Hollywood Reporter Critics' 10 Favorite TV Performances of 2017

6:30 AM 12/20/2017

by Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg

From Carrie Coon's double-whammy in 'The Leftovers' and 'Fargo' through Michael McKean's sly scene-stealing on 'Better Call Saul' to Frankie Shaw's breakthrough with 'SMILF,' these actors delivered work worth celebrating.

The Leftovers, Underground and SMILF Still - Split - Photofest - H 2017
Photofest (Hinds); Courtesy of HBO (Coon, Shaw)

This is not a list of TV's best performances of 2017. It's a list of 10 curated great performances we wanted to highlight. We included none of the performances that won Emmys in September, though Elisabeth Moss, Sterling K. Brown, Nicole Kidman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ann Dowd, Alexander Skarsgard, Laura Dern and several Saturday Night Live standouts were clearly spectacular. Most of these performances, in fact, weren't even Emmy-nominated. The only thing that unites them is our urge to sing their praises.

  • Babou Ceesay, 'Guerrilla'

    Some performance just leap off the screen, small or large. That's precisely what Ceesay's does in this British import (in my review I said it wasn't just an Emmy-worthy performance, but an Emmy-winning one — and at the end of a packed year of high-quality fare that's still true). He plays Marcus, a British citizen and English teacher swept into radicalized politics and action when oppressive laws and an overly aggressive white police force come together. Ceesay's character is conflicted throughout, pulled in various directions, influenced by others, his own need to intellectualize and define a movement lost in the rush of its urgency. He is utterly magnetic and believable at every turn, the heart of a superb limited series. — Tim Goodman

  • Carrie Coon, 'The Leftovers' (and 'Fargo')

    From April to June, Carrie Coon had one of the most remarkable stretches any TV actress has ever had. Full stop. Every Sunday night, she could be seen grappling with loss and experiencing alienation in foreign hotel rooms as she wrapped a three-season run as Nora Durst on HBO's confounding The Leftovers. And then there she was every Wednesday, boasting a chirpy Midwestern accent and grappling with a world run amok (and occasional alienation in foreign hotel rooms), as Gloria Burgle in the third season of FX's Fargo. That's two regular roles on two all-time great TV dramas, simultaneously. The characters were united by an insatiable desire for truth in a modern world in which facts, and sometimes basic technology, can so often be baffling and elusive. Coon's 2017 highlight reel includes two wildly different and equally heartbreaking scenes involving automatic water dispersal, and I'd hate to have to choose between her Leftovers sprinkler-system catharsis and her Fargo bathroom-faucet Zen for overall effectiveness. Whatever darkness 2017 provided, it also gave us The Spring of Carrie Coon. — Daniel Fienberg

  • Michael Dorman, 'Patriot'

    It's not easy to play hangdog or depressed for long stretches, certainly not convincingly or in a way that would give vitality to the series you're in. But Dorman's turn as John — aka "a sad man in a suit," but really a U.S. Intelligence spy — is impeccable and all the more noteworthy the longer it goes on. Dorman's ability to convey the existential crisis of a spy (programmed by his own father, for added issues) is both touching and funny, while he leaks out bits of his sorrow as the world's most depressing folksinger (a talent in which Dorman is also accomplished). Oh, and in the midst of all that weariness he's asked to rise up, fight, kill and do nimble, badass spy things as well. Dorman is outstanding and essential in what I believe is 2017's most underrated series. — TG

  • Christopher Eccleston, 'The A Word'

    In the first season of this wonderful series, Eccleston's Maurice, a widower and brewery founder in a remote English hillside village, is mostly the straight-shooting, old-school-values patriarch who serves as the glue while his daughter and her husband come to terms with their son being autistic. He meant well, but was a battering ram. The brilliant second season found him floundering with his feelings about love, and Eccleston's wide-ranging, hilarious, touching performance found all kinds of connective emotions that, together with the series’ other stellar acting, made The A Word a moving, transformative experience. — TG

  • Aisha Hinds, 'Underground' (and 'Shots Fired')

    A tragic victim of one of the first corporate contractions of the Peak TV Era, Underground introduced Hinds' Harriet Tubman as a rifle-toting badass. That was already pretty terrific, letting her convey a fiery energy similar to what she brought to her turn on Fox's limited drama Shots Fired. The showcase for the character, though, was the episode "Minty," essentially a one-woman show starring Hinds and directed by Anthony Hemingway. In "Minty," Tubman recounts her life and explains her mission to a warehouse crowded with white abolitionists. Other than the occasional audience reaction, the camera is on Hinds for an entire hour, including several shots of amazing duration. It's captivating and modulated storytelling, sometimes quiet and introspective, sometimes passionate and galvanic. It's a stunt episode that never feels like a stunt because of Hinds. I'm not sure any actor had a better single episode in 2017. Somehow, Emmy voters missed it. — DF

  • Justina Machado, 'One Day at a Time'

    With memorable credits stretching back to Six Feet Under, Machado was hardly a new discovery in 2017. But her work in Netflix's savvy update of the Norman Lear sitcom was still surprising, simply because she made multi-cam comedy stardom look so easy. Holding her own against scene-stealing legend Rita Moreno and impressive relative newcomer Isabella Gomez, Machado played for big ethnic family laughter when scripts called for it and then impeccably adjusted the volume for her character's military PTSD arc, as well as her touching role in the season-long coming-out storyline for Gomez's Elena. Leading a multi-cam comedy is hard, but Machado makes it look like something that, in a just world, broadcast networks would have given her the chance to do many times over the years. Oh, and she's also been great whenever she's popped up on Jane the Virgin this year, demonstrating that there's too much standout TV these days to keep talented people on just one show. — DF

  • Michael McKean, 'Better Call Saul'

    Was Chuck McGill the villain of the first three seasons of Better Call Saul or was he a well-meaning brother whose motivations were warped by his own physical and emotional instability? The greatness of McKean's performance is in the refusal ever to show his cards, the ability to make Chuck reasonable and condescendingly fraternal one moment and then utterly petty and vindictive the next; in always being able to say, "Well, Chuck is technically right, but…" The character's arc reached its climax in "Chicanery," a spring episode that satisfyingly answered the question, "What would it be like to watch a production of A Few Good Men with Michael McKean playing Colonel Jessup?" Bob Odenkirk continues to be the well-deserving recipient of Better Call Saul Emmy love, but McKean and co-stars like Rhea Seehorn are the reason why Jimmy McGill's journey to become Saul Goodman has been tinged with so much sadness. — DF

  • Frankie Shaw, 'SMILF'

    Shaw, like other extremely talented writer-actors with personal stories to tell (Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari, Issa Rae and Pamela Adlon, chief among them) infuses SMILF and her loosely autobiographical character Bridgette with hurt, vulnerability, feistiness, sexiness (in a character not meant, for the most part, to be engaging that quality) and burgeoning determination to wonderful, subtle effect. Moving beyond the young-single-mother-is-hard thing, Shaw manages to broaden and then convincingly react (in her understated way) to Bridgette's world; the deepening vulnerability and rising spirit in the character gives her a chance to shine, doing it with a simplicity that belies the emotional complexity. — TG

  • Susanna Skaggs, 'Halt and Catch Fire'

    Every performance from the final season of Halt and Catch Fire could have been on this list. Every one. But surely fans were well aware by then how great Kerry Bishe, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Lee Pace and Toby Huss could be. Instead, let's reflect a minute on Susanna Skaggs, joining a great show in its final season and joining an established ensemble for her first screen credit, giving one of the most authentic depictions of awkward teenage discomfort you'll ever see. It's a beautifully quiet and reactive performance, often defined by a withdrawn slouch or an uncomfortable avoidance of eye contact. In a season that reduced me to tears multiple times, Skaggs' Haley was perhaps my most reliable trigger, from her shattering depiction of youthful romantic rejection to her nuanced handling of tragedy. There's no way of knowing if a performance this good from an actress so young and inexperienced is a harbinger of professional greatness or just lightning in a bottle, but it's a thing to be treasured. — DF 

  • David Thewlis, 'Fargo'

    This is a series that gives actors some of their best material, no matter how varied and excellent their prior work. And Thewlis devoured this role as the bulimic, verbally precise predator, V.M. Vargas, one of the most memorable of many memorable Fargo villains — and notable because, unlike Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo in Season 1, he doesn't really inflict much pain. Thewlis' teeth play a notable role, rotted from purging food, metaphorically bloody and literally insatiable. A sublime turn. — TG