The 17 Best TV Performances of 2017

With 2017’s television offerings in the books, we count down the best performances of the year. From American Gods to Stranger Things and everything in between.

The Television Renaissance is upon us. Both veterans and new talent are just as likely to star in tv series as films, and acting quality is better than ever. Of course, that also means that we’re up to our necks in top-shelf performances — it’s impossible to see everything that’s worthwhile, let alone everything that’s promising. So what’s a list-maker to do? Stick to the shows they’ve seen and can write about with authority, and pray no one complains that their favorite is missing.

With that in mind, these are my personal picks for the best tv performances of 2017.

17. Betty Gilpin as Audrey Burton in American Gods

Betty Gilpin’s best performance this year is a woman whose husband cheats on her with her best friend. And no, I’m not talking about her role in GLOW. At first glance, Audrey in American Gods is a more tragic, less examined version of her GLOW counterpart, but the shortened screen time and heightened stakes (Audrey’s husband and best friend die while having sex) push her performance to something much more visceral. If American Gods has a consistent weak point, it’s a stilted script that the actors stumble over, causing the lines to sometimes come out as wooden. But where others stumble, Gilpin soars, injecting her brief screen time with raw grief, bitterness, and confusion that’s as shockingly funny as it is real. She easily steals every scene she’s in.

16. Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones

Diana Rigg is in exactly one scene of this year’s Game of Thrones, but it’s a big one and it’s her last. Rigg has always been a marvel as the sharp, pragmatic matriarch of House Tyrell, at ease in the thick of the intrigue and not squeamish about the practicalities of power. Yet her final scene shows her left with nothing — her House has been conquered, her grandchildren are dead. Even at her lowest point, however, she’s in top form, securing a painless death and twisting the knife into the Lannisters as hard as she can. It’s a beautiful scene that Rigg performs flawlessly, marking the end to her excellent tenure on the show.

15. Joe Gilgun as Cassidy in Preacher

Preacher hasn’t gotten much critical acclaim this year, but it’s dear to my heart and deserving of more praise than it gets. One particularly strong aspect of its second season is the performance of Joe Gilgun as Cassidy. As a hard-living, hard-partying vampire who’s charmed and abandoned friends and family for the past hundred-odd years, Gilgun is the only one for the job. (Different accent aside, it can be hard to distinguish him from his character in interviews). But while the second season still embraces Cassidy’s wildness, it gives him much more opportunity to emote and become human. Gilgun rises to the challenge and, I would argue, steals the whole show. He is the star of Preacher in my book.

14. Tatiana Maslany as pretty much everyone in Orphan Black

The best part of Orphan Black has always been Tatiana Maslany, whose performances as a slew of human clones are so good that I can’t count the number of times I’ve forgotten they’re all the same actor. This is the year the show finally came to a close, ending on a note of optimism and family that the characters seriously deserve after five seasons of stress. Maslany has demonstrated her range and capabilities so handily over these five years that it’s hard to imagine her not dominating her next role. It will be awfully strange seeing only one of her, but I’m still looking forward to it.

13. Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang in GLOW

GLOW has so many characters it can be hard to keep track of them all, and at only ten half-hour episodes, some of them get lost in the shuffle. Perhaps the most critically underplayed is Sydelle Noel’s Cherry Bang. Cherry starts off strong, with a past tragedy and a mysterious familiarity with Sam, the show’s director. Noel plays her with a strength and sincerity that shines through the mass of then-nameless characters. After the first few episodes, she’s more or less forgotten, though. If there’s any justice she’ll get more screen time in the already-announced season 2.

12. Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper in Mindhunter

I did not like Mindhunter. I just couldn’t get into it. But by God, I finished it, and what mostly kept me going were Cameron Britton’s scenes as the delightfully plainspoken and friendly serial (sorry, sequence) killer Ed Kemper. Britton’s imposing size and appearance, when he’s first introduced, are obviously deliberately misleading. But his demeanor, at once solicitous and laid back, overcomes it instantly. There is no attempt at camp, at a sneaky psychosis behind the eyes. This is a man who knows what he’s about and is comfortable with it. His understated performance is an excellent lead-up to the satisfyingly spooky final scene and, frankly, one of the only aspects of the show that I found enjoyable.

11. Sean Astin as Bob Newby in Stranger Things 2

Is Sean Astin actually Bob Newby? It’s entirely possible. Part dweeb, part sexual being (that closet makeout sesh!), all hero, Bob is what happens when sweet, well-adjusted nerds grow up. And Astin embodies him perfectly. He’s been heralded (by me) as the New Barb, which is both a blessing and a curse. Those implications aside, Bob is a fantastic character, and Astin’s performance is so easy and believable that thoughts of Samwise Gamgee never even crossed my mind as I watched.

10. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in The Deuce

The Deuce never managed to grab me, but I can’t deny that it’s splendidly made. Its production value and casting are both exceptionally high-quality, and it delivers some fabulous performances. The real standout is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy, a prostitute determined to keep her independence and courted incessantly both by pimps and the niceties of a “respectable” life. Gyllenhaal shines at the center of these forces, breaking down in moments of exhaustion alone in her home, with others when their backs are turned, and even out in the open when there’s nowhere to hide. Each moment is unique in its level of privacy and what it means to Candy’s struggle, and Gyllenhaal handles them masterfully.

9. Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright in Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies is full of sterling and upsettingly real performances, but none more so than Nicole Kidman’s. Celeste Wright, Kidman’s beautiful, elegant ex-attorney, has an outwardly perfect life marred by her husband’s controlling and violent abuse, which she’s so adept at hiding that she’s buried it even from herself. Kidman is remarkable at portraying the simultaneous jumpiness and blitheness of someone who’s at the same time terrified and in denial. And her performance in the opening scene of the final episode is so shockingly true and alarming, it’s nearly impossible to watch.

8. John Reynolds as Drew Gardner in Search Party

Search Party is a real ensemble piece, but in a show that so prizes its outrageous characters, Drew stands out as relatively “normal.” John Reynolds was fabulous in the first season with his understated worry and lack of enthusiasm, the quiet foil to Elliott and Portia’s superficiality and Dory’s increasing mania. That season ended with two enormous and irreversible changes to Drew’s life, and the new one follows his struggle to keep up the normalcy he craves in increasingly bizarre and risky ways. Reynolds’ wonderful low-key quality is alive and well, but changed, conveying a lovely determination and disbelief in his own actions with each new insane decision he makes.

7. D’Arcy Carden as Janet in The Good Place

The Good Place is another true ensemble piece without a single weak link. Every character is a thrill to watch, each for their own distinct reasons. But D’Arcy Carden really stands out as Janet, the afterlife’s omniscient computerized personal assistant. Carden is fabulous, delivering blunt, sometimes catastrophic news with a chipper smile and imitating human behavior to hilarious effect. Even in this relentless comedy, she is consistently the funniest.

6. Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney in American Gods

Mad Sweeney is one of American Gods‘ more nuanced and developed characters, in no small part because he gets so much comparative screen time. In the show’s mere eight episodes he embarks on a spiritual journey most of the others don’t get a chance at, and Pablo Schreiber runs with it. He’s a joy to watch as a small-time god who exults in violence and cheap tricks, but past the first episode, he evolves into something much sadder and more profound, a lost soul who’s past his prime and at odds with himself. Schreiber is especially lovely in “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” an episode about his ancient journey to America and his current attempt at redemption, which he rages toward in spite of himself.

5. Jimmy Tatro as Dylan Maxwell in American Vandal

I first saw Jimmy Tatro five years ago in the not-safe-for-work video Shit Frat Guys Say. About 10 seconds into his part on American Vandal, I knew the role was in perfect hands. Tatro has “dumb bro” down to a science, and it seems he’s spent the past five years honing his craft. But where the YouTube video plays out its joke in just a couple minutes, the new Netflix series lets you see the person behind the idiot, and it’s obvious that Tatro is capable of real emotional range. Just as the show sneaks up on you, luring you in with the promise of parody and slamming you with depth, Tatro’s Dylan lures you in with a perfect caricature and tricks you into caring about him in ways you never expected.

4. Alia Shawkat as Dory Sief in Search Party

There’s a change in mood between seasons one and two of Search Party, and that change is best demonstrated by Alia Shawkat’s performance as its protagonist, Dory Sief. The Dory of the first season was driven, excited, and more than a little manic. This new Dory, coming to terms with the gravity of her situation, is haunted, despairing, and more lost than ever. But that mania is still there. It edges in throughout the season as Dory desperately tries to keep her life afloat, and as it takes over, so does the thrill that we saw last year. Shawkat does a phenomenal job balancing these qualities, garnering both compassion and contempt in such quick succession that it’s impossible to know where you stand with her, all the way to the end.

3. William Jackson Harper as Chidi Anagonye in The Good Place

With a superb cast, a completely original premise, and the audacity to do an entire episode about the Trolley Problem on prime-time network tv, The Good Place is one of the best shows around. But they could throw it all away and I’d still watch, as long as I got to see William Jackson Harper’s silent reaction shots. Harper’s Chidi is a little hapless and a little sad, but his quiet (and usually ignored) outrage and disbelief at the people around him is at once adorable, sad, and profoundly funny. His timing, often of just of a mouth drop or a widening of the eyes, is impeccable. And his moments of joy, though infrequent, are almost unbearably sweet. I never thought a man proclaiming his love to a soft boiled egg would have a profound effect on me. And then I watched The Good Place.

2. Aubrey Plaza as Lenny Busker in Legion

I’d be lying if I said I understood the hype over Legion. It was FSR’s number 1 show of the year. It was my number 12. But one thing I can get firmly behind is the hype over Audrey Plaza’s performance as Lenny, David Haller’s best friend/tormentor/parasite/who knows. Living mostly in Haller’s mind and memories, Plaza goes through a myriad of transformations throughout the season as his understanding of her changes and her power grows. She runs the gamut from quirky friend to real monster with style and panache, and she manages to be truly terrifying and impossible to look away from.

1. Noah Schnapp as Will Byers in Stranger Things 2

Stranger Things may have dropped the ball sacrificing Barb to the Upside Down, but the best thing they ever did was get Will Byers back in Hawkins and back on screen. Noah Schnapp spent most of season one looking wet and cold and not much else, but season two gives him a chance to shine. And shine he does. The Stranger Things kids are already a cut above most child actors, but Schnapp is something else. He portrays a beautiful, eerie balance between a frightened kid and the monster lurking inside him — all the season’s moments of genuine horror come from him. And at only 13, he shows a truly precocious acting ability that I can’t wait to see develop. Thank God he’s not still trapped in that wall.

Liz Baessler: @@LizBaessler Liz has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands.