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.