2016 in Review: The Best Performances – Television

I realized that in my awards giving, I’ve neglected to highlight the best performances in years past. That changes with these highlights, in drama, comedy and limited series/made-for-TV movies.

Best Actor and Actress in a Drama Series

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell – The Americans
The real-life couple turned in their best performances to date as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, whose lives take a turn for the worse after several close calls. Their subtle digs at each other over the season’s first half gave way to intense desperation as going on the run looks to be their only option. That’s off the table (for now), but their marriage and partnership only grew deeper, a turn that’s only possible with this pair continuing to out-act just about everyone on TV.

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

John Lithgow in The Crown
John Lithgow – The Crown
John Lithgow is hardly the first renowned actor to take on Winston Churchill. Timothy Spall, Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson have all chomped down to play the British Prime Minister in the past 15 years. But few have been as dedicated to devouring every last ornate chair and table like Lithgow has. Donning heavy prosthetics to get the svelte American to look like the hefty Brit, and he takes every opportunity to play Churchill as the outsized character he was. While the rest of the cast is appropriately restrained, Lithgow gets to let loose and bring more life to the show.

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

Alison Wright in The Americans
Alison Wright – The Americans
It was nice that someone other than Margo Martindale finally got noticed for this show, but ignoring Alison Wright this season was a straight-up travesty. All Martha’s vulnerability, eagerness to trust and hesitation to lie was completely betrayed, as she was used as a pawn by both the KGB and the FBI. She’s off in Russia now, and who knows if we’ll see her again, but she took a stereotype (the mousy secretary) and made her a tragic figure.

Best Actor in a Comedy Series

Ted Danson in The Good Place
Ted Danson – The Good Place
Gonna make a bold claim here, but I think Ted Danson might be the best TV actor ever. That’s not to say he’s the best actor to perform on TV or a backhanded compliment that’s he’s not good in the films he’s done. It’s just that he’s so natural, so laid-back, so funny – with just a hint of darkness – that he makes it look so easy. TV is his home, which is why he’s been aces in everything from Cheers to Becker to last year’s Fargo. He continues his streak here as Michael, the architect facing an existential crisis when his neighborhood starts falling apart. What’s so great about The Good Place‘s vision of the afterlife is that not everyone is a saint. Michael can be uncomfortably honest, and also lie when necessary (which technically shouldn’t be allowed, should it?) which makes for a complex, hilarious character.

Best Actress in a Comedy Series

Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge – Fleabag
Technically, the best performance in this category belongs to Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep. But she’s already won (in my mind and at the Emmys) so many times I had to go with another spectacular performance. Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote all six episodes of Fleabag and absolutely blew me away in the lead role. Her eyes are so expressive, cueing you to the sadness and guilt that lies underneath her party girl persona. This is heavyweight acting, from the first frame to the last.

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

Zach Woods on Silicon Valley
Zach Woods – Silicon Valley
While I wasn’t as high on Silicon Valley as most critics, it still had plenty of great moments. And most of those came from Zach Woods’ Jared, who was revealed to be getting more action than the other guys in the house combined, despite living in the garage. His puppy dog eyes and classic lines to Richard like “Don’t weaponize my faith in you against me” and “You’re the belle of the ball, and these are all your swains, hoping for a glimpse of ankle” make him the show’s MVP.

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Zazie Beetz on Atlanta
Zazie Beetz – Atlanta
While the main trio (Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield) got all the attention this season, Zazie Beetz made the most of her limited screen time. Initially coming off as icy, later episodes reveal she’s just a woman tired of all the bullshit. Her solo outing “Value,” which chronicles her botched attempt at fixing a drug test, was nail-biting yet triumphant.

Best Actor in a Limited Series

Courtney B. Vance in The People v. O.J. Simpson
Courtney B. Vance – American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
Courtney B. Vance has worked diligently for decades in theatre and television, most notably in the original version of Fences and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But as Andy Greenwald noted on The Watch podcast, he’s never had a “three-course meal” like he does in FX’s O.J. mini-series. Playing Johnnie Cochran as a brilliant attorney, powerful performer and petty competitor, he’s one of the most memorable characters of the year, one who’s not afraid to make an impassioned speech about the history of the N-word then whisper “N—–, please” to Chris Darden.

Best Actress and Supporting Actor in a Limited Series

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown in The People v. O.J. Simpson
Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown – American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
By far the two best performances on TV this year. Paulson, great as usual, completely reclaimed Marcia Clark’s legacy, going so far as to take her to the Emmys (where she won Best Actress). But I was always fascinated by Sterling K. Brown, who had the more challenging role as Chris Darden. Brown plays him as a deeply conflicted up-and-coming prosecutor. He’s excited about his big shot, but worried he might have only gotten it because of the color of skin. He wants to put away a murderer and wife beater who rejected the black community, but faces resistance from his own family. The fact that he’s almost as good on This Is Us proves he will be one of the greatest actors of his generation.

Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series

Jeannie Berlin in The Night Of
Jeannie Berlin – The Night Of
Not everything can be won by O.J. Aside from Marcia Clark, there really weren’t any prominent female roles, and while I love Connie Britton forever, her Faye Resnick is almost too over-the-top for the show. So I turn to Jeannie Berlin, who churned out stellar work in the ’70s, but then up and disappeared. Her resurgence in the past few years has been great for those of us who love lived-in performances. And Berlin shows us every exhausted inch of the weary Helen Weiss, who’s done this job too long to drop a fairly solid case, even after it becomes clearer that the defendant is (probably) innocent.

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