NGN’s Best of 2015 TV Performances



It’s the most wonderful time of the year…The time when we reflect on all our favorite things about television from the past year! As 2015 draws to a close, I’ll be sharing with you the things I loved most from the world of television this year in a series of “Best of 2015” posts.

It’s always my hope that these lists allow you to reflect on your own favorite things about television in 2015. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments, and don’t forget to check out other fans’ and critics’ lists of their “Best of 2015” picks, too! (Heather always has amazing lists up at TVExamined if you’re looking for a place to start.) While you’re sharing your favorites, please be respectful of your fellow fangirls and fanboys, because our lists are all going to look different, which is what makes sharing them so much fun. We share so much about who we are when we talk about the media we love, and lists like these are such a great snapshot of who we were during a specific year in our lives.

Today’s “Best Of” list features my favorite TV performances of 2015. It was a fantastic year for acting on the small screen—especially for women (as you’ll see by the sheer number of women on this list). Many of the best TV characters this year were defined by complex motivations, stunning plot twists, and emotional storylines that called for new levels of vulnerability from the men and women who bring them to life. From new faces to old favorites, here are the actors that I thought stood out above the rest in 2015.

1. Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings (The Americans)
While I could have put the entire cast of The Americans at the top of this list, I chose to single out Taylor because no actor on television this year impressed me as much as she did. Season Three of The Americans boldly put a teenage girl at the center of everything, and the fact that it was a success speaks to Taylor’s ability to make Paige something more than just the stereotypes of teenage girls we’re so often shown in the media. In her hands, Paige became a character whose maturity I admired and whose innocence I wanted to protect. She wasn’t the one-dimensional morality police in a family desperately in need of one; she was just a girl who cared deeply about her faith, justice, and the truth and was thrown into a life she was unprepared to handle. In the hands of another young actor, that could have come across in an incredibly heavy-handed way, but Taylor appears to be learning the art of subtlety and honesty from her onscreen parents. It’s one thing for a young actor to carry a big storyline and not hurt a show; it’s another for them to do that and make the show better because of their work. Taylor’s ability to make viewers care about Paige—especially in the quiet moments this show does so well—played a critical role in making this the strongest season of The Americans yet.

2. Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva (Jane the Virgin)
I was late to the Jane the Virgin party (having just started watching this summer), but now that I’m here, I’m ready to gush about Rodriguez. With a premise as crazy as this show’s premise, the characters need to keep things relatable, and Rodriguez does that in such a brilliant way—by making Jane one of the most likable characters to hit television screens in the last few years. She projects a warmth that can’t be faked, and she has a rare ability to be both genuinely hilarious and heartbreaking within the same scene. When Jane does a happy dance, I want to dance with her. When Jane cries, I usually do cry with her. Rodriguez is the heart and soul of a show with so much heart and soul, and I can’t wait to watch her star continue to rise.

3. Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time)
2015 wasn’t an easy year for Emma Swan: She found out some difficult truths about her parents, was trapped in a tower in an alternate reality, became a Dark One, and had to watch the man she loves die three times. But while Emma went through the lowest of lows, Morrison reached new heights, proving that—even after four-plus seasons in this role—she still had plenty of new things to show us about Emma as a character and herself as an actor. When she was tasked with playing Emma struggling with her new identity as the Dark One, she rose to the occasion, deftly using her voice and body language to make Emma’s struggle feel as intense and desperate as it needed to feel for this “Dark Swan” arc to resonate. And when she was asked to show us Emma at her most vulnerable—uncontrollably sobbing after having to kill the love of her life to destroy the darkness—Morrison did what she’s always done best: She took a show about fairytales and made it feel real.

4. Caitriona Balfe as Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Outlander)
Much like Morrison, Balfe’s strength as an actor comes from her ability to ground a show about time travel in very real emotions. When Claire is terrified, we believe it. When Claire is determined, we believe it. And—perhaps most importantly for this show—when Claire is passionately in love with her husband, we believe it. Claire is a complex character who makes decisions some might call crazy (staying in the past for love), but Balfe’s performance allows us to truly understand her character. And no mention of Balfe’s work would be complete without mentioning her incredible chemistry with Sam Hueghan. Together, those two actors have created one of the best romances on television—and certainly the steamiest. But even more than her ability to generate heat with her costar, Balfe’s fearless vulnerability in showing Claire’s love for Jamie was what made the second half out Outlander’s first season a thing of beauty. In the show’s darkest moments, her portrayal of Claire’s devotion to her husband was a bright light.

5. Mindy Kaling as Dr. Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project)
I think if I were ranking characters who grew the most in 2015, Mindy Lahiri would be at the top of this list. And as Mindy Lahiri has grown as a character, Mindy Kaling has grown as an actor. I know The Mindy Project is a comedy, and Kaling still makes me laugh on a regular basis. But she’s at her best when the show takes a serious turn, which happened a lot this year. Kaling has given this character a new sense of self-respect in this past year, and the beautiful thing about it is that development feels honest and earned. The Mindy Project grew from a funny comedy about a woman who thought she needed a man into a heartbreakingly realistic look at what happens when that same woman realizes she might be better off on her own. The fact that such a shift in tone has actually felt believable is a testament to Kaling’s success as both a showrunner and an actor.

6. Jesse L. Martin as Joe West (The Flash)
I’ve admired Jess L. Martin for over a decade, and, as a musical theater nerd, I thought I would never love him more than I loved him as Collins in Rent. I am so happy to be wrong. As Joe West, Martin has never been more lovable. He brings an air of sincerity to Joe that never feels forced. Joe isn’t a stereotypical “tough guy.” He cries, he hugs, and he openly offers words of support and encouragement. On a show where everyone is more than who they seem to be at first, Joe is anything but the typical TV police officer. Before anything else, he’s a dad—a great dad. And that informs every moment of Martin’s performance. His warmth seems to come right through the television, making us all wish we had a Joe West in our lives.

7. Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes (Nashville)
I feel like Britton’s work on Nashville is often underappreciated (even by me at times) because she slips into her character so easily and plays her with such a natural believability that it feels like she just is Rayna Jaymes. On a show filled with soapy drama, Britton is a calming presence, and her performance elevates every actor around her. Even when Rayna was in the middle of her own melodramatic storyline (Deacon’s cancer diagnosis), Britton brought her realistic acting approach to every moment, and when she cried, you felt those tears like they were the tears of someone you knew.

8. Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter (Suits)
What happens when Harvey Specter, the coolest lawyer on TV, loses his cool? The answer is some of the best acting Macht has ever done on this show. Forcing Harvey to confront his deep-rooted issues with abandonment was such an important development, and it allowed Macht to show so many new layers of this character. Harvey may be afraid of showing vulnerability, but I hope this season is the start of a trend of him showing it more often—because Macht deserves even more chances to show just how talented he is.

9. Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)
It takes strength to be kind and happy after going through a traumatic experience. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt never forgets that fact, and that important theme is embodied in Kemper’s sneakily nuanced performance. Of course she’s funny and sweet and awkwardly adorable—she’s Ellie Kemper, after all. But Kimmy isn’t just some sheltered girl trying to navigate the big city; she’s a survivor of an experience that would break a lot of people. And Kemper showed Kimmy’s strength in surprising moments, giving a much more complex performance than I ever would have expected.

10. Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate-Dwyer (Parks and Recreation)
I feel the same way about Parks and Recreation as I do about The Americans: I could have put their entire cast on this list, but I forced myself to choose only one actor. And I chose the actor who moved me the most throughout the entire final season of this show. Plaza has always showed in small ways that there’s so much more to April than just sarcasm and apathy, but this year was the year those moments got bigger—becoming the focus of entire episodes and multi-episode arcs. I loved the way she made April’s anxiety about her future feel so realistic—from her struggle to find a job that made her truly happy, to her worries about leaving Pawnee, to her internal debate over whether or not to have children. As someone April’s age, I related not just to those struggles but to the way Plaza showed April dealing with them. Plaza stood out among a cast of incredibly talented actors, which is no small feat.

23 thoughts on “NGN’s Best of 2015 TV Performances

  1. The Americans is an absurdly talented show and while the adults are all incredible, I’m so glad you picked Holly to represent the show. She took on a challenging role this year and filled Paige with a richness and depth that elevated her series into something truly special.

    I’m trying not to quote this entire post, but “she just is Rayna James” is the perfect description of Connie’s portrayal of this character. It’s a less tumultuous role than some of the other cast members get to play but there is a genuineness, honesty and warmth that Connie brings to the character that grounds the show at its most soapy.

    One last thought before I get to my own picks – everything you said about Gina is wonderful. She projects such warmth on-screen as Jane, on Twitter with her fans, and in person that you can’t help but love her. She gets to show off such a range of emotions and abilities on the show and everyone of them just works because she’s amazing.

    I’ll try to keep it brief because they are going to pop up a lot of my posts about them, but Eva Green (Penny Dreadful) and Aya Cash (You’re the Worst) are stunning. They bring so much to their characters and embody them so fully that you can’t take your eyes off them when they are on-screen.

    Finally, because I can never say enough good things about him, Rectify’s Aden Young was once again amazing. He makes you feel so much for Daniel and brings out the humanity and beauty in him while never quite losing the brokenness. Daniel is a fascinating character to watch and so much of that is because of everything Young puts into the performance.

    • Every time you talk about shows I don’t watch, it makes me want to rush to add them to my must-watch list. I can’t wait to start You’re the Worst!

      I’m so glad you encouraged me to write about Holly Taylor. It made me so happy to write about her and the character of Paige again.

  2. Jennifer Morrison deserves all Emmy’s for her portrayal of Emma Swan and I loved her take on Dark Emma, even using voice to distinguish between light and dark Emma. Something I didn’t quite recognize until tonight actually when I re-watched Broken Heart.

    Yeah, she’s has a rough year but I think she will have a bright happily ever after waiting for her somewhere.

    • The things she did with her voice amazed me all season—she took such a small detail and made it such a huge part of this arc. And I think that speaks to her total commitment to telling this story the right way.

  3. What a great list! I love that you have chosen so many supporting characters. I am a huge fan of a good ensemble cast. When a show has one, it opens it up to so many more story opportunities than you would have with just one or two main leads, and most of the shows you chose from (most of which I watch) have great supporting casts that are worthy of all the love.

    And once again you list reminds me that I have a very short term memory when it comes to TV. Its hard when a calendar year spans two different half seasons of TV, I just get confused. I feel like Parks and Rec has been out of my life for much longer than it has, but perhaps that is just because its loss is so great…

    You chose Holly Taylor for your Americans pick, and I have to go with Alison Wright who plays Martha. Martha and Paige are both the main collateral damage on the show, and I always feel the most for them because of it. They didnt choose the life they got thrown in the middle of. While I dont like to see Phillip and Elizabeth suffer, they bring that pain on themselves, whereas I just want to protect Martha and Paige with my whole being. I was constantly blown away by Wright’s performance this year. So much of it was a silent one. She had to convey her fear and paranoia using only her eyes and body language, and I was on the edge of my seat with her the entire time. The idea that the man you love and chose to spend your life with has been deceiving you in such a huge way the whole time is one of the scariest things I can ever imagine. And now, because of that love, she has put her future in jeopardy, not only her life from being involved with dangerous people, but also her freedom, since I doubt the acts of treason she has committed are going to go over well with the US government. I am torn now, because as much as I love Alison Wright on the show, what I really want is for her to get as far away from these people as possible and live happily ever after somewhere far far away (Paige can go too).

    And now all my Americans feelings are coming back. I have plenty more to say on that front but I will save it for the best shows of 2015 which I assume is coming, haha.

    And while you went with Jessie L Martin (and I do think Joe West is the standout character on The Flash and Jessie’s laugh is one of my fav things in the world), I think I still need to give the edge to Grant Gustin here performance wise. The sincerity he brings to the title character cannot be understated. So much of what happens on that show could come off as cheesy and ridiculous, but it doesnt, because Grant SELLS IT. Barry experiences his emotions so intensely, and the audience is right there with him. Its impossible not to root for him, even when he is acting stupid. I have enjoyed seeing Barry be happy in a new relationship with Patty. Barry worries so much about everything and everyone, its nice to see him enjoying the happier lighter moments, and of course, it doesnt hurt that Grant’s smile can light up a room. Anytime BOTH Jessie and Grant are in a scene smiling together, I am shocked I dont go blind.

    Cant wait for the rest of your lists!!

    • Can I just read your thoughts on Martha all day? (And don’t even get me started on how excited it made me to see Allison Wright talking to you on Twitter!) I NEED The Americans back in my life so we can talk even more about the show. Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to include it on the rest of these lists now. 😉

      And I’m so happy you talked about Grant Gustin because everything you said is so true. You know Barry is one of my TV boyfriends, and it’s all because of the sincerity, innate kindness, and love that Grant pours into that role. I think the main reason I chose Jesse was because I was—with a few exceptions—leaning toward supporting actors (or even leads in Jennifer Morrison’s case) on shows who I think don’t get enough love. But anytime you want to talk about Grant Gustin’s smile, you know I’m your girl to talk to.

  4. Ooh excellent list! I’m actually very curious about The Americans now solely because there’s a teenager who isn’t stereotypical!? It’s so hard to believe that. Also, wonderful choice going with Aubrey Plaza. Of course JMo as well. Agreed so hard with everything you said about Connie Britton, sometimes I forget she isn’t Rayna she’s such a wonderful actress, I would honestly watch anything she’s in because she embodies characters beautifully. And Gabriel Macht YES! And then there’s Jesse L. Martin — the first time I ever cried on The Flash was because of Joe’s character. This is wonderful.

    • I’m so glad you liked my list, my dear! I love how many shows we have in common.

      Also, I cannot recommend The Americans highly enough. It’s very dark, but it’s fascinating, and Paige is such a bright spot. I think you would absolutely fall in love with her the way I have. The women on that show are all pretty incredible, and I always tell people that if you love the “fake married” trope, you should probably check this show out. 😉

  5. Please tell me the reason you didn’t include Rami Malek here is that you haven’t watched Mr. Robot yet – in which case I urge you to do it immediately!!! Apart from that and not watching Jane the virgin, The Flash or Nashville (although I did watch FNL so of course I know Connie Britton deserved a spot here), I like your list, although I would also include at least Aya Cash. I think You’re the worst is a show that would be right up your alley if you don’t watch it already.

    You know, not to mention Kirsten Dunst – who was never ever exactly my fave but man, did she absolutely slay in Fargo – and of course Oscar Isaac for Show me a hero. I really really hope that people who are finding out about him because of Star Wars (the absolutely beautiful and wonderful The force awakens which I want embedded in my brain so I can rewatch it nonstop) dig deep into his work because boy, is he amazing.

    • First of all, YES to all your Stars Wars thoughts! I also had no idea Oscar Isaac was in a show! How did I miss this considering he is now one of my new celebrity crushes? 😉

      Every actor and show you mentioned that I don’t watch yet (Fargo, You’re the Worst, Mr. Robot) is so intriguing to me. I always love adding new shows to my to-watch list, and enthusiastic comments like yours are often what push me over the edge into actually starting those shows!

  6. So many of these are shows I want to watch, so I’m really glad to see that their actors put in such great performances!

    I completely agree with you about Joe – Jesse does such a wonderful job of portraying Joe as a character that you can feel the warmth in his personality pretty much all the time he is on screen. When I first started watching The Flash, seeing Joe and his relationship with Barry be so emotionally affecting and so prominent was a pleasant surprise, and Joe continues to be one of my favorite characters from the show through S2.

    I feel like I have had a lot of younger shows this year, in their first or second seasons, so some of the actors are just starting to really get to go deeper into their characters’ conflicts and put in wonderful performances.

    I feel like Elyes Gabriel has done a great job as Walter O’Brien on Scorpion with his character’s growth starting to hit a breakthrough in this season. Jonny Lee Miller has been quietly very good, especially with his character’s struggles with sobriety, in Elementary, and Lucy Liu is always wonderful as Joan. Priyanka Chopra immediately won me over as Alex in Quantico, and while I’m a few episodes behind at the moment I think she’s done a great job of grounding a show that has the potential to come off as a bit over-dramatic because of its plot. I’d also put the whole cast of How To Get Away With Murder on here in some capacity as their characters are so complicated, and go through so much, that in my opinion the actors are all doing an amazing job.

    Honorable mentions also go to the cast of The 100, as I’ve just started S2 and have been blown away by how complex, and morally grey, all the main characters are. These actors have given even the characters you hate at first some incredible depth and, as Heather can attest to, I’ve at times wanted to basically write an essay on the way they’ve developed. It would not be as emotionally affecting or as believable if the actors weren’t putting in great performances, and I’m looking forward to continuing to see how the storylines test these actors’ abilities.

    • Oh look you mentioned The 100, so I have to comment 😉

      These actors really are wonderful. They have really brought these characters to life and made them real, full people. The range of emotions and situations they have to go through and the development they have shown is just great to watch.

      And if you ever get inspired to write those essays, you are always more than welcome to use my blog to share them.

      • Hahahaha I have a feeling we will be talking about The 100 a lot lately.

        Thanks! I will have to see how I feel after I finish S2, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have a lot of thoughts on several characters & some of the dynamics between the characters.

    • I LOVE your list! I also love reading your thoughts on The 100, so if you ever want to write that essay, I will happily post it here if you want me to or read it eagerly if you post it on Heather’s site!

      And can we talk forever about Joe West? He’s just the best, and I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to get a hug from a detective on a TV show more than I want to get a hug from Joe. He’s so wonderful.

      • Awww thanks! I’ll see how inspired I am after I finish S2, but I know at the moment I have a lot of thoughts on the characters and relationships so I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up writing something lol.

        Yes!! Joe is amazing, and I love what the show has been doing with him. I totally agree with you, I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted a hug from someone on a TV show more – I’ve wanted to GIVE a hug to a lot of characters, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever wanted a hug FROM someone so much lol.

  7. Life has been a little crazy, but I just wanted to pop in and say, “Great List!” I’ve loved reading your insights, Katie, and everyone else’s comments on shows that I watch (and some that I don’t, but evidently should, only I have this pesky job . . .)

  8. Pingback: Best of 2015: Moments | TVexamined

  9. Nice list, Katie. Not only because we share some of the same admiration but because you articulate the acting strengths so well. It was a delight to see Jesse Martin in the list because there are very few male actors. You have so many rich ideas perhaps you can do a gender list: 10 best female performances and 10 best male performances. This would allow your fans and you an opportunity to add to the analysis you have done.

    • Thank you! When I first started making these lists a few years ago, I separated performances by gender and genre (drama/comedy), but, to be honest, I just don’t have the time to write those extra lists now that I do a bunch of other lists, too (which will be up later this week). But if you have other thoughts abut actors you’d like to share here, I’m always happy to read them!

  10. Pingback: TV Time: The Americans 4.01 | Nerdy Girl Notes

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