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The 35 best TV performances of 2016 (and one worst)

Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta
Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta

With more scripted television programs in production than ever before, it follows that there are now a wider range of opportunities for television actors. Looking back at the performances that caught The A.V. Club’s eyes in 2016 confirms that hypothesis: While some of our favorite character actors found new facets of parts that they’ve been playing for years, emerging talents broke through in roles as varied as a café owner burying her grief in sarcasm and sex, an unsuspecting college kid chewed up by the gears of the American justice system, and a telekinetic preteen with a bottomless hunger for frozen waffles. Weirdly, we even found ourselves in agreement with the Emmys, marveling as a veteran comic reinvented himself as the mother of a rodeo clown and a Ryan Murphy repertory player restored the reputation of a civil servant that was torn down by supermarket tabloids two decades prior. Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the one performance that always left us shaking our heads—right before we snapped those heads backward in a crude burlesque of chemically induced ecstasy, all the while hollering about the transformative power of popular music. Thankfully, we never have to get an earful from that guy again; fortunately, the majority of our picks for 2016’s best TV performances will return for more in 2017.

The best performance of 2016

Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta

There are enough great performances on Atlanta to fill half this list: Keith Stanfield’s stoner savant Darius; Zazie Beetz’s fierce, complex Van; and of course, Donald Glover’s deadpan yet deeply empathetic Earn. But if anyone deserves to be called a revelation from this quietly revealing FX show, it’s Brian Tyree Henry. As Alfred, better known as Paper Boi, Henry takes what could have been a warmed-over caricature—the flexing, flossing rapper trying to rise above his station as a drug dealer who slings his mixtapes on the side—and genuinely makes you feel for him while he chases the success he doesn’t seem all that certain he wants. Not because you pity him; with his linebacker frame, Paper Boi is far too intimidating to be pitied, and he has a tendency to respond violently whenever he feels slighted. Still, even when Paper Boi is at his scariest—or his pettiest, as when he’s engaging in Twitter wars or grousing about his VIP area at the club—there’s a base-level charm to Henry’s presence that makes him eminently lovable. It also doesn’t hurt that Henry can be as witty with a look of stone-faced exasperation as a drawled, mordant one-liner. While Atlanta finds its emotional center in Earn’s struggles to make something of himself, it’s Paper Boi’s effortless charisma that makes it worth hanging out on the couch with him while he does. [Sean O’Neal]

The worst performance of 2016

Bobby Cannavale, Vinyl

The single worst TV performance of the year—and arguably the worst to ever come out of HBO’s once-unassailable prestige-drama factory. Vinyl seemingly had everything it needed to be a critical hit: a rich, historical backdrop; the built-in erudition of record-collector geekery; the powerhouse production team of Terence Winter, Martin Scorsese, and Mick Jagger; tasteful nudity. Then Bobby Cannavale’s Richie Finestra came along to crush all those ingredients up and snort them, then scream about Bo Diddley as the camera zoomed in on his quaking, sweaty face. There were a lot of things wrong with Vinyl: its tired drug clichés; its office-party celebrity-impersonator versions of musicians like David Bowie and John Lennon; its pointlessly distracting murder subplot; those irritating, magical-realist musical interstitials. But all these flaws could have been… well, if not overlooked, then at least improved upon in the series’ scrapped second season, had its main character not been so one-note-of-piercing-feedback, it was a blessing when HBO finally turned it off. Granted, Cannavale wasn’t given a whole lot to work with, as Richie was an unsympathetic dick by design. But the actor—so good in small doses, as on Boardwalk Empire—was so wildly out of his element that it was almost morbidly fascinating, lacking the slightest shred of charm that makes even the most irredeemable antiheroes worth rooting for. Instead he radiated nothing but rage and smarm, and delivered every line like a brick hurled through a window. Our TV is in a better, more peaceful place without him, even if it means we’ll never enjoy the cheap laugh of watching him get all coked up and scream, “These guys are the truth!” at an ersatz Ramones. [Sean O’Neal]

Best individual performances

Pamela Adlon, Better Things

Ahead of its premiere, Better Things was described as a “female Louie,” in an effort to both sum up the premise and trot out its Pig Newton pedigree. But Pamela Adlon, a longtime Louis CK collaborator, has transcended the expectations for a distaff version of her co-executive producer’s surreal series. In her Better Things alter ego, Sam Fox, Adlon created one of TV’s most well-rounded and memorable mothers. The harried working mom of three isn’t reduced to being selfless and sexless: Sam has vices and a side piece (or rather, is a side piece). As a dramedy, Better Things more often veers into the first genre of that portmanteau, but Adlon handles both the hand-wringing and humor with aplomb. It’s an effortlessly nuanced performance, one that registers the disappointment that’s part and parcel with being a working actor with the elation of sometimes getting the whole parenting thing right. Her crack-comic timing and expert line reading, honed over years on King Of The Hill and other animated series, deliver stories about blowjobs with just the right amount of lasciviousness. But when she tries to mend her eldest daughter’s broken heart by saying, “It’s okay, baby. I can take it. That, I can do for you,” you’ll be hard-pressed not to want a mom this cool and caring. [Danette Chavez]

Riz Ahmed, The Night Of

HBO’s adaptation of the BBC’s Criminal Justice may have foregrounded the horrific problems with America’s prison complex, but the audience only felt it because of Riz Ahmed. The challenge of believably transforming from a quiet and bookish wallflower into a troubled young man emotionally hollowed-out by being thrown into the system never seemed like a challenge at all, thanks to Ahmed’s deeply felt performance. His wide, expressive eyes registered every shift in his external and internal life, turning big moments and little nuances alike into learning experiences for his ill-fated Nasir Khan. Even as you watched him make mistakes and poor decisions, he turned every tattoo and drug deal into an empathetic gesture, making the character’s heartbreaking alienation—his desperate need to feel at home—as much the reason to keep watching as the outcome of the murder trial. [Alex McCown-Levy]

Louie Anderson, Baskets

There would seem to be little room for emotional complexity on a show where Zach Galifianakis plays a short-tempered rodeo clown. But the FX series found it the second it introduced his mom—a role that similarly defied presumption by casting a man to play her. Louie Anderson’s performance as Christine Baskets could have been the sort of broad, guy-in-a-dress joke that was a staple of Monty Python and Mrs. Doubtfire, but instead Christine feels like a lived-in, nuanced, wholly real person, thanks to Anderson’s immersive approach. There’s plenty about Christine that’s funny—her devotion to Costco and home-shopping channels; her excitement over the opening of a new Arby’s; her signature baked dish, “sugar pie”—but none of these have anything to do with the fact that she’s being played by a man. Beyond identity politics, of course, there are plenty of other reasons to cheer Anderson, who’s created an observant portrait of a suburban mom that’s recognizable to just about everyone, one who can also prove disarmingly sharp when it comes to protecting her kids. The Emmys obviously agreed the portrayal is something special, giving Anderson a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Award earlier this year. [Sean O’Neal]

Thomas Haden Church, Divorce

When HBO announced that Sarah Jessica Parker was going to star in her first TV series since the network’s Sex And The City—boldly titled Divorce and helmed by the sharp-witted Sharon Horgan—the part of the husband, frankly, seemed like an afterthought. Sitcom and Sideways vet Thomas Haden Church? Likely an ineffectual philanderer who will deserve getting kicked to the curb. Then Divorce dawned, and Church somehow managed to steal the show from everyone he shared a screen with, even powerhouses like Molly Shannon. His Robert is as achingly vulnerable as he is hilariously ineffectual. Thrown for a loop by the dissolution of his marriage, he seems determined to do the right thing, even as he has no actual idea what that could be. Instead of focusing on Parker and her dark-side girlfriends, the show wisely splits between the two halves of the separating couple, so that at times viewers side with them both. But it’s Church’s ability to wring humor from absolute pathos that is the most unexpected and funny part of this series. And don’t even get us started on the mustache. [Gwen Ihnat]

Ted Danson, The Good Place

It’s not a surprise that Ted Danson is good in a TV comedy. He’s been doing it for over three decades now. Still, his role as Michael on The Good Place is a departure from the complicated fellows he played for years on shows like Cheers and Becker. Michael is the upbeat celestial architect who designed The Good Place neighborhood that gets upended by the arrival of bad person Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell). Danson imbues him with sincerity that grows more and more conflicted as he realizes that something is amiss in the perfect universe he created. Even when he’s being necessarily harsh, one can’t help but feel for him and his clueless, human-loving ways. Michael isn’t of our species, and Danson infuses his performance with a delicate alien quality that seeps through the show in subtle ways. He’s an authority figure you just want to hug. We’re ever-thankful CSI: Cyber released Danson from its clutches. [Esther Zuckerman]

Michelle Dockery, Good Behavior

After an iconic role like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary, it’s understandable that Michelle Dockery would want to try something new. But her portrayal of Lettie in the new TNT series Good Behavior is nothing short of a revelation. She jumped from being the poshest person in a posh society to someone who can create her own drug paraphernalia out of a motel-room light bulb. Not only that, her con-artist character easily dons different wigs and accents each episode to invade any number of readily identifiable personas. It’s an astonishing star turn, changing what could be a brooding noir into a compelling watch, all due to Dockery’s magnetic chemistry with Juan Diego Botto, who plays hit man Julian, and her own charisma. Whether she’s trying and failing to get her son back or eating fast food in a car with dead bodies in the trunk, Lettie might just be the worst person at the center of a series right now, yet she’s someone we can’t help rooting for. [Gwen Ihnat]

Eva Green, Penny Dreadful

It’s become an inside joke at The A.V. Club that Showtime’s under-the-radar Gothic horror series may as well have been renamed Eva Green Presents The Eva Green Show Starring Eva Green, given how fully the actor dominates the proceedings through sheer force of charisma. The third and unexpectedly final season may have felt like a narrative whose legs were cut out from under it just as it was striding confidently into new territory, but Green’s performance lent her story a poignant grace some of the other characters’ final arcs didn’t quite achieve. Whereas the first two seasons played up Vanessa Ives’ wild unpredictability and fierce demeanor, the last year of Penny Dreadful brought her back to ground, with Green exploring the fragile humanity and insecure fears that forever swirled inside the damaged woman. It was yet another revelatory transition for a character we had mistakenly assumed we’d seen all sides of, and the strongest argument yet for Green to finally be recognized for what she is: one of the most idiosyncratically compelling actors working today. [Alex McCown-Levy]

David Alan Grier, The Carmichael Show

Here’s how good David Alan Grier is on The Carmichael Show: In the topical sitcom’s second-season finale, the former In Living Color star turned a vote for Donald Trump into an entertaining prospect. It’ll be difficult to revisit that particular episode over the next four years, but it’s never hard to watch Grier as Carmichael’s resident Archie Bunker figure, a character of tremendous bluster grounded by the actor’s considerable dramatic chops. Season two gave him ample opportunity to show off Joe Carmichael’s serious side, whether it was gaining a better understanding of his wife’s depression or eulogizing his deadbeat father. In the spotlight scene from “The Funeral,” Grier expertly juggles grief, remorse, anger, confusion, and gallows humor, helping The Carmichael Show earn its “Norman Lear for the 2010s” bona fides—and he did it all alongside a Lear veteran, Carmichael guest star Marla Gibbs. [Erik Adams]

Bill Hader, Documentary Now!

The first season of IFC’s documentary-parody series was slavishly devoted to recreating the movies it was spoofing, occasionally even at the expense of laughs. While that attention to detail remained in its excellent second season, the grip seemed loosened ever so slightly on Bill Hader. TV comedy’s greatest utility player kicked off Documentary Now!’s sophomore run by reprising his James Carville impression for “The Bunker” (and sinking his fangs into lines like, “I’m gonna cry now. It’s gonna be a weird cry”), then proceeded to give the world’s first tour de force impersonation of Spalding Gray, before bringing it all home by finding new life in picked-over Robert Evans parodies. Hader inhabited each outsized character with the sort of expert control that keeps them from tipping fully over into cartoons. In between, he also got smaller (though not lesser) laughs as a weary 1960s globe salesman and as the unfairly snubbed Jerry Harrison-type in the mock-Talking Heads film “Final Transmission,” demonstrating across a mere six episodes the kind of range many actors can’t match with an entire career. No matter what Documentary Now! decides to spoof next, it’s safe to assume that Hader is up to the challenge. [Sean O’Neal]

Freddie Highmore, Bates Motel

For the first three seasons of Bates Motel, it was easy to feel a little bad for Freddie Highmore. Anyone would be overshadowed when paired against Vera Farmiga, the one-woman force of nature whose brilliant, otherworldly performance as Norma Bates singlehandedly transformed A&E’s Psycho prequel and forced everyone else to rise up to her level, a delightful combination of high camp and live-wire humanism. Especially in the early going, you could see Highmore struggling to get a handle on Norman. But in the series’ penultimate year, he hit upon the disturbed core of his murderous character, as the volatile blood lust inside him finally permeated the borders of his conflicting personalities, resulting in a Norman Bates who learns how to modulate his mannerisms and moods to navigate the treacherous waters of social interaction. His fearsome lack of affect is now just as potent as his jittery and youthful emotional outbursts—and given that the character is really just a gentle and sensitive soul at heart, Bates Motel has finally reached the levels of Greek tragedy it continually promised. [Alex McCown-Levy]

Toby Huss, Halt And Catch Fire

Playing a Texan who’s not a simplistic, rootin’-tootin’ stereotype isn’t as easy as (pretty much) everyone on Friday Night Lights made it look, yet Toby Huss has done it for three seasons now on AMC’s Halt And Catch Fire. Superficially, Huss’ John Bosworth is that quintessential good ol’ boy, and his way around an ex-wife joke and his “aww hell” attitude toward setbacks are indeed fairly standard, boot-scootin’ businessman. But in the series’ third season especially, Huss also brings a layered, understated soulfulness to “Bos” and his feelings of being estranged—from his son, his own company, the alien San Francisco world he’s been forced to inhabit—that make him more than just the crusty, pearl-snap-shirt foil to his young punk co-workers. Particularly when contrasted against Halt And Catch Fire’s many tormented geniuses, Bos feels like a grounded, recognizably complex human, and his tentative flirtation with Diane (Annabeth Gish), his suppressed bristling at being trotted out to “play up the Texas thing,” and his moments of fatherly tenderness toward Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron were some of the series’ most quietly affecting scenes this year. Huss’ Bosworth even does a mean Frank Sinatra impression—who says Texans are simple people? [Sean O’Neal]

Katya, RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars

All-star spin-offs are built for reality-competition redemption, a chance for fan favorites and memorable villains to earn the crown that alluded them the first go-round. And while Katya took home Miss Congeniality honors at the end of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s seventh season, the consonant-trilling queen with the Natasha Fatale accent still had something to prove on Drag Race All-Stars. With a renewed confidence expressed in devilishly glamorous (and glamorously devilish) runway looks and a Snatch Game-stealing impersonation of Björk, Katya rushed to the front of a pack stacked with talent and one powerfully resurgent threesome. Ultimately, a reunited Rolaskatox proved too strong for the Slavic sweetheart of the workroom—but while Alaska ran away with the competition and the “Lip Sync For Your Legacy” tips, she failed to leave behind anything as entertaining as Katya’s commercial for an antipsychotic body spray. No Miss Congeniality this time—in The A.V. Club’s eyes, Katya is Russia’s, America’s, and the whole damn world’s next drag superstar. [Erik Adams]

Katy Mixon, American Housewife

The sitcom housewife is a beyond-thankless role, one that has chugged along for decades without much reinvention. It’s been awhile since someone has breathed new life into that tired genre, but that’s just what Katy Mixon has done in the unfortunately titled American Housewife. The generic moniker does Mixon, and the show, a disservice: As the “second fattest housewife in Westport,” her Katie shakes things up, starting on the domestic front. She’s trying to keep her son, Oliver, from getting sucked into the town’s materialistic trappings, ween her daughter Anna-Kat off medication for her OCD, and get her daughter Taylor to raise her sights higher than becoming a trophy wife. To do that, Katie must be unwaveringly secure in herself, even when she’s the only one not in workout clothes at school drop-off, where her physical attractiveness is nevertheless a totally different brand than generic Westport’s. The successful balance of the series is entirely on Mixon; while her TV husband Diedrich Bader is a welcome addition, he knows he’s just her sidekick. Mixon’s cheerful, snarky, and often-hilarious performance has given us a new brave take on the sitcom mom, and an American housewife more deserving of that title than anyone on Modern Family. [Gwen Ihnat]

Kyle Mooney, Saturday Night Live

The “cut for time” sketch has become a weekly viral-video tradition for Saturday Night Live, as has that sketch’s inevitable inclusion of Kyle Mooney. There’s just something about Mooney’s comedy that never quite fits on SNL—at least, not in the rousing, lovably goofball way of The Lonely Island, whose “Digital Shorts” (and the absence thereof) seem the most obvious reason why Mooney and his Good Neighbor cohorts Beck Bennett and Dave McCary were hired by SNL. Diametrically opposed to The Lonely Island’s hip-hop swagger, Mooney’s humor traffics in the sort of social awkwardness that tips over into outright discomfort—which not everyone enjoys. Scroll through any of the comments on one of Mooney’s shorts (or even this article!), and you’ll find that one person’s “cringe comedy” is another’s “stupid and unfunny.” Still, for those attuned to his low-frequency, stuttering rhythms, Mooney has created some uniquely weird and discomfiting moments, whether it’s his surreal, flatly affected ’90s sitcom parodies, his attempts to rap battle Kanye, his surprisingly sweet romancing of Leslie Jones, or especially any appearance from the tragically hacky stand-up comic Bruce Chandling, whose excised short with Kevin Hart may be one of the saddest/funniest things SNL has ever produced. Of course, you’ll have to watch most of those moments elsewhere. [Sean O’Neal]

Thandie Newton, Westworld

We should have known better than to underestimate Thandie Newton after she made the briefest of appearances in Westworld’s first episode. One of the joys of consuming the sometimes frustrating series is watching Newton bloom in the role of the saloon madam Maeve, taking the character from passive participant in the park to take-no-prisoners hero. The beauty of Newton’s work lies in her period of revelation. As she wordlessly tours Westworld’s laboratories, discovering that her entire existence is a lie, both horror and fascination creep across her face. Her eyes flicker, betraying the mechanical way in which she processes information, and her heart breaks. But the sequence is also her call to arms, and one can see the warrior that reveals itself shortly burgeoning inside her. The finale brings up questions about whether Maeve is truly in control of her fate, but that only makes Newton’s performance more striking. Her role requires her to be incredibly powerful in moments of extreme vulnerability. She must own a room when she’s sitting naked on an operating table; she has to take charge when she’s being led around like a dummy. She simply nails it. [Esther Zuckerman]

Claudia O’Doherty, Love

Most Judd Apatow productions have a character like Claudia O’Doherty’s Bertie: They’re Bill from Freaks And Geeks or Shoshanna from Girls, quotable oddballs whose optimism and self-confidence stands in defiance of neurotic protagonists and the uncaring world they occupy. But only Love has Claudia O’Doherty, the chipper Aussie buffering the toxic personalities and self-destructive impulses of Apatow’s anti-rom-com team-up with Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin. It’s not just that Bertie comes from a different continent than the so-bad-for-each-other-they’re-good couple Gus (Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs)—it’s like she’s from another planet entirely, though O’Doherty fits snuggly in Love’s loose, chatty world. Whenever the narcissism of the main characters threatens to stifle the proceedings, O’Doherty’s standing by to resuscitate them with a non sequitur or an eccentric twist on a line reading. That makes it all the more enjoyable when she indulges her own wicked streak, as in the season-one highlight where errant texts inspire Bertie and Gus to go mutually assured destruction on a floundering dinner date. [Erik Adams]

Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul

There are plenty of praiseworthy actors on Better Call Saul, and rightful attention has been paid both to Michael McKean as the ailing yet ruthless Chuck and Jonathan Banks’ world-weary, always-griping Mike. With only two Emmy nominations come and gone, it’s far too early to begin worrying about Bob Odenkirk being the next Jon Hamm, perennially acknowledged but ultimately overlooked in favor of his costars. But Odenkirk’s work already feels like it could fall into that category of being so obviously great that the Television Academy deems that its own reward (or whatever). After Saul’s first season presented an opening argument for the soul hiding within Breaking Bad’s slick lawyer, primarily by making Jimmy/Saul a lovable loser, the second season began to show more of the selfish con man he was—and will become again. It’s to Odenkirk’s credit that he manages to make every moment of his evolution into a shitheel seem both sympathetic and a logical response to circumstance, even down to the cruel grifting of his own brother. And while Odenkirk’s knack for comic oiliness is what landed him the role, the second season has given him far grayer shades of Jimmy to explore, from his heartbreaking admission to Kim (Rhea Seehorn) that he’s unable to go straight, to the gut-churning moment where he watches from afar as he drives his brother to collapse, helpless to step in for fear of compromising himself. It’s a performance that only promises to get knottier and richer as Jimmy completes that transformation into Saul, and Odenkirk has made each step along that downsloping arc fascinating to watch. [Sean O’Neal]

Issa Rae, Insecure

Although it may seem counterintuitive, Insecure’s lead Issa Rae has a commanding presence on screen. The erstwhile Awkward Black Girl is backed in this dramedy by a capable ensemble that includes Yvonne Orji and Jay Ellis, who are exceptionally charming themselves. But it’s Rae you won’t be able to take your eyes off of as she composes off-the-cuff raps to boost her confidence or puts her obnoxious co-workers in their place for their risible attempts at wokeness. The real-life Issa is the series creator and bestselling author, but her HBO counterpart is flailing to get a footing in her work and personal life. It’s the kind of “clueless millennial” story that’s de rigueur, but Insecure’s iteration is notable for having a black female lead. Inclusivity is far from the only thing on the agenda—as a writer and actor on the show, Rae fleshes out Issa’s life, showing off her petty side along with the genial one. She sells every moment of doubt and flair of inspiration, whether she’s looking longingly at the one who got away, or dropping rhymes about her best friend’s broken pussy in a desperate attempt to win over an open-mic crowd. [Danette Chavez]

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag

The star of Amazon’s Fleabag pulls off quite the juggling act. In the fourth-wall-breaking dramatic comedy about a single woman living in London, Phoebe Waller-Bridge alternates with lightning speed between the scenes’ action and wry, wide-eyed addresses into the camera. It’s a claustrophobia-inducing effect that she nevertheless pulls off, injecting the role with boundless acerbic energy. Waller-Bridge, who does more with a raised eyebrow than most actors do with their entire faces, goes headlong into her antagonistic, sex-obsessed character, who’s afraid that she’s, in her own words, a “greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” The actor, who also created the series, has her work cut out for her in making such a character sympathetic and vulnerable. As the six-episode series progresses, her lonely character’s despair over her best friend’s death cracks the facade of her wide, toothy smile, with the biggest emotional upheaval coming in the final episode, when the camera ceases to receive the character’s asides but accuses by silently cornering her. In the reversal, Waller-Bridge proves that she’s just as good at showing her character’s pain as she is at hiding it. [Laura Adamczyk]

Liza Weil, Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life

Although much of the buzz around the Gilmore Girls revival was about the show’s titular women, it was Liza Weil’s Paris Geller who really stole the show. Weil wasn’t in much of the show, cumulatively—trying to cram 9,000 characters into 360 minutes will do that—but she owned the scenes she was in. Fully embracing a wardrobe of power jackets and Geller’s career as a fertility bank kingpin, Weil played Paris with intensity, charm, and an underlying sense of wit and whimsy. While every scene is arguably Paris’ best, there’s one that’s emerged as the internet’s favorite, GIFs and all. When Paris thinks she’s seen old crush Tristan on a trip back to Chilton, she spirals into a full-scale bathroom-clearing freak-out, one that kicks into high gear when Francie, a high school mean girl, stumbles into the discussion. Bonus points to Weil for her spike-heel-clad door kick; considering it was executed on tile, it gets more miraculous with each loop of the GIF. [Marah Eakin]

Samira Wiley, Orange Is The New Black

From the start of Orange Is The New Black, Samira Wiley’s Poussey has been the heart of the show. She’s educated, kind, and friends with everyone from Taystee to Blair Brown’s Martha Stewart-esque Judy King to the annoying-to-everyone-else Soso. Unlike Piper or Red, who just seemed interested in using their own machinations for Litchfield power moves, Poussey was the most positive inmate, the one who seemed determined to make the best of this horrible hand her life had been dealt, even winding up with a post-incarceration job offer from Judy. Over the past four seasons, Wiley’s performance never faltered, as Poussey is a still water that ran deep beneath her constant smile, always looking for answers in that library of hers. So when a riot busts out in season four’s devastating “The Animals,” the fate of no other character could have had that kind of impact, flat-out eviscerating the entire institution. [Gwen Ihnat]

Zach Woods, Silicon Valley

“This guy fucks,” Russ Hanneman, Chris Diamantopoulos’ douchebag entrepreneur, proclaims upon first meeting Zach Woods’ gawky, gregarious Jared in Silicon Valley’s second season. And while it’s literally true—Jared is indeed revealed to be “a sexual being” with an extensive history of gentlemanly encounters—it’s also an astute observation about Jared’s overall personality, which has increasingly given credence to the maxim “it’s always the quiet ones.” As Jared, Woods has long brought the same earnest, glee-club twinkle he displayed during his similar run on The Office, a chipperness that was increasingly put to the test during Pied Piper’s struggles throughout the HBO comedy’s third season. Woods makes Jared’s unflappable confidence in the friends who ruthlessly mock him and their flailing business feel like a poignant, admirable trait rather than a wholly risible one, and so his emergence by season’s end as the company’s moral center feels totally earned. And of course, it’s only made the continued reveals of Jared’s many private indignities and dark backstory—including his frequent visits to the “butthole doctor,” the newspaper-stuffed Ziploc bag that was his only childhood friend, and the terrifying Nazi outbursts in his sleep—all the funnier. The way Woods deftly underplays these increasingly outlandish peeks into the terrifying reality of Jared, there’s seemingly no end to the myriad ways in which he fucks. [Sean O’Neal]

Outstanding guest performances

Dylan Baker, The Americans

The Americans is packed with great turns from character actors. Margo Martindale won an Emmy for what was essentially a cameo this year. But of all the people to show up in the fourth season, Dylan Baker stood out as William Crandall, a KGB operative in the States, who operates as colleague and foil for Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. Baker infused William with a wry deadpan, rooted in unhappiness and uncertainty with his chosen mission. His overt sourness, tinged with humor, marked a departure from the good soldiers we often see in the series. It makes sense that he’d be prickly—after all, he’s tasked with handling incredibly dangerous diseases—but he’s also deeply lonely, a fact that he states during his brutal death sequence. In the throes of his demise, Baker makes it completely clear why he would divulge information that could lead the FBI straight to the protagonists. It’s not that he wants to give them up; it’s that he’s seething with jealousy that cannot be contained. Even in this almost over-the-top ending, Baker keeps William rooted in these all-too-real emotions. [Esther Zuckerman]

Jason Mantzoukas, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

To the unending chagrin of Det. Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), Brooklyn Nine-Nine is usually more Barney Miller than Miami Vice. So when Jason Mantzoukas shows up sporting the facial hair of Frank Serpico and the intensity of, well, the average Jason Mantzoukas character, it seems as though the show might get knocked off its grounded workplace axis. But Mantzoukas acclimated to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s low-key wackiness just fine, partially due to the acclimating difficulties experienced by his character, the immaculately named Adrian Pimento. A backstory involving a lengthy undercover assignment provided an ideal vehicle for Mantzoukas’ bug-eyed energy, while the loose-cannon vibes he brought to the 99th precinct set up one of the squad’s unlikeliest love connections. For Mantzoukas as well as Pimento, the guest arc is all about being oneself, right down to the nod he gives to fans of Mantzoukas the podcaster in “Terry Kitties.” [Erik Adams]

Bella Ramsey, Game Of Thrones

Channeling the no-nonsense leadership style of a Maggie Smith character, Bella Ramsey portrays Westeros’ youngest noble with a stern gravitas that ignores both her very young age and her gender. But the breakout actress steals every scene she’s in not just because of her youth, but also because her small size belies a commanding presence and impressive verbal dexterity, matching (and at times arguably doing better than) the rest of the cast when it comes to stirring speech-making. Proud, loyal, and decisive, Lyanna is a compelling character who could’ve only come to full life as embodied by an actress like Ramsey: forcefully and without equivocation. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

BD Wong, Mr. Robot

When BD Wong first appeared on Mr. Robot last season as the mysterious Whiterose, the actor made an indelible impression, despite clocking barely one act of one episode of screen time (a season-finale stinger appearance notwithstanding). But in season two, Wong became one of the most compelling aspects of the series, though still only popping up in four episodes. Whether doing something as unexpected as pissing on the grave of a former boss or wearing an entirely different identity as Mr. Zheng, the Chinese minister of state security, Wong plays these different aspects of the character with a rich well of feeling that belies Whiterose’s businesslike machinations. While the character’s intentions remain opaque, Wong is never less than clearly incisive in his portrayal. [Alex McCown-Levy]

Best ensemble performances

The cast of The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

The People V. O.J. Simpson is indeed a well-written account of the events surrounding Nicole Brown’s and Ron Goldman’s murders, but it would have been nothing without the actors turning pop-cultural figures into living, breathing humans. Sarah Paulson’s take on Marcia Clark did no less than expose the media’s sexist characterization of the prosecutor for its cruelty. Her tenacious and sympathetic take on Clark fully rehabilitated a real-life image. Paulson doesn’t carry the series alone: Sterling K. Brown had a breakout Emmy-winning turn as Christopher Darden, Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. reminded us why he’s won an Oscar, and Courtney B. Vance solidified his place at the top of his field as Johnnie Cochran. The contributions from David Schwimmer and John Travolta were more of an acquired taste, but their absurdist takes on these larger-than-life figures fit perfectly. No one says “Juice” like Schwimmer. [Esther Zuckerman]

The cast of BoJack Horseman

Season three of BoJack Horseman was the best and darkest yet—BoJack (Will Arnett) may have visited an underwater city in a visually arresting episode, but that was far from the lowest he sank. It wasn’t a precipitous drop for the dissolute equine, but it still prompted Todd (Aaron Paul) to utter a four-letter word. Of course, there were plenty of lighter moments to combat the creeping despair, but this third outing was still a doozy. And the core voice cast—which also includes Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, and Paul F. Tompkins—was more pointed and poignant than ever before. They might not have anything to play off of while in the recording booths, but they still displayed the kind of cohesion you expect from established, live-action ensembles. Brie’s vibrant yet controlled readings demonstrated just how much Diane had bounced back from season two, while Tompkins gave Mr. Peanutbutter a little pathos. Arnett, whose voice could just be described as “world weary” at this point in place of “gravelly,” nonetheless still sparked opposite Sedaris’ Princess Carolyn, who’s ditching the “long-suffering” part of her description. And special recognition goes to Kristen Schaal, whose quiet reading of Sarah Lynn’s “I wanna be an architect” probably broke more hearts than any other delivery this year. [Danette Chavez]

The kids of Stranger Things

Child actors can be an exhausting proposition. Watch the Disney Channel for more than an hour at a time, and a veritable panoply of mugging unseen since the glory days of Jerry Lewis will present itself. So to find not one but four soulful kids who both deliver convincing performances and relate to one another with an easy chemistry speaks to the achievement of Stranger Things. The supernatural throwback wouldn’t work at all were it not for the work of its four young leads: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, and Gaten Matarazzo. Add the excellent throes-of-adolescence work from Natalia Dyer (as older sis Nancy Wheeler) and Charlie Heaton (her eventual ally Jonathan Byers), and you’ve got one of the most talented young casts of any contemporary series. Their characters may be in serious peril, but performance-wise, the kids are all right. [Alex McCown-Levy]

The cast of Superstore

The first two seasons of Superstore trace a classic NBC sitcom arc: Promising workplace comedy premieres at midseason, toddles around for a few episodes, finds its footing midway through season one, then assertively strides into season two. It’s happening for Superstore like it happened for The Office and Parks And Recreation. As with those shows, the leap in quality coincided with the ensemble members gaining a firm grip on their characters and the roles they play within their particular place of business. As the next step in an evolutionary chain that runs through Dr. John Dorian and Jim Halpert, Ben Feldman’s Jonah is a sensitive sitcom everydude—but Feldman plays him as someone who can actually be called on his bullshit. In the role of by-the-book assistant manager Dina, Lauren Ash has allowed certain disagreements and inabilities to see eye to eye to reveal untold vulnerability in her character. Mark McKinney acts like he’s in charge as adenoidal fundamentalist Glenn, but it’s really America Ferrera’s Amy that everyone listens to. All around them are well-tuned supporting performances, making Cloud 9 feel like the bustling operation implied by the show’s title: Kaliko Kauahi as tragicomically undervalued Sandra, Josh Lawson as a pompous pharmacist, Michael Bunin as the emissary from corporate who winds up in a relationship with Nico Santos’ Mateo. As Superstore runs the cast through new character configurations and retail catastrophes, it proves that the actors aren’t merely “associates”—in big-box parlance—they’re a team. [Erik Adams]

The “Jonah Ryan For Congress” team, Veep

Given Veep’s jaundiced view of electoral politics, it only makes sense that the man also known as The Cloud Botherer wouldn’t just run for office—Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) has to win the chance to represent the people of New Hampshire in Congress too. And the staff that gets him there is one for the ages: coached to victory by his uncle, fiery political operator Jeff Kane (Peter MacNicol); somehow never undermined by guileless staffer Richard Splett (Sam Richardson). Simons and Richardson make a great Mutt-and-Jeff team on their own (though The Gonad Files would probably refer to them as “Butt and Jeff”), but matching their complementary brands of incompetence with the hyper-profane hyper-competence of Kane transforms a season-five B-story into an uproarious pushmi-pullyu of fuckwittery. The race definitively proves that Jonah Ryan doesn’t interact well with humans (or pre-split logs). Fortunately, Simons interacts well with his fellow castmates, and as the mounting gaffes keep sucking the core Veep players to The Granite State, relative newcomer Richardson and experienced hand MacNicol get to prove that too. [Erik Adams]

Best performances by a duo

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, Black Mirror, “San Junipero”

Happy endings are slightly rarer on Black Mirror than they are in real life. But season three’s “San Junipero” delivered one so emotionally uplifting that we should be worried that creator Charlie Brooker might have spent all his optimism on this tale of love through the techno-ages. Or maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to deny happiness to Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, who play the lovers Kelly and Yorkie, respectively. The two women venture into a fantasy land with a time limit on pleasure; for them, five hours is at once more than enough time to fall in love and not enough time to tide them over in between. Mbatha-Raw and Davis have a palpable chemistry in and out of their more tender moments, making the idea of cutting Kelly and Yorkie’s time together short as unbearable for viewers as for the characters. Mbatha-Raw is vivacious as Kelly, but she’s also devoted to her new partner, who, through Davis’ affecting portrayal, unfolds like a rosebud through the course of the episode. Their performances are a bright spot in the series, and in this year’s broader TV landscape. [Danette Chavez]

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Grace And Frankie

Real-life best friends Tomlin and Fonda blazed a new Netflix sitcom trail last year with the debut of Grace And Frankie, a show about two women whose husbands run off together after several decades of friendship. Frankie and Grace are stuck with each other, even though Grace’s uptightness chafes against Frankie’s flightiness (Felix, meet Oscar). Season one saw the pair forging their own kind of life partnership, but in season two, both actors doubled down. With their ex-spouses Sol and Robert now married to each other, Grace and Frankie turn inward, dealing with Grace’s drinking problem, Frankie’s budding relationship with a handsome farmer (Ernie Hudson), the loss of an old friend, and the effort to make themselves viable in the working world after age 70 (an unusual plotline in a TV world aimed at the 18-to-34 market). The two are such consummate pros, but work best fearlessly playing against one another: Grace rattles off a list for Frankie; an eye-rolling Frankie writes the list in the air and then mimes tearing it up. That their relationship works at all is highly unlikely, but of course, that’s exactly why it works so very well. [Gwen Ihnat]

Steve Zissis and Amanda Peet, Togetherness

The loss of HBO’s Togetherness after only two seasons still stings. The Duplass brothers’ series had the misfortune to get lumped in with a multitude of L.A.-based “sadcoms,” even though Togetherness was more optimistic than most. The show started out dissecting the marriage of Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) and Brett (Mark Duplass), but the other two players rounding out the show’s main quartet soon proved to be just as compelling. Amanda Peet displayed previously unseen acting chops as Tina, Michelle’s sister and a former party girl now at loose ends as she enters her forties. As Tina slid downward, an unlikely star began to rise: Brett’s best friend, Alex (Steve Zissis), started season two with a TV role, significant weight loss, hair plugs, and a bit of a star attitude. Togetherness’ greatest strength was how patient it was with these characters: It was going to take the entire season for Tina to figure out what was important to her, for Alex to find himself again, and for the two to take tentative steps toward each other. This slow-paced, intricate journey was always fun to watch, and the series’ final shot of Alex and Tina at least let us leave Togetherness on an up note. [Gwen Ihnat]

Best performances by a duo playing characters wronged by Josh Pfefferman

Kathryn Hahn and Trace Lysette, Transparent

Josh Pfefferman: What a dick. Props go to anyone who endures him—though we can see the appeal—but even more plaudits go to the actresses who play these women. On this season of Transparent, Kathryn Hahn’s and Trace Lysette’s characters have to endure the effects of a relationship with Josh, but both wowed. Hahn has had many opportunities to shine on the show before, but Rabbi Raquel’s personal crisis this season following her miscarriage and breakup brought her into uncharted territory. As is fitting for someone playing a religious leader, watching her is an almost spiritual experience: In some moments, she’s profoundly calm, a voice of wisdom among all the crazy; in others, she’s barely keeping it together. Hahn walks that line beautifully. Meanwhile, Lysette finally got a chance to display her prodigious abilities during one gut-punch of an episode in which Josh takes Shea on an ill-fated road trip. When Shea’s telling Josh off, Lysette channels raw pain in a way rarely seen on TV. Turns out Josh’s awfulness generates some really amazing performances. [Esther Zuckerman]

Special consideration for carrying an entire episode

Desmin Borges, You’re The Worst—“Twenty-Two

In 2015, The A.V. Club’s pick for best TV performance of the year went to Aya Cash for her brutally honest portrayal of clinical depression on You’re The Worst. While Cash was still great in the show’s third season, we’re giving a special nod to Desmin Borges, who unveiled new layers to Edgar in one episode centered entirely around the character. “Twenty-Two” demonstrated what life is like for the vet, whose pain and even presence is often taken for granted by the series’ other leads. It’s an incisive portrait of what it’s like to live with PTSD and have no answers. In turn, it exposed how everyone around him, viewers included, ignored the full extent of his suffering. When Edgar finally does find some solace, Borges paints his momentary joy beautifully. As a whole, the episode made us fully reevaluate both actor and character. [Esther Zuckerman]