TV

Our Favorite 2020 Television Performances

Great performances come in all shapes and sizes, big and loud or small and understated or anything in between. It’s more of a feel thing. A great performance just jumps off the screen. It’s hard to put into words but you can tell when it’s happening because it leaves you transfixed, eyes glued to the action, watching each little movement and hanging on every word that gets delivered. It’s fun when it happens, when all the stars align between performer and role and writing. You should try to recognize it whenever you can.

So, that’s what we’re doing. We’re recognizing some of the best performances on television in 2020. We’ve got huge lead roles and smaller supporting roles and even a cartoon voice role. Again, a great performance can pop up anywhere. Here are some of the ones that excited us throughout this year

Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul

AMC

It’s not exactly a secret at this point but it’s still worth saying, out loud, with gusto, for the benefit of the people in the back row and the Emmy voters: Rhea Seehorn is putting in work on Better Call Saul. Every episode, too, surrounded by heavy-hitter Breaking Bad veterans like Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk. She’s the heart and soul of the show at this point, to the degree that the biggest question of the show has evolved from “When does Jimmy become Saul?” into “WHAT HAPPENS TO KIM WEXLER?” Some of that is the writing, yes, sure, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan are pretty good at this, too. But the weight of the character is on her shoulders and she’s been hauling it around pretty good for a few seasons now, finger guns and all. — Brian Grubb

Jurnee Smollett Bell, Lovecraft Country

HBO

Jurnee Smollet Bell had a hell of a year, and while her Birds of Prey performance – particularly that hair-tie moment in the film’s climactic fight scene – will always hold a special place in our hearts, it’s about damn time we talk about her other starring turn, this time on the small screen. Sure, Jonathan Majors was the obvious protagonist of HBO’s genre-bending Lovecraft Country. His Tic is heir to a magical inheritance that puts him on a collision course with monsters and witchcraft and time-travel devices and racist poltergeists. But it’s Bell’s Lettie, a young woman chafing at the prejudice and limitations put on her by society – even by those she loves most – that feels like the true hero of the show’s first season and that’s due, in large part, to the performance of the person playing her. Bell captures Lettie’s anger and frustration, but she never lets it command the whole of what the character is, bringing a compassionate, courageous side to Lettie that proves to be the lynchpin of the show’s bittersweet ending. And that Beyonce-channeling car-bashing scene? That will be living in our minds rent-free for years to come. — Jessica Toomer

Ethan Hawke, The Good Lord Bird

SHOWTIME

Do yourself a serious favor and indulge in this fire-spewing performance, and be amazed when you remember that Ethan Hawke specialized in playing slackers back in the 1990s before moving onto romantic leads and so much more. He does it all too well, as evidenced by four Oscar nominations, but he damn well deserves an Emmy nod for his portrayal of loose-cannon abolitionist John Brown. It’s an unusually brash turn from Hawke, who I’m still convinced prepared for this by playing horror protagonists who lose their sh*t. He’s also adept at taking his audience along with him, that they, too, lose their sh*t. It’s a blast to watch people lose their sh*t and share in the communal sh*t-losing experience, right? Well, you can’t go to the movies now, but you can enjoy Hawke burning so brightly that he’s incandescent. It’s clear that he had a blast playing a controversial figure of U.S. history, and his showy and forceful turn cannot be downplayed. What’s super telling about the John Brown role is that it was envisioned for Jeff Bridges, but after watching the series, it’s impossible to imagine another actor as such a ridiculously behaved but good-hearted character, who set some wheels in motion to ignite the Civil War. It’s a hell of a portrayal, and Hawke should scoop up all the awards for this his embodiment of an imposing, intense, and invaluable figure like John freaking Brown. — Kimberly Ricci

Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You

HBO/BBC One

As creator, writer, and star of one of our Best Shows of 2020, Michaela Coel told a story that landed from a perspective — a rape survivor who’s not singularly defined by her trauma — that we seldom see in any entertainment medium. We definitely haven’t seen a triple threat like Michaela also step into leading actress shoes to work out her own closure with alternate endings that allowed her to fully process that trauma and let it go. As Arabella, Michaela managed to throw off both relatable and aspirational vibes while unapologetically dancing through an exploration of sexual consent that should have felt uncomfortable to watch, but Michaela kept things so candid that viewers got sucked into the narrative without a second thought. As an actress, too, her performance was absolutely sublime, including that frenetic finale where Arabella took back her power. I truly can’t wait to see what the Chewing Gum star will do next. — Kimberly Ricci

Donald Sutherland, The Undoing

HBO

I haven’t decided if this is a note in praise of Donald Sutherland’s performance in The Undoing or his eyebrows’ performance in that show. I guess they are technically one and the same. Certainly, the eyebrows, chaotic and overlong, had a hand in our view of Sutherland’s character. They might be 75% responsible for our belief that he was some kind of secret villain. (The rest being attributed to Donald Sutherland’s many, many villainous turns across his career). But overall, I guess the untamed forehead caterpillars (and our preconceived notions based on Sutherland’s past works) stand out as items in the toolbox of a master character actor who shined in the periphery of a show about murder, infamy, and fine winter jackets. So protective was he of his daughter that we imagined the possibilities. So devious his grin that we wondered if he had a connection to the victim. So surgical in its intimidation was his breakdown of the word “cocksucker” that we believed those eyebrows might reach out and grab that private school dean and hold him up by the lapels, shaking him until he caved. An awards-worthy performance. The eyebrows, all of it. — Jason Tabrys

Salvatore Esposito, Fargo

FX

I will concede that Salvatore Esposito’s performance in Fargo was not for everyone. As Gaetano Fadda, the large ornery rhinoceros son of the local mob boss, he was all exaggerated movements and bulging eyes. It was something to see. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone go that big every single second he was on screen. It was borderline theatrical, almost like a silent film actor had been plopped into the action and given lines. I could not have loved it more. Look at that GIF up there. Look at his entire face. It was transfixing, a performance that filled the whole screen, from corner to corner. It wouldn’t work on every show, but it worked in this one, for me, which is the important thing. — Brian Grubb

The entire cast of The Baby-Sitters Club

Netflix

All I knew about The Baby-Sitters Club before watching the Netflix adaptation is that it was about babysitters, and they have a club. The beloved book series was not part of my rotation as a kid (I was too busy reading Goosebumps for the 12th time, or whatever), but the reviews for the series were surprisingly strong, so I gave it a shot. I recommend you do the same: The Baby-Sitters Club is one of the more low-key progressive and entertaining shows this year. And much of its undeniable charm is due to the show’s young cast: Sophie Grace as bossy Kristy Thomas; Momona Tamada as artistic Claudia Kishi; Shay Rudolph as exquisitely-dressed Stacey McGill; Malia Baker as shy Mary Anne Spier; and Xochitl Gomez as zenful Dawn Schafer. They are a delight, as is the show. — Josh Kurp

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, High Fidelity

HULU

I am really mad, still, months later, that Hulu canceled its take on High Fidelity after one season. Part of that is because it was good, surprisingly so, in a fun and charming way that twisted the original about 40 degrees to the left and updated it for the present day. A bigger part of it is because season two was allegedly going to focus more on Cherise, the character played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and I really wanted to see that. She was so good in the role, a brash and loud exterior serving as armor for a vulnerable soul, strutting through the record store as “Come On Eileen” blasted over the speakers, the whole thing. It’s tough to land that kind of performance, to make it resonate without becoming a caricature. She pulled it off, though, well, throughout the entire season. And now I’m mad because I won’t get to see where it goes next. Happy I got to see it at all, sure, but still a little mad for the appropriate reasons. — Brian Grubb

Jessie Buckley, Fargo

FX

This was, I am sad to admit, not my favorite season of Fargo. Still good! But not the best… unless Jessie Buckley was on screen. She was the spark that lit season 4. Buckley played Oraetta Mayflower, an articulate nurse who ignores the first two words in the “do no harm” oath, with a devilish slyness — she’ll charm you with her Minnesota niceness, while shushing you for making too much noise while you’re choking on the floor from her poisoned macaroons. The good nurse (in that she’s good at sadism) is simultaneously funny and chilling, like the best Fargo characters. Oraetta Mayflower and Lorne Malvo would make quite the pair.

The last two years have been big ones for Buckley: she broke out in 2019 with performances in HBO’s Chernobyl and Wild Rose, and she kept the momentum going in 2020 with Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (one of our favorite movies of the year) and Fargo. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Buckley on this list next year, too, dontcha know? — Josh Kurp

Anya Taylor Joy, The Queen’s Gambit

Netflix

I’m not entirely sure Anya-Taylor Joy is human. Not after watching her performance in Netflix’s surprise hit miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit. There’s an otherness to her and her siren-like stare as she shakes down grown men from across a checkered battlefield that feels uncanny, a bit other-worldly. Whatever spell she’s casting, it works for Beth Harmon, the orphaned chess-prodigy she brings to life in Scott Frank’s latest outing. Not only does she confidently mop the floor with egotistical men who underestimate her playing prowess because of her age and gender, she’s able to convey the inner-turmoil of a woman battling addiction and remnants of parental neglect, often just with a penetrating gaze or carefully-timed glance. She’s quiet, stealthy in her command of the screen, drawing everyone into her orbit by leaning into Beth’s strangeness, her anti-social attitude and untouchable genius. The show just doesn’t work if Joy can’t tap into that, while also making an ancient board game seem exciting and fresh. Thankfully, she’s more than up to the challenge. — Jessica Toomer

Josh O’Connor, The Crown

Netflix

We know Prince Charles, or we think we do thanks to decades of tabloid reporting. But Josh O’Connor made him come to life, drawing compassion from us at the start for his life in a plush cage. As a teenager last season, Charles had grand ideas about who he was and how he’d bend the world to accommodate that. I wanted that for him despite knowing the inevitable turn would come. And this season we saw it as The Crown mined the details and speculation of Charles and Princess Diana’s burnt fairytale with O’Connor rising to the occasion as Charles grew up and into the role of royal brat and bastard. A remarkable journey that I would have loved to see continue if not for the addition of god damn Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) to takeover the role next season. — Jason Tabrys

Maya Rudolph, Big Mouth

Netflix

It feels like cheating to put Maya Rudolph on here for her voice work on Big Mouth. It’s so straightforward, so obvious, like, yeah, no duh, Maya Rudolph is good as Hormone Monstress Connie, with all of her pronunciations and inflections and big brassy line readings. Everyone knows that. We could just put her on this list every time a new season of the show comes out. And guess what: We might just do that! Sometimes things are obvious because they’re just undeniably true, facts, like “the ocean is very large and wet.” But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth saying sometimes. Let’s go ahead and say it. Maya Rudolph is terrific in Big Mouth, all the time. There. That felt good, right? — Brian Grubb

Robert Sheehan, The Umbrella Academy

Netflix

This guy’s such a delightful weirdo that one might assume that playing a delightful weirdo like Klaus Hargreeves would come naturally. Well, if so, then Robert Sheehan’s even more talented than I’ll give him credit for, which is a lot. He pulls off the most tortured superhero sibling who’s not only tormented by the dead, but one of them is his brother, Ben, who no one else can see. So when Klaus and Ben end up fighting in the street, and we see a tremendous instance of physical comedy by Sheehan, who’s tasked with essentially fighting himself to all who pass by and witness. He then seamlessly transitions into a few other incarnations over the course of the season. One of them is heartbreaking: Klaus suffering a homophobic attack and finding refuge in a liquor store, so bye-bye sobriety. The other is wonderfully comical: Klaus transforms into a doomsday cult leader who soars through time. Overall, it’s a nuanced performance that’s gallantly portrayed by a gregarious Irishman who clearly adores his character, all in the service of halting another apocalypse. — Kimberly Ricci

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