlining a British series, “Identity,” with Keeley Hawes, and has four movies of little note on his slate, including Blitz, where he’ll star alongside Jason Statham. Grade: C-
6. Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon): Peters has benefited greatly from his connection to David Simon, which presumably got him a central role in Simon’s “Treme.” He also had a small but crucial part in F/X’s “Damages,” as well as roles in USA Networks, “In Plain Sight,” and “Covert Affairs.” He also played Nelson Mandela in the well received direct-to-DVD movie, Endgame and has provided voicework for a “Doctor Who” animated series (?) and the upcoming Searching for Sonny with Minka Kelly. Grade: C
5. Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels): Reddick has had only one major role since “The Wire,” but it’s a good one, as a series regular on “Fringe,” and given all “The Wire” alumni appearances on “Fringe” (specifically Jim True Frost and Andre Rojo), I’d like to think that Reddick had a hand in it. Reddick also appeared in four episodes of “Lost.” Grade: C+
4. Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty): West’s biggest role may have been during the run of “The Wire,” as Theron in 300, but since then, he’s mostly proven that he will never surpass his work as McNulty. On “The Wire,” he’s brilliant. Outside of “The Wire,” he’s a mediocre B-actor in films like Centurion and Punisher: War Zone. He will continue in that vein with John Carter of Mars and the Johnny English reboot, Johnny English Reborn. Grade: C+
3. Michael K. Williams (Omar Little): Williams is something of the opposite of West. West may get the larger paychecks, but Williams has maintained his credibility with an ongoing turn in “Boardwalk Empire,” and with great supporting turns in the little seen indies, Wonderful World and Life During Wartime. He also had a role in The Road with “Deadwood” alums, Garret Dillahunt and Molly Parker. He hasn’t been hugely successful, but he’s maintained his credibility. Grade B-
2. Amy Ryan: Ryan is the only one on both of these lists with a post-show Oscar nomination, for her fantastic turn in Gone Baby Gone. She’s still a character actor, but she’s a damn good one, with roles in Green Zone, Jack Goes Boating, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, and a recurring role on NBC’s “The Office,” where she will return this winter. Grade: B-
1. Idris Elba: So far, Elba has been a mixed blessing: He gets plenty of work, but not usually in much of anything good, including Prom Night, Obsessed, Takers and The Unborn. In between, however, he was the title character in a fantastic British series, “Luther,” a needed reminder of the fact that Elba is actually a very good actor. He also had a nice role in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, a decent one in The Losers, and has two major roles forthcoming, in Marvel’s Thor (!) and the Ghost Rider sequel (not so !). Grade B+
7. Paula Malcomson (Trixie): Malcomson has gotten around since the end of “Deadwood,” with character runs in “ER” and “John from Cincinnati,” as well as current roles in “Caprica” and “Sons of Anarchy.” Most people probably still don’t know her name, but she’s had plenty of work to keep her busy. Grade: C.
6. Kim Dickens (Joanie Stubbs): Dickens had been around for quite a while before “Deadwood,” but that role seemed to launch her up a level. Like almost everyone else from “Deadwood” and “The Wire,” she’s appeared in “Lost,” she had a very nice character run in “Friday Night Lights.” Most notably, besides John Goodman, she was the best character in David Simon’s “Treme.” She’ll also play Lulu in the upcoming Footloose remake, though I won’t hold that against her. Grade B-
5. Anna Gunn: Like Clarke Peters above, Gunn has had only one major role since “Deadwood,” but again, it’s a good one, as Walt White’s shrewish but conniving wife in “Breaking Bad.” She’s also signed up for a role in Kevin Smith’s upcoming Red State. Grade: B-
4. John Hawkes (Sol Star): Hawkes is an absolutely fantastic actor, and should be cast in everything. From the looks of his filmography, that’s nearly the case. Among many others, he’s had roles in “Eastbound and Down,” “Lost,” and American Gangster, though his best work may have been in a small role in the little-seen indie, Winter’s Bone. He’s got six movies in the works, including what I hope is a sizable role in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Grade: B-.
3. Ian McShane: I think many of us assumed that, after “Deadwood,” McShane’s career would sail. That’s not been the case, though he has done all right for himself with supporting roles in Death Race, The Seeker and We Are Marshall, in addition to a failed network drama, “Kings.” He’s also done a lot of voice work, in Coraline, The Golden Compass, Kung-Fu Panda and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He’s also lined up to play Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Grade B
2. Garret Dillahunt: Dillahunt is a fantastic actor, and after a career that’s mostly involved seedy assholes, he’s showing his comedic side in the brilliant sitcom, “Raising Hope.” Between “Deadwood” and “Hope,” he also starred in No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Road and Winter’s Bone, in addition to character runs in “Damages,” “John from Cincinnati,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” and “Burn Notice,” among others. He’s still a little too underappreciated for my tastes, but with “Hope,” he’s finally getting some much needed recognition. Grade: B
1. Timothy Olyphant: “Justified” alone would merit him the top of this list, but Olyphant has also scored memorable turns in Live Free and Die Hard, Hitman and The Crazies, as well as less than memorable turns in Catch and Release and The Perfect Getaway. I’m not sure that Olyphant could ever graduate to the A-list — he’s too much man for Hollywood — but I think there are plenty of people who’d be happy keeping Olyphant just under the radar, where he can be quietly appreciated by those with a fondness for a good swagger. Meanwhile, we can all hold out hope that someday, Olyphant can share the same screen with Idris Elba, so we’ll finally learn what spontaneous human combustion feels like.