Best of 2016: Performers

We’re fairly certain that we can all agree in the words of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Captain Raymond Holt that “everything is garbage.” While 2016 may have been an incredibly harrowing year, it has without a doubt been an incredible one for television. That said, the Best of 2016 performers are the heart of a series. Without them, the characters we cherish and adore wouldn’t be as extraordinary. They wouldn’t resonate with us in the seemingly effortless ways they do. Without their meticulously crafted performances, we wouldn’t feel a single thing. 

Before we begin discussing our favorites, be sure to check out the incredible work Nerdy Girl Notes and TVExamined have already done and will continue to do within the next few days.

The Actresses 

1. Millie Bobby Brown
Stranger Things 

“In a world of tens, be an Eleven.” It’s safe to assume we’re not the only ones who tell ourselves this right!? Millie Bobby Brown has impressed many of us with her indescribably fantastic performances as Eleven, landing in our Best of 2016 performers list as number one. And as a young star, she’s already presenting the gifts within her beautifully. Brown’s going to take the world by storm in a couple of years — heck, she’s already doing so today and it’s phenomenal to see her get the credit she deserves. To be able to exhibit that much heart while maintaining the brokenness of an abused, overworked, different child is what perfection looks like. To be able to hold her own amongst gifted actresses like Winona Ryder already showcases a magnitude of her skills. Brown’s ability to understand her character with the depth she does has resulted in gorgeously nuanced performances that have made it effortless to care for and adore Eleven. We can’t wait to see what she brings to Stranger Things season two.

2. Jennifer Morrison
Once Upon A Time

There is no actress on television right now that can make me cry as easily as Jennifer Morrison. Emma Swan’s life has not been the easiest this year, but it has given Morrison the kind of material she’s played with exceptionally. Morrison never fails to bare it all as Emma — no matter if it’s sadness, pure bliss, or rage, with a full range of emotions she allows us to feel every beat of those feelings. And this year, after a heartbreakingly exhausting year, Emma’s been forced to deal with what could possibly be her end. And while Morrison has often played with a number of emotions, fear one of them, she’s never showcased it as intricately as she has during the first half of season six. Emma’s terrified, and Morrison makes sure we feel that terror even when it’s interwoven amongst quiet, joyful moments. Morrison makes sure we understand just how deeply Emma values her life and position as the Storybrooke Savior — she makes sure the audience understands that this isn’t just a selfish sadness, but a selfless one. Emma’s end means the end for a lot of happy endings, and she can’t bear that thought in any shape or form.

3. Keri Russell
The Americans

Much like her scene partner Matthew Rhys, what Keri Russell is able to do on-screen leaves the audience with very little words. The Americans demands its audience to look into the core of these characters and for Elizabeth especially, this is the season that demanded the most vulnerability out of Russell which she delivered beautifully. So much of what’s differentiated Elizabeth from her husband was the fervency in which she believed in the KGB with, but this year, in the fragmented quiet moments, Russell shows us that Elizabeth’s viewpoint is beginning to change, the tasks are becoming a bit more questionable, and she’s growing to feel even deeper than she has been before. Her heart is on the line in ways it’s never been. And because Russell’s able to say a thousand words with a single look, audiences can see profound growth in the character. And audiences can care even more immensely for her than they thought possible.

4. Sarah Paulson
The People vs O.J. Simpson

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting going into the People vs O.J. Simpson, but I most definitely wasn’t expecting to care so much for Marcia Clark, and that’s entirely due to Sarah Paulson’s riveting performances. (Most certainly deserving of her Emmy.) Although the series is based off of real events, Paulson has done an incredible job giving Clark a story to tell. So much of what I remember from the trials as a kid focused heavily on the verdict. I had never really known about the stories behind — the attorneys especially. And I’m thrilled the series was created because today, I’m shaken by the amount that went into it all. I’m shaken by how hard a woman like Marcia Clark worked and Sarah Paulson’s impeccably nuanced performances are the reason for the emotions that were evoked. Paulson’s performances allows us to understand what went on behind closed doors, the undeniably heart shattering emotions Clark faced as she fought tirelessly to win this case. Paulson not only gave us a glimpse inside the life of a fantastic attorney, but inside the heart of a woman and a mother. And that’s been my favorite part of the series — getting to know the woman behind the big-haired attorney.

5. Hayley Atwell
Agent Carter

Hayley Atwell was born to play Peggy Carter and I miss Agent Carter tremendously. It’s not shocking that she’d be on our Best of 2016 performers list when we spent the majority of our reviews gushing over them. Agent Carter was an impeccable series in its first year and it gave Atwell the opportunity to continue establishing a character we already loved deeply. But in its second season Agent Carter gave Hayley Atwell the means to bring out sides of Peggy we may have otherwise never seen. Atwell continued to carry the character with an unparalleled grace, but she also continued to emotional vulnerability along with physical. She continued to struggle with opening up all while firmly following her instincts. Hollywood presented a plethora of unexpected challenges for Peggy and Atwell made sure we could see that though put together, Peggy Carter is still a woman who’s learning every moment of the day. And that exploration of growth has made her even easier to adore. We all know how deeply Hayley Atwell cares for Peggy Carter, and it’s that very devotion which has allowed her to bring Peggy to life masterfully.

6. Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Okay yes, we’re cheating a little, but there was no way we could choose just one of the Gilmore women for our Best of 2016 performers list. It’s a wonderful blessing to be able to write about both Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop again. And it’s a blessing because seriously how do two people manage to feel so alike as mother and daughter? How do they talk so fast? How does one tap right back into where they left off nearly a decade later without a single flaw? Now that’s what I call impressive. Graham met each of Lorelai’s struggles with the right amount of emotions in the revival all while keeping her character grounded in the beliefs that have been long-established. But most importantly, Graham made the audience feel each and every one of Lorelai’s emotions. And in the same way Bishop carried on what’s always made Emily Gilmore special while layering her with a different kind of sadness. A raw, open vulnerability that has reminded us of why we’ve adored Emily from day one.

7. Téa Leoni
Madam Secretary 

Téa Leoni is perhaps one of the most underrated actresses on television, but nonetheless the most fascinating. If Leoni were to run for Secretary of State, I’d vote for her. That said, Madam Secretary took Elizabeth McCord through a number of hills this year and Leoni intertwined heart and humor with her character’s pragmatic approach to her job perfectly. And with each challenge her character faced in and out of the office, Leoni took it on with grace in her eyes and sincerity in her smile. And as a mother, McCord continuously makes you feel every ounce of her adoration for the kids especially in light of recent events with them being stalked. She’d give the world for her family in a heartbeat, and you feel that with every spoken word and every exchanged glance.

8. Kylie Bunbury

Ginny Baker is the most extraordinary character on TV right now and it’s fascinating to watch Kylie Bunbury bring her to life each time. Pitch’s first season was short, but Bunbury’s performances have made it so it feels as though we’ve known Ginny Baker all our lives. Bunbury has delivered each emotional scene with the right amount of sincere vulnerability that’s been needed. And she’s also delivered the character’s quirks beautifully. Ginny’s one of the guys, but she’s also a woman whose job can overwhelm her. And it is in the quiet moments where Bunbury’s delivered her best performances. The moments where Ginny is in and out of reality quietly pondering all that’s in front of her while appearing as though she’s got everything together. But the best part of Bunbury’s performances is that in the moments where Ginny is facing the biggest challenges, Bunbury is in full swing ready to conquer it all masterfully.

The Actors

1. Sterling K. Brown
This Is Us and American Crime: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

Sterling K. Brown is on our Best of 2016 performers list for not one, but two of his roles this year, revealing the fact that today, he’s one of the most gifted actors of our time. Whether it was Brown’s performance as Christopher Darden in American Crime: People vs. O.J. Simpson or his current role as Randall Pearson in NBC’s This is Us, Brown has substantiated the fact that there’s nothing he cannot do. Brown’s characters are both special, but the work he’s able to do with any given emotion never fails to feel almost unbearably real. Granted that yes People vs. O.J. Simpson is based on reality, even as Randall Pearson in its freshman season Brown’s already made sure we care about the character deeply. With every tear shed and every word spoken, Brown’s made sure we’ve felt those emotions in our cores.

2. Matthew Rhys
The Americans

What Matthew Rhys is able to accomplish in silence is a rarity amongst actors. To say so much with as little to nothing in a single expression reaches a territory of indescribable talent. Rhys has been fantastic in his portrayal as Philip Jennings since the start of The Americans, and with stakes rising even higher in the fourth season, Rhys’ performances have become even more complex and nuanced. All challenges that were presented to him were met with incredibly raw, meticulous performances thereby layering the character even more than before. Rhys’ ability to showcase Philip’s love for his wife and kids is exceptional.

3. Colin O’Donoghue
Once Upon A Time

Colin O’Donoghue continues to be an incredibly impressive actor and this year gave him numerous opportunities to layer Killian Jones deeper. Killian’s been through a great deal — the only character who can say has gone through the underworld and back. (In regards to actually dying.) Due to O’Donoghue’s impeccable gift of radiating sincerity, audiences have been given the chance to understand the Captain further. With every flashback and every new challenge, O’Donoghue has delivered each of Killian’s emotions with a rawness that’s showcased all that’s within. Whatever emotion he’s needed to bare, O’Donoghue’s given his absolute all. And it’s the ability to do so without overdoing it that’s come across as masterfully natural.

4. James D’Arcy
Agent Carter

I miss Edwin Jarvis too much. I’m sure James D’Arcy does too. Who wouldn’t? In the same way that we needed to honor Hayley Atwell for our Best of 2016 performers, James D’Arcy deserved a nod too. Agent Carter was a wonderfully established series in season one, but season two gave its characters, Jarvis especially, ample opportunities to grow. And that character development was as beautiful due to D’Arcy’s ability to manifest sincerity in the midst of the unique humor. D’Arcy tugged on my heartstrings each time Jarvis spoke to or about his wife. And D’Arcy left me completely speechless when Jarvis got angry. We were given the opportunity to get to know more about the most reliable sidekick, and James D’Arcy made certain each emotion was felt.

5. Milo Venimiglia
This Is Us

Milo Ventimiglia was a fantastically fun scene-stealer in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, but his work on This is Us is deserving of endless praise. Ventimiglia’s role as Jack Pearson has left viewers in tears numerous times now and the pure, fatherly adoration he’s able to manifest is unparalleled. In similar ways, Ventimiglia’s able to showcase an immense kind of love for his wife. It’s the sincere adoration that allows whatever advice he’s giving to truly sink in — for his kids, and even for the viewers. Ventimiglia’s found the role that undoubtedly challenges him as an actor perfectly and he rises up each time delivering one spectacular performance after another.

6. Gabriel Macht

Harvey Specter is more than just a suave, incredibly wise attorney — he’s human and this year, Gabriel Macht’s outdone himself. Harvey’s game as an attorney hasn’t changed, but things are different. After the introduction of Harvey’s panic attacks last year, Macht’s shown incredible growth. Whether it’s the absolute rage he displayed at the idea of Mike going to prison or the sadness in learning he won’t always win in such cases, Macht’s been doing a fantastic job of making Harvey more lovable. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a fan of the character from the very first episode, but lately, I don’t want to shake him up as much. He does so on his own — the presence of self-awareness is thicker in Harvey’s life and that gives Gabriel Macht ample opportunities to add more nuances to his character. And it gives him plenty of chances to exhibit more heart than ever before.

7. Grant Gustin
The Flash

There can never be another Flash and it’s undoubtedly due to how beautifully Grant Gustin brings the character to life. Barry Allen has been through a lot in his life, and this year especially, Gustin was able to play with another set of heart wrenching emotions. Barry not only lost his father, but he lost his mother after again after reversing time. Barry’s mistakes have had severe ramifications on his life in the present, and Gustin has been showcasing his remorse beautifully. And just as things seemed to be getting easier, he’s learned that Iris is destined for an early death. It’s been heartbreakingly enjoyable to watch, and once thing is for sure,  The Flash is going to throw one curveball after another to Barry, and Grant Gustin is going to hit home runs every time.

8. Matt Lanter

There were quite a number of people I wanted to include in this position, but Matt Lanter’s landed the spot due to how astounded I am at his abilities as an actor. Lanter has found home in Timeless. You know how every actor needs that one show that essentially feels like it’s made for him in order for the audience to see that they’re truly gifted? Timeless is that show and Wyatt Logan is that character. In the 10 episodes we have gotten thus far, Lanter has already done beautiful work to layer his character hitting each emotional moment with the right amount of heart. And if this is just the beginning, I am excited to see what’s done as the series progresses.

Honorable Mention: Jesse Lee Soffer (Chicago P.D.), Abigail Spencer (Timeless), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Pitch), Mandy Moore (This is Us), Chrissy Metz (This is Us), Gina Torres (Suits), Malcolm Barrett (Timeless).

be sure to check out the rest of our Year-End reviews starting from our tribute to Sundance’s Rectifythe Top 16 Little Gems, Top 16 Characters, and the Top 16 Relationships.

Who would be on your Best of 2016 performers list?


  1. I will yell about the greatness of Sterling K. Brown for all of time if given the opportunity, so instead I want to talk about a couple people who didn’t make my lists. Both Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy gave incredible performances this year. I need more of Hayley as Peggy because she made me love her without even knowing her. I’m not a huge Marvel fan and the show was my first introduction to her as a character. But she instantly made me care about her and that only deepened over the two seasons. I also really loved what you had to say about Kylie Bunbury. She’s been extraordinary and I hope we see more of her as Ginny.

    1. Hayley really has that charm on so many people. A lot of my friends who generally don’t watch superhero movies found themselves drawn to Peggy. I miss her so much. And I seriously hope Ginny doesn’t end up in that category of characters that were gone too soon. Here’s to hoping Pitch is picked up. Thanks, babe!

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