‘Unstable’ star Sian Clifford shakes up Emmy race

Phoebe Waller-Bridge may have been the star of  her seminal comedy series “Fleabag” but Sian Clifford, who played Fleabag’s semi-unstable sister, Claire, proved herself an equally gifted comedic performer. Clifford has since put that status to good use in “Quiz,” “Inside No. 9,” and “See How They Run.” Now, she stars opposite Rob and John Owen Lowe in Netflix’s “Unstable.”

“Unstable,” reportedly inspired by John Owen’s trolling of his father Rob, follows the former as a son forced to work for the biological research company that his father, the latter, runs. However, the father, grieving from the recent death of his wife of 30 years, has become eccentric and erratic and is more focused on activities such as sunbathing naked in his office rather than running Dragon, his company. Clifford plays Anna, the CFO of Dragon, and she tries her hardest to protect her boss from other employees and himself. She also attempts to steer the ship in his stead but struggles to maintain sense and sensibility in the face of bizarre scenarios unfolding around her.

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The role is a natural one for Clifford and plays to her strengths — her exquisite, dry, deadpan style of delivery juxtaposes wonderfully against the more colorful brashness of Rob Lowe’s lead performance. While the Lowes’ father and son story is the heart and soul of the show, Clifford is the brains. It’s her witty performance that keeps the show from being overly sweet and schmaltzy. She gives it the bite it needs and, as such, one comes away from “Unstable” with Clifford at the forefront of one’s mind. And that is something critics have picked up on.

Angie Han (The Hollywood Reporter) observed: “Clifford is a particular standout, her clipped British pragmatism playing against the freewheeling zaniness surrounding her.”

Clint Worthington (Roger Ebert) claimed: “The supporting cast, and those glimmers of spirited banter between them, are what save ‘Unstable’ from being excruciating. Clifford’s Anna is an effective foil for all the crazies around her, especially because her true crazy is such a carefully hidden secret.”

Daniel D’Addario (Variety) wrote: “Co-stars including Sian Clifford — so wonderful as the sister of the protagonist on ‘Fleabag,’ and bringing a similar crispness to her role as Ellis’ CFO, just barely keeping him on track.”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times Tribune) explained: “In addition to the Lowes, who have a terrific, tense but loving dynamic as the effusive Ellis and the socially awkward Jackson, the standouts include Sian Clifford (‘Fleabag’) as Anna, the hilariously rigid CFO of the company.”

Clifford received similar rave reviews for her role in “Fleabag,” and that led to her landing an Emmy nomination for Best Comedy Supporting Actress in 2019 alongside co-star Olivia Colman. Both “Fleabag” actresses lost to Alex Borstein for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” but that Emmy nomination — Clifford’s sole bid to date — put her firmly in the mind of Emmy voters.

Her role in “Fleabag” was similar (ish) to this one — she is the straight-laced foil to the more overtly comedic lead character and Clifford uses that pseudo-seriousness to excellent comedic effect in both projects. That routine worked so well for Clifford in “Fleabag” that it could lead to history repeating itself here.

Currently, our predicted eight nominees for Best Comedy Supporting Actress are: Lisa Ann Walter (“Abbott Elementary”), Sarah Goldberg (“Barry”), Juno Temple (“Ted Lasso”), Borstein (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), Ayo Edebiri (“The Bear”), Janelle James (“Abbott Elementary”), Hannah Waddingham (“Ted Lasso”), and, in pole position, Sheryl Lee Ralph (“Abbott Elementary”). There are several other actresses ahead of Clifford including Cecily Strong (“Saturday Night Live”), Jessica Williams (“Shrinking”), and Jane Krakowski (“Schmigadoon”).

However, Clifford’s Emmy nomination for “Fleabag” shows that she has awards credentials already — voters like this performer and are very much willing to nominate her for the right project. Several of those aforementioned actresses, such as Walter, Edibiri, and Williams have never been nominated for an Emmy. They are, in awards terms, unproven performers.

Conversely, some of those actresses have won Emmys recently, like Ralph (last year), Waddingham (2021), and Borstein (2019) while Goldberg, Temple, James, and Strong were all recently nominated. They are all contending again this year for the same performance in the same show — maybe voters are done with rewarding these performances and are looking for something new.

That’s where it would benefit Clifford — as a past Emmy nominee, she’s familiar to them, but with her performance in the new TV show “Unstable,” she offers something new, too. She is the only performer to offer this combination of familiarity and freshness, and it could give her a fighting chance for a follow-up nomination after her “Fleabag” flourish.

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