The past year has come to a close and the new year is dawning, ready to introduce us to all sorts of unexpected and exciting things. But before we turn to the new, it’s time to take a look back at all the things from 2015 that left an impression on us.
The past year has seen some incredible TV come and go. There have been standout performances across the television landscape in genres that run the gamut, on just about every media platform: digital providers like Netflix or Amazon, network television, and premium channels. Some of the roles on this list could not be more different, from angsty superheroes to murderous beauticians. Comedy and drama are represented – sometimes both at once. The one thing they all have in common is that they made us feel something. The actors in these roles took their characters and truly brought them to life, made them flesh and blood. Their struggles and triumphs resonated with the audience, allowed us to feel their pain and their joy. We came along for the journey and felt something every step of the way. Not every performance on this list has been award recognized, but they all easily could be. They made their mark.
Stay tuned for the 15 Best TV Performances of 2015.
15. Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
A movie star from a very young age, Kirsten Dunst has been working steadily through the decades in a variety of genres. This year marked the first time since a late 90s run on E.R. that she turned her attention to a regular, recurring role on a television series: FX’s Fargo. Her turn on the show has been very well received, even earning her a Golden Globe nomination.
On Fargo, Dunst plays Peggy Blomquist, a small town beautician who runs over the youngest son of a local crime family and decides to cover it up with the help of her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons), who is the one to ultimately finish off their unintentional victim. Dunst nails the line between discomfort, pathos, and humor that is a trademark of a Coen Brothers project (executive producers of the show, which is based on their film of the same name). Her Peggy is terrifying but somehow innocent, unhinged but capable, cheerful but cruel: a Minnesota housewife with a dark side.
14. David Tennant, Jessica Jones
Already a well regarded actor and internet favorite thanks to his turn as the tenth Doctor on Doctor Who, David Tennant made waves once again as the villain Kilgrave on Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Kilgrave is one of Marvel’s most effective and most unsettling villains, thanks to his ability to control anyone anywhere with just a word – and the lack of compunction he has about using and abusing that power. Tennant is immensely charming in the role, bringing the full force of his madcap intensity to the spoiled, self-absorbed Kilgrave and making him all the scarier for it.
Tennant was able to marry a real sense of threat to what, on the surface, could be a relatively affable persona: Kilgrave is as cheerful as can be while ordering people to hang themselves or shoot themselves in the head. Tennant illuminates all of Kilgrave’s unnerving layers: his petulance, his selfishness, and his demand for complete compliance. And he does it all with a smile that will make your skin crawl.
13. Constance Wu, Fresh off the Boat
Fresh off the Boat, based very loosely on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, follows a family recently relocated to Orlando, Florida from Washington, D.C. It is another in a long line of well-made family friendly sitcoms but it’s got its own particular brand of charm and humor, and it’s also only the second show in television history to follow an Asian-American family.
Constance Wu plays Jessica Huang, pragmatic mother of three who is always low on patience and has no time for nonsense. She can be shortsighted and pushy, but is also fiercely protective of her family and consistently hilarious. Wu deserves to be the breakout star of the show (not to besmirch the obvious talent of her co-star and TV husband Randall Park), always bringing a slightly absurd edge to Jessica’s toughness that keeps things light and funny. Wu’s deadpan delivery is funny without trying to be funny, which anchors the slightly weirder aspects of the show’s comedy while highlighting them at the same time.
12. Vincent D’Onofrio, Daredevil
Daredevil is a series that focuses as much on its villain as its hero and, as that villain, Vincent D’Onofrio certainly makes his mark. He portrayed kingpin Wilson Fisk, but not as the flat, one note gangster that had been explored on screen in previous incarnations. His Fisk is startling not just in his rage but in his vulnerability. He is intensely focussed on keeping a lid on the demons of his past, but it all unravels for him as he does something very simple and very human: Wilson Fisk falls in love.
That love opens up Fisk’s dark past but also allows him to move past it to greater professional success. D’Onofrio succeeds in making Fisk so relatable and sympathetic that you might even forget he’s a villain, that the flipside of his softer qualities is murderous rage, criminal connections, and terrifying control over his part of the city.
11. Lena Headey, Game of Thrones
Lena Headey has been owning the role of queen of Westeros Cersei Lannister since the show aired in 2011, but the most recent season pushed Cersei to new heights – and new lows. Always power mad and short on sympathy, the death of her son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and resentment of new queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer) has her on-edge and scheming anew. Her plan to do away with Margaery utterly backfires, leading to her own imprisonment at the hands of the city’s religious fanatics.
Headey’s most impressive scene came in the season finale, when Cersei is given a chance to earn her freedom by repenting for past sins. This repentance comes in the form of a walk of shame wherein Cersei must cross the entire breadth of the city naked, while being shouted at and demeaned by everyone she passes. It’s a harrowing ordeal and a lengthy sequence during which Cersei’s slow emotional breakdown is telegraphed beautifully on Headey’s face. She is determined to maintain her composure even as it becomes increasingly difficult, and when she collapses at the end of her long journey, the audience releases a breath along with her. For a character who has never been easy to have empathy for (and who certainly has no empathy for others), that performance made us feel.
10. Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul acts as both spin-off and prequel of hit show Breaking Bad, with Jonathan Banks playing the same role in both: that of Mike Ehrmantrout, former cop turned parking lot attendant turned bodyguard (turned fixer; he keeps busy). Mike is tortured by the death of his son, who became a cop like him and then was killed for his hesitation when it came to accepting bribes. Mike had encouraged his son to go along with his corrupt co-workers out of fear of his death, but because he died anyway, Mike feels intensely responsible for the entire situation.
The episode that explored that backstory earned Banks a great deal of positive attention, as well as an Emmy nomination. He gives an unforgettable speech to his widowed daughter-in-law that is raw with emotion and regret. It revealed a new side to the character and the depth of the trauma that haunted him.
9. Krysten Ritter, Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter has appeared as a scene-stealing guest star in just about any show you can think of, and it was about time she got a series that played to the full range of her abilities. Ritter had already shown off her exceptional comedy skills in the canceled-too-soon Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 and her darker dramatic skills in Breaking Bad, but as the title character in Jessica Jones, she brought both to the table for her conflicted, prickly private eye.
Jessica is a rich, textured character: a superpowered survivor who maybe isn’t surviving so well. Jessica is powerful, but plagued by past trauma, short-fused and hard-drinking. Ritter is able to embody both Jessica’s pain and how she tries to stifle it while bringing a sharp, sarcastic edge to all of Jessica’s interactions. Her struggle feels realistic and human, and you root for her to come out on top no matter how many setbacks she faces.
8. Oscar Isaac, Show Me a Hero
Oscar Isaac has had a very good year, following up his star-making turn as the title character of Inside Llewyn Davis with the critical success of Ex Machina and the commercial success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which basically turned him into a Tumblr pinup overnight. But Isaac also lent his talents to the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, where he played real life politician and youngest ever mayor of Yonkers, NY, Nick Wasicsko.
The miniseries covers efforts made to build public housing in Yonkers while facing resistance from surrounding white middle class neighbors. It’s an ensemble piece in one sense, with a strong supporting cast of great actors (Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder), but the series really rests on Isaac’s shoulders. Wasicsko isn’t quite a hero, more pragmatically and personally concerned than genuinely pushing for radical change, but Isaac brings understanding and compassion to the character. He also captures the moments where he is worn out or downtrodden. Wasicsko is a man pulled in fifty different directions and Isaac is able to show the conflict of that while making the performance itself effortless.
7. Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin
No one expected a telenovela-inspired show on the CW about an accidentally artificially inseminated virgin to be even a tenth as good as it ended up being, and a large part of its success is thanks to star Gina Rodriguez. It’s a fun, well-written show with a sense of humor and real heart but it also needs an actress who can carry a tone that shifts wildly from broad humor to heartbreak in a second. Rodriguez is absolutely the right woman for the job, handling the quick turns of the plot with ease and charm.
Rodriguez already won a Golden Globe for her work on the first season of Jane the Virgin, with another nomination following recently for the second. The recognition is definitely deserved, with Rodriguez proving week after week that it’s not just the grim and gritty stuff that’s worthy of attention: lighter and brighter fare can tug at our heartstrings just as effectively.
6. Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
An Amazon series, Transparent follows the fallout within a family after the father reveals herself to be transgender. As played by Jeffrey Tambor, Maura Pfefferman is a woman who is finally able to live as herself even if it took her until her seventies, and she deals with as much joy in the process as she does conflict. Though the journey is far from over, Maura is able to be true to herself for the first time and there is both freedom and happiness in that. Tambor has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role.
It’s touching how dedicated Tambor is to playing Maura with the respect the character deserves and to bringing her to life as a real person with foibles and victories. His love for the character comes through in the performance, imbuing Maura with warmth and honesty.
5. Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder
How to Get Away with Murder became something of a sensation upon its premiere and that was due as much to Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating as the show’s central mystery. Davis’ acting chops were long proven on stage and silver screen, so her conquering television very well could have been a foregone conclusion. Annalise certainly feels like a new kind of female character, one beginning to emerge more and more on television, who is both deeply conflicted personally and highly capable professionally. She’s stylish, determined, and has a tenuous grasp on ethics; she’s an antihero in every sense.
Davis is able to perfectly embody Annalise’s larger than life qualities. She’s a figure that looms large over the lives of her students and associates, and Davis expresses that intimidating personality as effectively as when she explores Annalise’s vulnerability. Davis won an Emmy for her work on the show and it’s no wonder why.
4. Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Perhaps most recognizable for his role as an Egyptian pharaoh in the Night at the Museum film series (though he had small, critically well received parts in a variety of movies and television shows), Rami Malek had not starred in a TV series until Mr. Robot. The USA series follows Malek as Elliot Alderson, a hacker who uses his skills to expose bad guys and who eventually joins a team of hacktivists. Elliot is plagued by paranoia and often uncertain as to whether the situations he finds himself in are reality or delusion; he also suffers from anxiety and depression, which he attempts to self-medicate to little success.
As played by Malek, Elliot is often visibly distracted and unnerved, disconnected from his surroundings even as he tries to connect. It isn’t a one-note performance by any means; Elliot also has moments of real humor and real sorrow, which slowly build to reveal the circumstances of his life and who he is.
3. Regina King, The Leftovers and American Crime
Regina King served incredible performances on not one but two television series this year: ABC’s serious drama American Crime and HBO’s bizarre, magic realism-tinged The Leftovers. The two roles could not be more different. On American Crime, King plays Aliyah Shadeed, a woman whose brother is false accused of murder, a performance for which King won an Emmy. On The Leftovers, King plays Erika Murphy, a doctor in a town untouched by the Rapture-like event that zapped away a portion of the population, who suddenly loses her daughter under mysterious circumstances.
Despite their surface differences, both characters possessed depth and pathos, and King made them each seems like a real woman. The characters become fully realized thanks to King’s powerful and emotional performances. Being able to compare the two only serves to highlight the subtleties of King’s acting, the small moments and expressions that made each woman unique.
2. Aya Cash, You’re the Worst
FXX’s You’re the Worst is something of a sleeper hit, probably pulling in more critical praise than high viewing numbers. It is nevertheless a smart, sharp comedy with a fresh take on the sitcom-slash-romcom genre that manages to be full of heart without any cloying sentimentality. Like many of the shows on this list, the entire cast is pitch perfect, but female lead Aya Cash has been a head above the rest on the show’s most recent season.
Cash plays Gretchen, a professional PR exec who is also a personal mess, literally and figuratively. She’s always been funny and caustic, causing trouble wherever she goes with irresistible charm. But as the second season dug deeper into the characters, a side of Gretchen that had been long simmering but unaddressed rose to the surface and it was revealed that she suffered from clinical depression. As Gretchen plunged deeper into her depression, Cash captured not only Gretchen’s feelings of emptiness and misery, but also her rage, disappointment, and helplessness. It stands as one of the most fully realized portrayals of depression on television, and it proved Cash could do depth just as well as comedy.
1. Jon Hamm, Mad Men
This year finally saw the end of Mad Men, as well as Jon Hamm’s long overdue Emmy win for his role as Don Draper. Coming seemingly out of nowhere in 2007 to snag the lead role of the series, Hamm made the character his own from the outset. Don Draper was a major stepping stone in the growing popularity of the messed up white male antihero and has since entered the cultural lexicon in an indelible way.
Hamm’s performance was by turns aloof, charming, infuriating, and heartbreaking. Don wasn’t always an easy character to sympathize with, but Hamm was always able to make him understandable. As the years went on he was able to delve ever deeper into who Don was as a person and what made him that way, a performance that become increasingly more poignant. Don Draper is going to stand the test of time as one of the most iconic TV characters ever, and Jon Hamm’s performance was a huge part of that.
Did we miss any outstanding performances from this year? Let us know in the comments!