One of the joys of looking back at all of the TV of the past year (an insane amount of TV, really), is getting to celebrate some of the best of the best. Living in the Peak TV era means that there is plenty to consume, but also that there’s more great television than ever before. And long after you’ve finished a series, what usually stays in your mind is not a certain visual cue or turn of phrase — although it can! — but the work of a certain actor, and how they made you feel and experience that show. Excellent actors can elevate even mediocre productions, or manage to stand out even in a show crowded with talent.
As for this list, well, there are so many more who also deserve to be mentioned. Again, this is about celebrating some truly outstanding performances. Many are obvious, some may be less so, and this is of course just my own selection based on the percentage of series I was able to consume this year (a seriously unhealthy amount, and yet, there are still omissions).
Like with all year-end TV lists, I aim to be celebratory and informative, so below are some of my favorite and most note-worthy performances of the year, with just a few words to describe each of them (there are no spoilers). Let us know some of your favorites in the comments, and also be sure to check out the Best TV Episodes and the 25 Best TV Shows of the Year, Ranked:
Taylor Kitsch (Waco)
Despite a fantastic cast, this David Koresh-focused miniseries on the Paramount Network was just ok. Kitsch, however, gave his body and soul (seemingly quite literally) to the production, and it paid off by convincing me I would join any cult he asked me to be in.
Rufus Sewell (Victoria)
Sometimes a character who isn’t a lead can steal the show and every scene they are in, and that was certainly true of Sewell’s Lord M, a close friend and confidant of Victoria. They were probably in love, at least in this telling, though could never express it in any real way. Though that faded some once she met Albert, they kept a connection and a chemistry together that was exceptionally powerful. Sewell is devastating as Lord M, and ended his run on the series with one of the most powerful scenes of the year.
J.K. Simmons (Counterpart)
Simmons plays two characters in this series who may look exactly the same but who act completely differently. Yet beyond making them distinct to start, these character then have to act like one another, and end up taking on some of their counterpart’s traits while remaining distinct. It’s a masterclass performance.
Shoshannah Stern (This Close)
Stern, who is deaf, co-created and stars in this SundanceNow gem, portraying a woman who others define by her deafness, but doesn’t see herself that way. Stern’s character isn’t meant to be an example or a saint, and that realness makes the show incredibly grounded and affecting. Stern herself is absolutely exceptional in it.
Bill Hader (Barry)
In this series, Bill Hader’s character isn’t funny, which it turns out is hilarious. His character is essential devoid of emotions (he has to be), but when they do come out it is utterly devastating. He’s a cold, calculating killer who inadvertently finds himself and his purpose in am-dram, and that transformation is incredible to watch, thanks especially to moments Hader allows Barry to really feel. The emotional depths eclipse even the heights of surprising humor. He will break your heart.
Jimmi Simpson, Marcc Rose (Unsolved)
The star of a biopic doesn’t have to look exactly like the subject to make the transformation work, although Rose does bear an uncanny resemblance to Tupac Shakur. But more than that, he really embodies the famed rapper in a quietly knowable way. On the other side, Simpson is wonderfully compelling and eccentric as a detective tasked with solving Tupac’s murder. Though the overall production was pretty uneven, these two actors were absolute stand-outs.
Donald Glover (Atlanta)
I mean, two words: Teddy Perkins. Glover is always great as the often-failing straight man in this surrealistic series, but the creation of Teddy Perkins and Glover’s portrayal of him with the prosthetics and makeup and that voice was something else entirely. “No, you can’t!!”
James Purefoy, Michael K. Williams (Hap and Leonard)
Hap and Leonard lives and dies on the relationship between its leads, which Williams and Purefoy play fantastically well. They are like brothers, they give each other a hard time, they love each other, and they fight. But it’s beyond what the script calls for — both men make you believe in this friendship, one that withstands everything. It’s easy to see how, in their lowest moments, they will always rely on one another. And yet, it’s also a message that’s clear in the warmth and low-key hilarity they exude during their lighter scenes as well.
Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones)
Ritter has always been a shining star of Netflix’s Marvel experiment, playing the damaged, hard-drinking, tough, yet vulnerable detective (who also happens to be extremely strong). She made Jessica her own, making us never want to turn away from the series even when the episodes wandered or the seasons went on for too long. Ritter carries this series on her back, and is so charming and luminous that no one else in the cast can, perhaps regrettably, dare to compare.
Jodie Comer, Sandra Oh (Killing Eve)
What makes Killing Eve work is not just Oh’s strength as Eve, which is immense and wonderfully funny to watch, but Comer as the beguiling Villanelle. Every great hero needs a great villain, and the dance between these two women is exceptional as their obsessions grow. Comer maybe also gave the weirdest performance on TV this year, making choices you would never expect and then making them work so expertly that you could never seen it happening another way. Oh and Comer gave this series something truly special, and are such a joy to watch.
Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel)
Not everyone can handle Amy Sherman-Palladino’s quick-step writing at the speed and dramatic intensity with which it is intended, but true to her character, Brosnahan does so with aplomb. In her hands, Midge is never cartoonish (which she easily could be) or a caricature of herself. She’s incredibly charming, but also warm and obviously funny. She doesn’t just spit out all of that dialogue with the hope of getting it done in time, she gives it feeling and depth and exceptional emotional range. Everything Midge does is worth watching because Brosnahan is always worth watching. She’s marvelous indeed.
Louis Anderson (Baskets)
As I’ve written about every year that I’ve listed out the best TV performers, Anderson’s turn as California mom Christine Baskets is one of the most genuine on television. Donning a wig and playing a Costco-loving mother has never been a joke or a gag; Anderson really embodies Christine first as an exasperated matriarch, and eventually as a woman looking for love and purpose. Seeing the pathos and beauty of that has caused the series to, rightfully, pivot more towards Christine’s story as it continues, leaving the slapstick to star Zach Galifianakis. Anderson, who has spoken before about channeling his own mother to some extent, really does the best work of her career in this weird and wonderful show.
Patricia Arquette (Escape at Dannemora)
Dannemora is defined by great performances, but none are as immediately iconic as Arquette’s Tilly Mitchell. Tilly is crass and trashy, easily offended, and not particularly smart. She allows herself to have an infatuation with two inmates and has no patience for her sweet, dopey husband (Eric Lange, who steals his scenes), and becomes exceptionally surly at any implications of wrongdoing. Tilly is a mess, but it’s clear Arquette never judges her. She just plays her as she is, which makes it all even worse — and by that I mean better. It’s so cringey in the best of ways, familiar and yet horrifying all at once. Arquette has outdone herself here.
Hayley Atwell (Howards End)
Sometimes an actor just bursts forth on the screen with such warmth and charm and charisma that you fall in love with them immediately. That’s how Atwell is in most things she stars in, but perhaps most particularly in this lovely and thought-provoking Starz miniseries. The snappy dialogue is at its best in her hands, and her handling of Helen’s story makes the end a tragic experience (if only because I want more).
Jared Harris (The Terror)
The Terror is stocked with an outstanding cast from top to bottom, but the story ultimately belongs to Harris’ Crozier. Crozier’s arc is a micro-version of everything else happening in this horror tale, attempting to control the chaos within himself, and ultimately, among his men. Ultimately, while he does master himself he is unable to do the same for the darkness that haunts this doomed voyage. But in taking us on that personal journey that becomes one of larger consequence, Harris absolutely dazzles in the cold, grey environment.
Dawn Lyen-Gardner (Queen Sugar)
Throughout all of the drama that Queen Sugar brings, Lyen-Gardner remains its lynchpin. Her story (returning home in chaos, taking on a life she never expected to, sacrificing everything to represent her town and then seemingly selling them out to the villains only to scheme her way back to power) has been enthralling to watch. Charley isn’t always an easy person to like, but Lyen-Gardner makes he impossible not to watch. She’s flawed and knowable, she has the best intentions but things rarely work out like she plans. Lyen-Gardner makes Charley so compelling that we root for her no matter what — even, sometimes, against her own family.
Emma Stone (Maniac)
I wanted to love Maniac and didn’t, but one part of the series that really worked for me was Emma Stone, who played each of her parts with verve and gusto. She also happened to get the far more compelling story of the two leads, but made it truly great by balancing its darkness and sadness with some levity, always exuding genuine emotions and seeming at least like she was having a blast tripping through the show’s dream worlds. That made it fun for viewers, too.
Sam Richardson, Tim Robinson (Detroiters)
The only thing better than the on-screen friendship between Sam and Tim is the off-screen friendship between the real Sam and Tim, who co-created this excellent, overlooked series and are indeed real-life besties. That rapport translates to their characters, as they are able to create a shorthand that allows for a (rare) genuine portrayal of male friendship, as well as some truly hilarious moments. Whether they are on the same page or on wildly different ones, both actors toe a perfect line between cringe and comedy, snark and sincerity. Truly one of the best comedy duos on TV.
Keeley Hawes (The Durrells in Corfu)
You thought I might pick Keeley Hawes for Bodyguard, but nay! Though she is great in that series, she is outstanding in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu. The series follows an English family in the 1930s who decides to start life over in Greece, and it’s incredibly wry. Hawes in particular is fantastic as the widowed family matriarch who is always open to love, and yet, even more often betrayed by it. She adores her children but is also wonderfully out of touch with them, which she only mildly frets over. Mainly, she’s just exceptionally charming and very, very funny in the most subtle of ways. Her looks and turns of phrase are just perfect, and in this season’s emotional finale, she was heartbreaking in a way that truly stays with you.
Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Zahn McClarnon (Westworld)
So this is one of my most egregious combinations and I will make no apologies. Each of these actors succeeded in being excellent in very different ways: Wright kept all of the Bernards and Arnolds clear in his portrayals, even though it took awhile for us to piece the narrative together; Newton remained the show’s most compelling actor, making us deeply invested in Maeve’s story, and taking us to wonderful new places in the park and in her own mind; McClarnon made a lasting impression in one of the best episodes of the year, based totally on the strength of his devastating performance as a robot slowly waking up to the truth. Westworld may have its issues, but it is not with any of these fine actors.
Carrie Coon (The Sinner)
It’s Carrie Coon, of course she’s on this list! The Sinner is quietly a really good series, friends, and Coon of course stole the whole show this season as a woman who seems to be at the mercy of a cult, but is soon revealed to be an integral part of sustaining it. Is it for good, or ill? The series is always exploring the difficult truths behind seemingly inexplicable events, but nothing in the exploration of the opening murder is as engrossing as Coon’s changing portrayal of a mysterious and deeply layered woman whose desire for personal discovery makes her capable of almost anything.
Betty Gilpin (GLOW)
Everyone who watches GLOW has commented on how Betty Gilpin has seemed to come out of nowhere, which really means, how can such an outstanding talent have been buried for this long? I can’t speak to that, but I can speak to the fact that Gilpin brings something really special to this series. She’s outlandish but never a cartoon, she’s hard to like but impossible not to root for, and in this new season — as she forges forth in creating a path into the business of GLOW — she’s resented by both the men and the women but remains a hero. Gilpin is just so natural in the role that, despite the show’s crazier moments, she always makes Debbie’s challenges feel absolutely real.
Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell (The Americans)
This is the best couple on TV, in a show that is all about whether a marriage can save the world. If any can, it’s this one, and the two actors have been put through some incredible emotional wringers over the years to show us that in exceptionally nuanced detail. In its final season, though, The Americans put the Jennings at odds to start things off, challenging them in ways we haven’t before seen. Rhys and Russell have shown us outstanding work each and every season, sometimes with one character shining a little more than the other in the narrative, but in these final episodes, they were total equals. So much was conveyed in the smallest moments, from just a horrified look out of a train window to a smile while line-dancing.
Richard Madden (Bodyguard)
The first fifteen minutes of Bodyguard will explain this pick, but so will the last 15 minutes and really any other 15 minutes in between. Richard Madden makes a strong case for himself as an action star here, but also adds exceptional nuance to his performance, as his character suffers from PTSD and yet is the most grounded of anyone around him. He has demons, and can be extremely emotionally vulnerable, but you never doubt his professionalism or his courage. It’s a fascinating portrayal, and a clearly exhausting one, but it’s what makes Bodyguard such an anxiety-inducing thrill ride.
Amy Adams (Sharp Objects)
One of the stickiest, most uncomfortable (and enthralling) series of the year also featured a powerhouse performance by Amy Adams, as a deeply damaged reporter returning to the town and family that damaged her. Her portrayal of a back-and-forth of resentment alongside a desire to be loved and accepted (in the face of continuous rejection) was one of the most potent and disturbing on TV this year.
Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Jonathan Banks (Better Call Saul)
Odenkirk is magnificent as Saul, and has carried this series on his back since it first began. But the heart of the show belongs to Seehorn, and this year, its soul belonged to Banks. Each character faced difficult truths throughout this latest season, giving them new shading and exploring other facets of their personalities — often in dark ways. And most did their best work alone, although the final scene with Kim and Jimmy will haunt me for a long time.
Elizabeth Olsen (Sorry for Your Loss)
Facebook’s quietly beautiful series Sorry for Your Loss sees Olsen’s character Leigh working through a process of finding herself and what her life is now that her husband passed suddenly and unexpectedly. She wants to have a process with this grief, without letting it consume her. She has to move through it, but that’s not an easy thing. All of the performances in the series are really grounded and genuine, but Olsen’s Leigh is particularly noteworthy for being a very real, flawed, and earnest portrayal of someone figuring things out as they go.
Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale)
Despite my issues with the second season of Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss continues to give everything to this role, and has to be given proper due. Both women represent different sides of an incredible oppressive regime, and while it’s easy to like Offred, Strahovski has managed to lure us into thinking, several times, that Serena is decent person. She’s really not, and yet, Strahovski shows us the cracks Serena’s armor often enough that we remember, at least, that she’s human.
Diego Luna (Narcos: Mexico)
The “problem” with Diego Luna’s performance here is that he really makes me care too much (and like too much) a really horrible drug lord. But Luna’s Felix is incredibly sharp and smart and capable, while also showing a vulnerability and uncertainty that keeps him from seeming like just an arrogant crime boss. Really, he’s a frustrated businessman who wants to bring order to a disorderly scheme, which seems in this context perfectly reasonable. Even when, towards the end of this first season, he starts making increasingly dark and compromised decisions, he’s still somehow likable. Damn you, Luna!
Lucy Davis, Miranda Otto (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)
Sabrina’s aunts are everything, not only as very different personalities that add sugar and spice to the series, but in their own twisted relationship. Some of the most affecting moments of this first Sabrina season revolve around Davis and Otto’s characters, both in the way they counsel Sabrina and in their own lives and choices. These women know how to be theatrical without being over-the-top, edging away from camp just enough to give us some truly memorable scenes.
Florence Pugh (The Little Drummer Girl)
Pugh injects this slow spy tale with verve, serving up each scene with incredible energy without ever drifting into overacting. She just takes over a scene with her personality, which here is channeled into a feisty and passionate character who never lets uncertainty slow her down for more than a moment. Pugh is a true tour-de-force here, waking the series up and challenging every scene. Without her, it would be a snooze.
Matthew Macfadyen (Succession)
I tried very hard to just pick one actor per series (which I know I break several times), but when it came down to it, the performance that really stood out in Succession was Macfadyen. He was just so weird! And it worked so well! The way his character would grovel to the Roys and then turn and deeply antagonize Greg was funny and frightening, but his Tom was at his best when he was paling around with Greg. I will never forget them eating a bird whole underneath those cloth napkins. God bless you Matthew, you took some risks and they really paid off.
Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant (A Very English Scandal)
Both of these men are absolutely hilarious and heartbreaking in A Very English Scandal, but Hugh Grant in particular really upends his “leading man of 90s rom-coms” status here by being truly vile in fantastically funny ways. The story is absurd, and true, and both Whishaw and Grant keep things witty and light without allowing their portrayals to ever become hollow. These were real people and real emotions, crazy as the situation was. But that reminder never dampens the fun.