Think about your favorite television show this year. Now imagine it without any actors. Yeah, the people in front of the camera are pretty important to the whole production, so we decided to celebrate those who wowed us in 2018.
What we found was that great performances came in all styles. Some did the "acting" thing and screamed. Some offered quiet, emotional portrayals. Heck, one guy just looked tough, and another did his best work in voiceover. Some were from our favorite shows, and some were from real stinkers. The thing these great performances had in common? We couldn't shake them from our minds.
Here are the 25 best television performances in 2018.
Season 1 of 13 Reasons Why may have left you hoping Justin Foley died in a ditch somewhere. That's why it's such an achievement that Season 2 left you hoping someone would just give him a hug. Justin's slide into homelessness and drug addiction was the standout storyline of Season 2, and Brandon Flynn's performance evoked such empathy that though we may not have found ourselves forgiving Justin, at least we understood him. The show's depiction of heroin addiction and the unraveling of Justin's life could have felt preachy or vengeful; instead, 13 Reasons painted the evolution of a boy so steeped in self-loathing that he had nowhere to go but rock bottom, even as he remains determined to do the right thing and find somewhere to belong. Flynn's portrayal made us reevaluate everything we thought we knew about Justin Foley. --Lindsay MacDonald
Teenage girls with the ability to shapeshift into anyone they touch is a pretty outlandish concept, but the grounded performances by the cast of The Innoncents, in particular Percelle Ascott as Harry, that made the fantasy show feel accessible and intimate. Ascott served as the conduit for the audience, reacting to the fact that his girlfriend had undeniably freaky powers, and he helped us navigate their terrifying world. We all remember our first love, but Ascott helped us relive those feelings as he stood by June (Sorcha Groundsell) during her turbulent transition into shapeshifting. --Megan Vick
For all its big-budget spectacle and high-fallutin' philosophizing about what it means to be human, Westworld turned in plenty of robotic performances. Zahn McClarnon was the show's most powerful exception, and given a starring role in Season 2's best episode, he made us believe that these bags of bolts were truly human underneath. "Kiksuya" cracked open the mythology of the reticent Ghost Nation, and McClarnon as Akecheta, previously seen only as a bloodthirsty savage, gave the series' most soulful performance, human or otherwise, in an epic love story. --Tim Surette
Succession's smug little sh-- Roman Roy owes every ounce of his undeniable magnetism to Kieran Culkin, who makes the rich, spoiled son of a mega-media brand one of the best bad boys ever. In truth, there are a lot of actors who could convincingly shove their onscreen sister or promise a fat check to a working-class Latino child before snatching it away from him, but Culkin made carefree cruelty a work of art. Roman isn't likable -- he's entitled, spoiled, condescending and on and on -- but he is real, and he is captivating. Knowing that Roman is who he is because Culkin was instructed not only to improvise but to " just go be him" makes you appreciate just how wicked Culkin's performance is. --Malcolm Venable
Over the course of the past 12 months, Cody Fern went from an unknown actor to one of the most talked-about rising stars. He kicked off the year with a heart-wrenching and scene-stealing performance in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace as David Madson, a good friend of Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) who ultimately became one of his first victims. This performance led to another collaboration with Ryan Murphy, with Fern taking on the role of conflicted (but sexy!) Antichrist Michael Langdon inAmerican Horror Story: Apocalypse. While Fern embodied Michael as the hardened and vindictive spawn of Satan in the post-apocalyptic world, it was the flashbacks to his childhood -- where Fern brought to life Michael's inner conflict between his desire to be good and his unwavering fate to destroy the world -- that already has us clamoring for the actor to take his rightful place alongside Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters in future seasons of the horror anthology. --Sadie Gennis
There's a scene in Netflix's Everything Sucks! that I'll never forget; Peyton Kennedy's Kate is watching her new idol Tori Amos in concert when she spies a lesbian couple making out. It's revelatory for Kate, who's going through her own sexual awakening, and Kennedy soaks up the sesh like a sponge. She's changed from that moment on, and all of her reserved nervousness transforms into awkward confidence, which is the core of the coming-of-age story. Kennedy plays both sides incredibly well, but it's that pivotal scene that cements her performance as one of the best of the year. --Tim Surette
When Donald Glover convinced Katt Williams to guest star in Season 2 of Atlanta, Glover promised Williams that the premiere "Alligator Man" would win Williams an Emmy. Williams, a particularly vulgar, explosive and beloved black comedian, laughed at the idea of busting through the prestigious, mostly white, ranks of Hollywood actors to snag TV's most exalted industry award, but come awards season, he did just that. And anyone who watched Williams' performance as Earn's uncle, aka the Alligator Man, knows why. Williams took a role that in lesser hands would have been a flat character -- that one belligerent uncle we all have who tells tall tales all day long -- and spun it into a man who is barely surviving his day-to-day on an emotional level. Like his alligator, he's chained to a world that doesn't understand him, and like his alligator, he only feels freedom in his escape. --Krutika Mallikarjuna
Sean "Dud" Dudley seems to be the perfect role for Wyatt Russell, whose natural surfer-dude/slacker vibe fits right inside the Lodge 49 character's sandals. But Russell is making a special kind of magic in AMC's spiritual dramedy. Just as the series about a fraternal lodge contains a multitude of layers beneath the surface, Russell has transformed Dud into a complex man of infinite possibility who doesn't let the weight of his existence crush him. He could be the vessel for a higher power... or he's just a hopeful burnout, one step away from a mental ward. --Tim Surette
As Wynonna Earp, the leading lady of Syfy's supernatural Western of the same name, Melanie Scrofano plays an unconventional heroine who is many things at once: a badass champion, a protective older sister, a broken daughter, a loyal friend, a complicated partner and a fierce mother -- and she makes the audience feel every facet of her character. This season when Dolls (Shamier Anderson) died or when Wynonna found out Doc (Tim Rozon) had made the (terrible) decision to become a vampire, you felt Wynonna's heart breaking because yours was too -- and that's because of Scrofano's gut-wrenching performance. And as often as she makes you cry, she just as easily makes you laugh, rattling off lines like, "We don't talk about Helen Mirren in that tone!" We don't want to just be friends with Wynonna; we want to be friends with Melanie, too. --Kaitlin Thomas
Dear White People hit hard with searing commentary on the complexities of racial politics through the lens of its vulnerable characters, and no one was in the thick of it more than Logan Browning's sharp-tongued activist Sam. As Sam dealt with an onslaught of racist online trolls, Browning served up a powerful performance as a broken hero who isn't perfect, but is perfectly relatable. Oscillating between anger, despair and hope, she ran the gamut of emotions this season and took us on one difficult and exhausting, but worthwhile, journey. --Keisha Hatchett
Playing an all-knowing anthropomorphized informational delivery vessel is a difficult enough task, which D'Arcy Carden has always made appear easy. But this year, as Janet got more and more in touch with her humanity (or whatever feelings possessed by omnipotent A.I. are called), the actress revealed new layers to the character as we saw Janet fall in love with Jason (Manny Jacinto), silently nurse her jealousy after Jason married Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and learn to cope without her powers while on Earth. But even though Janet is becoming less and less of a, well, Janet, Carden never manages to lose that singular Janet-ness about her. If you don't watch The Good Place, that last sentence probably sounded like a bunch of nonsense, which seems fitting for a show in which time moves in a Jeremy Bearimy. Just accept it's true and move on. --Sadie Gennis
There were few moments on TV this year that hit harder than The Terror's alcoholic Capt. Francis Crozier coming to terms with the fact that he was about to run out of booze because his ship was stuck in the ice in the Canadian wilderness, and the way Jared Harris delivered his apologetic speech to his men to prepare them for the horrors they were about to witness because of his impending withdrawal. Harris embodied empathy and care for his fellow humans in the face of unspeakable horror, both natural, supernatural and human. I wish he was my dad. --Liam Mathews
As Barry's scene-stealing Chechen gangster Noho Hank, Anthony Carrigan plays a new, delightful type of mobster. He's friendly and cheerful, as likely to offer associates a submarine sandwich and a juicebox as he is to take a file to their teeth. Whenever Barry threatens to get too dark to bear, Hank pops up and says, "Hey, man!" Every choice Carrigan makes will have you going, "Lol, what is this dude's deal?" --Liam Mathews
It's hard to say which version of Emma Stone's character is most compelling in Netflix's trippy limited series Maniac. She plays Annie Landsberg, a damaged but tough addict who cons her way into a pharmaceutical study so she can get her hands on more of the pills she abuses to escape dealing with family trauma. But in the drug-induced dreams she shares with Jonah Hill's Owen Milgrim, she's also Linda, a lemur-stealing nurse from Long Island; Arlie, a femme fatale at a 1940s séance; Ruth, a Southern sleeper agent facing an alien invasion; and Annia, a half-elf guide in a fantasy world at least a little inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Remarkably, Annie's own grit and humor are visible just below the surface of each of these well-formed dream versions -- a testament to Stone's masterful command of her character. --Noelene Clark
We watch comedies to laugh, but One Day at a Time is one of those rare gems that puts a smile on your face and helps you have tough conversations. A large part of that is because of Justina Machado's dynamic and nuanced performance as the family matriarch, Penelope. In Season 2, Machado brought us to tears as a woman in the throes of depression and on the verge of losing her mother in the season's final episode. She can go from the class clown to a heartbreaker at the drop of a hat, and she's one of the most underrated comedians on TV today. --Megan Vick
Richard Madden blew away all thoughts of, "Oh, that's Robb Stark," in the first 15 minutes of Netflix's harrowing terrorist thriller Bodyguard. In the opening, Madden's David Budd begs a suicide bomber to keep everyone in one piece, and the intensity of the pace-setting scene begins and ends with Madden's manic pleas. But it's later in the show that you really see the depth of Madden's skills as Budd wrestles with PTSD and the conflict of knowing he might be a pawn in a much bigger game. No one held a stare better than Madden this year. --Tim Surette
Here's the thing about Darren Criss: We knew that dude from Glee. Glee! The high school musical where, as Blaine, Criss sang pop songs and did some very fancy prancing. He did some prancing in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story too, albeit while watching a terrified john, bound in duct tape, beg for his life. In Ryan Murphy's chilling tale of how gay killer Andrew Cunanan came to rob the world of Gianni Versace's brilliance, Criss became someone else entirely -- no, he became two people: a cunning, dangerously narcissistic grifter, and a drugged-up monster addicted to S&M sex and the thrill of taking life. It's an astonishing performance, one that literally bared everything. Criss deservedly won the Best Actor in a Limited Series Emmy for his portrayal, but more than anything, Darren Criss erased any preconceived notions about who we thought he was or what he could do. --Malcolm Venable
Serena Waterford took several sharp turns as a character in Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale, and Yvonne Strahovski somehow managed to navigate all of them with a grace that left audiences with a sense of, dare I say it, compassion for a woman who aided and facilitated ritual rape. Yes, she was a detestable woman who will turn on a dime and drip cruelty from that severe smile of hers, but Strahovski elegantly wove in Serena's more sympathetic traits, allowing us to see her as a mother who couldn't allow her newborn daughter to suffer the same cruelties she laid on others. You can hate her (you probably even should), but you can't deny that Serena (and Strahovski's stunning performance) was one of the most complex masterpieces of 2018. --Lindsay MacDonald
Saying that Amy Adams was great in something is like saying water is wet. But in HBO's limited series Sharp Objects, Adams was outstanding. She completely embodied Camille Preaker, an alcoholic journalist who returns to her small and suffocating Southern hometown to investigate the murder of two young girls. Adams' performance forced viewers to confront her character's emotional trauma head-on, even if Camille struggled to do so her herself. Some performances are memorable for their explosiveness, or for the way they react to those around them, but so much about Adams' portrayal of Camille was about Camille reacting to her own memories and pain, and it was so hauntingly beautiful that it'll be a long time before we forget it. --Kaitlin Thomas
The way you can glance at J.K. Simmons' face on Counterpart and tell instantly which of the two Howard Silks he's playing is nothing short of astounding. He plays versions of the same person from different universes on the sci-fi spy drama, but he doesn't have any costume tells or makeup to distinguish them from each other. Both Howards look exactly the same, so Simmons conveys everything through how tightly he holds his mouth. Sometimes he plays one impersonating the other, and you can tell that, too. It's a real privilege to get to watch this guy. --Liam Mathews
Penn Badgley got a bad wrap after it was revealed his Gossip Girl character Dan was low-key stalking his friends. In YOU, Badgley showed you just how stalker-y he could be. But what was most dazzling about his performance was how much he made you like him. You know he's the bad guy, but you spend most of the series rooting for him, even as he's doing terrible things. He's the most charming evil dick of 2018. --Megan Vick
Rhea Seehorn should be showered with a bunch of gold, shiny statuettes for her portrayal of Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul. She's the lone woman in a cast full of incredible men, but she also stands out for the way she's slowly built Kim into a complex, fan-favorite character who outshines the lot of them. What's most stunning about her performance is that Seehorn is at her best when Kim is at her quietest -- it's all about the things that go unsaid. And watching Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk play off one another -- whether their characters are in sync or at odds -- is what gives Better Call Saul its unshakable foundation. Everyone has watched this show waiting for it to take the leap into Breaking Bad territory, and that's been fine, but Better Call Saul's strength is that it never needed to broach the world of Walter White to be great, and that's in large part because of Seehorn. --Kaitlin Thomas
There was a lot to love about American Vandal's second (and final) season, but at the top of the list is Melvin Gregg's standout performance as the charismatic but complex jock DeMarcus Tillman. ( There's a reason we spotlighted him on our Freshman 15 list of breakout stars this fall TV season.) Who could forget his breakdown in the car when he confessed that he turned to an online girlfriend because his local celebrity left him questioning who his real friends were? His raw vulnerability provided the show an added layer of depth, which is difficult to do when you consider the sheer number of poop and dick jokes in the mix. --Keisha Hatchett
With Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer leading the show, it's easy to see why Killing Eve exploded onto the scene and ended up on pretty much everyone's Best of 2018 lists. From the moment Villanelle (Comer) crosses paths with Eve Polastri (Oh), the tension of this cat-and-mouse game ratchets higher and higher until its mind-blowing finale. It's a brutal final scene, not just because of the blood, but because of the intensity and sincerity of the emotions there. It's one of the few spy thrillers where you don't have to keep count of who is toying with whom; Eve and Villanelle are women of their word. They mean what they say, right up until the bitter end. --Krutika Mallikarjuna
There are two moments in the series finale of The Americans where Keri Russell buckles in and delivers the best performance of the year. And she doesn't speak in either of them. As Philip (Matthew Rhys) explains to Elizabeth that they have to leave America without their son, Henry, Elizabeth is slapped in the face with an invisible palm of truth. She tries to get words out, but she's frozen; it's a rare moment of inaction for the otherwise steely spy. Later, as she catches sight of her daughter, Paige, staying behind against their wishes, Elizabeth instantly wells up and is once again aghast in silence, and the motherly instinct inside her tries to burst out from behind the fugitive on the run. This comes an episode after Elizabeth killed an assassin, told her handler off and fought it out with her daughter. Russell was able to captivate us all no matter what predicament her character was in because she knew exactly how to stay within the solid lines that were drawn for Elizabeth -- and when to break out of them. --Tim Surette
Relive the best, worst and most unforgettable TV moments of 2018, including the 25 best shows of the year and the 25 best episodes of the year.
Senior Editor, Reviews & Recommendations: Tim Surette
Creative: Robert Rodriguez and Sushant Sund