The 25 Best TV Performances of 2018

TV Lists Best of 2018
The 25 Best TV Performances of 2018

Acting is a malleable art, especially on TV. Many of the best performances of 2018 are, of course, star turns—leads or co-leads capturing our attention week in, week out for the length of the season, or indeed for a number of years. But others, including our top pick, are supporting performers in strong ensembles, recurring players, guest stars—actors who, in the space of a single episode, even a single scene, manage to make an indelible impression. Long-running or short-lived, funny, heartbreaking, or indefinable, these were the meetings of actor and role that lodged in our imaginations this year. —Matt Brennan

Here are the 25 best TV performances of 2018:

25. Zahn McClarnon, Westworld
Network: HBO

Westworld, try as it might, is not a subtle show. That said, when its actors offer performances that run counter to the big, bold ideas pushed by their sci-fi housings, the series finds glimmers of magic. Zahn McClarnon’s performance as Akecheta, the self-aware liaison to the Ghost Nation, is one of tragedy, love, and warmth—all told through a language the actor doesn’t fully speak. To find so much emotion in pure phonetics is an incredible feat, but McClarnon’s piercing eyes and meltingly warm grin mark the actor as a rising star. —Jacob Oller (Photo: HBO)

24. Matthew Macfadyen, Succession
Network: HBO

Since Tom Wamsgans speaks out of both sides of his mouth, he’s easier to read if you follow his hands—and Matthew Macfadyen’s exquisitely slimy performance as the “corn-fed basic from Hockeytown,” already brimming with sycophantic, foul-mouthed, profoundly amoral posturing, is also a flutter of constant motion. A palm over the heart, a slap on the back, a lick of the lips: The foremost surprise of Succession’s first season, Tom embodies both the humor and the terror of HBO’s entertainingly scornful satire, maintaining his shit-eating grim no matter how much he’s force-fed. In treading the line between insider and outsider—he marries Shiv (Sarah Snook), the daughter of media baron Logan Roy (Brian Cox), but still feels compelled to submit Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) to venomous hazing—Macfadyen’s heroically gutless performance underscores the hierarchical pressures and ritual humiliations of late-stage capitalism: “You get off,” his brother-in-law to be, Roman (Kieran Culkin), says of the satisfactions of the underlings, puppets, toadys, and Toms populating corridors of power both fictional and real. “You eat the shame for dessert.” —Matt Brennan (Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO)

23. Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Network: The CW

It’s one thing to play the quirky lead of the musical comedy inside your mind. It’s quite another to play someone who’s dealing with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and figuring out how to mend the relationships she’s sabotaged, all while singing and dancing. As Rebecca Bunch, Rachel Bloom has done that and more on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend this year: She, and the show, have also taken on topics like white liberals’ blind spots and the fact that it’s OK to change careers even if you did go to Harvard Law. In doing so, she’s given us a flawed anti-heroine who reminds viewers that you don’t have to be perfect, even if you do have perfect pitch. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo: Robert Voets/The CW)

22. Billy Porter, Pose
Network: FX

I confess, Billy Porter is at an advantage here: As Pray Tell, the ballroom emcee of FX’s mad hot dance musical, he plays one of the most endlessly quotable characters on TV. (I”m still screaming at “It’s fleet week, and I’m not talkin’ enemas, children!”) But to focus on the character’s one-liners and bon mots, which Porter handles with to-the-rafters flair, would be to undersell the actor’s emotional clarity, his occasional world-weariness, his sagacious belief in the power of struggle. It’s this seamless integration of Pray Tell (the stage persona) and Pray Tell (the man in full) that makes Porter’s performance so magnetic, carrying us through his bereavement, his diagnosis with HIV, even the prospect of new love. It’s why he, of the entire, exceedingly talented ensemble, is tasked with delivering the series’ credo: “Pull up. Work harder. Triumph!” he says near the start of the season. “If not today, maybe tomorrow.” —Matt Brennan (Photo: Sarah Shatz/FX)

21. Wyatt Russell, Lodge 49
Network: AMC

Lodge 49, one of 2018’s happiest surprises, wouldn’t work without Wyatt Russell’s easygoing charm. He channels Jeff Daniels’ Dude into Sean “Dud” Dudley but devoid of cynicism and with much more heart. Dud is an optimist with no reason for optimism. He’s just lost his father, who he idolized, and his surfing career has been cut short from a snake bite at a Central American tournament. (Russell had his own hockey career cut short due to injury) The magical realism of the show—which loves its downtrodden characters, who are all struggling to get by in a post-Great Recession world—hits the perfect tone for Dud’s radical openness. You believe in Lodge 49 because you want to believe in Dud. —Josh Jackson (Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

20. Maya Rudolph, Big Mouth, Forever, The Good Place and the Oscars
Networks: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, NBC, ABC

A burrito-eating, binge-watching, barely interested stand-in for God. A frustrated wife who happens to be dead. A furry, wide-eyed Hormone Monstress guiding her charges through adolescence. If there is a performer working in television today with more expressive, eccentric range than Maya Rudolph, I am not aware of her. (I mean, the way she pronounces “pharmacist” in Big Mouth should be in the MoMA.) Network or streaming, animated or live action, as the leading lady or in support, Rudolph seems to steal every scene she’s in, across topics and tones that no one person has any right to master so effortlessly. (Shared credit for stealing the Oscars goes to Tiffany Haddish, with whom Rudolph memorably roasted white folks.) Though her roles are often smaller than those of the medium’s top stars, she punches above her weight: Rudolph is, in any context, one of the best in the business. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Netflix)

19. Christine Baranski, The Good Fight
Network: CBS All Access

Almost 20 years ago, The Guardian newspaper ran a brief Q&A with Christine Baranski in which she was asked about the last time she cried during a movie. She said this: “Patch Adams and [I] hated myself because I thought it was manipulative and utterly sentimental. The memory of vulnerability gets triggered.” Two decades later, you could imagine her character, Diane Lockhart—a strong professional woman experienced in many varieties of conflict—echoing the same sentiment. Baranski’s role on The Good Fight has given her so much room to breathe as an actor capable of etching the most imperceptible hints of pain, love, betrayal, regret, and even serenity behind the steely resolve of a crusading litigator. Underneath it all, you know that vulnerability is there in Diane, as it is in all of us. —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: CBS All Access)

18. Gbenga Akinnagbe, The Deuce
Network: HBO

David Simon might have some hope for the world, but he doesn’t often let it show in his characters—the actors have to take this into their own hands. That’s the case with Larry Brown, Gbenga Akinnagbe’s pimp-turned-porn star, in the second season of The Deuce. Akinnagbe starts the show out as a hard motherfucker whose front is slowly broken down and whose self-awareness is slowly revealed as the pimping industry is strangled by technology. Discovering cinema, acting, and putting underutilized skills to fulfilling use (like Barry but way more confident and sexual) is a beautiful process, told beautifully by Akinnagbe’s softened, devoted performance. The man spends most of Season Two on porn sets and he owns the spotlight in every scene. It’s the antithesis of Game of Thrones’ “throw some topless women in there” policy. With Akinnagbe on screen, you’re not looking at anything else. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

17. Andrea Navedo, Jane the Virgin
Network: The CW

Andrea Navedo—who plays Xiomara, Jane’s young mother, on Jane the Virgin, and who has never not turned in a firestorm of a performance—has deserved a place on every year-end list since the show began, but Jane the Virgin is so densely packed with exceptional talent that it is categorically impossible to include them all in any year-end roundup that isn’t just “The Best Performances on Jane the Virgin This Year.” (Which, to my editor reading this: I would write that list! Get me on the calendar!) This past spring, though, in the back half of the telenovela’s fourth season, Navedo got to sink her teeth into a series of character arcs that really let her shine, even in the midst of her castmates’ ongoing excellence. From standing her ground on not wanting kids with Rogelio (Jaime Camil)—ground which included not spending any time with the infant daughter he shares custody of with Darci (Justina Machado)—to growing disenchanted with the career she fought to build for the previous three seasons and figuring out how and where to start over, to getting diagnosed with breast cancer and making a series of hard, unglamorous decisions about what treatments to pursue (and then enduring the results), Navedo finally got a chance to go all in on what it means for Xiomara to be Xiomara, for good or for ill—and she did so beautifully. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Jesse Giddings/The CW)

16. Thandie Newton, Westworld
Network: HBO

HBO’s dystopian sci-fi drama Westworld boasts an enviable cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright. But it’s Thandie Newton’s portrayal of AI host Maeve Millay that stands out. She may be a robot, but there’s nothing more human than the drive of a mother, and her evolution from programmed brothel madam to bad-ass mama bear provides for one of the most gripping threads in the show’s increasingly complex weave. Maeve’s charisma and authority is enough to seduce and terrify Delos technicians into helping her stage an android revolt, and Newton makes it all completely believable. We’d follow her anywhere, too. —Josh Jackson (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO)

15. Hugh Grant, A Very English Scandal
Network: Amazon Prime Video

Up to now, for my money, Hugh Grant has seldom been more than technically attractive and annoyingly glib—there’s always seemed to be something defensive about him, an almost belligerently impenetrable surface which suggested that, in spite of his very public-facing profession, he objected to being seen. For putting that quality to brilliant use he could hardly have gotten a better role than closet-case MP Jeremy Thorpe. Grant has always been top-drawer at playing the painfully nervous, the deucedly awkward, and the chronically twigged-out. In his evolution from blinky-eyed stammering schoolboy to decidedly middle-aged and slightly dissipated kink-meister, he has only honed that skill set. He’s more weirdly roguish and rakish and a tiny bit beaten down and it works. His Thorpe is rather hideous, even while one feels for him about the degree to which the establishment drove him to be so. He is wantonly aggressive. He takes advantage of a psychologically vulnerable and considerably younger man. Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw) seems half Grant’s age, and he’s in a bad spot financially to boot. Thorpe, while you can’t really use the word “rape,” very seriously pressures the kid into becoming his sex toy: It’s hard to tell what’s love, what’s attraction, what’s desperation, what’s Stockholm Syndrome, what’s utter confusion, and what’s fear of abandonment, but they all seem to be in the mix. Grant manages nonetheless to be both sympathetic and strangely sexy. That’s no mean feat. —Amy Glynn (Photo: Ray Burmiston/BBC/Blueprint/Amazon/Sony)

14. Betty Gilpin, GLOW
Network: Netflix

I honestly spent every single episode of GLOW’s second season screaming internally, “Why is Betty Gilpin so good at acting?!” (OK, maybe I screamed it out loud a few times, too.) As Gilpin’s character, Debbie Eagan, becomes the G.L.O.W. girls’ de facto villain—we all know the true villain is the patriarchy—this becomes particularly clear: Gilpin, playing Debbie as more and more “unlikable” as the season goes on, takes the idea that the best villains feel they’re actually the hero and makes sure we’re so conflicted that everyone has to scream, “Why is Betty Gilpin so good at acting?!” To that, she adds yet another layer, since she’s not just playing Debbie. She’s also playing Liberty Belle, Debbie’s wrestling persona, which I can only describe, as a wrestling fan, as otherworldly. To the point that if you told me Betty Gilpin had a twin who played Liberty Belle for her, I would buy it. —LaToya Ferguson (Photo: Erica Parise/Netflix)

13. Stephan James and Julia Roberts, Homecoming
Network: Amazon Prime Video

Homecoming is so paranoiac in both style and subject matter that it resembles the thriller’s 1970s heyday, but its unease depends on a hard-won trust. As Heidi Bergman, the caseworker at an experimental facility for recently discharged soldiers, Roberts—in her finest performance since August: Osage County—draws on her star persona to win us over, even though the series’ mysterious flash-forwards let us know early on that something is up. As her charge, Walter Cruz, Stephan James draws on his lack of a fully formed star persona to leave us unsure whether Cruz is a cipher, holding his cards close to his vest, or an unwitting participant in a nefarious scheme. The warm, endearing rapport that results is the human center of Sam Esmail’s latest confidence game, and also the plot’s driving force: In Heidi and Walter, Roberts and James find a friendship worth fighting for. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Jessica Brooks/Amazon Prime Video)

12. Amy Adams, Sharp Objects
Network: HBO

The parade of A-list movie stars to prestige TV shows continues with Amy Adams headlining Marti Noxon’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel. She plays Camille Preaker, a self-harming reporter in St. Louis who tries to find out if you can really go home again. Home is the tiny town of Wind Gap, Missouri, where her mother (Patricia Clarkson) presides over everything that matters and the disappearance of two young girls has everyone on edge. The trauma from abuse, family dysfunction and the death of a sister makes Camille swing from a fully armored exterior to a terrified vulnerability, and Adams—one of the best actors of her generation—draws you in with every word and look. Gone is the wide-eyed wonder that made her standout in Junebug more than a dozen years ago. In its place is a world of hurt and the will to survive. —Josh Jackson (Photo: HBO)

11. Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul
Network: AMC

Rhea Seehorn will likely not garner any major awards for her portrayal of Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul. Those statues tend to be reserved for folks who go big and bold, with copious weeping and gnashing of teeth. Seehorn’s work in Saul has been far too subtle for that, but that’s exactly what makes it so powerful. In the most recent season, especially, she’s a woman fighting with a growing conscience, torn between her desire to keep succeeding at corporate law and doing pro bono public defense work. And there in the back of her head is the allure of what her live-in partner, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), offers: a chance to buck the system at every turn and earn some filthy lucre as a result. While she cranks up the heat at rare occasions, her performance is driven by her expressive body language. She stiffens and steels herself, playing the part of the independent woman, but just as quickly folds and bends to pull Jimmy out of another hole. Throughout the series, Seehorn has provided a master’s class in how to say so much while doing so little. —Robert Ham (Photo: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

10. Penn Badgley, You
Network: Lifetime

I think it’s become kind of a joke that Penn Badgley had all those failed WB shows (three, not including his guest spot on What I Like About You), despite the fact that The WB always tried to make him “a thing,” because he’s actually a pretty damn good actor. His work as Joe Goldberg in You is basically him playing Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey again, but if he finally had the good direction to know he’s playing a “Nice Guy psychopath” the whole time. As with Blake Lively in A Simple Favor, You allows us to see what happens when you give an actor a plan. The result is something of a rarity, with all the pretty villains on TV: In Badgley’s hands, Joe is the type of villain you want to see get his comeuppance. —LaToya Ferguson (Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime)

9. Elizabeth Olsen, Sorry for Your Loss
Network: Facebook Watch

When it comes to Elizabeth Olsen’s work as Leigh, a young woman drowning in grief following the sudden death of her equally young husband, never have I so wanted to shout about a performance from the rooftops more, while simultaneously hoping that no one believes me enough to go through the work of deciphering Facebook Watch’s arcane user interface to check it out for themselves. Olsen’s Leigh is spiky and vicious, curled in on the wounds of her own grief in the center of a tunnel of narcissism her young widowhood both justifies and enables, ready to lash out at anyone who might try to get too close. She is awful to her mom, awful to her sister, awful to the brother of her dead husband, awful to the only other young widow who shows up in grief group. She is, most acutely, awful to herself. In all her awfulness, she is nearly impossible to watch. And she is perfect. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Facebook Watch)

8. Bill Hader Barry
Network: HBO

The many, many hats worn by Bill Hader in the production of Barry helped shape the breakout show’s delicate tone and sharp writing, but nothing could match his portrayal of the HBO comedy’s eponymous hitman. The comic actor—often known for big personalities and an amorphous everyman-ness that allows him unlimited capacity for impressions and touching relatability (à la Trainwreck)—unleashes his most potent weapon yet: Midwestern repression. The depressed stoic, useful and miserable because of these qualities, slowly discovers an imperfect path to joy with subtlety and black humor thanks to Hader’s incredible, cork-straining performance. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

7. Darren Criss, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
Network: FX

Darren Criss took us into the ghastliest presentations of the narcissistic injury in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Inhabiting the psyche of someone with strong emotions is a relatively simple, though sometimes demanding, task for an actor. Portraying someone who is emotionally void is a next-level endeavor. As grasping, ambitious shapeshifter Andrew Cunanan, Criss inflected his performance with an excruciatingly painful neediness edged in icy psychopathic rage. Plenty of people play serial killers and succeed at being frightening or chilling. Criss certainly managed that, but he also illuminated something deeply fundamental about the difference between someone who responds to rejection with unhinged violence and someone for whom that’s not an option. By the end of the series, Criss’s Cunanan was more than a violent disordered personality: He was a one-man referendum on forces of institutional contempt (homophobia, classism, cavalier objectification, the artifacts of “American Dream” ideation that had made a monster of his prideful, social-climbing immigrant father, played by Jon Jon Briones). It’s a tremendously creepy and incredibly affecting performance. You want to save this person, though you understand no one can; you want to despise him, but you cannot. —Amy Glynn (Photo: FX)

6. Will Arnett, BoJack Horseman
Network: Netflix

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There is probably no better monologue on American television this year than the “Free Churro” episode of BoJack Horseman, but focusing too much on that would diminish Will Arnett’s achievements as a voice actor. Note some of the horseshit BoJack has pulled up until now: years-long substance abuse, driving under the influence, grooming a teenager into nearly sleeping with him, antagonizing every close friend or romantic partner he’s ever had, and assaulting a co-star on set. Somehow, we keep watching this show named BoJack Horseman, and Arnett’s gravelly performance is a huge part of why. We want him to get better, to stop pulling the horseshit. We believe Arnett’s reading of “I am here because I need help,” even if we doubt BoJack’s ability to see things through. The show would fall apart if we didn’t. —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: Netflix)

5. Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta
Network: FX

As up-and-coming rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, Brian Tyree Henry lends a subtle sorrow and reluctance to his portrayal of the talent at the center of Donald Glover’s anti-Entourage. Whether it’s annoyance at receiving free French fries that he definitely didn’t want from a drive-through attendant or fear that he might be killed by some random guys who realize offing him would come with its own fame, Henry carries Alfred’s newfound celebrity with exhausted acceptance. After all, what else is Paper Boi to do? His most promising career path means letting other people profit, in one way or another, off of him. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX)

4. Yvonne Strahovski, The Handmaid’s Tale
Network: Hulu

In the brutal theocratic regime of Gilead, I suppose you keep your friends close and your enemies closer. No one gets that quite like Serena Waterford. After all, she helped to design the system. Throughout the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s been an increasingly urgent and detailed focus on the icy and often vicious Mrs. Waterford, especially as the nastiness of Gilead’s misogynist power core has been brought to bear on her own life and that of the newborn daughter who enters her life partway through the season. Strahovski has wrung a masterful performance out of a character who could easily have been robotically evil. Her interpretation of Serena Waterford is nuanced—sometimes steely, sometimes vulnerable; sometimes wrathful, sometimes oddly idealistic; sometimes pragmatic and sometimes almost dissociatively creepy. As the season progressed we increasingly saw her conflicted relationship with power, her self-consciousness (and occasionally, as in the beautifully shot and totally grotesque childbirth pantomime, a dazzling lack of it), and her longing to matter in a world she co-designed in a way that would ensure her erasure. Making a character like Serena sympathetic is no small feat, and it requires artful scripting but also a performer with tremendous empathy and subtlety. Strahovski actually manages to make you feel sorry for a monster. —Amy Glynn (Photo: George Kraychik/Hulu)

3. Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, Killing Eve
Network: BBC America

In Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s strenuously un-self-serious Killing Eve, the combination of Sandra Oh’s exquisite deadpan and Jodie Comer’s gleeful mugging is the catalyst for a cat-and-mouse Abbott and Costello routine so entertaining that the series’ questionable plotting becomes a moot point. Indeed, the contrasts between Oh’s likably unpolished intelligence analyst, Eve Polastri, and Comer’s glamorous, continent-crossing assassin, Villanelle, form the debut season’s thematic substructure: Eve’s attraction to Villanelle—to Villanelle’s lack of responsibilities, her freedom to fool around, to fuck shit up—is born of their differences, and of the performers sublime on-screen chemistry. Killing Eve isn’t about friendship, exactly; nor is it quite about obsession, or kinship, or even sex. Demanding a razor-sharp sense of tone from both performers, the series is, fundamentally, about Villanelle, and Eve’s impression of her. The former is the enfant terrible, the spendthrift, the rule-breaker, that the latter could never, would never, be. Until she is. —Matt Brennan (Photo: BBC America)

2. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, The Americans
Network: FX

The Americans, at its most essential, is the portrait of a partnership—romantic, familial, professional—as it evolves over time. From that simple framework, real-life partners Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell craft one of the medium’s most indelible marriages, painting Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ pain and affection, desire and distraction, suspicion and trust in precise, heartrending strokes. Their years of patient character building come to a boil in the series’ sixth and final season, in which the partnership threatens to disintegrate more than once: Her steeliness and his softness court, spark, and finally catch fire, often—in a series long known for its terseness—through the position of one’s body or the expression on one’s face. After all, despite the attention to their disguises, their costumes and wigs, Rhys and Russell’s dual performance impresses because it is so unadorned. Thanks to the leads’ white-knuckle control, alone and in tandem, watching The Americans often feels like seeing a marriage ebb and flow in real time—and in that it’s nothing short of breathtaking. —Matt Brennan (Photo: FX)

1. D’Arcy Carden, The Good Place
Network: NBC

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There’s a magical moment that happens when the material perfectly fuses with an actor’s creative ability and a next-level talent is revealed. And so it was with the incomparable D’Arcy Carden in last week’s stellar “Janet(s).” Carden played Janet, introduced us to neutral Janet (best blank stare ever) and also played Janet as Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason and, in the pièce de résistance, Eleanor pretending to be Jason. Carden captured each character’s facial expressions, body language, and cadence with such ease that, much like when I watched Orphan Black, I had to remind myself it was just one person doing all these roles. But here’s a secret: Even before last week’s tour de force performance, we were already in awe of Carden. The way she slowly infuses Janet, a cheery artificial being, with moments of humanity as she begins to care about Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and (especially) Jason (Manny Jacinto). The sheer delight of bad Janet (“What up ding dongs?”). The chipper way Good Janet delivers all her lines. Carden’s charming and expressive facial expressions. This is a role that in less capable hands simply wouldn’t work. Carden makes it look so easy you could overlook how complicated what she’s doing on a weekly basis truly is. But that’s what these lists are for. There’s no forking way we’d ever forget her. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

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