The 50 Best TV Performances of 2017

This has been an incredible year for TV, and of course one of the biggest reasons for that are the wealth of exceptional actors in wonderful roles. Sometimes the roles aren’t even that good, but a great actor will make it their own anyway. Chris Cabin and I both came up with a list of 25 actors (removing overlaps and adding back others from our huge lists) that we felt really stood out in this wonderfully crowded TV cycle.

There are lots of leading ladies and leading men in my picks: Claire Foy again does more with a moment of silent hesitation than anyone else could dream to in The Crown; Elisabeth Moss was devastating in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Kyle MacLachlan played three distinct versions of one character for Twin Peaks: The Return. But there are also many who stole the show: Louie Anderson, again, in Baskets; Rufus Sewell in a soulful Victoria role; Paula Malcolmson, who gave her character a beautifully real swan song; Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose Fargo character would have deserved a spinoff.

Image via FX

2017 also brought us some potent villains, from Jack Farthing as the deliciously dastardly George Warleggen in Poldark to Josh Segarra‘s character Prometheus essentially single-handedly saving Arrow Season 5. Other actors stood out by embodying a role so completely that they changed the course of that character’s fate, like Joe Keery in Stranger Things, or how despite the choppy mess that was The Defenders, Krysten Ritter continues to shine as the most consistent of the heroes. And this is all to say nothing of the deeply emotional and revelatory performances we got from Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce.

Below, you’ll find Chris’ summary of his picks, along with our full list of the 50 best actors (unranked). My 25 picks are only a fraction of the amazing performances we saw this year, so add some of your favorites in the comments as well, and lets celebrate the positives of Peak TV with how many great roles there are for so many talented performers. – Allison Keene

Auteur TV moved into a new phase in 2017, and that’s thanks mostly to two shows: Twin Peaks: The Return and She’s Gotta Have It. The familiar storytelling pathways that dictate approximately 88% of narrative and reality programs were discarded for more personal stories and vast, complex, and unpredictable world-building. This audacity and disinterest in referring to a playbook that wasn’t their own came through strongest in images and language, but it also made for some of the most electrifying performances of the year in TV or film, for that matter.

Image via Sundance

This came out most noticeably in two legendary actresses of the big screen: Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman. Both of them expertly exposed the inner-workings of privileged white women in two very different households in Big Little Lies but found their vulnerable spots hiding behind steel-clothed wills. And that wasn’t all. Dern blew the doors off the place as the immediately iconic Diane in Twin Peaks, the love of one of Dale Cooper’s lives, complete with red wigs, ominous texts, blunt cursing, and innumerable cigarettes. And in the wildly undervalued second season of Top of the Lake, Kidman made a troubled mother into a complex creature of desire and wealth, elegantly balancing a well-honed wisdom with pomposity and passion that has demolished her daughter’s view of her as a mother and a wife.

Not surprisingly, it was women who were willing to swing for the fences more regularly than their male counterparts this year in TV. DeWanda Wise expressed the inner bedlam of being young, black, and female in the Republic of Brooklyn with striking empathy and ribald humor throughout She’s Gotta Have It, while Rachel Bloom outdid herself once again in exploring a woman undone by her desires as an apt musical premise in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s excellent third season. Claire Foy continued to communicate as sharply with a raised eyebrow or an elongated gaze as she does with Peter Morgan‘s unerringly involving dialogue in The Crown. The Deuce delivered a bevy of brilliant female performances from the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Margarita Levieva, Pernell Walker, and Emily Mead, but no performer so effortlessly illuminated the plight of sex workers than Dominique Fishback as Darlene. Merritt Weaver of Godless, Betty Gilpin of GLOW, Ruth Negga of Preacher, Yvonne Orji of Insecure, and Reese Witherspoon of Big Little Lies all similarly stuck out in imposingly talented and varied casts, whereas Rachel Brosnahan finally came into her own as a bonafide leading lady in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

This isn’t to say that their male counterparts were slouching. Ted Danson was funnier, more electric, and more surprisingly soulful than he’s ever been in The Good Place‘s ecstatically ingenious second season, while Jimmy Tatro gave what may be the breakout comic performance of the year in American Vandal as an idiot high-schooler at the center of a dick-centric controversy. Though in far more grim terrain, Jon Bernthal‘s take on Frank Castle in Netflix’s The Punisher employed a level of empathy for Castle and discarded, damaged veterans in general that made the inner conflicts of the vigilante all the more effective and ultimately tragic. The work done by David Lynch, Kyle MacLachlan, Harry Dean Stanton, and Miguel Ferrer in Twin Peaks surpasses the confines of categorization, and in turn offered unexpected delights in speech and physicality.

Image via FX

MacLachlan deserves extra points for portraying a great villain in Mr. C, as well as Dougie Jones and Dale Cooper, and there were plenty of other great villains. Aubrey Plaza‘s Lenny tore up the screen in a variety of guises in a similar way that Noah Hawley did with his imagery in the astonishing first season of Legion. Hawley went for two in the creation of V.M. Varga, the bulimic, insufferable, and strangely eloquent liquidator in Fargo, played menacingly by the great David Thewlis. And American Gods laid out a platter of deliciously malevolent performances from the likes of Ian McShane, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, Peter Stormare, and Pablo Schreiber.

There were heroes in Bryan Fuller‘s latest near-masterwork as well, in Ricky Whittle‘s Shadow Moon and Orlando Jones‘ scene-stealing Mr. Nancy, and there were men of courage elsewhere. That goes as much for romance as for government intrigue, with Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim beautifully and hysterically playing the roles of would-be white knights in the former sense in Master of None. Jonathan Groff rightly gets a lot of the credit for his work in Mindhunter, but the soul of the show belongs to longtime character actor Holt McCallanny as his older, more mentally and emotionally bruised partner. TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe made for potently conflicted U.S. Marshal trying to get a high-stakes witness settled into life in the Witness Protection Program in The Girlfriend Experience, looking after the former live-in lover of a drug kingpin, played by the equally enlivening Carmen Ejogo.

A performance like Matt Smith‘s in The Crown splits the difference between good and bad, between self-indulgent and loving loyalty, and he made the character of Philip all the more galvanizing in doing so. Indeed, the more difficult it is to judge the morals of a character as cleanly positive or negative, the better. The most stirring example of this would have to be Pamela Adlon‘s instinctive, uproarious, and devastating performance as Sam, a version of herself, in the indispensable Better Things, and she’s certainly not the only one or the last one. As more complex and audacious projects begin to hit the small screen, there’s sure to be just as many defiant performances (if not more) in 2018’s TV roster. See you then! –  Chris Cabin

For more of the Best of 2017, check out Allison Keene’s top 25 TV shows of the year, Chris Cabin’s top 25, Dave Trumbore’s list of the best new animated series, Emma Fraser’s look at the best songs on TV, and Evan Valentine’s ranking of the year’s superhero TV.

The List

Image via FX

Louie AndersonBaskets

Dan StevensLegion

Alison TolmanDownward Dog

Krysten RitterThe Defenders

Paul Bettany - Manhunt: Unabomber

Kyle MacLachlan - Twin Peaks

Elisabeth Moss - The Handmaid’s Tale

Rufus SewellVictoria

Paula MalcolmsonRay Donovan

Maggie Gyllenhaal - The Deuce

Peter Serafinowicz - The Tick

Nicole KidmanBig Little Lies

Vera Farmiga - Bates Motel

Sam RichardsonDetroiters

Michael K Williams - Hap and Leonard

Jessica LangeFeud

Mary Elizabeth Winstead - Fargo

Bob OdenkirkBetter Call Saul

Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Veep

Image via The CW

Josh Segarra - Arrow

Joe KeeryStranger Things

Jonathan Groff - Mindhunter

Sarah GadonAlias Grace

Jack FarthingPoldark

Claire FoyThe Crown

Eric WareheimMaster of None

Marque RichardsonDear White People

Holt McCallanyMindhunter

Yvonne OrjiInsecure

Maisie WilliamsGame of Thrones

Gwendoline ChristieTop of the Lake: China Girl

Tunde AdebimpeThe Girlfriend Experience

Dominique FishbackThe Deuce

Ian McShaneAmerican Gods

Pamela AdlonBetter Things

Lena DunhamGirls

Jimmy TatroAmerican Vandal

Betty Gilpin – GLOW

Ruth NeggaPreacher

Aubrey PlazaLegion & Easy

Image via Netflix

Matt SmithThe Crown

Ted DansonThe Good Place

Merritt WeaverGodless

Jon BernthalThe Punisher

David LynchTwin Peaks

Keegan-Michael KeyFriends from College

David ThewlisFargo

DeWanda WiseShe’s Gotta Have It

Reese WitherspoonBig Little Lies

For all of Collider’s Best of 2017 content, click here, or peruse our recent links below:

Image via HBO

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