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The Best TV Performances of the Decade

The decade didn’t lack for powerful and memorable performances across all forms and genres of television. Indeed, the challenge of pulling together a list of turns worth remembering was featuring only one cast member per show — otherwise, this could simply have been a list of “Orange Is the New Black” performers — and eventually capping the list at 25. (Ranking would have been impossible, and was not attempted; so before you ask “why is [x] ranked higher than [x]??”, please consider first that this list is, in fact, in alphabetical order.)

Here are the best of the best — performances that dazzled in their moment, and endure now.

Alison Brie as Annie Edison, “Community” (2009-2015)

Like a few people on this list, Alison Brie left her mark on this decade in TV through several memorable roles, bookended by her arch turn as Trudy Campbell on “Mad Men” and her deft performance as Ruth on Netflix’s “G.L.O.W.” But at the same time she was on “Mad Men,” Brie was also busy stealing scenes as a very different character on the NBC sitcom “Community.” Annie Edison was a determined young woman whose type A tendencies set her up for all-too-easy punchlines from her peers. But the way Brie played her, with a quivering vulnerability peeking through her Tracy Flick exterior, gave her more depth than the scripts often did. And even though Annie rarely got the show’s best jokes, Brie was always really, really funny. Given the complexity she brought to this breakout role, it’s no surprise that Brie’s become such a smart and reliable performer a decade later. —C.F.

Danielle Brooks as Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, “Orange is the New Black” (2013-2019)

In many respects, choosing a single performance from a show with as deep a talent bench as “Orange is the New Black” is a fool’s errand. Jenji Kohan’s Netflix drama changed the game with its cast, whose diversity in age, race, sexuality, and gender was so unusual to TV at the time (and indeed, remains so even now). But when all was said and done, it was Danielle Brooks’ Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson who broke away from the pack and proved to be the glue holding “OITNB” together. While at first the show treated Taystee like something of a court jester to offset its grim subject matter, Brooks gave her such irresistible depth and warmth that she was immediately so much more. Taystee’s dynamic and harrowing journey formed a crucial backbone for a series that constantly juggled plotlines. That’s a big ask for any performer to sell, but Brooks shouldered it with charismatic ease. —C.F.

Tituss Burgess as Titus Andromedon, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (2015-2020)

The role of a femme gay man playing backup to a plucky lady is one that TV has traditionally indulged to death and back, usually for the worse. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” made the smart choice to not only give its version of the character his own storylines and drive, but to cast Tituss Burgess in the part. Burgess, best known then for pulling focus with precious few lines on “30 Rock,” is an incredibly dynamic performer who commands attention wherever he goes — which, for the role of his peacocking “Kimmy Schmidt” facsimile, is necessary. Much like his co-star Jane Krakowski did on “30 Rock,” Burgess buoys the show with a manic zip that keeps it moving even when the jokes fall flat. Only a true pro could make a song like “Pinot Noir,” which essentially amounts to a rhythmic list of random words, hilarious enough to endure like it has. —C.F.

Carrie Coon as Nora Durst, “The Leftovers” (2014-2017)

One of the most titanic acting moments in TV, period, comes in the waning minutes of “The Leftovers.” After trying to escape her former life completely, Carrie Coon’s Nora sits down with her former partner Kevin (Justin Theroux) and tells him a long, detailed, utterly surreal story about the parallel world she encountered when she went in search of her Departed family. It’s a mammoth monologue that depends entirely on Coon’s patience and precision; whether or not you believe her is beside the point. It’s the kind of scene that only happens if everyone involved believes the actor can pull it off, and as became undeniable throughout “The Leftovers,” Carrie Coon is exactly that kind of rarity. Her Nora — furious and ruthless and hopeful despite herself — is integral to the show’s success. In her hands, even the simple act of flicking a coffee mug off a table becomes something extraordinary. — C.F.

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, “Homeland” (2011-2020)

Danes has been asked to do similar things enough times that the impact has dimmed a bit. But her work as Carrie Mathison in “Homeland’s” early run was electric in a way that burns in memory even now. Consider season 2 opener “The Smile,” in which Carrie is back on duty as a CIA agent after having been disgraced at the end of season 1 (though she was right about everything). Having been drawn back into work that is objectively bad for her, Carrie proved once again she was good at it by carrying out a successful op, and bursts, in the middle of the crowd in which she’s undercover, into a euphoric grin. It’s unlike any spy viewers could imagine; it threatens her cover; it’s embarrassingly open and vulnerable. It’s purely Carrie, someone for whom viewers could root because of her gifts for spying and for emotional honesty, even as she destroyed herself in the process. -—D.D.

Adam Driver as Adam Sackler, “Girls” (2012-2017)

“Girls” was often a show whose characters were drawn more as exuberantly broad types than as characters who felt credibly lifelike (and was very good for it!), but Driver’s performance was an exception. As Adam Sackler, the boyfriend of lead character Hannah (Lena Dunham), Driver was the opposite of his lover in every way: Emotionally repressed where she was volatile and exuberant, worldly where she was naive. Adam seemed to lack the complexity of Hannah because he refused to allow himself to discuss his fears; bubbling under the surface, though, was real, and at times frightening, rage and possessiveness that could read as love and could read as something worse. Adam wasn’t a monster — he was a man who’d been provided none of the tools towards self-discovery that Hannah had. And, in Driver’s portrayal, he was movingly human even as his painfully unevolved state. —D.D.

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019)

Playing the character closest to pure archetype in all of “Thrones” — the wicked queen, malignantly and Maleficent-ly stomping down the path to power — Headey ported in sharp, askew humor as well as real fear. Cersei Lannister ruled by whim because, after a life in which she’d lost much and knew she would lose yet more, she felt she deserved it. (Moments in which Cersei stopped to savor her victories, as when she sipped wine watching the Sept burn and kill her enemies, had a toxic thrill.) And she ruled with an iron fist because it helped hide the tremble in her hand. “Game of Thrones” excelled at finding the twist in characters who seemed at first blush taken from a traditional fantasy story; Headey’s brute-force queen bulldozed her opposition, but not so swiftly that she couldn’t allow in notes of terror, or thwarted love, or an anger at all that had been denied her. This monster was, at every moment, human. —D.D.

Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, “Atlanta” (2016-present)

Henry plays the character who’d seem to be the most dynamic in “Atlanta’s” universe — a rising celebrity with a cadre of admirers. And yet as Paper Boi, the rapper who provides the engine for much of the show’s plot, Henry is recessive, quiet, and contemplative. He seems perpetually to be assessing the situation before weighing in; it is a careful performance that suggests that Alfred (Paper Boi’s real name) has learned from experience not to trust easily. It’s easy to understand why Paper Boi is a star — his charisma is the sort that doesn’t give itself away, tempting anyone in its orbit to lean ever closer and wait for his next move. —D.D.

Jake Johnson as Nick Miller, “New Girl” (2011-2018)

The one-man charm offensive of Jake Johnson took a minute to warm up in “New Girl,” which at first spent too much its energy making its zany heroine pratfall to flesh out the supporting characters such as his Nick Miller. But Johnson’s effortless chemistry with Zooey Deschanel quickly became too strong to ignore, inspiring the show to follow its lead to a romantic endgame. Johnson’s ability to deliver Jimmy Stewart-esque flirty banter made it easy to understand why someone would hold a torch for him for years — an especially impressive feat given that otherwise, Nick was a spastic mess of a man who loved a panicky yell almost as much as the Chicago Bears. That Johnson could reconcile those two sides of the character while making it seem effortless is, frankly, a bigger miracle than Nick getting through the series in one piece. —C.F.

Riley Keough as Christine Reade, “The Girlfriend Experience” (2016)

As a law student and call girl, Keough delivered a performance that was perpetually watchful, gaming out the way to win in her legal internship and on other assignments. A character that might have read as a parody of a type-A millennial in another performer’s hands — Christine refuses to spend time with anyone “unless something is being accomplished,” she tells her own sister — is instead a moving depiction of strength under extreme, often self-imposed pressure. Christine is constantly revising, bobbing and weaving, trying to stay ahead of the days’ challenges; her two lines of work both demand that she present a calm, chilly visage. The outer chill masking the internal roiling is a contrast Keough, a presence in independent film, sold with astonishing acuity. —D.D.

Regina King as Angela Abar, “Watchmen” (2019)

Regina King (rightly) won an Oscar this decade, but the lionshare of her work lay in the world of television, where she made an indelible impression on shows like “Southland,” “American Crime,” and “The Leftovers.” With her starring role on “Watchmen,” however, King leads a uniquely strange and pointed show with a stubborn, funny, seething raw nerve of a character tailor-made for her (with some seriously involved action stunts, besides). Her Angela is both grounded and a surprise every week; when the show’s mythology reveals just how integral she is to the grand scheme of humanity, it makes more sense than just about anything else. — C.F.

Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, “The Comeback” (2014)

In 2005, Kudrow’s performance as a lapsed actress forced into reality TV to salvage her career was a revelation. In the 2014 second season, marbled with time having passed both for the character and the culture, it was even more. As Valerie Cherish — whose fame on unscripted fare led nowhere but itself — Kudrow is potently aware of just how many opportunities she has missed, and how few credible chances she has left. Valerie’s a real actress, but she can’t act her way out of the embarrassing fact of needing praise, bumbling loudly even when she knows silence would be better. Her run towards a return has all the warping aspects of, say, Gloria Swanson’s in “Sunset Boulevard,” with the crucial difference that Valerie has things to lose. Her season-ending decision between the adulation of those who know her public face and the love of those who see her private one is conveyed without Valerie’s jangling, buzzing energy. It’s, for once, quiet. —D.D. 

Dan Levy as David Rose, “Schitt’s Creek” (2015-2020)

When the charming Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek” started to become a bonafide phenomenon, its easiest point of entry was the incomparable and long established duo of Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy (the latter of whom also acts as co-creator). And yet, while both are typically excellent, it’s the actors playing their onscreen kids (Annie Murphy and co-creator Dan Levy) who routinely run away with it — and are, ultimately, portraying the beating hearts of the series itself. In talking to diehard “Schitt’s Creek” fans, it’s clear that the story that most resonates, and is ergo what made “Schitt’s Creek” the force it is going into its final season, is that of David (Dan Levy) letting his guard down to fall in love with Patrick (Noah Reid). Levy shares his father’s comedic knack for making every microexpression and twinge of exasperation count, but the way he’s softened David over the years and let his expressive eyes relax into the kind of warm sincerity from which the character once would have recoiled is a marvel all his own. —C.F.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, “Veep” (2012-2019)

There is perhaps no comedian as adept at portraying the particularly brutal and hilarious intersection of snark and self-absorption than Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She honed it as Elaine Benes on “Seinfeld”; two decades later, she weaponized it as Selina Meyer, the power-hungry politician of “Veep” who spent every waking hour scraping the bottom of the barrel for whatever dregs of power might remain. Armed with Armando Iaunucci’s caustic insults and the ongoing catastrophe that is American politics, Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina was a hilarious monster representing the darkest mirror of “you go girl!” politics. —C.F.

Justina Machado as Penelope Alvarez, “One Day at a Time” (2017-present)

Both Justina Machado and her character Penelope Alvarez bear the responsibility of being the glue that holds their surroundings together. Penelope is a single mother supporting two kids, her mother (played by the one and only Rita Moreno), and herself as she works through lingering PTSD from her time serving in Afghanistan. In portraying Penelope as the star of a multi-cam sitcom, Machado has to juggle the show’s broader jokes and the demands of performing for a live audience with the painful nuances of Penelope’s struggles. “One Day at a Time” would be a very good show even without Machado, but with her, it’s often extraordinary. —C.F. 

Tatiana Maslany as Sarah/Rachel/Alison/Cosima/Et Al., “Orphan Black” (2013-2017)

A winding story about long-lost clones uniting to take down the shady company that made them could have been unbearably cheesy in the hands of an unstable actor. But Maslany slipped right into several vastly different characters’ skins so smoothly that watching her act alongside herself made it easy to forget that she was, well, acting alongside herself. Each of her core four characters — streetwise Brit Sarah, glacial executive Rachel, neurotic Alison, and benevolent nerd Cosima — showed off a new side of Maslany’s talent for performing beyond archetypes. Her 2016 Emmy win, four years into “Orphan Black,” was stunning, not just because she beat out the likes of Viola Davis and Claire Danes, but because it took so long for the Academy to acknowledge what “Orphan Black” fans knew from day one. —C.F.

Danny McBride, “Vice Principals” (2016)

McBride’s Neal Gamby dreams of leading the high school at which he works simply because it’s his perceived right; he has no vision for the job but plenty of schemes to, with the aid of a more outright sociopathic colleague (Walton Goggins) ruin the life of the woman who eventually gets the job (Kimberly Hébert Gregory). There’s just enough comedy — malapropisms, gentle humiliation, goofy peacocking of the straight-male variety — to elide, in moments, just how horrifying Gamby’s project really is. It’s a performance built for its era, debuting as it did during the summer of 2016, when white male anger at perceived outsiders burned hot. The work, more potently even than McBride may have intended, is a dark revelation. —D.D.

Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017-present)

No one who had seen Moss in “Mad Men” or “Top of the Lake” would dare question her talent for making tricky characters feel more human than even they themselves might like. Even so: Moss’ blistering turn in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is so visceral that it’s sometimes hard to look her directly in the eye. Her take on the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s original novel is a seething knot of anger that grief has twisted so hard that even she has trouble recognizing herself when she catches a glimpse in the mirror, or someone else’s startled eye. Not many actors could hold up to director Reed Morano’s intense close-ups (a fact made all too clear in the show’s shakier subsequent seasons), but Moss holds their gaze with a fury so intense it’s become its own sort of calm. For all the wild(ly confusing) turns that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has taken as a show, Moss has nonetheless remained an impressive anchor throughout. —C.F.

Niecy Nash as Desna Simms, “Claws” (2017-2020)

There is no TV show that hasn’t been better off with the added presence of Niecy Nash, one of the medium’s most prolific and versatile performers. She can be hilarious, as evidenced in many appearances over comedies as varied as “Reno 911” and “Scream Queens.” She can be grounded and wrenching, as seen in more dramatic projects like “Getting On” and “When They See Us.” So it’s somewhat fitting that when she (finally) got her own starring vehicle with TNT’s “Claws,” the role required some of all the above. As Desna, a determined and ruthlessly ambitious nail technician turned kingpin, Nash gets to flex her acting muscles in a role worthy of her talent. —C.F.

Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, “Westworld” (2016-present)

The performances on “Westworld” — technically perfect to a one — are at times stymied by the elusive nature of truth in the script. Too often, the actors are asked not to illuminate the story but to conceal it, hiding secret identities in manners that serves the element of surprise more than the story. Newton is a marvelous exception, bringing her character, Maeve, on a journey towards intellectual fulfillment and humanity that tracks on every level. Her journey through the mind expresses itself magnificently through the body, with Maeve’s posture shifting from skittering in fear to regal conquering mode. In Newton, the show found an actor who could deeply inhabit both the rote, cyclical behavior of a robot and the sheer joy of breaking free from that loop — a sort of joy that feels soul-deep and, ultimately, despite its android source, relatable. —D.D.

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill, “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” (2009-2013, 2015-present)

Odenkirk has played all sides of Saul Goodman’s life — his vexed, life-ruining entanglement with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) on “Breaking Bad,” his future hiding from the consequences of his actions on “Better Call Saul’s” flash-forwards, and his past in the preponderance of “Saul.” It’s in that last section that Odenkirk’s work shines most. Even as a younger man, Jimmy McGill (as he’s then known) is world-weary and beaten-down; it’s only when executing a con, within the legal system or outside it, that he comes alive. In a funny way, Odenkirk’s is as good an onscreen depiction of addiction as lately exists. Jimmy needs the chemical thrill of getting something over on someone else. It’s in his later life, as Saul, when he faces down his impossible situation; on “Better Call Saul,” we have a front-row seat to the tragedy of someone wrecking his own life. —D.D.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (2016)

Paulson could as easily be on a list like this for her work as the throughline of “American Horror Story,” anchoring the seasons in which she appears in a clarity and frankness without which grander performances would not land. But she reached a new level in her performance as Marcia Clark, a reclamation project that framed the much-derided prosecutor as a woman ignored and brushed aside. (Tina Fey’s strange, cruel performance as Clark in the first season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” would be unthinkable after “Simpson” aired.) Her penetrating insight was less powerful than the force of O.J. Simpson’s fame, wealth, and narrative; her passion came to look like weakness. The performance methodically makes a case for Clark’s having been wronged all while using Paulson’s gifts — her ability to be gawkily humorous, or to dim the light in her eyes when wounded — to show that above deserving our sympathy for being a victim, Clark deserves it simply for being human. —D.D.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, “The Americans” (2013-2018)

It’s near-impossible to disentangle the work Rhys and Russell did together on “The Americans” into individual performances. Working together to play both halves of a team bonded by a dogged loyalty that could come to look like love, the actors formed a symbiotic unit. The pair, together, sold each push and pull of a complicated relationship between Russian spies who’d been assigned one another as their cover story; as Rhys’s Philip Jennings would recede into neuroses and self-doubt, Russell’s Elizabeth would shove ever further forward, governed by her unstoppable belief in the mission, and in her ability to carry it out. This series’s deep interest in the individual’s role in history would be vastly less interesting without two individuals who so perfectly captured two ways to cope with a rising tide. (The Cold War is drawing down as the series goes on, and Russia is not on track to win.) Philip, a pessimist by nature, looks for ways to lose with dignity; Elizabeth rages harder the more things slip away. The family-fracturing events of the series finale at last cool Elizabeth’s temper; having returned to Russia and lost her daughter to the U.S. for good, she realizes, in a characteristically brutally efficient bit of acting, that some things cannot be fought and must simply be borne. Her only comfort is a partner who’s shown us he knew that all along. —D.D. 

Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villaneuva, “Jane the Virgin” (2014-2019)

As the center of “Jane the Virgin”’s sprawling emotional whiplash of a story, Gina Rodriguez had her work cut out for her. Jane Villaneuva is a complex character who vibrates with hope and worry at all times. She’s determined and magnetic, but also frequently frustrating and skirting the edge of saccharine. Rodriguez rose to this challenge every week with grace and verve. She is also, not for nothing, one of the very best criers in TV history — a skill that came in handy on the bleeding heart that was “Jane the Virgin.” — C.F. 

Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy, “Succession” (2018-present)

The agony of Kendall Roy, scion and scapegoat of his dynastic family, is that he always knows better. He goes through life as a paragon of tightness — with his face held in a painful scowl — until, suddenly, something breaks and he binges, or acts in blind rage, or performs an excruciating rap at a family gathering. In all, Strong’s performance is a heartbreaking portrait both of an addict unwilling to do the work of getting better and of a person who’s gone through life enabled. Kendall siblings allow him to be himself, with the sine wave of carefulness into chaos and back again implies, because it sidelines a competitor, because they find it bemusing, and ultimately because they do not care. For Kendall’s father — who’s protected his son and watched in awe as Kendall went on to attempt to destroy him — something more complicated is at play. Kendall is, perhaps, his father’s id. —D.D.

For more of Variety‘s Best TV of the Decade,
check out our Best Shows and Best Episodes lists.

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