Even in a topsy-turvy year like 2020, TV featured enough stellar performances to fill a Top 50, a Top 100, maybe even a Top 200 list. Sadly, the following is only a Top 10, largely (though not entirely) focused on hidden or underrated gems that weren’t spotlighted in our Top Shows of 2020 lists. With A-listers and Oscar winners continuing to brighten up the small screen with their star wattage, the competition for recognition has become fiercer than ever. We celebrate actors who already have dedicated trophy rooms, but also highlight deserving newcomers, dependable veterans and all kinds of talent in between.
Nicco Annan, P-Valley (Starz)
Annan’s resumé was full of scene-stealing guest gigs on TV shows like Claws and Shameless, but his first appearance in Katori Hall’s Mississippi Delta strip-club drama is a moment of a star emerging fully formed. Annan originated the role in Hall’s stage play Pussy Valley, and there is no doubt that the long theatrical experience with the character helped the actor make Uncle Clifford the fully inhabited heart of the TV adaptation. Uncle Clifford identifies as non-binary and uses she/her pronouns — but she’s mostly just herself, from the immaculate beard to the carefully maintained nails to the teetering heels to her role as equal parts mother and father to the dancers at The Pynk. P-Valley is essentially an ensemble of equals, and every member of the cast — including relative unknowns and more familiar figures like Loretta Devine or Isaiah Washington — shines. But Annan puts a little extra dazzle around that shine. — DANIEL FIENBERG
Emma Corrin, The Crown (Netflix)
Even if you remembered Corrin from her charming series-opening arc on Epix’s Pennyworth, there was little that could have prepared you for the star-wattage she radiated in her one season as Diana, Princess of Wales, on The Crown. There’s room to interpret Corrin’s Diana as anything from a deer-in-the-headlights ingenue to a clever, self-promoting temptress, and the bridging of that gap is all happening in the actress’ eyes — even while she’s dancing, roller-skating or hunting her way through another decade in this impeccably acted prestige drama. (And yes, Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty were all superb this year as well.) — D.F.
Kaley Cuoco, The Flight Attendant (HBO Max) and Harley Quinn (DC Universe)
Cuoco probably never got enough credit for how good she was on The Big Bang Theory nor for how the show’s improvement and success coincided with the writers learning to treat Penny as a comic foil and not just the Sexy Girl Next Door. In her first year post-TBBT, Cuoco spread her wings, semi-literally in the case of The Flight Attendant, a Hitchcockian comic thriller that’s entirely steered by Cuoco’s stylish, confident star turn, one that invites laughs and concern in equal measure. This came on the heels of Cuoco’s lead vocal performance in DC Universe and now HBO Max’s Harley Quinn, a smartly written series anchored by her high-energy line readings. Oh, and Cuoco is also an executive producer on both shows. Not a bad year. — D.F.
Ensemble, The Conners (ABC)
The comedic prowess of this TV-canon cast — especially John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert and Lecy Goranson — has been noted for more than 30 years. And yet the post-Roseanne ensemble never ceases to impress — perhaps even more so now, as they’ve subtly updated their multi-cam performances to an era of single-cam supremacy. The actors have not only forged an enviable chemistry over their years of collaboration, but have created a parchingly dry and fiercely unsentimental mordancy as unmistakable as the show’s famous harmonica riff. — INKOO KANG
Shira Haas, Unorthodox (Netflix)
In a packed Emmy category honoring lead actress in a movie or miniseries, Shira Haas was unable to beat Watchmen star Regina King — but if she had won, I don’t think anyone would have quibbled with the recognition for this 25-year-old Israeli actress. That tells you everything you need to know about the Shtisel veteran’s breakout turn as an Orthodox Jew who flees her insular Brooklyn community for Berlin and finds her voice. Thanks to copious flashbacks, it’s a role that lets Haas really play her character as two different women, one a source of sympathy and concern, the other a beacon of hope and inspiration. It’s lovely work, full of precarious fragility and the burbling joy of empowerment. — D.F.
Ethan Hawke, The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
The role of abolitionist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird would be a gift to any actor, so driven is the historical figure by white-hot righteousness, bottomless personal tragedy and farcical delusions of grandeur. And yet Hawke has made it impossible to imagine anyone else as Brown, the actor’s trademark intensity and middle-age lack of vanity a perfect fit for a character so remarkable, pitiable, absurd and wholly unpredictable. The miniseries’ lyrical dialogue feels somehow natural coming out of Hawke’s mouth, while his face briefly allows the turmoil within Brown to emerge before certainty in his at-all-costs anti-slavery crusade takes over again. — I.K.
Paul Mescal, Normal People (Hulu)
One half of the miniseries’ star-crossed Irish romance, Connell is a difficult role to make compelling: a young man who often just wants to recede into woodwork. However much he’s in love with Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), he retreats from defending her to his mocking friends, letting her in during a paralyzing bout of depression or even sticking up for himself as a working-class college student amid wealthy, oblivious classmates. And yet Mescal consistently finds the reserves of pain and insecurity in Connell’s desire for anonymous blankness, as well as the cowering, self-incapacitating humanity in his character’s fear of loving too much. — I.K.
Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, Insecure (HBO)
TV’s funniest duo — playing 30-something mismatched best friends Issa and Molly — are such comic geniuses they can make you laugh out loud with the smallest facial twitch or with their entire bodies. The actors’ chemistry was obvious from day one, with their BFF characters bantering so quickly and playfully with one another that they often seemed to be making up their own love language on the spot. That effervescence has been increasingly balanced by darker moments in the often strained relationship between Issa and Molly, especially in the most recent season, which allowed Rae and Orji to finally brandish their considerable dramatic skills. — I.K.
Jurnee Smollett, Lovecraft Country (HBO)
There are times, especially in the second half of the season, when I couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, or why. But in shows this bizarre, sometimes it’s enough to believe that the actors/characters care what’s happening — and there is no point during the entirety of this period horror pastiche at which Smollett isn’t 100 percent locked in. The Friday Night Lights and Underground veteran, who has earned the right to be considered an A-list star a dozen times over by now, gives a blazing turn; in one early scene, she’s on a rampage with a baseball bat, and if any moment was designed to be the representative gif of 2020, it’s that one. Plus, Smollett and Jonathan Majors’ chemistry should be bottled (though to what end I’m not sure). — D.F.
Tracey Ullman, Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
Ullman may have been the last actor cast on the star-studded Mrs. America, but the legendary sketch comedian held her own against the likes of Cate Blanchett and Margo Martindale as Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, in historical hindsight one of the least sympathetic figures of the Second Wave (for her homophobia). Ullman’s performance was a consummate balancing act, making the poison-tongued, endlessly self-promoting, terrified-of-irrelevance Friedan wholly understandable, if not always “likable.” The infamous debate against Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafy is a tour-de-force showcase, with Ullman allowing us a raw glimpse of Friedan’s essence by letting her initially charming irascibility curdle into hopeless self-destruction. — I.K.