In a year that saw masked crimefighters and plutocrats share the small screen with working-class stiffs and real-life victims of the criminal justice system, the only thing more impressive than the variety of roles was the talent that brought them to life. The star of an exiting prestige drama found a new well to pull from, as the auteur of a streaming series pulled double duty and made us all kneel with her vulnerability. Relative newcomers made veterans look like novices, while one of the best actors of her generation dazzled from the Sunshine State. A breakout star made her pain felt through layers of animation and intertwining timelines, and an Oscar winner became a hero under the cloak of night. There might have been more TV than ever in 2019, but with these gifted performers as our guides, it seemed almost manageable.

A quick note on nominations: The A.V. Club staffers and contributors sought to highlight performers who either hadn’t graced this list in the past, or who had found a new way into the spotlight in 2019. So, while we remained as impressed as ever with Bill Hader’s work on Barry, and Maya Rudolph’s presence in just about everything (but chiefly, as the voice of Connie on Big Mouth), we chose to let last year’s Hall Of Famer and MVP, respectively, rest on their laurels.


Individual performances

Regina King, Watchmen

Watchmen is a rollercoaster ride that messes with perceptions of memory and space and reality at nearly ever turn—creating the necessity for a strong, completely solid main character to guide the viewer through it all. Fortunately, Watchmen is led by Regina King as Angela Abar/Sister Night, and a greater leader for this show does not exist. From the very first episode, Angela is tough, compassionate, sympathetic, and determined to get to the bottom of her mentor’s murder. What she discovers turns her world—and ours—upside down, literally sending her into her grandfather’s memories, as King manages to transcend decades, genders, age, and various levels of sanity. But Angela also has her own surprises in store—like who her husband really is. Whatever the plot twist, no matter how preposterous or interplanetary, King’s steely resolve functions as an oasis in the midst of this blue world gone wild. As Watchmen heads toward the end of its first (and only?) season, the situation on Earth, even the galaxy, appears fairly precarious. But once King appears, absorbing attention more than anyone else, she gives faith that Sister Night will find a way to save the day like the superhero she is. [Gwen Ihnat]


Rami Malek, Mr. Robot

The success of Bohemian Rhapsody shouldn’t overshadow the truly brilliant work he’s been doing on USA’s Mr. Robot. Malek hasn’t gotten a chance to really stretch this season, with Elliot Alderson having spent the early episodes in a largely silent, vengeance-fueled haze as he tried to put together a plan that would destroy the people who are secretly ruling the world once and for all. That all changed with Malek’s devastating performance in “<="" span="">,” an episode that was built around Elliot being forced to recognize the horrifying reason why his Tyler Durden-esque imaginary friend Mr. Robot appeared to him in the first place (and why he happens to look a lot like Elliot’s dead father). After years of Malek playing Elliot as a man who had shut himself off from the world, he then had to show how it felt to suddenly be hit with every painful memory and awful truth he had spent his life blocking out. Malek got his Oscar for the Queen movie, but he proved he deserved it with Mr. Robot. [Sam Barsanti]

Advertisement


Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag

In the hands of a lesser performer, the aside glances and private monologues that make up so much of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag arsenal might feel like a gimmick, a sympathy-demanding trick not far removed from the mugging looks to camera and talking head segments that populate faux-documentary shows like The Office. But as Fleabag’s most driving creative force, Waller-Bridge understands precisely the conspiratorial, sometimes invasive relationship she cultivates with every secret eyeroll, something ably demonstrated in the opening scene of the show’s stellar second season. Washing blood from her face in a fancy restaurant bathroom, Fleabag studiously avoids acknowledging us for as long as possible—and then, when she finally, blissfully invites us back into her confidences, the rush of relief is almost overwhelming. But while these more structural elements remain both flashy and compelling, the show’s second season also sees Waller-Bridge set a far harder challenge for herself. Rock-bottom agony is a deep well to pull from, as the show’s first season ably proved. It’s far harder to portray someone doing the quiet, unglamorous work of getting better, and yet Waller-Bridge tackles it just as effortlessly, investing every tiny triumph and shameful backslide in the show’s final outing with the energy of watching a friend slowly, but steadily, dig herself out of the shit. [William Hughes]


Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us

Ava DuVernay’s gutting four-part Netflix series takes a small-scale approach to retelling the saga of the Exonerated Five by maintaining its focus on the individual traumas of the five Harlem boys accused in the Central Park jogger case, the childhoods they lost due to wrongful convictions, and their maladjustment to life after lockup. Across the board, When They See Us is filled with raw, honest performances, particularly from the actors portraying the core Five. But Jharrel Jerome’s mesmerizing, Emmy-winning performance as Korey Wise stands out as the most impressive. Tasked with being the only core actor to portray his character as both adolescent and adult, the Moonlight actor delivers a rich, textured performance, going as far as to mimic Wise’s vocal tics. But the high-water mark for Jerome’s turn is the feature-length, tour-de-force finale that focuses on Wise’s brutal, heartbreaking journey through the penal system as the only member of the Five to carry out his entire sentence in adult prison. Over the course of the 88-minute runtime, Jerome transforms from a wide-eyed innocent youth to an anguished, battle-scarred grown man, communicating years of Wise’s trauma to stunning effect. Thankfully, the Television Academy took notice. [Baraka Kaseko]


Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon (FX)

Advertisement

Gwen Verdon gets second billing on the Fosse/Verdon marquee, but the FX miniseries quickly proved that Gwen was the absolute heart of its titular musical-theater partnership. Michelle Williams doesn’t portray Verdon as much as possess her completely, from her days as a fresh-faced ingénue to the reigning queen of Broadway to a performer understandably reluctant to admit that her best days are behind her. For better and worse, Verdon’s path to stardom was aligned with Bob Fosse (also expertly played by Sam Rockwell) who both propelled and thwarted her career. Williams miraculously unlocks all of it: dancing singing, being an affectionate mother and friend, falling in love with and then lashing out at her unfaithful husband. In the end, Gwen and Bob just couldn’t untangle their lives; the pair never even divorced. But in an age when women had less stature than they even do now, Verdon fought to make her mark on the world, and Williams encompassed the strength that made that happen, underneath the balmy sweetness that made everyone love her. It’s an astonishing, once-in-a-lifetime performance; Williams has already picked up an armful of awards for the role, with a Golden Globe likely to join the Emmy she won back in September. [Gwen Ihnat]


Wyatt Russell, Lodge 49 

True believers aren’t necessarily the easiest people to be around. Their spiritual/ideological commitments can alienate close friends and trusted allies. But it certainly helps matters when they have the bravery of a knight and the energy of a Golden Retriever. Enter Sean “Dud” Dudley, Lodge 49’s kindhearted hero whose highest aspiration in life is to clean pools and hang out with his closest friends. Actor Wyatt Russell, previously best known for putting goofy-guy spins on jock archetypes in 22 Jump Street and Everybody Wants Some, imbues Dud with a bone-deep sense of wonderment that makes him both lovable and exhausting. His unquestionable thirst for adventure, whether it be a shotgun marriage or a quest for secret scrolls, endears and frustrates his loved ones in equal measure. While his inexhaustible spirit makes Dud a loyal friend and a true Lynx, it also keeps him from reflecting upon the real world. Russell captures Dud’s joy with ease, yet his best quality is his ability to communicate the vague, foggy confusion that arises from grief. That type of existential drift will make anyone search high and low for answers to life’s most impossible questions, even in the tavern of a Lodge. [Vikram Murthi]


Rosa Salazar, Undone

The performances in Undone are odd beasts: The series is rotoscoped, meaning that even though the actors are being filmed, they’re not necessarily around anything that will make its way into the final shot. It’s almost like having to deal with a green screen, except that your body is also going to be covered up and animated. Still, Rosa Salazar’s dreamlike performance fits remarkably well with rotoscoping as a method, and with Undone as a series. As Alma, an aimless young woman dealing with her family trauma and a potential mental illness, Salazar throws herself into the sheer weirdness of the show’s time-bending conceit, retaining the same pained bemusement whether she’s fighting with her boyfriend, pressing on her uncomfortable relationship with her sister and mother, or talking to her potentially imaginary, potentially time-traveling dead father. Her attitude toward the world helps convince the viewer that not only is Alma, who works at a daycare, actually good with kids (unlike many largely unconvincing TV characters), she’s in enough pain to want to look for answers in some unpleasant, strange places. Undone wouldn’t work if Salazar wasn’t captivating as Alma reacts to the uncanny, but its real strength is the way she brings that same sense of uncertainty to the way Alma reacts to people. [Eric Thurm]


Zendaya, Euphoria 

Advertisement

If you want to gauge the unequivocal acting chops that Zendaya has honed over the course of her young life, you needn’t look any further than two scenes within the inaugural season of Euphoria. First, there’s the gut-wrenching moment in the episode “Made You Look,” where young addict Rue tearfully pleas for her friend/dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) to supply her with more drugs. Then, head to “The Trials And Tribulations Of Trying To Pee While Depressed” and meet Detective Bennett, a chain-smoking high-school sleuth determined to uncover the truth about her best friend Jules (Hunter Schafer) and ruthless playboy Nate (Jacob Elordi). You’ll soon find that her skillful grasp of both dramatic and comedic material speaks to a range that she merely hinted towards previously. Rue is every bit a disaster and brilliant, enigmatic and an open wound, and Zendaya gifted audiences with such a lived-in portrayal that Rue resonated as one of the rawest characters of the year. Whatever the season threw at her—recovery, young love, depression, fear, joy, rage, or alarming apathy—Zendaya handled with spellbinding flair. [Shannon Miller]


Kirsten Dunst, On Becoming A God In Central Florida 

While awards may not tell the whole story, Kirsten Dunst has consistently been one of the most underrated, unsung actresses for decades—arguably the best of her generation—never afraid to think outside the box with a particular choice in role. Her performance as Krystal Stubbs in On Becoming A God is the latest example of this, as the series—a Floridian fever dream that is both familiar and hauntingly foreign—needed a strong lead at the center to anchor it, and it got that and then some with Dunst. Dunst is bold and unafraid to be “unlikable,” to be less than glamorous, to just be a real human—not some caricature used to laugh at the working class in a place that’s often considered the punchline of America. There is so much about the show that could have gone off the rails with just one slight change, and that is especially the case for the role of Krystal. [LaToya Ferguson]


Suranne Jones, Gentleman Jack 

Gentleman Jack might’ve been too niche for American viewers in 2019, or maybe people simply missed the HBO series, buried as it was beneath the rubble of the Red Keep and Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a performance elsewhere this year as committed as Suranne Jones’ Anne Lister. The real Lister was a mess of contradictions: a pioneering 19th-century businesswoman and a radically gender-bending lesbian, but also a staunchly conservative landlord; a womanizer in relentless pursuit of a single, dedicated companion. Of course, this complexity also makes her fascinating, and Jones makes room for it all with a performance as sweeping as the show’s many pans across the Yorkshire countryside. Working from a wildly dynamic Sally Wainwright script, Jones both humanizes and sends up Lister in her portrayal, taking her time across the series’ eight episodes to reveal the vulnerable core of Lister’s brutish, outsize personality. It is a breath of fresh air to see a story centered on a butch woman, and Jones carries it bone-deep, taking up space in a way we rarely see women do. It’s the kind of definitive performance that makes it hard to imagine anyone else playing Anne Lister ever again. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Advertisement


Edi Patterson, The Righteous Gemstones

Danny McBride’s TV output thrives on collaboration: While the team of McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green get a lot of attention, there may be no more important figure in their weird world than Edi Patterson. Their latest project, The Righteous Gemstones, is an embarrassment of acting riches, but Patterson’s are the ones that stand out. She lends Judy Gemstone sympathy and compassion when it’s needed, but then instantly flips into some of the nastiest, funniest line readings you’ll ever hear. Patterson’s timing and delivery are sharp and sinister; she inspires laughs from the belly and disgusted shakes from the head. Take the clip above: In a finale filled with some of Gemstones’ best moments, it’s Patterson who steals the entire first season with a winding, wild, over-the-top monologue involving kidnapping, an Outback Steakhouse, and non-consensual handjobs. [Kyle Fowle]


Denny Love, Looking For Alaska 





On the page of John Green’s beloved 2005 YA novel Looking For Alaska, Chip “The Colonel” Martin is a bit of an odd creation. He’s militant, academically brilliant, prank-happy, hot-tempered, funny, and fiercely loyal, not to mention 5-feet tall and built like an Adonis. It’s the sort of kooky supporting character it’s hard to imagine someone actually bringing to life. Enter Denny Love, who not only makes the Colonel feel like a real person, but almost walks away with the entire miniseries. In Love’s charismatic hands, the Colonel’s messy contradictions make complete sense. Like all of the teen characters in Looking For Alaska, the Colonel adopts a self-conscious wise-beyond-his-years attitude, and Love expertly conveys the sense of a young man who’s built up layers upon layers of over-the-top personalities to shield his big, vulnerable heart. (It helps that the miniseries expands the Colonel’s role and backstory, giving Love even more nuance and pain to play.) Surrounded by a universally strong young ensemble, it’s all the more impressive that Love emerges as such a standout. It’s an exhilarating breakout turn that will hopefully lead to a long career. [Caroline Siede]


D’Arcy Carden, The Good Place 

Singling out one member of The Good Place’s god-tier ensemble is a lot like naming your favorite Beatle—there’s really not a wrong answer. (Yes, even if it’s Ringo.) Yet in 2019, there was one clear standout. D’Arcy Carden’s meticulously crafted, endlessly funny performance as the character we’ll call “our Janet” grows more layered and complex by the episode, just as the not-a-girl-not-a-robot herself has evolved and become more complex with every reset. And this year she was asked to aid showrunner Michael Schur in one of his glorious rug-pulling moments, a performance-based shell game that asked her to play the scenes honestly without giving away the trick before the big reveal. Sure, Carden’s most impressive high-wire act arrived at the tail end of 2018, but with or without the delight of Janet-as-Jason-Mendoza, hers is a sitcom turn for the ages, warm and strange, clever and deeply felt. The fact that she gave the prime Bad Janet some additional depth this season is just the cherry on top; not since the Clone Club disbanded have we had so much fun watching one actor play multiple roles at once. (Apologies, Paul Rudd.) [Allison Shoemaker]

Advertisement


Ensembles

Drama: The cast of Succession 

Succession’s perspective is purposefully narrow. There’s no meaningful counterpoint to the narcissistic scions of the Roy dynasty, no good-hearted emblem of the working class. They’ve insulated themselves in a protective blanket of nodding suits, cash-stuffed players, and circling sharks—the “adults in the room,” to nick a phrase—and, as such, are aliens in the world they shape. What makes Succession so special is that its ensemble doesn’t luxuriate in the wealth porn afflicting so many stories of the 1%; they’re suffocated by it, each unconsciously bound by the singular mental, emotional, and sexual hangups endemic to the hyper-privileged. We’re never asked to like the characters of Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Alan Ruck, J. Smith Cameron, Matthew Macfadyen, or Nicholas Braun, but it’s so easy to be swept into their orbit. Aided by the show’s razor-sharp writing, each deftly reconciles what we recognize as humanity with the absurdities of their privilege, the acid of their daily discourse leavened with the subtlest glimpses of their own existential terror. Macfadyen’s Tom looks like a clown when he tries to sell “we hear for you,” but we believe him when he tells Shiv he’s unhappy. Culkin’s Roman is a sneering tyrant at his management-training course, but we flinch when his dad smacks him silly. Strong’s Kendall is a goon, but we shudder when he stares into the abyss. They are alien, yes, but they are compelling. Fish in a tank. Lions in a zoo. They are fascinating. [Randall Colburn]


Comedy: The cast of What We Do In The Shadows 

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement are a tough act to follow, but the cast of FX’s What We Do In The Shadows TV adaptation have proven themselves up for the challenge. Unusually for a comedy, the show is as heavy on special effects as it is improvised banter, requiring a diverse set of skills from performers who might be required to fly around in a harness and come up with jokes at the same time. The show’s core vampiric trio of Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, and Natasia Demetriou make this multitasking look easy, bringing a distinct personality to each of their characters—Novak the bumbling Nandor, Berry the foppish Laszlo, and Demetriou the headstrong Nadja—while maintaining a sense of unity through their common backstory. The bloodsuckers’ core dynamic carried over pretty much intact from the original film, but the show’s new characters, including Harvey Guillén as downtrodden familiar Guillermo and Mark Proksch as energy vampire Colin Robinson, keep things fresh with new variations on established themes. By the end of the first season, the chemistry between the show’s cast had produced something unexpected for such a silly show: Genuine tenderness, whether between married couple Nadja and Laszlo or platonic lifemates Nandor and Guillermo. Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they don’t have heart. [Katie Rife]


Limited series: Toni Collette, Kaitlyn Dever, and Merritt Wever, Unbelievable 

Unbelievable started with a compelling non-fiction narrative of a victim of sexual assault who was failed by the system, and the two detectives who years later led the investigation that uncovered the truth behind that failure. But none of these roles are easy to bring to life in an adaptation. Katilyn Dever’s Marie Adler is isolated in the past, pushing away her support structures, while Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) are heroes mostly for their investment in the procedural labor necessary to do good police work. However, these actresses find the precise emotional levels to connect the audience to every dimension of this story. Dever’s embodiment of trauma takes your breath away by the end of the opening episode, Wever’s portrayal of empathy and understanding lets you breathe again when the focus shifts in the next installment, and Collette brashly joins the story with a seasoned sense of justice that pushes the investigation forward. For all of the rage that Unbelievable brings to the surface, their performances (and those of the rest of the ensemble) channel that rage brilliantly, and build to a cathartic moment of strong women prevailing against a corrupt system. [Myles McNutt]

Advertisement


Dynamic duos

Comedy: Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver, The Other Two

Pity comedy, forever the also-ran to drama’s admiration for its performances. But Drew Tarver and Helene Yorke achieve a rare magic on The Other Two, Comedy Central’s almost shockingly good freshman series about Cary and Brooke Dubek, two twentysomething siblings striving for individual success only to realize they’re destined to be upstaged by their burgeoning star of a younger brother. The show finds both of them starting on autopilot, selfish and entitled and waiting for the world to realize it owes them something, only to slowly begin coming around—in a hilarious and empathetic progression of fits and starts—and confronting their own narcissism and frustrated hopes. That push-pull tension between the lacerating wit (and oft-clueless arrogance) of their bravado and the damaged hearts they’re hiding is what makes the endings of the episodes pack such a wallop: The comedy is razor sharp, but the pathos lying just below the surface is what pushes it into the realm of greatness. With supporting help from Ken Marino and an excellent Molly Shannon as their mother, Tarver and Yorke find the realism buried beneath the showbiz satire and ego-puncturing silliness. [Alex McLevy]


Drama: MJ Rodriguez and Billy Porter, Pose 

If ever there was an ensemble show, it’s FX’s Pose, which is as devoted to celebrating family as it is showcasing its wonderful cast. But season two of this Emmy-nominated drama frequently tested the fealty of the members of House Of Evangelista and House Of Wintour, who compete with one another when they aren’t preparing Sunday meals together. New couples also emerged, but the most compelling dynamic to watch was the bond broken, then mended, between Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez). Porter’s character may have only recently found a partner to keep up with him, but the Emmy-winning actor has had an exceptional collaborator in Rodriguez from the beginning. Porter and Rodriguez gave their absolute all this year, leaving no feeling unexplored, no hope untapped, no lonely figure without a mentor. They supported one another in scenes both wrenching (like the early sequence on Hart’s Island) and exultant (like the season finale, in which Porter served up an exquisite Diana Ross homage), which made Pray and Blanca’s onscreen split all the more painful. Porter and Rodriguez are both more than capable of owning the spotlight, but their chemistry is undeniable, making Pray and Blanca’s reunion one of the most joyous moments on TV this year. [Danette Chavez]


Rising stars

Brooklyn Shuck, Skylar Grey, Maddy Crocco, and Dalya Knapp, Evil

A quartet of peppy preteens pulls off one hell of a stunt every week on Evil, playing the heroine’s hyperactive daughters as a kind of constantly chattering perpetual motion machine, rolling en masse through the backgrounds of scenes (and, in the season-to-date’s best episode “October 31,” getting their own spooky subplot). Too many children on TV and in movies are portrayed as either overly precocious—grade-schoolers who talk like grad students—or as permanently stuck in kindergarten. The Evil girls though talk like age-appropriate youngsters, who are easily distracted and yet still prone to comment on everything. They’re also incredibly funny, with a natural comic timing and a facility with fast-paced back-and-forth conversation that’s rare in child actors. There have never been a pack of TV characters quite like them. [Noel Murray]

Advertisement


Outstanding guest performers

Paul Giamatti, Lodge 49

No big-deal thespian who waded into the cable waters this past decade has had as much fun splashing around on TV as Paul Giamatti. In 2019, Giamatti stopped grinding axes (and Axes, and having his own axe ground in the bedroom) on Billions long enough to embody L. Marvin Metz, the eccentric pulp author he’d previously voiced during Lodge 49’s first season. Barreling into a delightfully disorienting cold-open flash-forward with a parachute on his back and a typewriter in his arms, Giamatti sounded season two’s call to adventure, in a screaming-mad register tailored to a writer with Clive Cussler’s prolificacy and a fanatical devotion to the Ancient & Benevolent Order of the Lynx rivaled only by L. Ron Hubbard’s worship of himself. (It was the very model of a guest-star turn, in that one more episode with Metz might’ve could’ve thrown the show’s delicate balance entirely out of whack.) The performance put Giamatti’s executive-producing money where the actor’s mouth is, finding a nutshell for Lodge 49 in the process: Kooky, tragic, bewildering, multifaceted, and a genius that society needs—now more than ever. [Erik Adams]


Alexander SkarsgĂĄrd, On Becoming A God In Central Florida

On Becoming A God In Central Florida’s Travis Stubbs couldn’t be more different than the last TV role Alexander Skarsgård played, Big Little Lies’ Perry Wright. The former was an ineffectual but loving man (and may he rest in peace in that fictional gator’s belly), while the latter was a barely contained powder keg, one that remained an explosive threat to his wife even after his death. Where Perry cultivated a handsome, controlled veneer, Travis remained as guileless as he was witless. Skarsgård inhabits both of these disparate lives so fully, which is a testament to his shape-shifting abilities, but what’s truly impressive is how the actor found the common thread in Perry’s Italian wool suits and Travis’ strip mall tuxedo—both men posed a considerable danger to their wives. Travis may not have been physically abusive, but his glassy-eyed zealotry, his eagerness in buying into the pyramid scheme that is the American dream, still shattered his life with Krystal (a fearsome Kirsten Dunst). He may have been relegated to the pilot, but Skarsgård gave a go-for-broke performance that’s head and shoulders above those of other guest performers this year. Only a stinker thinker would conclude anything else. [Danette Chavez]