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How Kathryn Hahn Became the Queen of Peak TV

The WandaVision scene-stealer has banked an impressive number of memorable performances in some of our very favorite shows.
  • Today's Peak TV era has a lot in common with the mid '90s heyday of independent film. Both are known for pushing boundaries and for bringing new and unique voices to the fore. In the 90s, those voices included directors like Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused), Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman); today they include multi-hyphenate showrunners like Matt Weiner (Mad Men, The Romanoffs), Lena Dunham (Girls) and Jill Soloway (Transparent). Actress Parker Posey became a symbol of the indie film boom for the sheer number of that era's writer/directors who cast her in their films, earning her the moniker of "indie film queen," and if anyone is her corollary today, we'd posit it's  Kathryn Hahn.

    While Hahn's film and TV credits go back the early 2000s (including a six season stint on NBC's Crossing Jordan and supporting roles in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Anchorman, and The Holiday), it's the Peak TV era that's given her the space to turn in a string of complex and totally disarming performances. But there comes a time when an actor makes the leap from indie to mainstream and nothing is bigger in pop culture right now than a Marvel franchise. The highly anticipated and delayed (due to the pandemic) WandaVision made a huge impression on Disney+ and Hahn’s role as nosy neighbor Agnes has introduced her to an even wider audience.

    To celebrate Hahn’s ascension to big leagues, here's a look back at some of her many TV roles over the last decade that led to this moment. Plus, the next show to tune into for your Hahn fix:

    Girls (2012)

    In Girls, Hahn played working mother Katherine Lavoyt, who makes the mistake of hiring Jessa (Jemima Kirke) to take on nanny duties. Not only is Jessa pretty lackadaisical in this role, but she also sleeps with Katherine’s deadbeat husband. Playing the “wronged" woman is often a thankless task, particularly when you’re the guest star, but over a four-episode arc, Hahn breathed life into the character that kick-started this chapter in her TV career. Despite the whole cheating saga, Katherine imparts some much-needed words of wisdom in heart-to-heart with her former employee, and although it takes Jessa several seasons to respond to Katherine's directive that she stop being so aloof, Hahn’s nuanced performance ensured audiences sat up and paid attention straight away.

    The Newsroom (2012)

    In Hahn’s one-episode turn as a love interest for Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), she falls foul of some classic Aaron Sorkin character contradictions. Carrie is a Texan, but she also works as a political aide to Hilary Clinton. She smokes pot, but carries a loaded gun. Not only is she opinionated, but she also enjoys sex, which may be why she only lasted one episode. Neither Will nor Sorkin could handle this much female gumption. Even her friend Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) labels her as crazy (because of course she does). Regardless, Hahn charms her way through the cringe-worthy moments.

    Parks and Recreation (2012-2015)

    In a political role of a entirely different sort, Hahn’s no-BS campaign manager Jennifer Barkley goes from being a thorn in Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ben’s (Adam Scott) side to their greatest asset. It was only meant to be a one-season arc, campaigning for Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), but Jennifer’s brash and brassy approach made her a fan favorite, leading Mike Schur to bring her back as Ben’s campaign manager.

    The Greatest Event in Television History (2012-2013)

    Reuniting with Adam Scott in his wonderfully weird Adult Swim four-part event series, Hahn first appears in Simon & Simon as “Famed Body Movement Coach," Greta Strauss. But it's the Too Close For Comfort special, in which she plays herself, that is may be the actual greatest event in television history. Trying to convince Catherine O’Hara (also playing herself) that this project isn’t a new secret Star Wars movie is comedy heaven. Not unlike Kathryn Hahn herself, opening credits have long been underappreciated.

    Transparent (2014-2019)

    It took until 2017 for Hahn to receive her first (and to date, only) Emmy nomination for her role as Rabbi Raquel Fein. In a world of self-absorbed Pfeffermans, Hahn's Rabbi Raquel was a grounding spiritual force, bringing humility and humanity to Josh (Jay Duplass) in their romantic entanglement, although she was always too good for him. Transparent ushered in a new phase of Hahn’s career, this change in dynamic is one she she described as “really satisfying, to just not be the hurricane, but the ground, the anchor."

    Happyish (2015)

    After Philip Seymour Hoffman died in 2014, Happyish was put on hold. In the original pilot Hahn played the wife of Hoffman’s advertising executive, a role that was then rewritten for Steve Coogan. Hahn was kept on as the same character, a process which she described as “very hard," though she was ultimately “grateful that we had a chance to go at it again." Struggling to balance her artist career with family life, Lee was a role she can do with her eyes closed and it was around this time it became clear that someone should cast her as the lead.

    I Love Dick (2016-2017)

    If Transparent ushered in a new era for Hahn, then working with Jill Soloway again on the movie Afternoon Delight showcased her ability to play sexual frustration and the ennui of married life. The Amazon series doubled down on this aspect of desire with Soloway calling on Hahn once again, this time in the role of seducer. In the past, she had played the sex-crazed comedic roles but there is a lot more nuance in this portrayal of a woman in control of her body and mind.

    The Romanoffs (2018)

    In one of the best episodes from the Matthew Weiner anthology series, Hahn played a woman traveling to Russia with her husband to adopt a child. That the role was imbued with less humor than earlier roles only made it stand out more for the exceptional and heartbreaking performance it is.

    Mrs. Fletcher (2019)

    When Eve Fletcher’s son goes away to college, she uses the opportunity to explore a side of her single life that she'd put on hold. Not only does it look like a hilarious adventure exploring female desire — filling a hole left by Fleabag — but each episode is directed by a woman (including Nicole Holofcener, Gillian Robespierre, and former Transparent co-star Carrie Brownstein).

    I Know This Much is True (2020)

    Sticking with an HBO miniseries, Hahn switched to a supporting role in Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of Wally Lamb’s novel. Mark Ruffalo cleaned up this award season winning the Emmy and Golden Globe for playing identical twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, but Hahn’s ability to shine even with limited screen time is evident. Playing Dominick’s ex-wife Dessa, she captures the painful shared history between the couple while offering support and empathy in this bleak family saga.

    Central Park (2020 - )

    Anyone who has watched Apple TV+’s animated musical series Central Park will immediately realize it was Hahn singing in WandaVision. Not one to be pigeonholed, the beloved actress is charming in cartoon form too. From the creators of Bob’s Burgers, the adult animation follows the Tillerman-Hunter family, who reside in Edendale Castle in New York City’s most famous park. In a star-packed cast, Hahn plays matriarch Paige Hunter, a journalist who longs for a juicy story, while also having to raise her two kids, and fend off hotel heiress Bitsy Brandenham’s (Stanley Tucci) desire to build condos in this lush green space. The adventure continues when Season 2 premieres on June 25, 2021 and has already been renewed for a third outing.

    WandaVision (2021)

    “Oh, this is gonna be a gas,” Agnes (Hahn) remarks in the first episode of WandaVision, and this line reading doubles as an assessment of Hahn’s performance. Whether dishing advice in the 1950s black-and-white set-up or leaning into the jazzercise ‘80s mom, every time Agnes entered (without knocking) it was a breath of fresh air. The Disney+ Marvel series depicting an idyllic suburban sitcom starring Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) wouldn’t be anything without a quintessential nosy neighbor and casting Hahn was a touch of genius. No matter the period or location, Hahn stole every scene and a certain theme song is equally spellbinding.

    The Shrink Next Door (2021)

    One reason why Hahn is the Queen of Peak TV is her choices reflect the current landscape; opting for an array of genres and intimate shows (and the odd blockbuster series) across various streaming and cable platforms. In this adaptation of the Wondery podcast of the same name, Hahn joins Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and Casey Wilson in this true story of a therapist who crosses the line and begins to manipulate his patients. A premiere date has yet to be announced, but look out for the dark comedy limited-series when it debuts on Apple TV+ later this year.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Kathryn Hahn, Girls, The Greatest Event in Television History, I Love Dick, Mrs. Fletcher, The Newsroom, Parks and Recreation, The Romanoffs, Transparent