The 40 Best TV Performances of 2019

TV Lists Best of 2019
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Best Individual Performances

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Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson
Apple TV+’s fever-pitched coming-of-age period piece about notoriously reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson might have seemed like a Peak TV punchline when its development was first announced, but anyone who had watched Hailee Steinfeld knock the house down in 2016’s sleeper teen banger, The Edge of Seventeen, knew immediately that with her in Emily’s eccentric shoes, Dickinson was bound to be some kind of marvel. Unsurprisingly, when Dickinson finally dropped this past November, Edge of Seventeen diehards were proven right: Steinfeld, as a late teens/early twentysomething Emily Dickinson, is a principled, passionate, proudly weird livewire. Her every line, sigh and facial expression sizzle with a frenetic, barely repressed physicality that beautifully mirrors the lexical and orthographical choices the real Dickinson made in the poems that give each episode its narrative shape. Lines spill across the screen and wrap around the characters as fast and Steinfeld’s Emily can get them out. Steinfeld will always be a joy to watch, wherever she goes, but as long as she’s willing to so deeply embody the American literary tradition’s weirdest, most passionate Amherst poet, we’ll be here watching. —Alexis Gunderson

Aidan Gallagher, Umbrella Academy
There are plenty of showbiz kids who act far beyond their years in TV shows and movies, almost eerily precocious in the way they talk like—and occasionally have the mannerisms of—someone decades older. In the case of Aidan Gallagher’s Number Five in Umbrella Academy, he was supposed to be much older than he appears. Number Five gets trapped in a post-apocalyptic future where he ages into his 50s before finding his way back in time, and to his 13-year-old body. But the way Gallagher balances the physical comedy of a tween with the well-earned weary cynicism of a man who has been through hell is truly masterful. It can be funny and it can be sad, but above all it’s consistent. And that’s not an easy thing for a show as wonderfully bonkers as this one. Umbrella Academy provided a number of great performances, but none shone as brightly as Number Five. —Allison Keene

Suranne Jones, Gentleman Jack
Look up the word “radiant” in the dictionary and if there isn’t a smiling closeup of Suranne Jones as the redoubtable Anne Lister, there arguably ought to be. Jones strides into the pilot of Gentleman Jack like a sort of butch, handsome Mary Poppins, her mannish sartorial sensibility subverted by that massive, luminous smile. Her demeanor is the kind that in contemporary parlance might be described as “not giving one single solitary fuck,” but that’d be inaccurate. Anne Lister does absolutely give a fuck: Just not about what society mindlessly demands of her based on her sex. She’s a sincere Anglican who believes in God. She’s a woman of intellect who values education for its own sake as well as for practical worldly purposes. She’s an avid romantic who is seriously pained by the societal norms that make it especially hard for her to have an authentic love life. She cares about her family. She cares about her tenants. She’s not a saint and she’s not without class-blinders; she’s vocal about her feeling that there’s no point to working-class people having the vote and it takes four episodes for her to even notice her maid is pregnant. But she exudes intelligence and canniness and competence and a general lust for life that flies in the face of everything you think of as Victorian womanhood. I guess the good news about being a relentlessly polarizing character is you usually don’t have to question where you stand with people.—Amy Glynn

Stephen Dorff, True Detective
If True Detective Season 1 was the start of the McConassaince, then True Detective Season 3 might well be the start of the Dorfassaince, and no one among us saw that coming. What makes this most recent season so great—and such a welcome return to form after a terribly hollow and sluggish Season 2—were the soulful portrayals from its main cast. We all knew Mahershala Ali would be great, and he was. Most of us had a feeling that Scoot McNairy would be devastating, and he was. But few could have predicted that Stephen Dorff would come out of this season as perhaps the true hero, playing his pure-hearted character with such casual cool and earnest intent that he really stole the show. Everyone nailed their southern accents, which is no small feat, but Dorff did wonderful things with Roland’s unhurried drawl. It all added up to a performance that felt personal, knowable, sweet, and sad (and I haven’t even mentioned the dogs!) —Allison Keene

Idris Elba, Turn Up Charlie
Turn Up Charlie might have slipped under your radar, but if it did, know that it’s still on Netflix, so you still have the chance to watch Idris Elba play a down-on-his-luck DJ who might be on the verge on a big break (thanks to his relationship with an old friend whose wife is big time in the music world), and the way in which Charlie works his way into their lives as, basically, a nanny for their precocious young daughter. The concept was one Elba pitched directly to Netflix;, and it definitely lets him highlight his comedy chops, present a softer image to those who only think of him as a badass, and give us all the gift of watching Stringer Bell verbally battle with a young girl… and more often than not, lose. To be clear, it was one of 2019’s most innocent pleasures. —Liz Shannon Miller

Christina Applegate, Dead to Me
This is going to sound a little weird but: I’m so proud of Christina Applegate. I’ve followed her since she became a household name with Married with Children. She was a teenager thrust into the spotlight and also sexualized by the medium at a far too young age. That she’s navigated a long-running and successful career out of that with other memorable parts (Bad Moms being the most recent example) is admirable in and of itself (not that Applegate needs my admiration). But it wasn’t until the Netflix comedy about a woman grieving the sudden loss of her husband that Applegate found a role that fully utilized the full complement and range of her talents. She deftly threads the needle of the show’s tricky balance of comedy and drama. She’s doing a deadpan delivery in one scene and breaking your heart in the next. Jen Harding is the role of Applegate’s career. —Amy Amatangelo

Kirsten Dunst, On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Kirsten Dunst got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2019, and while a major news organization (who will not be named) said her most famous role was that of Spiderman’s girlfriend, I would argue that her role as Krystal Stubbs in On Becoming a God in Central Florida truly made her worthy of the honor—even though her list of previous acting accomplishments was enough. Dunst can do anything, but usually when I think of her, I picture her as adorable girl-next-door. In this role, she made me believe that she was a hardscrabble woman from central Florida just trying to get by—her transformation from girl-next-door turned network-marketing-pro was just brilliant. As a Southern woman with Facebook, I’m asked to be a part of an “upline” on an almost daily basis—watching that scheme play out in Florida without the internet was just amazing to watch. She might have been forced into the scheme, but for her family she will do anything.  And if you weren’t moved by that part of the story, fans of Drop Dead Gorgeous were also given a treat when she created a dance routine with poles and puppets. I was so utterly charmed by her take on ’90s women that it made me want to put on a swimsuit and do some water aerobics.  —Keri Lumm

Holt McCallany, Mindhunter
The duality of man embodied by Holt McCallany’s performance as Special Agent Bill Tench bubbles Mindhunter’s molten core to the surface. The ongoing war waged by law enforcement upon serial killers is ineffective, reactive, and increasingly getting to those immersing themselves in the world of the murderously deviant. McCallany, thick and out of time in a way that puts the Men in Mad Men, was an endearingly gruff and intelligent breakout from the Netflix show’s first season, but Season 2 dove deep into the upstanding father’s psyche. Vulnerability is a cheap word that gets a few extra zeros added thanks to McCallany’s metered, exhausted, iterative performance that grinds his character to emotional dust as Tench grinds his teeth. While his son becomes involved in a criminal case of his own and his investigation not only stalls, but constantly fucks up, Tench convincingly frays thanks to McCallany’s devoted and rich characterization.—Jacob Oller

Justin Hartley, This Is Us
When the TV nominations are trotted out we always see a lot of names from This Is Us clan and rightly Sterling K. Brown, Milo Ventimiglia, and Mandy Moore get a lot of attention for their stellar performances. But Justin Hartley turns in the kind of performance that is easily overlooked. He makes the complexity of his character look effortless. Kevin is often the show’s much-needed comic relief, and this fourth season—which explores the long-lasting ramifications of the Big Three losing their father when they were seniors in high school—he still is. But beneath Kevin’s jovial exterior, Hartley conveys a man still not quite at ease with his life, still searching for answers and still trying to connect with the father he lost years ago. In those quieter moments, Hartley conveys so much, often without any dialogue. He gives layers to a character who on paper could have easily been a one note joke. —Amy Amatangelo

Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave
The creator and star of this wonderfully weird Netflix series never got enough credit for his other wonderfully weird series (with co-creator and co-star Sam Richardson), Detroiters, but we can at least give him some kudos here. Tim Robinson goes deep with his cringe comedy and throws himself fully into the fire here, in a mix of sketches that mostly embrace surrealism to bring us a collection of short, weird vignettes that are ultimately a little nightmarish. Robinson has no ego here in terms of making himself look good, and thrives on discomfort. It was something he toyed with in terms of his character on Detroiters, but here goes full-tilt into madness. The results are exceptionally fun, and Robinson deserve oodles of praise for creating, writing, producing, and starring in something so purely good. —Allison Keene

Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon
God, did Michelle Williams razzle-dazzle us this year. While Bob Fosse’s name might have come first in the title of the FX miniseries about one of musical theater’s most important collaborations, the real star of the show was Williams as Gwen Verdon, the less-remembered partner of the groundbreaking star. Beyond the technical requirements of playing Gwen, including multiple musical numbers with the same verve and commitment demanded of any Broadway star, Williams sank fully into all of this woman’s complex emotions: her ambition, her talent, her loyalty and her deeply-felt sadness. But what makes her so captivating is how Gwen’s story isn’t a tragic one, and that’s something Williams never lets us forget. Not enough people might have remembered Gwen’s talent before this show premiered. But Williams made sure that, going forward, that would no longer be the case. —Liz Shannon Miller

Bill Hader, Barry
The concept of HBO’s Barry sounds like a post-Weekend Update Saturday Night Live sketch: Bill Hader, he the rubberman of a thousand faces, plays a hitman who wants to be an actor. Even the name “Barry” rolls off the tongue in such a way that sounds kind of like a wink to the audience that the show doesn’t take itself that seriously (sorry, IRL Barrys. Don’t @ me).

But what Hader has done with this Emmy-winning part, particularly in the second season, is give a depth to a role that would make any acting teacher proud. This is a man who must allow his particular skillset of committing murder boil just beneath the surface—thanks, in no small part to an acting exercise that forces him to relive just how easy killing came to him when he served as a Marine—as he attempts to pass as a non-threatening Lululemon employee dreaming of a non-homicidal version of a big break, freaks out when he almost shoots his own girlfriend, or gets attacked by a tween girl. Hader’s Barry makes Barry the definition of a dramedy. —Whitney Friedlander

Regina King, Watchmen
In Episode 3 of Damon Lindelof’s bold attempt to continue the classic graphic novel deconstruction of superheroes, something very important happens: Angela Abar (Regina King) has to sing at a friend’s funeral … and she sings poorly. This is honestly a gratifying moment because, quite frankly, King is so goddamn good at literally everything else she does that this moment of imperfection proves that she is not, in fact, as superhuman as Dr. Manhattan.

But the 48-year-old actress does truly excel when it comes to every other thing the show asks her to do, playing police detective, mother, wife, action hero, and occasionally her own grandfather. It’s a wild and wonderful performance which anchors a wild and wonderful show, one which has given her the opportunity to do things she’s never gotten to do before—such as this shocking fact, revealed during the summer 2019 Television Critics Association press tour: In over 30 years as an actor, she’d never done an onscreen sex scene before. You’d never know that, though, watching her in the show. Because goddamn, Regina King is just that good. —Liz Shannon Miller

Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll
I’m not going to lie to you. I did not enjoy the movie Groundhog Day at all, so the idea that I would fall in love with Russian Doll, a show that has some similarities when it comes to time being relative, is surprising. I think the biggest difference is Natasha Lyonne. She plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman who is inherently flawed yet lovable, to perfection. Lyonne does more than simply deliver lines—much of her acting is what she brings to her mannerisms, the way she makes you feel as surprised and horrified as she is at returning to that same bathroom. Each time she comes back it felt brand new and yet familiar. Dying and coming back to life over and over again could have felt contrived, but somehow, it never did. Plus, she restored my faith in curly bangs. Natasha is the kind of actress who can make you believe anything, even that she can fix her own place in time.  —Keri Lumm

Louie Anderson, Baskets
From the beginning, it was clear that Louie Anderson’s character Christine Baskets was the true star of FX’s quirky family comedy. And fittingly, over time, Christine got more and more screen time and stories of her own. Alongside that change came another, perhaps related one: the show got much sweeter. Christine is just a suburban, Costco-loving mom from Bakersfield, CA who wants to do right by her family. That included, ultimately, buying a rodeo (even though really she wanted an Arby’s franchise). Along the way she found love and even left California, but throughout it all, Anderson’s portrayal was comedic in the most unexpected ways. It was never about the actor in drag, but about how perfectly he was playing a suburban, Costco-loving mom from Bakersfield, CA. Anderson has given interviews about how he based elements of Christine on his own mother, and that genuine desire to give this character a fully developed life and personality has continued to shine through. Baskets was a show about many things and many people, but thanks to Anderson’s really unique, hilarious, and poignant performance, Christine was truly its heart and soul. —Allison Keene



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