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Check out the stars whose performances made the past TV season so memorable

cathy suhocki
01-mvp-empire-taraji-jussie.jpg
1 of 37 Matt Dinnerstein/FOX

​Taraji P. Henson and Jussie Smollett, Empire

Empire was the breakout hit of the year, and while the entire cast is a powerhouse of talent, there were two stars who clearly rose above the rest. Henson found the role she was born to play in Cookie Lyon, spitting one-liners, throwing punches and protecting her babies all while becoming our new fashion icon. But it was Smollett whom men and women were swooning over as the brave but vulnerable Jamal, who has the voice of an angel (and the face of one too).

2 of 37 Danny Feld/The CW

​Jaime Camil, Jane the Virgin

This telenovela actor has mastered the art of playing a narcissistic Lothario who's so insanely charming you can't help but love him. As Jane's birth father Rogelio, Camil provides much of the comedy on the series, although the character is at his best when his over-the-top, often outlandish dialogue is balanced with the heart of a guy who loves his family above all — well, except maybe his good looks.

3 of 37 John Fleenor/ABC

​Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat

The freshman comedy may have only had 13 episodes this year, but that was more than enough to fall in love with Jessica, the opinionated Huang matriarch. And while Wu's steely delivery of lines like, "Eddie, I can get by with only two sons. Just think about that," or ability to tackle physical comedy such as her anti-date rape lesson give Jessica a ruthless, overbearing — and yes — slightly crazy air, somehow the actress simultaneously infused the performance with joy, sweetness and warmth. Is it any wonder that viewers have embraced and identified with this newly iconic sitcom mom?

4 of 37 Neil Davidson/© 2014 Sony Pictures Television

​Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe, Outlander

Taking on roles from a long-running book series with an insanely passionate fan base is no easy task, but to say Outlander fans have embraced this pair is an understatement. Aside from their palpable chemistry (see: "The Wedding"), both actors have proven worthy of the job, whether it was during hard-to-watch scenes like the flogging of Jamie (with even more horrifying ones to come) or Claire's near-rape by the villainous Jack Randall.

5 of 37 Monty Brinton/CBS

​James Corden, The Late Late Show with James Corden

Corden is from England, but like Frank, he does it his way. Affable, charming and lovably earnest, the Tony winner has been a great addition to the crowded late-night fray, making the format adapt to him as opposed to the other way around. He kicks things off with a cold open, eschews the usual monologue of jokes in favor of rants, does group interviews with his guests (a la the BBC's Graham Norton Show) and is giving Jimmy Fallon a run for his money when it comes to viral hits. It's the kind of shakeup late night desperately needed.

6 of 37 Cate Cameron/The CW

​Grant Gustin, The Flash

Stephen Amell casts a big shadow, which is why expectations for Gustin were extremely high. However, Gustin matches Amell in every way by making Barry Allen the total opposite of Oliver Queen. Gustin's easy charm, defensive humor and vulnerability have turned The Flash into a hero we can all relate to.

7 of 37 Beth Dubber/Amazon Studios

​The cast of Transparent

Led by Jeffrey Tambor in what may be a career-defining role as Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman struggling to come out to her family, the cast of Transparentgave us a new California family to love to hate. Judith Light is a revelation as Maura's ex-wife, while Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker and Gaby Hoffmann shine as Maura's self-absorbed, damaged children. Like any real family, the Pfeffermans are endlessly exasperating, but we love them just the same.

8 of 37 Kelsey McNeal/ABC

​Hayley Atwell, Marvel's Agent Carter

Atwell became a fan favorite in the MCU after her appearance in Captain America, but the actress proved she has leading lady chops in Agent Carter. Whether Peggy was facing down sexism or criminal killers, Atwell always gave Peggy incredible poise and strength. The actress did what S.H.I.E.L.D. set out (and failed to do): show that real heroes aren't always super.

9 of 37 Matt Dinerstein/NBC

​Marina Squerciati, Chicago P.D.

She may not be the front-and-center star of the NBC procedural, but when Squerciati is on screen, she's a powerhouse. In Season 2, Officer Burgess has proven herself, especially in a few action-heavy, edge-of-your-seat episodes that found her either fighting for her life or saving her partner while trapped weaponless with a gun-wielding convict. And while her banter with Platt often provides some light comedy in the heavy drama, off-screen, the actress is pretty hilarious too. I mean, have you seen her rap?

10 of 37 Diyah Pera/The CW

​Rose McIver and David Anders, iZombie

Despite playing the undead, McIver and Anders each find different ways to bring their characters to life. McIver's deadpan switches from hilarious sarcasm to heartbreaking detachment in an instant, while Anders manages to turn the charismatic Blaine into one of our favorite characters, despite the fact he's a scheming, murderous brain-eater.

11 of 37 Amazon Studios

​Titus Welliver, Bosch

Amazon's crime series feels like a throwback, before the age of torture porn, ripped-from-the-headlines stunts and oversexed story lines. Welliver's steady and entirely vulnerable take on the older, divorced detective Harry Bosch, however, is the reason we kept watching. The cop has done much and seen a lot more in his career, and yet Welliver's portrayal is surprisingly candid and honest, giving the feeling that this is a man who isn't jaded but one you can trust because he completely owns himself, foibles and all. It's stealthy, it's effective and it makes you hope for an entire LAPD filled with guys like Bosch.

12 of 37 Comedy Central

​Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Broad City

"Are you an Abbi or an Ilana?" is the new "Are you a Carrie or a Miranda?" And though we wouldn't want to be them, we can't get enough of watching the duo's misadventures week after week. Their uncomfortably truthful depiction of New York City living for struggling 20-somethings is not only hilarious, but the pair also manages to work subtle commentary about feminism, sexuality and social issues into their brash brand of comedy.

13 of 37 Prashant Gupta/FX

Walton Goggins, Justified

Goggins finished off his thrilling run as Harlan kingpin Boyd Crowder in a final season that saw Boyd lose everything he cared about. Goggins effortlessly transitioned from cold-blooded murderer (his execution of Dewey Crowe, etc.) to cocky thief (as he double-crossed Markham to get his $10 million) to heartbroken lover (after Ava shot and betrayed Boyd because she thought it's what he'd do), and we were riveted at every step. Rarely have we cared so much for a bad guy that we were actually thrilled that he didn't die in the end. Now, excuse us while we launch a Kickstarter for theBoyd Crowder: Prison Preacherspin-off.

14 of 37 Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

​Aaron Stanford, 12 Monkeys

Although Stanford's other two major roles -- the fiery mutant Pyro from theX-Menfilms and computer geek Birkhoff on  Nikita-- may not seem like the obvious predecessors to playing time traveler Cole, it makes sense once you take in the actor's slightly manic intensity. His energy and quick wit cannot be contained to just one era, and sure, there may be a whiff of insanity there, but it's made acceptable by the extreme circumstances he's thrust into. Grounded by scenes in which Cole enjoys a nice, greasy cheeseburger, the wild, woolly sci-fi show would be a different beast altogether without Stanford's dynamic presence.

15 of 37

​Ben Feldman, Mad Men, A to Z and Silicon Valley

Did anyone show more range in such little time than Feldman? At one point, he was on two shows airing at the same time. He kept us guessing at all-around strange person Ginsberg on Mad Men, right until the bitter, unstable, nipple-cutting end, somehow engendering shock, disgust and sympathy. Switch over to HBO and he was bro-ing it up as guitar-playing, shorts-rocking hot shot lawyer Ron LaFlamme, whom we loved to hate. But we loved to love him on the short-lived A to Z, where his endearing hopeless romantic (Non-Annoying Ted Mosby Edition) Andrew can woo us any time.

16 of 37 Patrick Harbron/FX

​Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, The Americans

No TV relationship is more fascinating than Philip and Elizabeth Jennings'. After making strides in their marriage last year, the two diverged this season, highlighted by their taut tennis match over indoctrinating Paige that continued to color how different they are. While Rhys colored Philip's humanity in his careful seduction of teen asset Kimmy, Russell was the picture of robotic perfection… except for that one time with Betty that gave a peek to what's underneath. And when their daughter finally forced their hand for the truth, Russell's tiny nod to Rhys spoke a thousand words.

17 of 37 Ursula Coyote/AMC

​Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul

AMC's Breaking Bad  prequel presumably exists to fill in the backstory of sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, but the tragic past of Banks' taciturn Mike Ehrmantraut may have stolen the first season from the show's hero. Banks adds new life — and more importantly, deep emotion — to his world-weary, lived-in performance fromBreaking Bad, as viewers learned about the death of Mike's son's, and the ways in which Mike held himself responsible. Watching the tough-as-nails Mike hold back tears and hearing the crack in his voice as he laments, "I broke my boy," is already sure to be one of this series' most memorable moments.

18 of 37 Mary Cybulski /Cinemax

​Clive Owen, The Knick

The only thing that pulsed more thanThe Knick's soundtrack this season was Owen's thoroughly charismatic performance as racist, cocaine-addicted surgeon John Thackery. Although brash and cocky when performing in the surgical theater, Owen uses Thackery's quieter moments to show the hollowness of a life consumed by chasing professional success at all costs. The fascinating portrayal became even more a joy to watch as Owen followed his character into the twitchy grip of withdrawal and the horrifying realization of what he'd allowed himself to become as a slave to his addiction.

19 of 37 NBC, Dana Edelson/NBC

Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live

As the nation prepares for what’s sure to be a long, arduous election season, there’s at least one thing to look forward to: Seeing Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton impersonation on Saturday Night Live week in and week out. McKinnon has established herself as the most versatile and consistently hilarious member of the current cast, thanks to her spot-on impressions of such celebrities as Justin Bieber and Ellen DeGeneres, not to mention original characters like frequent “Weekend Update” commentator Olya Povlatsy. At a time when SNL episodes are often hit-or-miss at best, viewers can bank on the fact that any segment involving McKinnon is going to be pretty solid.

20 of 37 Eric Liebowitz/NBC

Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The flamboyant, struggling actor gay best friend is such a tired stereotype on paper, but Titus Andromedon is definitely one of a kind. Burgess is fabulously delightful and just a straight-up riot, playing his fame-hungry namesake with such gusto and heart, and without inhibition, that we all wish we could room with Titus and his doll collection and cassettes. Or at least have a glass of pinot noir with him.

21 of 37 Comedy Central

​Nick Kroll, The Kroll Show

Between his excellent turns on both Kroll Show and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it's been a banner year for Nick Kroll. Like Britain's Catherine Tate, Kroll opted not to go the traditional sketch show route, and instead gave us a collection of unforgettable recurring characters week in and week out. But, as much as we'd like to see more of Bobby Bottleservice, the PubLIZity Girls, and C-Czar, we admire Kroll's decision to let the show go out on a high note after its third season.

22 of 37 Macall B. Polay/HBO

​Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones

Humanizing characters on the bloodthirsty fantasy epic is no easy feat, and one made more challenging when playing a cocky, vindictive, hyper-sexual prince. Oberyn Martell, aka The Red Viper, should have been over the top and at the very least annoying, but Pascal charmed, persuaded and even made the character endearing to us. The true testament to the actor's skill was when Oberyn's death was greeted with horror, not only for its gruesome nature, but because we genuinely mourned the passing of such a vital, righteous man.

23 of 37 Justin Lubin/NBC

​Craig T. Nelson, Parenthood

We've had a Braverman-sized hole in our hearts ever since  Parenthood went off the air back in January. Anchored by Craig T. Nelson as patriarch Zeek, the beloved NBC drama gave us all a vicarious family to live through down to the last episode. Nelson's biggest achievement? Peeling back the retiree's curmudgeonly outer layer to reveal a vulnerable, sensitive softie underneath. We never thought that, out of all the family members, we'd miss grouchy Zeek most of all.

24 of 37 Chris Haston/NBC

​The cast of Parks and Recreation

By setting the final season in the future, Parks and Rec gave its cast opportunities to explore their characters in new, unexpected ways. While each star more than rose to the occasion, it was Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman's feud and eventual reconciliation that was the most fun to watch. Pawnee forever!

25 of 37 Eric Liebowitz/HBO

​John Oliver, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

It might be blasphemous to say, but  Last Night Tonight is the best satirical news program out there. That's simply because no one makes the hard stuff look easy better than Oliver. He doesn't just skewer and zing, but manages to take the most complicated, erudite issues and distill it into digestible, weird and relatable hilarity. How much of net neutrality did you really understand before his segment? Or government surveillance before his sit-down with Edward Snowden? Exactly. Oliver has the reach and impact actual journalists wish they had, and he's goddamn funny to boot.

26 of 37 Jessica Miglio/Netflix

​Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks, Orange Is the New Black

Forget Piper and Alex – we could watch an entire series about Poussey and Taystee. Though it's not a romantic one, the relationship between the two inmates is one of the most affecting love stories on TV. Look no further than the scene in which Poussey confesses her love for Taystee (and gets gently rejected) to see why the chemistry between Wiley and Brooks packs more of a punch than any prison hooch.

27 of 37 Chris Large/FX

​Billy Bob Thornton, Fargo

The casting of the Oscar winner must have been a no-brainer, but that doesn't make the performance any less effective. Lorne Malvo is a serial killer, and Thornton makes him as alluring and yet toxic as any poisonous predator... all while sporting the most extreme and unflattering set of bangs to ever grace a forehead. He's a horrifying customer, but gosh darn it, why do we like him so much?

28 of 37 Prashant Gupta/FX

​Katey Sagal, Sons of Anarchy

Leave it to someone of Sagal's talents to spend an entire season making viewers beg for her character's death only to have them bawling when the moment finally came. Sagal brilliantly portrayed Gemma's decline as her lies about Tara's murder slowly unraveled on her. But when Gemma said a heartbreaking goodbye to her father and silently waited for her son Jax to put a bullet in her head, Sagal was strong, brave and calm — the protective mother to the end.

29 of 37 Danny Feld/ABC; Richard Cartwright/ABC

​Geena Davis and Caterina Scorsone, Grey's Anatomy

If Grey's Anatomy taps an Oscar winner to guest-star, it's not going to let them go to waste. Davis' arc as Dr. Hermann, a brilliant fetal surgeon who's diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain tumor, gave Scorsone's Amelia Shepherd, a pivotal story story line that showcased both ladies' chops. It was also a perfect example of what Grey's does best: present a complicated medical case with an underlying sense of gravity and emotion. Though Davis' turn on the show was short-lived, the impacts Dr. Hermann had on characters like Arizona and Amelia will undoubtedly be far-reaching in seasons to come.

30 of 37 Saeed Adyani/Netflix

​Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline

Mendelsohn is nothing but pure gold as black sheep Danny Rayburn. It's easy to hate Danny and his chip-on-the-shoulder defiance upon his return to his estranged family in the Florida Keys — especially opposite Coach Taylor — but whenever Danny frustrated us, Mendelsohn, with that off-kilter smile and teeming charisma, simultaneously disarmed us in cheeky and at times heartbreaking fashion. Few could juggle those shifts, and so well, in a character who, as it turned out, is as dark as the label placed on him.

31 of 37 David Giesbrecht/Netflix

​Robin Wright, House of Cards

No longer content to be the icy right hand of the president, Wright's Claire Underwood started building her own political legacy in the third season. Strong and cunning as ever, Wright beautifully transitioned into being the conscience of the show, as she ruminated on the lengths she and Frank had gone to in the pursuit of power and questioned whether it was all worth it. Warm enough to charm the pervy Russian president and calculating enough to publicly embarrass him in his own country, Wright again proved to be a formidable opponent — one Frank will perhaps now have to fight after Claire defiantly walked out on him.

32 of 37 Michele K. Short/FX

Finn Wittrock, American Horror Story: Freak Show

Despite being a newbie to AHS, Wittrock held his own against Jessica Lange and became a bright spot in what was, ultimately, a lackluster season. Wittrock made Dandy both childlike and a threatening psychopath, a delightfully campy balancing act that had us cheering for him (though we continued cheering when he was eventually killed). The fact Wittrock had no qualms stripping down to his tighty whities wasn't anything to complain about either.

33 of 37 Dean Buscher/The CW

​ Brandon Routh, Arrow

Olicity fans are a powerful force, which makes Routh's ability to make Ray Palmer lovable even more impressive. The ease with which Routh matches Emily Bett Rickards' awkward witty banter is such a joy to watch that it leaves us with mixed feelings about him potentially leaving for a spin-off. On one hand, we would get even more time to spend with Routh's unlikely superhero The Atom. But on the other, it would cut off his romance with Felicity, which has had more levity and humor than her relationship with Oliver ever will.

34 of 37 Eddy Chen/FOX

Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

On a show where failings and incompetence are played for laughs, Captain Holt stands out as being stern, upstanding and strait-laced. And yet, those very qualities are what Braugher is able to turn into comedy gold with his booming voice and expressive face. His joy comes through and is unfailingly infectious. We're not part of the 99th precinct, but if we were, we'd declare, "O captain, my captain."

35 of 37 Mathu Andersen/Logo TV

Ginger Minj, RuPaul's Drag Race

From the very first episode this season, Ginger Minj asserted herself as the queen to beat. The self-proclaimed "glamour toad" gives some of the best talking head interviews since Bianca del Rio and isn't afraid to read a girl to filth. But unlike many bitchy queens, Minj actually has the talent to back her mouth up. She's proven time and time again that she's a smart, sassy competitor who can handle whatever's thrown her way

36 of 37 Diyah Pera/The CW

​Eliza Taylor, The 100

As Clarke, the conflicted leader of her people, Taylor masterfully navigated the self-flagellation, anger and obligation her character was burdened with. From killing her love Finn to massacring an entire population, Taylor brought a depth to Clarke that allowed you to sympathize with her actions even when you didn't agree with them. And the subtlety with which Taylor displayed Clarke's growing feelings for Alexis made what could have easily been seen like a cheap, contrived development feel like the next natural step in Clarke's seemingly doomed romantic life.

37 of 37 Jordin Althaus/FOX

​Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth

After proving his dramatic skills in Nebraska, Forte finds the perfect balance of pathos and comedy in Last Man. The SNL alum has such impressive screen presence that he managed to carry an entire episode as the only character, which almost has us wishing the Fox comedy left him as the last person on Earth for a little while longer.