Friday, December 15, 2017

The 20 Best TV Performances of 2017

2017 is coming to a close. So now, it's time to look back on the year that was and honor all of the greatness that happened in television. Here, I'm listing some of my favorite performances from 2017. Enjoy!

Before I get to the actual list, it must be stated that all lists - especially at this time of the year - are completely subjective. I whittled this list down to just 20 performers. I did so for brevity's sake and because the list would no longer be special if I was talking about over a hundred actors. These were the performances that have stuck with me from 2017. Your list could be completely different. And yes, I am ranking my lists this year. That adds to the fun of this whole process. But again, you shouldn't be too concerned about where a specific performance is ranked. It's all completely subjective. My favorite performance of the year could be your tenth best. You could have really enjoyed someone who is on a show that I just didn't watch. These are my personal favorites for the year of 2017. It should also be noted that I kept the list to just one performance from each show. In some cases, that was a really agonizing thing to do because there were a couple standout actors in the ensemble. Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is a wonderful example where I could have highlighted a number of really impressive performances. But I only included one on this list in order to have more of a variety in the list overall.

And with all of that being said, here's my list of the best performances from 2017!


Right off the bat, I have to break one of the rules that I just laid out in the paragraph above. I need to do so because 2017 turned out to be an incredible year for Laura Dern. She was seemingly everywhere. She had memorable guest spots on FOX's The Last Man on Earth and Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She continued to voice a lead character on Netflix's F Is For Family. She won an Emmy for her supporting role on HBO's Big Little Lies. She was the female lead and delivered a stunning, profanity-laced performance on Showtime's Twin Peaks: The Return. And it all culminates with a role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (which premiered nationwide today). Sure, the later is a movie and thus doesn't count. But this was such an incredible year for Dern. She has always stood out in every project she has worked in. She deserved that Emmy win and should be nominated again next year. The totality of her work this year needs recognition even though I have to spotlight some other, very deserving performers on some of those shows further down this list.

20. Katherine Langford for Netflix's 13 Reasons Why

Katherine Langford was a complete newcomer in 2017. 13 Reasons Why was her first major acting credit. And yet, it's a remarkable showcase for her as well. So much of this narrative rests on her shoulders. Even though her character commits suicide in the first episode, her presence defines the entire story. The role needed someone who could handle that commitment while being both compelling through a physical depiction of loneliness and destruction as well as being an omnipresent voiceover. Langford and her co-star Dylan Minnette had incredible chemistry and drove the story forward even when the narrative got a little too cluttered and messy. Langford kept it interesting and engaging even going so far as to making the audience believe that her character would someone escape her tragic fate by the end of the year. That's incredible.

19. Tatiana Maslany for BBC America's Orphan Black

Tatiana Maslany was a complete unknown when Orphan Black first premiered over five years ago. And now, she is an Emmy winner for her work playing numerous clones. It was impressive the moment the show debuted. And it continued to be impressive up until the series finale. This final season did more character spotlight episodes. Hours that focused on just one of the many clones that Maslany plays. And each had their own unique style and compelling quality. Just like the various clones themselves. It's so remarkable seeing just how seamless the technology continued to be on this show. The creative team just got more and more inventive as the years went along. What seemed like a crazy idea at first was perfectly realized because of Maslany's talents. It was so easy to forget how much work she actually does on this show. The audience could just go along with it seamlessly. We could be submerged in the emotion of this world and enjoy the happy ending that the seestras got as they each found the answers they were looking for in their own identities.

18. Hank Azaria for IFC's Brockmire

Hank Azaria created the character of Jim Brockmire in a Funny or Die sketch a few years ago. It became a viral video. But there was the concern that the hook of the character - a man who always talks in the baseball announcer voice - would grow stale over the course of an actual series. Instead, Azaria found a way to make the gimmick continually funny while digging deeper into the true nature of this man broken down by the world. It was a performance that was at times ridiculous. Brockmire did star in an unauthorized Asian remake of Hart to Hart. But that was also coupled with the genuine complexity of a man trying to reclaim his old identity and build up his life after it's been completely destroyed. It was such an irreverent comedy that managed to have a true sense of heart as well. Jokes could be made about Brockmire narrating his sexual activities. But when it came to the final beats of the season and the decisions that needed to be made, it was just as effective thanks to Azaria.

17. Alison Brie for Netflix's GLOW

This choice may ultimately be the most controversial pick for this entire list. I opted to recognize Alison Brie for her work on period comedy GLOW over her equally deserving co-stars Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron. It was a star making vehicle for Gilpin while Maron reveled in playing his over-the-top sleazy character. Brie's Ruth was the heel of the story. She was meant to be unlikable and aggressively needy. She's the one who was desperate for attention and needed this opportunity to work. And yes, the show fumbles a little bit for suggesting that Brie isn't a conventional beauty. But this story doesn't work without Brie's performance. The show is aware of that and comments on it in the actual stakes of the narrative. It's fascinating and intricate while still providing numerous moments for Brie and her comedic timing to shine - like in the moment where Ruth wrestles herself in order to pitch her ideas for a match. Sure, the eventual Russian accent was wickedly ridiculous. But that's all a part of the character which only makes Brie's work even stronger.

16. Rachel Brosnahan for Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

As will be a key trend for most of these write-ups in this column, casting was so crucial for this role and this show. The actress who was tapped to be Miriam "Midge" Maisel had to be able to sell so many things. She needed to fit into the 1950s period. She needed to be able to deliver the Amy Sherman-Palladino dialogue. Plus, she needed to be believable as the gifted stand-up performer the narrative was selling her as. That's a tall order. It made it seem impossible. And then, Rachel Brosnahan appeared on the screen and made it all seem so easy. It was truly remarkable to watch. This season took Midge on quite the journey. One that was always most interesting when it explored her attempts to make it in comedy. But the various corners of this world were all connected through Brosnahan's strong and compelling lead performance. It's easy to root for this character all while being able to understand the mistakes she's making and the way her actions could ultimately alienate her from the people who have loved her up to this point in her life.

15. Jessica Biel for USA's The Sinner

Jessica Biel managed to completely reinvent herself as an actress with her starring role in this dark and twisted drama. She delivered the performance of her career with this show. Of course, she also has the added benefit of being hilarious on Netflix's BoJack Horseman where she is playing herself in a ridiculous parody. But this show put her skill set as an actress and producer to the forefront. It was an exploration into the mind of her complex leading lady. It was a story of shocking twists and turns that delved into the many ways that the mind can play tricks on people. The audience was left constantly guessing about Biel's Cora Tannetti. Was she just an unassuming housewife who broke because she couldn't deal with the pressures of the world? Or was there something much more sinister going on beneath the surface. Every twist added a new level and dimension to Biel's performance which was so terrific to watch evolve over the course of the season.

14. Justina Machado for Netflix's One Day at a Time

Justina Machado has stood out in various ensembles over the years. She's proven to be a terrific recurring addition to The CW's Jane the Virgin this year. But it was her work on the remake of the classic Norman Lear sitcom that proved just how much untapped potential she has been carrying around for all of these years. This performance makes me retroactively mad that Hollywood hasn't given her a starring role like this before. But that's also what makes it so special now. This was a year that highlighted diversity and inclusivity both onscreen and behind-the-camera. Machado led this ensemble cast with such conviction. She could play for the laughs and then make the turn into dramatic material with relative ease. She could balance the frustration of being an outspoken vet with PTSD while dealing with her opinionated mother - an equally great Rita Moreno - and rambunctious children. This show had a clear and distinct voice right away. So much of that can be credited to Machado and a show finally knowing what to do with her talents. 

13. Sarah Gadon for Netflix's Alias Grace

Sarah Gadon had breakout star potential written all over her following last year's 11.22.63 miniseries on Hulu. She quickly followed that role up with an even more tremendous showcase. This series was so simple and straightforward. It was largely two characters talking to one another. Gadon's Grace Marks simply had to share her incredible story of being involved with a vicious double murder. But the storytelling and the performance found all of the nuances in this story. It highlighted the traumatic experience of being a woman in the 19th century. It highlighted just how oppressive and destructive Grace's entire life turned out to be. It was hopeful in moments and scary in others. Gadon could handle all of that and still leave the audience uncertain about what actually happened. The ambiguity is what made the story and the character so interesting. At times, it felt like Grace didn't know the answer herself. The show played around with that. It produced incredible work from Gadon. It's a showcase that should easily lead to more work for her.

12. Maggie Gyllenhaal for HBO's The Deuce

The Deuce is only Maggie Gyllenhaal's second foray into television - following her Sundance miniseries The Honorable Woman. She had some terrific collaborators in David Simon, George Pelecanos, Michelle MacLaren and James Franco. The narrative never shied away from how tragic and unfortunate the life of sex workers was in this time period. Gyllenhaal's Candy approached it as her job. She was constantly faced with being hit over and over again with unfortunate circumstances. But the show still had a lot of empathy for the character. It made it an aspirational story for her. Gyllenhaal was able to perfectly display the excitement Candy felt as she came into her own in the porn world as a storyteller and director. It was a surprising journey. One that didn't radically change her life. But one that the audience could appreciate and understand over the course of the season in a monumental way.

11. Jessica Lange for FX's Feud: Bette and Joan

Jessica Lange and Ryan Murphy's collaborations have been very significant and inspiring over the last decade. He helped revitalize her career while winning an Emmy and Tony in the process. In Feud: Bette and Joan, Lange was given her most daunting task as an actor in awhile. She had to step into the shoes of the legendary Joan Crawford. It was a story that could easily come across as over-the-top and ridiculous. The narrative didn't need to delve deep into the petty actions taken in this feud between Joan and Bette Davis. But the story wanted to understand the true sense of longing and pain underneath each woman that drove this feud. It was a story that highlighted the lack of human connection. These two women spent their lives and careers hating each other because that was the system they grew up in. They couldn't accept that or change it until it was all over. It was a tragedy. The work from Lange and Susan Sarandon shown through all of that. The story really became more of a showcase for Lange. But it was so mesmerizing to watch too because it brought Lange to new heights as well.

10. Michael McKean for AMC's Better Call Saul

Over the years, a lot has been written about how unexpected it is to have Bob Odenkirk as the leading man on one of the most compelling TV dramas. His career hasn't been building to this show. And yet, he's absolutely terrific in it. But the third season of the Breaking Bad prequel was all about Michael McKean's Chuck McGill. It's a tragic story that has seemingly hit its concluding beats. It's a narrative that built to its climatic moments halfway through the season in a courtroom clash of the McGill brothers. Jimmy emerged victorious as Chuck was left broken and defeated. That was such a tragic headspace for the character. McKean holds Chuck up high as this seemingly delusional man who believes he's the smartest man in the room. This season broke him down to reveal just how unfortunate it all is that these beliefs have been allowed to fester for so many years. They may actually be his tragic downfall and that was especially brutal to realize in the story this season.

9. Gina Rodriguez for The CW's Jane the Virgin

Gina Rodriguez has been a breakthrough performer thanks to Jane the Virgin ever since the show premiered. Four seasons in, she is still just as terrific to watch as she was in that first episode. This was a particularly devastating year for Jane Villanueva. She dealt with heartbreak in the most destructive and personal way possible. It was a story that truly hit the character and the audience in the most brutal and emotional place imaginable. And yet, the story also highlighted the hopefulness of Jane's life. The fourth season in particular has been having a lot of fun with the character as she finally achieves the success as a writer she has always wanted. She's still struggling with her love life and trying to figure out how to move on in that corner of her life. But it's an extremely relatable performance that continues to highlight the power of diverse storytelling in this industry. 

8. Rachel Bloom for The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

The year started with Rachel Bloom's Rebecca Bunch being completely head over heels in love. She thought that her love with Josh Chan had magically solved all of her problems. The world quickly proved that not to be true. The story promised to finally deliver on the premise of the show's title in its third season. And yes, the show got a lot of humor and fun out of seeing Rebecca go full-on crazy ex-girlfriend. But this season has found new depths to the character as well. It's pushed her to some truly dark and uncomfortable places as she has had to hit rock bottom in order to accept that she needs help. It pushed her into getting an official diagnosis for the mental condition that plagues her. That was such an inspiring moment in the series this year. It was rough and hard getting to that point. But it was uplifting to see how such a simple action has the potential to change someone's outlook on life. Bloom was able to portray all of that while still singing a bunch of ridiculous songs.

7. Pamela Adlon for FX's Better Things

The second season of Better Things explored so many personal sides of the emotional baggage and availability that women are asked to hold throughout society. It was a fascinating and complex take on the world as Pamela Adlon's Sam sees it. She's a woman who is constantly juggling a lot - an acting career, three kids who don't really appreciate her, a mother growing more and more dependent on her, and potential relationships. It's a story that highlighted how single woman don't need to be defined through solitary things. They don't just need to be mothers or looking for a man. They can simply be complex human beings who want different things at different times. Sam can just be looking for more appreciation from her kids. She could be enjoy a relationship with the perfect guy while still causing its eventual explosion. She can be stunned at learning more about her family and their secrets. She can be all of these things. That shouldn't be a bold statement. And yet, this series makes it one with Adlon's performance leading the charge.

6. Nicole Kidman for HBO's Big Little Lies

The Emmy-winning prospects for Big Little Lies were pretty clear the moment the project was first announced by HBO with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon starring and producing. It was a fantastic package. And then, the series arrived and proved just how dynamic and complicated women can be. It's a story about five women only being connected through their kids' school. They all have different lives. They can be friends or enemies to one another. But they are all carrying secrets. No one more so than Kidman's Celeste. She was carrying the baggage of an abusive relationship. Those elongated scenes where she is struggling to cope with the reality of her life during therapy sessions basically sealed the deal about Kidman winning the Emmy. That's a fate that ultimately occurred. But it was tremendous to watch in the moment regardless of all of that. It was brutal and honest while being a complete story told in a surprising and new way.

5. Ted Danson for NBC's The Good Place

The ensemble of The Good Place has to be one of the best on all of television. There isn't a weak link at all. Every single character and actor is important and hilarious in their own way. But this proved to be the year of Ted Danson on the show. It all started with that maniacal laugh that spewed out of him during the first season finale that confirmed the true premise of the show. Since then, he has been such a comedic wonder to watch because the show could finally start telling stories with his character, Michael. It was a journey of highs and lows as he was faced with tremendous pressure from his boss to make this new experiment work. It's a project that has frequently gone off the rails. The show chews through plot so quickly but with so much confidence that it works. Michael could be this ridiculous character. But Danson infuses him with such a soul that it's fantastic to watch because he can say something so funny and then come back with a moment that truly hits deep in the philosophic questions this entire ensemble is pondering at the moment. 

4. Jimmy Tatro for Netflix's American Vandal

Both American Vandal and Jimmy Tatro's performance came completely out of nowhere. The show arrived on Netflix with very little fanfare. And yet, it proved to one of the most addictive and genuine shows of the entire year. The premise is crazy. But it took its parody of true-crime stories and made it into a realistic exploration of human identity and the formative years of high school. Meanwhile, there are just so many different and unique layers to what Tatro is doing on this show. At first, he just seems like the dumb jock who couldn't possibly have down the crime at the center of the story. But the narrative quickly peels back the layers to show the deception and the complexity. He's a character faced with his own moral crisis that forces him to truly examine himself and his actions. His freedom may not actually redeem his life. He may not be better than any of the stories being told about him. It's a tragic performance like so many on this list. But it's one that truly sneaks up on the audience and really hits them in the concluding moments of the season.

3. Elisabeth Moss for Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale and SundanceTV's Top of the Lake: China Girl

Elisabeth Moss has made such a stunning career out of choosing incredible projects that highlight her range as an actress. She went from Mad Men to Top of the Lake to The Handmaid's Tale. That's an impressive track record. The Hulu drama put her proudly at the center of the story. It was a narrative that proved even more timely than when it was produced. It was story that was more brutal to watch than quite possibly any other show this year. And yet, it was all significant and important. It was so devastating to see what happens to the various handmaids in this world. I could just as easily have spotlighted the redefining and stunning work that Alexis Bledel did in this show. The best moments of this first season are just simple acting showcases where the camera shoots the actors in extreme closeups that rely solely on their wordless performances. It was a performance defined by the quiet and repressed rage that radiated off of every single movement and action. It was boiling understand the surface until it needed to explode in the finale. And when it did, it was so mesmerizing and raw. It easily left me speechless in the aftermath. 

2. Kyle MacLachlan for Showtime's Twin Peaks: The Return

The new season of Twin Peaks served as a powerful reminder of the range that Kyle MacLachlan has as a performer. It was a maddening season in so many ways. But it was also so brilliant to watch the many ways that MacLachlan stood out in this story. He was tasked with playing so many variations of the same character. The show could never truly explain the strange mysticism at play in this world. It was just important to highlight the battle between good and evil with two very different versions of Agent Cooper. It was frustrating for so much of the season to be stuck in Dougie Jones mode for MacLachlan. But it was also so extremely fascinating to see the same actor play the ridiculous comedy of Dougie Jones needing to be led everywhere and the true villainy on display with Mr. C destroying the world from afar. And then, it was truly rewarding to see Agent Cooper in all of his former glory return to the world by the end of the year. Every shade of this character was profoundly on display in this story and MacLachlan could hit every note with perfection. And then, he could deliver those closing moments of true shock and surprise in the way that only a David Lynch story could close.

1. Carrie Coon for HBO's The Leftovers and FX's Fargo

There was a time this spring when Carrie Coon was starring in two prestige dramas at the same time. They were two very different roles and performances. Of course, there were some striking similarities as well - like how technology was seemingly failing for both of them in mysterious ways. But it was remarkable to see Coon in action. She was a compelling presence the moment she made her onscreen debut on The Leftovers several years ago. But the final season of that show was all about her character, Nora, and the journey she needed to undergo in order to accept the pain and loss she had after losing her entire family. It was a journey of comedic beats with her jumping on a trampoline to the Wu Tang Clan. But it was also a journey of profound emotion of her railing against her boyfriend and struggling to find purpose by herself in this ever-changing and crazy world. It was a journey of self-discovery and the desire to pull oneself up out of the challenging situation. It was a story that ultimately revolved around the ambiguity of what it was that Nora saw and experienced. It was a show with plenty of earnestness and mystery. Coon was able to convey all of that while never making it easy for the audience to truly understand her. Even upon repeat viewings, there are still new depths to explore with the work Coon did on The Leftovers. It's truly one of the most amazing performances I've seen - which makes it even more of a shame that it was never nominated at the Emmys, Golden Globes or SAG Awards.