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Top Breakout TV Stars of 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, Variety takes a look back on some of the fresh faces in television who helped us survive another year.

Of course, fresh can mean many things. In this list, we honor people appearing on new shows, people who joined returning shows, as well as people who made the jump to TV this year. Take, for example, relative unknowns like “Young Sheldon” star Iain Armitage or the young cast of “Riverdale,” who all exploded in popularity this year.

Then there are veteran actors like Sean Astin and Rachel Brosnahan, who took on new roles this year to great fan and critical acclaim. Brosnahan stole hearts and laughs for her powerhouse performance in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Astin, meanwhile, became part of the phenomenon that is Netflix’s binge-worthy series “Stranger Things.”

Read the full list below. Each of those mentioned, in their own way, made us want to keep watching.

Iain Armitage, “Young Sheldon” (CBS)

It was the closest thing to a sure thing you could get that “The Big Bang Theory” prequel series “Young Sheldon” would be a hit. The burden of continuing the legacy of the incredibly successful parent program fell largely on the pint-sized shoulders of Iain Armitage, who plays the child version of Jim Parsons’ Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The young Armitage pulled it off, though, and the series has proven to be number one new comedy of the 2017-2018 season in the Nielsen ratings.

Sean Astin, “Stranger Things” (Netflix)

The original Goony appeared in “Stranger Things” Season 2 and quickly proved to be one of the most lovable characters on television in 2017. Astin played Bob Newby, the boyfriend of Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and would-be stepfather to her two sons. Astin brought a tear-jerking amount of humanity and heart to the role, playing Bob as a normal guy who stepped up in the biggest way possible when the people he loved were in danger.

Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)

Rachel Brosnahan is no stranger to TV audiences after recent turns on “House of Cards” and “Manhattan,” but her starring role on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” gives the talented actress her best role in years. Brosnahan effortlessly inhabits Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950s New York housewife who discovers a talent for stand up comedy. The series is the brainchild of “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, providing Brosnahan with no shortage of snappy dialogue. Her onscreen friendship with Alex Borstein as talent manager Susie is also the stuff of TV gold.

Nick Frost, “Into the Badlands” (AMC)

Nick Frost joined AMC’s martial arts series for its second season this year, injecting a welcome dose of comic relief. Frost starred as Bajie, a fast-talking hustler who spends the beginning of the season literally chained to Daniel Wu’s Sunny. “Into the Badlands” truly seemed to hit its stride this season, and Frost was a major component of that. Pairing him with the no-nonsense character Wu portrays allowed for a fantastic odd couple dynamic that provided balance to the show’s breathtaking fight sequences.

Jessica Henwick, “Iron Fist” (Netflix) 

Jessica Henwick turned out to be a rose among a lot of poorly-reviewed thorns in the first season of the Marvel-Netflix series “Iron Fist.” Henwick played Colleen Wing, a martial arts master who becomes the ally and lover of the titular hero, played by Finn Jones. Despite the show receiving a rash of negative reviews upon its release, Henwick was one of the few elements of the series to earn real praise. Hopefully, her role will be expanded going forward. The chances of that look good, as Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb teased Wing would team up with Det. Misty Knight (Simone Missick) in a future season in keeping with the comic books.

Sonequa Martin-Green, “Star Trek: Discovery” (CBS All Access)

Sonequa Martin-Green made the leap from one massive series to another this year, leaving “The Walking Dead” to take on a starring role in “Star Trek: Discovery.” Despite a lot of negative news coming out ahead of “Discovery’s” premiere (including multiple premiere date delays), Martin-Green deftly took on the challenge of leading the new installment of the iconic sci-fi franchise. Her portrayal of convicted Starfleet mutineer Michael Burnham made the new show truly binge-worthy.

Jonah Ray, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return” (Netflix)

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” remains one of the most popular cult TV shows of all time. After a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, the show was brought back for a new season on Netflix with comedian Jonah Ray stepping in as the host. Ray had a big jumpsuit to fill, taking over a role previously held by series creator Joel Hodgson and later Michael J. Nelson, the original show’s head writer. But with Hodgson’s blessing, Ray took to the task with apparent ease, riffing on movies with the best of them.

The Cast of “Riverdale” (The CW)

“Riverdale,” the dark twist on the classic Archie Comics, has quickly become a force to be reckoned with on The CW in just under a year. The young cast includes: K.J. Apa as Archie, Lili Reinhart at Betty Cooper, Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, and Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones. The first season launched on CW in January and was subsequently released on Netflix. With the streaming service helping the show reach a much bigger audience, the second season has skyrocketed past the first in ratings to the tune of nearly 50 percent in the key demo and nearly 60 percent in total viewers.

Frankie Shaw, “SMILF” (Showtime)

Frankie Shaw took the short film she entered into the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and turned it into a TV series that she stars in, writes, directs, and produces this year. Shaw stars as Bridgette, a broke single mother trying to make ends meet for herself and her infant son in South Boston. Shaw has earned critical acclaim for her performance, with many praising her portrayal of a young, flawed woman and the way in which she authentically captured life near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in America. She was nominated for two Golden Globes for the show’s freshman season.

Jimmy Tatro, “American Vandal” (Netflix)

“American Vandal” perfectly skewered the true crime documentary genre and Jimmy Tatro was at the very heart of it. Tatro played Dylan Maxwell, a high school student who is expelled on shaky evidence that he vandalized over two dozen faculty cars. Tatro’s deadpan (and braindead) delivery made Dylan a lovable loser you couldn’t help but root for. But when the show took unexpected dramatic turns, particularly in its final episodes, Tatro proved more than up to the challenge.

Reese Witherspoon & Nicole Kidman, “Big Little Lies” (HBO)

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman both made the jump from film to series television this year with the critically-acclaimed series “Big Little Lies.” Both women won Emmys for their work as executive producers on the show, with Kidman also winning the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie. All told, the show won eight Emmys and was recently nominated for six Golden Globes. Both women will return as stars and executive producers for the show’s second season.


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