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.