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.