It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s a time to celebrate the best the year had to offer and while much of the world seemed to bring about more anger and sadness, there were a lot of fictional things to love, both new and old. Over the rest of the month, I’ll be posting my lists of favorite things from this year. My normal categories of actors, characters, relationships, moments, episodes, and shows will be returning and I’ve added three new categories that I’m excited to share with you all. As always, this is a list that reflects more about who I am and what I enjoy in fiction than any attempt at an objective best. I find that I find a lot of thematic connections between the things that resonated with me in any given year and I hope that is true for many of you as well. It’s proved an excellent way to take a snapshot of the person I was when the list was written and I love being able to share myself with you all through these lists.
First up, it’s time to celebrate all of the wonderful performances we saw on television. Once again, it proved to be a stellar year for actresses with a wide variety of strong roles available to take on. In both comedies and dramas, it was often the women who stood out the most to me. The continued expansion of the types of roles we see women play excites me and I want to see it continue.
1. Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies) Hands down, this was the performance of the year. I was absolutely riveted every second Celeste was on screen. Kidman pulls off the combination of strength, fear, vulnerability, denial, and anger so well. We see the very careful facade she’s built for herself, especially during her therapy sessions with Dr. Reisman and we see the way her pain and fear shine through the cracks in the facade. We see her desire to free herself from the situation and her very real fear when Perry tells her he knows about her safe house. Above all, we feel everything because this performance is so transportative. It’s a deeply emotional role that I felt to my core and I can’t imagine anyone filling it as well as Kidman did.
2. Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) While this was a hard show and a hard role to watch at times, I can’t imagine a better casting choice. Moss is an incredibly expressive actress and the directing took full advantage of that fact in her many close-ups. In such a restrictive environment, small changes in facial expressions are all we have to know and understand Offred’s headspace in Gilead and how it changes as the season progresses. I’m not a big fan of enigmatic characters who can too often feel underdeveloped and I appreciated the fact that it was never the goal of the show to keep us guessing about June’s true feelings. We feel her anger, resentment, manipulation, and budding rebellion and would have even without the voiceovers. It takes a strong actress to convey so much with relatively little and Moss sold the performance, both on the show itself and as Offred to The Commander, every step of the way.
3. Matthew Rhys (The Americans) I’m not sure that there is anyone else on TV who can slowly fall apart quite as well as this man can. It’s happened over the course of the previous four seasons and it finally caught up to him. Philip was a man who was done with everything. He was done with the manipulation and sneaking around and the lies and it showed not just in Rhys’s expressions but his body language as well. Except for the wedding scene. It helps that he is acting alongside his actual wife, but it is the most at peace we saw Philip all season. This is why he keeps going in the morning, why he could never just walk away. There is a tenderness and love that is palpable between Rhys and Keri Russell that has always centered and informed Philip’s actions. We understand him through his love for his wife and his family and that is the part of the role that he has always played so exquisitely.
4. Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) There is a reason that Cersei remains one of the show’s most compelling characters, despite all she’s done. She is cruel and she has a near-insatiable need for power and control but she is also full of pain and bitterness at being born a woman in a world not made for them. She is a mother who has lost her children and a daughter who has lost her parents. With Headey, we’re able to see all the conflicts that rage with Cersei. We see everything she is willing to do to achieve power, to achieve something akin to safety, to keep her remaining family close to her and we can feel for her even as we recognize that she won’t and probably shouldn’t make it out of this war alive. She is far richer a character than she could have been and that is entirely due to Headey’s skills as an actress.
5. Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) There is a warmth and genuineness that shines through in everything Rodriguez does. It was the most emotionally challenging year she’s had to do on Jane the Virgin with Michael’s death and the exploration of grief that has taken place since and she has done it with the ease and believability that characterizes her work. She makes her emotions appear effortless, whether it is the excitement of getting her book published or the heartbreak that came from losing her husband. She is truly incredible and I continue to be excited about her acting future because it is sure to be extraordinary.
6. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) This has been an extraordinary year for her. Even if you discount all the other work she does on the show, like co-writing episodes and songs, you can’t overlook her abilities as an actress. She has taken Rebecca to darker and more vulnerable places this year and deeply touched people with her honest and compassionate performance. There’s nothing glamorous about her portrayal of Rebecca’s mental illness. We see the exhaustion and the lashing out and the closely held insecurities that have always been a part of this role but as all the pretenses that her obsession with Josh are stripped away, we can more clearly see the pain that lies underneath. It’s a remarkable performance and you feel Bloom’s dedication and a desire to tell this story the right way. I appreciate the kindness with which she has approached this next phase of Rebecca’s life and can’t wait to see more as the season moves forward from here.
7. Rita Moreno (One Day at a Time) She is a national treasure and we’re all just blessed by her willingness to share her talents with us. Her comedic timing in One Day at a Time is flawless but she also transitions so easily to rich emotional moments and back again without missing a beat. She makes us laugh, she makes us cry, she dances and puts a smile on our faces. She truly does do it all and does it well.
8. Ted Danson (The Good Place) His diabolical laugh in the season one finale could have earned him this spot on its own. The switch from genuine to manipulative was perfect. As much as I enjoy watching Michael onscreen, it looks like Danson is having the time of his life playing this role. In every episode, he continues to prove that he is one of the legends of television comedy.
9. Kofi Siriboe (Queen Sugar) Each member of the Queen Sugar cast is incredibly talented and each bring something different and important to the show. What Siriboe brings is a beautiful vulnerability and heart to the role of Ralph Angel and that’s something that is too often lacking for male characters. Ralph Angel is a character that feels things intensely, whether the emotion is positive or negative, and we’re able to feel all of it thanks to Siriboe’s willingness to dig deep and bare his soul on screen. The last few episodes of the season asked a lot of him and he was more than up to the challenge.
10. Jessica Lange (Feud) I don’t typically watch movies, let alone older ones, so I didn’t know much about this particular feud or either of these actresses. So while both of the lead actresses in Feud were terrific, it was Lange’s Joan Crawford that really grabbed my heart. Her ability to capture and portray so much nuance made Crawford relatable and worthy of empathy even her worst moments In particular, it was her work during “And the Winner Is”, when she persuades Anne Bancroft to let her accept the Oscar on her behalf that has stayed with me in the months since I watched. The vulnerability and rare honesty in the midst of the scheming and manipulation did such a good job conveying Crawford’s jealousy, resentment, and desperation to succeed over Bette Davis. You feel her pain and it’s all thanks to Lange’s talents.
Honorable Mentions: Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Rutina Wesley (Queen Sugar), Melanie Scrofano (Wynonna Earp), Keri Russell (The Americans), Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies), Justina Machado (One Day at a Time, Jane the Virgin)
Who makes your list of the best actors on television?