Critics' Picks: The Best TV Performances of 2016

6:00 AM 12/20/2016

by Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg

THR TV critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg single out their favorite small-screen turns (listed in alphabetical order), including 'Atlanta's' breakout leading man, the heart and soul of 'Orange Is the New Black's' fourth season and 3 (count'em: 3) members of the 'Westworld' ensemble.

Courtesy of HBO; Courtesy of FX; Courtesy of Amazon
  • Pamela Adlon

    'Better Things'

    Colleen Hayes/FX

    How does an Emmy-winning voice actor, scene-stealing character actor and Emmy nominated writer-producer get to be a breakout star some 34 years after her first screen appearances in Little Darlings and Grease 2? Well, in FX's Better Things, Adlon was able to tap into a wealth of embarrassments, disappointments, setbacks and triumphs from her career and her personal life as the mother of three girls. And by "tap into," I mean that Adlon (with an assist from frequent collaborator Louis C.K.) was able to create the role of a lifetime for herself, producing and writing and even making her directing debut. Adlon's Sam Fox could be brash and uncompromising, defeated and uncertain, maternal, sexual, you name it. Adlon serves as a reminder to any actor in Hollywood that sometimes if you want people to see all the things you can do, you have to do it all yourself. It helps if you're as talented as she is. — Daniel Fienberg

  • Alan Alda

    'Horace and Pete'

    YouTube/Boonsketti

    There's something that sticks with you in Alda's brashly vulgar, mean and unlikable Uncle Pete in Louis C.K.'s web series about a run-down Brooklyn bar. Despite the awful things that came out of his mouth, it was his eyes that did the most talking; they spoke of weariness, and sadly added, "I'm this way and I can't change it now." He was, at all times, enthralling. — Tim Goodman 

  • Louie Anderson

    'Baskets'

    Ben Cohen/FX

    Anderson hasn't been shy about crediting his mother with inspiring his performance as Christine Baskets, a potential disaster of stunt casting that ends up being entirely honorable, the sort of performance none of us would have guessed Anderson had in him. Anderson never sells Christine out for an easy laugh and it's funny that in a show of stylized performances, some arch and some deadpan, the '80s comedy favorite playing a woman ends up being the most naturalistic. The "Easter in Bakersfield" episode that locked down Anderson's Emmy is the one to watch to understand how seriously he's taking this and how that makes the laughs Christine garners feel earned. — D.F.

  • Sterling K. Brown

    'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story' and 'This Is Us'

    Ray Mickshaw/FX

    Was there a defining Sterling K. Brown performance before this year? And whose fault, exactly, was that? I'm looking at you, Hollywood, because in 12 months, Brown has gone from working character actor to recognized by fans and peers (two SAG Award nominations) as one of the best in the business. Brown's Christopher Darden was the heart and conflicted conscience of The People v. O.J. Simpson and his scenes with Sarah Paulson's Marcia Clark crackled with chemistry. [Paulson's not on this list only because it's almost become boring to talk about how awesome she is. Almost.] Then Brown followed that up with a second breakout role on NBC's This Is Us. After OJ, we weren't as surprised at how well Brown anchored the show in beautiful scenes with Ron Cephas Jones and Susan Kelechi Watson, but the new revelation has been how hilarious he can be (examples: a raucous brawl with Justin Hartley's Kevin and a memorable drug trip). — D.F.

  • Wyatt Cenac

    'People of Earth'

    Courtesy of TBS

    I loved this TBS series and its impressive cast, but Cenac held it all together (it's about an alien abduction support group and, yes, there are aliens in it) with his wonderfully low-key detachment and deadpan humor. — T.G.

  • Clayne Crawford

    'Rectify'

    Photofest

    A single episode of Fox's Lethal Weapon probably gets more viewers than has the entire run of Rectify, but Crawford makes this list for his work as Teddy Jr. in both the final season of the SundanceTV drama and its previous three seasons as well. Teddy Jr. began Rectify as an abusive punk. He was awful to tender Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), resentful of newly freed Daniel (Aden Young) and was basically just the worst. The run of Rectify took place over just a few months, so there's no way Teddy Jr. could have changed the way he did realistically, but in Crawford and creator Ray McKinnon's hands, every beat was believable. After hating Teddy Jr. in the first season, I began to understand him in the second, sympathize with him in the third and love him in the fourth. The Teddy Jr./Tawney scenes in the series' penultimate episode were beautifully played on both sides, perhaps my favorite of the final season. Oh and guess what? Lethal Weapon isn't great, but Crawford's pretty good there, too. — D.F.

  • Noah Emmerich

    'The Americans'

    Craig Blankenhorn

    It's easy to get lost in this cast where supporting performances from so many great actors are constantly in play (if overlooked by Emmy voters) and the work of the series' two amazing leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, only finally, after four seasons, got its due. Basically, this ensemble is getting gutsy, standout work from virtually everyone, but Emmerich has managed, four seasons in a row, to be the pillar. He's funny, he's hurt, he's angry, he's so close to finding the spies he can feel it. A bonus: how deeply enjoyable it is to watch him think before he opens his mouth. — T.G.

  • Donald Glover

    'Atlanta'

    Quantrell D. Colbert/FX

    Glover's overall genius is evident in the dazzling new FX series but I would argue that his success here as an actor has a whole lot to do with casting Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stansfield and Zazie Beetz as co-stars whom he could play off of — and in doing so flaunt his own exceptional range; they are all wondrous in different ways and Glover meshed beautifully with each one's mood. — T.G.

  • Eva Green

    'Penny Dreadful'

    Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME

    Three seasons of Emmy-worthy tour-de-force acting from Green will be the thing you most remember from the Victorian London-set supernatural series you probably didn't watch (but should now seek out). The actress gave every ounce of herself in every scene; it looked both exhausting and amazing. — T.G.

  • Jared Harris

    'The Crown'

    Photofest

    The task of bringing you into the world of The Crown falls not on Claire Foy, even though the series is about her Elizabeth, but on Harris. Elizabeth is intentionally a mystery, unreadable to us as she is to the nation she's about to rule. But Harris' King George VI is beloved, and we love him as his country loves him. Harris (who probably deserved an Emmy for his Mad Men work as the doomed Lane Pryce) is at his finest as the gregarious-yet-regal monarch in the opening episode, very much alive even though we know from his first cough that he won't be for long. He makes a vivid enough impression that he leaves a hole in the show; any less a George VI and Foy's job, which she does so well, would be all the harder. — D.F.

  • Connor Jessup

    'American Crime'

    Ryan Green/ABC

    With its prep-school setting, the second season of John Ridley's ABC anthology was dominated by young actors, particularly Joey Pollari and Connor Jessup. As a closeted high-school student caught up in a sexual assault scandal, Jessup beautifully embodied a character who finds himself slipping deeper and deeper into the darkness. The grown-ups got the awards attention but Jessup broke viewers' hearts. — D.F.

  • The Kids of 'Stranger Things'

    Netflix

    Netflix's pastiche of '80s Steven Spielberg and Stephen King was sold on Winona Ryder's long-awaited comeback. Ryder has received Golden Globe and SAG nominations, so that's going OK. But would Stranger Things have become the summer's word-of-mouth sensation without the group of kids whose Q Scores before the series ranged from "minimal" to "zero"? Doubtful. From haunting, yet oddly sweet and funny Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven to gloriously relatable Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, the young ensemble — let's not neglect Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard and Natalia Dyer — was really what made the show. And sure, Shannon Purser as Barb, who went from underserved audience favorite to overexposed Internet meme in record time. — D.F.

  • Sarah Lancashire

    'Happy Valley'

    BBC

    As tough Sgt. Catherine Cawood in this splendid British series, Lancashire is everything unexpected: frustrated with tenderness when her character doesn't want to be; obstinate and foolish when she should know better; sexy as all hell in the least sexy cop outfit imaginable, while bashing people around and getting kicked or cut in the process. She's magnificent from all angles. — T.G.

  • Hugh Laurie

    'The Night Manager'

    Laurie was fantastic in three shows – Veep on HBO, AMC's The Night Manager and the new Hulu series Chance (where co-star Ethan Suplee could have easily made this list with his own transcendent performance). Of that impressive trifecta, it's his turn in The Night Manager that we're singling out if only because it's not often that the actor can scare the crap out of a camera (and thus an audience) like he did as an arms dealer while being just as suave as Tom Hiddleston. But wow did Laurie completely nail the "I will kill you without blinking" vibe of his character, and did so mostly with his face. — T.G.

  • RonReaco Lee

    'Survivor's Remorse'

    Courtesy of Starz Entertainment, LLC

    Survivor's Remorse boasts one of the great, unsung ensemble casts on all of TV and Jessie T. Usher, Erica Ash and Tichina Arnold all had showcase moments in the third season. But few comedy stars have to cope with the sheer volume of words that Lee has to spit out when he tackles creator Mike O'Malley's twisting, turning monologues. Sometimes Lee's Reggie is just being funny. Sometimes he's negotiating other characters into the ground. Sometimes, as in scenes with Teyonah Parris, he's being romantic. And this season, with the surprising return of Reggie's father, Lee got to play hurt and wounded. He's believable no matter what he's asked to do, a versatility I suspect we're only beginning to fully appreciate. — D.F.

  • Rhea Seehorn

    'Better Call Saul'

    Ursula Coyote/AMC

    Even if it's cheating, here I would like to hail The Women of AMC. Ruth Negga is the wildcat id at the center of Preacher. But she may get an Oscar nomination, so she's being honored plenty. Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé don't get nearly as much respect as they deserve for Halt and Catch Fire but I praised them plenty in my Top 10 list. Because Better Call Saul barely missed out on my Top 10, though, I haven't written lately about how Rhea Seehorn helped transform Kim Wexler from afterthought love interest into something much more when the writers realized that by putting the camera on Seehorn's face, even without dialogue, she let us see the battle for Jimmy McGill's soul. Our instinct as viewers, thanks to Breaking Bad, has always been to root for Jimmy to become Saul Goodman, but Kim's in love with Jimmy and Seehorn has made us invest in their love. She has turned Better Call Saul into a marathon and not a sprint and that's a remarkable achievement. — D.F.

  • John Turturro

    'The Night Of'

    HBO

    Here's an actor with no shortage of brilliant performances on his resume, but as a low-rent lawyer who gets a murder case above his pay-grade and deals with a nagging and awful case of eczema, Turturro was the heart and soul of this superb series (even as co-star Riz Ahmed continuously hit high notes on his own career-best role). — T.G.

  • Phoebe Waller-Bridge

    'Fleabag'

    Screengrab/Amazon

    This wonderfully surprising Amazon series centers on Waller-Bridge's face – the sly glances, the dubious wrinkles in her forehead, the uproarious laughter and the tears and shame she fights to keep at bay. Breaking the fourth wall and looking at the camera is risky but in Fleabag it's what makes the series work and that's thanks to Waller-Bridge's magnetism. — T.G.

  • Samira Wiley

    'Orange Is The New Black'

    Netflix

    There is no one star in any season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and the fourth installment was no exception. At various points, the season was owned by Nick Sandow's Caputo or Laura Gomez's Blanca or Yael Stone's Lorna, to say nothing of the usual scene-stealing suspects like Uzo Aduba or Danielle Brooks. But if this was anybody's season, it was Poussey's. The last two episodes were as potent a one-two punch as any OITNB actress has gotten this side of Taylor Schilling, including the wrenching penultimate episode and the surprisingly beautiful finale. Wiley quickly turned around and proved her versatility with a recurring turn on You're The Worst. — D.F.

  • Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright

    'Westworld'

    Photofest

    It hardly seems fair to pick among three stunning, evocative and extremely nuanced performances in HBO's freshman standout drama. Wood's dream/nightmare search for meaning, Newton's bold-bot breakthrough and Wright's deep secrets made these three characters the essential figures of a twisty story, and the actors turned in Emmy-worthy work. — T.G.

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