The 25 Best TV Performances of 2010

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10. Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire)

Character: Nucky Thompson
Network: HBO
Nucky Johnson—the character that Boardwalk Empire’s king of Atlantic City is based on—was a bear of a man. But it’s hard to imagine anyone but Steve Buscemi in the lead. If there were no Buscemi, there would be no Boardwalk Empire. He’s the center of it all, and the role he plays, like the show’s Atlantic City, has a compromised morality and quite a few character flaws, but a morality nonetheless. Nucky Thompson isn’t one of Buscemi’s flashier characters, but he’s extremely complex, and a lot more than just a crook with a heart. And ultimately what else can you say but he’s Steve Buscemi—there’s nobody else like him.—SG


9. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory)

Character: Sheldon Cooper
Network: CBS
The foundation to Jim Parsons’ marvelous portrayal of a Star Trekkie physicist lies in the character himself, a kind of combining of Stephen Hawking’s intellect with the naivete of Kenneth Parcell (see Jack McBrayer above). The result is a sitcom success story.—TB


8. Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family)

Character: Cameron Tucker
Network: ABC
The best ensemble cast on television right now has quite a few actors that could have made this list, but the standout is Eric Stonestreet, whose bumbling and lovable portrayal of gay stay-at-home dad Cameron Tucker has given audiences some refreshingly honest moments.—TB


7. Jon Hamm (Mad Men)

Character: Don Draper
Network: AMC
Jon Hamm is all-in on Don Draper. If you’ve seen his comedic turns on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, you know that he’s nothing like the self-loathing, domineering ad exec. And he owns the role with a coolness and authority that hearkens back to Cary Grant.—Nick Purdy


6. Tina Fey (30 Rock)

Character: Liz Lemon
Network: NBC
It’s not enough that Tina Faye created this masterful, Emmy-winning show, or that she writes or co-writes most every episode. She also has the audacity to play (much to our pleasure) the pitiful but lovable Liz Lemon each and every week. —TB


5. Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men)

Character: Peggy Olson
Network: AMC
The transition from the Eisenhower years to the turbulent ‘60s is one of the more fascinating sub-plots of Mad Men. And no one’s personal transformation is as representative of a time as Peggy Olson’s, insightfully played by Elisabeth Moss, as she progresses from mousey secretary to head copywriter and becomes “liberated” along the way.—TB


4. Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire)

Character: Nelson Van Alden
Network: HBO
As the righteous G-man Nelson Van Alden, Michael Shannon combines all his acting skills into one laser sharp performance. Van Alden is alternately terrifying and pathetic, and Shannon deliciously exposes the darkness.—TB


3. Laura Linney (The Big C)

Character: Cathy Jamison
Network: Showtime
Plenty of movie actors have made the jump to TV, but Laura Linney, as producer and star of Showtime’s The Big C, has made the small screen seem big, playing a high-school teacher and mom with terminal cancer.—JJ


2. Michael C. Hall (Dexter)

Character: Dexter Morgan
Network: Showtime
Everyone’s favorite serial killer has grown over his five seasons, and Hall along with him: Dexter’s darkness and light continue to battle beneath his normally cool exterior. Thankfully, Hall’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma went into remission this year, and Dexter will be returning for a sixth season.—AW


1. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)

Character: Walter White
Network: AMC
After three seasons and three Emmys, Bryan Cranston still somehow elicits sympathy for the meth-making, home-breaking Walter White. The fourth season (July 2011) can’t come fast enough.—TB