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.