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The Best Child Actors on TV Right Now – IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Stranger Things" to "Better Things" and beyond, these young actors may not be grown up yet, but they bring adult-sized performances.

Olivia Edward, Alex Hibbert, and Marsai Martin

FX, Showtime, ABC

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Which child star is giving the best performance on TV today? (Must have appeared in a show that aired in 2017 or is about to air for midseason.)

Soraya Nadia McDonald (@SorayaMcDonald), The Undefeated

Alex Hibbert. The kids in “The Chi” are one of my favorite elements of the show, and Hibbert gives his performances a wonderful, innocent interiority that just draws you in. I was curious to see what his future would be like after “Moonlight.” I’m glad to see he’s playing a kid with normal, relatable kid-like problems (like having a schoolboy crush) while also taking on some serious challenges, again, by witnessing some of the worst aspects of humanity. “The Chi” has a really strong ensemble cast, and Hibbert stands out among veterans and newcomers alike.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

It’s more likely that people are aware of Mckenna Grace due to her recent film work, including a starring role in the Chris Evans drama “Gifted” and playing the younger Tonya Harding in Oscar contender “I, Tonya” (which led “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg to accurately observe her striking resemblance to Kiernan Shipka). But she’s also been working steadily in various TV roles over the last few years, including ABC’s “Designated Survivor.”

And honestly, “Designated Survivor” is a fascinating conundrum, because the quality of the show’s ensemble far exceeds its overall execution. So the fact that President Kiefer Sutherland’s young daughter is played by one of the most talented and natural young actresses currently working right now is both a bit frustrating and also pretty apt.

All that said, enjoying the work of a young actor is always tricky, because your most human instincts mean that all you want is for them to ultimately live a normal life, while also not losing the special quality that makes them fascinating on screen. May Mckenna Grace only act for as long as she wants, and stop when she wants to, and manage to grow up happy. May that be true for every other young actor mentioned in this article.

Ian Chen, "Fresh Off the Boat"

Ian Chen, “Fresh Off the Boat”

ABC

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

There are good answers to this question. Lots of them. One might justifiably honor all of the underaged actors on “Fresh Off the Boat,” but then the kids on “Speechless” or “Black-ish” might get jealous and I don’t want that. [And, let’s be real, I’d pick Marsai Martin, because otherwise Diane might seek revenge.] I also don’t want to have to choose between Olivia Edward, Hannah Alligood and Mikey Madison on “Better Things.” Holly Taylor on “The Americans” is probably too old for this list, but Keidrich Sellati isn’t and watch out for Henry as “The Americans” moves into its home stretch. Kiernan Shipka was great in “Feud” this past year, so she has to be in the conversation. All of those darned “Stranger Things” kids, but especially Millie Bobby Brown, should be mentioned. I’m hoping somebody else will mention Isabella Gomez from “One Day at a Time” (or that she was the instigation for this week’s question), because she deserves much recognition.

My answer, though, is going to be Susanna Skaggs, who joined the cast of “Halt and Catch Fire” in its final season and gave one of the best embodiments of teenage awkwardness I’ve ever seen on any screen. How much of Skaggs’ performance was a perfect use of a first-time actor on a show of spectacular performances that doubtlessly elevated her? Probably some. But that shouldn’t take away from the sheer number of times Skaggs made me cry in the last few “Halt” episodes, which she usually did with the most subtle and least manipulative of choices. I hope casting directors give me many chances to see if Susanna Skaggs is a real actor, or if she just gave one remarkable performance.

Susanna Skaggs as Haley Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 4, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Bob Mahoney/AMC

Susanna Skaggs, “Halt and Catch Fire”

Bob_Mahoney/AMC

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

I don’t normally like children on TV shows. Maybe it’s from years of watching soaps, where they were either killed off so their teeny toddler hearts could be transplanted into a dying uncle-slash-international spy or they aged faster than guacamole that’s been left out and became 20-year-old hunks over the course of a summer. Or maybe it’s because kids are used mostly for storyline complications or catchy t-shirt phrases than actual characters. Whatever it is, connecting to a performance by someone with a curfew has always been a problem for me, but I have to say that I absolutely adore Jack Stanton as Ben Pemberton on “The Mick.” By giving little Ben a vague penchant for violence and pyromania, the writers have so smartly layered in hints of a young Patrick Bateman that clash with Stanton’s sometimes clueless angel-face eagerness. And Stanton’s ability to hold his own with the adult cast — most notably star Kaitlin Olson and Carla Jimenez’s Alba, whom Ben once attempted to exorcise — has led to several storylines being built around his character that could have easily been handed to Thomas Barbusca, who, if we’re talking great kid performers, is another absolute scream as Ben’s older and shrewishly entitled brother Chip.

"The Chi"

“The Chi”

Showtime

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

This is a much more complicated question than it seems. First, there’s the obvious answers; the kid cast from “Stranger Things,” especially Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, deserve an awards show all their own for playing characters who feel like authentic kids but are also capable of kicking butt in the show’s fantastical stories. Likewise, “Young Sheldon’s” Ian Armitage is note-perfect as the 9-year-old version of “Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper — cute enough to sell the jokes, but not so cute you get sick of him. And Atticus Shaffer is awesome as Brick on ABC’s “The Middle,” but he’s actually 19 years old playing much younger, so I don’t think he qualifies, anymore.

Instead, I want to shout out a few under the radar picks. Marsai Martin is on point as Diane Johnson on “Black-ish”; adeptly playing a kid so smart she’s 10 steps ahead of everyone in the house, especially the adults. Sterling K. Brown deserves all the awards show love he’s getting, but Lonnie Chavis kills it every week playing the middle school-aged version of Brown’s character, Randall Pearson, on “This Is Us” (and he was similarly great as Jay Pharoah’s young son on Showtime’s “White Famous”). And Alex Hibbert, who turned heads as a young version of the protagonist Chiron in “Moonlight,” is doing similarly awesome work playing Kevin, an 8th grader growing up on the troubled streets of Chicago’s South Side, on Showtime’s “The Chi.” There’s enough amazing youngsters out there, Emmy should think about adding an under-13 category.

Marsai Martin and Miles Brown, "Black-ish"

Marsai Martin and Miles Brown, “Black-ish”

ABC

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

Remember when kid actors just showed up, said their stupid catchphrase, and then fluttered their eyelashes and that was child acting? No more! These days, the little munchkins have to actually act with depth and range and be more than just props because we demand more from our television. Two performances by kiddos in 2017 definitely stood out as real acting to me: Iain Armitage in “Big Little Lies” and Noah Schnapp in “Stranger Things.” Even with A-listers producing Emmy reels all over “Big Little Lies,” I’d argue the most emotional scenes in the series were between Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Ziggy (Armitage) as they chatted about bullying and secrets. Schnapp had the challenge of being the forgotten friend as Will Byers was barely in Season 1 but was a focal point of Season 2, and he did everything the Duffer Brothers asked him to and then some (the rest of the kids had it easy compared to Schnapp). And for mainstays, you can always add “Black-ish’s” Marsai Martin and “Odd Squad’s” Millie Davis and Peyton Kennedy (who can be seen in Netflix’s upcoming “Everything Sucks!”) to this list. Well, until we realize they’re not kids anymore and we’ve gotten really old.

"Stranger Things"

“Stranger Things”

Netflix

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

The challenge in answering this question isn’t a lack of candidates. We’re definitely in Peak TV Child Actor, and I could throw darts at photos of the many kids on ABC family sitcoms, or Sam Fox’s kids from “Better Things,” or the “Stranger Thing” cast, and hit someone terrific. And that’s leaving out the many terrific kid characters played by actors who are at least of voting age (Holly Taylor on “The Americans,” Maisie Williams in “Game of Thrones,” Jimmy Tatro in “American Vandal,” or Isabella Gomez on “One Day at a Time”), if not middle age (Nick Kroll and friends in “Big Mouth”). The challenge is pulling one out and saying they’re clearly head and shoulders above their many juvenile counterparts in the way that, say, Kiernan Shipka was back in the “Mad Men” days.

Isabella Gomez and Justina Machado, "One Day at a Time"

Isabella Gomez and Justina Machado, “One Day at a Time”

Michael Yarish / Netflix

But if I have to pick just one, I’ll crib from Dan Fienberg and take Susanna Skaggs, who was such a revelation as the teenage Haley Clark in the final season of “Halt and Catch Fire.” Here’s one of the great dramatic ensembles in recent memory, whom the audience has come to know and care deeply about over the previous three seasons, and suddenly a good chunk of time is being devoted to a version of Gordon and Donna’s younger daughter whom we’ve never met, played by an actress with literally no other screen credits? And she’s so raw and vulnerable that, by the end, Haley’s happiness has zoomed to the top of the list of things fans most want to see at the end of the series? That’s something. She’s incredible, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of Skaggs.

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

My first thought, as is usually the case when talking about child stars and pretty much anything ever, is of Josh Jackson. I am a woman in her 30s, after all. But the question isn’t about former child stars who are still acting, so I will set Josh aside here (but not in my heart) and instead shine a light on the young women of “Better Things.” Mikey Madison, who plays Sam’s (Pamela Adlon) eldest daughter, is too old to actually qualify for this question (though she perfectly captures a young woman on the verge of adulthood in her performance), but Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward, who play Frankie and Duke, respectively, are two incredible young performers. The range they show week in and week out as they embody the emotionally compelling stories of the Fox family never fails to move me. I don’t know why I am constantly surprised by any of this though; “Better Things” is one of the best shows currently on TV, and the performances are some of the biggest reasons why.

Olivia Edward and Pamela Adlon, "Better Things"

Olivia Edward and Pamela Adlon, “Better Things”

FX

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

I bet most will say “Young Sheldon” star Iain Armitage who plays “The Big Bang Theory” Sheldon as a child. He is naturally sweet and precocious and not at all affected like some child actors can be. But my top pick has to go to FX “Better Things” star Olivia Edward who is cast as Pamela Adlon’s character Sam’s youngest daughter, Duke.

Her old soul is an anchor for them all. All the ups, downs and raucously absurd truisms of life that the show portrays, the hard haul that all women have to put up with and navigate throughout life, from Duke’s young age to that of her grandmother Phyl played by Celia Imrie. Olivia just nails it without any overacting. Her character Duke is like an adorable, big brown-eyed baby Rosetta stone that keeps Sam centered in fractious family times.

My favorite first season moments between Duke and Sam had to be when Duke’s Mormon friend (Sarah Baker played the mother) was introduced in “Duke’s Chorus” and the finale of that season with Sam and her daughters singing as Sam was driving and we see Duke squeeze her mother’s hand as Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” played on the radio. The second season Olivia just slayed me in every episode, especially in “Euology” where Sam’s girls realize how much they love and need their mother who they eulogize in a mock funeral after Frankie (Hannah Alligood) has dismissed a show where her mother starred in, upsetting Sam. That episode was mondo emotional, man… Niagara friggin’ falls.

Olivia Edward is one year older than Iain Armitage, and I think both of these excellent actors will be in many wonderful things to come over the years.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

I’m not sure my real answer — Holly Taylor from “The Americans” — counts, because she’s in college, which would suggest she’s no longer a kid. And while there are tons of great child performances on TV right now, from any number of ABC comedies, to “Stranger Things,” to “This Is Us,” to some Disney Channel thing I’ve never seen (but is probably just great), my mind keeps turning toward the three young performers of FX’s “Better Things,” and specifically Hannah Alligood as middle daughter Frankie. Frankie is navigating the inherent confusion of adolescence, while still trying like hell to be a strong, stable center for her family — and often flailing in the process. Alligood’s performance is a very small one, but there’s something perfect about the way she essays a young person trying to figure out the contents of her own head, while also trying to better understand the family that made her this way in the first place.

Hannah Alligood, "Better Things"

Hannah Alligood, “Better Things”

FX

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Listen, I’m not a big fan of “Stranger Things,” but since Kyle Allen (“The Path”), Holly Taylor (“The Americans”), and Tara Lynne Barr (“Casual”) are all older than the teenagers they play, I’m just going to give one more shout of admiration to Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair  — ha! You thought I was going to pick Millie Bobby Brown. Well, sorry. If I was going to make an objective choice, it would have been Iain Armitage. But Sinclair’s work simply cannot be denied:

Stranger Things 2 - Erica Nerd sister

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “The Good Place” (five votes)

Other contenders: “Counterpart” (two votes) and “High Maintenance,” “The Magicians,” and “Vikings” (one vote each and one abstention)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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