Before we get down to business, I want to take a moment to wish all of you a holiday season filled with laughter, love, and light. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all who are celebrating!
It’s everyone’s favorite time of year—the time to reflect on the year that was in the world of television! For the next week, I’ll be posting my year-end retrospective lists detailing the best of TV in 2016. I love doing these posts because they encourage such great discussion and have led to some fantastic TV recommendations, so please share your own choices in the comments! And if you’re looking for more year-end lists, I highly recommend the ones put together at TVexamined and MGcircles.
Without further ado, let’s get the party started! Here are my choices for the year’s best performances—the ones that made me laugh the most, cry the hardest, and think the most deeply. This was a year of incredible acting on the small screen, and these performances are just a small sample of the brilliant work done on so many television shows this year. (As usual, I tried to limit myself to one actor per show—with one exception.)
1. Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden and Randall Pearson (The People vs. O.J. Simpson and This Is Us)
Turning in one powerful, nuanced, heartfelt performance in a year is a great feat; to do it twice in two different shows is so rare that I had to give Brown special recognition for his stellar work this year. He made a name for himself in The People vs. O.J. Simpson as Christopher Darden, and his complex portrayal of a lawyer trying to reconcile his identity as a black man with his identity as someone who fights for justice hit all the right notes—from moments of barely-controlled fury to moments of surprisingly gentle warmth. It was that warmth and sense of inherent goodness that made Brown’s Darden the beating heart of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and those traits have also been on full display in his work on This Is Us. Not a week goes by where I’m not moved to tears by Brown’s work on this freshman drama. He has a true gift for emotional honesty, and his ability to show just as much in his reactions as he shows in his character’s big, dramatic moments helped make every actor around him better. There’s a steadfast quality Brown brings to his characters that grounds everything and everyone around them, and that allowed him to stand out in ensembles filled with talented actors.
2. Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark (The People vs. O.J. Simpson)
In terms of single performances given in 2016, there was none better than Paulson’s work as Marcia Clark. To give you a sense of how much her performance affected me, the only thing I knew about Clark before the series aired was that her hairstyle was a huge deal and she lost the case of the century, but afterward, I came to care so much about her story that I bought her autobiography. That was Paulson’s true gift: She made us care about someone that so many people wrote off, mocked, or outright hated. And she did this by making us feel everything her character was feeling—I dare you to watch the scene where Clark walks into the courtroom with her new haircut and not feel her humiliation as acutely as if it was happening to you. The amount of anger and sadness I felt on her behalf throughout the series genuinely surprised me, and it was all because of the depth Paulson gave this woman. She allowed us to finally see Clark as a person and not as a symbol, stereotype, or caricature, and in doing so, she made everyone watching reconsider their own preconceptions and judgments about her, which is exactly what a great portrayal of a real person should do.
3. Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings (The Americans)
Elizabeth may have been struggling with her work as a spy more than ever this year, but Russell was certainly not struggling with her work bringing her to life. As Elizabeth became more vulnerable, Russell became more of a force to be reckoned with. This was the year in which Elizabeth’s emotions started to break through her stoic facade, and the way Russell played those emotions showed her masterful understanding of this complex woman. There were the moments her sadness seeped out in quiet words shared with her husband (“I’m going to miss her.”); moments her emotional and physical vulnerability made her seem smaller than ever before (She made almost dying seem all too real.); moments her insecurity made this superspy finally feel relatable (when she asked Philip if he would leave with Martha); moments of sincere connection between her and her daughter (opening up about her childhood and why she wanted to join the KGB); and moments her anger exploded out of her like a volcano, destroying everything in its path (the entirety of “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”). Russell’s work in this role is the kind that rewards you for paying attention, and the rewards were more fruitful than ever this year.
4. Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser (Outlander)
Balfe has always been the grounding force that makes Outlander such an emotionally affecting drama, anchoring a show with a crazy concept (time-traveling romance) in real emotions and reactions. Her work this year was no exception. There is no one on television right now who can break my heart like Balfe. From her gut-wrenching work in the episode where Claire lost her baby to her unforgettable farewell to the man she loves, Balfe was given plenty of emotional highlights this season, and she didn’t disappoint in any of them. It would be easy to go for the most melodramatic reactions with this kind of content, but Balfe never feels like she’s reaching to make you feel for Claire in a given scene; she makes each emotional beat feel earned and honest. And on a show where sincere emotion could get lost in the fantasy, the scenery, and the plot, Balfe makes us truly care about Claire, which is no small feat given the show’s fantastical premise.
5. Kelly Bishop as Emily Gilmore (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life)
There were some problems with Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, but I don’t think you’d find anyone who would say Emily Gilmore was one of them. Bishop’s work was one of the high points of the revival, taking the things she became known for over the course of seven seasons of Gilmore Girls—her dry humor, her gift with quick dialogue (which is often underrated even among the show’s fans), and her ability to shock you with moments of sincerity—and bringing them all to the table from her very first scene, taking no time at all to warm up. Some actors simply are their characters, and Bishop is Emily Gilmore. But what impressed me the most about Bishop in this revival was the way she didn’t make the character feel exactly the same as she was years ago; she made Emily feel like a woman who was carrying around something heavier than she had been when we last saw her. Richard’s death affected everything about her, and it was one of the most honest depictions of grief I have seen on television. In Emily, I saw both the strength and sadness present in my own grandmothers after they lost their husbands, and there is no greater compliment I can give Bishop than that.
6. Andre Braugher as Raymond Holt (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
The funniest performance on television this year was once again given by Braugher, who had more moments that made me laugh than any other actor. It would be impossible to list them all, but here’s just a sampling of his best work: his dissection of Sex and the City; “Let’s break into the FBI;” “Boost my bottom;” and his perfectly indignant reaction to Detective Diaz talking about his sex life. The total commitment Braugher brings to this role continues to be one of my favorite things about one of my favorite shows, and he has become my new Amy Poehler in terms of my passionate campaigning for him to get an Emmy for this role.
7. Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Mike Lawson (Pitch)
Confession time: Mark-Paul Gosselaar was my first celebrity crush, and Zack Morris was the first fictional character I used to obsess over. So it was going to take quite the feat of acting on his part to erase that role as his defining one in my mind. But all it took was a beard and a conversation about slapping asses for me to wonder Zack who? and for Mike Lawson to now become the image that first pops into my mind when I hear Gosselaar’s name. The way Gosselaar has totally disappeared into this role is nothing short of extraordinary, but it goes beyond just his facial hair and catcher’s body. He carries himself like an aging ballplayer; you can almost feel the aches and pains when he stands up or bends down. But it’s the emotional subtleties and complexities he has brought to this role that have helped elevate not just his character but the show as a whole: the reluctant realization that his career is ending, the sincere love for his teammates and his sport that all the best captains carry with them, the feeling of being adrift without a real family to come home to, and the natural chemistry and warmth that made the progression of his relationship with Ginny so believable.
8. Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva (Jane the Virgin)
There is no one better at blending comedy and drama than Rodriguez. Within the course of one episode (and sometimes even one scene), she can have me laughing until my sides ache and then crying until my mascara runs. She’s the most likable woman on television, and no one lights up the screen the way she does. But it’s in some of Jane’s darkest moments where Rodriguez shines the brightest—her monologue to Michael at his hospital bed and her speech to the nun about questioning God were standout moments of deep, heartfelt emotion that had me reaching for my tissues like few others I watched this year.
9. Tituss Burgess as Titus Andromedon (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)
As Titus was given a bigger storyline this season on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Burgess was given more to do beyond playing the flamboyant friend—and he ran with it. Of course, the outlandish humor that made him such a hit during the show’s first season was back in full force, but what struck me the most about his work this year was how good he was during Titus’s more sincere moments. Giving the character a love interest was the best decision the show could have made because it allowed Burgess to show real vulnerability and sincerity, and the genuine sweetness he projected made for one of the best romances on television this season.
10. Sabrina Carpenter as Maya Hart (Girl Meets World)
Young actors are not always the best actors, but Girl Meets World seems to have struck gold with its cast of bright young stars. Standing out from the pack this year was Carpenter, whose character went on a deeply compelling emotional journey in 2016. She struggled with finding her own voice as she entered high school, she battled with her own feelings for the boy she knew her best friend liked, and, most beautifully, she worked to stop being afraid of losing something good and accepted that Shawn wanted to be part of her family. Maya is one of the most complex young women on television, and Carpenter has done a phenomenal job bringing every side of her—from her soft spots to her rough edges—to life with honesty and maturity beyond her years.