An abundance of quality series produced an inevitable increase in good roles for actors, and a list of breakout performances as varied in terms of platform – and geography – as it was style and tone.
Settling on criteria wasn’t easy, but the scope went beyond unknowns and supporting characters to actors who stepped up in class, through a leading part that showcased them in a way they haven’t been before, or at least in a while. (Apologies, for example, to those who think Krysten Ritter already “broke out” in “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23.”)
The selections wound up representing a dozen networks or streaming services and a number of different countries. As for how the choices were made, there was unanimity on some (Rami Malek, come on down) and one fervent champion for others. Then again, since when do two critics ever agree entirely on anything?
So with that disclaimer, here are the breakout players of 2015, from Al Massri to Zissis.
Yasmine Al Massri (“Quantico”): ABC’s ridiculously frothy FBI soap opera featured an assortment of catalog-worthy characters, but none more interesting than the Lebanon-born Al Massri’s dual role as twin sisters who, in a “The Prestige”-like twist, alternate their assignments and must approximate each other’s actions.
Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”): Ansari was a capable performer in a cast of great actors on “Parks and Recreation,” and keeping up with that incredibly talented crowd was no easy task. But on “Master of None,” which he co-created with “Parks” writer Alan Yang, Ansari gave himself a whole new range of scenes and modes to play, and he stepped up and delivered admirably. From romantic lead to acerbic working actor to curious citizen of the world, Ansari’s Dev was an energetic delight to watch.
Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer (“UnReal”): It was hard to choose just one, with both actresses turning in some of the best work of their careers as two hard-driving, ethics-challenged reality-TV producers, with one woman essentially providing a cautionary tale of the road on which the other finds herself.
Melissa Benoist (“Supergirl”): Playing superheroes is harder work than it looks, and not just because of the costumes, wires and green screens. Benoist had to achieve quite a lot as a strange visitor from Krypton, plagued by personal doubts and romantic troubles that make her vulnerable, emotionally, even if bullets bounce off.
Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”): CW’s bet on “Crazy” might not pay off, ratings-wise, but it has established Bloom as a multiple threat, as comfortable with comedy and moments of drama as song and dance. At the core is the fact her character is profoundly unhappy, a sense she manages to sell while still periodically kicking up her heels.
Tituss Burgess (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”): It’s not just that Titus Andromedon was funny, whimsical and as self-absorbed as most other characters on “Kimmy”; those things made him eminently watchable, but there was more to Burgess’ performance. Titus was also deep, strange, kind and thoughtful. Burgess made you conscious of his character’s hopes and aspirations while never forgetting how fun it could be to embrace the ridiculous. It’s a difficult mixture to pull off, especially as a supporting character, but thanks to the show’s taut writing and Burgess’ deftness, Titus was always a treat.
Richard Cabral, Elvis Nolasco (“American Crime”): While it was tough to single out a few players from an ensemble cast, these two performers – reflecting the different threads of a tragedy that rippled through the series and challenged preconceived notions – more than held their own opposite the likes of Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton and Regina King, who have been delivering breakout performances for years.
Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”): While the temptation was to single out the trio of Lion sons, ultimately, “Empire” owes the lion’s share of its success to Henson’s career-topping turn as the quotable, irrepressible Cookie. Not since “Dynasty” and “Dallas” has their been a soap-y diva to rival her – scheming, sexy and angry, sometimes all at once.
Sharon Horgan (“Catastrophe”): A foul-mouthed schoolteacher who accidentally became pregnant, Horgan was half of one of the most captivating couples of the year — captivating in large part because they came across as real human beings with understandable insecurities and terrific senses of humor. Before 2015, we were unfamiliar with Horgan, but now we can’t get enough of her deft and versatile on-screen work.
Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”): Malek’s character, Elliot Alderson, has trouble relating to people, which could have made this remote, emotionally troubled hacker difficult for the audience to root for. But thanks to Malek’s nuanced, subtle and empathic performance, Elliot became much more than a chilly tragic figure. In “Mr. Robot’s” bravura first season, Malek made Elliot sly, amusing, self-aware and spectacularly flawed, but also strangely sympathetic.
Rose McIver (“iZombie”): McIver not only had to illuminate the strange journey of her character – who inadvertently became a zombie and then kept it secret from most of her family and friends — but also had to become a different person every week (the brains she eats seep into her personality). McIver made it all look easy, even as she reeled off the kind of snappy, smart-aleck one-liners loved by executive producers Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright.
Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline”): Amid a top-notch cast, Mendelsohn stood out as the troubled brother in this Netflix family drama, the prodigal son whose return sets a tragedy in motion. If his rogue wasn’t entirely lovable, he was just sympathetic enough to bring weight to all the angst he unleashed in his siblings.
Wagner Moura (“Narcos”): The Brazilian Moura rather famously had to learn Spanish in short order to play drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in this spare Netflix series. But he often said as much with withering stares and his hollowed-out eyes as he did any of the subtitled dialogue, bringing a sense of menace to even the quiet moments.
Krysten Ritter (“Marvel’s Jessica Jones”): It’s hard to think of a more productive union of role and actor this year. Ritter’s always had a deft hand with sarcasm, and we knew from “Breaking Bad” she could do drama; still, given a complex, damaged lead character, she was even more impressive than anybody had a right to expect. In portraying a survivor of mental and physical violence, Ritter never went down the easy or cliched path, and the mixture of resilience, compassion and cynicism she brought to Jessica made the Marvel superhero one of the year’s most memorable characters.
Mark Rylance (“Wolf Hall”): As Thomas Cromwell, perhaps the savviest English courtier of all time, much of Rylance’s job consisted of watching, waiting, reacting and considering his options. Rylance made the character’s wariness and cool competence enthralling, and he indicated, through the subtlest of gestures and choices, what it cost Cromwell psychologically to save powerful men from themselves.
Shanice Williams (“The Wiz Live”): NBC’s best decision with its latest live musical might have been casting an unknown in the central role of Dorothy, surrounded by a star-studded cast. That brought an element of discovery to Williams’ show-stopping vocal performance, which will likely lead to a yellow-brick-road full of opportunities.
Bokeem Woodbine (“Fargo”): How does one stand out in the murderer’s row that was the “Fargo” Season 2 cast? Not by going big and broad; Woodbine trusted in his presence and charisma to make Mike Milligan memorable, and he was right to do so. The restraint and intelligence Woodbine brought to the role and Milligan’s philosophical monologues were most welcome, but so was the sense of joy that infused his performance. Woodbine clearly was having the time of his life playing this role, and it showed.
Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”): It’s not just that Wu offers hilarious line readings and has impeccable timing. Within the context of this snappy and smart family sitcom, she gives real complexity and depth to her character — the kind of texture that makes you hope that Wu’s career will only continue to blossom.
Steve Zissis (“Togetherness”): Another indie-flavored half-hour show about moderately miserable people in a coastal city? You’d be forgiven if deflation was your reaction to the one-sentence description of “Togetherness,” but skipping this HBO show would have meant missing out on Zissis’ fantastic performance. His shaggy character was an everyman actor who was sure his time had passed, but the quiet passion and wily subversiveness he brought to the role were beyond impressive. In a cast full of capable actors with higher profiles, Zissis’ versatility, skill and warmth easily stood out.