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Look back at the actors who surprised us, thrilled us and broke our hearts

Shaun Harrison
best-performances-jennifer-carpenter1.jpg
1 of 26 Randy Tepper/Showtime

Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter

The show is called Dexter, but it’s been Deb was has stolen the spotlight this year. After witnessing Dexter stab one of his victims in the heart and finally getting Dex to confess he's a serial killer, Carpenter has run the gauntlet of emotions — from denial to fear and finally all the way to begrudging acceptance. All the while, Carpenter made us believe Deb when her character admitted to being in love with her brother, even bringing us to a point where we were rooting for the adopted siblings to make a go at it. Move over, Michael C. Hall: Carpenter may steal your Emmy thunder next year.
2 of 26 Adam Taylor/ABC

Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans, Jr., Happy Endings

It's a true testament to Coupe and Wayans' talent that the pair actually stands out from Happy Endings' ah-maz-ing cast. In their portrayal of quirky married couple Brad and Jane, the actors play with the delicate line between exaggerated eccentricity and realistic romance. But no matter what wacky situation they're put in, be it feuding with the homeowners' association or pretending to be unemployed, Coupe and Wayans somehow come off as the pair every couple aims to be. Call it chemistry.
3 of 26 Hartswood Films/BBC

Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock

Last year, the relative unknown tackled one of the most iconic literary characters with such beady-eyed mastery and quirky aplomb that he overshadowed even Robert Downey, Jr.'s take on Sherlock Holmes. In Sherlock's second season, two antagonists — the lovely Irene Adler and the diabolical psychopath James Moriarty — brought the famed detective to his knees by outsmarting him nearly every step of the way. Besotted, fragile, uncertain and despairing — Cumberbatch's Holmes revealed the humanity underneath the ruthlessly perceptive mind.
4 of 26 DreamWorks Studio

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

With all due respect to Liam Neeson, who was originally attached to the film in 2005, it's impossible to imagine anyone else as Abraham Lincoln besides Day-Lewis. Method as ever, the two-time Oscar winner (likely to become three-time come Feb. 24) is simply astounding with his immersive turn. From adopting a reedy voice, layered with warmth and sadness, to perfecting a crooked gait, Day-Lewis breathes such life into the 16th president that his performance lingers long after you've left the theater.
5 of 26 NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

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Jimmy Fallon, Carly Rae Jepsen and The Roots, "Call Me Maybe" We'd thought we'd seen every parody/flash mob/lip-sync YouTube video of the summer's most infectious pop hit, but Jimmy Fallon decided the world needed one more. And he was right. By pairing Jepsen with his house band The Roots — and by outfitting them with low-tech classroom instruments — Fallon proved that Jepsen's single was more than just a sugary studio confection. Stripped of AutoTune and synthesizers, the song's hook stands on its own and still gets impossibly stuck in your head. As Jepsen might say: This is crazy.
6 of 26 Ali Goldstein/NBC

Tina Fey, 30 Rock

The writing on 30 Rock's final season (blerg!) has been as sharp as ever, with the show mocking everything from its own parent network's fall lineup to the 2012 presidential election. Not to mention, Liz Lemon's wedding and adoption efforts have been both hilarious and touching. Creator and star Fey (whose been tapped to co-host the 2013 Golden Globe awards with Amy Poehler) remains the heart of the show, anchoring the screwball antics of her supporting cast while at the same time providing a new kind of role model in Liz Lemon. Though we'll always hold a special place for Liz in our hearts, we can't wait to see what's next for the reigning Queen of Comedy.
7 of 26 Kharen Hill/Fox

The cast of Fringe

Before Fringe says farewell, the cast is making sure to give it all they’ve got in this final season. Whether it's John Noble's emotional turn as a father scared to revert to his dastardly ways, to Joshua Jackson’s joyride as an Observer, the cast has never been this good. But the women of Fox’s sci-fi drama have been the unsung heroes this year, with Anna Torv never more believable as a mother whose lost her child not once, but twice, while Jasika Nicole has finally grown comfortable in Astrid’s skin — a feat considering she was once the character at the center of the most fun drinking game.
8 of 26 Alan Markfield/TriStar Pictures; Sarah Shatz/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc; Dana Edelson/NBC; Ron Phillips/Warner Bros. Pictures release/DC Comics

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Looper, Lincoln and Saturday Night Live Though he's been delivering first-rate performances on TV and in film for more than two decades, 2012 was the year that JGL finally arrived to the big leagues. His four very different films — from superhero to action to sci-fi to drama with some comedy sprinkled in — not only showcased his exceptional range, but bolstered the notion that he's one of his generation's premier talents. His Magic Mike ode on SNL was just a bonus. 2013 will bring his directorial debut and hopefully a whole lot more.
9 of 26 Dana Edelson/NBC

Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live

With Kristen Wiig leaving the show, Bill Hader has stepped up as the most consistently funny cast member on SNL, and his efforts were rewarded with an Emmy nomination this year. From Hader's senile TV reporter, Herb Welch, to his dead-on impressions of Shepard Smith, James Carville and Clint Eastwood this election season, the comedian is always good for at least a few laughs-out-loud. But Hader's best creation to date is frequent Weekend Update contributor Stefon, whose hilarious off-the-mark recommendations for tourists visiting New York City — and frequent inability to keep a straight face when offering them — is the best thing to come from the show in years.
10 of 26 Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Jared Harris and Christina Hendricks, Mad Men

The climax of Mad Men's fifth season hinged on a pair of episodes dedicated to the darker side of ambition — and these two actors portrayed that darkness in heartbreaking fashion. Hendricks gave Joan Holloway the conflicted-but-steely-eyed resolve needed to sleep with a client to land a huge account while also finally earning a partnership at the firm to which she'd been vital. And after Harris' Lane Pryce was fired for embezzling money from the firm, he wilted from proud businessman unwilling to take a handout to a sad sack whose only way out was at the end of a noose. Whatever you may think of each character's controversial choices, there's no debating the mix of courage and vulnerability it takes to make these life-altering moments play so honestly and real.
11 of 26 Universal Pictures/Ron Phillips; Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises and Les Miserables

While we had an inkling that Hathaway would look good in that catsuit, we had no idea if she'd be able to bring the character to life in a new way. But she commands the screen with a sarcastic sexiness that, in true Bat fashion, renders Bruce Wayne helpless but also adds some much-needed levity to the bleak final chapter of Christopher Nolan's trilogy. All the deliciously spunky fun Hathaway displays in The Dark Knight Rises melts away in Les Miserables, where Hathaway's beautiful voice shines even as her raw, unflinching portrayal of Fantine depicts the sadness of a life that turns out terribly different than she'd ever dreamed.
12 of 26 Will Hart/NBC

Megan Hilty, Smash

Smash might have put Karen front and center — even handing her the role of Maryiln in the end — but it was Hilty's Ivy who continuously stole the show. Devious and ambitious, Ivy has all the makings of a cringe-worthy bad girl. But underneath her tough exterior, Hilty exposed a fragile vulnerability in Ivy long before the character started downing pills. Though Ivy might not be the best friend or the most stable, Hilty's performance makes her the character to root for.
13 of 26 Greg Gayne/FOX

Jake Johnson, New Girl

It'd be easy for Nick Miller to come off as one-dimensional, but Johnson has taken the curmudgeonly old man trapped in a 30-year-old's body and transforms him into something more. Lending a sensitive credibility to the role, Johnson elevated Nick beyond a cantankerous caricature and into a well-rounded — albeit unhinged — protagonist we can't help but love (even if his zombie novel is that bad).
14 of 26 Greg Gayne/FOX

Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project

The glass ceiling of the predominantly male world of television comedy gained a few more cracks this year, thanks to the smart, topical, hilarious performance of Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project. The Office actress' risky decision to leave Dunder Mifflin in order to create and star in her own show has paid off, with The Mindy Project being one of the first new series to get a full season pickup this fall. And, as one of the only women of color to write, create and star in her own series — as an OB/GYN who tries to juggle her career and dating life — Kaling offers a refreshing look at modern feminism.
15 of 26 Norman Shapiro/CBS

Christine Lahti, Hawaii Five-0

Playing Steve McGarrett's believed-dead mom Doris, Lahti has an unenviable task: She must keep viewers guessing about whether she's to be trusted while also contributing to and expanding the show's mythology. While the latter may not come until the end of the season, Lahti has been adept at switching from kickass former CIA agent with secrets to heartbroken mom who wants nothing more than her kids' forgiveness. We still don't know what side she's on, but we can't stop watching her hoping to find out.
16 of 26 Nadav Kander/SHOWTIME

Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, Homeland

The screen crackles every time these are together, so it's no surprise that both were recognized with Emmy wins this year. In the Showtime thriller's second season, Danes and Lewis dove deeper into the complex feelings between their characters while retaining just enough paranoia and doubt about each other's intentions to keep viewers on edge. Whether Carrie was breaking Brody in the interrogation room or Brody was doing unthinkable things to keep Carrie safe, these two seem to stay together even when it's not in their best interest. "Two minutes with you and I feel good. How do you pull that off?" Brody asks Carrie at one point in the second season. Funny, we have the exact same feeling.
17 of 26 Gene Page/AMC

Andrew Lincoln, The Walking Dead

Rick Grimes has faced hordes of zombies, but that’s nothing compared to what Lincoln has had to tackle this season on the AMC drama. He captured the tortured soul of a man forced to kill his best friend, then witnessed the deaths of his wife and most of the group he’s been protecting over the last year. It was heartbreaking to watch Rick realize that not only had his wife died, but his son had to put her down for good. His subsequent dive into insanity — talking to dead people on the phone and imagining Shane coming at him — could have gone over the top, but Lincoln has kept us guessing about just where our hero's head is at.
18 of 26 Bill Gray/HBO

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep

Veep is a welcome return for Louis-Dreyfus to television comedy. If you don't believe us, just watch her "WTF" moment in the pilot — or ask Emmy voters. The TV vet's turn as frazzled Vice President Selena Meyer earned her a well-deserved Best Actress in a Comedy Emmy this year. Though it's set in the Washington, Veep eschews political heavy-handedness for broad comedy, and with Selena, Louis-Dreyfus has made another contribution to the canon of strong female characters on television by channeling the best parts of her own previous roles: the neuroses of The New Adventures of Old Christine's Christine Campbell and the spastic assertiveness of Seinfeld's Elaine Benes in particular. This is one VP we're happy to vote for.
19 of 26 Jeffrey Neira/CBS

Jonny Lee Miller, Elementary

As if taking on the nearly legendary character of Sherlock Holmes weren't challenging enough, Miller also had the unenviable task of distinguishing his Holmes from his pal Benedict Cumberbatch's acclaimed version on the BBC's Sherlock. Fortunately, Miller brought his own dash of wounded brilliance to the role of the recovering addict P.I. who is alternately intriguing, charming and maddening. Also kudos on delicately balancing the chemistry with Watson, interpreted as a female sober companion by Lucy Liu, by bringing a zingy repartee without crossing over into the romantic.
20 of 26 Melissa Moseley/HBO

Olivia Munn, The Newsroom

Call this the year's most pleasant surprise. Although we initially scratched our head over Munn's casting on HBO's Aaron Sorkin drama, she won us over. As Sloan Sabbith, a dedicated and eager financial reporter, Munn was the show's strongest female character, refusing to be patronized by her boss even after she'd made a possibly career-ending mistake on air. Her character may have been hired to make economics seem sexy ("They're not going to have your legs," a colleague tells her when she suggests better qualified experts), but it was Sloan's smarts and Munn's self-deprecating charm that made her so much fun to watch.
21 of 26 Neil Jacobs/NBC; Chris Haston/NBC

The cast of Parenthood

Those who missed out on Ray Romano's turn on the short-lived Men of a Certain Age were pleasantly surprised to see just how well the former stand-up comic fit into the Braverman fold, even if it meant trouble for Sarah and Mark. However, Romano's excellent performance is just one small component of what catapulted this under-seen gem into so many critics' top 10 lists this season. Monica Potter and Peter Krause are already earning Emmy buzz for Kristina's battle with cancer, and Mae Whitman — aka TV's undisputed best crier — is doing some of her best work now that Amber has fallen in love with a former soldier suffering from PTSD. No other cast on TV knows how to grab at our heartstrings, funny bones and tear ducts in 60 minutes quite like this ensemble.
22 of 26 Tyler Golden/NBC

Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation

Amy Poehler nails it year after year as the world’s most lovable bureaucrat. However, Leslie’s campaign for Pawnee City Council gave on-screen beau Ben ample time to shine as the man running the whole operation. After first winning over (small, but devoted) audiences on Party Down, Scott stepped up to the challenge in an understated but unflappable performance. When Season 5 sent Ben packing to Washington, D.C., Scott held his own and flexed new comedy muscles opposite deadpan queen Aubrey Plaza.
23 of 26 Frank Micelotta/FOX

Britney Spears, The X Factor

We admit to first tuning into The X Factor for the possibility of seeing the former pop princess give us trainwreck television. And although she's made a few flubs (Carly Rose in a schoolgirl outfit? Giving Diamond White the boot early?), she more than made up for them with her candid, un-self-conscious reactions to bad performances. Whether it's treating us to scrunched-up Brit Face or uttering the always-eloquent, "I don't get it," Spears proves that she still knows how to entertain while still proclaiming that she's Britney, bitch!
24 of 26 Jess Pinkham/ Fox Searchlight

Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Though she was just 5 years old when she was cast in the movie, Wallis has already earned Oscar buzz for her heartbreaking and inspiring role in this year's Little Indie That Could. Wallis shines as Hushpuppy, a brave young girl who lives with her ailing father in a flooded Louisiana bayou and, throughout the course of the film, tries to protect her father, her neighbors and herself in the aftermath of a hurricane. Now at age 9, if Wallis does score a Best Actress nod, she would be the youngest actress ever to do so.
25 of 26 Peter Iovino/Universal Studios

Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect

We met her briefly in Bridesmaids and laughed as she showed off her bleeding, fleshy, infected tequila-worm tattoo. But in Pitch Perfect, Wilson shows us how far we've come in our depictions of funny ladies on film. In the a capella comedy, Wilson plays "Fat Amy," who wows us with her confidence, her impeccable timing, her inspiring independent spirit... and her singing. (Check out her comical but competent version of Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory" from an appearance on The Tonight Show if you don't believe us.)
26 of 26 Trae Patton/NBC

Bebe Wood, The New Normal

"Must we go back to Grey Gardens?" We'll gladly follow if Bebe Wood is leading the way. Wood proved she was more than just another young, pretty face just two episodes into the NBC comedy's run when she busted out a Grey Gardens impression for the ages. Before anyone could cry one-impression-wonder, Wood then donned an impressive Cher costume and accent for a stirring performance of "Half-Breed." But Wood is hardly just a scene-chewer. Her heartfelt portrayal of Shania has proven the perfect foil to help humanize the lovable but occasionally over-the-top Bryan.