Rebecca Bunch had a rough year — getting ditched at the altar was just the beginning — and Bloom responded with her bravest, most vulnerable work yet. Her remarkable versatility had us laughing and singing along one minute, and on the verge of tears the next. She pulled off every last comedic and dramatic beat… without hitting one false note.
Alison Brie, GLOW
With the Netflix dramedy’s premiere, the Community grad threw a headlock on our hearts and never let go. Whether her aspiring actress-turned-Gorgeous Lady of Wrestling Ruth Wilder was embracing her villainous new role of Zoya the Destroya or trying to rebuild the friendship she’d wrecked, Brie was exactly what GLOW‘s matches weren’t: real.
Danielle Brooks, Orange Is the New Black
Taystee stepped up to become Litchfield’s raging, eloquent voice of protest this season, and Brooks stepped up, too, with an uncompromising portrayal of a woman finally pushed too far. Her friend Poussey’s death transformed Taystee into an unlikely crusader for justice, and Brooks’ fiery indignation fueled Season 5’s most gripping moments.
Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Marvelous doesn’t even begin to do Brosnahan’s work in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s sumptuous period dramedy justice. In just one eight-episode season, the House of Cards alum has proven herself to be one of television’s most formidable comedy powerhouses. The Magnificent Mrs. Maisel is more like it.
Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
Think of Brown as Goofy Dad Randall. Then, Corporate Raider Randall. How about Emotionally Wounded Adopted Kid Randall? Sexy Modern Husband Randall? Unable to Hold It All Together Randall? Fighting for His Foster Daughter Randall? We’ve asked it before, we’ll do so again: Is there anything this man can’t play?
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Say what you will about Kimmy Schmidt‘s uneven third season, but there is no denying that Burgess delivered one comedic tour de force after another, with his most notable triumph occurring in the Lemonade-spoofing second installment. As Titus Andromedon spiraled out of control in the wake of his kerfuffle with boyfriend Mikey, Burgess flawlessly toggled between high camp (the baseball-bat tirade), subtle satire (his mortified reaction to Mikey’s Biz Markie’s homage), and, in the episode’s closing moments, heartbreak as he came to realize what was really going on.
Carrie Coon, The Leftovers
The Emmys be damned, Coon gave in the HBO drama’s final season a career-making performance. From Nora’s crushing beach-ball monologue in “Certified” to her heart-bursting reunion with Kevin in the series’ romantic finale, Coon wasn’t good, she wasn’t great, she was superlative.
Iain De Caestecker, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The year started off (relatively) quietly for Fitz’s portrayer, but come late February, he stepped to the fore with his most impressive performances yet: first, making us fear for Daisy’s life as an evil LMD, and then in the seven-episode Framework arc, where the do-right genius was “rebooted” as Aida’s ruthless overlord lover.
Betty Gilpin, GLOW
In wrestling terms, the work Gilpin did in Season 1 was as dazzling as the hair mare. As Debbie Eagan transformed herself from betrayed wife to single mom and from former soap star to lady wrestler, her portrayer deftly blended hurt and hope, humor and pathos to create a character that glowed more brightly than 1980s neon.
Shawn Hatosy, Animal Kingdom
In Season 2 of the underrated TNT drama, Hatosy made us see that Pope isn’t a monster at all, he’s a pit bull, dangerous only because he’s been warped by his upbringing. So it was beyond heartbreaking to watch the actor open up his volatile alter ego to love and, even scarier, hope, only to have both torn away in a moment of brutal honesty.
Freddie Highmore, Bates Motel
You could say that Highmore gave the (cough) mother of all performances in the Psycho prequel’s stunning final season. Not only did he continue to wreck us with poignant reminders that, beneath the mental illness, Norman Bates was as sweet a boy as Norma had always said he was, but his portrayal of Mother rivaled even Vera Farmiga’s.
Ron Cephas Jones, This Is Us
Though he was excellent throughout Season 1, the crescendo of Jones’ final moments as a dying William were the ones that undid us. With just a few words, and a frail, soul-baring admission that Randall’s dad was afraid of what came next, Jones transformed a TV trope moment into the most human — and achingly real — of experiences.
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
No performance anywhere on TV this past year was more achingly vulnerable than Kidman’s courageous turn as abused wife Celeste. The Oscar winner delivered one of the most shockingly vivid portrayals of domestic violence we’ve ever seen on screen. And those raw, searing therapy scenes? They should be playing on an endless loop in some fancy museum.
Jessica Lange, FEUD: Bette and Joan
Joan Crawford may have been famously snubbed by the Oscars, but Lange shouldn’t suffer the same fate. She was simply riveting as an achingly fragile Crawford scratched and clawed to hang onto her last shred of showbiz relevance. The finale, with Crawford slumming in a schlocky horror movie and dreaming of a reconciliation with her rival Bette Davis, is some of Lange’s finest work ever. (And yes, we’re aware that’s saying a lot.)
Melissa McCarthy, Saturday Night Live
McCarthy’s boiling-mad impersonation of White House press secretary Sean Spicer was an instant SNL classic. From the outset, she nailed Spicey’s combative tone while gamely mining the embattled mouthpiece’s myriad quirks for comedy gold. It represented McCarthy’s most fearless, committed and gut-bustingly funny work since Bridesmaids.
Michael McKean, Better Call Saul
It’s official: We can’t just call McKean a comedy actor anymore. His mesmerizing, heart-wrenching work as Jimmy’s arrogant brother Chuck this season proved he’s a superb dramatic actor as well, as he peeled back the layers of Chuck’s carefully constructed façade, exposing the wounded bully underneath.
Christopher Meloni, Happy!
You know an actor’s killing it when he can play scenes opposite an animated unicorn and not get upstaged! But Meloni doesn’t merely hold his own as Nick Sax, a hitman whose outlook is as bleak as Happy’s is… well, happy, he gives the kind of go-for-broke, let-it-all-hang-out performance that, were he not already a star, we’d call starmaking.
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
The careful, protective façade Moss’ Offred wears is so polished, so necessarily devoid of any giveaway emotion. That means the moments when it cracks have an enhanced power: That’s when Moss is showing us exactly who the handmaid truly is, and we’d best pay attention. Accordingly, our favorite interludes were some of Offred’s toughest: Moss’ portrayal of her shock upon learning Luke hadn’t died, her complicated (and sexy) stolen moments with Nick, and the visceral rage that overtook her when Serena offered a glimpse of daughter Hannah. Is it any wonder Emmy voters agreed?
Natasha Rothwell, Insecure
Clearly, someone at the HBO dramedy had the same reaction we did to Rothwell’s hilarious Season 1 scene-stealing as Kelli: For Season 2, she was promoted to series regular, and made the most of every mischievous moment, dropping zingers like they were hot and often saying more with a single facial expression than some performers could with a whole script.
Noah Schnapp, Stranger Things
The more Season 2 allowed the malevolent Mind Flayer to mess with Will Byers’ head, the more impressed we were by his portrayer. The way the 13-year-old balanced the Zombie Boy’s fear of the Shadow Monster with his horror at being weaponized against his loved ones made the actor’s inclusion on this list a, ahem, no-brainer.