The 40 Best TV Performances of 2019

TV Lists Best of 2019
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Best Duos:

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William Zabka and Ralph Macchio, Cobra Kai
Look Cobra Kai is so much better than it has any business being. And that’s all due to Zabka and Macchio, who deftly reprise characters they created 35 years ago, with such ease and grace that it’s easy to miss their brilliant performances. Zabka shines as a man who peaked in high school and is struggling in his adult life to find his footing and realize the potential he has to offer. Macchio, still looking almost the same as he did when he was the young Daniel Son, rings true as a successful business man who is somehow pulled right back into his high school rivalry. These men ground the show, which pulls off being simultaneously nostalgic and contemporary, and give a whole new generation of fans a reason to wax on about the series. —Amy Amatangelo

Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke, The Other Two
Bickering TV siblings is an all-too-common trope of TV comedies. Brothers and sisters who actually get along? More of a rarity. In this case, they’re also key to making you not feel icky or dead inside while watching creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s Comedy Central series about a child overnight sensation going through the Hollywood Corruption Machine ™. As Cary and Brooke, the older—and suddenly overlooked—siblings of their newly-famous kid brother Chase (Case Walker), Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke pull off a camaraderie that makes it believable that they would casually talk about the particulars of anal sex while also knowing to align as their family’s protective fortress when it’s clear their mom (Molly Shannon) is in over her head. —Whitney Friedlander

Michael Sheen and David Tennant, Good Omens
Every once in a while, two performers come together with an intense natural chemistry that defines the whole production they’re in. Good Omens’ showrunners reported a unanimous thrill response the first time Sheen and Tennant shared the set, and it’s not hard to imagine why. From the opening minutes, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are the ultimate bromance, full of wit and sparkle and energy and feeling and whatever “that certain je ne sais quoi” really is. With every exchange, every gesture, every oh-so-polite awkward semi-simper from Sheen and every wink-wink-nudge-nudge snarl from Tennant, we believe devoutly that these two guys have in fact known each other for thousands of years. Their performances are separately stellar, capturing the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book beautifully—but it’s their combined performance, their manifestation as one being (Aziraphale-Crowley? Crowziraphale?) that really emits sparks. It’s a chemistry you cannot plan or predict. When it happens you understand you are in the presence of a wonderful little miracle, and you’re just grateful to be there to witness it.—Amy Glynn

Patricia Arquette and Joey King, The Act
When the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy first went viral as a Buzzfeed article;, it was captivating if only for the fact that trying to understand the complexities of what might be one of the 21st century’s most messed-up mother/daughter stories was nearly impossible. Not only understanding it, but also helping the audience grasp exactly what happened between these two women, was what faced Patricia Arquette and Joey King when they signed on for this engrossing Hulu mini-series. Fortunately they proved more than capable of handling the depths of toxicity that bound these women together. The ending of the story is tragic and strange, but by the time we get there, we completely understand why it happened. —Liz Shannon Miller

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, Killing Eve
Most on-screen duos are on this list because of the way they complement each other during shared screen time. Sandra Oh’s titular intelligence investigator, Eve Polastri, and Jodie Comer’s Emmy-winning role of ace assassin Villanelle are interesting for the opposite reason. For much of the BBC America and AMC show’s second season, their meeting is a delayed climax as the show teases how the two will reunite after a bloody encounter in Season 1—and on whose terms. To tide us over, the audience binges on runway-worthy fashion, creative murders, and GIF-able bon mots like they’re bulk candy bought in a Parisian train station. —Whitney Friedlander

Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, One Day at a Time
There were many reasons viewers were in an uproar when the Netlix comedy was abruptly cancelled after three seasons. But the main one was losing the delightful rapport between Lydia (Rita Moreno) and Penelope (Justina Machado) as the mother/daughter duo who fiercely love each other while at times chafing at their generational differences. Moreno is a force to be reckoned with as the feisty Lydia and Machado meets her energy beat for beat. They are the yin and yang of the show. Thankfully Pop TV picked up the series for a fourth season so at a minimum we will have 13 more episodes to watch these amazing ladies do their thing.—Amy Amatangelo

Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, Chernobyl
Unlikely friends, forged in hardship, make for great characters. With actors like Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård behind them, those characters can break your heart. A scientist and a bureaucrat, equally submerged icebergs of emotion (stoic and forthright, with both hiding most everything) and diametric opposites of idealism (cynic and earnest, both adapting to the other over time), their relationship and decency during HBO’s touching, tragic miniseries Chernobyl allowed the best of humanity to rise above the hellish, tainted depths wrought by its worst. The puttering, shuffling, middle management gait given by both actors, each of whom displayed enough righteous confidence to elicit a whoop or cheer in even the most dire of circumstances, made their heroism clear: these were the heroes that aren’t in stories. Whistleblowing and standing up for what’s right can make for Oscar-winning performances, but slogging, sweating, and shame-facedly dying for tiny pieces of progress requires an endearing nuance beyond convention. Skarsgård and Harris bridge the void of autocratic human weakness with a simple handshake, finding dignity where there should only be regret.—Jacob Oller

J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams, Counterpart
The thing to remember about a story as complex as Counterpart is that J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams aren’t just playing husband and wife Howard and Emily Silk, they’re also playing their clones from a parallel universe, ex-husband and wife Howard and Emily Silk. As the sophomore season of Starz’s now-defunct spy drama became more intricate and definitely not suitable for second-screen viewing, it was helpful to have actors confident enough to serve as a total of four anchors. We trust them to explain things about this world, even if we don’t always trust that what they’re saying is the truth. —Whitney Friedlander

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, Catastrophe
A creative partnership, especially when writing and starring in a show together, can feel like a marriage. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s impeccable run on Catastrophe, which came to an end this year after its fourth season, embraced the ridiculous, infuriating, severe, beautiful intimacy that can develop between two people that should, by all logic, have nothing to do with each other. A comedy as vicious as it is touching, Catastrophe took Sharon and Rob, characters sharing the first names of their creators and portrayers, from night one hookup to nuclear (disaster) family. The performances of the central duo successfully deliver lines that would be far too clever coming out of anyone else’s mouths while walking the tightrope between ultimate love and world-ending bitterness. At any moment, things could devolve into Achilles-razoring exchanges or passionate sex. Maybe both. Maintaining and evolving that energy is an impressive feat, but keeping that realistic, evocative tension alive (and funny) for half a decade is downright superlative.—Jacob Oller

Up Next: Breakout Individual Performances

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