As Katie's meddlesome mom Carol, the dynamic, albeit woefully underrated Andrea Martin cements her status as one of the greats. What would, in any other actor's hands, be an annoying one note overbearing Mom trope becomes with Martin's performance a sympathetic and hilarious look at what motivates the worst of your mom's bad behavior. Everything about her laugh-out-loud performances -- the timing, the physical pratfalls, the fearless goofiness that turns into matronly in a beat -- is spot-on perfection.
The ultimate fate of net neutrality is still up in the air, but no one can deny that John Oliver's impassioned deep dives into the issue were a huge part of why a federal appeals court upheld it earlier this year. Managing to educate people on the issue while also mobilizing them is a step above and beyond what anyone else in late-night comedy managed to do in 2017 (with the exception of Jimmy Kimmel on health care). After the show aired, the FCC website crashed with an overflow of people standing up for one of the most important but often swept-aside issues of the decade. While the issue of net neutrality is nowhere close to being resolved, diligent reporting and producing by Oliver and his team dealt a massive blow to those would profit from parceling out access to information and education -- which most consider to be a basic human right.
RuPaul's Drag Race has reached a level of mainstream saturation that seemed impossible when the show premiered in 2009. In its nine seasons, there's been so much drama that it would take a long-running documentary on Netflix to explain it all. But undoubtedly, one of the iconic moments of the entire show was gifted to fans this season by Valentina. In a crucial lip-sync battle, Valentina lived every drag race contestant's nightmare -- forgetting the lyrics to the very song she was lip-syncing to. In a never-before-seen move on the show, Valentina left on her face mask, obscuring her mouth throughout the performance. Channeling the legendary Tyra Banks that came before her, an incensed RuPaul went on to demand Valentina remove her mask but when she refused, lit into Valentina for failing to uphold the ideals and spirit of drag. "We were all rooting for you" now has a real competitor for reality TV's most iconic moment: "I'd like to leave it on," courtesy of Valentina. While she didn't win the challenge or the competition, she left a legacy and that's all that really matters in the end.
When we first met Agent Dale Cooper in 1990, he was a cool customer. When we reunited with him again 27 years later, he was an entirely different person -- or rather, people. David Lynch's long-awaited revival gave MacLachlan the opportunity to play multiple characters, and the actor made each one his own memorable, delightful beast. From the monosyllabic stillness of the evil Mr. C to the goofiness of Dougie Jones, before effortlessly slipping back into the stoic, suave Agent Cooper we know and love, MacLachlan was arguably the most impressive he's ever been on screen.
Portraying the archetypical fragile man who's able to trigger a national debate (Team Lawrence vs. Team Issa), Ellis brought greater complexity to Lawrence in Season 2, confounding viewers as to whether he really was "a f---boy who thinks he's a good dude," as his last scorned ex put it, or a good dude whose indecisiveness leaves collateral damage. Therein lies Ellis' genius: he's able to let Lawrence live in ambiguity and wear a smile that's sweet or sinister, but impossible to tell apart.
Constance Wu as Jessica Huang has always been one of the funniest (and most specific) performances on television. Frankly, she deserves to be on every best of list, every year. But this season in particular saw Jessica tackling an issue that's never truly been addressed in mainstream American media: how immigrant families deal with queer people in their lives. The complex issue was handled masterfully by Wu. Her performance, one of confused acceptance without understanding, nailed the uncomfortable space immigrant families find themselves in when their worldviews are challenged by a new culture. To be fair, a more accurate representation wouldn't have included acceptance, or at least a greater struggle to get there. But Wu, through her curt line readings and masterful ability to compartmentalize Jessica's expressions, carried an episode and a season that would have contained an otherwise cookie-cutter coming-out story.
Though it was canceled after WGN America got swallowed up in an acquisition, Underground upped its already high ante in Season 2, and a highlight of the season was Aisha Hinds' surreal channeling of Harriet Tubman. She appeared in seven episodes, but it was her hour-long, one-woman soliloquy ("Minty") to a group of abolitionists that won her a slot among the year's best. It's a visceral, sometimes jaw-dropping embodiment of the woman who shuttled thousands of slaves to freedom that grabs viewers from start to finish. The show itself may be languishing in purgatory -- there's chatter it may be picked up again -- but no matter its fate, Hinds' must-see performance is a testament to the quality of Underground and the depths committed actors go to.
The dumb as nails central figure on Netflix's mockumentary, like the show itself, could have been one joke. Accused of drawing d--ks on every car in his high school's faculty parking lot, Jimmy Tantro's Dylan Maxwell spends most of the show confined to his house, on suspension as the only suspect. Over eight episodes, though Maxwell doesn't become any smarter (he still finds his viral videos like "Baby Farting" and "Nuns Humping Trees" hilarious) he does become a thousand times more sympathetic, due entirely to Tantro's subtly layered performance. He looks and sounds like your typical, backwards white hat wearing dudebro, but a sweet sadness leaks through during the extensive interviews held over the series. The way Tantro plays Maxwell, the character has just enough self-awareness to know how stupid he really is... and ultimately, it breaks your heart.
Without Emily Browning as Laura Moon, Starz's adaptation of American Gods would likely have been a much different show. Browning easily gave depth to a character who was formerly one-dimensional, despite being integral to the plot. Through her layered performance, Browning was able to embody the harder and harsher qualities of Laura's person while also making her a sympathetic character we wanted to see succeed. While the character within the pages of Neil Gaiman's sprawling story was once vilified for her actions, Browning's version of Laura was a flesh-and-bone heroine absolutely worthy of the expanded screentime afforded her by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's scripts. And look -- if nothing else, she stole the show right out from under Ian McShane, and that's quite a feat.
Tatiana Maslany is undisputably one of the greatest actors of her generation. She's carried one of the most complex shows on television for four seasons while playing a majority of the main cast. Portraying at least seven versions of the same clone has been no small task, and Maslany managed to imbue each one with with a distinct personality and emotional arc. The final season was a culmination of all her talents, somehow portraying the undefeatable love of family almost solely with her own performances. Whatever Maslany chooses to do next will be a tour de force, but time and time again, people will undoubtedly return to Orphan Black to revel in her talent. Because of her performance, Orphan Black will remain a sci-fi classic for years to come.
Late-night hosts usually fall into one of two categories: political firecrackers (Colbert, Meyers) or playful jokers (Fallon, Corden). Kimmel falls in between, sort of like that sarcastic, good-natured college pal who loves to play pranks, such as pretending to steal your Halloween candy. But in 2017, Kimmel emerged as the most unlikely but most effective voice of healthcare advocacy after his son Billy was born with a heart defect. His impassioned, tearful monologue that ended with him calling for universal health care cracked your heart open. And lest you think he wasn't serious, his weeklong takedown of the proposed Graham-Cassidy Bill months later was inspired. Kimmel's delivery is hardly polished; he openly admits to seeking talking points from Chuck Schumer, and he has said more than once that he's "not great at this." But that's precisely what's made him so great, because it's now personal. And when the political becomes personal, it's essential.
There was a lot riding on the former Walking Dead supporting player taking the lead role on CBS All Access' reboot of the venerable space franchise. Discovery is a veritable roll call of firsts: the first of the Star Trek franchise that features a non-captain lead, the first time an African-American actress was in the lead, the first non-network showing of Star Trek. Add the fact that the franchise hasn't aired on TV in a dozen years, and that kind of pressure would get to anyone. But Martin-Green nailed her performance as Michael Burnham, a conflicted human raised by the logical Vulcans, flipping the script on classic characters like Spock. Martin-Green's journey towards acceptance by the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery after accidentally killing nearly everyone on her last ship has been a beautiful and hopeful thing to watch -- and Martin-Green has delivered the sort of performance that lights up every moment she's on screen. This is how stars are born.
What could've been a perversely satirical long-running joke became a forceful examination of women's issues and the horror of Hollywood's inner machinations thanks in large part to Lange's measured portrayal of Joan Crawford. Steeped in research -- as well as a compassionate view of a woman who's become a caricature -- Lange's Crawford is still scary, yes, but played with so much empathy, control and simmering rage that Lange's shifts from furor to desperate to vulnerable feel tectonic every time. Forget any of her previous Ryan Murphy collabs, Lange has never shined like this before on TV.
Comedian Kroll co-created Netflix's animated Big Mouth, loosely based on his real life growing up in New York, but it's through the breadth of his voices that the performance truly shines. As the main character, pre-pubescent Nick Birch, he brings a surprising amount of tender friendship to an oversexed little guy getting use to the changes going through his body. Kroll disappears into his other roles, though, including the hilariously filthy Hormone Monster, a character who says things so putridly disgusting even he can't believe they're getting away with them on TV. And his other roles -- from the clueless, sad Coach Steve to a mumbly-mouthed Italian Stallion -- prove Kroll is one of the rare comedians with a gift for voices that go beyond pure imitation. Kroll has the range.
As creator, writer, director and star, Pamela Adlon is involved in every aspect of the spectacular FX comedy Better Things, but this isn't a list of best writers or best directors or even best shows. It's solely her powerful performance as Sam Fox, a working actress raising three daughters in Los Angeles, that earns her a spot here. Adlon delivers a complicated portrait of single motherhood that is just as likely to make viewers laugh as it is to make them cry, a rare and genuine peek into an adult who doesn't have her life together -- a portrayal that's a dime a dozen for Adlon's male counterparts in the industry, but a brand new thing in her capable hands. Caught by the suffocating oppression that comes with taking care of others, Adlon shines a light on the little things that make life worthwhile when you end up far off from the place you envisioned yourself.
Melissa McCarthy cemented her place in the SNL Hall of Fame with her hilarious (and spot-on) impression of erstwhile White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. What began as a surprise cameo quickly became a cultural phenomenon, culminating in a pre-recorded video of McCarthy's Spicer riding a podium through Manhattan to the strains of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York" to seek approval from his mercurial boss, President Trump. So iconic was the performance that Spicer himself aped it on this year's Emmys. We'll never know exactly how much McCarthy's depiction of Spicer as a belligerent, in-over-his-head shill for the Trump administration contributed to Spicer's real-life dismissal, but it certainly didn't help his case. At least we'll always have McCarthy's Spicey to cherish.
It feels wrong to say that the Duffer Brothers were lucky Noah Schnapp was able to carry the main narrative arc of Stranger Things 2 on his shoulders, but it's true. There was little onscreen evidence from the show's first season that Schnapp was as capable as he turned out to be, given his character's disappearance in the first episode. And, in a way, that makes his standout performance in Season 2 even more impressive. Schnapp, all of 13, was tasked with portraying Will, the villainous Shadow Monster speaking through Will, and the Shadow Monster (sans Will). Each required him to deliver a distinct performance. While it might be true that we still know little about the boy (versus the monsters the reside within him), it doesn't mean we can't applaud Schnapp for all the heavy lifting he did this season. After all, it's no small task to portray the personification of all evil, hellbent on the destruction of humankind.
You've heard the saying before: acting is reacting. But when you play an unflappable sentient computerized guide, that might be a wee bit difficult. Add to that Janet's multiple romantic entanglements -- which require a whole range of expression and emotion she's not programmed for -- and Carden's performance becomes even more noteworthy. Unlike any sci-fi tropes associated with AI becoming sentient that came before her, Janet's evolution into a being with its own agenda and desires and needs has been a lighthearted yet devastating journey. In Carden's hands and with her tremendous ability to convey Janet's feelings with her eyes and subtle line readings, Janet, The Good Place's perennially perky Siri/(busty) Alexa, is not only the show's best and funniest character, but perhaps the most human of them all.
These two BFFs and Oscar winners have made their names in film, but they have each arguably never been better than they were on their passion project. As busybody Madeline Martha McKenzie, Witherspoon is at her Type-A Tracy Flick best, equal parts hilarious, warm and vengeful -- she treats her grudges like little pets! -- and never cartoonishly evil even as she wields Frozen on Ice in her mommy feud. Meanwhile, Kidman, who won the limited series/TV movie lead actress Emmy (both ladies won Emmys for producing the limited series champ), fearlessly constructed a complicated sketch of a domestic abuse victim. Her standout therapy scenes, in which she calibrates Celeste's silent cry for help with a justifying defense of her husband's actions, ought to be studied in acting classes for ages.
When Sterling K. Brown won the lead actor Emmy for his work on This Is Us ahead of the Season 2 premiere, it was hard to imagine how he'd top his intense first season performance as Randall, the adopted black son in a white family. But in the show's sophomore outing, we're still glued to the screen, watching Brown consistently give even the most trivial lines (like one of his corny Dad jokes) magnitude, and shatter hearts at the big moments too. On a show initially constructed around a mysterious death, Brown has gradually seized control of the emotional core, and made This Is Us' most gripping stories about Randall and his family -- particularly this season as he figures out how to be a different kind of parent than any of the three he had.
Lena Waithe has been a serviceable side player alongside Aziz Ansari's character on Master of None, but with the Season 2 episode "Thanksgiving," which she also co-wrote, she proved to be a leading lady in her own right. The Emmy-winning episode chronicles, in a series of Thanksgiving dinners over the course of decades, Waithe's character Denise's coming out to her family. Among the episode's many praiseworthy touches is Angela Bassett's guest-starring turn as Denise's mother, who initially struggles to accept her daughter's sexuality before... if not exactly embracing it, quietly acknowledging it in a loving way. "Thanksgiving" sets itself apart from other coming-out storylines by treating Bassett's character with as much empathy as it does Denise (if not more) and also speaks to the unique struggles faced by LGBT people of color, particularly women of color. Regardless of whether viewers can personally empathize with the story, "Thanksgiving" gives everyone something to be thankful for.
Known primarily for his comedic work, Michael McKean easily proved this year that he can also deliver a dramatic, layered performance deserving of every award (ahem, you screwed up, Emmy voters). As the mentally ill Chuck on AMC's acclaimed drama Better Call Saul, McKean made viewers feel sympathy for a man whose overwhelming arrogance and poor treatment of his brother Jimmy also left them with a strong desire to shove Chuck down a flight of stairs. This is why his apparent tragic end in the season finale hurts us just as much as it will likely hurt Jimmy -- and why we're still clinging to the hope that McKean will be back for Season 4.
If you've never seen The Leftovers before and want to know what the fuss was all about with Coon, all you need to do is watch her beautiful monologue in the series finale (although that'd be like reading the last page of a book before you buy it and frankly, you deserve better, just go from the beginning, it's worth it). It's a transfixing eight minutes of raw emotion, as she tells Kevin what happened to her since they last saw each other more than 10 years ago. It's a bizarre yet moving, grand yet intimate tale that may not even be true. But Coon's gift is that she's able to make every moment truthful.
We mean no disrespect to Aubrey Plaza's talented Legion co-stars, but the versatile actress previously known for her deadpan delivery danced circles around them (almost literally) as Lenny, the primary physical manifestation of the show's psychic villain. Tasked with portraying a number of different versions of Lenny -- drugged-out friend to David Lenny, joyfully malevolent personification of David's inner demon Lenny, manipulative therapist Lenny -- Plaza captivated audiences with a performance that seemed to require minimal effort on her part. And that's pretty impressive when you realize this show requires maximum brainpower to even begin to understand.
Elisabeth Moss' incredible performance in Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale is just one of many such performances in her career (she should have at least a couple additional Emmys lining her shelves, if we're being honest) but her turn as Offred is distinct and memorable for the way she is able to perfectly capture and embody the character's pain and suffering with every subtle movement. It's a relatively quiet performance -- especially when compared to some of the other performances on this list -- but that's what makes it all the more powerful.
However, if that isn't enough evidence of Moss' commanding performance, she is also tasked with portraying June, the woman Offred was before she was forced into sexual servitude in Gilead, and it's through this layered performance that Moss' range and skills become truly apparent. She isn't just portraying a single woman in pain or a woman desperate to be reunited with her daughter and husband; she is many different complex versions of the same woman, who's been forced to bend and not break while being shoved into unimaginable circumstances. She's angry and sharp, she's brittle and broken, she's sarcastic and even downright funny at times. Moss as Offred/June is a fully-realized character and easily the standout performance of 2017.