Heather Morris as Brittany Pierce — Glee
While thanks to a lack of narrative, we think that Glee is experiencing a bit of a sophomore slump in its second season, there has been one cast member who has really blossomed this year: Heather Morris. Her absurd asides (”I was pretty sure Dr. Pepper was a dentist.” “Can I be honest? I don’t understand the difference between an elf and a slave.” “Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?” ) are usually the best part of each episode, plus, as of late, we’ve gotten to see more of her dancing and singing talents put to good use. As Brittany herself would say, we think she’s the most talented of the New Directions — at least when it comes to making us want to tune in each week.
Ted Danson as George Christoper — Bored to Death
A few episodes into its first season, Bored to Death was good but not great. We liked Jason Schwartzman as real-life writer Jonathan Ames’ failed novelist-turned-unlicensed private detective alter ego, but he couldn’t carry the show by himself. So it was a wise decision to beef up Ted Danson’s (and the wonderful Zach Galifianakis’s) role. By Season 2, he was totally stealing the show as Edition magazine Editor-in-Chief George Christopher, the living embodiment of print media’s slow death. This year, as his character faced a cancer scare, Danson went deeper but never stopped delivering the laughs. Forget Sam Malone; George Christopher is the role of Ted Danson’s career.
Grace Zabriskie as Lois Henrickson — Big Love
Bill’s mom, Lois, is a tough, old broad with a steely gaze and an unshakable talent for digging her heels in until she gets what she wants. She’s also a semi-estranged wife of a crazed polygamist living on a fundamentalist Mormon compound. Zabriskie has formed these contradictions into a character who is equal parts frustrating, confounding, and sympathetic. Even in the company of strong actors like Chloë Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Harry Dean Stanton, Zabriskie manages to distinguish herself.
Zach Gilford as Matt Saracen — Friday Night Lights
The teen years are all about awkwardness, and no one in the history of television has done a better job portraying that than Zach Gilford. Matt Saracen may have been the star quarterback of the Dillon Panthers, but he spent most of high school trying to reconcile that newfound popularity with his own painfully palpable impression that he is the world’s biggest dweeb. Gilfrod was absent for much of the show’s fourth season, but his performance in its finale alone underscored how essential this sweet, honest, but never cloying character is to Friday Night Lights. The series’s final season hasn’t been the same without him, so we’re thankful to hear he’ll be returning for a few episodes.
Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper — Mad Men
The Mad Men cast is positively bursting with fantastic actors, but Season 4 belonged to 11-year-old Kiernan Shipka. Her character, the increasingly desperate, isolated, and recalcitrant Sally Draper is one of the most fascinating and complicated kids in TV history. Shipka has handled her growing role on the show with skill and maturity. We expect great things in the seasons to come, as Sally goes kicking and screaming into puberty.
Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Batiste-Williams — Treme
Treme is full of flashy, dramatic characters like John Goodman’s Creighton Burnette and Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary. And yet, it’s Khandi Alexander’s LaDonna who really seems to embody the spirit of show. LaDonna is caught between many worlds: her husband lives in Baton Rouge, but she spends most of her time in New Orleans, rebuilding her bar, searching for a brother who’s been missing since the hurricane hit, and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to avoid cheating with her old flame, Antoine. She doesn’t make impassioned speeches like Goodman or Zahn, but Alexander’s LaDonna subtly registers, absorbs, and reacts to everything around her. It’s Alexander’s face, not just her words, that tell us all we need to know about her life.
Jorge Garcia as Hugo “Hurley” Reyes — Lost
Tons of other actors have won laurels for their roles on this Christian/sci-fi/action/drama/whatever series. Bafflingly, their numbers don’t include Jorge Garcia, whose good-hearted lottery winner/mental patient character Hurley was nothing short of the show’s moral center. Sure, he was goofy. But there was a lot of subtlety to the role, too, from Hurley’s battle with mental illness (or was it?) to his doomed love for Libby to his quiet determination to keep everyone working together.
David Call as Ben Donovan — Gossip Girl
On a show not known for its cast’s acting chops, David Call has actually been surprisingly compelling as Ben Donovan, a mysterious prisoner who believes Serena van der Woodsen ruined his life. The fact that he has managed to do it while acting opposite the stupefyingly wooden Katie Cassidy for about 90% of his screen time means he deserves this award just as much as anyone else on this list.
Lizzy Caplan as — Party Down
For geeks like us, the premature cancellation of Starz series Party Down was among the saddest TV news items of the year. Perhaps the strongest member of this incredibly talented ensemble cast, she completely inhabits the character of Casey, a struggling comedian who can’t seem to get her professional or romantic life under control. We first fell in love with Caplan as wry high schooler Janis Ian in Mean Girls, and it’s that same knowingness that made her fun to watch on Party Down.
Iman as Iman — The Fashion Show
Is Iman as glamorous and imperious in her private life as she is on Bravo’s successful reboot of The Fashion Show? Probably not. Frankly, it would be tough to go through life that way. But her portrayal of, well, herself as a dominatrix ice queen from hell is hands down the best thing about the show. She’s certainly our favorite model-hostess, considering the competition includes screechy Heidi Klum and Miss Tyra, TV’s most unselfconscious megalomaniac. Keep doing what you’re doing, Iman.