This is my favorite time of year as a writer. It is the only one that I make sure to, even if my writing output for the rest of the year has been less than desirable. I love it for a couple of reasons. First, I love recommending television to people. The sheer amount of television available is overwhelming and if I can help someone find a TV show they would have otherwise never heard of or if I can sell a show in a different way that resonates with them, I’m happy. I want to share the things I love. Second, these lists are a chance for me to be introspective. They allow me to look at what I loved and why this year. I get to see whether the broad genres of comedy or dramas are more engaging to me. I get to think about where the shows I love have aired and be excited about the way their distribution affects the story they are telling. Most of all, I get to think about what resonated with me. Whose emotional journeys touched my heart the most? What kinds of stories did I want to see? How are those stories being told?
To start out this year’s celebration of the things I loved in television, I decided to try something new. I added a list this year to my traditional line-up of characters, relationships, moments, episodes, and shows. There is some incredible talent on TV right now and I wanted to be able to recognize some of it. In other changes this year, I am trying my hand at ranking my choices for further introspection on my part. I hope you all enjoy reading my picks as much as I enjoyed writing about them and share your own in the comments below. In the upcoming weeks, keep an eye on Nerdy Girl Notes and MGCircles Media for even more year-end fun!
1. Adan Young (Rectify) Any member of the Rectify cast could have been on this list as each one has been incredible in the final season. But this show would not exist in this form without Adan Young’s Daniel. His performance is achingly raw and honest, to an extent that is both beautiful and painful to watch. Young has put his soul into this performance for the past four years and created something extraordinary. I can’t think of anything else on television like it and I feel fortunate to have seen it.
2. Eva Green (Penny Dreadful) I’m incredibly sad that this is the last time Eva Green will be eligible for this list (at least for her performance as Vanessa Ives) because since Penny Dreadful came on the air, she has been one of the best performers on TV. Her performance is uninhibited and no matter what has been asked of her, she has imbued her acting with a physicality that few others can rival. She brought this character to life in a truly extraordinary way and I am so grateful to her for that.
3. Keri Russell (The Americans) Elizabeth has always been the less approachable of the two Jennings adults. Her devotion to Mother Russia was (mostly) unwavering and her emotional distance a necessity of the job asked of her. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel things deeply and Keri Russell has never let us forget that. We see the hurt and the heartbreak this job can cause, her fierce love for her children and her desire to share herself with them more fully. Then we see her put her spy mask back on and transform into someone who can’t be allowed those feelings because they interfere with her duty. It’s only when she’s back home again with Philip that she’s allowed to be vulnerable and we feel all of those nuances and shifts with Russell’s extraordinary performance.
4. Sarah Paulson (People vs. OJ Simpson)Her performance of Marcia Clark was nothing short of extraordinary. Since the trial, Clark has had so much ridicule and scorn directed her way and Sarah Paulson showed America just how wrong they were to do so. She gave some dignity and respect to a woman who fought so hard for justice for two families and who never lost sight of the victims in the media circus. The empathy and depth she brought to the role and the respect she had for the real Marcia Clark was so evident, both onscreen and off. In a cast full of incredible performances, she was one of the highlights.
5. Sterling K. Brown (People vs. OJ Simpson, This Is Us) This has been a stellar year for Sterling K. Brown. Not only did he give us a layered and complex portrayal of Chris Darden in but he’s also the best part of This Is Us. In both roles, he brings a quiet intensity to his performances that is absolutely riveting. You can’t help but believe in his sincerity and his emotions, whether the scene is sharing a sweet dance with a coworker or in the face of heartbreaking betrayal.
6. Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) You can’t watch Jane the Virgin and not fall in love with the energy Gina Rodriguez brings to the role. She has thrown herself into it with such enthusiasm and her love for Jane and the show Jennie Urman since through in everything she does. The sincerity she brings to her performance grounds the heightened world of the show, which takes full advantage of her ability to make you feel every emotion of Jane’s in a real and very believable way.
7. Catriona Balfe (Outlander) So much of Outlander’s appeal is due to the sizzling chemistry between Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, but Balfe also has done an incredible job with Claire as a character in her own right. We are able to see her strength, grace, intelligence, and compassion as she manipulates, loves, and heals. We want to cheer for Claire when she succeeds and cry with her in times of sadness because of the depth that Balfe brings to her body language and facial expressions. She feels real in a world where time travel is possible and that makes all the difference.
8. Ellen Pompeo (Grey’s Anatomy) Meredith is the one character this show cannot afford to lose. Not because she’s the titular “Grey” but because 13 seasons in, Ellen Pompeo’s acting is still something to behold. Meredith has suffered so much loss over the course of the show. The most important people in her life have been taken away, whether through distance, death, or the threat of jail. They are all losses she has to live with but can’t allow herself to think about too closely or she could never survive under the weight of all the pain. We feel all of that in Pompeo’s performance, especially in flashbacks to Derek’s death (still the best work she’s done on the show to date). Her performance has shifted as Meredith has loved and lost and grown and hid away and she’s still turning out incredible and often overlooked work.
9. Sarah Shahi (Person of Interest) Sameen Shaw doesn’t feel emotions with the same intensity as those around her. She had them, but they were muted and occasionally brushed aside when inconvenient. In the hands of a lesser actress, she could have been one-dimensional as a result. Not with Sarah Shahi. Though not often outwardly emotional (her tear after her conversation with The Machine being a notable and magnificent exception), she had motivations that drove her actions and Shahi made sure we never lost sight of those. She was fighting for something for the first time rather than against something else and that subtle shift was such a pleasure to watch.
10. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) Between acting on the show, doing a substantial amount of the singing, and co-writing the music, I don’t know how Rachel Bloom isn’t completely exhausted 100% of the time. She has taken this very complex character and been utterly fearless in presenting all sides of her. There’s a lot of time that her performances are uncomfortable to watch, sometimes because you’re cringing so much and sometimes because your heart is breaking for Rebecca, but she commits and sells you on this very flawed character who is trying to figure out her place in the world.
Honorable Mentions: Lindsay Morgan (The 100), Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire), Kether Donohue (You’re the Worst), Clayne Crawford (Rectify)