The year in TV performances was marked as much by transformation as star power, as Hollywood A-listers continued to flock to the small screen. Rapt audiences watched as a couple of British gents who know their way around a Jane Austen drama turned into cads, and America’s sweethearts (past and present) tapped into their dark sides. Teen-comedy-breakouts-turned-Oscar-winners had a genre-bending experience, while a filmmaker’s muse became fashion royalty. But the glow from those marquee names couldn’t overshadow all the rising stars, the newcomers who grabbed our attention as they held their own against some of their most acclaimed peers, or the veteran actors who are not only the glue of their respective ensembles but also continue to show us all how it’s done. There’s some argument over how many truly great shows emerged this season, and that’s fine—but, as our list demonstrates, 2018 could easily be the year of the peak performance.


Individual performances

Darren Criss, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

With less of an ensemble focus than its acclaimed predecessor and a narrative that criss-crossed the United States (with a brief stop off in the Philippines), The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story needed a center of gravity. It had one in the fashion designer of its title; it found one in the actor who played Versace’s murderer. Former Glee star Darren Criss graduated to the Ryan Murphy big leagues with his calculating, chameleonic turn as Andrew Cunanan, a tragic figure forged from the pressures of internal and external homophobia, who pretended to have all that was promised to him by a doting, con-man father—then made like dad and took everything else. It’s a performance about performance, with enough vulnerability to keep the blood from draining out of it, and enough menace to never let you forget that Cunanan killed at least five people. (You can see both in Criss’ full-throated “Gloria” sing-along.) Cunanan’s murders were enabled by a culture that looked the other way, but Criss makes it so that you can’t take your eyes off Andrew. He confidently spins Cunanan’s webs of bullshit, while doing just enough to tip the character’s hand: his puppy-dog over-eagerness opposite Cody Fern’s David Madson, the wanton violence with which he attacks a sandwich in the miniseries’ Chicago chapter. Even when Cunanan’s words sounded too good to be true, Criss was always believable. [Erik Adams]


Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta

All four main characters on Atlanta are quiet observers of their environments, but Brian Tyree Henry’s turn as rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles takes that mantle and really runs with it. Although Henry has mastered the GTFO reaction shot, he’s added new layers of teeming frustration to his performance this season, especially since Paper Boi has since garnered some measure of acclaim. Henry has the ability to mine humor just from his weed-stained delivery, but he imbues his role with a well of repressed melancholy that’s potent just by the nature of Henry’s restraint. Paper Boi has to deal with family squabbles, nuisances from fans and peers alike, and Robbin’ Season violence, and all the while, he maintains a disaffected façade necessary to moving through this world. Henry’s imposing size has always informed his performance, especially when he has to modulate his personality depending upon his company, but this year, he finds a way to play big and small in the same moment. Henry has had a banner 2018, and has appeared in three of the year’s most acclaimed films, but his role as Paper Boi allows him to use all the tools at his disposal. [Vikram Murthi]

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Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul

If ever there was a season of Better Call Saul to sound the alarm on the tremendous work being done by Rhea Seehorn, it’s this past one. The actor’s work as Kim Wexler has been consistently excellent since this show began, but the arc of season four was a showcase for Seehorn to demonstrate just how good she can be. From the moment in episode two when her beleaguered lawyer unloads on Howard Hamlin in a volcanic display of anger and protectiveness toward Jimmy, Kim assumed center stage in the narrative, her frustrations with her impersonal and overbearing client and her desire for meaning in life pushing her to double down on the world of Slippin’ Jimmy—right up until the moment when she realizes her unceasing faith in her partner might be misplaced. Seehorn plays each emotion with such complicated ambiguity, layering nuance upon nuance during each new confrontation with a roadblock in the path to happiness (some of her own making), that eventually the actor’s charisma simply takes over, pulling everyone into her orbit in the process. Better call the Emmys. [Alex McLevy]


William Jackson Harper, The Good Place

D’Arcy Carden made a strong, 11th-hour push for the title of 2018’s Soul Squad MVP, but what William Jackson Harper lacks in episodes spent playing opposite himself (playing opposite himself playing opposite himself playing opposite himself playing opposite himself), he more than makes up for in time spent keeping The Good Place’s feet on the ground. That was a little easier once Chidi Anagonye and his fellow legions of the bureaucratically damned were pulled back to Earth in season three, and Chidi’s classroom became the launchpad for their second chance. But second chances mean second choices, which gives Harper even more indecision to mine, and eventually puts him in the spot of playing a man with a head full of information who must accept that said information can’t save him from an eternity of torture. It would follow that someone who spends so much time pondering would get big laughs from shouting questions into the sky; it’s one of Harper’s intangible gifts that he can wring so much feeling (and the occasional extra syllable) from his “what”s and “why”s. He’s so entertaining in panic mode, The Good Place writers must be constantly tempted to throw hat decisions, break-up scenarios, and complete existential crises at Harper. But as he recently proved (with a big assist from Carden), when Chidi needs to step up and save someone he loves (and, you know, the whole universe), Harper can sell that with gusto, too. This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors—with one “surprisingly jacked” exception. [Erik Adams]


Matthew Macfadyen, Succession


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HBO’s Succession is the best show you haven’t watched this year. By turns tense, hilarious, and deeply, disturbingly relevant, Jesse Armstrong’s satire thrives in no small part due to its gilded ensemble. The Roy family, the owners of a Fox-like media empire, form the nucleus of the narrative, but some of its best characters exist on the fringes. One of them is middle manager Tom Wamsgans, the proud, opportunistic, and fragile fiancé of Shiv, the Roy’s only daughter. Played by Matthew Macfadyen, Tom is deliciously out of his depth and, cowed by the Roys’ power vacuum, desperate for someone to bully. That someone arrives in Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), with whom Tom forms a comically abusive, codependent bond that only the hangers-on of a global empire could. Everyone on Succession exists in some stage of moral rot and, by virtue of being right on the verge of sociopathy, Tom’s struggles with his drowning conscience are some of the show’s most striking. Macfadyen is pitch-perfect in the role, his unassuming countenance allowing him to pivot from moments of rich vulnerability to bouts of pure monstrousness. Aside from Greg, he might be the most likable in a sea of unlikable characters, if only because he’s insecure enough to still be relatable. [Randall Colburn]


Justina Machado, One Day At A Time

It takes a lot for a January show to be remembered at the end of the year, but with its acclaimed first two seasons, One Day At A Time makes it look easy. So does series lead Justina Machado. Machado grounds the show’s broader elements and brings pathos to its serious moments, always bustling with energy and making Penelope the force of nature she must be to keep up with her busy, demanding life. From the frantic exercise bike study session of “Schooled” to the madcap, screwball antics of “Locked Down,” the second season gave Machado plenty of straight comedic material to play, highlighting her physicality and timing. These bigger scenes also laid the groundwork for the wallop that came each time the series slowed down and let her show her dramatic chops. Machado steals viewers’ breath with her utter stillness in the final act of “Locked Down,” demands at least a tear with her emotional monologue in “Not Yet,” and most powerfully, completely transforms to portray Penelope’s spiral into clinical depression in “Hello, Penelope.” Multi-cam family sitcoms and their lead actresses are often overlooked come awards season. Machado’s performance proves just how much vitality remains in this classic form. [Kate Kulzick]


Stephan James, Homecoming

Holding your own against an Oscar winner and America’s sweetheart is no easy feat, but damn if Stephan James doesn’t make it look that way sitting across from Julia Roberts in Sam Esmail’s adaptation of Homecoming. The role of Walter Cruz is a meaty one, that of a military veteran with PTSD who undergoes a most unconventional treatment overseen by Heidi Bergman (Roberts). James’ incredibly nuanced portrayal respects every part of that struggle (and the Gimlet Media podcast) while also hinting at a life not previously seen or heard. Walter may be the one on the analyst’s couch, but with measured responses to Heidi’s questions, he’s the one who seems to be saying, “Tell me more.” The bulk of that emotionally laden character work is James’: Walter and Heidi’s relationship—be it a friendship or something more—is preordained, but it would be nothing without the intimacy developed by every conspiratorial smile exchanged between them. This is a breakout year for James, who also stars in Barry Jenkins’ achingly beautiful If Beale Street Could Talk, but he doesn’t seem concerned with owning the spotlight. His performance is as generous as it is beguiling, both absorbing and reflecting the waves of longing that emanate from Roberts as Heidi. [Danette Chavez]

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Amy Adams, Sharp Objects

Usually in a bleak, gothic mystery, the kind that Sharp Objects spun over the course of eight weeks this summer, our main character/investigator is a rather solid sort, to give us something to latch onto in all the darkness. But Amy Adams’ Camille Preaker is already a sinking victim of Wind Gap, Missouri, by the time we meet her at the start of the series: a former golden girl who’s now an alcoholic reporter, her troubled past immortalized by the words she’s scratched into her skin all over her body. The fact that those words were in Adams’ own handwriting is telling; the actor fully possesses the role of Camille, who’s forced to move into her old family home of horrors to investigate a string of child murders in her hometown. The thick tension that pervades the Preaker/Crellin family is suffocating, causing Camille to lunge for her vodka-filled Evian bottles; the more she finds out, the more she herself unravels, until getting to the truth nearly causes her own destruction as well. Increasingly over the eight episodes, Adams bravely opens her character up to a series of more and more devastating emotional exposures, until her pain becomes our own: Sharp Objects ends on Camille’s face—an impossible combination of complete astonishment and total loss—the only way it could have. [Gwen Ihnat]


Billy Porter, Pose

If we only saw Pray Tell in full-blown master of ceremonies mode, delivering scathing reads and flinging huzzahs with equal, regal abandon, then Pose’s Billy Porter would still have given one of the best performances of the year. In an absolutely stacked ensemble, he stood out from the first moment. Giving a performance that crackles not only with electricity but also an authenticity that somehow manages to more firmly root the story in its time and place, is no mean feat. But as Pray Tell’s story continued, and Porter was given more to play and explore, his work became increasingly vulnerable and heartbreaking. In the season standout “Love Is The Message,” Pray Tell organizes a cabaret for the AIDS patients at a local hospital, then lets loose with a swooningly romantic version of Donny Hathaway’s “For All We Know.” It’s a moment few episodes or performers could top. Minutes later, Porter tops it. That’s what watching his work in this exceptional freshman season is like—just when you think he can’t possibly get better, he does; just when you think nothing else could be so painful and beautiful, he proves you wrong. Porter’s well-earned Golden Globe nomination this week will be the first of many, mark our words, and my god, we can’t wait for the acceptance speech. [Allison Shoemaker]

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Noah Emmerich, The Americans

From the very start of the superlative spy drama The Americans, Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman had to contend with being 100 percent wrong. It’s the same challenge presented to Hannibal’s Laurence Fishburne: “You’re a brilliant, career federal agent who’s going to spend years alongside the very subject of your investigation without ever catching on—Go!” Counterintelligence agent Stan had the worse of it, though, as his position as next-door neighbor to a pair of undercover Soviet spies sounded like the overheated cherry on top of the series already high-concept cake when The Americans began. But the seemingly stolid Stan, played by Emmerich with his signature ruddy, kind-eyed gravitas, managed to make his six-season arc of wavering suspicions and just-missed opportunities heartbreakingly human, without ever making us feel Stan was anything but a stellar spy hunter. As Stan’s and his neighbor/quarry Philip’s common denominator suburban dissatisfactions drew the pair together, their friendship also transcended mere contrivance, with Emmerich tracing all-American tough guy Stan’s gradual disillusionment with the life he’d built, right into the paradoxically truest friendship of his life. In this final season, Emmerich made Stan’s eventual, inevitable confrontation with the fleeing Philip, Elizabeth, and daughter Paige Jennings into classic tragedy, their hair-trigger tense standoff in a parking garage seeing Stan coming to terms with just how complex his loyalties are—and how much he’s ultimately willing to live with. [Dennis Perkins]


Sissy Spacek, Castle Rock

The best fiction by Stephen King finds a way to meld the supernatural with completely natural problems like grief, trauma, and family drama. The writers of Castle Rock found a way to weave those issues through their creepy narrative about a young man who may or may not be the devil, but they saved their greatest feat for episode seven, “The Queen,” providing a platform for a tour de force performance from Sissy Spacek. As Ruth, a woman whose increasing dementia has blurred the line between past and present, Spacek relates true, mounting confusion, culminating in a moment of pure horror that comes not from the other side but from the fallible human condition. “The Queen” was the showcase, but Spacek was phenomenal all season, grounding Castle Rock in something pure and relatable in a way that only one of our best living actresses can do. In a show prone to spooky flights of fancy, she was the rock (sorry) that grounded it in something real, making her fate all the more moving and poignant. Four decades after she defined King’s legacy in film as Carrie, Sissy Spacek has done it again for television. [Brian Tallerico]

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Hugh Grant, A Very English Scandal

If nothing else comes of Donald Trump’s association with Vladimir Putin, we’ll always have the homophobic memes. Liberal society loves the story of the powerful closet case’s secret gay affair—because it’s never told by actual homosexuals. Enter Russell T. Davies, whose BBC miniseries A Very English Scandal rejects the usual pity and insularity and points back at the braying crowds. The true-ish story of rising Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and the jilted lover (Ben Whishaw) he endeavors to silence, it’s a major work for all three primary collaborators—but for Grant it’s a culmination. From his brutal way with love in Maurice, across decades of cinematic charmers and cads, to his late embrace of the cartoon and the villain, Grant brings it all to bear on his portrait of a vampiric old queen whose ego and class interests violently win out against his humanity. Grant puts on a show—seduction, politics, Keystone comedy—every unpracticed jaunt and studied look of confusion an expression of the status that distinguishes and excuses him. It’s a challenge to the received wisdom. With his wolfish smile and batting eyes, Grant embodies not the self-hating queer, but the insatiable monster. [Brandon Nowalk]


Brendan Fraser, Trust

Even at his career peak, Brendan Fraser was not getting a lot of serious roles. There’s something about his all-American physicality that makes filmmakers want to place him on a spectrum somewhere between goofball and lummox. But in Trust, the FX limited series about the Getty kidnapping of the 1970s, Fraser reminds us what he could do in the supporting role of James Fletcher Chace, a fixer in the employ of Getty (Donald Sutherland) tasked with miscellaneous duties related to the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson (though not, notably, simply handing over the ransom money). Fraser, meanwhile, is tasked with occasionally breaking the fourth wall with audience asides, and he’s so quietly commanding as Chace that the show sometimes suffers in episodes where he takes a backseat or doesn’t appear at all. The bright side, though, is “Lone Star,” a character showcase mostly following Chace as he initially attempts to track down the Getty kid. Fraser, bulked up in middle age, smartly underplays his physical side; Chace is believably tough, but he meets almost everyone with a plainspoken politeness as he plays amateur detective out of his element in Rome. His character is ultimately not particularly heroic (he still works for the odious Getty, after all), but Fraser captures the nuances of a man whose decency doesn’t keep him from becoming something of a helpless bystander. [Jesse Hassenger]


Annie Murphy, Schitt’s Creek

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If there’s an art to vocal fry, Annie Murphy of Schitt’s Creek has mastered it. As Alexis, the daughter in the abruptly impoverished Rose clan, she’s essentially developed her own language of vocal tics and mannerisms. In her capable hands, the simple pronunciation of her brother’s name became so memorable that the writers are apparently finding extra ways to shoehorn in opportunities for her to say it, and there’s an entire compilation on YouTube of the many times she has said, “Ew, David!” But Alexis is more than her YouTube roundup would suggest—in the most recent (and best) season, she struggled through romantic heartbreak and opening her own business. It’s quite a ways from the premiere, when she was a high school dropout who never spoke to her family. It would be very easy for a character like Alexis to be one note: the spoiled rich girl who doesn’t know anything about real life. But even amid the comedy royalty playing the other Roses (Eugene and Dan Levy, Catherine O’Hara), Murphy stands out for her careful crafting of a portrait of a vulnerable, newly ambitious woman who, at 30, is finally figuring out what she wants in the world. [Lisa Weidenfeld]


Justin Theroux, Maniac

Befitting its subject matter, Maniac has some issues figuring out its tone. The show veers between treacly material about “mental illness,” genre pastiche, and dark comedy about technological advances and the struggle to exist. The comedy is the most consistently successful part of the show, and it largely works because of Justin Theroux’s performance as Dr. James Mantleray. The mastermind behind the cutting-edge, dangerous drug study that absorbs the other characters, Mantleray is obstinate, insecure, and hilarious to watch. Wearing a limp, ridiculous hairpiece and scrunching his mug into a permanent condescending, gaping fish face, Theroux throws himself fully into the role of a grown man who is terrified of his mother and trying desperately to render her profession obsolete. It’s a performance that’s been compared to John C. Reilly’s mythical creation Dr. Steve Brule—and while nothing beats Brule for pathos, Mantleray, introduced to the show using a VR setup to jerk off while pretending he’s the king of Atlantis, might be an even more pathetic creature. Coming from The Leftovers, Theroux follows in the tradition of Jon Hamm as a ridiculously hot person trying to discover if playing dumb and kind of gross will be funny. It is. [Eric Thurm]


Mandy Moore, This Is Us

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Not only does Mandy Moore have the hardest job on This Is Us, she also has one of the hardest jobs on TV. Portraying family matriarch Rebecca Pearson across 50 plus years of history, Moore regularly hops from playing a bright-eyed twentysomething to a melancholy grandmother, and everything in between. And unlike This Is Us’ breakout stars, Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia, she doesn’t have the benefit of playing a character who’s preternaturally likable. Quietly flawed suburban moms aren’t exactly pop culture’s go-to figures of sympathy, which could be part of the reason Moore’s work on the series has been so weirdly underpraised—she’s yet to receive an Emmy nod and was ignored by this year’s Golden Globes, too—or perhaps it’s just because she makes her Herculean task look so easy. Without relying on showy tics, Moore subtly shifts her physical and vocal performance for each stage of Rebecca’s life, slowly adding layers to believably build up to playing a character twice her age. Moore nails big emotional scenes like an explosive present-day family therapy session or a postpartum grocery store breakdown, but her best moments tend to be quiet and understated—like the disbelieving way Rebecca processes the news that her husband has unexpectedly died. Given a featured spotlight on This Is Us’ second season, Moore proved she’s an actor with incredible craft. It’s about time we started talking about her that way. [Caroline Siede]


Parker Posey, Lost In Space

On the original 1960s version of Lost In Space, Jonathan Harris played the devious Dr. Zachary Smith as a comical coward and bumbler, causing trouble for the Robinson family more due to a generalized incompetence than any overt evil. But on the Netflix revival, Parker Posey’s take on Dr. Smith—or, more accurately, her take on the cleverly named, egomaniacal con-woman June Harris, a fugitive from justice who impersonates Dr. Smith in order to escape to another planet—is more deliciously malicious. Set against the magnificent Molly Parker as super-mom Maureen Robinson, Posey’s bad doctor isn’t just a delight to watch, she also gives the show its sense of purpose. The actress uses her go-to facial expression (eyes wide, mouth agape) to convey the combination of sweaty panic and improvisatory shrewdness that keeps her character alive. She’s playing a terrible person, in an absolutely wonderful way, in a series about the mundane problems humanity has to overcome to keep going as a species. [Noel Murray]


Noah Robbins, Forever

Amazon’s afterlife sitcom Forever escaped never-ending banality thanks to the odd cast of characters that inhabited this particular community of “formers.” Noah Robbins’ eternal 17-year-old, Mark Erickson, particularly stood out, as a technical 58-year-old with the sensitivities of a 1970s hooligan. Mark’s endless crankiness was juxtaposed with Oscar’s pleasantness, earnestly translated by Fred Armisen; as much as Mark protests Oscar’s bonding efforts, like the attempt to throw him a series of around-the-world dinner parties, the two wind up true friends in the end, bonded by Oscar’s heartbreak and Mark’s crush on the coolest girl at his high school, now a middle-aged woman in the house down the block. There are worse ways to spend eternity than hanging out at skateboarding parks, eating Reggie bars, and jamming to Blue Oyster Cult, and Robbins’ Mark appears to have pragmatically come to grips with his afterlife fate, despite his appealing surliness. Robbins had already won us over as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s nerdy, well-meaning boss Todd; by playing Mark in the same year, he established himself as a young actor to keep an eye on, belying his brief time on this particular earth. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Dynamic duos

Comedy: Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson, Detroiters

On this batty, sadly canceled Comedy Central sitcom, Detroit joins Philadelphia as a city of brotherly love. Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson play Tim and Sam, respectively, best friends and brothers-in-law who run a Detroit-based advertising agency. Every episode, the duo concoct campaigns for their clients—wig stores and other low-budget shops—and bumble in search of new business. Robinson and Richardson are veterans of Chicago comedy, so no surprise their work embodies a core tenet of improv and sketch: introduce characters who like each other. They eschew the traditional straight man/funny man dynamic, where one would deliver all the punchlines, in favor of elevating each other’s barrage of jokes. For every tagline Tim pitches, Sam has another at the ready, and vice-versa. They fail together, hitting the bar to praise each other for genius ideas simply ahead of their time. At the height of their tension in season two, the partners of Cramblin Duvet split and Sam, who secures a new job, stumbles upon a struggling Tim, in the midst of a desperate pitch. (“123 Warehouse: It’s as easy as ABC... warehouse.”) He quickly ducks in to help his former partner. Sam and Tim reunite and confess love for one another. In this heightened version of Detroit, blood runs thicker than water, even for honorary brothers. [Steve Heisler]


Drama: Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, Killing Eve

As TV villains have become more nuanced and compelling, their nobler counterparts have struggled to keep up, leading to a protagonist problem in even the best storytelling. But Killing Eve manages to have its cake—or, shepherd’s pie, as the case may be—and eat it, too. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer bring classic Hollywood chemistry to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s innovative, erotically charged thriller. Villanelle is the showier of the roles that make up this perfect pairing, and Comer absolutely dazzles as the remorseless psychopath and highly skilled killer from her first moment on screen. She arranges and rearranges her delicate features into the full spectrum of human emotion, including desire, curiosity, and barely suppressed rage. But as expertly as she approximates these feelings, they’re nothing more than a look that Villanelle is trying to nail—and Comer’s jaw-dropping performance captures both the effort and her pleasure at what she’s getting away with. That is, until she meets Sandra Oh’s Eve Polastri, the mid-level MI5 officer who’s hot on her tail (and, as the chase goes on, under the collar). Her character may be a step or two behind, but Oh matches Comer move for move, steadily peeling back the more mundane layers of Eve’s existence to reveal a well of longing. Eve’s wardrobe may not hold a candle to Villanelle’s, but Oh’s performance is every bit as exceptional as Comer’s. [Danette Chavez]


Most excellent ensembles

Comedy: The cast of GLOW

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When you have a story about a ragtag bunch of misfits coming together for the power of teamwork, that story is only as good as both the talent of and the focus on said ensemble of misfits. This is a major part of why, while GLOW’s first season was very good, its second season was even better. It improved upon the show’s already impressive, albeit somewhat underutilized cast outside of Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, allowing the series to better capture the feeling of being a story about a group of women building something together (professionally and personally). Even before the finale, episodes like “Nothing Shattered” and the gut-busting “The Good Twin” are the payoff of the series finally coming into its own regarding the ensemble, the culmination of a solid build-up for all of these characters.

Our coverage of GLOW included plenty of praise for (and awe of) Gilpin’s inhuman acting ability when it comes to her work as both Debbie and Liberty Belle. Even months removed from the season, her performance is still one of the most impressive (if not the most impressive) of the year. But the most surprising featured performance of the season came from Kia Stevens (namely in “Mother Of All Matches”). Viewers could be forgiven for assuming Stevens was an established character actress instead of the absolute monster wrestler she actually was (as Awesome Kong/Amazing Kong/Kharma). GLOW has a talented cast across the board, but the series as a whole deserves praise for its ability to bring out unexpected or untapped talent in this cast at every turn. [LaToya Ferguson]


Drama: The cast of Lodge 49

Early in Lodge 49’s first season, it registers as the story of two men—Dudley and Ernie, played by Wyatt Russell and Brent Jennings, both great—stuck in a rut whose lives will be changed by whatever alchemy is uncovered as they dig deeper into the lodge’s history. They’re actually the only characters mentioned in the Wikipedia plot summary. But the show quickly established a much broader interest in the death of the American dream, and while the entire ensemble (especially Linda Emond) does strong work building out this world, Sonya Cassidy’s Liz Dudley is at the heart of it. Crippled by her father’s debt, she’s at a dead end waiting tables, but feels equally adrift when welcomed into the vapid world of corporate leadership. After literally jumping off a yacht to escape capitalism’s version of upward mobility, Liz ends up at the bank that holds her father’s loan, and what follows is one of the most impactful scenes of the year. Carrying the weight of Liz’s personal grief and the season’s critique of the power that money holds over society, Cassidy lays bare the plight of debt-ridden Americans, and embodies the depth of theme and character that Lodge 49 and its ensemble developed (and which its Wikipedia page really needs to be edited to reflect, someone please get on that ASAP). [Myles McNutt]


2018’s Most Valuable Player

Maya Rudolph for Forever, Big Mouth, and The Good Place

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Maya Rudolph should be nominated for her reading of “bubble bath” alone, but she’s given us so much more. She imbues The Good Place’s Gen, the eternal judge of the universe, with the breezy geniality of an old friend, offering chips and guac and chatting about Mark Harmon. As Forever’s June, Rudolph deploys deft and entirely believable reactions to outrageous circumstances, grounding a show that sometimes threatens to float into the ether. But it’s her performance as Big Mouth’s Hormone Monstress that rises hair and haunches above the rest. Connie’s embodiment of adolescent urges, anger, and angst—and Rudolph’s rich, rolling delight in her own voice—reaches heights and depths that eclipse the barriers of age and gender. In the disco-inflected “I Love My Body,” Rudolph (living up to her mother’s legacy) celebrates the “cornucopia of flesh” that is human variety with loving raunchiness—and with a boundless joy that only bolsters the solemnity of her horny swearsies in season’s end. Maya Rudolph keeps being cast in otherworldly roles for a simple reason: Maya Rudolph is transcendent. [Emily L. Stephens]


Hall Of Famer

Bill Hader

The A.V. Club praised Bill Hader as one of the best TV performers of 2015, singling out an active year when the Saturday Night Live alum put his man-of-a-thousand-faces abilities to the test across multiple programs. The following year, we lifted Hader up again, this time focusing on his work in Documentary Now; it was the season of the Spalding Gray episode, “I’m gonna cry now. It’s gonna be a weird cry,” and the Kid Stays In The Picture parody where Hader kills despite being restricted almost entirely to voice-over and still photography. He then made no major TV appearances in 2017, aside from a one-off appearance as Anthony Scaramucci on SNL. That year, The A.V. Club did not publish a list of the best TV performances.

Can it be any coincidence that we’ve revived this feature in the wake of another landmark Hader turn, this time his Emmy-winning work as an assassin-turned-aspiring-thespian on Barry? Yes, it absolutely can be. But the first season of Barry—in which Hader plumbs new depths of soulfulness and proves that it takes a great actor to do bad acting so well—will be the last eligible for inclusion on this list. Same for next year’s third season of Documentary Now: In fairness to the thousands of other actors currently working on TV, and in the hopes of avoiding the nightmarish scenario where someone looks at our year-end TV coverage and thinks, “Ugh, him again?”, Bill Hader is hereby enshrined in The A.V. Club Best TV Performances Of The Year Hall Of Fame. For the steely manner in which he guns down those Chechens at the end of the pilot, for every marble-mouthed recitation on Gene Cousineau’s stage, for the way Barry turns his performance inward after so many years of extremely outward performances—we salute you, Bill Hader. Please rise as The Blue Jean Committee plays a very special version of “Catalina Breeze” and we raise Stefon’s Ed Hardy shirt into the rafters, starting… now. [Erik Adams]