In many ways, this is a harder list to do than a list of the best TV shows of the year. Often a great TV show is filled with great performances from everyone involved. So if I have 20 great TV shows than I probably have 100 great performances.
But I can’t really do a list of 100 – although the first draft of this list had 40 performances – because who has time for that? And that kind of list is also not really about “best” so I decided to give myself an arbitrary cutoff – 15 – that I immediately cheated on.
Whatever. It’s my list.
By making this 15
(ish) I forced myself to really hone in on the performances that really moved me in a profoundly emotional way this year, rather than just pick technically great performances that left me a little cold or that I admired in an intellectual way.
But it’s worth just listing a few of the folks who missed the cut.
Runners-up (in order):
- Rutina Wesley, Queen Sugar
- Naturi Naughton, Power
- Constance Zimmer, UnReal
- Yael Groblas, Jane The Virgin
- Robert Buckley, iZombie
- Kylie Bunbury and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Pitch
- Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
- Fred Savage, The Grinder
- Marcus Scribner, Black-ish
- Daniel Gillies, The Originals
So with that, onto the 15 (or so) performances that I personally think are the best TV performances of 2016.
15. Trai Byers as Andre Lyon in Empire
Trai Byers has long had the hardest job on Empire. He’s playing a character with a mental illness that the show, for a long stretch, didn’t quite know how to truly address. And while he was very good in the early going, the role was basically thankless for about a season and a half. Good on the writers then for killing off his wife and letting Andre embrace his dark side. It’s given him a purpose and allowed Byers to tap into a quietly menacing energy that makes Andre the unpredictable and dangerous character he was always meant to be. And it provides energy to areas of the story (Empire itself) that desperately need some.
14. Tichina Arnold as Cassie Calloway in Survivor’s Remorse
Tichina Arnold took a character that on the page is pretty terrible and gave her such vulnerability and pathos. The show never gave us any hints as to why Cassie wouldn’t tell M-Chuck who her father was, so when we find out why – in a tour-de-force of a monologue by Arnold – it all makes total sense. The way Arnold delivers that monologue with such a fascinating mixture of matter-of-fact directness, barely contained rage, and resolute sadness is unbelievable. In that moment we know how deeply painful the memory is, how much work she still does to get past it, and how angry she is that her son made her tell the story at all. A master class.
13. Amirah Vann as Ernestine in Underground
Amirah Vann’s performance is the one that snuck up on me as I watched Underground. From the very beginning you find yourself wishing Ernestine would leave with the other slaves. And that’s because Vann plays her with uncanny intelligence. It’s not even just that she’s a house slave who has the ear of the master. It’s the way you slowly realize the subtle ways the show subverts our assumptions about who she is and the way Vann never ever makes her seem anything less than the smartest slave on the plantation.
12. Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon in The Flash
Cisco is the only character on The Flash that consistently makes me smile and nod. And yet, on the page, Cisco shouldn’t work. He’s a textbook nerd character that speaks in decade-old Black slang in that way that White writers always use on TV to make exposition more interesting to watch. In the wrong actor’s hands, the character is annoying. But not the way Valdes plays him. From the very beginning, Valdes understood who Cisco truly was – the heart and soul of the show.
11. Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan in Fargo
Bokeem Woodbine has spent his career playing a particular kind of Black man. He’s done it well, but it wasn’t until Fargo that we really got to see just how much all his previous work is really … work. Mike Milligan is a talker. But he smartly doesn’t play him in the usual smooth, charismatic way we typically see hitmen portrayed. Woodbine’s Milligan is more of a philosopher. Someone who intellectualizes everything. Remarkably, Woodbine is able to keep him from being pretentious or a writer’s fiction and still make him as dangerous as he needs to be. It’s beautiful, incisive work that rightfully made Woodbine one of the great successes of the year.
10. Kofi Siriboe as Ralph Angel Bordelon in Queen Sugar
There’s never been a Black male character on TV quite like Ralph Angel. More than any other thing you can say about him, it’s the way he wears his heart on his sleeve that defines him. What’s most striking to me is the way Siriboe plays anger; his eyes always well with tears. And so you never get the sense that Ralph Angel is truly violent or even angry. As Siriboe plays him, Ralph Angel’s anger feels like the last emotion he’ll access when nothing else works. It’s exasperation. And it plays inward in a really fascinating way as if he is mad at himself for letting it get this far. It’s a fascinating choice, but it’s one that has worked spectacularly.
9. Anika Noni Rose as Jukebox in Power
When actors play roles that we think are not what they usually do, we say they are “playing against type.” I think it’s hard to say that about most Black actors because there aren’t that many diverse roles to begin with. They aren’t necessarily trapped in a type, they lack opportunity. So a great product of the explosion of Black TV is that we get to see just how much range Black actors and actresses really have. Case in point: Anika Noni Rose playing a soft dom crooked cop who is more fearsome than anyone the show has yet created. Rose understands that menace is often best conveyed through stillness. And she’s the best thing in a show that is already stacked with great performances.
8. Simone Missick as Misty Knight in Luke Cage
Simone Missick had a tough job in playing Misty Knight. The character is one of the most badass sisters in comics. She’s someone Black folks have been waiting to see in live action for decades. And, like all female comics characters, there is danger in playing a character that writers either don’t get, don’t appreciate, or see purely as eye candy/love interest. But luckily Luke Cage gives Missick plenty to do outside of Luke. The show needed an actress who could be no-nonsense, convincingly round-the-way, sexy, intelligent, and a capable physical performer. And in Missick they found her and she ended up walking away with the whole damn show. She’s magnetic onscreen and elevates everyone else’s game around her.
7. Marsai Martin as Diane Johnson in Black-ish
Marsai Martin is hands down the most consistently hilarious performer on Black-ish. A character like Diane is incredibly challenging, even on a show where everyone is slightly exaggerated. Diane’s characterization as an adorable quasi-sociopath works not just because Martin herself is adorable but because Martin has sharp comic timing. Her read on the line “friend” is more than just shade. It’s an always-hilarious reminder that everyone’s relationship to her is tenuous at best, so they should choose their next move wisely.
6. Constance Wu as Jessica Huang in Fresh Off The Boat
It’s incredibly hard to take a role that, on the page, is largely archetype and make it feel like a real person. But Constance Wu makes it look easy. And she’s doing so many really difficult things at the same time – an accent, a physical performance, and the timing required to make comedy work. And what I like most about Wu’s performance is that her comic timing is slightly off. She’s not just hitting the beats in a way a more practiced comic actor would. She plays the truth of the moment – often Jessica’s exasperation at everyone around her – and the comedy just flows from that.
5. Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva in Jane The Virgin
Gina Rodriguez has to do a lot on Jane the Virgin. She’s the character that holds the entire piece together, both narratively and stylistically. So Rodriguez has to sell the comedy, the drama, and the melodrama and make it all feel like one real person. And she does it masterfully. It’s an open-hearted performance on one of the sunniest shows on TV, but it’s also incredibly complicated and contains so many little touches that endear you to Jane. It’s one of the most multi-faceted performances on TV and it never ceases to surprise and delight me.
4. Shiri Appleby as Rachel Goldberg in UnReal
Constance Zimmer is fantastic in UnReal, but Shiri Appleby’s performance is a revelation and still the primary reason to watch the show. Rachel is a fascinating character and in Season 2 Appleby outdid herself. What is most impressive to me about Appleby’s work is that she always seems to be playing Rachel as just a hair trigger away from falling completely apart, even in the early episodes where she seems the most centered and happy. She knows that with Rachel there is never a center and she’s never ever going to be happy. It’s such a really difficult role that she nails every single episode. It’s one of the best TV performances of all time and deserves to be discussed alongside the Tony Sopranos, Don Drapers, and Walter Whites.
3. Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates in Bates Motel
This past season required a lot from Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates finally became the man we all know him to be in Psycho. He had to play so many facets of Norman completely succumbing to his psychosis and, at various times, he had to either hide it or attempt to control it in order to get back to his mother. And Highmore was magnificent throughout, particularly at the end when he has to deal with the reality that his mother is truly dead. It’s truly one of the best TV performances of the year and it’s a shame it wasn’t lauded more.
2. Connor Jessup as Taylor Blaine and Joey Pollari as Eric Tanner in American Crime
I had to put both of these guys together partly because I couldn’t remove anyone else from the list and partly because I couldn’t decide which of these guys was better than the other. And, ultimately, I had to put them together because – though they only shared a handful of scenes together – season 2 of American Crime was really a chamber piece about these two seemingly different, deeply depressed teenagers.
Jessup, in the central role of the season, has the flashier role and he’s heartbreaking as a bullied kid who is pushed to the breaking point. But Pollari is every bit his equal in a quieter role that requires him to convey so many emotions that are just below the surface of a kid who’s trying desperately to keep it all buried inside. Pollari’s coiled, tightly wound performance conveys tremendous vulnerability and sadness, while Jessup finds numerous ways throughout the season to never play Taylor as a victim. That we spend the entire season feeling empathy for both Taylor and Eric is in large part due to the peerless work of Jessup and Pollari.
1. Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Charley Bordelon in Queen Sugar
Dawn-Lyen Gardner thrilled me more than any other actor this year. She had the toughest role of the three leads because Charley is arrogant, dismissive, condescending and, increasingly as we see over the course of the first season, cunning and manipulative. The great power of Queen Sugar is in its ability to make us truly empathize with people who make terrible, horrible decisions and to know in our hearts that they are still, essentially, good people.
And in Charley, the show’s central and most conventionally successful “positive” character, Queen Sugar has the perfect anti-heroine. In the wrong actor’s hands, Charley doesn’t work and the show doesn’t either. So it’s thrilling to watch Gardner play Charley with a quiet power that is exquisite. She’s a character who we gradually learn has great capacity for deception and manipulation. Charley isn’t being corrupted. She’s doing what Charley does: whatever it takes to get what she wants. And we aren’t meant to be mad at the moves Charley makes throughout the season; we’re meant to empathize. And because of Gardner, we do.
That’s it. The best TV performances of the year.