There’s nothing I appreciate more every year than performances that make me want to ramble and scream about over rooftops. Performances that are so well done, words suddenly become nonexistent. And this year especially, the top performers were so fascinating, I couldn’t even choose as easily as I often do. I almost added more than I could write for because there were a far more than 10 of them I wanted to talk about.
- Matthew Rhys
The Emmy winning performance of the year. (It gives me unbelievable pride and joy to say that, as if I know Rhys myself and he is some distant uncle of mine.) But truly. There’s been nothing quite like this year’s most intensely gripping performance that I’ve yet to find the words for. Phillip caught a bit of a break from the spy life this season, but that meant a lot more work for Rhys in order to show us sides of him that we’d not known in the last five years. And while Phillip was seemingly calmer, Rhys was actually showing us a more frantic angle, especially when it came down no longer understanding his wife or being able to converse with her. It was during the simplest, most quiet moments that Rhys was reminding us of just how much is at stake and just how fleeting this new life of his would be. But then the final few moments of the series happened and just when you think Rhys has probably outdone himself, the confrontation we’ve all been waiting for takes place, and the greatest mic drop in TV history occurs. The Americans excels in a number of ways, but its strongest suit has been the carefully nuanced performances, and although this was the scene we’ve long waited for, I don’t think any of us could’ve imagined the vulnerability it would’ve been filled with. Vulnerability we should’ve probably been prepared for, but at the end of the day, we could never — or rather, at least I couldn’t have. The sheer pain and utter shame Rhys projected while they “confessed” everything to Stan was nothing short of brilliant. The faint break as he states “I finally got caught” or the most sincere reveal throughout the confrontation, “You were my only friend in my, in my whole shitty life” shattered me. Finales in the espionage genre often have their actors go out with a bang, but with The Americans, the bang surprisingly doesn’t involve a gunshot, instead, “Start” concluded with a man and a woman on a bridge, in a country they can no longer call theirs, trying to remain hopeful. And hope is an emotion The Americans has had a special way of revealing. Rhys’ tensed jawline, the palpable dejection in his eyes, and the damaged, hollowed spirit that stood before us was the very paradigm of greatness. Matthew Rhys (And Keri Russell) have always spoken far more in silence than they have with words, and such robust silence can only be described with so few words, it demands to be felt. And it was.
2. Anthony Anderson
Black-ish has often given Anthony Anderson ample material to work with and remarkable challenges as an actor, but nothing’s been as jaw-dropping as his work in the four-part arc with the Johnson marriage falling apart. Anderson brought Dre’s frustrations to life with outstandingly meticulous acting choices, allowing us to see every bit of his torn spirit during the trying times. Dre was exhausted, confused beyond measure, desperate, and hopelessly in love — each emotion, which Anderson played on with the right amount of exhibition, careful not to overdo it, but evocative in every beat made for superb television. The episodes might’ve broken me, but the performances certainly didn’t fail in stunning me. Anderson’s carefully nuanced snaps were filled with some of the most raw sentiments that encompass human beings at times concerning such deep disputes — it occurred perfectly in scenes such as his “how the hell did we get here” line, both in the present and in the past. Giving Anderson the means to genuinely show us two completely different variations of the same question did a number on illuminating his capabilities as an actor. It’s essential to note that the direction, the jumps from when they first moved in to the very moment Dre moved out played a great role in allowing us to actually see just how much Anderson has embodied Dre. Anderson’s taken the eccentric, often hardheaded man and revolutionized him in a whole new light, which gave us a viable glimpse into his deep adoration for Bow by simply stating something as powerful as “Your favorite color’s purple.” It was Anderson’s heartbroken expressiveness and stern delivery of such a line that gave us a mirror to the chaos of misery that’s stirred up inside of him.
3. Milo Ventimiglia
This is Us
Milo Ventimiglia’s found a special role with the beloved Jack Pearson, but up until the latest season, the series hadn’t given us anything out of the ordinary, nor challenged the actor as it did during the episodes dedicated specifically to his time in Vietnam. Season three gave us a glimpse into Jack’s life in Vietnam and in doing so, it gave Ventimiglia ample material to play on. It allowed him to sink his teeth into a journey so emotionally compelling, if he’d not given it has all, we wouldn’t have felt the pangs of Post Traumatic Stress as closely as we did. It isn’t easy to bring forward pain without often overdoing it, but the subtle exhibitions remind viewers of the fact that Post Traumatic Stress is not only so personal to the person, but it’s perhaps the hardest pain to describe. And Jack’s tearful breakdown while Rebecca sang to him revealed not only a great amount of that pain, but it gave Ventimiglia a moment to really let go, a moment that I’m almost positive blurred the line of acting and reality because such a scene wouldn’t have been as powerful if Ventimiglia hadn’t embodied Jack with everything in him. The choices to hide his face and sink himself as deeply as he could into the car’s passenger seat revealed something so intensely sacred, I broke for him. All throughout the journey, Jack’s done his best to appear collected, but the fragmented leaks of a man breaking at the seams showed us just enough to tell a story that’s bound to be memorable.
4. Tony Shalhoub
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Tony Shalhoub is always a class act and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is giving him some of the most astounding material to work with enlightening those who may not know of his capabilities what a treat they’re in for. Shalhoub masters in finely crafted unconventionality, and he’s got a great knack for an intricacy that speaks volumes. Shalhoub was astonishing in the series’ first season, but the full-range of emotions he delivered in the last few episodes of the second season are for the books. The sheer perplexity and indescribable rage while watching Midge perform at the Concord was something truly magnanimous. You couldn’t possibly imagine how he was feeling, and in every moment following, Shalhoub made it clear that he has absolutely no idea what’s going on in his life anymore, which is so fascinating once we consider the disastrous realization in earlier episodes that his wife’s left him to go to Paris. From the beginning of the season, Shalhoub’s been rearing on Abe’s career, but by the end of the season, it’s clear that the focus is on his character, delivering a farcically crafted speech that still hints at a threat without a tactless 180 on the character. And the changes in his character begin with the faint, but inexpressibly proud smile after watching Midge perform during the telethon, then asking for gin at the bar with Noah. And as we near the end with Rose and the two of them in a conversation like never before, Shalhoub shows us just how far Abe’s come. He’s listening. He’s growing.
5. Matthew Goode
A Discovery of Witches
As I’ve said while writing about Matthew Clairmont the character, Matthew Goode is entirely to blame for the fact that vampires are charming again. Goode is gifted in a myriad of ways, but his strongest suit is without a doubt the multi-faceted, utterly complex characters. (The wool suits and coats are strong, too. I’m definitely not complaining about the wardrobe department’s A+ work on A Discovery of Witches.) Goode’s timely demeanor shifts remind us of just how complicated Matthew Clairmont is beyond the brooding vampire whose taste palette consists of more wine than blood. When there’s rage in him, it’s downright terrifying, but when there’s goodness, pun intended, (It was bound to happen.) it’s utterly compelling. Goode’s delicacy and expressiveness never miss a beat in reminding us of the fact that though broken and perhaps even a little uncontrollable at times, he could be trusted where Diana is concerned. Goode often plays characters that are easily charming, but he’s never showcased sincerity the way he has with Matthew (Clairmont). Goode layers the already established character with such palpable earnestness that it plays a colossal role in making him far more likeable than the character is in the books. The timely moments of pure vulnerability then play a profound role in reminding the audience that 500+ years of life could do a number on a man — without Matthew (Clairmont) telling us, Goode’s already gone ahead to show us just how much life has returned to the heart that beats less than a human’s.
- Keri Russell
There are a few things I will never forgive the Academy for and Keri Russell’s Emmy snub is one of them. It’s at the top of the list actually. I don’t understand it. I don’t think anyone does, but apparently, we can’t have nice things so there’s that. Keri Russell’s work on The Americans has been indescribable from the very beginning, and each year, just when you thought she’d stunned you to a point of no return, Russell stepped it up further, thereby, it shouldn’t have been surprising that during her final moments as Elizabeth Jennings, she’d go out with a bang — or in this case, a quiet cab ride overlooking somberly at the life she’s left behind. Russell’s work has faintly reminded us of the heart behind the stoic, mission focused spy, and the showcase of that vulnerability grew even more apparent in season six. Elizabeth was drained; physically and emotionally more than she’s ever been providing Russell with pristine moments to crack in a way no one before her has done in the genre. We’ve watched Keri Russell breathe life into Elizabeth with so much potent expressiveness that we’ve paid tribute to a forehead vein that speaks louder than even her most frightening threats. We’ve watched Elizabeth crumble in the most astute of ways wondering just when the spy might finally catch her break. And at times, some may have even believed that beyond her mission, nothing seemed of greater importance, but without fail, Russell has always reminded us of the fact that Elizabeth loves and feels deeply. And in her final moments as Elizabeth Jennings, Keri Russell did what she does best, she reminded us of the fact that this spy’s heart is greater than her will to finish the job. Russell has brought Elizabeth’s vulnerability to life with a haunting, inexpressible silence, and the entire season was filled with moments that broke me. Elizabeth isn’t a crier, she holds pain in such a way that’s truly breathtaking — it’s harrowing, it’s depressing, and as a viewer, it’s so unbelievably hard to watch because of how tangible it felt at times. Whether it’s realizing Paige has gotten off the train or concluding that Russia won’t be the home she’s believed it to be, Russell’s delivered the most captivating performance to date — showcasing with every breath she took as Elizabeth Jennings that women are always so much stronger than they seem.
2. Tracee Ellis Ross
Much like Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross brought a plethora of complex emotions to life in the four-part Johnson family darkness through a gut-wrenching, innovative performance. Ross’ versatility is nothing new to the audience, she’s delivered a blend of complex emotions throughout Black-ish’s history, but even that wasn’t enough to prepare the audience for the poignant performance she’d put on as a woman at the end of her wits. Dre and Bow were both battling states of a downcast they could’ve never expected, and Ross never missed a single beat in showing the audience just how stunned she was throughout all this — that’s why when she screamed about “not knowing what they’re fighting about”, you felt every ounce of the emotions buried within her. And when she called Dre after her father passed away, Ross let out the most realistic, grief filled cry I’ve ever seen in a comedy. It’s easy to overdo grief-stricken cries, I’ve always believed in this — there’s no too little, too much, or a rule for how it should be, but when it isn’t raw, when the emotions aren’t felt, it’s hard to believe. And thankfully, that wasn’t the case with Ross who delivered it in a way that was so expected from her character. That’s why when she then says “yup” to wanting Dre to stay, it’s felt — every word she spoke, every nod, every tear she held back showed us a multitude of emotions beautifully.
3. Mandy Moore
This is Us
Mandy Moore’s still got time for an Emmy and I’m willing to give the Academy the credit it deserves when they finally decide to acknowledge what a masterful performer Moore is. She’s done it all — Disney princesses, President’s daughter, and bullying cheerleaders, but her work as Rebecca Pearson has been the most impressive. Rebecca is one of the most well written women on TV, and if you ask me, she rarely gets the proper accolade she deserves. Moore’s performance this year has been so remarkably complex that when reviewing, she’s been my favorite to write about. (That’s why, I’m choosing to leave you all with something I said previously and still believe in profoundly after the work she’s done this year.) “It’s possible to sit here and take apart every single one of her meticulous acting choices in order to showcase the magnitude of grief she’s experiencing, but the full range of emotions from beginning to end was nothing short of brilliant. There’s a lot I can’t get out of my head, but the haunting cry in the hospital room is at the top of that list. Grief is a myriad of emotions, it’s denial, it’s anger, it’s confusion, it’s pain, it’s longing, it’s stillness, and it’s everything all at once, which made the reactions Moore played on that much more palpable. The idea of her husband dying is so far-fetched that yes, she’d take a bite off of her chocolate bar and refuse to acknowledge anything the doctor’s saying. She’d walk into his hospital room addressing him with utmost certainty that he’ll respond. She’d stare at his lifeless body in complete and utter confusion — she’d calmly cry out to him once more, she’ll question it again and again, then she’ll let out a cry, but she’ll pull herself together because there’s still no proper way to process what’s happening. And then she’ll walk around the block for as long as she needs to until she’s strong enough to break her kids in a way they’ll never come back from. And in every scene, every silent expression, there’s not a single fleeting moment where Moore isn’t showing us the paramount pain that’s residing within her — a pain, that though there are moments of laughter, consistently lingers when someone loses their person. And it was Moore’s performances that I cannot stop thinking about, cannot stop analyzing, because the truth is, if you sit here and attempt to, you’d be here writing a novel. (Which I’m trying very hard not to.)”
4. Abigail Spencer
I’m thankful for the Timeless movie airing past my deadline because it means I’ll get one more year to write about Abigail Spencer’s exquisite performance as Lucy Preston. It’s been a whirlwind of a year for Lucy and Spencer’s delivered each chaotic emotion with a subtlety that’s left me speechless. There were a great amount of challenges facing Lucy this season, and thereby, each episode gave Spencer the opportunity to showcase a full-range of emotions. Pain to this degree would’ve broken someone entirely, but because she has a job to do, Lucy needed to mask it all, and in the most credible sense, Spencer shows us the strings within that are slowly coming undone. We see it in her exhaustion, her posture, the weariness in her expressions, and the faint, half smiles that remind us of the fact that she’s anything but okay. But even in the midst of that, our heroine does indeed have moments of genuine happiness, moments that Spencer brought to life with a childlike innocence that’s so captivating, when it’s gone, it’s felt achingly. That’s the thing about Abigail Spencer’s performance this season, it demanded a lot out of her, and what she’d been through could’ve resulted in a lot of overacting, but instead, Spencer brought to life a great number of emotions even when Lucy isn’t front and center. Anytime you looked to Lucy, Spencer was telling us something profoundly vital. And in an obvious sense, whether it was the heart wrenching conversation with her mother in “The Salem Witch Hunt”, the confrontation with Emma in the finale, the moments of sincerity with Wyatt or Rufus, Spencer was embodying Lucy so well, she never once didn’t give us more than what meets the eye. She spoke consistently through it all doing what’s most respected and deserving of praise — she showed us more than she told us. Through Lucy’s journey, Spencer gave us poetry.
5. Rachel Brosnahan
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was an absolute gem, and Brosnahan was nothing short of genius, layering Midge with astounding wit and relatable emotions left and right. Whether it’s the masterful work in episode five’s “Midnight at the Concord” when Midge realizes her father’s sitting front row during her gig or the chaotic changes in the season finale, Brosnahan never stopped showing us greatness. There are a number of remarkable parts of Midge, perplexities, an unwavering will, utter goodness, and an inspiring form of self-love, and Brosnahan’s has put each of Midge’s emotions on display as a representation of what it truly means to be a woman in the late 50s. A woman with failures but one who never stops celebrating the bouts of success she has. A woman who’s trying so desperately to please those around her like she’s told she should, but simultaneously, a woman who’s chasing her own happiness. Brosnahan does a fine job of illuminating those very emotions and in the new season especially, she played on a growing version Midge with delicate changes to her demeanor and a new-found, comforting strength on the stage.
Honorable Mentions: Alex Borstein (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Teresa Palmer (A Discovery of Witches), Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Sterling K. Brown (This is Us), D’Arcy Carden (The Good Place), Malcolm Barrett (Timeless), America Ferrera (Superstore)
Who are your favorite performers of the season? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to check out TV Examined’s lists as well.