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Performer of the Month - Readers’ and Staff Choice Most Outstanding Performer of September - Oliver Stark

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The article was written by Ellys Cartin, Aimee Hicks, Donna Cromeans, Beth Whitley, and Jessica VanWinkle. Article edited by Donna Cromeans (@DJRiter). Article prepared for publication by Aimee Hicks.

9-1-1 swooped into its third season with a trifecta of gripping episodes that kept viewers on the edge of their seats. Tremendous work was required from everyone behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera to create the terrifying atmosphere of a natural disaster as first responders worked against the clock to save as many lives as they could. All that work could have fallen flat without the keystone performance of Oliver Stark as Evan “Buck” Buckley. Stark’s first episodes on the show were playing a decidedly different version of the character, but viewers have been forever grateful that someone promptly realized that Stark was capable of much more. He’s taken Buck through every trial on the books, wading through heartbreak and literal fire, to shape him into one of TV’s most well-rounded heroes. Every saucy attitude, every strong hug, every roar of bravery ...nothing is wasted by Stark who builds each performance on the one before it, crafting a fully realized protagonist with all the flaws and determination and spirit of any actual person. It’s no wonder this season begins by confidently tossing Buck into a flooded hell on earth while he’s at his most vulnerable. Stark might play one of TV’s most beloved characters, but he would never rest on those laurels. In the opening episodes of the third season, Stark gives a fearless performance as Buck faces off against a nightmarish force with overwhelming potential consequences. It is his performances in those first episodes that has earned him the honor of being only the second performer in SpoilerTV history to be named Performer of the Month (for the month of September) by both the readers and staff of the website. The article below takes a look at his work in both episodes.

Season three picks up Buck’s story as he is completing his recovery from his most recent disheartening breakup and an unrelated yet horrific attack that required months of rehabilitation. As he tears off his mask to face the results of his recertification test, Stark quickly replaces the tense exertion on his face with a strongly impatient plea to hear the results. He learns that he passed with flying colors., He’s eagerly shaking the instructor’s hand before he’s even standing upright. Stark carries that glee into Buck’s surprise party. He lets Buck’s reaction to his friends’ cheers be startled for a second longer than is comfortable before moving on to ham it up with joyous hugs for his squad members. In fact, Buck ricochets between Eddie (Ryan Guzman) and Bobby (Peter Krause) with those hugs, as if he simply cannot contain his energy. He does apply the brakes in the first interaction with Christopher (Gavin McHugh). Eddie’s son has a gift for Buck, a homemade card, and Buck automatically is on eye level to examine it. He lightly jokes about the surfboard illustration on the front as he glows while looking over the card. Stark effuses Buck’s emotions here, that he’s charmed and delighted to have received the personalized gift, with a glow that warms the entire scene more than words could. When Buck reads the card aloud, he nearly chokes up at the end, and his thank you is much calmer, as if the card has reminded Buck of how close he came to losing everything and all these people that matter so much to him. His mood is more subdued in the interactions that follow, but he has a lighthearted remark for everyone. At moments, Stark has Buck respond almost too late to someone, sending out faint distress signals. The triumph and vigor are just about gone when Bobby circles back to Buck who gets serious with his captain. He thanks Bobby for his support throughout the ordeal, unconsciously pressing his hand against his chest once or twice during the conversation. Stark lets those emotional confessions out while Buck is inhaling and trying to compress all those pesky lumps in his throat. Buck starts to cough, and he backs away politely trying to cover up the coughs. Even as he’s hacking up blood, his primary concern is not worrying his family and friends.

Awake in the hospital, Buck downplays his condition, an approach that at first seems to be directed at reassuring his sister Maddie (Jennifer Love Hewitt). He even tosses a proud smile toward her and her boyfriend Chimney (Kenneth Choi) when the doctor says Buck was lucky to have his pulmonary embolism around professionals. When the doctor asks if Buck’s latest health issue showed no warning signs, Stark drops a weight across his character’s expression. For the first time, Buck is worried. He avoids eye contact with Maddie and tells the doctor he thought he pulled a muscle training, but he sneaks a quick glance into her displeased face when the doctor leaves. Buck turns his head away with a clear demeanor of guilt, but Maddie walks around the bed to confront him. He sees her on the border of distress yet flinches when she reprimands him for not taking better care of himself. His casual attitude gives way to horror when she reveals the details of how he passed out, details he didn’t remember. As Stark has Buck go still at this news, it shows just how scared he is of what this could mean. His fear here is a baseline for the stretches of terror Stark will extend himself to reach later in these episodes.

Playing a first responder is an incredibly daunting task; one must show the courage, pride, and grit that such a position requires. Stark is particularly good at translating the value that Buck both places on and embodies in carrying out his duties. When informed that he can come back to the house under light-duty, Stark has seconds to deliver Buck’s reaction. He stares back at Bobby with disbelief and hurt in his eyes, protesting as soon as he can form the words. Under those emotions, you see his anger at being doubted, at being benched. His reaction forms a sharp contrast to the Buck seen moments earlier, the one contentedly walking alongside Bobby and sharing the details of his condition. Buck’s passion for the job that is much more than that to him spills out as he talks about fighting to recover and get back on the team. Stark shows how Buck is put through the wringer, and that lends conviction to his decision to quit and walk away. Towards the end of his conversation with Bobby, Buck looks at his captain with indignation, but his eyes briefly plead for a shred of empathy that Bobby stoically refuses to give. The lack of response shuts off most of the fight in Buck, and Stark lets you watch the betrayal etch its way across his face.

While much of acting is in the spoken word, what hits an audience the deepest is often the non-verbal moments. Stark’s next scene lets him offset Buck’s misery with some great humor. The way Buck repeatedly pulls the covers back over his head is universally recognizable as the sulks. He storms down the stairs with all the petulance of a teenager, trying to keep up his negative tone to resist his friend’s friendly scolding. To actively ignore Eddie, Stark has Buck rummage among and inspect different piles of empty Chinese food containers as if that pointless analysis is worthy of undivided attention. The next part has to make you smile, because Buck’s depressed performance fades immediately when he sees Christopher, as if it’s impossible to resist being his best self around his younger friend. There is something special that happens when Stark and McHugh share a scene and it is seen here. Stark flawlessly flips the switch, turning over from sad and despondent to cool and energetic. He doesn’t want Christopher to see him struggling, yet he’s also happy to see Christopher and spend time with him. Stark shows you these emotional collisions with a sudden tension in his face, as if Buck might be about to cry, effectively striking another deep blow to viewer’s hearts.

There is a saying about wisdom from the mouths of babes, which rings so true at the end of the wonderful sequence of short scenes of Buck and Christopher spending the day at the pier. Buck is soon caught up in Christopher’s enthusiasm, and he is soon visibly relaxed, joking with Christopher about rides, eating cotton candy and investing in the challenge of winning a stuffed bear. Buck is distracted by a nearby EMS call, and the longing to be with them overcomes Stark’s expressive face. Viewers know Buck to be a protector who needs to be at the front of any rescue effort to feel he is doing his best. He doesn’t hear Christopher joyfully calling for him at first, a casualty of his preoccupation. When Buck finally does reach over to heft the large plush bear onto his shoulder, he’s still looking over wistfully at the paramedics. Christopher notices and, with concern in his voice, asks Buck if he’s okay. Buck’s prompt, wry response is wonderful in that it demonstrates how his friendship with Christopher is built on mutual respect and adoration. He doesn’t feel the need to disguise what he’s feeling and pretend he’s alright because he recognizes that Christopher is sensitive to the truth, more likely than an adult to speak up when someone is in need.

That is clearly illustrated in the highlight of this sequence, the duo’s quiet heart-to-heart on the edge of the pier, even as they sit there and talk. As Christopher talks to him openly and honestly and with child-like wisdom that seems to reach Buck, Stark has Buck be ever the protector by holding the back of Christopher’s shirt tightly in his fist as the child looks out over the water. For Christopher life is simple. If he can’t be what he wants (an astronaut or a pirate) then he just chooses something else he wants to be. McHugh is especially effective here, displaying enormous depths of child-like wisdom beyond his years, as he looks Buck in the eye and tells him, “You’re gonna be okay kid.” Through Stark’s demeanor and slight shake of his head you see the moment when it all makes sense to him, out of the mouths of babes. A calmer, at peace Buck turns to pick Christopher up, his features relaxed and happy. And with just the most subtle of movements Stark shows Buck realizing that life also has a way of reminding you to cherish each moment. His face goes from revelation to terror as he realizes that life is about to reach out and smack at the world again in the form of the tsunami racing toward the pier.

As soon as Buck realizes the wave is going to crash over the pier and they are all in danger, he jumps into action, throwing Christopher over his shoulder and runs while screaming for everyone to get off the pier. Stark is single-handedly responsible for conveying the urgency of the danger. For all the frightened crowds and fearsome effects, nothing would hit the target if he wasn’t authenticating the peril with his performance. Buck throws Christopher into a booth and then jumps in himself for cover right before the wave hits. Buck is seen fighting the water before finally breaking the surface. Stark sells the danger here, pulling against the force of the water that would drag him back under. A string of lights gives him a handhold, and he calls for Christopher again and again as the raging flood batters his body with debris and the force of its own pressure. One simply cannot look away as he makes eye contact with Christopher and shouts for his friend to stay put, only for the water to whisk him past Christopher. When Christopher loses his grip, he goes tumbling into the water. Buck jumps in to catch him before the waves sweep him inland. He does save him, and Buck gasps for air even as he instinctively shelters Christopher’s head to protect him. The amount of adrenaline in this scene all filters through Stark whose soothing reassurances that they are going to be okay even as Buck races to lift Christopher to safety remind viewers what a versatile actor he is.

Once Christopher is safe, Buck finds himself torn. He wants to protect Christopher at all costs, but he also can’t deny his responsibility to rescue other people. This scene starts out with a breathing moment of levity. As Buck shelters Christopher, the youngster (McHugh has perfect timing) quips that he took surfing lessons, so he’ll be alright. Buck hears someone calling out in distress, but he repeatedly makes sure Christopher feels safe and understands to stay put before going to rescue the woman. On the way to rescue her, Buck climbs on a car with a man trapped inside begging for help. Buck pauses to look directly into the man’s eyes and calmly promises to come back to save him too. His demeanor when rescuing a woman shifts from reassurances to commands. He exhorts her to let go and let herself be carried towards the fire hose he has rigged for her to grab. Once he has her within his reach, Buck takes on more of a coaching attitude, telling the woman repeatedly that she’s doing great. He gets her on the truck with Christopher and makes sure she’s strong enough to watch over him, while Buck turns back towards the flood. There’s a mass of people swimming towards them. He reaches for the hose and pulls himself out to save them too. Throughout the scene, Buck goes back and forth between his two duties, and Stark shows the tremendous strength of mind and body that Buck is exhausting to keep as many safe as he can.

Scenes with children can fall flat when compared to scenes where adult actors interact with other adults. This is often due to a lack of rapport and equal footing between the older and younger actor. Stark is one of the rare cases where he has built a genuine friendship with McHugh. When they share scenes it’s clear that these two truly do like each other and Stark seems as protective over McHugh as Buck is over Christopher. That meant that the last scene on top of the fire truck impacted viewers fiercely because the worry for Christopher from Buck had that layer of honesty. Both Christopher and Buck try to raise each other’s spirits with each commending the other for their perseverance and fortitude. Stark kept his tone gentle when Buck was talking to Christopher, but once the dead bodies started to float by the audience could feel the energy coming from Buck shift. He managed to keep calm for Christopher, but the audience felt Buck’s anxiety as he shielded his young charge from all the horror around them. He put laughter into his voice, turned Christopher away from the death, and started a game to distract him. Even as Christopher plays along, Buck looks over the boy’s shoulder with a glance full of terrible chills at the scope of tragedy he is witnessing. That he was able to convey two strong messages like this was a great example of the incredible range Stark has in his professional arsenal.

The final scene of the episode is difficult to watch, largely because of how raw Stark’s performance is. Viewers, Buck and Christopher are all briefly lulled into security by the stillness. Relief is seeping from Buck when he exchanges multiple high-fives with Christopher, both too weary to lift their arms with any real force. Buck pulls Christopher in for another hug, and Christopher pats Buck’s back. They are exhausted but clinging together with what little strength they have left. McHugh matches Stark step-for-step here in how they both perfectly convey their characters’ relief. Their situation is dire, but they don’t show any fear because together they are going to be okay. When the wave recedes, Buck’s first thought is to again encircle Christopher and take care to keep him out of harm’s way. He is using his own weight to make sure they both stay anchored to the truck, but he sees other people being washed towards the truck. He hears them calling for help. In a moment, his instincts as a first responder kick in, and he sprawls across the truck to reach out his hand to one of the swimmers. In an instant, Christopher is gone and all sense of calm leaves Buck. The tension Stark was feeding into Buck explodes into such a massive blast of fear that it tears through viewers simultaneously. Without hesitation, Buck plunges into the water after Christopher. Stark’s voice cracked with emotion as he screamed for Christopher. Gone was the first responder efficiently calculating a solution. The dreadful panic and guttural fright in Stark’s voice made the cataclysm feel a million times more monstrous than it had up to that point. As those screams tore from Stark’s throat, he changed this disaster from an episodic crisis to something that will haunt viewers and Buck forever.

Stark’s work in these episodes resulted in a truly unique situation where he earned Performer of the Month for two separate episodes. Our staff nominated him for Kids Today (3x1) while our readers nominated him for Sink or Swim (3x2). What Stark does with Buck in these episodes not only sets up the powerful conclusion in The Searchers (3x3) of Buck’s efforts to protect Christopher but also reverberates through the remainder of the season. It is not uncommon for events at the beginning of the season to have lasting consequences, but it is much rarer for an actor to let those events profoundly affect their character and alter their performance accordingly. Stark is a present tense actor, one whose electricity in all his scenes grants them a real-time connotation that gives viewers a thrilling emotional punch. His character might as well be a real person, because there is nothing artificial in Stark’s performances, and that sincerity makes the character irresistible. This is the sort of performance, the creation of a character destined to be iconic, that defines a career. It is also the sort of performance that has earned Stark our Readers’ Choice for Outstanding Performer of the Month and our Staff Choice for Outstanding Performer of the Month for September.

Share your thoughts on Oliver Stark’s performance in the comments below.

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