The 10 Best TV Performances of 2018 – Rolling Stone
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10 Best TV Performances of 2018

TV critic Alan Sepinwall on the small-screen stars who left us spellbound this year

Brian Tyree Henry in "Atlanta," Keri Russell in "The Americans," and Alan Arkin in "The Kominsky Method."

Brian Tyree Henry in 'Atlanta,' Keri Russell in 'The Americans,' and Alan Arkin in 'The Kominsky Method.'

Curtis Baker/FX, Patrick Harbron/FX, Mike Yarish/Netflix

Television is often referred to as a writer’s medium, but it’s actors who bring the writers’ words to life. Their performances have the power to make us sit upright in our La-Z-Boys or send us scrambling for something different to watch, stat. At times, it’s a show-stopping, bravura turn that grabs us; at others, a moment so subtle we find ourselves surprised by its sudden impact. And it’s not just those with the most material who deliver the goods. The most memorable work can often come from a scene-stealer who was barely in a show at all but made their moments count.

Over the course of 2018, a long list of contenders emerged who had the stuff to make this year-end list. The tireless Julia Garner delivered top-notch efforts in shows from Waco to The Americans, Ozark, Maniac (in which she was the best thing, despite appearing briefly) and Dirty John. Emily Meade somehow outshone everyone else in the deep, stacked cast of The Deuce as her character went through hell at the hands of her monstrous pimp. (For that matter, Gary Carr as that pimp was pretty spectacular.) No actors on TV made me more consistently happy this year than Andre Braugher on Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Ted Danson on The Good Place, though they’ve of course been doing that so well for so long, in these roles and others. Frank Langella and Jim Carrey both deserve recognition for always seeming to understand what kind of show Kidding was, even if Kidding itself didn’t always seem sure. And Sissy Spacek was simply jaw-dropping in her spotlight episode of Castle Rock (though she otherwise didn’t have much to do in that show, or in Homecoming, which featured its own crop of stellar co-stars).

Still, this year’s offerings were so good that none of those people wound up in my final list of the best performances. Ranking art always seems like a fool’s errand, especially when you’re comparing apples and oranges and bananas as in the group above. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the 10 people below — listed alphabetically — gave the performances of 2018 that will stick with me the longest, whether inspiring a smile or a shudder.

 

 

amy adams sharp objects

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Amy Adams, ‘Sharp Objects’

Adams carries a huge burden as the star of the HBO miniseries. The role of reporter Camille Preaker is a physically demanding one: She is drunk in almost every scene, her body is riddled with scars (which took two hours and three makeup artists to apply before each day of filming), she is soaked in sweat and — spoiler alert — she is being poisoned by her mother. She’s also in virtually every scene, and when she’s not, the other characters are usually talking about her. That’s a lot to shoulder before we even get to the character’s profoundly damaged, self-harming emotional state. In another actor’s hands, the heaviness might be enough to turn viewers off. Yet Adams is always incredibly watchable, always plays Camille’s own psychic injuries even as the character is hurting other people, and helps elevate a familiar story of murdered girls into something that feels painfully new.

THE KOMINSKY METHOD

Mike Yarish/Netflix

Alan Arkin, ‘The Kominsky Method’

What a wonder Arkin is as Hollywood agent Norman in the Netflix comedy. His beloved wife dies at the end of the first episode, and Norman’s grief is deep and acute, in a way that should make humor all but impossible. Yet he can still sling punchlines in ways that are both achingly funny and entirely in character for this old man in the midst of a very difficult time. It’s one of the best things the Oscar winner has done in a long and rightly lauded career.

Villanelle (Jodie Comer)

Sid Gentle Films Ltd/BBC America

Jodie Comer, ‘Killing Eve’

Our first of the list’s two assassins, and the first of two instances where I had to break a tie between two equally brilliant co-stars. Sandra Oh is wonderful as the frazzled spy chasing down Comer’s hitwoman Villanelle in the BBC America series (now streaming on Hulu). But the way that Comer captures Villanelle’s childlike nature is what ultimately makes the whole thing work. Villanelle is a monster, and there are many ways in which this tale of love and obsession could go off the rails quickly and feel like another fetishized Awesome Serial Killers Are Awesome tale. But by channeling the idea that she’s an overgrown kid playing dress-up and not fully understanding the consequences of her actions, Comer heightens the reality of the entire story to the point where the cat-and-mouse chase, the twisted romance and all the other aspects of it feel fun and not disgusting.

bill hader barry

Jordin Althaus/HBO

Bill Hader, ‘Barry’

Assassin number two. Where Comer was a relative unknown sparkling in a fabulous showcase role, Hader got to reinvent himself after a long stint on SNL and in big-screen comedies. Barry is itself technically a comedy, but almost every moment Hader played (outside of a hilariously ill-conceived interpretation of the “Coffee is for closers!” scene from Glengarry Glen Ross) was dead serious, as the eponymous hitman’s stint in acting class forced him to confront the horrors of what he does for a living. The scene where Barry faces an old friend who’s threatened to turn him in, asking, “Why did you say that?” is chilling precisely because of how much Hader has made us empathize with and care about Barry. The series demonstrates dramatic acting chops we never expected either Barry or the man playing him to have.

ATLANTA Robbin' Season -- "Woods" -- Season Two, Episode 8 (Airs Thursday, April 19, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured: Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles. CR: Curtis Baker/FX

Curtis Baker/FX

Brian Tyree Henry, ‘Atlanta’

In almost every way that matters, Atlanta is Donald Glover’s show before it’s anyone else’s. The one exception: Henry’s performance as Alfred/Paper Boi. Henry’s so expressive in situations both comic (Al suffers through a calamitous day in the company of his annoying but talented barber) and near-tragic (Al spends a scary night in the woods after a fan encounter goes terribly awry) that it’s no surprise Atlanta Season Two started to treat Al as the main character, rather than Glover’s Earn. His increased prominence made the best show on TV even better.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "Other Women" -- Episode 204 --  A baby shower provokes a troubling shift in Offred’s relationship with Serena Joy. Offred reckons with the choice she made that led her to become a Handmaid. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

George Kraychyk/Hulu

Elisabeth Moss, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

As rage-inducing as its dystopian future can be, and as exasperating as the clumsy plot mechanics can be, Moss is so mind-blowingly spectacular as June/Offred that she saves the show. This year, June got slightly more control over her own destiny here and there, which allowed Moss to add even more layers to TV’s greatest current performance, and one that somehow rises above even the superb work of co-stars Yvonne Strahovski and Alexis Bledel. When June is mad — and Moss is showing you just how righteous and unrelenting her fury is — there is Elisabeth Moss, and then there is every other actor on television.

POSE -- "Mother's Day" -- Season 1, Episode 5 (Airs Sunday, July 1, 9:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured (l-r):  Billy Porter as Pray Tell. CR: JoJo Whilden/FX

JoJo Whilden/FX

Billy Porter, ‘Pose’

Ryan Murphy and company filled the Pose cast with more trans actors than any series had previously. Such boldness meant they also had to cast a lot of performers with minimal acting experience. Some of them (like Indya Moore) turned out to be great, but to help compensate for some on-the-job training, the Pose team surrounded the newbies with several seasoned actors, none better than Broadway veteran Porter as Pray Tell, the emcee of the drag balls, kind mentor to Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca and one of several queer characters on the show struggling with an HIV diagnosis. In all three modes, Porter was so electric, so sincere and so much fun that Pray Tell became as much the heart of the show as any of its younger lead characters. The category is… scene-stealers!

Florence Pugh as Charlie - The Little Drummer Girl _ Season 1, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory

Jonathan Olley/AMC

Florence Pugh, ‘The Little Drummer Girl’

The AMC miniseries devolved, like most John Le Carré adaptations, into convoluted nonsense. But as Charlie, the brash young actress made into the toy of this particular spy game, Pugh was just so full of life and energy that deciphering the plot quickly ceased to matter. She was worth the price of admission, more than holding her own opposite more familiar co-stars like Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård, and frequently holding the screen all by herself as Charlie traveled from one manipulative man to the next.

THE AMERICANS -- "Start" -- Season 6, Episode 10 -- (Airs Wednesday, May 30, 10:00 pm/ep) Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: FX

FX

Keri Russell, ‘The Americans’

After Killing Eve, the big co-star coin flip was Russell versus her Emmy-winning partner (onscreen and in life) Matthew Rhys. In most years of the FX spy drama, he’s had slightly more to play. The farewell season, though, was all about Elizabeth Jennings coming to grips with the emotional cost of her mission, as well as the idea that blindly following orders is not a particularly wise life philosophy. Rhys wound up having some big moments in the end, particularly his mid-finale monologue, but the three most cutting moments of the season — maybe of this entire wonderful series — came from Russell: the throbbing vein in Elizabeth’s forehead as she chews out Paige one last time, the stifled gasp when she realizes what they have to do about Henry, and the look on her face when she sees who’s on the platform as the train leaves the station. Brutal stuff, all played to perfection by Russell.

Nicole Wilder/Starz

J.K. Simmons, ‘Counterpart’

While I was forced to tie-break in a couple of instances on this list, here we get two performances in one slot, on one show. In the Starz spy-fi drama, Simmons plays Howard Silk, meek but kind bureaucrat in a mysterious government agency whose work he doesn’t understand. He also plays Howard Silk, tough, nasty killer from a parallel earth whose life started out the same as the nice Howard’s before following a more violent path. Actors playing two roles (or in the case of Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black, many more) has been all the rage on TV lately, usually with the performers adopting wildly different appearances and mannerisms as part of the game. What’s so impressive about what Simmons does as the two Howards is that there’s barely any physical transformation at all. It’s all in the attitude, and sometimes — like when one Howard is impersonating the other on the opposing earth — just in the eyes. Yet, for the audience, there’s never any question which is which. And the way Simmons plays them, both feel so real and well-rounded that the intrigue between the two worlds starts to become very secondary to the pure thrill of watching the Howards.

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