Breakout TV performances from the past year

Ed Asner
‘CSI: NY’
Why: It’s a good year for veteran Asner, who’s voicing Pixar’s “Up” and, here, was a Jewish clockmaker claiming to be an Auschwitz survivor and gets involved in a murder case.

Scott Bakula
‘Chuck’
Why: Convincing as the multilayered “is he a crazy genius, or just crazy” dad to series star Zachary Levi’s Chuck.

Christine Baranski
‘The Big Bang Theory’
Why: As Leonard’s psychoanalyst mother, her verbal showdowns with Jim Parsons’ Sheldon was one of the highlights of a memorable season. It was wonderful to see someone willing to duke it out with Sheldon … intellectually speaking.

Brenda Blethyn
‘Law & Order: SVU’
Why: As an ordinary woman with an extraordinary secret, Blethyn slowly revealed the terror of surviving a brutal rape by her husband 30 years ago. Her admission on the witness stand that she escaped from prison years before to get an abortion was painful and shockingly truthful.

Ernest Borgnine
‘ER’
Why: At 92, the screen legend still has game. It was beyond touching to see his character bring his wife into County General every time she took a turn for the worse. And he was right there when she finally succumbed.

Albert Brooks‘Weeds’
Why: Whenever Brooks makes a TV appearance, it’s always a treat, and his turn as Nancy’s gambling-obsessed father-in-law was inspired casting.

Gaius Charles
‘Friday Night Lights’
Why: Formerly a series regular, Charles’ farewell-to-Dillon scene capped his character’s emotional journey from cocky kid to mature, feeling young man.

Alan Dale
‘Lost’
Why: On a show as captivating as “Lost,” you need someone who represents pure evil, and Dale’s take on Charles Widmore seems to be filling that role nicely.

Peter Dinklage
’30 Rock’
Why: Charming both in how he attracted Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and how he brought out her neuroses. Of the many celebrity guests on the NBC sitcom this season, Dinklage seemed to give the most natural, convincing perf.
Idris Elba
‘The Office’
Why: Because he was wrongfully ignored by Emmy on “The Wire.” And because of the interesting sense of gravitas (with the appropriate blind spot) he brought to Dunder Mifflin.

Tina Fey
‘Saturday Night Live’
Why: Safe to say that no guest performance on TV in 2008-09 got more attention than Fey’s three skits as Sarah Palin. People immediately remarked on the resemblance when Palin vaulted into the national scene, but Fey’s ability to humorously channel Palin’s mannerisms exceeded the high expectations that followed.

Patrick Fischler
‘Mad Men’
Why: In a year that found him dashing from show to show to guest, Fischler’s Barrett stood out as the perfect thorn in “Mad Men” lead Jon Hamm’s side.

Michael J. Fox
‘Rescue Me’
Why: There’s little Fox can’t do these days. His ABC special fared well in the ratings, he’s got a bestselling book out, and dating Tommy Gavin’s ex-wife in a turnaround season of “Rescue Me” proves he’s still an artistic force.

Jon Hamm
’30 Rock’
Why: Along with being one of the best guest hosts on “Saturday Night Live” this season, Hamm brought winning charm and deft timing to his multiepisode stint as a too-good-to-be-true boyfriend for Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon.Jared Harris
‘Fringe’
Why: Harris perfected creepy on a show that was enticingly creepy enough even before he came aboard. His ability to be transported — molecule by molecule — from Germany to the States, and the coolness in which he offed his adversaries, was chilling.

Salma Hayek
’30 Rock’
Why: Had great give-and-take with Alec Baldwin in girlfriend/ boyfriend combo. As evidenced on the sitcom, her comedy side should be given more of a chance to shine.

Mark Moses
‘Mad Men’
Why: In theory, Duck Phillips was not a character you would root for, but Moses brought heartbreaking pathos to the part, particularly in showing the effects of how his job drove him to drink.

Mos Def
‘House’

Why: Playing a patient who can’t speak or move but with a fully functioning brain, the underrated actor found himself an integral piece of one of the best episodes of the series this season.

Bob Odenkirk
‘Breaking Bad’
Why: In a show darker than the other side of Mercury, Odenkirk’s strip-mall lawyer brought sharp comic relief without upsetting the series’ overall tone.

Mary Kay Place
‘Big Love’
Why: An unsung recurring character on the massively cast HBO drama, Place is believably fierce yet vulnerable as Adaleen Grant — practically a Livia Soprano for the Juniper Creek set.

Adina Porter
‘True Blood’
Why: A powerhouse in every scene with onscreen daughter Rutina Wesley as a woman dealing with her inner demons, Porter was just too good not to be given Emmy consideration.CCH Pounder‘The No. 1 Ladies’Detective Agency’
Why: Pounder portrayed an American traveling to Africa to try to figure out who was responsible for her son’s death.

Stephen Root
‘True Blood’
Why: Strapped down and trying to elicit sympathy from his captors, who were using him as a source of super-juice V, Root’s effeminate vampire knew things weren’t going to end well. And they didn’t.

Susan Sarandon
‘ER’
Why: While all eyes were on George Clooney, Sarandon delivered a gut-punching turn as a grandmother who must OK the transplant of organs from her deceased grandson.

Stellan Skarsgard
‘Entourage’
Why: As a big-budget director working on Vince’s firefighter pic, Skarsgard was more than happy to blow a gasket to get the right scene for his fictional pic and get in the face of actors and studio execs who got in his way.

Jimmy Smits
‘Dexter’
Why: As the Miami DA, and one of the best friends Dexter ever had, Smits became yet another victim, but not before the two shared several engrossing scenes.

Ryan Stiles
‘Two and a Half Men’
Why: Stiles recurred this season playing Herb Melnick, the mellow husband of the always-irritable Judith (Marin Hinkle). After getting kicked out of his home by Judith, Stiles shined in his attempts to adapt to the single, playboy lifestyle of “Charlie Harper.”

Eric Stoltz
‘Grey’s Anatomy’
Why: As a Death Row patient who wants to die, Stoltz didn’t find Derek (Patrick Dempsey) very supportive.

Kristen Wiig
‘Flight of the Conchords’
Why: In a deft departure from her broader portrayals on “Saturday Night Live,” Wiig was charming and loopy as Brahbrah, “the girl that’s fine with the wonky eye” who won the hearts of Bret and Jermaine.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more