Features

Meryl Streep Has Been Killing It on TV Long Before Big Little Lies

As her buzzy turn on HBO's summer hit comes to a close, a look back at some of her less memorable TV roles.
  • Meryl Streep plays Mary Louise Wright in Big Little Lies (HBO)
    Meryl Streep plays Mary Louise Wright in Big Little Lies (HBO)

    Meryl Streep has long been synonymous with the movies. With three Oscars, a record 21 nominations, and a reputation for being the greatest actress of our time, Streep has done everything from searing drama to light-hearted comedy. While her television credits can't compare to the sheer size and impact of her film career, there are some real gems out there if you look hard enough. Of course, there's her much lauded work on a previous HBO awards juggernaut miniseries: 2003's Angels in America, adapted by Mike Nichols from Tony Kushner's landmark Pulitzer Prize winning play. Streep took home an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and SAG for that performance, and many people seem think her television work before BLL started and stopped there. But some of her other, lesser known television performances deserve a place among some of her best silver screen work. Below, we break down these roles and how they fit into a long and illustrious career.

    Web Therapy

    As a daffy conversion therapist with a penchant for bad metaphors, Meryl's guest spots on Lisa Kudrow's underrated Showtime comedy highlight Meryl's uncanny ability for character work and sly comedic chops. See below, as the cheekily named Camilla Bowner gives Kudrow's Fiona Wallace a potentially incestious history lesson about electricity.

    Alice at the Palace

    Released the same year as her devastating, Oscar winning performance in Sophie's Choice, Streep, ever the risk-taker, starred in a production of the musical Alice at the Palace for the New York Shakespeare Festival. In the production (which ultimately found its way onto television), Meryl gives what might be her most bizarre performance as the childish Alice. There are songs dedicated to her disappearing feet, lots of dancing, and Debbie Allen as the Red Queen. It's trippiness rivals Meryl's iconic marijuana-fueled telephone call in Adaptation.

    ...First Do No Harm

    As someone who considers himself something of an awards expert, I was appalled to discover that for years I've been falsely claiming a bit of trivia that Meryl Streep has never lost an Emmy. She, in fact, did lose for the 1997 ABC TV movie ...First Do No Harm to the always award-worthy Alfre Woodard for Miss Ever's Boys. In the film, Streep played a middle-class, Midwestern mom whose son is suddenly diagnosed with epilepsy. It's a lovely, compassionate performance, one that has her acting opposite future co-stars Allison Janney and Margo Martindale (both in The Hours. As Virginia Woolf once famously said, "always the hours"). But perhaps most chillingly, in the opening scene, Streep sports a cardigan and chunky glasses that so strikingly resemble Mary Louise from Big Little Lies that I couldn't help but begin conspiracy theorizing if ...First Do No Harm is actually the Mary Louise Wright backdoor origin story.

    Holocaust

    Streep's most famous Holocaust-themed project is of course Sophie's Choice, but five years earlier, she took home her first Emmy for NBC's sprawling miniseries, Holocaust. The winner of 6 Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series, Holocaust is the kind of prestige-y storytelling that we now associate with premium cable, and Meryl's performance as a Christian woman caught between two families in Nazi-occupied Berlin is one of her most under-appreciated. If for nothing else, she deserved that Emmy for having to pretend to fall in love with James Woods.

    Watching (or re-watching) Streep's television work is something we recommend for a lot of reasons. First of all, you can never go wrong with a Meryl Streep performance, whether it's weeping to Sophie's Choice or doing chores while Mamma Mia! plays on E! for the billionth time. Second, it can be a bit trippy to go back and see some of these older television movies, at the time considered the best of what television had to offe, and imagine a multi-Oscar winner like Streep or any of her BLL co-stars headlining an ABC TV movie about epilepsy today.

    The third reason, and perhaps the most important one, is to remind yourself of just all the different keys Streep can play as a performer. One of the great joys of watching her on Big Little Lies this season has been seeing her play a somewhat more low-key character in the midst of a deep ensemble. We're so used to seeing her play Big Characters these days, but Mary-Louise offers a chance for us to see the more delicate character work that Streep brought to projects such as ...First Do No Harm and Holocaust. And while Web Therapy and Alice at the Palace are less serious work, it's a treat to see Meryl playing in a more loose, quirky register. With Peak TV drawing so many major movie stars to the small screen, we've become accustomed to seeing actors like Al Pacino and Michael Douglas headlining  prestige movie events,  but to see Meryl Streep so seamlessly step into the well-established world of Big Little Lies and retreat into the background if need be, is yet one more reminder she is one one-time Emmy loser who really can do anything.

    People are talking about Big Little Lies in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Stephen Hladik is a freelance culture writer and actor. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_hladik 

    TOPICS: Meryl Streep, HBO, Big Little Lies