A breakthrough performance can mean different things to different people. For some, it means this actor has broken through to the big time; that they’re the next big thing; that they’re a big deal now and should be treated accordingly because they delivered a big ol’ ass-kicking performance in 2017.
For others, it means this actor has broken through creatively; that they’ve reached a new level of professional accomplishment; that they’re worth taking note of, no matter what they’re in, from this point forward because the collective artistic culture witnessed the amazing things they did in 2017.
The list below represents a little bit of both. These performances are all incredible, stand-out turns made by people who are going to go on to do more great things in the future — you know, assuming Hollywood producers takes proper note. These aren’t the only breakthrough performances of the year — more of our favorites are on the overall best performances list — but these are our favorites; the ones that cannot be ignored; the big and outstanding breakthroughs.
Iain Armitage, “Young Sheldon”
Iain Armitage had a big year. He’s the lead actor in the most watched new comedy this fall, and he nabbed a memorable supporting role in one of the most critically acclaimed limited series in recent memory. Throw in three feature films and you’ve got a year any actor would be over-the-moon to have on their resume — even those over the age of 10.
What’s more notable than his success, however, is his versatility. In “Big Little Lies,” Armitage is a quiet, brooding, could-be-bully. Sometimes he’s meant to be scary and other times totally innocent. Context is key, but Armitage is so perfectly childlike it’s amazing he’s able to do all that he does in “Young Sheldon.” No longer silent, the future theoretical physicist is spouting theorems, jargon, and insights at an advanced level — that’s not easy to play with enough confidence that the audience believes this kid knows what he’s talking about, but Armitage absolutely sells it. He actually makes it look easy while doing it, which is part of the pitch. Funny, insightful, and never bland — even when he’s playing it straight — Armitage will be exciting to watch for years to come. And it looks like we’re set to do just that.
Anthony Atamanuik, “The President Show”
Getty Images/Comedy Central
Working from a version of the character he’s been honing since well before the election, Atamanuik has given his specific Trump impression a full-fledged life of its own. Still paying close attention to habits and mannerisms, Atamanuik has found meaningful ways to spin weekly horrors into something worthy of commentary. They range from the simple (the “fire truck” sequence from the opening is one of the most concise opening statements of any show this year) to the unbelievably abstract (the Kubrick-inspired dream sequence is a go-for-broke move unlike any other in late night this year), Atamanuik and “The President Show” moved beyond the low-hanging fruit that so many others got full off of over the past 18 months. It’s impossible to say that no one in the future will find another productive, satisfying spin on Trump, but right now, his is the only one worth watching.
Ariela Barer, “Runaways” and “One Day at a Time”
We can be forgiven for not recognizing that Carmen from Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” is the same as Gert Yorkes from Hulu’s “Runaways.” After all, Carmen has all the trappings of a girl gone goth with a killer deadpan delivery, while the violet-haired Gert has an earnest, social justice warrior tendency to discuss issues like feminism and marginalization even in the midst of danger. Both characters, however, are scene-stealers, and Barer’s charisma can’t be camouflaged no matter what her hair color is. What makes her so compelling though is that she’s not just likable, but that she also exudes a strength of character even in small interactions. Plus, she can’t even be upstaged by a dinosaur!
Cameron Britton, “Mindhunter”
You can watch videos of the real Ed Kemper online, which makes Cameron Britton’s interpretation all the more challenging. Not only does he have to live up to the real character — creepier for the same reason real death is more frightening than TV death — but he has to build his own identity within him. The physicality, the frank manner of speaking, the eerie stare; all of that compares to the real Kemper, but Britton puts his own twist on each element to make the character all the more absorbing.
Britton speaks in a slow, precise manner, with a lilt in his voice that emphasizes just the right words: It keeps the audience on edge along with Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), not knowing if Kemper will next reach out for a hug or a chokehold. Britton gives no indication which way Kemper will go in any moment, but he’s displayed enough emotion leading up to each that viewers know he’s not a robot. He has feelings. And he wants to talk about them. Ed Kemper is an unforgettable figure in “Mindhunter” — both one with the man we know from documentaries and a whole new figure who’s just starting to scare us.
D’Arcy Carden, “The Good Place”
The big twist of “The Good Place” may have turned all of our perceptions upside-down, but Carden’s Janet was the one constant amidst the chaos. Playing a programmed guide with a cheery demeanor in an even cheerier wardrobe, Carden soon became essential to making sense of that world. Since Janet isn’t human, Carden must play her as consistently happy, even when uttering lines like, “I will begin to beg for my life.” Yet she must also be prepared to switch instantly to distraught or angry or even dead if her programming demands it. It’s a marvel to behold someone so engaging be able to change so rapidly without appearing crazed or erratic, always maintaining that Janet core.
Gary Carr, “The Deuce”
Given the creative team’s reticence to put forth simple heroes and villains, it would be hard to put the most endearing pimp in “The Deuce” neatly into either of those two categories. But C.C. is one of the on-screen engines of the series, given a particular type of freedom by the city that’s slowly trapping him and those he works with. “The Deuce” is far from a rosy portrait of New York or the conditions that the city’s sex workers experienced in this ‘70s timeframe. Through C.C., Carr presents a specific kind of a glimmer of hope to both willing and unsuspecting partners; the show follows that through to its natural conclusion when C.C.’s charms aren’t what they initially appear. Carr brings a sharp-edged charisma that isn’t solely used for manipulation or oppression, but he lets enough of C.C.’s darker side through in revealing moments that only strengthen the character (and the show) further.
Aisha Dee, “The Bold Type” and “Channel Zero”
Although Dee had appeared on MTV’s dearly departed “Sweet/Vicious” this year, she really caught our eye in two shows that couldn’t be more opposite. “The Bold Type” is one of IndieWire’s Best New TV Shows of the Year, partially because of Dee’s take on Kat, a take-charge social media expert who discovers a new side to her sexuality. She’s confident, charming, and has a zest for life that’s contagious. This is where she shines, making the most of what could be an annoying character and instead bringing out vulnerability and thoughtfulness. In contrast, Jules on Syfy’s “Channel Zero: No-End House” is a young woman struggling for control and out of her element with the confounding and creepy goings-on in the title abode. Dee shows restraint when displaying fear and uncertainty, yet it’s still palpable. Since Kat on “The Bold Type” is larger than life, it’s intriguing to see Dee pull herself inward to make Jules far more muted, yet still effective.
Michael Dorman, “Patriot”
Matching the tone of any show is a challenge, but finding just the right groove for a series as quirky and unique as “Patriot” is next-level commitment. It takes immense trust in your director, writers, and showrunner; a full-on envelopment of the character’s perspective, in order to establish his behavior without the help of other actors playing people like him; and this role in particular, of a burned-out N.O.C. agent who just wants to play guitar and get high, demands Michael Dorman be a walking, talking, killing contradiction. On the one hand, he’s a docile, easy-going guy who you can buy as a guest at the coffee house’s open mic night. On the other, he’s assassinating world leaders and wrapping them up in rugs.
Dorman makes John Tavner funny, fierce, and empathetic; you feel for this guy even when you watch him do horrific things, and you want him to escape the life even when the world needs him to live it. Dorman hits every note of the character, building something special in this sleeper spy series, and he seems poised to do more of the same if given the chance. Let him loose, Hollywood. He can handle it.