The 40 Best TV Performances of 2019

TV Lists Best of 2019
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The 40 Best TV Performances of 2019

With so many outstanding TV shows there are, naturally, a plethora of truly outstanding performances. This year, we decided to mix up our list to make it a celebration of different categories of great performances, from full ensembles to dynamic duos to stand-out individual moments. This is about honoring the TV shows we loved, and the actors who helped take them to the next level. Below, the Paste TV editors and writers have picked 40 of our favorites (with a cutoff date of November 15th, so no Mandalorian or Witcher yet).

For more of our Best of 2019 lists, check out the 50 best TV shows, 25 best episodes, and 10 best new series.

Best Ensembles:


Perpetual Grace, LTD

When a TV show casts Ben Kingsley, Jackie Weaver, and Jimmi Simpson in lead roles, you sit up and take notice. When you find out that the series also stars Luis Guzman, Damon Herriman, Chris Conrad, Terry O’Quinn, and Timothy Spall, you’re already well on your way to knowing that Epix’s weird little gem Perpetual Grace, LTD, is one of the best series of the year. Plenty of shows can and do waste great casts, but not this one—creators Steven Conrad and Bruce Terris’ scripts are perfect for each idiosyncratic performance (of note, young Dash Williams is a breakout star). But if Perpetual Grace, LTD, was just a series of quirks, it wouldn’t have been as excellent as it was. Instead, each actor found a particular pathos at the core of their characters that gave them depth and soul—most especially Simpson, Herriman, and Conrad, who joined together as an unlikely gang of sweet, strange, broken men. Perpetual Grace is an artistic achievement and an acting tour de force, and well worth finding on your cable dial. —Allison Keene


Every so often a TV series debuts quietly and without much fanfare proceeds to blow us away. Based on a true story, Unbelievable follows two determined female detectives (Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver) as they track down and arrest a serial rapist, a rapist whose attacks were so seemingly unconnected that no one had realized they were all perpetrated by the same man. The series stood out because it wasn’t the typical mystery series where the rapist was revealed in some big gotcha moment. It was about the day-to-day drudgery and dogged police work that it takes to solve a crime. The long hours and longer days of chasing leads that go nowhere and seemingly fruitful clues that turn out to be red herrings. With every line of dialogue uttered, Collette and Weaver conveyed the world-weariness that comes from years on the job and the practicality it takes to do the job well and an empathy rarely seen in TV detectives (Weaver’s scene with a victim in the second episode is a masterclass in and of itself). Their performances are complemented by Kaitlyn Dever as the first victim, Marie Adler. A foster child who grew up bouncing from home to home, Adler is not believed when she tells the police of her attack. Dever conveys Marie’s insecurities in the face of the police manipulating Marie to get the story they want, even when it’s not the truth. These three women told a story that was truly unbelievable.—Amy Amatangelo

Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There are two groups of people who deserve performance respect when it comes to Netflix’s glorious fantasy series Age of Resistance. The first is the incredible voice cast, who don’t just speak in their normal tones but really get into character. This might not seem like a big deal, but as productions hire screen actors as voice actors so they can tout big names behind-the-scenes, there has been so much lost in translation. Not so with Age of Resistance, particularly regarding the Skeksis (including Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, and Awkwafina) and our hero Gelflings (Nathalie Emmanual most especially, although all are truly great). Bill Hader and Andy Samberg also provided a brief but memorable scene as an unexpected comedy duo, giving outlandish vocal performances to two fully outlandish characters.

But just as worthy of praise here are the exceptional puppeteers, whose physical performances not only defined the characters, but (as they were filmed first) informed the voice actors’ portrayals. Special shoutouts here go to Warrick Brownlow-Pike, Dave Chapman, Kevin Clash, Katherine Smee, Olly Taylor, and Victor Yerrid (Hup!), although like the voice cast, everyone involved is deserving of immense praise for creating such a beautiful and immersive world. —Allison Keene

What We Do in the Shadows

Big comedy casts are tricky, especially when needing to nail a vibe in the first season while also establishing your world and relationships. It has to be even trickier when those relationships are between ageless vampires and their servants. The FX newcomer won my heart thanks to the powerful rapport between Natasia Demetriou and Matt Berry, both of whom are joyous gifts to American comedy, and stuck the landing thanks to a bevy of guest stars. The cameo-filled “The Trial” is one of the most logistically impressive pieces of casting in recent TV memory, with most every pop culture vampire either namechecked or appearing alongside the comic deadpan of Harvey Guillén and Mark Proksch. Kayvan Novak, who has a tough job following in Taika Waititi’s velvet-shoed footsteps as the evenhanded lead bloodsucker, still manages to carve out a comic niche separate from his peers without being bowled over by the bombastic punchlines of Demetriou and Berry. Plus, anyone who can hang with Tilda Swinton and Danny Trejo in the same scene is a bigger badass than most anyone else on TV.—Jacob Oller

David Makes Man

Even casual readers of this site will know that when it comes to OWN’s gorgeously rendered coming-of-age drama David Makes Man, we are always ready to gush. As David/Dai/DJ, the series’ tender, traumatized, stretched-far-too-thin teen lead, Akili McDowell is easily the show’s breakout star. But as a particularly tense scene in a Halloween church service in the latter half of the short first season so deftly demonstrates, David’s world is defined, both in enriching ways and in deeply limiting ones, by all the people who need him to sacrifice or subsume his own needs for such different, often countermelodic reasons. Alana Arenas’ Gloria and Nathaniel Logan MacIntyre’s Seren squeeze David’s (and our) heart as his in-recovery single mom and his closeted, domestically abused best school friend, respectively, while Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), Shinobi (Jordan Bolger), and even queer youth ally Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles) loom ominously as figures of alternately dangerous, alternately supportive authority filling the vacuum left behind in David’s apartment complex after the recent murder of his father figure, Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who himself is haunting David’s dreams in an an effort to keep him on a path to a bigger, better future. Even the smaller, sweeter characters in the series, the ones whose presence is often meant to lighten the mood—David’s little brother, JG (Cayden Williams), his A-type classmate, Marissa (Lindsey Blackwell), the neighbor girl he has a crush on, Tare (Teshi Thomas), and Star Child (Logan Rozos), the queer runaway teen holing up with Mx. Elijah—ultimately weigh on David as more people who need him to stretch himself in more divergent directions. We all are responsible for making our own ways into adulthood, sure, but as David Makes Man so clearly underscores, the path so many people have to walk to get there is lousy with other people’s hopes, needs and crushing expectations. —Alexis Gunderson

The Good Place

The Good Place is an embarrassment of comedic riches. You have Ted Danson, who already starred in one of the greatest comedies of all time, as Michael the architect of The Good Place who seemed to be good, was revealed to be bad and is now good for real. There’s Kristen Bell, who has created not one but two iconic characters (Hi Veronica and Anna), as the reformed bad girl Eleanor. There’s William Jackson Harper as the perpetually stymied Chidi. Jameela Jamil as the name-dropping debutant Tahani. Manny Jancito as Jason, whose love for Blake Bortles knows no bounds. And there’s D’Arcy Carden who has created so many Janets (roller bladding Janet forever!) that this paragraph about the show’s ensemble could be about her alone. Together they make up one of comedy’s greatest casts. Their comedic beats and rapport cannot be matched. Let’s savor the joy they bring viewers as we head toward the series finale. —Amy Amatangelo

When They See Us

Every one of the men and women who signed up for one of 2019’s most brutal series deserve a medal for taking on the story of five young men whose lives were torn apart by the criminal justice system, for no reason other than they were outside on the streets the night a young woman was attacked (a young woman they had no contact with whatsoever). The cast includes numerous standouts, most especially Jharrel Jerome as the only actor to play both the older and younger versions of his character, the member of the Central Park Five whose jail time lasted the longest. John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, and Michael K. Williams as the parents unable to save their children from the system broke our hearts, while Vera Farmiga, Famke Janssen and Felicity Huffman (whose relationship with the criminal justice system has changed dramatically in recent months) proved fearless in depicting the people who carried out one of America’s greatest miscarriages of justice. When They See Us could not have been easy to make, but these actors stepped up for the greater good, and today and in the future, their work will be appreciated. —Liz Shannon Miller

Legends of Tomorrow

In the beginning, Legends of Tomorrow was created from great secondary characters of other Arrowverse shows. Though its first season struggled to find a balance among them (or a compelling villain), once the show hit its stride, it’s never looked back. Free from the constraints of comic book expectations, Legends decided to just go fully bonkers. That included, rather wonderfully, constantly changing up its cast. Though several core members have remained, the rest of been in flux, with the series never afraid to kill off, change out, or boot a character and have another one who looks like the first one but is actually totally different. Miraculously, it all works!

The series MVPs are Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, and Dominic Purcell, but newcomers Nick Zano, Tala Ashe, and Matt Ryan have come to feel like family (the same has also been true for Maisie Richardson-Sellers once they let her play a character who actually got to have some fun). And that’s the thing—Legends is fun. The writers tailor the stories to match the talents and interests of the show’s actors now, and their banter in the face of outrageous time travel-based storytelling gives the show surprising depth. The actors are also all clearly up for anything, which includes some truly wackadoodle plots, but their genuine enthusiasm is contagious. It all works, thanks to this outstanding yet ever-changing cast. —Allison Keene

On Our Block

Netflix’s rollicking, impossible-to-define teen comedy On My Block has been a four-hander since tween-aged Monse (Sierra Capri), Ruby (Jason Genao), Jamal (Brett Gray) and Cesar (Diego Tinoco) were first caught spying on an older kids’ block party in a one-shot cold open that set the series’ tone. While Capri, Genao, Gray and Tinoco have continued to strike all the right chords with which to best resonate with one other in Season 2, though, to limit our praise to just them—especially after a season that saw each of them turn to support systems outside the inner circle following the various life-changing events—would be to overlook all the smaller voices that make the series shine. Well, we say smaller, but when we’re talking about characters as complexly built and expertly executed as Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia), Spooky (Julio Macias) and Ruby’s pot-smoking, cash-laundering Abuela (Peggy Blow), “smaller” is a wild understatement. But for a series as much about the block as the kids that live on it, the kind of voices that would make that an understatement are exactly the voices we’re ecstatic to see. We can’t wait for them all to return in Season 3.Alexis Gunderson


In no particular order, the Roys—Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Matthew Macfadyen (by proxy), Alan Ruck, and Hiam Abbass (plus J. Smith-Cameron)—actually make us want to watch a story about incredibly wealthy and mostly morally bankrupt white people jockeying for power. It shouldn’t be so compelling, but it gosh darn is. Succession’s Season 1 character work paid off beautifully in Season 2, thanks hugely to its cast. I mean, how else can I explain my crush on Kendall Roy? It should not be and yet it is, because Jeremy Strong makes it so. Who knew that we would turn on Shiv and love Roman so much by the end of Season 2? The scripts are exceptional, but these actors … the choices they make! Look no further than Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom having a breakdown and pelting Greg with water bottles, or using another person as a human footstool, or forcing his wife’s lover to pour his champagne back in the bottle. My God it’s fantastic. Or what about Roman and Geri’s weird proxy sex or Greg just awkwardly reacting to literally anything? The show is a Shakespearan tour de force, and we are in its thrall. —Allison Keene

The Crown

Season 3’s opening scene, introducing Olivia Colman as a more middle-aged Elizabeth II, was alarmingly ham-handed, seeming to suggest that not only could audiences not be trusted with a cast change but that Colman might be shocked to learn she was not Claire Foy. Happily, the script moved on. As much as we were reluctant to say goodbye to the splendid younger cast, we’re hardly suffering with this one. Colman’s Elizabeth is more impassive than Foy’s, seeming by turns flinty and just plain dowdy, and managing to inflect her signature blank stare with an almost incomprehensible range of implications. Meanwhile, the cantankerous Duke of Edinburgh has been taken on by Tobias Menzies-his Prince Philip feels like less of an outlaw, and every bit as much of a mixed bag. Helena Bonham-Carter picks up Princess Margaret where Vanessa Kirby left off. These principal actors all did a fantastic job of integrating into the show, developing excellent chemistry not only with each other but with the younger actors who had their roles for the first two seasons (I did miss Harry Hadden-Paton as Martin Charteris).

But some of the truly striking elements of the Season 3 cast are characters we don’t see earlier-perhaps most remarkably Jane Lapotaire as Philip’s crazy-not-so-crazy mother, Princess Alice; she’s absolutely riveting. Other standouts are Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten (he’s basically playing a modern-day Tywin Lannister, but I love it), Josh O’Connor as a remarkably relatable Prince Charles and Erin Doherty as Princess Anne, in a portrayal that might best be summed up as “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.” Season 3 was an ambitious transition, and the new cast has proved more than equal to the challenge, managing both fidelity to biographical detail and imaginative character development. —Amy Glynn


The cast of Pose draws viewers into their world of 80s New York ball culture world and envelops you in its over-the-top cat-walking and nuanced performances. Billy Porter rightly gets so much of the attention as emcee Pray Tell, balancing his outward flamboyance with a layered character. But the entire cast is amazing: Dominque Jackson as the take-no-prisoners Electra; MJ Rodriguez as mother-figure Blanca; Indya Moore as the sweet but damaged Angel; Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross as the catty yet vulnerable Lulu and Candy. The show has the distinction of having largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles but that fact is just a footnote to the fantastic vibrant stories these actors tell.—Amy Amatangelo


?It’s quite a feat to turn a one-woman stage show into an Emmy-winning ensemble TV series where the act of naming a character simply Godmother or Priest can tell the audience legions about this role even before the start of the quick, jagged, overlapping dialogue. Much of this has to do with star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s God-given talent for writing. But it also says something about her friendships. Waller-Bridge relied on her close friends, including Andrew Scott who played the aforementioned verboten cleric in the Amazon show’s second season, to portray most of the parts. Hiring people who already know how your brain works seems to add an intimacy and familiarity to a show that already benefits from a lead who can say as much as a Shakespearean sonnet with the simple raise of her eyebrow. —Whitney Friedlander


The title of what might be Netflix’s best comedy is a tribute to its wonderful cast, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, who are a richly beautiful ensemble representing so many different ethnicities and body types (important, given the amount of spandex involved). They are all so unique, but they are also all so gorgeous in their unique ways—one must call out specific members, like Alison Brie as the engine driving the show’s train forward, Betty Gilpin as the star who aspires to control things behind the scenes, and Britney Young, the true beating heart of the show, whose innocence and passion and virtue make her so compelling to watch. But really, one of the show’s greatest joys is how well all of these actors have come to work together, how clear it is that this is a true community of great players, how much this is a series based on mutual love and support. God, who wouldn’t want to be a member of GLOW?  —Liz Shannon Miller

Stranger Things

So many of Stranger Things’ sins are easily covered up by the strength of its sprawling cast. Great character pairings (particularly Joe Keery and Gaten Matarazzo, and later, Maya Hawke) are the true driving force of the series. Despite a number of narrative missteps, where Stranger Things never falters is in the kinship we feel with those in each generation of the cast—from the kids to the teens to the adults. Not every actor is as strong as the next, and not every new group or pairing works as well as the show thinks it will, but it is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Overall, Stranger Things remains a delight because of its unabashedly full-tilt performances. And Steve’s hair. I mean, come on, it deserves its own award. —Allison Keene

Jane the Virgin

With her heartbreaking, history-making seven minute, twenty second monologue the filled the entire second act of the series’ final season opener (“Chapter Eighty-Two”), Gina Rodriguez obviously put in the performance of her Jane the Virgin career. But while that monologue will be marveled at as long as people are watching (and re-watching) the CW’s most joyfully ambitious project of the decade, the greater truth is that Jane the Virgin wouldn’t be Jane the Virgin, especially in its critical final season, without the whole of its inimitable cast. Yes, we’re talking about Jaime Camil’s groundbreakingly lovable Rogelio de la Vega and Yael Grobglas’ tenderly intense nemesis-turned-sister, Petra, but we’re also talking about Andrea Navedo and Ivonne Coll as the best, most complexly rendered mom and abuela Jane could have asked for, and we’re talking about Justin Baldoni and Brett Dier as emotionally compelling opposing struts in a love triangle that could have collapsed under the weight of telenovela tropes any number of times, but ultimately gave the series the exact romantic structure it needed. And we’re talking about Anthony Mendez’s glorious Latin Lover Narrator, and Yara Martinez’s (underused!) mess of a half-sister-turned-plot catalyst, and Diane Guerrero’s (equally underused!) whirlwind of a best childhood friend. Even the kid actors—Elias Janssen and Mia and Ella Allan—brought real oomph to Jane’s final season. And that’s before even mentioning the bonkers guest turns from Brooke Shields, Rosario Dawson, Justina Machado, Bridget Regan, and all the Young Janes who popped back in for one final visit in the series’ big finale.

That’s one big, gushing block of text, and thank you, sincerely, for powering through it, but look—if you watched Jane all through the end, you know as well as we do that so much muchness was exactly the point, and that all those people listed above, both in character and out, are the reason the series made the deep, emotional impact it did. We are so happy that Jane’s big sprawling, love-filled family is one we got to, for at least one last season, be a small part of. —Alexis Gunderson

Best Duos:


William Zabka and Ralph Macchio, Cobra Kai

Look Cobra Kai is so much better than it has any business being. And that’s all due to Zabka and Macchio, who deftly reprise characters they created 35 years ago, with such ease and grace that it’s easy to miss their brilliant performances. Zabka shines as a man who peaked in high school and is struggling in his adult life to find his footing and realize the potential he has to offer. Macchio, still looking almost the same as he did when he was the young Daniel Son, rings true as a successful business man who is somehow pulled right back into his high school rivalry. These men ground the show, which pulls off being simultaneously nostalgic and contemporary, and give a whole new generation of fans a reason to wax on about the series. —Amy Amatangelo

Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke, The Other Two

Bickering TV siblings is an all-too-common trope of TV comedies. Brothers and sisters who actually get along? More of a rarity. In this case, they’re also key to making you not feel icky or dead inside while watching creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s Comedy Central series about a child overnight sensation going through the Hollywood Corruption Machine ™. As Cary and Brooke, the older—and suddenly overlooked—siblings of their newly-famous kid brother Chase (Case Walker), Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke pull off a camaraderie that makes it believable that they would casually talk about the particulars of anal sex while also knowing to align as their family’s protective fortress when it’s clear their mom (Molly Shannon) is in over her head. —Whitney Friedlander

Michael Sheen and David Tennant, Good Omens

Every once in a while, two performers come together with an intense natural chemistry that defines the whole production they’re in. Good Omens’ showrunners reported a unanimous thrill response the first time Sheen and Tennant shared the set, and it’s not hard to imagine why. From the opening minutes, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are the ultimate bromance, full of wit and sparkle and energy and feeling and whatever “that certain je ne sais quoi” really is. With every exchange, every gesture, every oh-so-polite awkward semi-simper from Sheen and every wink-wink-nudge-nudge snarl from Tennant, we believe devoutly that these two guys have in fact known each other for thousands of years. Their performances are separately stellar, capturing the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book beautifully—but it’s their combined performance, their manifestation as one being (Aziraphale-Crowley? Crowziraphale?) that really emits sparks. It’s a chemistry you cannot plan or predict. When it happens you understand you are in the presence of a wonderful little miracle, and you’re just grateful to be there to witness it.—Amy Glynn

Patricia Arquette and Joey King, The Act

When the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy first went viral as a Buzzfeed article;, it was captivating if only for the fact that trying to understand the complexities of what might be one of the 21st century’s most messed-up mother/daughter stories was nearly impossible. Not only understanding it, but also helping the audience grasp exactly what happened between these two women, was what faced Patricia Arquette and Joey King when they signed on for this engrossing Hulu mini-series. Fortunately they proved more than capable of handling the depths of toxicity that bound these women together. The ending of the story is tragic and strange, but by the time we get there, we completely understand why it happened. —Liz Shannon Miller

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, Killing Eve

Most on-screen duos are on this list because of the way they complement each other during shared screen time. Sandra Oh’s titular intelligence investigator, Eve Polastri, and Jodie Comer’s Emmy-winning role of ace assassin Villanelle are interesting for the opposite reason. For much of the BBC America and AMC show’s second season, their meeting is a delayed climax as the show teases how the two will reunite after a bloody encounter in Season 1—and on whose terms. To tide us over, the audience binges on runway-worthy fashion, creative murders, and GIF-able bon mots like they’re bulk candy bought in a Parisian train station. —Whitney Friedlander

Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, One Day at a Time

There were many reasons viewers were in an uproar when the Netlix comedy was abruptly cancelled after three seasons. But the main one was losing the delightful rapport between Lydia (Rita Moreno) and Penelope (Justina Machado) as the mother/daughter duo who fiercely love each other while at times chafing at their generational differences. Moreno is a force to be reckoned with as the feisty Lydia and Machado meets her energy beat for beat. They are the yin and yang of the show. Thankfully Pop TV picked up the series for a fourth season so at a minimum we will have 13 more episodes to watch these amazing ladies do their thing.—Amy Amatangelo

Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, Chernobyl

Unlikely friends, forged in hardship, make for great characters. With actors like Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård behind them, those characters can break your heart. A scientist and a bureaucrat, equally submerged icebergs of emotion (stoic and forthright, with both hiding most everything) and diametric opposites of idealism (cynic and earnest, both adapting to the other over time), their relationship and decency during HBO’s touching, tragic miniseries Chernobyl allowed the best of humanity to rise above the hellish, tainted depths wrought by its worst. The puttering, shuffling, middle management gait given by both actors, each of whom displayed enough righteous confidence to elicit a whoop or cheer in even the most dire of circumstances, made their heroism clear: these were the heroes that aren’t in stories. Whistleblowing and standing up for what’s right can make for Oscar-winning performances, but slogging, sweating, and shame-facedly dying for tiny pieces of progress requires an endearing nuance beyond convention. Skarsgård and Harris bridge the void of autocratic human weakness with a simple handshake, finding dignity where there should only be regret.—Jacob Oller

J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams, Counterpart

The thing to remember about a story as complex as Counterpart is that J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams aren’t just playing husband and wife Howard and Emily Silk, they’re also playing their clones from a parallel universe, ex-husband and wife Howard and Emily Silk. As the sophomore season of Starz’s now-defunct spy drama became more intricate and definitely not suitable for second-screen viewing, it was helpful to have actors confident enough to serve as a total of four anchors. We trust them to explain things about this world, even if we don’t always trust that what they’re saying is the truth. —Whitney Friedlander

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, Catastrophe

A creative partnership, especially when writing and starring in a show together, can feel like a marriage. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s impeccable run on Catastrophe, which came to an end this year after its fourth season, embraced the ridiculous, infuriating, severe, beautiful intimacy that can develop between two people that should, by all logic, have nothing to do with each other. A comedy as vicious as it is touching, Catastrophe took Sharon and Rob, characters sharing the first names of their creators and portrayers, from night one hookup to nuclear (disaster) family. The performances of the central duo successfully deliver lines that would be far too clever coming out of anyone else’s mouths while walking the tightrope between ultimate love and world-ending bitterness. At any moment, things could devolve into Achilles-razoring exchanges or passionate sex. Maybe both. Maintaining and evolving that energy is an impressive feat, but keeping that realistic, evocative tension alive (and funny) for half a decade is downright superlative.—Jacob Oller

Best Individual Performances


Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson

Apple TV+’s fever-pitched coming-of-age period piece about notoriously reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson might have seemed like a Peak TV punchline when its development was first announced, but anyone who had watched Hailee Steinfeld knock the house down in 2016’s sleeper teen banger, The Edge of Seventeen, knew immediately that with her in Emily’s eccentric shoes, Dickinson was bound to be some kind of marvel. Unsurprisingly, when Dickinson finally dropped this past November, Edge of Seventeen diehards were proven right: Steinfeld, as a late teens/early twentysomething Emily Dickinson, is a principled, passionate, proudly weird livewire. Her every line, sigh and facial expression sizzle with a frenetic, barely repressed physicality that beautifully mirrors the lexical and orthographical choices the real Dickinson made in the poems that give each episode its narrative shape. Lines spill across the screen and wrap around the characters as fast and Steinfeld’s Emily can get them out. Steinfeld will always be a joy to watch, wherever she goes, but as long as she’s willing to so deeply embody the American literary tradition’s weirdest, most passionate Amherst poet, we’ll be here watching. —Alexis Gunderson

Aidan Gallagher, Umbrella Academy

There are plenty of showbiz kids who act far beyond their years in TV shows and movies, almost eerily precocious in the way they talk like—and occasionally have the mannerisms of—someone decades older. In the case of Aidan Gallagher’s Number Five in Umbrella Academy, he was supposed to be much older than he appears. Number Five gets trapped in a post-apocalyptic future where he ages into his 50s before finding his way back in time, and to his 13-year-old body. But the way Gallagher balances the physical comedy of a tween with the well-earned weary cynicism of a man who has been through hell is truly masterful. It can be funny and it can be sad, but above all it’s consistent. And that’s not an easy thing for a show as wonderfully bonkers as this one. Umbrella Academy provided a number of great performances, but none shone as brightly as Number Five. —Allison Keene

Suranne Jones, Gentleman Jack

Look up the word “radiant” in the dictionary and if there isn’t a smiling closeup of Suranne Jones as the redoubtable Anne Lister, there arguably ought to be. Jones strides into the pilot of Gentleman Jack like a sort of butch, handsome Mary Poppins, her mannish sartorial sensibility subverted by that massive, luminous smile. Her demeanor is the kind that in contemporary parlance might be described as “not giving one single solitary fuck,” but that’d be inaccurate. Anne Lister does absolutely give a fuck: Just not about what society mindlessly demands of her based on her sex. She’s a sincere Anglican who believes in God. She’s a woman of intellect who values education for its own sake as well as for practical worldly purposes. She’s an avid romantic who is seriously pained by the societal norms that make it especially hard for her to have an authentic love life. She cares about her family. She cares about her tenants. She’s not a saint and she’s not without class-blinders; she’s vocal about her feeling that there’s no point to working-class people having the vote and it takes four episodes for her to even notice her maid is pregnant. But she exudes intelligence and canniness and competence and a general lust for life that flies in the face of everything you think of as Victorian womanhood. I guess the good news about being a relentlessly polarizing character is you usually don’t have to question where you stand with people.—Amy Glynn

Stephen Dorff, True Detective

If True Detective Season 1 was the start of the McConassaince, then True Detective Season 3 might well be the start of the Dorfassaince, and no one among us saw that coming. What makes this most recent season so great—and such a welcome return to form after a terribly hollow and sluggish Season 2—were the soulful portrayals from its main cast. We all knew Mahershala Ali would be great, and he was. Most of us had a feeling that Scoot McNairy would be devastating, and he was. But few could have predicted that Stephen Dorff would come out of this season as perhaps the true hero, playing his pure-hearted character with such casual cool and earnest intent that he really stole the show. Everyone nailed their southern accents, which is no small feat, but Dorff did wonderful things with Roland’s unhurried drawl. It all added up to a performance that felt personal, knowable, sweet, and sad (and I haven’t even mentioned the dogs!) —Allison Keene

Idris Elba, Turn Up Charlie

Turn Up Charlie might have slipped under your radar, but if it did, know that it’s still on Netflix, so you still have the chance to watch Idris Elba play a down-on-his-luck DJ who might be on the verge on a big break (thanks to his relationship with an old friend whose wife is big time in the music world), and the way in which Charlie works his way into their lives as, basically, a nanny for their precocious young daughter. The concept was one Elba pitched directly to Netflix;, and it definitely lets him highlight his comedy chops, present a softer image to those who only think of him as a badass, and give us all the gift of watching Stringer Bell verbally battle with a young girl… and more often than not, lose. To be clear, it was one of 2019’s most innocent pleasures. —Liz Shannon Miller

Christina Applegate, Dead to Me

This is going to sound a little weird but: I’m so proud of Christina Applegate. I’ve followed her since she became a household name with Married with Children. She was a teenager thrust into the spotlight and also sexualized by the medium at a far too young age. That she’s navigated a long-running and successful career out of that with other memorable parts (Bad Moms being the most recent example) is admirable in and of itself (not that Applegate needs my admiration). But it wasn’t until the Netflix comedy about a woman grieving the sudden loss of her husband that Applegate found a role that fully utilized the full complement and range of her talents. She deftly threads the needle of the show’s tricky balance of comedy and drama. She’s doing a deadpan delivery in one scene and breaking your heart in the next. Jen Harding is the role of Applegate’s career. —Amy Amatangelo

Kirsten Dunst, On Becoming a God in Central Florida

Kirsten Dunst got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2019, and while a major news organization (who will not be named) said her most famous role was that of Spiderman’s girlfriend, I would argue that her role as Krystal Stubbs in On Becoming a God in Central Florida truly made her worthy of the honor—even though her list of previous acting accomplishments was enough. Dunst can do anything, but usually when I think of her, I picture her as adorable girl-next-door. In this role, she made me believe that she was a hardscrabble woman from central Florida just trying to get by—her transformation from girl-next-door turned network-marketing-pro was just brilliant. As a Southern woman with Facebook, I’m asked to be a part of an “upline” on an almost daily basis—watching that scheme play out in Florida without the internet was just amazing to watch. She might have been forced into the scheme, but for her family she will do anything.  And if you weren’t moved by that part of the story, fans of Drop Dead Gorgeous were also given a treat when she created a dance routine with poles and puppets. I was so utterly charmed by her take on ’90s women that it made me want to put on a swimsuit and do some water aerobics.  —Keri Lumm

Holt McCallany, Mindhunter

The duality of man embodied by Holt McCallany’s performance as Special Agent Bill Tench bubbles Mindhunter’s molten core to the surface. The ongoing war waged by law enforcement upon serial killers is ineffective, reactive, and increasingly getting to those immersing themselves in the world of the murderously deviant. McCallany, thick and out of time in a way that puts the Men in Mad Men, was an endearingly gruff and intelligent breakout from the Netflix show’s first season, but Season 2 dove deep into the upstanding father’s psyche. Vulnerability is a cheap word that gets a few extra zeros added thanks to McCallany’s metered, exhausted, iterative performance that grinds his character to emotional dust as Tench grinds his teeth. While his son becomes involved in a criminal case of his own and his investigation not only stalls, but constantly fucks up, Tench convincingly frays thanks to McCallany’s devoted and rich characterization.—Jacob Oller

Justin Hartley, This Is Us

When the TV nominations are trotted out we always see a lot of names from This Is Us clan and rightly Sterling K. Brown, Milo Ventimiglia, and Mandy Moore get a lot of attention for their stellar performances. But Justin Hartley turns in the kind of performance that is easily overlooked. He makes the complexity of his character look effortless. Kevin is often the show’s much-needed comic relief, and this fourth season—which explores the long-lasting ramifications of the Big Three losing their father when they were seniors in high school—he still is. But beneath Kevin’s jovial exterior, Hartley conveys a man still not quite at ease with his life, still searching for answers and still trying to connect with the father he lost years ago. In those quieter moments, Hartley conveys so much, often without any dialogue. He gives layers to a character who on paper could have easily been a one note joke. —Amy Amatangelo

Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave

The creator and star of this wonderfully weird Netflix series never got enough credit for his other wonderfully weird series (with co-creator and co-star Sam Richardson), Detroiters, but we can at least give him some kudos here. Tim Robinson goes deep with his cringe comedy and throws himself fully into the fire here, in a mix of sketches that mostly embrace surrealism to bring us a collection of short, weird vignettes that are ultimately a little nightmarish. Robinson has no ego here in terms of making himself look good, and thrives on discomfort. It was something he toyed with in terms of his character on Detroiters, but here goes full-tilt into madness. The results are exceptionally fun, and Robinson deserve oodles of praise for creating, writing, producing, and starring in something so purely good. —Allison Keene

Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon

God, did Michelle Williams razzle-dazzle us this year. While Bob Fosse’s name might have come first in the title of the FX miniseries about one of musical theater’s most important collaborations, the real star of the show was Williams as Gwen Verdon, the less-remembered partner of the groundbreaking star. Beyond the technical requirements of playing Gwen, including multiple musical numbers with the same verve and commitment demanded of any Broadway star, Williams sank fully into all of this woman’s complex emotions: her ambition, her talent, her loyalty and her deeply-felt sadness. But what makes her so captivating is how Gwen’s story isn’t a tragic one, and that’s something Williams never lets us forget. Not enough people might have remembered Gwen’s talent before this show premiered. But Williams made sure that, going forward, that would no longer be the case. —Liz Shannon Miller

Bill Hader, Barry

The concept of HBO’s Barry sounds like a post-Weekend Update Saturday Night Live sketch: Bill Hader, he the rubberman of a thousand faces, plays a hitman who wants to be an actor. Even the name “Barry” rolls off the tongue in such a way that sounds kind of like a wink to the audience that the show doesn’t take itself that seriously (sorry, IRL Barrys. Don’t @ me).

But what Hader has done with this Emmy-winning part, particularly in the second season, is give a depth to a role that would make any acting teacher proud. This is a man who must allow his particular skillset of committing murder boil just beneath the surface—thanks, in no small part to an acting exercise that forces him to relive just how easy killing came to him when he served as a Marine—as he attempts to pass as a non-threatening Lululemon employee dreaming of a non-homicidal version of a big break, freaks out when he almost shoots his own girlfriend, or gets attacked by a tween girl. Hader’s Barry makes Barry the definition of a dramedy. —Whitney Friedlander

Regina King, Watchmen

In Episode 3 of Damon Lindelof’s bold attempt to continue the classic graphic novel deconstruction of superheroes, something very important happens: Angela Abar (Regina King) has to sing at a friend’s funeral … and she sings poorly. This is honestly a gratifying moment because, quite frankly, King is so goddamn good at literally everything else she does that this moment of imperfection proves that she is not, in fact, as superhuman as Dr. Manhattan.

But the 48-year-old actress does truly excel when it comes to every other thing the show asks her to do, playing police detective, mother, wife, action hero, and occasionally her own grandfather. It’s a wild and wonderful performance which anchors a wild and wonderful show, one which has given her the opportunity to do things she’s never gotten to do before—such as this shocking fact, revealed during the summer 2019 Television Critics Association press tour: In over 30 years as an actor, she’d never done an onscreen sex scene before. You’d never know that, though, watching her in the show. Because goddamn, Regina King is just that good. —Liz Shannon Miller

Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll

I’m not going to lie to you. I did not enjoy the movie Groundhog Day at all, so the idea that I would fall in love with Russian Doll, a show that has some similarities when it comes to time being relative, is surprising. I think the biggest difference is Natasha Lyonne. She plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman who is inherently flawed yet lovable, to perfection. Lyonne does more than simply deliver lines—much of her acting is what she brings to her mannerisms, the way she makes you feel as surprised and horrified as she is at returning to that same bathroom. Each time she comes back it felt brand new and yet familiar. Dying and coming back to life over and over again could have felt contrived, but somehow, it never did. Plus, she restored my faith in curly bangs. Natasha is the kind of actress who can make you believe anything, even that she can fix her own place in time.  —Keri Lumm

Louie Anderson, Baskets

From the beginning, it was clear that Louie Anderson’s character Christine Baskets was the true star of FX’s quirky family comedy. And fittingly, over time, Christine got more and more screen time and stories of her own. Alongside that change came another, perhaps related one: the show got much sweeter. Christine is just a suburban, Costco-loving mom from Bakersfield, CA who wants to do right by her family. That included, ultimately, buying a rodeo (even though really she wanted an Arby’s franchise). Along the way she found love and even left California, but throughout it all, Anderson’s portrayal was comedic in the most unexpected ways. It was never about the actor in drag, but about how perfectly he was playing a suburban, Costco-loving mom from Bakersfield, CA. Anderson has given interviews about how he based elements of Christine on his own mother, and that genuine desire to give this character a fully developed life and personality has continued to shine through. Baskets was a show about many things and many people, but thanks to Anderson’s really unique, hilarious, and poignant performance, Christine was truly its heart and soul. —Allison Keene

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