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The Best TV Performances of 2018

Television was bursting with talent in 2018, and these performances will leave a mark for many more years to come.

Susan Kelechi Watson, Donald Glover, and Hong Chau best actors 2018

Susan Kelechi Watson, Donald Glover, and Hong Chau

NBC / FX / Amazon

IndieWire Best of 2018

Actors and actresses are an oft-celebrated aspect of popular culture. They play the characters viewers identify with, rage against, or otherwise become emotionally tied to, and then they show up on “Busy Tonight” to play with a puppy or snap an Instagram picture calling out Hollywood’s double standards. In other words, they make a connection with their audience that needs to continue.

But their work can transcend that relationship, as well. Certain performances require recognition for their continued, intricate development (which often happens in TV), how they break from expectations, or when a new actor shows up and forms a fresh, unshakable bond. In 2018, a slew of actors did all of this and more. Some well-known faces forged exciting new aspects of their onscreen identity. Other newbies stole the show from their more experienced peers. Still more performers put out work fans didn’t expect or couldn’t get enough of.

So even though most of the TV industry’s most celebrated awards are dedicated to actors, the craft demands analysis and appreciation. It can be fun, especially when your favorite performers are working at the top of their games, but it can also be enlightening. Actors offer a window into the vast array of the human experience, and remembering when you fell in love, felt betrayed, or otherwise engaged in life to an emotional extreme is a worthy endeavor. So let’s remember the best actors of 2018 through their best performances. One more celebration can’t hurt.

Matthew Rhys & Keri Russell, “The Americans”

Twenty years from now, viewers will still remember just how good Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys were as married spies whose decades in America lead to unexpected awakenings — and whose individual turns helped create one of the best television series ever made. The pair not only have incredible chemistry but stand out on their own: Rhys makes Philip Jennings into one of the more watchable emotional wrecks in recent memory, tossing in a side of fun dad charm on the dance floor and behind the driver’s seat. Russell, meanwhile, builds a stoic, ruthless, and repressed mother who audiences grew frustrated with as often as they admired her unflinching tenacity. Each actor proves capable of bringing such rich depths of emotion to their characters, and in “START” — the series finale — every twist is a twist of the knife in your heart, often turned by just the looks on their faces. Rhys and Russell always made their married couple identifiable, which will only help them resonate for years to come. – LSM

Donald Glover, “Atlanta”

Each of the show’s main trio could be on this list, but Glover rightly deserves extra attention this season for his portrayal of troubled former child star Teddy Perkins. While his uncanny appearance alone is enough to give the heebie-jeebies, Glover creates a fully realized character underneath all of the whiteface prosthetics. Through the expression in his eyes and carefully crafted voice, Teddy becomes a simmering mass of repressed anger, pain, and just enough unhinged mania to be truly frightening. Throughout the rest of the season, Glover brings a different taste of tragedy to his regular role of Earn, a conflicted young music manager whose ambitions are constantly at war with his fears. It’s a role that could become clichéd in lesser hands, but Glover gives it a relatable and sympathetic poignancy, even as viewers can’t help but judge him for making poor decisions. – HN

Bill Hader, “Barry”

Who knew that Bill Hader had this within him? Well, clearly the answer is Bill Hader, who co-created the HBO black comedy “Barry” (alongside Alec Berg), but the results are still shocking. Barry’s dead-eyed stare takes on so many layers over the course of his actorly awakening, and his internal struggle haunts nearly every choice Hader makes. The first season is a series of unforgettable moments layered with comedy and tragedy, setting up a long, captivating road of self-discovery. Who knows what else Bill Hader can do? – LSM

Will Arnett, “BoJack Horseman”

BoJack Horseman Season 5 Will Arnett

“BoJack Horseman”

Netflix

Will Arnett delivering a transcendently great voice performance as the Netflix show’s title character, year after year, is just something viewers have come to expect. Leaning into the gruff-throated insults when needed, while throwing in somber and affecting emotional beats just as often, Arnett has been able to handle every complex layer “BoJack” throws his way. Sure, Season 5 gives him the bravura, episode-length eulogy monologue in “Free Churro,” but it’s the effortless switch between insufferable narcissist and occasionally thoughtful and repentant narcissist that lays the groundwork for those bigger stylistic swings. – SG

Sissy Spacek, “Castle Rock”

One of the strengths of Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason’s Hulu series, “Castle Rock,” is how often viewers feel there’s more going on than meets the eye. In the case of Ruth, a widow and mother struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, it feels like pieces of her story are missing even though her character is rich and seasoned. Credit Spacek for instilling depth, but “The Queen,” Episode 7, fills in those lingering gaps. It’s an hour where Ruth is the sole protagonist, reeling from her time-hopping memories even as she tries to stay in the present and fend off an unwanted intruder. Spacek utilizes an inquisitive nature set up in previous episodes to build Ruth’s confusion into a drive for answers — and survival. The Oscar winner’s ability to stay in the moment, no matter how often her failing mind erases past details, adds to the heartbreak inherent to her circumstances, just as Spacek’s keen connection to the scene at hand makes Ruth anything but a victim. Her range is as vast as the ocean within her eyes, and her control of the waters is incredibly precise. Don’t miss it. – BT

Jason Mitchell, “The Chi”

The Chi Jason Mitchell Season 1

Jason Mitchell in “The Chi”

Parrish Lewis / Showtime

There’s a scene early in “The Chi’s” first season where Jason Mitchell is called on to do what actors must do all the time: He has to react to terrible news. “Acting is reacting” is a mantra cited enough in popular culture for just about everyone to recognize its importance, but Mitchell pushes his character through a process in those first few seconds. The way his face contorts into disbelief, frustration, and anguish isn’t simultaneous; it’s specific. The way he moves around the back alley, stretching his steps as if trying to run away from an inescapable problem, is authentic, not exaggerated. In this moment, Mitchell is hitting a bottom his character never expected to hit, and over the course of the season, he works his way through the darkness of that hole and comes out the other side a changed man. It’s a precise performance, but one that’s deeply felt. Season 2 can’t come soon enough. – BT

J.K. Simmons, “Counterpart”

While “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany set the standard for playing multiple, distinguishable roles in the same show, Simmons accomplishes the same feat without the aid of distinct costuming or hairdos. With one sheepish grin, he gives lowly office worker Howard Prime a gentle, easygoing decency that can’t be faked, even when alternate world Howard Alpha masquerades as him. The steely gaze and clipped speech are dead giveaways to this other Howard’s field experience and personal losses, and each choice further emphasizes why Simmons’ skills are so great — even when the two Howards are together, it’s difficult to think of them as played by one person. This only adds to the show’s ability to mess with viewers’ minds, making them question the long-held perceptions about what comprises identity. – HN

Logan Browning, “Dear White People”

Browning deserves to be on this list for “Chapter VIII” alone. Her Samantha White engages in an episode-long debate with Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), over everything from the problems of a white savior complex to the very real romantic connection still shared by the former partners. Throughout, Browning is in total control. Creator and director Justin Simien uses plenty of long takes to give the episode a theatrical tone, and his lead actress pivots on a dime between long, windy speeches about racism to forced, blunt reactions to her emotional state. Browning is a detailed yet natural performer, channeling the educational and entertainment aspects of “Dear White People” as deftly as needed to blend them into a powerful overall experience. This one episode may be all that’s needed to merit award consideration, she doesn’t let up for one second throughout the other nine entries. – BT

Megan Amram, “An Emmy For Megan”

An Emmy For Megan - Drinking

Megan Amram in “An Emmy For Megan”

Vimeo

Though Amram couldn’t fulfill the promise inherent to her title, the “Good Place” writer (who also snuck a cameo in Season 3) and web series Emmy nominee made quite a ruckus with her riotous turn as herself. Calling upon her unparalleled singing, eating, and violin-ing skills, Amram makes a convincing case for her claim to TV’s most coveted statuette. More so, her committed yet satirical turn called out the hypocrisies inherent to the campaigning process and the flaws within the TV Academy’s ever-evolving system. Yes, the writing made her point clear, but few meta performances are as memorable, passionate, or hysterical as Amram’s. She should’ve won, but there’s a silver lining: Now, we might get a sequel. – BT

Patricia Arquette, “Escape at Dannemora”

Dramatic shifts in appearance and presentation are typically an easy way for performers to get attention, but they’re only able to hold it when the transformation rings true. As Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, the Clinton Correctional Facility staffer who helped two convicts escape in 2015, Patricia Arquette goes all the way — from her ratty hair to a thick, Northern accent to the added weight gained for the role, the Oscar-winning “Boyhood” star erases all memories of a sweet mom and brings a persuasive curiosity to Tilly. She likes being bad just enough to get into trouble, but it’s how she responds when challenged that pushes the character beyond any simple explanations outsiders may want to assign. Arquette understands Tilly, doesn’t judge her, and crafts a stunning portrait of selfish restlessness stirred up to a grand scale. – BT

LisaGay Hamilton, “The First”

The First -- "The Choice" - Episode 107 - Tom and the Providence crew must make a choice with potentially life-threatening consequences. Matteo wrestles with his past. Tom and Denise must deal with unfinished business. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) and Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton in “The First”

Alan Markfield/Hulu

It’s not every day a performer can upstage a two-time Oscar winner, but that’s exactly what LisaGay Hamilton manages to do in Hulu’s “The First.” By the time the third episode rolls around and Hamilton’s passed over space commander gets her time in the spotlight, viewers are practically begging for more from the dutiful yet frustrated second-in-command. Kayla Price is always thinking about what’s best for the mission, what’s best for the team, and rarely what’s best for her, but when pushed to the brink by an unjust system and unthinking colleagues, the exasperation comes tumbling out. Hamilton gives her army-trained character great poise and unfaltering loyalty without allowing those stoic traits to mask her inner turmoil. The internal moments with her wife, when she’s allowed to speak freely, even those are filled with learned limitations. But when she’s standing in front of her boss or superior officer, the shaky attempts to remain rigid let viewers know all they need to about Kayla’s sacrifice. Hamilton finds so much humanity while being asked to hide it, and for that, she may as well have taken us to Mars. – BT

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