Tyler James Williams, Everybody Hates Chris, UPN
He was a regular on Sesame Street and is the voice of Bobby on Bill Cosby's Little Bill. He has turned in memorable guest roles on dramas like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and has popped up in more commercials than he can count. And he's only 12.

Tyler James Williams beat out thousands of kids to win the coveted task of playing Chris Rock before he was Chris Rock. In Everybody Hates Chris, Williams is the young Rock, the eldest of three children residing in Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1980s. Transplanted to a tough new neighborhood and shipped off to a mostly white junior high, Chris labors to fit in somewhere but never quite does - not even at home, where he's forced to keep his brother and sister in check.

Williams, whose round face exhibits a certain sweetness and vulnerability that can shift on a dime, is able to put a distinct, funny spin on the everyday trials and tribulations of a kid who'll one day be considered the funniest man in America. Sounds like pressure.

But Williams is up to the challenge. When he delivers a threat to a bully — “I’ll beat your butt so bad, you’ll need crutches in your sleep” — the line arrives with a nice mixture of confidence and dread. Makes you wonder if this kid could actually become Chris Rock one day.

Jason LeeMy Name Is Earl, NBC
Few actors pull off lovable cynicism — if there is such a thing — better than Jason Lee. The 35-year-old former skateboard champion has always treated the acting profession as just another thing he’s fallen into and decided to hang around while it’s still kind of cool. This just-seeing-what-happens quality keeps him, and the characters he plays, rooted in a sort of relatable reality. It serves him well in My Name Is Earl, one of the few new comedies thinking outside the genre’s too-cushy formula.

Lee plays the titular Earl, a loser who’s convinced bad karma is to blame for his terrible existence. He decides to shift fate by making a list of all the bad stuff he’s done and making amends, one episode at a time. It’s the perfect part for Lee. Those who have seen him in Chasing Amy, Mallrats, Mi Vida Loca, Dogma, Almost Famous, Mumford, and A Guy Thing — okay, he’s not exactly new to this profession, but he is new to television — know of his knack for instilling in characters, no matter how pitiful, a certain kind of generosity that makes them appealing and utterly watchable.

The streak continues with Earl. As Earl, Lee conveys hard-edged innocence — if, again, there is such a thing — with an emotional and physical candor that belies his casual attitude toward his vocation. To try to explain Lee, you have to make it up on the fly. Kind of like his rising career.