There may have been a (slightly) more manageable amount of TV this year given that the industry is still rebounding from the pandemic, but that does not mean there was a shortage of excellent performances. In fact, it feels as if the talent on display this year has never been better, with multiple shows producing multiple contenders for best performances of the year. As such, the Paste TV writers have decided to narrow the parameters and focus specifically on the best supporting performances of 2021.
Now, this doesn’t mean Jean Smart, Michael Keaton, and Kate Winslet (among others) didn’t knock our socks off and aren’t worthy of being recognized. They did and they are. This just means that we’re sharing the love and highlighting some of the actors and actresses who stole their respective shows and won our hearts in the process.
For more great TV, don’t miss our ranking of the 30 Best Shows of 2021 or our picks for the 25 Best Episodes of 2021.
Spoiler note: While we do try and keep big twists vague in the blurbs below, some spoilers can’t be avoided. If you haven’t caught up with a series and aren’t sure you want to know more, just scroll on past!
More than 15 years ago, Matthew Macfadyen made romance lovers swoon as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. He now fashions himself into a different sort of paragon: Tom Wambsgans. Rather than any Austenian declarations, Tom professed to mentee Greg (Nicholas Braun) in Season 3, “I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat.” It’s an inexplicable line said by a character who often says inexplicable things. But Macfadyen knows how to sell such absurdities, mingling the latent creepiness with longing, earnestness, and shame. One awkward beat passed and regret flickered across his face before he lashed out with aggressive physicality, overcompensating for his brief vulnerability. It was a dizzying tightrope of a scene that hinged on Macfadyen’s nuanced portrayal. Tom spiraled all season long, thumbing through prison catalogues and limping in Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) shadow. The cracks are showing—even taunting chicken sounds clue us into the gnawing sadness underneath. Part of Succession’s appeal is its strong ensemble, but throughout Season 3, Macfadyen operated on his own level as prestige TV’s most pathetic patsy. Until, deliciously, he finally grows a spine, forged through subdued seduction rather than fire. A forehead kiss has never seemed so sinister. —Annie Lyons
Evan Peters has long been one of the best things about American Horror Story, but his frequent appearances in the long-running FX anthology series have limited his ability to show off everything he can do. Luckily, he found time for Mare of Easttown, the brutal small-town crime drama that dominated our lives for seven tense weeks this past spring. As Colin Zabel, a young detective paired with the more experienced but beleaguered Mare of the series’ title (Kate Winslet), Peters delivered an all-time great performance as the duo investigated the murder of a teen girl and the disappearance of several others in a town just outside of Philadelphia.
The role found Peters sporting short hair—something we haven’t gotten to see much of—and a well-rehearsed Delco accent. These helped to define the character and separate him from Peters’ previous roles, but it was his golden retriever energy and the vulnerability he displayed as Zabel became enamored with Mare that drew viewers in and made them fall in love with him, too. His hopeful earnestness was the perfect antidote to the show’s innate darkness, which is why it was devastating when it suddenly disappeared. Peters, as Zabel (or “Zabes,” as I call him), was the beating heart of Mare of Easttown. He might not have been adventurous enough for zucchini tortellini, but he was admirable in his convictions and good at his job, no matter what he might have done in the past. And Peters nailed every subtle, awkward moment, including what is arguably one of the best drunk performances in TV history. So while Mare of Easttown was definitely the Kate Winslet Show, for five glorious episodes, Evan Peters proved he could hold his own with one of the greatest actresses of all time and make us love him all the same. —Kaitlin Thomas
Not since the appearance of Loki in Thor has an MCU side character stolen the spotlight the way Agatha Harkness did in WandaVision. Kathryn Hahn has long been a hidden gem in everything she’s in, but her performance as Agatha was the breakthrough revelation she has long deserved. From her first appearances in the early episodes as the “nosy neighbor,” she was immediately alluring. The way she slid into the expected performance of whatever TV style and decade that was being emulated gave the sense she understood the world better than anyone. For a show that relied so heavily on mystery construction, Agnes was the crux that always hinted at something more at play. Through each decade, Hahn played up the camp and comedy but also the subtle horror of an unknown reality.
Once she took her villainous turn into the witch who would not burn, Hahn’s enthusiasm only accelerated. It takes a skilled performer to toe the line between funny and ridiculous with a song like “Agatha All Along,” but Hahn nailed the turn on every level. Agatha would not hold the pop culture grip she does without Hahn’s stunning portrayal. Not only did make for a memorable MCU villain—a feat many have tried and failed to achieve—but she embodied the role of Agatha with a performance that made you eager for her to return. —Leila Jordan
Mike Flanagan’s soulful Netflix series Midnight Mass hinges on the powerful performances of its leads, from the earnestly frightful Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) to the wounded and searching Riley (Zach Gilford). But the presence that left the biggest mark on many of us was that of Kate Siegel’s Erin Greene, a kind and resigned schoolteacher on Crockett Island. The loss she faced early in the season led to some beautiful and heartbreaking work from Siegel that culminated in an unforgettable dialogue about the afterlife in “Episode IV: Lamentations.” Yet it didn’t end there—she took us, in moving fashion, to face a fresh horror not long after that. But Erin didn’t break down, she only grew stronger as the season progressed, and as the truth of Crockett Island’s curse became evident, it didn’t shake her faith so much as invigorate her to enact justice. Thanks to Siegel’s fiery and heartfelt performance, her words and spirit continue to resonate. —Allison Keene
To put it in terms that he would understand, I f—ing love Roy Kent. Full of a simmering intensity that could erupt any moment, a take-no-prisoners honesty that leaves no one untouched, and devoted passion for both the woman and the sport that he loves, Roy Kent is a f—ing delight. (I’m contractually obligated to swear early and often when discussing Roy Kent). Brett Goldstein infuses Roy with a full range of emotion and never allows him to become a caricature. He was at the center of some of the show’s most hilarious moments (when he helped his niece with her halitosis), as well as some of the most romantic (what won’t he do for Keeley?) and most dramatic (who had a dry eye when Roy hugged Jamie?). With his days on the field behind him, Roy had to chart a new course for himself in Season 2. After a misguided stint as a sports commentator, he evolved into an encouraging coach with an unwavering loyalty to his team. On a show full of terrific characters, he stands out because he’s Roy F—ing Kent. —Amy Amatangelo
The most delightful thing about Zahn McClarnon’s portrayal of Officer Big in Reservation Dogs is that he finally gets to do comedy. His recent performances in Fargo, Westworld, and (briefly) Hawkeye were McClarnon at his most intensely dramatic—and let’s be clear, he absolutely killed it. (He carried that entire season of Westworld on his back with one single episode.) But in Reservation Dogs, he got to be funny and caring. And guess what, he absolutely nailed that, too. One of the most under-appreciated actors of our time, McClarnon adds so much heart and hilarity to FX’s sweet show in such a way that it reveals a completely different dimension to his talent. Turns out, it’s infinite. And we can’t wait to see what he does next. —Allison Keene
What happens in the ring might be fake, but what Kelli Berglund did as Crystal Tyler on Starz’s compelling new drama Heels was definitely real. Introduced as a valet for Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig) while harboring dreams of wrestling in the Duffy Wrestling League—and being equipped with the skills to do it well—Crystal immediately stood out in an environment that has traditionally been dominated by testosterone and fragile male egos. But as she attempted to follow her dreams while men like Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) discounted her talents and others like Ace disrespected her while ignoring her feelings, Berglund turned in one of the most compelling, layered portraits of a woman we’ve seen all year. In her hands, Crystal was electric. Warm and kind and loyal without ever being a pushover, she balanced softness with a raw edge. She knew what she wanted and took all of us along for what turned out to be an emotionally satisfying ride. Throughout the show’s exceptionally fun and surprisingly deep first season, Berglund proved time and again not only that she was the real star of Heels, but that she was easy to root for as well. —Kaitlin Thomas
It takes a performer of outsized charisma, wit, and confidence to steal the spotlight from Loki (and Tom Hiddleston) in his own series. But Sophia di Martino does just that as Sylvie, the Loki Variant stuck jumping through time when she discovers the truth about the TVA’s ulterior machinations. She was a big part of why Loki wasn’t just a bunch of time travel gobbledygook, because she made Sylvie’s lifelong pain and loneliness palpable. In di Martino’s hands, Sylvie was a character as complicated, flawed, and sympathetic as Loki. And despite an abbreviated narrative, di Martino made it look effortless to spar, best, and then—dare we say it—tame the notorious trickster in essentially four episodes. Together, she and Hiddleston had combustible but oh-so-soft chemistry, which explains how the two sold their expedited romance. Just as Loki looked at her with besotted heart eyes, we did too, which made the season finale even more painful for Loki and for us. Thank goodness her controversial choice in the end means di Martino and Sylvie are assured to return. —Tara Bennett
It’s not hyperbole to say that Jennifer Coolidge was made to play the part of Tanya McQuoid, a lonely woman coping with the loss of her mother in HBO’s The White Lotus; her friend and series creator Mike White wrote it for her. Tanya could easily have been a dimwitted joke and nuisance of a guest at the show’s central location of a five-star Hawaiian resort. But Coolidge brought pain and vulnerability to her. While she could be braggadocious of her wealth like Jake Lacy’s Shane or at least comfortable with it like Connie Britton’s Nicole, Coolidge’s Tanya was guarded. She didn’t talk about her job or her money. Instead, she seemed terrified to open up to people and glommed onto anyone she felt she could trust. Sometimes this meant she was unaware of how she had power over people (see: her relationship with Natasha Rothwell’s spa manager, Belinda). And, as evident by her decision to dress as an Italian mob widow during her ill-fated attempt at a seaside burial for her mother’s ashes, she was living out trauma with a flair for the dramatic. Through this and Coolidge’s iconic performance, she is not a hotel guest who will soon be forgotten. Whee! —Whitney Friedlander
Though stars Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult both gave incredible performances in the second season of Hulu’s hilariously weird and offbeat period comedy The Great, it was Belinda Bromilow as Peter’s eccentric aunt Elizabeth who quietly stole the show. From thoughtful ruminations on the struggles of women in power to her on-point advice about both relationships and female pleasure, any scene in which Bromilow appeared was guaranteed to be a joy. Furthermore, Elizabeth serves an essential function within the world of the show. Yes, she’s often been deployed as a weirdo bit of comic relief, but she’s also one of the few people willing to tell Catherine the truth: that her lofty, idealistic dreams of a better Russia are always going to have to be tempered by the truth of human nature, as well as a centuries-long history of violence and greed. Plus, it certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s the biggest Peter/Catherine shipper on the show. (We see and support you, girl!)
The wonder of Bromilow’s performance throughout The Great is that she takes a character who, by all rights, should be a joke—the quirky, mostly crazy, but occasionally wise-old-bat of an older female relative that we’ve seen so many times before on so many different sorts of shows—and gives her many intriguing and impressive layers. The series’ messiest moral compass, she steadfastly loves her nephew, still grieves her dead son, genuinely likes Catherine, and quietly sets her own agenda, all while talking to butterflies and banging various members of the royal guard when the mood strikes her. I think that, as the kids say, is goals. —Lacy Baugher Milas
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