It’s the most wonderful time of the year—the time when we look back on all the great media we consumed during the last 12 months and talk about our favorites! These Best of the Year lists have been a part of NGN since our earliest days, and they’ve always served as a way to start great conversations about the TV shows we love and provide recommendations to fellow fans. (Comments on these lists were actually the reason I started watching The Americans a few years ago!) So please share your own lists and your thoughts on my picks in the comments. This has been a crazy year, and I’ve missed all our discussions about great TV more than I can say, so before 2017 is done, let’s get back to what’s always made NGN so fun—conversations with each other about the media that means the most to us.
Today, I’ll be sharing my picks for my favorite performances on television in 2017. It was a fantastic year for actors on the small screen, which made this list wonderfully challenging to compile. As I’ve been doing in recent years, I limited myself to only one actor from a particular show, or else I probably would have picked some entire casts. Don’t forget to tell me who turned in your favorite work on television this year in the comments, and for more year-end fun, check out the lists over at TVexamined and Marvelous Geek Circles!
1. Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright (Big Little Lies)
Big Little Lies was the show that challenged my “one actor per show” rule the most, but when it came down to choosing just one member of this extraordinary ensemble, there was ultimately no question that it would be Kidman. Her performance was heartbreaking in its vulnerability; the physical and emotional trauma Celeste went through was depicted with unflinching realism, and such a harrowing portrayal of the complexities of life in an abusive relationship required an actress who isn’t afraid to go to dark places and take the audience there with her. Kidman is exactly that kind of actress, putting her whole body into this performance—not just in the horrifying scenes of abuse but in the way she made her statuesque body seem small and fragile throughout the series, as if she was curling in on herself in a constant state of fear. Kidman’s gift for nuance was used to brilliant effect, as so much of who Celeste is exists under her picture-perfect surface. In those moments when Kidman let the façade slip momentarily (like when Celeste reveals to Jane that sometimes little boys who bully little girls don’t grow out of it), the quiet force of her performance left me breathless. I watched Big Little Lies months ago, and I still feel haunted by Kidman’s performance. It got under my skin and has refused to let go of my mind and heart, which is when you know an actor did something extraordinary.
2. Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings (The Americans)
The fact that Russell still doesn’t have an Emmy for this role is criminal. (You have one more chance, Emmy voters! Don’t screw it up.) This season more than any other pushed Elizabeth in new directions emotionally, and Russell made the new layers added to this character feel believable, which is no small feat for a character who has always been defined by her lack of overt emotion. Of course, she was just as fierce as ever, but Russell was also able to show a gentler side of Elizabeth, deepening the character in complex new ways. The things Russell can do with just her eyes, her smile, and her body language never fail to astound me. So much of what makes this show work is the fact that it can go for long stretches without dialogue because its cast is so good at making quiet beats living, breathing moments, and it all starts with Russell. Every emotion seems to radiate just under her skin—just restrained enough to remind us that this is a woman who plays things so close to the vest it almost hurts to watch her struggle to find the words to show her husband or children the truth of how she feels. This was the season in which Elizabeth Jennings allowed herself to love someone enough to put their needs above the cause—with all the joy and pain that comes with it—and Russell made that journey breathtaking from start to finish.
3. Ted Danson as Michael (The Good Place)
The Good Place has an incredible cast, but the reason its many twists and turns have worked as well as they have (and they work SO WELL) is because of Danson. He gave Michael just the right amount of anxious energy in Season One to make us initially care about this bumbling architect, but his entire performance (and the entirety of the show’s plot) hinged on one moment: that laugh. If you’ve seen the show, you know what I’m talking about. That devious, gleefully evil laugh turned what was an entertaining performance into something so much bigger and bolder—a performance that becomes even better when watched again with the knowledge of the truth. And that performance only got more entertaining in Season Two, as Danson was able to let Michael’s annoyance with the characters around him drive his scenes to great comedic effect. But it wasn’t until we were able to see that Michael has a heart buried under all his evil plans when faced with the possibility of “killing” Janet that the full range of Danson’s skills as an actor were utilized. Danson’s career is already legendary, and after this year, that legend has added another fantastic chapter.
4. Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale)
The Handmaid’s Tale was always going to hit too close to home for women watching it, but I’m not sure any of us expected it to feel as real and terrifying believable as it did. So much of that came from Moss’s performance, which surprised me in how completely grounded in reality it felt. The flashback scenes in Season One continue to give me nightmares because Moss made June feel like a real woman—her journey from annoyance to anger to abject terror at what was happening around her felt like it could happen to literally anyone. Moss’s gift for playing the relatable everywoman is used in this show to terrifying ends; she makes June feel like your best friend or your coworker or even yourself, which is a chilling bit of realism that stays with you long after you stop watching.
5. Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser (Outlander)
We see most of the world of Outlander through Claire’s eyes, and Balfe does a brilliant job of allowing us to feel everything Claire is feeling on the incredible journey she’s found herself on. At this point, it goes without saying that her chemistry with Sam Heughan makes the show something truly special, but what doesn’t get said enough is that Balfe also shines on her own. She is such an emotionally available actress, giving Claire a raw vulnerability that propels the story forward in both timelines.
6. Andre Braugher as Raymond Holt (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
Raymond Holt is a true gift of a TV character, and Andre Braugher is just as much of a gift as an actor. No character on television makes me laugh harder than he does, with his deep, deadpan voice being used to say more ridiculous things as each year passes. But when I think of why Braugher made my list once again this year, it’s not just his perfect line delivery that comes to mind; it’s his gift for bringing just the right amount of emotion to moments that set Brooklyn Nine-Nine apart from other comedies. His speech to Rosa after she came out as bisexual was one of the high points of the whole series, and it was all because Braugher played it with such sincere emotion that still felt completely true to his character. In the words of Raymond Holt, “Yas, Queen.”
7. Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson (This Is Us)
I know, I know—This Is Us is Randall’s show, and all the other characters are just living in it. But I sang the praises of Sterling K. Brown last year, and I thought it was time to spread the love around to the member of this ensemble that I feel doesn’t get anywhere near the love she deserves. Moore has been one of my favorite actresses ever since I was 13 years old and saw A Walk to Remember for the first time, and it’s been wonderful to watch her do such amazingly nuanced work each week on This Is Us. Rebecca isn’t always a “likable” character, and I love that about her. She’s been allowed to make mistakes, have trouble adjusting to motherhood, say the wrong thing at times, and still always feel like a woman who loves her family with all her heart and always wants to protect them. That fiercely protective side of Rebecca is something Moore excels at showing to audiences, but she’s just as wonderful in quiet, soft moments. There’s a beautiful maternal warmth to her performance that’s not an easy thing to capture in so many different timelines, but Moore serves as the link between all three versions of this family with an ease that I feel is often overlooked.
8. Rita Moreno as Lydia Riera (One Day at a Time)
Rita Moreno is a national treasure. Her big, theatrical personality provided the biggest laughs and some of the most memorable moments in Season One of One Day at a Time, but she’s so much more than just a charismatic joke-delivery device (who also happens to still have some pretty great dance moves). She gave Lydia real depth—a sense that this is a woman who has lived with losses throughout her life that have taught her to hold her family close. She’s not just light comedic relief; she’s the heart and soul of some of the show’s most emotional scenes. In my experience, to know Rita Moreno’s work is to love her work, and I love that One Day at a Time is allowing a new generation of fans to fall in love with one of the greats.
9. Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)
Cersei Lannister is almost impossible to love (just ask her brothers), but it’s almost impossible not to love Headey’s portrayal of this character. On a show in which it can be hard to stand out among a huge cast, Headey never blends into the background. She does this by never allowing us to forget that Cersei’s desire for power and revenge comes from a place of powerlessness and pain. Beneath it all, she’s still a grieving mother and a woman who has been taught by the world around her that women are objects to be used and thrown away. When she allowed that pain to crack through her icy exterior this season, it made for truly captivating television (like her scene in this season’s finale in which she cannot bear to hear Tyrion talk about how much he loved her children). Headey can send shivers down the spine with just a look (I think we all remember the epic Jaime/Brienne/Cersei silent showdown), and her command of this complex character continued to take a story that was already compelling on the page to exciting new places on the screen.
10. Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford (Feud: Bette and Joan)
It’s not easy playing a woman who not only was a real celebrity herself, but was also famously portrayed by another actress onscreen. However, Lange managed to create her own deeply moving and fascinating version of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford by giving viewers a more nuanced portrait than what was shown in Mommie Dearest and a more honest look than what Crawford herself showed the world while she was alive. It would have been easy for Lange to play up Crawford’s rabid desperation, but what really resonated with me was the sadness and loneliness that never let go of Crawford. Her affectations and appearance hid a lost woman who didn’t know what her place in the world was without her youth and beauty—who feared that she would someday go back to being the nobody she once was. Lange’s performance was a deeply moving look at how Hollywood’s focus on women’s bodies and its inherent sexism and ageism can break those who are at its mercy—and it only feels more important in light of how this year has unfolded for women in the film industry.
I love that we had so many of the same picks this year!
Everything you said about Rita Moreno is perfect. I just finished rewatching the episode where Lydia talks about leaving Cuba and she is SO good at emotional moments like that one. She’s as integral to the show as Lydia is to the Alvarez family and I want everyone to fall in love with her.
Great picks. Nicole Kidman, Caitriona Balfe, and Ted Danson are on my list too. So are Aubrey Plaza as Lenny and Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper/Dougie Jones/Mr. C.