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20 Best TV Performances of 2016

Which performers were unforgettable?

1 of 20 FX

1. Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

It's both wrong and accurate to call Marcia Clark a "character." She's a real person, obviously, but history demeaned and remembered her as a pitiful caricature of perma-scowl and, well, a perm, thanks in no small part to the media that hated to love her and loved to hate her. That all changed with Sarah Paulson's Emmy-winning turn as the lead prosecutor of the Trial of the Century. Paulson's appealingly authentic portrayal, full of pathos and resolve, single-handedly turned Clark into a feminist icon, shamed our punchline treatment of her and reminded us that there's a human being underneath the "character." -- Joyce Eng

2 of 20 HBO

2. Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, Westworld

In a show full of fascinating personal stories, Sweetwater's brothel madame has the most electric. The show's central theme of emerging consciousness lays heavily on her (and Newton's) artificial shoulders as she slowly learns the truth about Westworld and her role in it; and through her steady stages of accepting the truth and her awareness -- confusion, fear, anger -- she became the one character we felt the most compassion for. Are we rooting for Maeve to escape her dusty prison and raise hell in the outside world, potentially jumpstarting the Singularity and ending human control over the planet? Absolutely. -- Tim Surette

3 of 20 HBO

3. Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones

It was the year of the women on Game of Thrones, but no one paid quite the price for victory as badly as Cersei Lannister did. Never one to gracefully accept the limits of her gender, this season, Cersei proved exactly how far she was willing to go for a taste of real power -- a move which ultimately cost Cersei the one thing she truly cared about: her final remaining child. With her last ties to her humanity seemingly severed, a newly hardened Cersei wasted no time in crowning herself queen, in a moment we won't soon forget. -- Sadie Gennis

4 of 20 Ben Cohen/FX

4. Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets, Baskets

Obviously the big story here is that famed comedian Louie Anderson is playing across sexes as Chip Baskets' mother, but what Anderson -- who won an Emmy for his performance -- has done with Christine is create an entirely realistic character that we all know in real life, yet also a character who fits perfectly in this surreal world. Partially based on his own mother, Christine is a mom still trying to rein in her children even though she knows they're beyond her control, yet can't help but meddle because her whole social life depends on their success. And because her biological children aren't that successful -- failed rodeo clown, trade-school dean -- there's just enough hope that she'll be needed that she doesn't have to change her ways. -- Tim Surette

5 of 20 HBO

5. Riz Ahmed as Nasir "Naz" Khan, The Night Of

Riz Ahmed's tour de force performance carried the series, and was one of the most memorable on television in 2016. As one of very few Muslim characters (let alone lead characters) on TV, Naz allowed The Night Of to tackle difficult issues like Islamophobia and the socioeconomic implications of our country's criminal justice system. Over the course of eight episodes, Naz goes from a wide-eyed kid to a hardened criminal, as viewers debate whether someone like him could actually be capable of murder. By the end of the series, though that question is definitively answered as it relates to the central murder mystery, the real truth is even more murky. -- Liz Raftery

6 of 20 Netflix

6. Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Stranger Things

Brown's Eleven was so instantly iconic that the rapper 2 Chainz wore a hoodie with her face on it. Stranger Things' psychokinetic preteen took the world by storm, thanks to the eleven-year-old Brit's magnetic, monosyllabic performance. Brown's incredibly expressive face conveys pain and hope in a way that seasoned actors struggle to do with a lot of dialogue. And the blonde wig/bloody nose combo is unforgettable. In a show full of breakout characters (we miss you, Barb), no one else broke out bigger. -- Liam Mathews

7 of 20 Matthias Clamer/FX

7. Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles, Atlanta

On, uh, paper, Paper Boi is drug dealer slash aspiring rapper -- one of the oldest clichés in the hip-hop canon. Henry makes him much more than a one-dimensional stereotype, though, a mishmash of intelligence and confusion, self-awareness and awkwardness. And he's hilarious. -- Malcolm Venable

8 of 20 Netflix

8. Kelly Bishop as Emily Gilmore, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Throughout Gilmore Girls' original seven-season run, Bishop's Emily Gilmore and the WASP-y environment in which she existed was a constant source of drama and conflict for Lorelai (Lauren Graham), who eschewed her privileged upbringing and left home as a single mother at age 16. However, despite this conflict, Emily was a fan favorite character, and in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a newly widowed Emily again was a standout. Her grief revealed vulnerability and helped to thaw her heart while also making progress with Lorelai. But if you're looking for a true highlight, look no further than the scene in which a give-no-f---s Emily quit the DAR in epic fashion. If you need us, we'll be trying to figure out how to make her exclamation of "bulls---" our ringtone. -- Kaitlin Thomas

9 of 20 Colleen Hayes/FX

9. Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox, Better Things

Better Things' excellent first season may have been overshadowed a bit by the debut of Donald Glover's Atlanta, but the stealth comedy and Pamela Adlon's Sam are as equally worthy of praise as their network neighbor. A strong and dominant female voice leading a quietly radical feminist series, Sam is a working actor and single mother to three daughters who is forced to balance many roles onscreen and off. Although she is far from perfect -- and would be the first person to tell you so -- Sam's fierce dedication to her daughters and the entire spectrum of life's circumstances has led to some of the best mother-daughter relationships depicted on TV. -- Kaitlin Thomas

10 of 20 Ron Batzdorff/NBC

10. Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson, This is Us

Larger body shapes are making a comeback on TV, and Chrissy Metz's Kate is leading the charge. Though Kate struggles with obesity, she hasn't let her weight loss battle completely define her. It realistically influences other aspects of her life, but she hasn't let it hold her back from finding love or a new purpose in life. Kate has shown the power of being vulnerable and allowing your true self to shine, no matter what you look like. She also is finally taking a stand for what she really wants in this life and she won't let anyone derail her from it -- even the man who may be the love of her life. She is the glue of the Pearson family siblings, keeping Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) not only in line, but connected. Metz's performance is fierce, funny and makes Kate the type of person you'd definitely love to get a glass of wine with -- even if it is 150 calories. -- Megan Vick

11 of 20 Ben Leuner, AMC

11. Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Better Call Saul

Jimmy McGill will eventually become grimy criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. This is certain. Which is heartbreaking, because the time we're spending with Jimmy on Better Call Saul is so enjoyable, we'll hate to see things turn out so badly for him. Jimmy's a flawed guy for sure, but he's such a charming rogue that you can't help but root for him. Bob Odenkirk's subtle performance incrementally ticks Jimmy closer and closer to Saul in a way that mirrors Bryan Cranston's transformation from Walter White into Heisenberg while making that legendary character look almost hamfisted by comparison. -- Liam Mathews

12 of 20 Ben Blackall/Netflix

12. Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood, Happy Valley

Whatever you do, don't disappoint Catherine Cawood, the strong-willed police seargeant played by Sarah Lancashire in the British crime drama Happy Valley. A middle-aged woman living with her sister, a recovering alcoholic, and raising her grandson following her daughter's suicide, Catherine is the rock holding her shattered family together while also cleaning up the streets of her town. More competent than the women and men who surround her, she is capable and forthright, moral but not someone to pull punches. She is terrifying in her abilities as a cop but even more so as a woman who's trying to do her job and create a world safe for the people she loves. Catherine Cawood may not be the heroine we imagined, but she's absolutely the one we need. -- Kaitlin Thomas

13 of 20 Scott Everett White, Scott Everett White/The CW

13. Pete Gardner as Darryl Whitefeather, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Rebecca's often dimwitted boss Darryl (Pete Gardner) has really come into his own since we met him. He's come out too: declaring his bisexuality in Season 1; and in Season 2, trying to make a relationship work with the much younger White Josh (David Hull). Though he's often a bumbling, completely clueless mess, he's genuine and honest and giving, and that's why we love him. -- Malcolm Venable

14 of 20 Monty Brinton/CBS

14. Hannah Shapiro, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X

Oh, Hannah. The Survivor contestant -- a member of Season 33's Millennials tribe -- will go down in the show's history as the only player to require medical attention while watching a challenge. But all of Hannnah's idiosyncrasies and anxieties on full display make her an endearing, relatable, and most importantly highly entertaining person to watch. From her consistently GIF-able moments at Tribal Council blindsides to her crush on fellow contestant Ken to the new hashtag #TrustCluster, it's undeniable that Hannah is the true champion of Survivor this season, whether or not she ends up going home with a million dollars. As Jeff Probst himself put it: "Hannah, you're fantastic." -- Liz Raftery

15 of 20 Paul Drinkwater/NBC

15. Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson, This Is Us

We are saying it right now -- Jack Pearson is the best dad on television. Every week Ventimiglia redefines what it means to go above and beyond from your kids. He broke our hearts in the pilot episode of This Is Us when he couldn't bring all three of his triplets home, but instead decided to adopt an orphaned baby that arrived at the hospital the same day. He's the kind of guy who gives his slightly overweight daughter a "magic t-shirt" to help her feel beautiful and loved when the girls in her class excommunicate her from their friends group. He put aside his dreams of starting his own business to be able to send Randall to the private school he needed to reach his full academic potential. He turned hot dogs, sliced cheese and saltine crackers into the most magical Thanksgiving feast of all time. He is the most heartwarming part of the most emotional show on television this fall. Ventimiglia has already had a few iconic television roles, but Jack Pearson may become his most defining role of all time. -- Megan Vick

16 of 20 Justin Lubin/NBC

16. Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, The Good Place

If The Good Place is a modern morality play, Eleanor Shellstrop is about as far from its moral center as you can get. But Bell gets equal laughs and pathos out of Eleanor's post-humous discovery of a her inner goodness, making ridiculous events like destroying a perfectly constructed cake laugh-out-loud funny and stunningly profound at the same time. -- Alex Zalben

17 of 20 Adam Taylor/FOX

17. Timothy Olyphant as Timothy Olyphant, The Grinder

In the pop culture annals of actors playing themselves, no one has done it better than Timothy Olyphant. Previous famous people usually either play it too cool, try too hard or are just there for the paycheck. But the Justified star's fake version of himself -- who basically stole a legal TV franchise from the star who's trying to be a real lawyer on a show about a TV lawyer trying to become a real lawyer -- was perfectly calibrated magic. Embracing the meta farce of it all, Olyphant created Timothy Olyphant, a devious, dim, delightful and deliciously absurd actor who matched Dean's level of delusion and melodrama, and delivered lines like, "Just because a person is not something does not mean he is closer to being the thing he is not than another person" with a cheeky earnestness no one else could've pulled off. It's still not too late to order The Grinder: New Orleans, Fox. -- Joyce Eng

18 of 20 Diyah Pera/The CW

18. David Anders as Blaine DeBeers, iZombie

Blaine was the lovable villain of iZombie's first season, but this year he evolved into a lovable hero. Thanks to his brief flirtation with his humanity, a budding relationship with Peyton and some serious amnesia, Anders' performance evolved Blaine in ways we never could have predicted. His selfishness was been replaced by real empathy and a willingness to put his own neck on the line -- sometimes literally -- to protect those he cares about. And he did all this without ever losing his trademark sense of humor, which is why we fell for him in the first place. -- Sadie Gennis

19 of 20 James Dittiger

19. Constance Zimmer as Quinn King, UnReal

To pretend that UnREAL's sophomore season lived up to the first would be a disservice to the near-perfection that was its 2015 debut. However, nothing that happened in Season 2 -- not even the unexpected pregnancy storyline -- could tarnish our love of Quinn King. Zimmer's outstanding performance never failed to infuse Quinn's steely actions with hidden vulnerabilities and just enough empathy to keep the character from veering into mustache-twirling villain territory. -- Sadie Gennis

20 of 20 Courtesy of Netflix

20. Mahershala Ali as Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, Marvel's Luke Cage

Ali's Cottonmouth was the most beautiful monster seen on TV in 2016. His tragic story dominated the first half of Luke Cage's freshman season as Ali's stunning performance vacillated between quiet malice, shocking rage and eventually pitiful, catastrophic sorrow. Marvel and Netflix have excelled in creating indelible screen villains for their shows so far, but it was Ali's physical presence and rumbling, deceptively soothing voice that made Cornell Stokes -- and Cottonmouth -- unforgettable. -- Alex Zalben