There’s never a bad time to talk about the best actor or best actress on television. But now is a particularly good time to be talking about not one or two of TV’s elite performances; it’s a great time to be talking about as many as possible.
With Emmy voting underway (for a few more days) and half the year already gone, the small screen has been jammed to the point of bursting with incredible talents. Be it the gold rush that arrives every April and runs through, well, now (see Sunday’s well-timed “Westworld” finale) or the sheer onslaught of programming demanded by an ever-hungry audience, there are more options to choose from, and thus more dramatics to discuss.
Below, IndieWire has gathered as many of the best actors as our fingers can stand to type. From groundbreaking lead roles to scene-stealing supporting turns, the list encompasses a slew of noteworthy thespians, but please add your own picks to the bottom. It’s a good time to be heard, and everyone has a voice.
Hayley Atwell, “Howards End”
Laurie Sparham / Starz
Hayley Atwell embodies the spirit of “Howards End” from her very first minute to its very last. Introduced via her sister’s letter, Atwell’s Meg Schlegel is the family’s leader as much as the show’s. She’s present and attentive with her siblings, always listening to what they have to say and pushing them to be better. Atwell, in turn, is a giving scene partner who elevates everything around her, no matter who’s the focus of the scene. Meg is vivacious and challenging in her love life, and Atwell employs a sweet smirk or wide-eyed stare when she’s engaged in courtship with Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen). Above all, Meg is full of life, and Atwell is, too. She helps turn a period remake into tremendous fun, in no small part because she appears to be having so much fun herself.
Alexis Bledel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”
So often, audiences don’t really get to see what an actor is capable of unless they get material that truly challenges them, which means that there are countless well-liked performers in this world whose true potential has gone unexplored. This is a major factor in why Alexis Bledel’s work in “The Handmaid’s Tale” stands out in a cast of the truly extraordinary. Bledel may have been acting for decades, but never before has she been allowed to rage to this degree. As Emily, a Handmaid thought lost following some major transgressions, Season 2 has been a trial of extremes, letting Bledel be a cathartic force and avenging angel damaged deeply by her experiences, but not yet fully broken.
Logan Browning, “Dear White People”
There is just so much happening to Sam White in Season 2 of “Dear White People,” and what makes Logan Browning’s work as the college student going through a lifetime’s worth of problems so impressive is how deeply she grounds each moment in reality. You can see her processing everything internally; her turn never feels showy, but remains fully present. All that, and she’s funny — fast enough to keep up with the writing’s intense pace and sharp zingers and equally able to make us laugh or cry with a moment’s notice. The emotional turmoil Sam goes through in Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 of this season (two episodes that come just as you’re beginning to say to yourself, “Wait, it’s been a while since we’ve heard from Sam, hasn’t it?”) makes for a back-to-back pair of tour de force performances unlike any in recent memory. Hopefully, people are taking notice.
Benedict Cumberbatch, “Patrick Melrose”
“Patrick Melrose” dedicates an entire hour of its five-hour run to watching Benedict Cumberbatch. Don’t take that in the way any other TV show typically focuses on its lead for an extended period of time; the first episode of Showtime’s limited series barely even hints at its core story in favor of witnessing Cumberbatch walk through increasingly self-destructive phases of the titular character’s life. All that happens, plot-wise, is that Patrick finds out his father dies and travels to America to get the body. While that’s a painful moment for anyone, his trip is framed around Patrick’s unrelenting bender; his inner monologue shares a broken will, as Patrick renounces heroin only to take a cab to the worst part of Manhattan to score dope from dealers who can only offer used needles.
From there, it’s a cacophony of anguish as Patrick trashes his hotel room and sees random flashes to an inscrutable past. Very little is clear about how this well-off man reached this point or why, exactly, he’s so angry at his late father, but what holds the hour together — and drives you to the next episode — is Cumberbatch. It’s almost entirely Cumberbatch, in such a way that a collaborative medium like television rarely is; the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated thespian throws himself so fully into each scene, he dares viewers to look away. Not only will his next choice be ill-advised, but whether it’s a time-delayed quaalude or a strong pot of coffee, something is about to alter Patrick’s physicality. Cumberbatch explores each uncontrollable twist and turn of his face in such an extreme manner it would be funny if his character were any less tragic. And this is only Episode 1; in the following four, Cumberbatch is even better.
Laura Dern, “The Tale”
The level of difficulty for a role like Jennifer Fox is high, but then you factor in that Jennifer Fox is a real person; a real person who wrote the script, directed the film, and lived through it all. Laura Dern throws herself into the part with fearless commitment, playing every part of Jennifer with authenticity, searching through traumatic memories with the perspective of an experienced researcher and the humanity of a person wronged. Dern helps make Jennifer funny, vulnerable, and courageous; she convinces viewers that she’s the adult who sprung from Isabelle Nélisse’s teenage Jennifer; she believes what she’s feeling in the moment and makes the audience believe it, too. There’s a self-awareness to “The Tale” that’s simply stunning — it’s told with such assurance you’d think it had to be fabricated. Dern doesn’t let that thought enter her character, not for a second. She’s Jennifer, even while the real Jennifer is directing her.
Donald Glover, “Atlanta”
The credits to “Atlanta’s” disquieting episode “Teddy Perkins” lists the role of Teddy Perkins as performed by “himself.” On one hand, this could be seen as an attempt to maintain the illusion and not draw the attention to series creator and star Donald Glover, who actually portrayed the title character. On the other hand, this could be seen as an homage to Teddy himself, who is wholly his own person. Truly, there is no one like him, and the attempts to psychoanalyze him could fill a college course. Of course, the credit for that complexity would go to Glover, and thus we’re back to where we started.
Not only did Glover write the episode with all of its gloriously twisted dialogue — calling an ostrich egg an “owl’s casket” or declaring, “To build bridges, people have to fall” — but he crafted a performance that was able to break through the frightening, unmoving prosthetics. Despite the hindrance, Glover manages to communicate plenty of emotion and pain through Teddy’s falsetto voice that drips with doubt, condescension, anger, uncertainty, and false cheer. He also carefully regulates Teddy’s body language to channel a lifetime of control and discipline. This is not a relaxed man, and every bit of Glover vibrates through to convey this. The actor’s unsettling performance and Teddy’s creepy appearance combine to make a character straight from our nightmares; nightmares that also elicit laughter in order to not give into the fear. It’s a role that in itself is hard to conceive, and to play it with such conviction is nigh unimaginable.
Bill Hader, “Barry”
There have been hitman series before, and there have been shows that examined the world of aspiring actors. “Barry” is both, two shows in one that somehow seamlessly connect. And at the center of it all is Bill Hader’s title character, a man torn between what he’s good at — killing people — and what he wants to master, but is terrible at: acting. It’s not clear Barry really wants to act, or even has learned anything about the craft, but he does want to escape the pain of his life. That struggle includes PTSD from serving in uniform, and the loyalty he holds for his father figure, Fuchs (Stephen Root), who’s actually the source for so much of his trauma. It’s more tragedy than comedy, yet Hader’s skill as a comedian (“Saturday Night Live” fans know how well he can play creepy, often misunderstood misanthropes) serves him well here. Even when Barry has just done something heinous, the audience can’t help but wind up rooting for him by the following episode. “Barry” is a masterclass in making what should be a complicated setup look effortless, and Hader is the reason why.
Maya Hawke, “Little Women”
For a 19-year-old actress, Maya Hawke could have easily been eclipsed by the weight of expectation and familiarity. After all, she’s playing one of the most popular literary heroines of the Western world, in a role made famous by both Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder, and she’s the daughter of two showbiz parents. Nevertheless, as soon as she comes on screen in PBS’ adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” the role of Jo March is entirely hers and has always felt that way.
With flashing eyes, a quick smile, and that raspy voice, Hawke is a revelation of energy and imagination. That she’s portraying a Victorian-era woman doesn’t seem to matter as she somehow makes corsetted waists and inky fountain pens feel modern. What the actress is able to do over the course of the limited series’ three installments is impressive as Jo moves from brash and immature to patient and serene over the years. Plus, in a move that defies onscreen tradition, the dynamic that she brings to the interactions with Jo’s pal Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) feels far more platonic than the usual smoldering chemistry. It’s a deliberate performance choice that feels fresh and reconciles some of the issues in the source material. All of this would be impressive enough for anyone in the role, but the fact that this is Hawke’s very first official gig is a sign that she’s already in full control of her craft.
Glenn Howerton, “A.P. Bio”
“A.P. Bio” rests on the simple belief that Jack is willing and eager to give zero fucks about his students. No matter how cute they seem or how discouraged they get, Jack has to keep pursuing his main objective: get out of that school and get back to Harvard. Howerton has some experience playing a narcissistic leader, but unlike his “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” character, Jack is devilishly smart and open to change. It’s not that he’ll get any nicer or less selfish, but he is teaching his kids life lessons — and will interpret their feedback for his own personal gain. Howerton walks a fine line between being an asshole and a broken man; a true creep and a man in denial. Little winks and nods keep hinting at the latter facets, as Jack dismisses any remarks about where he’s living (his dead mother’s house) or what he’s wearing (her robes, often enough). Howerton passes these off with a flourish, moving on with his mission for fear of falling apart if he looks past the blinkers and sees the crumbling world around him. Mining so much comedy from such pain is admirable, and it’s his consistent lack of caring that gets him there. Bring on the next grade.
Matthew MacFadyen, “Succession”
Peter Kramer / HBO
Close your eyes and pick a name at random from the “Succession” ensemble and you’ll find someone worthy of this list. Jeremy Strong is walking a tightrope as the would-be king-in-waiting Kendall Roy, Kieran Culkin is magnetic as disaffected family wildcard Roman Roy, and Sarah Snook brings a healthy dose of razor-sharp skepticism to Shiv Roy’s twin professional and personal pursuits. The fascinating enigma lying just on the outskirts of the show’s center, though, is Macfadyen, as Shiv’s partner, Tom. Miles away from his equally fascinating work on “Howards End,” the actor swaps in a stoic, reserved romanticism for an entrancing blend of puppy-dog servility and bizarre bullying. Watching Tom shed his eager-to-please persona when the chance to assert some momentary authority comes along is one of the show’s great early mysteries. Much like “Succession” itself straddles satire and intense family drama, Macfadyen handles both sides with impressive ease.
Jason Mitchell, “The Chi”
Parrish Lewis / Showtime
Jason Mitchell is filled with life for the first half-hour of “The Chi,” and then it’s ripped from him. The brother of a slain teenager, Mitchell plays sous-chef-turned-taco truck owner Brandon Johnson, a Chicago native whose life is forever altered by his family tragedy. Credit to the “Straight Outta Compton” and “Superfly” star for imbuing Brandon with pep that’s not too peppy, love that’s not too saccharine, and humor that’s not fully absent once the worst has happened; if he’d gone too far to one side early on, his switch would’ve felt disingenuous later. But Mitchell understands the dimensions of grief and pushes his character through the various stages with an awareness that’s only evident when looking at his acting choices; the role feels lived in throughout the narrative, but it’s clear, looking back, how carefully Mitchell constructed the man who goes from high to low and, try as he might, not quite back again. Bring on Season 2.
Indya Moore, “Pose”
Finding love can be a challenge for anyone, but for a transgender woman, that quest could spell danger if she encounters a belligerent man who doesn’t accept her fully. As Angel on Ryan Murphy’s new drama “Pose,” Indya Moore walks that tightrope between daring and vulnerability as she leaves her emotions bare. One moment, she’s the epitome of confidence as she displays her perfect face while strutting in the balls with the utmost theatrical flair. But the next, she’s demure and hesitant as she seeks an intimate connection with Evan Peters’ businessman, Stan. No matter how many times Moore must oscillate between the extremes in openness, she always maintains a breathtaking and inspiring authenticity. On a show that often trades in ostentation and speechifying, Moore is delivering quiet strength and subtle heartbreak, often without speaking a word. It doesn’t matter what the category of the day is; Moore always brings the romantic, beating heart to “Pose.”
Continue reading for more of the best TV performances of 2018, including actors in “Killing Eve,” “The Terror,” and “This Is Us.”