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Forget the Emmys: These are performances that really stood out

1 of 20 Adam Taylor/Fox

Lisa Edelstein and Hugh Laurie, House

We are fans of simmering sexual tension, so when Cuddy (Edelstein) and House (Laurie) decided to finally have a go at it in last season's finale, we were skeptical. Interestingly though, their relationship is more familiar than the typical TV coupling. While Cuddy weighs how to tell their colleagues, House struggles with surrogate fatherhood when he has to baby-sit Cuddy's daughter Rachel. Their chemistry is still white-hot, but their interactions have the stuff of longevity.
2 of 20 Ken Regan/Showtime

Laura Linney, The Big C

Playing a woman with terminal cancer – on a comedy series – is a daunting acting proposition, but Emmy winner Linney, as The Big C's Cathy Jamison, embraces life while dying. Forget the usual New Age approach to illness. Cathy buys a sports car, takes up smoking and only consumes desserts and liquor. Her take-no-prisoners approach to fixing her marriage and her relationship with her son isn't just every woman's fantasy; it's Cathy's only choice. With each new episode, Linney reminds us that Cathy is dying, but makes us hopeful for a cure.
3 of 20 Byron Cohen/NBC

Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation

It was fun to watch Pratt's Andy, Ann's bungling buffoon of an ex, emerge from his shoe-shiny cocoon as a surprising, winning romantic foil to cutie-pie shoe-gazer April. Note to producers: Now that you've made this love connection, please bring back April's ex-boyfriend — and his boyfriend — and make it a fourgy.
4 of 20 Mike Yarish/Fox

Heather Morris, Glee

Morris has a guardian angel on the Glee writing staff — reportedly, it's executive producer Ian Brennan — who crafts hilarious non sequiturs that have made ditzy cheerleader Brittany, initially a background dancer, a fan favorite. ("I heard dolphins are just gay sharks," she once said, apropos of nothing.) Her oddball popularity culminated in the fall episode "Britney/Brittany," in which Brittany S. Pierce staged a full-fledged Britney Spears fantasy-nightmare while under anesthesia at the dentist's office. It was a gas.
5 of 20 AMC

The cast of Mad Men

Season 4 was fuller than an overstuffed Samsonite. Two cast members deserve particular praise: Jon Hamm, whose Don Draper emerges from a dank, boozy bachelorhood and into the light of a surprise new engagement to Megan, his former secretary, and 11-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who gave little Sally Draper a skillful feistiness that made us realize that she really is Betty's daughter.
6 of 20 AMC

Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad

Jesse's sobriety was always a tricky gambit for a show about dealing meth. What would send him running back to the pipe? Paul won an Emmy for his anguished journey toward — and then tragically away from — redemption. His compelling antihero broke our hearts when he started using again. Never mind that he's a murderer now too.
7 of 20 John P. Johnson/HBO

Denis O'Hare, True Blood

A good True Blood villain has to be both menacing and mordantly comic. Season 1's serial killer Rene wasn't exactly a laugh riot and Season 2's Maryann was more Ibiza party girl than sociopath. Enter O'Hare as Season 3's Russell Edgington, the King of Mississippi, who upended a central premise of the show: that vampires want to peacefully coexist with humans. His genocidal plan was made most clear when he interrupted a live news broadcast by tearing the spine from the anchor and announcing, "We will eat you after we eat your children. [Pause] Now time for the weather … Tiffany?"
8 of 20 Bill Records/NBC

Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights

Chandler and Britton's twin Emmy nominations underscore what fans have known for a while: Tami and Eric Taylor are the best couple on TV. Never has there been a more closely observed portrait of a middle-class marriage. They may fight about the mortgage, their college-aged daughter, the baby, the demands of working at a lower-income high school, or trying to squeeze in a date night, but when they make up, they talk like reasonable adults who love each other. Odd that such a thing would be rare on television
9 of 20 Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Conan O'Brien, The Tonight Show

As if O'Brien's exit from NBC wasn't emotional enough, his final show ended on a poignant note. The goofball got uncharacteristically serious and thanked the fans for their support. In exchange, he asked for only one thing. "Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere," he said. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen." And now, back to the Masturbating Bear!
10 of 20 Adam Rose/Fox

Chris Colfer, Glee

How confusing it must be for Colfer's Kurt Hummel! He finally gets his first kiss, and it's not from his swoony, croony new crush, but from a closeted bully who has threatened to kill him. All these feelings! Glee asks a lot of its actors — razzle-dazzle here, high camp there, emotional breakthrough over there — and Colfer consistently delivers. His coming-out story has wisely avoided the saccharine lesson-style stories and instead lets us watch as Kurt actively struggles to find his place in the world.
11 of 20 David M. Russell/CBS

Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife

Sure, it's a show about a jilted politician’s wife, but make no mistake — Archie Panjabi's Kalinda is the star of The Good Wife. A mysterious backstory, an Emmy win and one hell of a shoe collection have made Kalinda a standout with fans from the start. Whether she’s using her creative tactics to solve the case-of-the-week or battling new work rival Blake (Scott Porter), Panjabi nails it every week and always leaves viewers wanting more. Just don’t give her a baseball bat.
12 of 20 Neil Jacobs/CBS

Scott Caan, Hawaii Five-0

Thank God for Danno. While the central quartet of CBS' sun-dappled reboot is a great crime-fighting team, its characters are so slightly sketched that it's hard to imagine what they do off hours. Only Caan's wiseacre Danno has shown us his humor, his toughness and his vulnerability with sidebar vignettes about his leg injury, his ex-wife and daughter and his exasperation at being partnered with an automaton.
13 of 20 Giovanni Rufino/Showtime

Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie

Jackie Peyton is a sympathetic, caring nurse who is also a lying, cheating, thieving drug addict. Is it right to let her get away with all her deceptions? The show's second season teased Jackie's comeuppance, but when it finally came, instead of teary apologies and life lessons about forgiveness, we got stone-cold defiance. "Blow me," Jackie says to the mirror when faced with her loved ones' demands that she get help.
14 of 20 Adam Larkey/ABC

KaDee Strickland, Private Practice

This season, Strickland's Charlotte was stopped in her tracks by a brutal, out-of-nowhere rape. The show wisely used the tragedy as a teaching moment, but also made it clear that the strong Southern woman we loved to hate is, for now, gone. As Charlotte retrenches, mostly by wanting to put it all behind her, her sad, masklike composure betrays cracks, and it's clear that a breakdown is imminent.
15 of 20 Mario Perez/ABC

Terry O'Quinn and Matthew Fox, Lost

Locke (O'Quinn) and Jack (Fox), the twin daddies of Lost's Funhouse Island, battled anew in the show's final season. As the Man in Black-as-Locke, O'Quinn's layered performance transcended mere impersonation; the two characters actually melded. For his part, Fox let us understand why Jack has always been so cranky: He had a mission, and it ended with his demise.
16 of 20 Liane Hentscher/Fox

Anna Torv, Fringe

Switching Olivia with her alternate-universe self (the producers call her Bolivia, or Bad Olivia) jump-started the show's interpersonal dynamics — and changed the way we look at Torv. Her take on Bolivia added many new colors to the characters, including malice, humor and sensuality.
17 of 20 Bill Matlock/Fox

James Wolk, Lone Star

Yes, his show was canceled after two episodes, but not because of Wolk. His charming, aw-shucks portrayal of a Texan con man has us hoping that he's the next Alex O'Loughlin, a good actor in search of the right material.
18 of 20 Dana Edelson/NBC

Betty White on Saturday Night Live

Who knew Facebook could be used for good? After an online petition made it so, comedy's grande dame reigned over a special Mother's Day episode that also included the return of several former SNL funny ladies. White shocked and amazed as MacGruber's sorta-incestuous grandma and as Florence Dusty, famous for her "Dusty muffin."
19 of 20 Van Redin/HBO

Claire Danes in Temple Grandin

Danes won an Emmy for her respectful, nuanced portrayal of the autistic animal-science researcher and inventor. But don't be too reverent. The My So-Called Life actress created a compassionate character who so exemplifies Grandin's own credo: "Different, not less."
20 of 20 Trae Patton/NBC

Danny Pudi and Donald Glover, Community

In its second season, Community's ensemble has really jelled, but it's the music — literal and figurative — that Pudi and Glover make in their goofy episode-end tags that have us singing the show's praises.