Pearl Mackie – “Doctor Who”
Simon Ridgway/BBC America
There comes a time in every Companion’s tenure on “Doctor Who” when he or she is beloved by the audience. It’s understandable, since the Companion is our analog in this wacky world of flying police boxes, aliens and timey-wimeyness. From the very first episode though, Pearl Mackie’s Bill instantly managed to worm her way into everyone’s hearts, even the Doctor’s two hearts. Mackie was able to sell a character who is overall sweet and happy, traits that usually come across on screen as simple-minded, with humor, poignancy and depth. She hands down asks the best questions of any Companion (“Yeah, hearts though, why two? Does this mean you have really high blood pressure?”) and delivers these inquiries with a puppy-like enthusiasm and openness. Because of this, Mackie is also able to rip out our hearts with the tiniest flicker of disappointment or sorrow in her eyes. Mackie has brought to life a character who has no pretense, no cynicism, no darkness. It’s such a shame that this is Peter Capaldi’s final season as the Doctor because their on-screen chemistry is a joy to watch, and Mackie has rejuvenated the franchise.
Michael McKean, “Better Call Saul”
The most amazing thing about Chuck McGill, as portrayed by Michael McKean, is that you understand him so clearly. He’s so fully realized and believable and human that, at times, you almost forget what a terrible, loathsome person he is. You don’t want Chuck to be real, but there’s no escaping the fact that McKean’s performance is so grounded. You don’t want Chuck to be right, but the more we get to know him, the more we know that all too often, he is. The Season 3 cliffhanger has us very worried about what may come next, but no matter what comes next, Chuck will remain an unforgettable part of the show, one whose words of truth will forever haunt us.
Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”
As we’ve noted throughout the show’s early run, one of the true terrors of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is its gradual changes. We see each new violation on Moss’ face, playing a character who’s forced to limit her true range of expression in order to preserve her life. In scenes when paragraphs’ worth of thoughts and desires and fears need to be conveyed, Moss can do it in a look. In most cases, it’s trite to say that the most important lines of dialogue are the ones that remain unspoken, but in this case, Moss turns that well-worn adage into a defining element of her performance. It makes the occasional reprieve from the horrors of Gilead all the more satisfying, to see a character who has been downtrodden so brutally be given the chance to truly come alive. Moss handles both aspects with equal grace and expertise, giving us a whole life’s history in a few select glances.
Aubrey Plaza – “Legion”
Drugged out. Alluring. Cunning. Sexy. Bat-shit crazy. Monstrous. These are just a few of the adjectives to describe Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny. And while she plays multiple versions of the same character through different filters in the trippy comic book-inspired series, the common denominator is that she’s an undeniable, intoxicating scene-stealer. Plaza initially joined “Legion” expecting to read for the female lead, but after a few conversations with creator Noah Hawley, landed the role of David Haller’s (Dan Stevens) mental hospital chum and the face of an evil force which has taken up residence in his subconscious. Plaza brings intensity and an expressive physicality to each version of Lenny, making her insidious nature addictive. Although “Legion” seemingly wrote out the need for Lenny in the finale, we’re still hoping that Hawley is able to bring her back in some form in Season 2.
Sam Richardson, “Veep”
Try as the show might to stuff its weekly runtime with enough jokes to feed its hefty ensemble, a half-hour always feels like too short a time to spend in the world of “Veep.” It’s all the more valuable to have a character like Richard Splett to help cut through the cynicism, backstabbing, and distrust that permeates so much of the rest of the show. Much like his HBO Sunday comedy counterpoint Zach Woods, Richardson is an actor whose impeccable timing and finessed delivery made the show’s writing staff find more ways to get him involved. Much like his character, Richard is the unassuming encyclopedia of “Veep,” waiting to be taken off the shelf whenever needed. In the process, he’s ensured that each new layer of naïveté (and parenthood) that gets thrust in SplettNet’s direction will be met with the same cheery optimism.
Through the three-season run of “The Leftovers,” Justin Theroux was the show’s physical and emotional anchor, as in times of distress and loneliness, Kevin Garvey was the closest the show came to an audience surrogate. He’s a character who experienced loss, but Theroux’s performance always engaged with that grief in a more gradual way, as vestiges of Kevin’s old life and new one slowly began to slip away. As Kevin got whisked off to alternate planes of existence and put on an older man’s clothes, Theroux made sure that all of these narrative curveballs were centered in the series’ continual figure of redemption. Theroux embodied the uncertainty of an unforgiving world, keeping peace in times of relative serenity and reflecting the horror of a shifting reality. And when the last layers were finally pulled back, he showed the devotion that kept the series’ central romance alive across decades.
Reese Witherspoon, “Big Little Lies”
Singling out one performance from this ensemble is a bit of a fool’s errand, but as the hub through which this series runs, Witherspoon gets at the shadowy underbelly of this community better than anyone else could. Nearly every character on this show had something to hide, but one of Witherspoon’s true accomplishments was being able to play Madeline’s insecurity in a way that straddled the line between shifty string-puller and well-intentioned matriarch. Even as Madeline seesawed back and forth between these two ideas, Witherspoon still wrangled some empathy out of lines instantly quotable lines, like the one HBO rightly plastered in every promo. Madeline operated on her own sense of righteousness and logic, but Witherspoon still was able to tap into the DNA of the show to give it its most compelling character.
Honorable Mention: Kyle MacLachlan, “Twin Peaks”
Whatever is happening on “Twin Peaks” this season, here’s something we feel confident about saying: No one else could do the work that Kyle MacLachlan is doing. Playing approximately three characters (depending on your own interpretations), the many faces of Cooper have us confounded, bewildered, entranced and horrified (depending on the moment). All we honestly want is to see the good agent restored to his pure pie-and-philosophy-loving glory, but we also know that David Lynch and Mark Frost aren’t inclined to give us happy endings. Still, we can’t look away from MacLachlan whenever he’s on screen — it’s some of the most challenging but incredible acting of the year.