Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones
We’ll admit that this isn’t a particularly original choice — Dinklage has, after all, already won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a slew of other honors for his portrayal of the “half man” who seems to be the only Lannister who actually has a soul. But we think his performance has been even stronger and more nuanced this season, in which Tyrion has slowly transformed from a selfish bon vivant to King’s Landing’s very own moral compass, not to mention a totally badass warrior, while also falling in love. Dinklage has handled all the subtle changes in his character with sensitivity and insight, creating a complex character in a world where too many people seem to be either wholly good or pure evil.
Krysten Ritter as Chloe, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23
We’ve loved Krysten Ritter ever since the days of Veronica Mars, and her heartbreaking stint on Breaking Bad a few seasons ago proved she had the acting chops to become a true star. So we were thrilled to hear that she’d landed her own network sitcom, which is why we bothered to give a show with such a long and terrible, self-censored title a shot. It’s a good thing we did, because Ritter is fantastically dastardly as Apartment 23’s resident con-artist/sociopath, a role that provides her plenty of latitude for bizarre and entertaining hijinks. Not everyone could sell this character as anything but your typical “crazy bitch,” but Ritter makes her charming and glamorous enough that we almost understand why her roommate, June, finds her remotely tolerable.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Key & Peele
Finally, a great Comedy Central sketch show that isn’t canceled after a season or less! Embodying a dizzying array of characters of all backgrounds, MadTV vets Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele gave us one of the most nuanced takes on American politics, race relations, and popular culture in the history of comedy — all while creating endless “funny because they’re true” scenarios about everyone from ’90s R&B duos to shady landlords. But the show’s crowning achievement is Peele’s Barack Obama impression, complemented by Key acting as an “anger translator” named Luther, in a recurring sketch that is so spot-on that even the president himself is a fan.
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, Homeland
From the moment Angela Chase reinvented herself with some shocking red hair dye, we knew that Danes had talent. And while her film work has also been excellent over the years, her performance as Homeland’s Carrie Mathison might just be her crowning achievement. A CIA agent who is secretly taking medication for bipolar disorder, she develops a theory that a newly released POW, Sgt. Nicholas Brody, is working for al-Qaeda. The show follows Carrie as her hunch grows into an obsession, and she struggles to both prove that Brody’s been turned and maintain control as her mental health deteriorates. In Dane’s hands, the character is both relatable and often frustrating, resulting in what the National Alliance of Mental Illness has praised as a rare “realistic portrayal of mental illness.”
Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir, Community
Speaking of characters with unusual psychological makeups, many have speculated that Community’s Abed falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. Whether he technically qualifies or not, the character has been the show’s central focus this year, in scripts that delve into his tendency to live through pop culture and force his friends into the archetypal narratives of the film and TV shows he loves so much. Although his obsessions and difficulty relating to others had mostly been played for laughs in seasons past, Danny Pudi embraced the new, multidimensional Abed, with all the devastating breakdowns and escapist transformations into other characters (including Evil Abed) that entailed.
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, Mad Men
With all the continued excitement over her beautiful curves and sassy quips, Joan Harris’ internal life has historically been hugely undervalued by Mad Men fans. But this year, Matthew Weiner and Christina Hendricks have made her plight impossible to ignore, as she dramatically breaks free from the husband who raped her before they were married and uses an indecent proposal as leverage to win financial independence. Like most storylines on the show this season, Joan’s isn’t particularly subtle ��� but our heroine also isn’t one to spill her guts over ice cream with the gals, and Hendricks’ face has become the stage on which all her inner conflicts play out, conveying to us her every reservation and insecurity.
Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, The Hour
Dominic West and Romola Garai were also wonderful on the BBC’s ’50s newsroom series, The Hour, but it was the passionate, arrogant charm of Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon that powered us through the show’s first few, slow episodes to the thrilling second half of the season. A character whose relentless search for the truth might be more of a detriment to his career than an asset, he transcended the cub reporter archetype to embody all the admirable instincts and self-indulgent habits of a young man who knows he’s the smartest, bravest person in any given room. Less traditionally handsome that West’s Hector Madden, Freddie is nonetheless The Hour’s most fascinating, magnetic presence, and that’s due as much to Whishaw’s energy as to the show’s excellent scripts.
Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Treme
We’ve praised Khandi Alexander’s performance on David Simon’s depressingly under-appreciated HBO drama Treme before, and to be honest, the show’s second season actually aired somewhere between the end of the 2010-11 cycle and the beginning of 2011-12. But she deserves another round of recognition for the dignity she brought to the suffering LaDonna endured at the hands of a pair of thieves who ransacked her bar and raped her, as a call to the police went unanswered. Alexander conveyed the toll such a traumatizing attack can take on even the strongest and most spirited of women, demonstrating how it changed LaDonna without ever losing sight of the character’s true, New Orleans-loving soul.
Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford, Parks and Recreation
Midway through Parks and Rec’s first season, Amy Poehler and the show’s writers seemed to have a revelation about Leslie Knope: She couldn’t just be a Michael Scott-style clueless boss. She needed some more complexity, and we needed to like her. Although we already loved Aziz Ansari’s smooth-talking, big-dreaming, high-living Tom Haverford, it took until Season 4 for his character to feel like a real person. Knocked down a peg by the failure of his and Jean-Ralphio’s ridiculous company, Entertainment 720, and challenged by a relationship with Ann that demanded he move beyond faux swagger and cheesy pick-up lines, Tom showed us the vulnerability that we always assumed was lurking beyond the surface. And while the writers deserve credit for filling out an incomplete character, it’s Ansari who kept the new Tom consistent with the old Tom, folding the glimpses of sadness and insecurity into that same oversize personality.
Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Downton Abbey
Did you think we could make a list like this without celebrating global treasure Maggie Smith as the meanest, wittiest elderly aristocrat in all of England? Reader, we could not. Whatever you thought of Downton Abbey Season 2 — and we’re sticking by it even though it absolutely qualifies as a soap opera — there’s simply no arguing that the Dowager Countess and her withering one-liners were in top form from beginning to end.