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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

Maya Rudolph, “Big Mouth”

Our love of the “Big Mouth” Hormone Monsters is well documented, but it’s worth repeating just how remarkable a bit of character work Rudolph’s performance is. Connie is instantly recognizable as a force for chaos in Jessi’s world, but there’s a hint of gentleness in amongst the constant mischief and uninhibited drive to disrupt makes this such strong fuel for the show overall. The fact that she’s almost unrecognizable in a separate role as Nick’s mom speaks to her versatility and how easily she can believably be both the calm, accepting matriarch for one family and the scorched-earth force wreaking havoc on another. Somehow, all you need to know about her incomparable voice work is wrapped up in her way that she pronounces the phrase “bubble bath.” It’s all the uncertainties and weird blend of danger and intrigue of coming of age, all wrapped up in one gleeful combination.

Justin Theroux, “The Leftovers”

The Leftovers Season 3 Episode 7 Justin Theroux

You will like Justin Theroux when he’s angry. There’s something about a riled up Kevin Garvey that brings out the best in the actor portraying him. Inhibitions to the wind, lashing out, and dropping f-bombs off the cuff, Theroux could make you weep in shared empathy and chuckle in cathartic understanding with just a few words. And beyond his more vehement outbursts, there are sentences from the final season of “The Leftovers” permanently ingrained in the minds and hearts of viewers because of Justin Theroux. Don’t get me wrong: They’re great lines, written by the deft hands of Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, and their all-star staff; it’s just that Theroux hits them with such specificity, such passion, such understanding that they transcend the meaning of the moment.

“Can I come with you?” “No, I can’t.” “Fucking Australia.” “People hold candles, Nora.” Every single one of these lines is special, and Theroux balances his pain with a pulsing heart underneath. While less delicate performers would’ve thrown themselves into Kevin’s anger with wild abandon, Theroux dials it up and down with a compelling command of what each confession means. Often passionate but never too big, you can see how his assembly of Kevin adds up in the reactions of his oh-so-present co-star Carrie Coon. Just look at the way she recoils during Kevin and Nora’s destructive fight. It’s not fear that she feels when Kevin grabs the book from her, but shock at the intensity of a man she’s never seen before — not like this. That’s Theroux’s moment. He earned it over three seasons of carefully controlling Kevin’s output, and just when you think he’s got nothing left in the tank, his ultimate confessional to Nora blows the roof off the joint.

You will like Theroux when he’s angry. But he’s never just angry. There are multitudes within each moment, and he evokes every one.

Paul F. Tompkins, “Bajillion”

“Bajillion Dollar Propertie$” is an underappreciated gem in the world of streaming comedies, brimming with an incredibly talented cast of improvisers and comedians. But the glue that holds this crazy parody experiment together is Tompkins as Dean Rosedragon, the comically outsized boss of Platinum Realty. Few actors seem to be having as much fun on screen playing a character that, by all accounts should be a ridiculous send-up of bosses both in the reality TV world and in luxury businesses. But there’s a certain grounded charm to Dean that, even when asking his employees into impossible situations, forcing unnecessary changes to the office layout, or making bizarre stops on a even weirder book tour, there’s a kernel of truth in his apparent disconnect from reality. Hopefully both the character and the show overall will have a worthy landing place for its next round of house-hunting adventures.

Jonathan Tucker, “Kingdom”

Kingdom Season 3 Jonathan Tucker

What Jonathan Tucker does in the ring is its own thing, but it’s not. It’s distinct, but it’s tethered to life on the other side of the octagon. As Jay Kulina, the black sheep son in a family of fighters, the charming insanity on display while he goes toe-to-toe with warrior after warrior sheds a light on his real life. The cage is where he comes alive; where he can get out the demons he’s been wrestling with every day; where he can unleash the side of himself he’s been trained to keep at bay as a private citizen.

It’s a sight to see, and credit goes to Tucker for committing so fully to a fighter’s mentality that his staged fight scenes are as thrilling as the real thing. But what he does outside the ring to tie together the fighter and the man is equally thrilling. The twitchy, edgy, and highly emotional character is constantly on the cusp of exploding, and you can see it in every scene. Jay often uses drugs and alcohol as an escape from this volatile state, and Tucker aptly decompresses when Jay’s under the influence.

All of these elements come together to honor who this man is, but Tucker adds even more to him. Jay is passionate, loving, and loyal; he’s also crazy, angry, and easily upset. He’s a walking fireball, and yet he can be the most human of anyone in the cast. (Just look at his scenes with little brother Nate to see how understanding and attentive Jay can be.) Jay is a great character complemented by a tremendous performance. Whatever Tucker does next, we’ll be watching: He knows how to put on a show.

Merritt Wever, “Godless”

Merritt Wever, "Godless"

A town of mainly women in the Old West led by Merritt Wever? Sold. Mary Agnes (Wever) is a woman who has stepped up when adversity hits, and her matter-of-fact style of leadership is the guiding force in the town of La Belle. The actress gives the role of Mary Agnes a degree of grit, humor, and candidness that is disarming, even as it inspires confidence. At home in trousers as she is with a gun in her hand, Wever’s portrayal of Mary Agnes is so vibrant and complete that it’s jarring when a flashback shows the character playing the dutiful wife in a dress.

Samira Wiley, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

It’s heartbreaking to make picks with this show, because all of the cast of the Hulu original drama is operating at such a high level. But while Elisabeth Moss is so mesmerizing as the show’s lead, Samira Wiley does incredible work with a limited amount of screen time — her presence in the series is deeply felt episode after episode, even when she doesn’t appear. And ultimately, her story brings such hope to the series, on some level; a hope we could dearly use, in this moment.

DeWanda Wise, “She’s Gotta Have It”

She's Gotta Have It Season 1 DeWanda Wise Netflix

In Spike Lee’s Netflix adaptation of his own original film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” DeWanda Wise is instantly captivating. Though she’s succeeding Tracy Camilla Johns as the new Nola Darling, but her take on the polyamorous Brooklynite isn’t handed to her fully formed: She’s got to take it herself, and not the easy way: Nola literally speaks to the audience via direct-to-camera monologues, but she’s also asked to live in the same room as if the camera doesn’t exist. There are montages she’s a part of, montages where she’s the one watching them unfold, and off-screen narration that can come across like spoken-word poetry.

Wise is balancing these worlds and carrying her confidence and insecurities between both. No matter how she’s asked to portray Nola in any given scene, Wise has to maintain the character’s integrity, spark, and tone throughout. The whole show may revolve around Nola Darling, making its personality hers and vice versa, but Wise is responsible for carrying almost every scene as a result. And she’s just as complex, compelling, and charming as the character demands.

Reese Witherspoon, “Big Little Lies”

Here is why we choose to celebrate Reese Witherspoon for this dalliance into television: She took a role that was technically less showy, which means a lot, especially when you consider that the archaic idea that a movie star making a TV show still, perhaps, lingers in the minds of certain executives.

Witherspoon didn’t upheave the world with her work in “Big Little Lies,” but while her co-star Nicole Kidman coped with and/or fought the domestic abuse in her life, Witherspoon was figuring out how to make Madeline into a supremely flawed, yet ultimately relatable, adult woman uninterested in being subjugated. Good for her.

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