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The Best TV Performances of 2017

Veteran performers reinvented themselves and new faces turned into national favorites in another astounding year for small screen performances.

Best Performances 2017 Rachel Brosnahan Kyle MacLachlan DeWanda Wise

Amazon/Showtime/Netflix

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It’s virtually impossible to limit year-end lists to 10 or 20 shows, so it’s literally impossible to include all the great performances from 2017 on one list. But IndieWire has done our best, wading through the hundreds of award-worthy turns from veteran actors and TV newbies to find the best performances this year.

These actors accomplished something special: They elevated their shows even when it seemed like the series couldn’t go any higher. They found surprising depths within the writers’ words and surprised directors with keen insights into their characters. They made us laugh, cry, jump for joy, and scream in frustration. Their precision in understanding who they played helped evoke passion in the audience watching.

We will not soon forget, and if you haven’t yet seen some of these fine thespians go to work, make sure to make the time. There may be a lot of television out there, but these folks stand out for a reason.

Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

It’s not easy to play a stand-up comedian if you’re not a stand-up comedian. There’s something about the on-stage persona that’s distinct; something ethereal that’s hard to put your finger on, but impossible to ignore. Rachel Brosnahan didn’t have to create that authority right off the bat. No, she had to do something even harder. As the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Maisel, Brosnahan had to stride onto a stage, not knowing exactly what she was doing or why she was up there, and make the audience believe patrons would be excited to see her set. She had to be a newbie stand-up comedian who showed just enough greatness in her first go, everyone buys in.

And damn if she didn’t do just that. Not only was her pivotal first set a showcase for Brosnahan’s commanding bravado, but she nailed the tricky rhythms of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s flooding dialogue. She’s sharp, but casual; funny, but unrehearsed; charming, but not working too hard for the love. With long takes and rapid-fire exchanges, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is filled with pitfalls that would scare any actor. Brosnahan embraces each one and owns them, one by one, until you can’t do anything but throw your hands in the air, kick back, and applaud a performance that makes heavy-lifting look effortless.

Logan Browning, “Dear White People”

Logan Browning, "Dear White People"

It’s no easy task to follow Tessa Thompson as the star of the big-screen “Dear White People,” but Logan Browning makes the role of truth-teller Samantha White her own for the ingenious Netflix series. Embodying the ultimate campus leader, Browning exudes a cheeky confidence that is irresistible and inspiring. Her charisma is mesmerizing, but she is able to command respect even in stillness. With one glance, it’s almost as if she sees into our imperfectly politicized souls. And yet, “Dear White People” is just as much an exploration as it is a statement, and that requires that Browning herself bare just as much of her shaky core, which she does with abandon. Whether Samantha is ashamed, uncertain, or tempted, Browning never loses that essence of what makes her magnetic.

Carrie Coon, “The Leftovers”

The Leftovers Season 3 Episode 4 Nora Carrie Coon gif

The year of 2017 will forever be known as the year of Carrie Coon. That being said, while we’re so very excited about Ms. Coon’s additional exposure, what’s notable about the star of stage and screen isn’t the quantity of her performances, but the quality. Choosing a best simply among her own work is next to impossible: Narrowing it to television eliminates a strong supporting turn in “The Post” and a layered, fluid, and fiery stage performance in “Mary Jane,” but it still leaves “Fargo” (for which she was Emmy-nominated) and “The Leftovers.”

Considering the industry recognition of the former, we’re going to focus on the latter. Coon’s careful construction of Nora Durst — a wife and mother who inexplicably lost her family when 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared — built to a perfect emotional crescendo in the final season. Fierce but vulnerable, funny and intimidating, unyielding and always searching, Coon gave Nora such incredible life, but more importantly, she provided her an understanding of each confounding, complicated, and emotionally loaded moment as it happened.

There’s a scene in the series finale that should be held up as the epitome of acting, in that acting is about reacting; about being present; about living thoroughly in the time as it passes. Coon and her dynamite co-star Justin Theroux build decades of longing, of insecurities, of absent history with just fleeting glances, guarded inflections, and quivering lips. There’s more happening in that moment than the characters could describe, and yet these two actors found a way to bring it all out for the audience. That’s a fitting way to describe Coon’s time on “The Leftovers” overall: She found a way, time and time again, and her work will never be forgotten.

Ted Danson, “The Good Place”

The “Cheers” star has been a key part of why this NBC comedy has become one of television’s most innovative series, especially as Season 2 digs deeper and deeper into the ethical questions raised by the series. But beyond even that, Ted Danson has just been so much forking fun to watch. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “let GIFs do what hands do”….

The Good Place - Ted Danson Stunned Season 2 Episode 4

Laura Dern, “Big Little Lies”

“Big Little Lies” was brimming with on-camera talent, but Dern’s was the one performance that seemed to encapsulate the show as a whole. Moving from overprotective, blame-placing helicopter parent to a more understanding, cooperative part of the community’s steps to reconcile the actions of one of its own, Dern played both sides effortlessly. She managed to excel as the kind of character that led some viewers to see the show as a satire of upper-class coastal California life and became a more sympathetic (and empathetic) figure. At season’s close, it made sense that she would share a spot amidst the group’s beachside bonding. (Plus, there’s no better TV moment this year than Renata screaming, “I SAID THANK YOUUUUUUUU!” Instantly iconic.)

Rupert Friend, “Homeland”

Homeland Season 6 Episode 11 Rupert Grint

For years, Peter Quinn was the voice of reason. He was the rock keeping Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) tethered to Earth. She was pushed to such impossible extremes, someone had to be there to keep her from spinning out of control. Inevitably, a romance sparked between the two; a hotly debated romance among fans, and one Friend portrayed with apt conflict. But that’s just what he did: He found the heart of the moment and hit it, every time.

Season 6 gave him the opportunity to finally snap. Though Quinn regularly slipped into passionate speeches and depressed drinking, his near-death in Season 5 had lasting physical and mental repercussions this year. Debilitated, drug-addicted, and searching for purpose, Quinn was on his last legs. Friend easily could’ve turned him into a melodramatic scene stealer or an over-the-top nuisance that took fans out of the show. Instead, Friend did it again. He found the throughline for his character, and delivered an ending deserving of Quinn’s complex journey throughout the series. Exquisite throughout, his restrained performance served more than the show; it served his character. And that’s the most you can ask from an actor.

Julia Garner, “Ozark”

Julia Garner, "Ozark"

First of all, congrats to Jason Bateman and Laura Linney for their SAG nods for their roles in “Ozark,” Netflix’s addictive crime thriller. But an equally essential part of what makes the show so effective is Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore, the sole woman in a family full of grifters. Although her angelic looks are only part of what makes Garner’s role so appealing, underestimate her at your own peril. She portrays a range of ruthlessness, street smarts, wisdom beyond her years, and chutzpah to spare. On a show where sudden, grisly death is the norm, she still commands every scene she’s in and does so with gusto. Come for the lurid crime story, but stay for Garner’s absolutely delightful turn as your new favorite complex criminal.

Betty Gilpin, “GLOW”

GLOW Season 1 Betty Gilpin

Betty Gilpin had a good year. Her supporting turn on “American Gods” arguably stole the show from a slew of famous faces, but when she stepped into the ring for “GLOW,” the world just kind of stopped. It’d be easy to say Gilpin has “it”: the mysterious element of a performer that makes them endlessly watchable. If such a thing exists, she’s got it, but to say that’s all there is to Gilpin’s breakout turn would be a disservice to the work she put in.

Debbie Eagan, Gilpin’s character in “GLOW,” has her entire life transformed to near ruin in an instant. Forced to keep living with the people who wronged her, Gilpin has more moments of contemplation — where you can see the gears turning in her head — than is fair to put on an actor. But she handles them with poise, wordlessly conveying a shift in perspective to push the story forward. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum where she’s throwing herself around the ring, taking out her aggressions on the Glorious Women of Wrestling. She puts on a show in big, funny, flashy ways that help make “GLOW” a joy to watch, and she finds telling moments of humanity in her downtime to ground the character. In and out of the ring, Gilpin dives head first from the top rung to deliver one of the year’s most exciting performances.

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