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The 16 Best Breakthrough TV Performances of 2016

From stars of "The People v. O.J." to "The Girlfriend Experience," these actors made us sit up and take notice, elevating already intriguing shows to even greater heights this year.

Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward on "Better Things"

Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward on “Better Things”

Jessica Brooks/FX


Riz Ahmed, “The Night Of”

The British actor had a small role in “Nightcrawler” on the big screen, but he makes a huge splash on HBO’s anthology drama as Nasir “Naz” Khan, the young man whose night out with a captivating woman goes awry when he discovers her stabbed and he’s accused of her murder. Ahmed is hypnotic in his stillness and silences, but one look at his expressive eyes, and it’s clear that Naz is taking everything in as he learns to navigate the world of prison politics and legal strategy. One can’t help to root for him because he’s clearly innocent… isn’t he? Therein lies Ahmed’s genius, his ability to play both sides so that the viewer oscillates between sympathy and dread that we have gotten it wrong. We can’t wait to see what he does in the Star Wars universe for “Rogue One.”

READ MORE: The Top 10 Shows of 2016 

Kyle Allen, “The Path”

It’s never easy to play a teenager. It’s even harder to play one when you’re surrounded by adults. Budding adolescence brings with it a flourish of ever-changing emotions, making it easy for an audience to dislike “that crazy hormonal teen.” Overcoming these challenges alone makes Allen’s breakthrough performance exactly that: a revelation specific to finding another great actor among a pack of established legends. Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, and Hugh Dancy have already left their mark on television (and continue to do so), but Allen walked the line between the odd kid out at public school and an authentic teen trying to figure his life out in a complicated (and isolated) world. Oh, and for another wrench in the wheels, he’s playing a Meyerist, a cult / movement that worships an all-seeing eye and has high goals of climbing a ladder to the heavens. All in all, Allen makes weird look wonderful.

YOU'RE THE WORST -- "Twenty-Two" -- Episode 305 (Airs Wednesday, September 28, 10:00 pm e/p -- Pictured: Desmin Borges as Edgar Quintero

Desmin Borges, “You’re the Worst”

It’s not that we didn’t take note of Borges’ comedic timing and talent in the first two seasons of “You’re the Worst,” but Season 3 gave him a broader platform than ever, and boy, did he ever own it. Creator Stephen Falk tackled PTSD head on this year, tracking Edgar, Borges’ army veteran, as he struggled to adapt to a new relationship and old trauma. The sobering half-hour dedicated solely to Borges’ story, “Twenty-Two,” was a standout episode, and the series regular more than made up for the absence of his three top-tier co-stars. Borges embodies Edgar with a sense of optimism, openness, and earnestness, all of which are unique to him among the ensemble. He handles the balance within Edgar and between the cast impeccably, but it was his authentic shifts between fear, anger, and innocence that made us see Borges in a whole new light.

READ MORE: ‘You’re the Worst’ Takes on PTSD, Veterans’ Affairs in Edgar’s Serious Solo Episode

Millie Bobby Brown, “Stranger Things”

If you left your house on Halloween night, then you probably saw more than one girl (or boy) wearing a pink dress, blue windbreaker, and knee-high socks, while carrying around a box of Eggo waffles. But while the character of Eleven from Netflix’s “Stranger Things” proved to be iconic, it was relative newcomer Millie Bobby Brown’s extraordinarily committed performance that kept the character feeling grounded and human (despite her special powers). To truly appreciate her commitment, let’s remember that this 12-year-old girl, on the cusp of adolescence, was asked to shave her head — something which she ultimately told IndieWire was empowering, if only because it made her look like Furiosa from “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The girl seems more than game for what lies ahead; we’re looking forward to seeing her next move.

Michael Becker/FX Networks

Sterling K. Brown, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “This Is Us”

When Dan Fogelman was casting NBC’s “This Is Us,” it was before FX’s “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” had premiered. Fogelman cast Sterling K. Brown as Randall, not quite realizing that he had hit pay dirt: Brown was about to make a name for himself as Christopher Darden, opposite Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark, on the smash miniseries. Fogelman said “This Is Us” directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who had just worked with Brown on the feature “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” recommended the actor for the role. “I met Sterling, and wanted him for this [as well],” Fogelman said. “As luck would have it, Sterling had ‘OJ’ in the can at the same studio but no one had seen it yet,” so that when Fogelman suggested Brown for the role, executives didn’t even hesitate. “They were like, ‘Done! We love it!’ We were blessed.” “This Is Us” is the biggest new hit of the fall, giving Brown another hit program this year on top of “People v. OJ,” which earned him a Primetime Emmy as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a limited series or movie.

Brian Tyree Henry, “Atlanta”

Donald Glover gets most of the (deserved) accolades for FX’s “Atlanta,” but the show’s quiet weapon in Season 1 was really Brian Tyree Henry. As aspiring rapper Paper Boi (a.k.a. Alfred Miles), Henry managed to convey so much with just subtle glances and simple gestures, often reacting to the absurdity surrounding him – be it “Justin Bieber” or a hanger-on attempting to make a name for himself by trashing Paper Boi on YouTube. Although “Atlanta” is mostly told from the perspective of Earn (Glover), some of the show’s most memorable moments come when Paper Boi attempts to fit in or just tries to do the right thing, which is directly at odds with his public gangsta persona. Henry’s big year also included three episodes on HBO’s  “Vice Principals.”

William Jackson Harper, “The Good Place”

As Chidi, the brilliant ethics professor whose life on Earth was flawless enough to send him to Heaven honestly, William Jackson Harper’s role could be relatively thankless – a lesser show might find him stuck as a combination straight man/wet blanket. But through a combination of sharp timing and pure likability, Chidi might be the most sympathetic character on the show.  Harper isn’t the only unknown who shines in the ensemble: Let’s quickly shout out D’Arcy James as Janet, who was a serious contender for this list, and whose comedic timing and range quickly made her a favorite of ours. But Harper’s ability to communicate his anxiety over helping Eleanor (Kristen Bell) not get banished to the Bad Place is one of those moments that brings real emotional edge to key moments. When you see “The Good Place” from his point of view, you realize that the show’s a whole lot more than just a comedy.

READ MORE: ‘Search Party’ Review: This Millennial Mystery-Comedy Is Worth Investigating

John Early, “Search Party”

Early is a comedian who clearly knows how to craft a character, especially one who is painted in such bold strokes as Elliot. Elliot initially comes off as a self-involved narcissist… and continues to be throughout the series. Yet Early is able to impart a sweet-natured humor and humanity to Elliot that makes it hard to completely hate him for name-dropping at every opportunity. Early also brings out that childlike innocence in his character that makes him forgivable for the time being. With the backdrop of a missing-persons mystery, a bizarre cult and possible murder in the air, Elliot is both a lighthearted and grounding presence.

Martha Kelly and Zach Galifianakis on "Baskets"

Martha Kelly and Zach Galifianakis on “Baskets”

Ben Cohen/FX

Martha Kelly, “Baskets”

In Zach Galifianakis’ FX comedy, Martha Kelly plays a character named Martha. Combined with the fact she was relatively unknown to the TV masses before “Baskets,” it would be easy to assume one Martha matches the other. And though the relationship between Chip Baskets the clown and Martha the insurance agent/salesman is inspired by the dynamic formed between the actors upon first meeting, Kelly’s natural charms can distract from her nuanced term. Her timing is impeccable. Her expressions are subtle. Her understanding is thorough. We can’t wait to see what non-Martha character she plays next.

Riley Keough, “The Girlfriend Experience”

Fun fact: Elvis Presley’s grandkid, when given the opportunity, is a hell of an actor. Keough had done some intriguing work in previous years, including notably as Capable, one of the wives fleeing Immortan Joe in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (the red-headed one who grows close to Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult). But few actors find themselves with the challenge that Starz’s anthology series about the lives of sex workers provided, as writer/directors Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan made the series an eight-episode exploration of Christine’s inner self. Fortunately, Keough brought with her an icy fierceness that made her a captivating force on screen, a star-making performance that didn’t care if we liked it or not. (We did.)

Riley Keough, "The Girlfriend Experience"

Riley Keough, “The Girlfriend Experience”


READ MORE: ‘Better Things’ Finale Review: Pamela Adlon Dedicates a Perfect Season to Her Daughters

Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward, “Better Things”

For a show so close to Pamela Adlon’s heart as a single mom of three girls, it’s fitting that those fictional counterparts be as vibrant and fully realized as her real-life daughters. As the eldest teenager Max, Madison balances defiance and ennui with just the right amount of vulnerability and innocence. Alligood gives middle child Frankie mischief, a child clearly too smart for her own good and taken with thoughts bigger than her tender years. Finally Edward imbues Duke with a bit of the devil and genuine joy. “Better Things” found three young women who are consistently delightful and honest in their portrayals. There’s a certain slouchy casualness to how they appear when they’re not speaking, and their onscreen sibling interactions are as annoyed and comfortable as with any real blood relative. Don’t be surprised if your parental instincts kick in and you choose a new favorite from episode to episode.

Claudia O’Doherty, “Love”

Making her entrance relatively quietly in the Judd Apatow/Paul Rust/Lesley Arfin comedy series “Love,” O’Doherty soon became endemic of the show’s deeply hidden but vulnerable heart. As Bertie, the cheery-natured roommate of Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), it was easy to see her as simply a happy Australian with an uncanny ability to hold her liquor. But in Episode 5, “The Date,” Gus attempts to take her out for dinner, and the evening goes nuclear thanks to Mickey’s manipulations, with Bertie revealing hidden depths. There’s something particularly special about O’Doherty’s on-screen presence that’s kept her memorable months later, and when you find out that she also was a writer and performer this year on “Inside Amy Schumer,” you know there’s buried talent there, hopefully destined to explode soon.

Bella Ramsey in "Game of Thrones."

Bella Ramsey in “Game of Thrones.”


Bella Ramsey, “Game of Thrones”

The bloodthirsty fantasy drama relies on its strong performances to anchor the outrageous action, and while we’ve seen people come and go, mainly after getting brutally murdered, we were overdue for a fresh face. Although we had first heard of Lyanna Mormont offscreen after she sent a cheeky letter to Stannis Baratheon declaring her loyalty to the Stark clan, it wasn’t until Season 6 that we met the girl in the flesh. Ramsey perfectly captured the proud 10-year-old girl, who gamely took on a leadership position after the line of succession led to her when her kinsmen died at the Red Wedding. Ramsey gives Lyanna Mormont a strong bearing that belies her age, with just enough chutzpah and earnestness for humor that springs from incongruity.

READ MORE: ‘Game of Thrones’: How Lyanna Mormont Became Your New Favorite Character in Just Three Scenes

John Rothman, “One Mississippi”

John Rothman portrayed the various levels of Bill (Tig Notaro’s longstanding step-father on “One Mississippi”) so well that even though we immediately sparked to the humorless, ritualistic patriarch, he became all the more lovable, likable, and impressive as his background was unveiled. Credit to the writers, of course, but Bill was brought to life by Rothman’s focused portrayal. He didn’t play too hard into the strict or human moments within Bill’s scenes as he carefully built a complicated man from the ground up. A veteran character actor dating back to the original “Ghostbusters,” we’re hoping this impressive turn allows Rothman the opportunity to explore more roles than ever before.

Justice Smith in "The Get Down"

Justice Smith in “The Get Down”


Justice Smith, “The Get Down”

The physical demands of Justice Smith’s role in “The Get Down” would’ve kept most actors busy on their own. The man behind Ezekiel “Books” Figuero had to earn his character’s nickname by spouting rhymes as if he was addicted to crafting the cutting combinations every second of every day. Moreover, he needed to be able to perform well enough for us to believe he’d someday rise to the level of Nas (who wrote and performed the present-day raps in the season). He more than accomplished both, and yet Smith’s towering achievement within the first six episodes of Baz Luhrmann’s period musical masterpiece had nothing to do with his acquired skills. It was his chemistry with co-star Herizen F. Guardiola that made the story take off, and his touching emotional moments that kept it grounded. He soared and stood, often at the same time. For that — and his other talents — he’s among the year’s elite.

READ MORE: Inside Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Get Down,’ the Best $120 Million Netflix Ever Spent

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Fleabag”

The Brit takes openness to new levels in this daring Amazon comedy in which the protagonist, whom we can only call Fleabag (since we never learn her true name), delivers every single naughty thought and deed with a breathless, borderline hysterical glee. The amount of energy Waller-Bridge can convey in every glance and every syllable is energizing, and when she turns her expressive eyes to the camera for even more intimate confidences, we’re goners. The actress also has the ability shift tones with the ease of a tick-ticking metronome as she switches from straightforward dialogue in a scene to suddenly breaking the fourth wall. Blink, and you really could miss one of her rapid-fire micro expressions, because she is a gifted slapstick comedian as well. This hyper-sharing and awareness is the black comedy overlay for something darker and less glib, and Waller-Bridge also gets credit for never skimping on the more heartfelt and horrifying emotions. This strength of this honesty is so brash and powerful that as viewers we often find ourselves alternatively gasping, snorting and despairing.

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