It's no surprise that Laurie Blake has been such a breakout character in HBO's Watchmen. And no, that's not just because she's a cynical, funny badass who used to be Silk Spectre. It's not even because she carries around such memorable accessories. Laurie Blake is a breakout because she's played by Jean Smart, one of the best actresses in the business.
Like many women in her peer group, Jean Smart used her role on a successful '80s sitcom to launch a formidable and varied career, turning in exceptional performances in everything from traditional comedies, to limited series, to CBS procedurals. Along the way, she's also become an Emmy darling, racking up eight nominations (and three wins) in five different categories.
Despite all this, Smart still flies under the radar. She's never had a Veep or a Good Wife to push her to the forefront of the TV conversation, and unlike her Watchmen co-star Regina King, who also got her start on a sitcom, she hasn't augmented her small screen bona fides with an Oscar. That means that every time Smart is amazing — which, again, is every time she's on screen — audiences might feel like they're discovering her all over again.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's nice to be pleasantly reacquainted with great actors. As Smart makes her mark yet again on Watchmen, here's a look back at some of the other shows where she's lit up the screen:
Designing Women wasn't Jean Smart's first job, but it might as well have been. As Charlene, the good-hearted business manager of an interior decorating firm in Atlanta, she was sweet but not stupid, sassy but not snide, and middle-class-Southern but not lazily stereotypical. While Suzanne (Delta Burke) was getting laughs with her vanity, and Julia (Dixie Carter) was inspiring generations with her fiery liberalism, Charlene was reminding us that sometimes it's okay to just like the Rocky movies and dream of dating a pilot.
Note: Don't let anyone tell you it's pronounced "shar-lene." It's "char-lene," like "chew" or "cheese" or "chills of appreciation for a diva's good work."
After Designing Women, you have to assume Smart was offered plenty of naifs and sweethearts, which is why it was so exciting that she followed her sensational work in the indie drama Guinevere with her guest spots as Lana, Frasier Crane's former high-school classmate. (The character was originally called Lorna, but her name changed after her first appearance.) Lana was the anti-Charlene, startling Frasier with her foul language, her insistence that she needed to smoke to maintain her figure, and her penchant for shrieking at her kids. To this day, there's only one correct way to say "put your brother on the phone".
Note: This is the role that earned Smart her first two Emmys, for Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
Smart picked up an Emmy nod for Guest Actress in a Drama for CBS' cop series The District, but that barely hinted at what she would do as Martha Logan, the morally conflicted, mentally troubled first lady who knew her husband was doing unspeakable things on Season 5 of 24. Martha tries to blow the whistle on President Logan's terrorist collusion and his cover-up of his predecessor's assassination, but in the end she winds up locked in an asylum. It's a tragic arc, aided in no small part by Smart's nuanced portrayal of Martha's season-long descent into despair.
Note: Smart starred on the season that finally won 24 the Emmy for Outstanding Drama. There are no accidents.
It's tempting to play what-if with this ABC sitcom about Samantha Newly (Christina Applegate), a jerk who gets amnesia and then tries to become a better person. What if its high-concept premise had appeared two years ago on Netflix instead of a decade ago on a major network? Would it have run six seasons or more, like it surely deserved to? Would Jean Smart, as Samantha's mother Regina, have continued to be such an appealing smart ass? Of course she would have, and it's sad to think of all the jokes we never got to hear. But at least Smart won an Emmy for the show's first season.
Note: Shortly after appearing on Samantha Who with Jean Smart, Melissa McCarthy got her Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids. Again, no accidents.
You know how sometimes people are scarier when they speak softly? They're so certain of their power that they don't have to bother with yelling. That's the way Smart plays Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch of a Minnesota crime family who shows up in Season 2 of Fargo. With her tight perm and her collection of polyester blouses, she might be mistaken for a grandma who makes cookies instead of ordering hits, and that's what makes her so terrifying. She's also a reminder that Jean Smart can do anything.
Note: Smart was nominated for an Emmy for this performance, but she lost to none other than Regina King.
And those are just the big six. There are honorable mentions on Jean Smart's TV resume that would dwarf the entire careers of other actors. When she did a guest spot on Veep, she wasn’t just some senator in the back. She was Gary’s (Tony Hale) gloriously deluded mother. When she played a wealthy investor on Halt and Catch Fire, her character got the all-time great name of LouLou Lutherford. She’s had gigs as the protagonist's psychiatrist on Legion, as the seductively inert Depression Kitty on Big Mouth, and even as a negligent single mother on The Facts of Life. It’s only right, then, that Watchmen is providing one of the buzziest roles of her career. She’s got the chops for that kind of exposure, and she’s definitely got the receipts.
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Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.