It’s the top-ten list time of year, and as I’m catching up on some shows and sifting through my list of favorites, I’ve been struck by how many fantastic performances we’ve seen in television this year. While some are obvious continuations of dominant streaks, like Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s turns on Breaking Bad, or Tina Fey’s embrace of happiness on 30 Rock, there are some truly astonishing turns going down on shows that almost no one is watching, or in shows that are so crowded with flashy performances that these are in danger of being overlooked. Here are five of the actors whose work hit me hardest this year:
1. Khandi Alexander, Treme: I ran a little behind Treme this season, but catching up on it this week, I regretted that. Much of that regret comes from how marvelous Alexander is as LaDonna Batiste-Williams. As a bar owner trying to keep her place alive, and determined to see through the prosecution of the men who robbed and sexually assaulted her, Alexander is by turns moody and joyful. Whether she’s feuding with her husband’s wealthy family, cooly cussing out a man demanding protection money from her, finally taking the stand in her much-delayed trial, or developing a tender friendship with Albert Lambreaux, Alexander’s been given the chance to be as complete a female character as I’ve seen on television in a long time. “Burnt me out for nothing,” she said in the season finale when her case ended in a heartbreaking mistrial. But it’s not nothing to those of us who have been watching at home.
2. Andra Fuller, The L.A. Complex: It is a source of considerable sadness to me that so few people found it in themselves to watch The L.A. Complex, an incredibly sharp ensemble show about what it actually takes to become successful in the entertainment industry. The cast is strong up and down the lineup, but if there was justice in the business, this should have been a breakout performance for Andra Fuller as closeted rapper Kaldrick King. King is one of the most sexual and emotional gay characters ever to appear on network television, and as he battered a young lover, made amends with him and reconnected with his father, and began a relationship with a handsome young lawyer who gave him the courage to come out, Fuller acted the hell out of every scene.
3. Eliza Coupe, Happy Endings: I spoke to Eliza Coupe earlier this season about her approach to physical comedy, playing uptight, and being half of one of only a few interracial couples on television. Since then, her performance as Jane Kerkovich-Williams has only gotten deeper and funnier. Whether she’s going overboard in enjoying being the breadwinner in her family, sneaking a perfectly-prepared turkey into her sister’s house to ensure that Thanksgiving isn’t a disaster, or revisiting the origin of her relationship with her husband Brad, Jane’s exploded the idea that being controlling means you have to be a humorless bitch, and I love her for it.
4. Charles Dance and Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones: Peter Dinklage probably has Game of Thrones‘ acting awards slot locked up as long as Tyrion Lannister lives. But that’s too bad, because Dance and Williams spent this year putting on the best cross-generational acting clinic on television as Tywin Lannister and Arya Stark. They’re people who should be mortal enemies, but, isolated from their families and in service to larger causes, find themselves understanding each other. I could watch the two of them dance around each other in Harrenhal’s great hall for ten hours a year.
5. Walton Goggins, Justified: Goggins, who’s been everywhere from Sons of Anarchy to Lincoln this year, probably has the best shot of anyone on this list of scoring an actual Emmy nomination. As Boyd Crowder, Goggins has taken an archetype, a racist redneck, and infused the role with an injection of coal-country rage, tenderness towards his surrogate father Arlo Givens, and a spiky relationship with Arlo’s son Raylan, who is his sometime-enemy, sometime-ally. I can’t wait to see where their rivalry heads next. Goggins was good on The Shield, but I think he’s even better on Justified.