Trying to pick the best performances across all of television – comedy, drama, limited series – was a challenge. There was no way to list them all, but here are the standouts.
Sharp Objects – Amy Adams
The deeply wounded center of Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation, Adams’ incredible performance provided pathos to a sometimes trashy show. Even when it meandered, her self-destructive nature guided us to a devastating conclusion.
Veep – Julia Louis-Dreyfus
What else is there to say? After six Emmys and a vault full of other awards, there’s not much. But she always kept us caring, even when Selina did the most reprehensible things. That’s power.
Better Call Saul – Rhea Seehorn
The only person in Albuquerque not actively rotting away, Kim is the buoy that keeps you from drowning in misery and pettiness. But there’s a hole: her misplaced confidence. She thinks she can keep Jimmy on the straight-and-narrow and do things by the book. But he doesn’t want to be saved and she gains nothing by staying on the up-and-up. It’s a 50/50 shot whether she gets swallowed whole or breaks free.
Fleabag – Phoebe Waller-Bridge
If a show is going to be told exclusively through the POV of one person, that actor better be incredible. Luckily, in addition to writing every episode, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is also a stunning actor, bringing us into and shooing us away from her most vulnerable moments, while also being uproariously funny. Fleabag is a one-of-a-kind show from a one-of-a-kind voice, with a one-of-a-kind performer to tell it all.
The Americans – Alison Wright
The most tragic casualty of Phillip and Elizabeth’s espionage, poor Martha just wanted a husband who wanted to hear about her day and blow her back out occasionally. While her character on the page was initially just a wallflower secretary, Wright gave her a rich interior life and a loyalty that proved to be her undoing.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – Andre Braugher
The master of deadpan, the Emmy winner known for his stellar, stoic dramatic work, absolutely crushed it from the beginning as the 99’s openly gay captain. Braugher could make you laugh with a glance, a properly enunciated statement, a T-shirt, or a well-timed outburst. But his dramatic experience also made the moments when he was dismissed or ignored because of his race or sexuality hurt.
Barry – Bill Hader
Hader was already the best Saturday Night Live cast member of his era. I was excited to see what he did next. What I wasn’t expecting was how dark and intense this show about a hitman who takes up acting would be. He’s a pure villain who’s only been good at one thing, and can’t stop doing it. Even when he’s acting on stage or in real life, his real skills keep finding a reason to be used, even if he’s inventing them.
Show Me a Hero – Oscar Isaac
An unstoppable force met an immovable object. Nick Wasicsko was a politician on the rise, becoming the youngest mayor of a big city in the U.S. But his constituents were a bunch of old, white racists who despised him for complying with a federal mandate to build public housing on the “nice side” of town. What should have been a promising career was cut short because he did what was legally required of him (and the right thing to boot). Isaac makes you feel the joy of the future and the crushing defeat of the present.
Twin Peaks – Kyle MacLachlan
In a way, MacLachlan barely reprised his role as Agent Dale Cooper. His consciousness was trapped in the Black Lodge for most of the show, with Dale inhabiting the body of Dougie Jones, an aimless Las Vegas insurance adjuster, slowly learning to experience life again. And then there’s Dark Coop, the malevolent essence that escaped 25 years earlier. With a jet-black mullet and a terrifying aura, he was as evil as they get. In this trio of performances, MacLachlan runs the gamut of human nature.
Parks and Recreation – Nick Offerman
Ron Swanson began as a parody of libertarians, but his character is far too generous to be anywhere near an accurate picture of one. (He also never expressed any thoughts on “age of consent” laws.) Ron was curmudgeonly, sure, but that’s only because he saw most of the voters of Pawnee for what they were: loud, obnoxious morons who don’t know what they actually want, but like to yell about what they don’t want. He was the counterweight to Leslie Knope’s eternal optimist, but eventually came to love his coworkers, which even he would have trouble admitting.