The Best TV Performances of 2021

Best Actor in a Comedy Series
Glenn Howerton, A.P. Bio
Jack is basically Howerton’s Dennis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but without the sexual deviance. He’s still an awful person, but a year-plus in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, has made him kinder and gentler, but still with a knack for petty revenge schemes. In the show’s final season, his cynicism wears out his welcome with Lynnette as he realizes he still needs a lot more growth. But he just can’t help himself in out-psyching a potential new partner in the hilarious How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days riff “The Perfect Date from Hell.”

Best Actress in a Comedy Series
Jean Smart, Hacks
All hail Jean Smart, who joins Ted Danson as the greatest TV actors of all time. While she was terrific in Mare of Easttown, she’s even better here as the obscenely wealthy (she has a soda fountain in her kitchen!) and complacent comedian Deborah Vance. Desperate for love and attention, but savvier than she lets on, it’s a flawless performance. And newcomer Hannah Einbinder brings out the best in her.

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Cole Escola, Search Party
It takes a really compelling actor to create a villain this complex and still have you feel nothing but utter hatred for his character. But Escola does just that as the “evil twink” who kidnaps Dory, imprisoning her in a felt replica of her own apartment. He may be right that her friends circle was toxic, but he can’t make her see that she was the problem. He’s even more delusional than she is in thinking they can go from kidnapper/kidnapped to BFFs. But it was hilarious to watch him try, especially when he’s playing dress up in his aunt’s clothes.

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Tracey Ullman, Curb Your Enthusiasm
With apologies to the always wonderful Amy Ryan on Only Murders in the Building, no woman made me laugh harder this year than Ullman. As a late-season addition to the show, she served as a perfect foil for Larry. He dates her solely to try to get her to change a law he doesn’t like, but finds she’s more than just unpleasant: she’s a major disruptor to his whole routine. She butts heads with Leon and is perpetually horny, creating some priceless facial reactions from Larry. I could have watched her, Larry David and J.B. Smoove riff for hours.

Best Ensemble in a Comedy Series
Reservation Dogs
It’s not a surprise that veteran actors like Gary Farmer, Wes Studi and Zach McClarnon are terrific, getting to flex their comedy muscles. But the main quartet were basically all unknown, and they imbued each member with deep sadness – that manifests itself in different ways – and solid identities, even though their lives are constantly in flux. Like the show itself, a real miracle.

Best Actor in a Drama Series
Jeremy Strong, Succession
Apologies for a Succession-dominated category but: 1) it was the best thing on TV this year, 2) the acting was incredible across the board, and 3) I didn’t watch that many dramas this year. Much has been made of this New Yorker profile in which Strong is revealed as a performer committed to Method acting, which delivers excellent results but maybe doesn’t make him the most fun guy to hang out with. A lot of other actors came to his defense even though the article doesn’t make him look bad, per se! Like the show he leads, Strong has gotten better every season. After his act of defiance in the Season 2 finale, Kendall is exposed as a man without a plan. Whatever noble intentions he spouts are a cover for his own hubris. It’s not a surprise that his siblings only come to his aid after he’s stripped himself of artifice. It was hard to believe a man who wanted to sing Billy Joel while hung from a cross at his own birthday could be real, but he finally was.

Best Actress in a Drama Series
Annie Murphy, Kevin Can F**k Himself
Murphy was tremendously funny on Schitt’s Creek, but it’s clear she wanted her next project to show her range as an actress. Mission accomplished. It would be wrong to even label Allison as an anti-hero(ine). Like many of the most acclaimed shows of the past 20 years, she’s as selfish and destructive as the men who have won Emmys. Her singular desire to be free of the life she’s stuck in leads her down dark paths that only hurt other people.

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Matthew Macfadyen, Succession
Tom has often been forgotten by the Roys, including his own wife. After volunteering to be the fall guy for the FBI’s investigation into the company’s payoffs, he spends much of the season dreading his impending incarceration. He considers running away with Greg, and even switching to Kendall’s side before remembering “I’ve never seen your dad get fucked once.” His loyalty is rewarded. It’s possible it may have cost him a lot, but he had nothing to lose. It’s brilliant acting scene to scene and episode to episode. Taken as a whole, it’s an astonishing piece of work.

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Mary Hollis Inboden, Kevin Can F**k Himself
The discovery of the year. While she had popped up in small parts on sitcoms before, she immediately established herself as a force to be reckoned with. As the only other “sitcom character” to appear in Allison’s real world, she’s much more sympathetic than she appears, and more open to new experiences than even she expects. Equally anxious to escape her own hell, she’s more resigned that nothing will change.

Best Ensemble in a Drama Series
We know by now how great the actors who make up the Roy family are. But the show seemingly added or elevated another dozen cast members this season, and they all “understood the assignment,” as the kids say. Whether it was the greedy Waystar lifers trying to remain in Logan’s orbit or Kendall’s put-upon staffers, they all fit perfectly. And let’s not forget the expertly deployed battalion of award-winning guest stars, including Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgard as dueling tech-bros and Sanaa Lathan as Kendall’s longsuffering attorney.

Best Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series
Murray Bartlett, The White Lotus
The shaky orbit around which the entire cursed resort revolves around, Barlett’s Armond is a ticking time bomb. The awful, self-absorbed guests are all pushing him one step closer to an explosion. What’s so enjoyable to watch is to see him pivot from amiable sycophant to raging hedonist in the span of just a few seconds.

Best Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series
Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown
So much of this miniseries could have felt cliché, from the procedural element to the family drama to the “cop who doesn’t play by the rules.” But Kate Winslet is so magnificent that it elevates everything to another level. Her rash decisions are the side effects of open emotional wounds.

Best Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series
Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown
Peters’ youthfulness is actually the perfect asset to this character. He plays Zabel not as a hotshot but as someone who does everything by the book but still can’t believe he’s in this position. His uncertainty around Mare both on and off crime scenes proves he’s in over his head in more ways than one. Peters also delivered one of the greatest drunk scenes of all time.

Best Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series
Julianne Nicholson, Mare of Easttown
To reveal what makes Nicholson so great in this show would be to spoil the ending. But after putting in the work on two different Law & Order spin-offs and other crime shows like Conviction, Eyewitness and The Outsider, she delivered her most powerful performance to date.

Best Ensemble in a Limited or Anthology Series
The White Lotus
It’s not a mistake or oversight that all the guests (save one) are white, while most of the staff are people of color (except the white manager). To critique white privilege and economic inequality this deftly required precise writing and an absolutely dynamite cast. Creator Mike White and his group of actors delivered. It must take tremendous work for actors as likable as Connie Britton and Jake Lacy to be so rotten on the inside, for actors as seemingly happy-go-lucky as Steve Zahn and Jennifer Coolidge to be so selfish and duplicitous. But they leaned in completely. The real revelations for me are Brittany O’Grady and Fred Hechinger, neither of whom seem like they want to be on this Hawaiian vacation until things start looking up for them. But surrounded by such destructive forces, their happiness can only be short-lived.

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