Daniel Fienberg: The Best TV Performances of 2019

6:00 AM 12/17/2019

by Daniel Fienberg

Among the favorites of THR's chief TV critic are Carla Gugino relishing a plum role (finally!), a peerless trio of actresses from Netflix’s 'Unbelievable,' the most surprising member of the 'Morning Show' ensemble and more.

From left: Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in 'PEN15,' Kaitlyn Dever in 'Unbelievable' and Billy Crudup in 'The Morning Show'
From left: Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in 'PEN15,' Kaitlyn Dever in 'Unbelievable' and Billy Crudup in 'The Morning Show'
Hulu Netflix; ; Apple TV+

The simplest rule that I made for this list of Great TV Performances of 2019 was that it wouldn't include anybody from any show that made my overall Top 10. That means no Phoebe Waller-Bridge, no Jharrel Jerome, no Jeremy Strong or Regina King or Natasha Lyonne or Pamela Adlon. All are wonderful. And all are honored within the confines of my Top 10. I also dodged a few "obvious" performances like Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon and Bill Hader in Barry. Does the world benefit from repeating how great they are again? Fine. They're great!

I still cheated here. A lot. There are three shared listings in cases where I simply didn't want to choose between deserving co-stars. There's also one random director, whose contributions to one of my favorite shows wasn't going to be celebrate-able in any other end-of-year capacity.

Some worthy additional mentions would include: Kirsten Dunst (On Becoming a God in Central Florida), Ana Fabrega (Los Espookys), Erin Doherty and Josh O'Connor (The Crown), Michael Sheen (The Good Fight), Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), Gillian Anderson (Sex Education), Joey King (The Act) and, of course, Baby Yoda (The Mandalorian). 

  • Melissa Barrera

    'Vida'

    Kat Marcinowski/Starz

    The first season of Starz's East L.A. half-hour may have sympathized more with Mishel Prada's tightly wound Emma and treated her sister, Barrera's Lyn, as a flighty sex bomb. In its second season, though, Tanya Saracho's series found understanding and sympathy for Lyn and gave cause to her self-destructive tendencies, and Barrera thrived. But in addition to playing Lyn's newly exposed pain and still being a centerpiece for the steamiest show on television, Barrera also provided one reminder after another of how funny she can be. Her reading of the one-word line "Tacos!" may have provided my biggest single laugh of the TV season.
     

  • Danielle Brooks

    'Orange Is the New Black'

    Netflix

    There's no wrong answer when it comes to naming an MVP for the final season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. Uzo Aduba had maybe the finest emotional moment in the entire series in the finale. Taryn Manning completed perhaps the series' most complicated and surprising overall arc. Adrienne C. Moore shined as Cindy struggled with life on the outside. But I'm giving my prize to Brooks, as Tasha spent the season in a depressed funk and only slowly found ways to pull herself out, often leading to even more heartbreak. She also sang the song that played over the series' closing montage (plus her acclaimed Public Theater production of Much Ado About Nothing got additional praise when it aired on PBS).

  • Toni Collette, Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever

    'Unbelievable'

    Beth Dubber/Netflix

    We've already seen several awards groups attempt to deem which of the Unbelievable stars are more or less recognition-worthy and then parse which of them are leads and which might be supporting, but I don't much see the point. The reason Netflix's harrowing, yet compulsively watchable drama about an investigation into a series of disturbingly similar rapes works is because of all three of its leads. Collette and Wever at least have each other to play off of and they form such a likable and interesting crime-fighting team that it's easy to wish Unbelievable could leave its true-crime trappings behind and just become a weekly Grace and Karen crime-fighting procedural. Dever, so often on her own, gets to be completely heartbreaking in her every moment. I refuse to choose between them.

  • Billy Crudup

    'The Morning Show'

    Courtesy of Apple TV+

    I am a little uncomfortable being that guy who says, "Sure, Apple TV+'s big new show features two of the biggest A-list actresses in the land, but…have you paid enough attention to the DUDE?" Still, as good as Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston are — and they're usually very good, even if the material around them is hit-and-miss — Crudup is the piece of this deep ensemble who looks like he's having the most fun. Week-to-week, it's impossible to get a read on Crudup's network executive. Is he a sleazy opportunist? A devilish manipulator? An overmatched man-child? In any given episode, it's possible to be convinced that Crudup's character is going to turn out to be the series' villain or, at his best, an enabler of our heroes. Plus, he sang Sondheim and it was marvelous.
     

  • Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle

    'PEN15'

    'PEN15'
    'PEN15'
    Alex Lombardi/Hulu

    The concern that Hulu's comedy could be a disaster sets in almost immediately. The "Will having these two 32-year-old actresses playing 13-years-old just be a stunt?" concern. As fast as it arises, though, that feeling passes because Erskine and Konkle are so sincerely and beautifully committed to playing these younger versions of themselves. Of course it's a stunt, but it's a stunt with value, as the inherently cringeworthy junior high experience is kicked into another stratosphere by placing real teenage actors around Konkle and Erskine and letting the awkwardness bloom. The stars, also co-creators with Sam Zvibleman, are quick to play ridiculous and sloppy and embarrassing and the result is consistently funny and easily able to tap into the most relatable vulnerability.
     

  • Carla Gugino

    'Jett'

    'Jett'
    'Jett'
    Christos Kalhourdis/CINEMAX

    Since she's done sitcoms and horror and political drama and sci-fi without missing a beat, the issue here isn't Hollywood's failure to give Gugino good things to do; it's that after the short-lived awesomeness of Karen Sisco, there weren't lines around the block at every TV studio in town to craft one tough-talking, badass Elmore Leonard-style vehicle for her after another. Credit Gugino's longtime personal and professional partner Sebastian Gutierrez, then, for his common sense. Cinemax's Jett is a pure and frequently glorious vehicle for Gugino to go around spitting muscular dialogue, wreaking havoc, seducing everybody in sight, all while wearing one perfect outfit after another and being photographed with the sort of love normally talked about by poets. It's everything one could want for or from Gugino. 

  • Louis Leterrier

    'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance'

    'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance'
    'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance'
    Courtesy of Netflix

    Have you watched the documentary that accompanied Netflix's shockingly good prequel to the '80s Jim Henson film? If so, you have a sense of the epic undertaking the Transporter director undertook here, helming all 10 episodes and giving the series an intimacy and kinetic energy far beyond anything the feature was able to pull off 30 years ago. Watch that documentary, see Leterrier interacting with the puppeteers, positioning himself within the fantasy environments, and tell me that the director and his camera weren't like another character in the series. Certainly, there's zero chance this unlikely big swing would have been as thrilling as it was without his involvement.

  • Chris O'Dowd and Rosamund Pike

    'State of the Union'

    'State of the Union'
    'State of the Union'
    Parisatag Hizadeh/Confession Films/SundanceTV

    Nick Hornby's SundanceTV comedy, a series of 10 shorts concentrating on an estranged couple in the moments before their weekly therapy session, is like a 100-minute dance. The tone changes, episode to episode. The tempo changes, episode to episode. One week he leads, the next week it's her turn to take control. It's a pas de deux in which if either performer faltered, for a second, the whole would collapse. If either actor made you doubt, for a second, either the affection or animosity between these two, you'd stop caring. If either ceded the floor too much to the other, you'd feel like the series was taking sides too aggressively and you'd feel manipulated. Instead, O'Dowd and Pike are a flawless, hilarious, sad match.

  • Rosa Salazar

    'Undone'

    'Undone'
    'Undone'
    Courtesy of Amazon

    The oddball rotoscoping of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg's trippy Amazon dramedy makes it easy to say, "Oh, but it's just animation," when an astonishing amount of the character work and the grounding of the premise comes from the very identifiable actors lurking directly beneath the doodles. It's Salazar's expressive eyes that attract immediate empathy, her sharp timing and bemused line-readings that make viewers feel like our own perplexity is natural. Salazar, Angelique Cabral and Constance Marie have the comfortable chemistry of a real family, which gives the series latitude to go to increasingly whimsical and dark places as it progresses.

  • Allison Tolman

    'Emergence'

    Virginia Sherwood/ABC

    Tolman is an interesting and completely unique TV star and my counterintuitive instinct is to compare her to James Garner, in that no matter what she's doing on the small screen, it feels completely unforced, unaffected and effortless, making it astonishingly easy just to sit down and watch her for 42 minutes every week. In ABC’s Emergence, a show that pairs her with several comparably chill actors including Donald Faison, the main plotline involves a mysterious girl whose origins are supposed to pull us from episode to episode. Instead, I watch because Emergence is a completely believable and charming family dramedy that sometimes features a flipping car or a house-destroying shootout. If you've seen Fargo, Downward Dog or Good Girls, you already know this about Tolman, but Emergence is a reminder that she deserves to have a show run 10 seasons.