The 25 Best TV Performances of 2017

TV Lists Best of 2017
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The 25 Best TV Performances of 2017

The best performances of 2017, TV division, run the gamut from presidential send-ups (no, not Alec Baldwin’s) to searing depictions of trauma and grief, broadcast sitcoms to streaming dramas. What unites the names below, selected by Paste staff and TV contributors, is the skill required to develop a character over time, be it mere weeks or many years: It’s the medium’s summative effect that shines through here, in which the actor’s ongoing engagement with the character, his or her co-stars, and the audience allows each of those relationships to reach new depths. Whether to sharpen the comedy or shade in the drama, the 25 best TV performances of 2017 are the brush strokes that make some of TV’s most compelling characters come vividly, indelibly alive.

25. Anthony Anderson, black-ish

Network: ABC

Sitcom dads often get a bad rap. In recent years, they are so often seen as blowhards or doofuses with way hotter and smarter wives. In the beginning, they were know-it-all fixers without much depth. While Anderson’s Dre on black-ish does have an intelligent and attractive spouse in Tracee Ellis Ross’ Rainbow, he is by no means incapable of having an original, intelligent thought.

Sure, Dre can be emotional and a little too into his shoe collection. But he also cares deeply about his kids and in what it means to be raising them in a world with way more privilege than he had. This doesn’t mean Dre is only focused on race, although his monologue in last season’s President Trump-related “Lemons” or his participation in this season’s opener, “Juneteenth” certainly address this wonderfully. Dre also narrates eloquently (and, yes, sometimes humorously) on private school, his wife’s postpartum depression and his own parents’ activism in such a way that it’s clear he’s a modern male with faults and thoughts beyond stereotypes. —Whitney Friedlander

24. Benito Martinez, American Crime

Network: ABC

As Luis Salazar, a Mexican man who takes a job as a migrant laborer on a North Carolina tomato farm in order to find his missing son, Martinez is but one of the gifted actors in American Crime’s ensemble: Felicity Huffman, Lili Taylor, Timothy Hutton, Richard Cabral, Connor Jessup and Regina King all turn in fine performances in the third and final season of John Ridley’s anthology. Still, Martinez brings such unassuming grace to the role, by turns stern, stirring, and quietly courageous, that he becomes the season’s beating heart. Though the series’ portrait of what amounts to modern day slavery is as frank, and as bleak, as the subject demands, we are buoyed throughout by the veteran’s poignant grasp of every nuance of a father’s love. —Matt Brennan

23. Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Network: Amazon Prime Video

It’s impossible to imagine The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel without the marvelous Rachel Brosnahan. As the aspiring comedienne of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new series, the former House of Cards and Manhattan actress sells the premise—Jewish housewife in 1950s New York embarks on a career as a stand-up—with such charismatic abandon that she might’ve walked in off the set of the latest picture from Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks. When her Midge Maisel mounts the stage and romances the spotlight, Brosnahan transforms the character’s lacerating, self-effacing act into the sort of bravura sequence one expects from a Hollywood musical. And perhaps it is: Whether firing off Sherman-Palladino’s rat-a-tat dialogue or working the room into a comic lather, Brosnahan is such an incandescent presence that you’ll wish she never left the screen. This is how a star is born. —Matt Brennan

22. Alison Brie and Marc Maron, GLOW

Network: Netflix

While Brie and Maron both gave terrific performances, there was a yin and yang to Ruth and Sam’s relationship. She was a scrappy, down-on-her-luck actress. He was a cranky, world-weary has-been. Could one have existed without the other? Absolutely. Would it have been as much fun? Probably not. A nearly unrecognizable Brie—was that really the same woman from Mad Men and Community?—disappears into the role of Ruth, an aspiring actress turned Glorious Ladies of Wrestling contender. Sam was horrible, yet somehow, in Maron’s performance, we could see that he cared about these women and wanted them to succeed. By season’s end, he had believably transformed into their greatest champions. —Amy Amatangelo

21. Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul

Network: AMC

Much like the character she plays on Better Call Saul, Rhea Seehorn is often caught between the powerful male figures around her, both on camera and behind it. And they’re the ones that get the accolades showered upon them. Seehorn and Kim Wexler both seem to have to push that much harder to prove themselves confident and capable of performing impressive feats of strength and smarts. For the character in Season Three of this brilliant Breaking Bad prequel, it doesn’t turn out so great. Seehorn, though, handles it with ease, stealing focus away from the snapping sharks and the sweaty desperation exhibited by her male counterparts. She doesn’t reveal much through her Zen-like movements, but her understanding of Kim’s drive and deep sorrows is clear. —Robert Ham

20. Zach Woods, Silicon Valley

Network: HBO

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While Emmy voters have been watching Veep chase its own tail, Woods, as Silicon Valley’s Jared Dunn, has been giving what may be the most underappreciated performance on television. In the course of four seasons, the fastidious, almost inconceivably awkward Pied Piper CFO has evolved into a worthy foil for the tech eccentrics around him, a key development in the series’ expanding comic (and emotional) range; Woods brings unexpected warmth to Mike Judge’s merciless satire, which, thanks in large part to his performance, has only improved with age. Of course, this would all be for naught were Woods not in possession of such superb comic instincts: Watching him play Jared playing the fictional douche-bro “Ed Chambers” might be my favorite gag of the year on any comedy series, and that’s no joke. —Matt Brennan

19. Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis, Halt and Catch Fire

Network: AMC

With respect to Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy, as the other half of Halt and Catch Fire’s main quartet, the workplace marriage that defines its final season—in particular its magnificent last act—is the one Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) repair just in time for the series’ swan song. The arc of their long relationship—as acquaintances, partners, enemies, friends—culminates in a pair of scenes in the series finale that suggest the specific power of this medium, as Cameron says of her new project, to create characters “that have the ability to accrue memory and develop a personal narrative and change over time”: In Donna’s moving speech, as in their invented “history” of Phoenix, Bishé and Davis’ profound connection brings home the series’ central thrust, which is that computers are “the thing that gets us to the thing.” “The thing,” of course, is other people, and theirs is one of the decade’s most sublime portraits of platonic affection—never anything less, to crib from Cameron, than “immersive and complete.” —Matt Brennan

18. Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan

Network: FX

When discussing Lange’s aces portrayal of Joan Crawford in the first installment of Feud, people like to talk about a scene she has with Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) toward the end of the miniseries. Davis wants to know what it’s like to be the most beautiful actress in the room and Crawford counters with wanting to know what it’s like to be the most talented. The scene is perfect and sums up exactly how each woman views the other, as well as her own legacy.

But let’s not forget the little details that surround how Lange and the show’s writers made us feel sympathy for Crawford, a woman now most remembered as a tyrant thanks to Faye Dunaway’s depiction of her in Mommie Dearest, the campy flick based on Crawford’s daughter, Christina’s, tell-all. There’s the matter-of-fact way she describes The Buckle, a procedure she endured that involved forsaking teeth in exchange for a supposedly elongated jawline, or that she was taught at a very young age that her survival was dependent on her sex appeal. Sometimes it’s important to remember where your mother came from. —Whitney Friedlander

17. Anthony Atamanuik, The President Show

Network: Comedy Central

The difference between satire and caricature can be hard to spot, but this year, it was sharply rendered by the disparate impressions of Donald Trump on TV brought forth by Alec Baldwin and Anthony Atamanuik. The former was all surface-level, pursed-lipped bloviating. The latter sought to find some of the broken man within our current President, a despot desperate for approval but furious with anyone who would provide it to him. The writers of The President Show deserve a chunk of the credit for that, but it’s Atamanuik who finds the little details and shades of Trump that speak volumes about the real man’s neuroses and bitter heart. —Robert Ham

16. Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us

Network: NBC

While the breakout NBC drama has wavered quality wise this season, and tried viewers’ patience with the ongoing mystery of how Jack died, Sterling K. Brown has been the one true constant, always elevating the material and the show along with it. When he’s on screen, he commands your attention. You cannot look away. He can do so much with so little dialogue, relying on his expressive face and the subtle nuances of his delivery. With another actor, the Deja (Lyric Ross) story line could have been sappy and melodramatic. But Brown gave the story the weight it deserved without turning the whole thing into some warped after-school special. Brown also has impeccable comic timing, bringing the laughs just when viewers need it. There’s a reason why Brown won the Emmy this year, and probably will be nominated for many to come. —Amy Amatangelo

15. Jimmy Tatro, American Vandal

Network: Netflix

Playing dumb isn’t easy. Neither is playing a victim. Either can go overboard and become off-putting in an instant. Jimmy Tatro, metering both of these aspects of his character with high school burnout flair is the reason American Vandal works at all. His role as the accused dick-drawer Dylan Maxwell made the class clown into a veritable Pagliacci of spray-painted dongs. His tragic persecution and eventual vindication succeed because Tatro’s antics always couch their frustration in harmlessness. It’s not that he’s secretly a sweet dummy. He’s annoying and disruptive. But we don’t want to see him erroneously punished, because Tatro finds humanity beneath the caricature. —Jacob Oller

14. Pablo Schreiber, American Gods

Network: Starz

American Gods made its deities relatably fallible, but none are more flawed than Pablo Schreiber’s leprechaun Mad Sweeney. Stealing scenes throughout the first season, but most especially in his backstory-spinning yarn “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” Schreiber imbues a cocky gold-loving imp with an indelible honor. Establishing a character’s hazy morality is difficult business, especially in the tainted states of Neil Gaiman’s America, but Sweeney’s rolls off Schreiber’s accented delivery like a treasure map unfolding temptingly off the end of a pirate captain’s desk. Finding seduction, violence, temper and righteousness all within a mythical being viewers most closely associate with marshmallow cereal made Schreiber’s performance one of the year’s most fun to watch. —Jacob Oller

13. Andy Daly, Review

Network: Comedy Central

Andy Daly has lent his chipper everyman affability to small roles in just about every comedy imaginable, but nowhere has he shone as bright as on Comedy Central’s Review, where he finally stepped into a well-deserved spotlight to portray milquetoast madman Forrest MacNeil. Particularly in the all-too-short-lived show’s third and final season, Daly demonstrated a commitment to his role not unlike the one that overzealous life reviewer Forrest made to his own work, wringing every ounce of pathos out of the Review host’s downward spiral into utter self-destruction. No matter how silly his review, whether it was befriending a bearded lizard (with the aim of later euthanizing it) or eating an upsetting number of pancakes, we felt Forrest’s pain. No matter how self-imposed his hardships, we yearned to see him overcome them and reclaim his initial position as the beloved patriarch of the MacNeil family. It is an achievement of herculean proportions that Daly was able to draw us utterly into Review, despite all its darkness and absurdity. There aren’t enough stars in the world. —Scott Russell

12. Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black

Network: BBC America

Anyone who’s watched Orphan Black for mere minutes will understand why Tatiana Maslany is on this list. The show, which revolves around a group of women who discover they are clones, requires Maslany to act against herself every episode—a feat she flawlessly accomplishes. Maslany has played five main characters and numerous supporting roles over five seasons, imbuing each clone with distinct personalities, accents and mannerisms. An extraordinary actor makes you believe their character is real; Maslany makes you believe four characters are real in a single shot. And in Orphan Black’s final season, she delivers her most compelling performances yet. —Frannie Jackson

11. Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin

Network: The CW

Jane the Virgin may be a show blessed with an ensemble cast of zero weak links, but series lead Gina Rodriguez is that stellar ensemble’s beating heart. Portraying a funny, serious, determined woman of faith thrown into the serenity-threatening cyclone of a telenovela, Rodriguez has been incredible since “Chapter One,” balancing the outsized insanity of her Technicolor world (real and daydreamed) with the grounded pathos of a life truly being lived. Season Three’s shocking and traumatic third act, however, gave her a whole new challenge to rise to, and Rodriguez’s affecting, nuanced performance both in the moment and in the episodes and “years” since have elevated both Jane Villanueva and Jane the Virgin to impressive heights. —Alexis Gunderson

10. Matthew Rhys, The Americans

Network: FX

It’s unjust, perhaps, to separate Matthew Rhys from his co-stars, for Keri Russell, Frank Langella, Holly Taylor and the rest of The Americans’ talented cast deliver, week in and week out, a collection of the best performances on television. But by the close of the series’ penultimate season, with a telling cut to Philip Jennings’ hangdog expression or the exhausted slump of his back, it’s Rhys’ turn as a Soviet spy in the American suburbs that suggests the full weight of a life lived in secret. Compared to his flinty wife and partner, Elizabeth (Russell), Philip’s commitment to communism has always been flexible, but as The Americans approaches its end, the stress of sacrificing one’s moral compass to one or another ideological “cause” brings him to his lowest point. In Rhys’ masterful hands, Philip becomes an emblem of the Cold War’s foremost consequence, which was to offer a “choice” between two brutal systems that was really no choice at all. —Matt Brennan

9. Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks: The Return

Network: Showtime

Kyle MacLachlan is nearly always a delight to watch for his seamless coherence of total quirkiness and epic relatability, but I’m not sure he was ever more charming or fascinating than he was as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. That is, until the cult hit was resurrected for an 18-episode genre-pretzel this year. In Twin Peaks: The Return, MacLachlan played three different funhouse-mirror iterations of the intrepid G-Man: the character who disappeared into the mystical evil of the Black Lodge at the end of the original series, the evil doppelganger who came out in his place, and a third entangled entity, the dopey Las Vegas insurance agent Dougie Jones. He handled all three roles with his hallmark aplomb, but what was probably most fun to watch was the way the characters subtly melded together. Each “Cooper” retained vestiges of the others; good Cooper had been indelibly imprinted by evil; Evil Cooper carried Good Cooper’s memories, and the hapless Dougie Jones was both slapstick-hilarious and oddly poignant, especially when he suddenly developed killer reflexes or the ability to see things no one else could see or fell in love with coffee all over again. The Return was the story of Agent Cooper’s return to himself, and viewers got hit pretty hard with the reality that there are places from which no one can really come back, and watching him try to get back and somehow save Laura Palmer was by turns comedic genius, sheer melodrama and surreal horror—and it was always high-voltage. —Amy Glynn

8. Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies

Network: HBO

In its initial stages, David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée’s scintillating small-town mystery seems a showcase for Reese Witherspoon’s winsomely meddlesome Maddie Mackenzie, wading into a pitched primary-school battle with Laura Dern’s Renata Klein. But just as Big Little Lies is denser, more considered, than its California gleam might suggest, its standout performance turns out to be Nicole Kidman’s, as the captivating, secretive Celeste Wright. Brutalized by her terrifying husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), the brilliant former attorney comes, haltingly, to see the danger he poses to her and her children, and Kidman peels the onion of Celeste’s trauma with the utmost precision. Her ongoing parry and thrust with Robin Weigert, as the Wrights’ marriage counselor, is as frank a depiction of a battered woman’s psyche as I’ve ever seen on television. —Matt Brennan

7. Pamela Adlon, Better Things

Network: FX

To understand the sheer genius of Pamela Adlon’s performance as Sam Fox, one need look no further than three terrific—and terrifically distinct—moments in Better Things’ second season. In “Sick,” she tells her best friend, Rich (Diedrich Bader), that she thinks she actually likes the man she’s dating, while doubling over in pain. In “Blackout,” she deflects the advances of her best friend’s ex-husband with a hilarious sequence of “Nos.” In “Graduation,” someone asks her if her daughter growing up went by fast, “No! It all went by reeeeeeally slow,” she replies. These moments epitomize Adlon’s performance: In Sam Fox, she has created a character so real, I think I could easily run into her in the carpool line or on the soccer field. That she does this while also writing and directing the show is nothing short of phenomenal. —Amy Amatangelo

6. Issa Rae, Insecure

Network: HBO

As happens with most TV series, the writers and actors on Insecure used the show’s first season to get comfortable with the characters and the scenarios they put them in. So that by the second run of episodes, they could start to stretch out and challenge themselves and truly show off their abilities. Nowhere was this more evident than in the performance by the show’s lead and co-creator, Issa Rae. The Issa in the show is reeling from the end of her long-term relationship, trying to negotiate something with a former lover and navigating the shark-infested waters of the dating scene. Rae handles it all with ease, bringing forth nuances to the character that felt honest and, at times, heartbreaking. And that she was able to infuse it all with some sharp wit and moments of cartoony humor only made it all the more real. —Robert Ham

5. Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Deuce

Network: HBO

Eileen “Candy” Merrell is the heart of The Deuce, one of 2017’s more pleasant small-screen surprises, and if Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t land an Emmy nod next year for her work here, it will be an upset. The Oscar-nominated actress delivered a superlative turn in the prestige period drama’s first season, animating prostitute-turned-pornographer Candy with a complex mix of resilience and vulnerability, and often putting both ends of the spectrum on display in the very same scene. Gyllenhaal’s gentle yet formidable air of wisdom and self-assurance fits the character wonderfully—Candy is a multifaceted, self-determined woman (“No man. Just me.”) whose ambitions are The Deuce’s guiding light. Before accepting the role, Gyllenhaal insisted on becoming a producer—her first time producing anything—to ensure control over Candy’s arc, and she interviewed sex workers from the era as research, going to great lengths to ensure that Candy was a human being as much as a sexual being. The results, thus far, have been outstanding. —Scott Russell

4. Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale

Network: Hulu

Girls co-creator Jenni Konner calls Elisabeth Moss “our generation’s Meryl Streep,” and I cannot think of a better comparison. Mad Men and The West Wing fans could already speak to Moss’ acting talent and .gif-causing abilities before Handmaid’s premiered. But her versatility was truly recognized in the drama’s first season, which finally garnered her a long-overdue Emmy. As a woman forced into sexual slavery by her puritanical overlords, Moss shows she has knack for playing possum while others have Stockholm Syndrome. She uses a slight smirk or wide-eyed horror to accurately depict how so many of us would feel in such a situation: fear, sorrow, distrust and, most importantly, the will to survive. —Whitney Friedlander

3. Cameron Britton, Mindhunter

Network: Netflix

The central premise that makes Mindhunter so intriguing is its attempt to understand what makes a psychopath tick. And the creepy charisma of Cameron Britton’s serial killer Edmund Kemper is at the core of that task. Britton is likable, and that likability is disturbing to both the series’ protagonists and to the audience. How does someone so self-aware make the choice to brutally rape and murder random victims? His charm causes us to question how we understand humanity, and without it, the show wouldn’t have had half the impact. But Britton also exudes an underlying darkness, which along with his imposing physical presence makes him as terrifying as he is fascinating. —Josh Jackson

2. Carrie Coon, The Leftovers

Network: HBO

More than three years since the revelation of “Guest,” Carrie Coon may not quite be a household name, but she’s no longer flying under the radar. The credit for that, with due respect to Fargo’s Gloria Burgle, goes to one of the most remarkable meetings of performer and character I’ve seen since I began covering television, the darkly funny, frequently playful, awfully sexy, ferociously intelligent, utterly heartbreaking, and ultimately breathtaking Nora Durst. Cycling through all of these modes and plenty more, Coon manages to suggest both an unimaginable specific—the loss of one’s entire family in an inexplicable cosmic event—and a potent universal—the work of grief, or something like it—in such startling terms that Nora emerges as the beating heart of The Leftovers, hardened and softened by the series’ cataclysms in equal measure. If I may court hyperbole a moment, to say she delivers one of the performances of the year is an understatement: Coon’s counts, for me, among the two or three finest dramatic turns in the recent history of the medium. —Matt Brennan

1. The cast of The Good Place

Network: NBC

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Paste’s annual list of TV’s finest performances is traditionally reserved for individuals, or in some cases—GLOW’s Alison Brie and Marc Maron; Halt and Catch Fire’s Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis—inseparable pairs. But this year we were moved to make an exception, because we couldn’t choose just one member of the cast of Mike Schur’s ambitious, clever, uproarious, snappy, deeply humane afterlife comedy. In a feat as impressive as it is rare, every single performer in the main ensemble received at least one vote in our poll of Paste staff and TV contributors: Kristen Bell’s caustic, shrimp-devouring Eleanor; William Jackson Harper’s anxious, ethics-obsessed Chidi; Jameela Jamil’s snobbish, self-centered Tahani; Manny Jacinto’s kind, airheaded Jason; Ted Danson’s devilish, frustrated schemer, Michael; and D’Arcy Carden’s implacably sunny humanoid void, Janet. (Even guest star Jason Mantzoukas, as Janet’s buggy boyfriend, Derek, appeared on one ballot.) No series in our poll, or indeed on television, enjoys such a surfeit of comic talent, and of such endlessly entertaining variety: At a moment in which our world often seems like The Bad Place, the cast of The Good Place is a source of pure joy. —Matt Brennan