We usually don’t tune into TV shows for the actors the way we might trek to the multiplex for the new Meryl Streep or Mark Wahlberg star vehicle. TV actors tend to worm their way into our hearts over time, as our investment in a show deepens or a character develops in unexpected ways. Sometimes an actor with a minor role will steal every scene she’s in.
For years now, film stars have been flocking to TV, and actors, directors, and writers have been singing the medium’s praises as the place to go if you have a real story to tell. We were spoiled in 2016 with a wealth of rich, dynamic acting in both drama and comedy. Below, unranked, are the year’s 15 best performances.
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Both Matthew Rhys and his co-star and wife, Keri Russell, are spectacularly good on The Americans. But in the fourth season in particular, Rhys’s character, the Russian spy Philip Jennings, has had to contend with his creeping conscience in a way that Russell’s Elizabeth not. You could watch this show on mute and still see that development play out on Rhys’s face.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, BrainDead
BrainDead is a pretty silly show, but I grew to love it over its first (and only) season this summer, mostly because of the eternal loveliness of star Mary Elizabeth Winstead. As Laurel, a filmmaker who moves to D.C. to work for her senator brother, Winstead is a marker of humanity amid the stifling, soulless atmosphere of Washington politics. And her chemistry with co-star Aaron Tveit is off the charts.
Portia Doubleday, Mr. Robot
Season 2 of Mr. Robot squandered its early potential, in my opinion, devoting 12 episodes to what basically amounted to a long-winded set-up for Season 3. But the performances kept me watching week after week, particularly that of Portia Doubleday, who plays Angela. After being hired at E Corp, Angela is part of the very corporation she’s been trying to take down, and Doubleday skillfully portrays the character’s emotional bind.
Trace Lysette, Transparent
Trace Lysette has played Shea, one of Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) housemates, since the first season of Transparent. But in Season 3, the show really put her to work: I think I watched the scene in which Shea reams out Josh (Jay Duplass) in an abandoned amusement park a dozen times. Lysette does not hold back: Her ferocious, raw response to a humiliating moment is devastating.
Yvonne Orji, Insecure
Every character on Insecure is, at some point, his or her own worst enemy. Yvonne Orji’s Molly, a corporate lawyer and self-proclaimed former “hood rat,” spends the HBO comedy’s first season on a man hunt only to find herself held hostage, time and time again, by her own impossible standards. Molly is gorgeous and successful, but Orji isn’t afraid to show the character’s ugly side.
Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld
Although I wasn’t a fan of Westworld’s first season, Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as the cyborg Dolores is an undeniable highlight of the year in TV. Really, all the robot-acting on Westworld has been excellent, but Wood has been particularly fun to watch as a “host” of an interactive theme park whose independent consciousness gradually progresses over the course of the season. It’s scary how much control Wood has over her every movement and expression; like Tatiana Maslany’s multiple clones on Orphan Black, her performance is an emotionally affecting sleight of hand.
Laurie Metcalf, Horace and Pete
Even if you never watched Louis C.K.’s surprise series, Horace and Pete, which was available only through his website, you probably heard about Laurie Metcalf’s guest appearance in the third episode — for which Metcalf was nominated for one of three Emmys this year. The episode begins with a long, uninterrupted monologue by Metcalf, who just goes to town on it. It’s just too good for words. Watch it.
Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Sterling K. Brown brings a new level of depth to prosecutor Christopher Darden’s role in the O.J. Simpson trial. Darden was the man caught in the middle of the nasty, racially charged trial that pit him against his own mentor, Johnny Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who called him a traitor to his race. Brown plays this impossible dilemma with warmth — and, when it’s called for, a little heat.
Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Rachel Bloom is our new patron saint of neurotic Jewish women. The co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hilarious as Rebecca Bunch, a Scarsdale-raised high-achiever who leaves her corporate New York law firm for underwhelming West Covina, California. Bloom can sing, act, dance — she can even do a mean pole routine. Bloom’s performance is a sly unpacking of the show’s title phrase — can you call a woman crazy just for being in love?! Well, uh, yeah.
Kathryn Hahn, I Love Dick
This adaptation of the 1997 Chris Kraus book, from Transparent’s Jill Soloway and playwright Sarah Gubbins, hasn’t even technically premiered yet — Amazon streamed the pilot in August, and full first season will be available in 2017. But Kathryn Hahn’s performance as the neurotic filmmaker Chris, who falls for taciturn cultural critic/cowboy Dick (Kevin Bacon), packs more explosive energy into a single half-hour episode than some actors do over entire seasons.
Jodie Comer, Thirteen
This one-season BBC America series has a Room-like premise: 26-year-old Ivy escapes after being held captive in a cellar for 13 years. British actress Jodie Comer is excellent as Ivy, who has to learn how to live in the world as a grown woman, despite her stunted development and the horrific trauma she’s endured. Thirteen was more interested in exploring the psychology of abuse than actually showing it, and Comer brilliantly embodies Ivy’s fragile state.
Billy Bob Thornton, Goliath
The temptation to roll your eyes at yet another series with an alcoholic anti-hero at its center is understandable. But on Goliath, David E. Kelley’s legal thriller for Amazon, Billy Bob Thornton brings warmth and humanity to the kind of character that can easily devolve into a pile of clichés. As the down-and-out lawyer Billy McBride, Thornton’s weary menschiness is positively sexy.
Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul
The second season of this Breaking Bad spinoff smartly expanded the role of Kim Wexler, an attorney and old girlfriend of Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk). So many of Better Call Saul’s emotional beats are written between the lines, and Rhea Seehorn proved excellent at letting the viewer into Kim’s headspace through wordless gestures and facial expressions. It’s easy to believe that Seehorn’s performance led the writers to give Kim a bigger role in Season 2; let’s hope the same holds for Season 3.
Gael García Bernal, Mozart in the Jungle
Most of the actors on this list did fairly serious, dramatic work on their respective series; you don’t see too many funny scenes in those Oscar clips, after all. But Gael García Bernal is so beguiling as the star of Mozart in the Jungle, I had to include him. Mozart is a delight, but it’s easy to imagine the comedy about classical musicians falling apart without Bernal’s effortlessly charming performance as the passionate maestro Rodrigo. Bernal avoids turning the character into a “fiery Latino” cliché, and in the third season, reveals depths we didn’t know Rodrigo had.
Tobias Menzies, Outlander
Who could possibly imagine feeling sympathy for Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, Outlander’s consummate villain, after the first season’s penultimate episode, in which Randall (Tobias Menzies) tortures and rapes our Scottish hero, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan)? And yet in Season 2, we learn that while Randall doesn’t feel remorse for the pain he’s caused others, he’s well aware of the ugliness that lies deep in his heart. Randall is still a villain, but Menzies’s extraordinary performance forces us to reckon with and understand the man, if not quite accept him.