With the deluge of television being produced these days, a great performance can be key to breaking through the clutter. It can ground a moving true story, bring a dose of campy fun to a frothy escape, or help you see an actor in a wholly new light.
Some of this year's best performers — such as Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Pose's Billy Porter, When They See Us' Jharrel Jerome, and Fosse/Verdon's Michelle Williams — earned Emmys for their outstanding work, while others — including Russian Doll's Natasha Lyonne, GLOW's Betty Gilpin, and The Act's Joey King — were nominated but missed out on the big prize. Meanwhile, some others were overlooked entirely and yet more might receive their recognition next year, but who wants to wait for that?
TV Guide is celebrating the 15 best performances of 2019, honoring all the actors who made us laugh, cry, and want to learn a puppet dance routine.
15. Lucy Liu, Why Women Kill
Where to watch: CBS All Access
Why Women Kill was an unexpectedly addictive series this fall, and Lucy Liu deserves a fair amount of credit for that. While each of the three timelines in this murderous tale left us guessing until the bitter end, the victimless crime (and its perpetrator, Liu's Simone) ended up being the most powerful of them all. Though Simone started out an obscenely snooty socialite who was borderline unlikeable, she underwent a profound change during the course of the series that left her proudly touting the title "beloved and fierce female." Watching her help end her ailing husband's life in an act of assisted suicide out of love rather than revenge or anger was a wonderful, if somber, twist. Liu executed the major character beats of Simone's evolution flawlessly, making her journey both organic and emotional from start to finish. -Lindsay MacDonald
14. Kirsten Dunst and Théodore Pellerin, On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Showtime's freshman dramedy about a widowed water park employee who gets caught up in a multi-level marketing scheme has a premise that immediately ignites your curiosity, but it's the performances of Kirsten Dunst and Théodore Pellerin that keep you watching. Dunst stars as Krystal Stubbs, a Central Floridian who decides to scam the scammers by working the MLM system to survive after the death of her husband (Alexander Skarsgard). Dunst disappears completely into the role, giving Krystal such a brittle edge you're worried you'll cut yourself just watching her performance.
As viewers have known since 1999's Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dunst is an expert at off-kilter, desperate earnestness - something she puts to good use in On Becoming a God in a bizarre dance routine with puppets from Krystal's pageant days — and it seems she's finally met her match in Pellerin. The 22-year-old actor commands the screen as Krystal's pyramid scheme partner, Cody Bonar, a company man whose naïve faith in the system (combined with his oversized suits) makes him seem like an overgrown child in need of a hand to hold while crossing the street. Together, Dunst and Pellerin are a formidable duo who make even the show's more aimless episodes well worth watching. -Sadie Gennis
13. Antony Starr, The Boys
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
For the first 95 percent of the opening episode of The Boys, Homelander — the series' version of an all-American Superman — is the model of nobility, and Antony Starr wears the admirability on his broad shoulders, chest puffed out as his cape flutters in the wind. But at the end of the episode his true self is revealed as he eye-lasers a private jet out of the sky, and Starr transforms into a sadistic dick with just a readjustment of his square jaw that turns a beaming smile into grinding teeth. Starr is having a blast going back and forth between revered public figure for truth and justice and superpowered sociopath (and total love puppy in Madelyn's arms), and we're the lucky ones who get to watch it. Starr showed a penchant for bubbling sympathy up to the surface as the lead in Banshee, but in The Boys, he's ditching the subtlety and bringing it all out in one of the year's most entertaining performances. -Tim Surette
12. Joey King, The Act
Where to watch: Hulu
At just 20, Joey King quickly established herself as a burgeoning force in Hulu's The Act. As Gypsy Rose, the real-life woman who murdered her mother after years of psychological and physical abuse, she stunned audiences with her portrayal of a girl oppressed by her own parent. King told TV Guide in an interview that her spooky depiction was the result of tremendous hard work, and it showed: King had to adopt a squeaky voice, be confined to a wheelchair, and take on the physical pain Gypsy endured as a result of her mother Dee Dee's bogus claims of sickness. Actors, King said, only dream of being able to transform completely into someone else. She didn't win the 2019 Emmy for her work, but being nominated alongside established powerhouses like Michelle Williams, Patricia Arquette, and Niecy Nash proves she achieved that dream, and is likely to again. -Malcolm Venable
11. Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll
Where to watch: Netflix
Russian Doll co-creator Natasha Lyonne's turn as the irreverent Nadia was enticing enough even without the time loop gimmick, but the show kept showering her with physical, emotional, and even spiritual challenges that made Nadia's journey through the unknown even more fun to behold. It's hard to imagine any of Nadia's complicated boldness landing quite so well without Lyonne's rasp and blunt demeanor, especially once she adapted from being a free-wheeling, coding freelancer into a full-on philosophe. And it was more than just her sharp blazers, untamed hairstyle, and colorful use of language that made her a star; the actress' own intelligence and creative curiosity also shone through in her work, elevating the series from a promising idea into a full-on must-see. -Amanda Bell
10. Olivia Colman, The Crown
Where to watch: Netflix
Stepping into the leading role of a series in its third season is a daunting task for any actor, but even more so when A.) that role means portraying the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, and B.) her previous portrayer, Claire Foy, made such an indelible impression. But Olivia Colman easily rose to the monumental task in Season 3 of The Crown. Queen Elizabeth steps into a whole new light as Colman digs deep into the subtleties of one of the most visible women in the world. The pain, sadness, and, most importantly, resignation that suffuses Elizabeth in her later years is Colman's master stroke. Season 3 offers a haunting look at familial (and in this case, geopolitical) discord that happens when you try to force your children to grow in a shape of your own making, rather than one of their own. Colman's Elizabeth also demands respect, compassion, and loyalty — and you're compelled to give it despite her choices. That's the true sign of an iconic performance in the making. -Krutika Mallikarjuna
9. Betty Gilpin, GLOW
Where to watch: Netflix
At the end of GLOW Season 3, Betty Gilpin gets so excited she starts vibrating at a new frequency. This is also how it feels to watch Betty Gilpin act. As former soap star Debbie Eagan, Gilpin only gets more thrilling by the season, giving a benevolently out-there performance that stands out even among an ensemble of scene-stealing women. She makes Debbie into a kind of fantasy of ruthless self-expression, scolding flight attendants and swooping in to seize power from dismissive men. But as satisfying as her ferocity can be, Gilpin never loses sight of the desperation underpinning Debbie's ambition. She can be insecure, terrifying, and comedic at once, and she does it all in spandex, with her hair teased out like a helmet and a baby on her hip. That's entertainment. -Kelly Connolly
8. Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us
Where to watch: Netflix
It's not hard to see why Jharrel Jerome won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie earlier this year. The way he portrays Korey Wise in Netflix's When They See Us is masterful and understated. A lot of actors would have chosen broad and large instead of subtle and quietly wounded when tackling the devastating and raw subject matter of physical and sexual abuse in prison. But Jerome takes an honest tack while playing both the teenage and adult versions of Korey Wise, and Netflix's four-part miniseries is all the stronger because of it. -Mekeisha Madden Toby
7. Regina King and Jean Smart, Watchmen
It's totally, duh, obvious now that Regina King is one of the best actors working today, but it's what she brings to HBO's Watchmen that makes her performance as Angela Abar/Sister Night stand out. Even though she dons a costume in a show with psychic squids from other dimensions, a genius with an unlimited supply of clones who was banished to a moon prison, and a vigilante who oils himself up with lube to slide into storm drains, King plays her role with a level of humanity that keeps the series tethered to our lives and separates Angela from everyone else. As a member of the old guard, on the other hand, Jean Smart plays Laurie Blake/Silk Spectre as someone who has seen so much she's disaffected by everything, an antihero straight from the page of the original graphic novel. The contrast between the two is exactly what Watchmen aims to bridge — comic book hyperreality and real-world history — and the scenes they share together help Watchmen achieve its ambitions. Without them, Watchmen is another decent adaptation of something beloved. With them, Watchmen is one of the best shows of the year. -Tim Surette
6. Jeremy Strong, Succession
To be a fan of Succession is to accept that you are going to root for seemingly unredeemable characters. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) began Season 2 as a defeated man, wracked with guilt after killing a cater waiter in the Season 1 finale. By the sophomore season's end, Kendall inspired Twitter parades in his honor as he made his most ambitious move yet to take over his family's media conglomerate and throw his father under the bus. The arc of the character's revolution wouldn't have been possible if Strong hadn't put inconceivable effort into making us feel his character's brokenness. Despite Kendall's horrible crime, Strong made you want to take him home and rehabilitate him like an abused puppy. Without words, he made the audience feel the crushing weight of his anxiety when Logan (Brian Cox) forced Kendall to visit the family home of the aforementioned waiter to pay respects. Strong played Kendall's oppression with such subtlety that it's actually impossible to tell if the middle Roy son was actually under his father's thumb or plotting his Bruté moment all along. And his performance wasn't just rooted in the dramatic; it included delivering one of the series' most iconic lines — "Sails out, nails out, bro" — and the greatest rap ever seen on television. To put it in Kendall terms, Strong's performance deserves an E-to-the-M-MY, and we won't settle for less. -Megan Vick
5. Zendaya, Euphoria
Sure, Zendaya shattered any lingering notions that she was still a Disney ingenue with her stunning portrayal of a teen addict in Euphoria, but her work on the HBO breakout was more than just a rebrand. As Rue, a broken and lost high school kid unaware of her gifts and brilliance, Zendaya did more than shuffle along in a drugged up stupor. Like Lena Dunham in Girls or perhaps Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City before her, Zendaya embodied a defining moment in culture. Anyone could look groggy and stoned, but in capturing the shards of grief, anger, mischief and longing that made Rue a beautifully jagged prism, Zendaya looked like she needed us to understand. -Malcolm Venable
4. Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, and Toni Collette, Unbelievable
Where to watch: Netflix
You can make the argument Merritt Wever, Toni Collette, and Kaitlyn Dever give three of the best performances every single year, such is their level of talent and consistency. In 2019, the exceptional trio of actresses anchored Netflix's Unbelievable, a gripping limited series depicting the lasting emotional and psychological cost of sexual assault on survivors. Based on a true story, the series finds Wever and Collette portraying a pair of Colorado detectives at different stages in their careers and from different departments who meticulously piece together clues that ultimately lead them to a serial rapist who attacked Dever's character, Marie, whose case was callously dismissed by Washington police as a fabrication three years prior.
A two-time Emmy winner, Wever radiates with warmth and compassion as a law enforcement officer who is gentle in her approach and a reassuring presence for survivors, while Collette, an Emmy winner for United States of Tara, is equally fantastic as a more experienced detective driven by relentless determination. Their humanity grounds the series, but it's Dever, possibly the best part of every project she's been in since breaking out in Justified in 2011, who gives the performance of a lifetime. Heartbreaking and raw, Marie's story offers an unforgettable, devastating look at how sexual assault often reverberates throughout survivors' lives long after the actual attack, leaving no corner untouched by the effects of its horror, and Dever's performance is as powerful as it is memorable. So even though she is sharing the screen with two of the most talented actresses working today, it's her performance that stays with viewers long after the credits roll. -Kaitlin Thomas
3. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott, Fleabag
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Fleabag Season 2 kicks off with Phoebe Waller-Bridge standing in front of a restaurant bathroom mirror, cleaning up her bloodied face after a family dinner went sour. She turns to the audience with an unlikely announcement: "This is a love story." The other half of that love story is Andrew Scott's Priest, who is holding her purse and pacing just outside the bathroom, ready to offer her his number — "If you ever need someone to talk to," he says. Their gently-told story of forbidden attraction — between a recovering sex addict and a celibate Catholic priest — is what elevates Fleabag's second season above its bawdy first outing.
Scott is a revelation in the role, a priest who drinks and smokes and swears and jokes, but not because he's cynical or careless; rather, he seeks to fully experience and appreciate what life has to offer, from drinking canned gin and tonics to attending services for other religions to wearing gorgeous plum vestments from Italy. He is curious, earnest, ebullient. And he's the perfect foil for Fleabag, who may be less self-destructive in Season 2, but is as irreverent and jaded as she ever was. With each arched eyebrow or wry aside, Waller-Bridge's titular character shares with us, her audience, inviting us to join in her detachment and skepticism. Only, the Priest challenges her on her nihilism ("Why would you believe in something awful when you can believe in something wonderful?"), he actually notices when she checks out to perform for her unseen audience ("What was that? You just went somewhere!"), and he refuses to let her disengage from her here-and-now whenever things get serious ("For f---'s sake, stop that!"). Together, Scott and Waller-Bridge make the screen crackle with their wit and chemistry, earning every one of the show's accolades. By the time their relationship reaches its devastating but inevitable conclusion, they've both changed. The Priest has discovered that "love isn't something that weak people do," and Fleabag has learned she's much stronger than she thought. -Noelene Clark
2. Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon
Where to watch: Hulu
Michelle Williams ran away with the spotlight on Fosse/Verdon like she was gift-wrapping it for Gwen Verdon herself. On the FX miniseries, Williams played the legendary Broadway star so convincingly you'd think she was possessed, channeling Verdon's considerable dance talent and her particular way of speaking with an ease that belied how much hard work she put into the show. But it was her attention to the emotional reality of Verdon's life behind the scenes — her long-suffering patience and simmering resentment — that made Williams's Emmy-winning performance so resonant and so unfortunately timely. In her tango with a tortured male genius, she walked the line between theatrical and intimate with a dancer's precision. -Kelly Connolly
1. Billy Porter, Pose
Where to watch: Netflix
It's absurd to imagine that the writing team on Pose may have sat down in a conference room one day while outlining Season 2 and said "Let's get Billy Porter an Emmy!" but then again, maybe it isn't. Over the course of the FX musical drama's sophomore season, the highs and lows for Pray Tell, Porter's emcee/father figure in the ballroom community, seem strategically crafted to flex Porter's dynamic range. (After all, he did, in fact, snatch the trophy at the 2019 Emmys.) Pray Tell started the season in terror and grief as AIDS continued turning friends into ghosts but as the season progressed, Pray Tell shouted as an activist; he bared all in a love scene that helped him reclaim some worth; he officiated Candy's heartbreaking funeral and came close to death himself; he sang in a hospital cabaret; he fought with his best friend; and, in the end, he strutted triumphantly in a pair of heels in support of his trans family. Through every turn, every laugh, every read, and every moment of misery, Porter blazed through scenes, beaming light back out like the absolute force he is. -Malcolm Venable
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)