While storytelling is something we value deeply in the shows we watch, we often look to the key actors of these narratives as one of their ultimate signs of success. Some of our favorite shows thus far this year have owed so much to some staggering acting work. With two inevitable exceptions, we limited this overview to one performance per show, one role per actor. But there was some incredible range to be found in that work, which makes us excited for what the rest of 2017 has in store.
Gillian Anderson, “American Gods”
The way that Gillian Anderson, a pop culture icon in her own right, managed to embody famous figures like David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe went well beyond imitation. Each vision we got of Media left us chilled and unsettled thanks to Anderson’s mastery over her gift, building layers upon layers in channeling characters who could have easily come off as cliché. Anderson doesn’t often get the opportunity to show us the full scope of her range, but “American Gods” was a wonderful exception.
There’s a scene in “The Leftovers” series finale in which Nora, Carrie Coon’s long-suffering former fraud investigator, shuts her bathroom door, draws herself a bath, and… then she can’t get out. She’s trapped. She wrestles with the knob, bangs on the giant wooden barrier, and then throws herself against it with all her might.
It works. She breaks through, and that’s the point. The scene is meant, largely, to symbolize Nora’s breakthrough; that she wants to see her long lost love, Kevin (Justin Theroux), despite claims to the contrary. But what makes the scene work is Coon. It’s a moment of comedic absurdity amid a tragically romantic storyline, and Coon hits all the right notes. It’s reminiscent of when she flipped out on a parking barrier in Episode 2 and then went directly to her friend’s house to talk (and take a few bounces on a trampoline).
Coon finds the truth in every moment, no matter how ridiculous, no matter how unbelievable. It’s what makes her closing speech so powerful, and it’s what makes Nora Durst one of the best characters of the 21st century. Coon understood the humanity of her role long before anyone could see past her darkness, and that guiding light made the journey to serenity immeasurably satisfying.
Rupert Friend, “Homeland”
After taking the appropriate amount of time to grieve, we’ve come to the following conclusion: Rupert Friend’s “Homeland” swan song was a two-season affair. Perhaps Quinn really did die in Season 5, and Season 6 was just how Carrie (Claire Danes) had to say goodbye, with her one-time love living in her home, halfway to death’s door. She indeed got him the rest of the way, to a hero’s end. But while she did that for Quinn, Friend carried him throughout it all; through the reign of the Drone Queen to the heartbreak of losing Carrie all over again; through a brutal, infamous poisoning to wandering into drug dens with prostitutes. Quinn’s journey was long and complicated, but Friend found honesty and power in every grave choice and dangerous situation. The physicality alone demands respect, and Friend made us feel for Quinn more than we ever expected — no matter when you said goodbye.
Kathryn Hahn, “I Love Dick”
It’s so easy for a performance to be dominated by a single emotion, something that makes Hahn’s starring role as Chris in “I Love Dick” all the more impressive. It’s a character that’s dealing with raging desire, crippling frustration, and all-consuming obsession, and Hahn plays all sides of that internal tug-of-war with equal ease. As Chris’ life gets yanked in multiple directions, Hahn somehow keeps her grounded in a fierce, intense drive toward self preservation. It’s hard to be hopelessly in love with an idea of a person, much less the person themself. But this is a performance that shows us why it’s a fundamental driver of what makes compelling drama in real life and in fictional versions of it. There’s an intense physicality to Hahn’s approach, too. It’s not just in the emotions that she betrays, it’s in the way that they take over every bit of movement and stillness. As a result, Chris becomes a character you can easily build an entire town around.
Neil Patrick Harris, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”
Playing multiple roles is one thing, but playing one character deliberately embodying multiple characters, all while trying to match a very strange and specific tone, is a unique challenge for any actor. Fortunately, Neil Patrick Harris proved more than up for it, making each of his many forms distinct but unified by his villainous desires. His twisting eyebrows and sly looks sold every quasi-absurd moment of the series. “A Series of Unfortunate Events” owes a lot to the look and feel sculpted by director Barry Sonnenfeld, but without actors like Harris selling it, it’d be nothing.
Damson Idris, “Snowfall”
Sneaking in just under the wire is a performance worthy of “The Wire’s” excellent young cast. 26-year-old Idris leads an impressive ensemble with the confidence and poise of someone twice his age. And while his accent work is so spot on that we can’t pick out the transplant from southeast London from a group of kids from the south side of L.A., it only speaks to how relaxed, inviting, and empathetic his performance becomes. Only one episode of “Snowfall” has aired, but we’ve seen enough of Idris to know he’s good for the long haul.
Sanaa Lathan, “Shots Fired”
We’ve seen hardass cops before. We’ve seen hardass lady cops before. But we haven’t seen Ashe Akino before, not the way Sanaa Lathan portrayed her in Fox’s limited series, “Shots Fired.” Constantly pulled between a far away family conflict and the immediate issues in the North Carolina town she’s been sent, Lathan knew when to not give a shit and when to dig in deep. Her priorities were so in line it made her all the more engaging, as she bonded with her ambitious new partner and busted heads of bad guys. It was an ideal turn for broadcast TV: fun enough to earn fans and challenging enough to push them to think deeper.
Jude Law – “The Young Pope”
Jude Law had already taken unexpected roles in the past, and as IndieWire’s Anne Thompson points out, has transitioned from golden boy leading man to bold character actor with varying success. Nevertheless, Law vanquishes all of our expectations with the role of Lenny Belardo, the first-ever American pope in Paolo Sorrentino’s playful TV masterpiece. Good-looking yet inscrutable, Lenny as Pope Pius XIII oozes a distinct kind of charm, tinged with dangerous condemnation. Law is able to completely sell this brash and overweening fellow before pivoting to reveal a deep vulnerability, indecision and humility. Law trusted in Sorrentino blindly, and it paid off with one of the most complex and yet passionately alive characters on TV. He’s painfully soulful and electric all at once, and through Law’s performance we are now believers that if anyone had a direct line to God through prayer, it would be Lenny with his goddamned smile.
Continued on the next page: The rest of our picks, including cast members from “Doctor Who,” “Better Call Saul” and “Veep”