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Peacock/Amazon/Netflix/HBO. Design by Brittney McGhee
Best Performances 2021

The 20 Best Performances of 2021

From comedy powerhouses to sad boys, these are the performances we can't shake

The best thing about a good TV performance is the same as the best thing about any good TV: You get to spend so much time with it. Our favorite performers on the small screen are usually the ones who reveal new shades of their characters over time, whether they're spiraling toward their breaking point in a miniseries or searching for redemption in a long-running drama. The best TV performances of 2021 took us on a journey.

Some brought depth to characters who hit rock bottom, like Murray Bartlett in The White Lotus, Margaret Qualley in Maid, and Jeremy Strong in Succession. Others played clueless elites, like Renée Elise Goldsberry in Girls5eva, Nicholas Hoult in The Great, and, uh, Jeremy Strong in Succession. Some were aliens (Alan Tudyk in Resident Alien); others investigated the possibility of aliens (Katja Herbers in Evil); some starred in rom-coms (Toheeb Jimoh in Ted Lasso, Rose Matafeo in Starstruck); others just stayed inside (Bo Burnham in Bo Burnham: Inside). But all were unforgettable. 

Below, you'll find the performances that stuck with us this year. They're unranked and listed in alphabetical order, because unlike some awards shows, we understand that comedy and drama can't be pitted against each other. These are TV Guide's 20 best TV performances of 2021.

For more, check out our lists of the 25 best shows of 2021 and the 20 best episodes of 2021.

Murray Bartlett, The White Lotus

Murray Bartlett, The White Lotus

Mario Perez/HBO

Murray Bartlett, The White Lotus 

Honorable mention goes to Jennifer Coolidge, who gave a career-best performance as suffering-but-insulated rich woman Tanya McQuoid on HBO's satirical dramedy The White Lotus, but we already knew she was great. The revelation of the show is Murray Bartlett, who plays Armond, the beleaguered manager of The White Lotus resort. As the series begins, his job pampering whiny, needy rich people has pushed him to his breaking point, and Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), who makes it his mission to destroy Armond for the crime of booking him into the wrong room, finally makes him snap. Watching Bartlett gradually externalize more and more of the anger and resentment he feels at these people who are so self-absorbed they don't even see him as a human being is thrilling and heartbreaking, up until the final injury added to the insults. -Liam Mathews

 
 

Bo Burnham: Inside

Bo Burnham: Inside

Netflix

Bo Burnham, Bo Burnham: Inside 

A unique combination of comedy special, social commentary, and electro-pop musical, Inside is a generously revealing look at Bo Burnham's solitary quarantine in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. True to his YouTube roots, the multi-hyphenate paces the special with a stream-of-consciousness rhythm, accurately capturing the frenetic energy and vast emotional range so many of us felt during that stage of lockdown. Playfully cheeky songs like "White Woman's Instagram" offer no warning for the vulnerable, self-referential lyrics in "All Eyes On Me," a song that Burnham delivers with intimate, intense eye contact. If we're still around in 50 years, Bo Burnham's 2021 Netflix special will stand out as a masterful entry in the hellish year's time capsule. -Lauren Zupkus

 
 

Jason Genao, On My Block

Jason Genao, On My Block

Kevin Estrada/Netflix

Jason Genao, On My Block 

Hear us now: On My Block should go down as one of the best teen dramas of all time. But if we're only allowed to shout out one member of its incredible ensemble cast, the flowers have to go to Jason Genao, who played Ruby Martinez in all four seasons of the Netflix series. The final season saw Ruby mature into a young adult, and Genao once again deftly balanced laugh-out-loud comedy (Ruby's prom king acceptance speech was mostly improvised) and heart-wrenching drama with barely a scene in between (Ruby finding out his grandmother died still haunts us). Genao is a jack-of-all-trades actor, charming and powerful in equal measure, and we can only hope that enough people saw his all-around great performance in these final episodes to make him the star he deserves to be. -Megan Vick

 
 

Shalita Grant, You

Shalita Grant, You

John P. Fleenor/Netflix

Shalita Grant, You

It takes a lot to make an audience hate someone more than Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) on You, but Shalita Grant did just that in the series' over-the-top third season. What's even more impressive is that after Grant made viewers thoroughly despise her character, Sherry, she had everyone rooting for her survival in the end. As it turned out, Sherry was just as calculating and manipulative as the Goldbergs were, but she chose to use her powers for self-promotion rather than murder. Her intuitive nature and ability to think quickly in a literal death cage turned her into a fan-favorite hero in the season's final episodes — and made us desperate to see Grant and her scene parter Travis Van Winkle in a You spin-off about their power-hungry new-age-swinger couple. Whether Sherry was trying to couples-therapy-speak her way out of a fight with Cary or wave a gun in his face out of sheer frustration, Grant stole the show in every scene she was in and helped make this season of You the best yet. -Megan Vick

 
 

Michael Greyeyes, Rutherford Falls

Michael Greyeyes, Rutherford Falls

Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock

Michael Greyeyes, Rutherford Falls

Rutherford Falls needs the gravitational pull of Michael Greyeyes. By its nature, it's a story troubled by a white man who can't stop stealing focus; the show relies on Greyeyes' character, Terry Thomas, to reel it back in and, through force of will, make the story revolve around him instead. It's not an easy task, but Greyeyes — venturing into comedy for the first time — makes it look like it is. As Terry, a Native casino owner from the show's fictional Minishonka Nation, he's bluntly funny and sneakily playful, good at messing with people and even better at telling it like it is. He is Rutherford Falls' best character, and his show-stopping monologue on Indigenous capitalism is the high point of the Peacock comedy's first season. In any given reaction shot, Greyeyes sells both the thrill and the frustration of being the smartest person in the room. -Kelly Connolly

 
 

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Girls5eva

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Girls5eva

Heidi Gutman/Peacock

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Girls5eva 

You can make a case for many cast members of Peacock's Girls5evaPaula Pell (Gloria), Sara Bareilles (Dawn), Daniel Breaker (Scott), Jonathan Hadary (Larry), Andrew Rannells (Kev) — to be on this list, but we'll make our case for Renée Elise Goldsberry, who has created the lovable monster Wickie Roy, a wealthy socialite with no money or social circle. Goldsberry, who is best known for her role in the stage production of Hamilton or as the super-serious leader of Altered Carbon's outer space rebel faction the Envoys, absolutely slays as Wickie, her comedic chops coming naturally as she slinks around the room and punctuates every one-liner with the haughtiness reserved for the one percent of the one percent. Like the best performers, Goldsberry has created this character herself, so much so that it's impossible to see anyone else in the role. The thing that makes her performance unique is that we're convinced that Wickie is an A-lister the world just hasn't discovered yet. Who else can lord over someone by insulting their microwave for having a baked potato button? Who else makes tiny purses out of bats? Only Wickie, as played by the inimitable Goldsberry. -Tim Surette 

 
 

Katja Herbers, Evil

Katja Herbers, Evil

Elizabeth Fisher/CBS ©2021Paramount+ Inc.

Katja Herbers, Evil 

Evil's entire ensemble is killer, but this season belonged to Kristen Bouchard, who actually killed someone — and might have been a little bit possessed, but only (probably) in the way all angry women are. Katja Herbers was given mountains to climb this year. She began Season 2 of the Paramount+ drama navigating Kristen's head trips after murdering a serial killer to protect her daughters, steering boldly into the gut punch that her white privilege would keep her out of prison. Kudos to Evil for going there; it wouldn't have worked if Herbers weren't so game to take risks. Kristen stays likable precisely because Herbers' performance is so honest — she feels like a woman who really has to live in this world. She's always tipping forward and backward over the edge. As a mother, Kristen is warm and exhausted; with her coworkers, she's endearing; when work gets scary, she's a scream queen; facing off with the demonic Leland (Michael Emerson), she's hilarious. (No line delivery made me laugh harder this year than her hissed, "This is me with help, Leland!") Herbers pulls together every side of Kristen and makes her feel like the same person all the time. The season ends with a stunning scene that sums up her range: After sobbing out a vulnerable confession of her guilt to the newly ordained David (Mike Colter), in a delicate emotional pivot, Kristen kisses him. It's dangerous. And like everything else Herbers does in this role, it totally works. -Kelly Connolly  

 
 

Nicholas Hoult, The Great

Nicholas Hoult, The Great

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

Nicholas Hoult, The Great

If Peter III was the perfect villain in Season 1 of The Great, Season 2 chronicles his slow evolution into someone worth rooting for. The key to that working as well as it does is Nicholas Hoult, wildly watchable and utterly at home in the role. Peter abdicates the throne to Catherine (Elle Fanning) at the beginning of the season, and being relegated results in a more subdued performance than the bombastic one we saw last time around, but Hoult uses it as an opportunity to peel back more of his character's layers. He still delivers Peter's verbose mini monologues about food and sex and power with gusto, but he's always careful to walk the line between reprehensible and charming. He plays the former emperor as one part brazenly vain failson, one part wife guy who wants to change for the woman he loves, and somehow all the pieces work. This is the role he was born to play. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Toheeb Jimoh, Ted Lasso

Toheeb Jimoh, Ted Lasso

Apple TV+

Toheeb Jimoh, Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso's second season wasn't always the victory lap fans of Season 1 hoped it would be, but one thing about it that unequivocally worked was Toheeb Jimoh's Sam Obisanya, AFC Richmond's sweet defensive player. Sam's role was expanded this time around, allowing him to rise as a leader when he spearheaded a protest of a team sponsor while also exploring the tentative beginnings of an unexpected, but no less welcome, connection with Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham). Jimoh's charisma cannot be overstated; he works as well as a comedic lead as he does as a dramatic and romantic one. Sam's exuberance, his thoughtful demeanor, and his infectious smile can light up any scene, but most of all, Jimoh brings an unshowy ease to his character's confidence — "I'm only going to get more wonderful," Sam cheekily warns Rebecca in one episode — that helps set him apart from some of the comedy's flashier personalities. Despite its ups and downs, Ted Lasso Season 2 solidified Toheeb Jimoh as a total star. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Jasmine Cephas Jones, Blindspotting

Jasmine Cephas Jones, Blindspotting

Starz

Jasmine Cephas Jones, Blindspotting   

If you look up "tour de force performance" in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Jasmine Cephas Jones in Blindspotting next to it. Not only does she have to switch between comedy and drama while anchoring the Starz series, but she also has to deliver complicated soliloquies in spoken word and verse in a way that draws audiences deeper into the story rather than alienating them. It takes a high-caliber actress with confidence and an incredible amount of stage presence to pull off all the different types of performances that Jones pulls off in Blindspotting's first season. If you didn't already know how multifaceted Jones is after her Broadway performance in Hamilton, Blindspotting is a showcase of her remarkable talent, and casting directors should take notice promptly. -Megan Vick

 
 

Michael Keaton, Dopesick

Michael Keaton, Dopesick

Gene Page/Hulu

Michael Keaton, Dopesick 

Cinema's greatest Batman makes a case for a spot on this list from just one episode of Hulu's drama about the opioid epidemic, but it's the entire to-hell-and-back performance that cements it. As Dr. Samuel Finnix, Michael Keaton begins Dopesick as a respected small-town doctor pushed to prescribe OxyContin to those with chronic pain, before a car accident forces him on the pills, too. In Episode 4, "Pseudoaddiction," Finnix has sunk into the throes of a very real addiction to the legalized heroin, and Keaton is an entirely new man. The signs are subtle at first — eyes blinking with a little more force, hands fidgeting like they have minds of their own — before they overwhelm him into fits of aggression and desperation. Yet he plays Finnix as an addict who knows he was duped by the dope pushers of Big Pharma, a simmering rage underneath the seething pain that's different from the other addicts in the miniseries, making his condition even more difficult to watch. By the time he's recovered, Finnix is back to helping people as a kindly doctor trying to right the wrongs he unwillingly participated in, but Keaton makes sure we know that Finnix is hollowed out, a part of him missing that he'll never get back. It's brutal, and Keaton is on top of every little detail. -Tim Surette

 
 

Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass

Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass

Eike Schroter/Netflix

Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass 

Expect to see more of Hamish Linklater on your TV screen after his star-making turn in Netflix's horror limited series. Linklater, who was previously best known for a supporting role on the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine more than a decade ago, is now horror's preeminent monologist. In Midnight Mass, he plays Father Paul, an energetic young priest reviving Crockett Island's parish. He's later — spoiler alert — revealed to be Monsignor Pruitt, Crockett Island's longtime priest, who has been de-aged and changed due to a terrifying spiritual experience he had in the Holy Land. He is back to spread his radical new gospel. Creator Mike Flanagan gives Linklater numerous powerful sermons to deliver, and he nails them all, playing Pruitt as a man who truly believes he's doing what God wants him to do. In lesser hands, he would be a villain, but Flanagan and Linklater won't let him be that simple. He makes a very compelling case for faith — his homily in Episode 2 will make even an atheist say "amen." -Liam Mathews

 
 

Rose Matafeo, Starstruck

Rose Matafeo, Starstruck

Mark Johnson/HBO Max

Rose Matafeo, Starstruck 

Nailing a rom-com leading role is like dancing backwards in high heels; do it right and they'll think it's easy. Rose Matafeo makes it look like a breeze in Starstruck. The enchanting new series, which Matafeo co-writes as well as stars in, is a kind of reverse Notting Hill: Her character, Jessie, is rattled when her New Year's Eve hookup (Nikesh Patel) turns out to be a famous movie star. Matafeo is a joy in a deceptively tricky part; she has to be hilarious and charming enough to win over a celebrity while still being relatably messy and normal. As Jessie toggles between desire for a man she likes and horror that she's fallen for an actor, Matafeo sells a story that could have seemed impossible in someone else's hands. Of course a movie star likes her; who wouldn't? -Kelly Connolly

 
 

Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad

Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad

Amazon Studios

Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad 

The Underground Railroad is technically a showcase for a rotating ensemble, but it's star Thuso Mbedu who centers Barry Jenkins' ambitious vision. The entire show is a journey that only succeeds because Mbedu carries it on her shoulders as Cora, a slave born in southern Georgia who makes her way north, and then finally west, to freedom after escaping an oppressive plantation with a dogged slave catcher constantly on her heels. It's a brilliant feat that Cora doesn't disintegrate after the horrors she experiences on her journey, and Mbedu keeps the audience grounded as we experience fear, devastation, hope, and necessary moments of peace throughout the turbulent miniseries. Acting in a show like this a tough order, but Mbedu's nuanced performance is what helps cement The Underground Railroad as one of the most impactful series of the year. -Megan Vick 

 
 

Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown

Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown

HBO

Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown 

Mare of Easttown was the Evan Peters vehicle we needed all along. As the HBO crime drama's ill-fated, kind-hearted Detective Colin Zabel, Peters rose to an incredibly difficult challenge and set himself apart among a cast of stellar actors like Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, and Julianne Nicholson, all doing some of their best work. Zabel is the kind of character who could easily become a one-note hot shot, but with every sip from his Wawa travel mug, Peters imbues his performance with unselfconscious hopefulness. Zabel is a grounding force in the story and in Mare's (Winslet) life; scenes with cornball potential, like the one where he drunkenly confesses to Mare about being left by his fiancée, or the one where he explains his fear of adventurous eating, are elevated by Peters' rom-com lead charm. His startlingly tragic undoing is one of the most upsetting moments in the show, not just because of the way he goes out, but because of the fact that his absence is felt immediately. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Margaret Qualley, Maid

Margaret Qualley, Maid

Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix

Margaret Qualley, Maid

Anyone playing the lead role in Netflix's Maid was going to have some hurdles to climb. Though viewers instantly feel compassion for Alex (Margaret Qualley) as a victim of abuse, how do you maintain that compassion when Alex continues to make terrible decisions? Harder yet, how do you earn sympathy for a character who — as an attractive white woman who rejects no-strings financial support from others — has privileges so many others in her position don't? Qualley not only pulled it off, but she's the main reason to watch the miniseries and why it was one of Netflix's biggest successes of the year. Loaded with steely reserve, Qualley faces each obstacle with the determination of someone who sees a door slamming in her face as the chance to go find another door, a mother on a mission who not only wants to protect her toddler daughter, but also earn what she feels she rightfully deserves. Maid ultimately isn't about overcoming poverty or fighting for survival; it's about pride, and Qualley, through an unbreakable gaze and unwavering posture, sells the fact that she's going to get through this on her own. This was one of the hardest roles of the year, and Qualley aced it. -Tim Surette

 
 

Jean Smart, Hacks

Jean Smart, Hacks

HBO Max

Jean Smart, Hacks 

Above all, 2021 was the year of Jean Smart. She brought much-needed levity to an otherwise grim series with her supporting role on Mare of Easttown, but her big moment in the spotlight came in the form of Hacks' Deborah Vance. As the aging comedy legend, Smart dazzles in every scene she's in, pulling off the tricky balancing act of making such a prickly character lovable without sacrificing any of Deborah's (many) flaws. She's the biggest reason Hacks' first season is a triumph, because it relies so heavily on her perfectly realized performance — on the way she can make you laugh as she expertly delivers a ruthless takedown of her young mentee, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), and just as quickly make your heart ache as she reflects on the impact misogyny and ageism have had on her career. Smart's performance is the kind of triumph that makes you wonder why no one wised up and gave her a role like this sooner. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Hailee Steinfeld, Hawkeye/Dickinson/Arcane

Hailee Steinfeld, Hawkeye/Dickinson/Arcane

Chuck Zlotnick, Marvel Studios/Apple TV+/Netflix

Hailee Steinfeld, Hawkeye/Dickinson/Arcane

Is there a Hollywood billboard Hailee Steinfeld's face hasn't been on this year? Steinfeld kept busy in 2021, starring in three very different series — Dickinson on Apple TV+, Hawkeye on Disney+, and Arcane on Netflix — one of which (Dickinson) aired two full seasons. She gets points for hustle alone. But this list isn't about quantity; it's about quality, and Steinfeld delivers that too. On Dickinson, she gives young Emily Dickinson a dreamy intensity and passionate earnestness, but it's not a sentimental performance. It's a lively one, with an artist's willingness to be weird. As Kate Bishop in Marvel's Hawkeye, she plays a different kind of rebel — a determined young archer eager to prove herself — with such charisma that even an Avenger starts to feel like a side character in her story. Steinfeld is especially fun opposite Jeremy Renner, whose Clint Barton turns Kate into a starstruck showoff. Extending her range even further, Steinfeld anchors one of the most surprising shows of the year, the League of Legends animated series Arcane, providing A+ voice work as Vi, a young woman on opposite sides of a war from her younger sister. Though the threat of war hangs over Arcane's universe, it's the story of two sisters falling out that really holds Arcane together, and Steinfeld's emotional performance — along with co-star Ella Purnell — is what makes it work. -Kelly Connolly and Tim Surette  

 
 

Jeremy Strong, Succession

Jeremy Strong, Succession

Graeme Hunter/HBO

Jeremy Strong, Succession

Succession has one of the best casts on TV, stacked with a group of actors so well suited for their roles that you could make a convincing case for giving just about any of them an Emmy, but the fact is that Succession would simply not be Succession without Jeremy Strong. As regicidal son Kendall Roy, he's always been the series' MVP, delivering a wholly lived-in performance of a broken man with baseline earnestness and intense (to understate it) behind-the-scenes dedication. But in Season 3, he manages to outdo himself. Strong deftly navigates the extreme vacillation of Kendall's mental state with almost improbable, should-I-even-be-watching-this vulnerability: His manic delusion is as painful to watch as the times when he collapses in on himself, overcome with self-hatred, weighed down by every inescapable reminder of his own actions. He has such an unwinking commitment to the bit that moments when Kendall is at his most embarrassing — his warbling cover of Billy Joel's "Honesty" comes to mind — still manage to be incredibly funny. But what Strong does most expertly is make Kendall, borderline irredeemable on paper, someone to sympathize with. For all of his cringey tone-deafness, for his many instances of outright cruelty, Strong can remind you of Kendall's humanity with nothing more than a small twist of his expression. He's our number one boy for a reason. -Allison Picurro



Alan Tudyk, Resident Alien

Alan Tudyk, Resident Alien

James Dittinger/SYFY

Alan Tudyk, Resident Alien 

There are moments in Syfy's comedy Resident Alien when star Alan Tudyk, playing an alien who is pretending to be a human, looks like he's going to burst out of his human shell as he grimaces, twists his neck, and cranks his jaw. Is the skin too tight? Are the humans he interacts with that unbearable? That's the joke; Tudyk's Harry Vanderspeigle's (née unnamed alien) discomfort with everything earthly — mostly the grotesque humans — is the running gag the keeps giving, and Tudyk's wonderful physical comedy sells it. But it's his robotic voiceover and the look he gets in his eye when he's concocting a plan to murder a human that puts him over the top and onto this list. Like the show itself, Tudyk's performance has gone underappreciated, but one look at him naively Googling "douchebag" and "taint" should clear that up. -Tim Surette



Keep the celebration of the best TV of 2021 going!
Check out TV Guide's roundups of the best shows of the year and the best episodes of the year


Edited by Kelly Connolly and Tim Surette
Illustration by Brittney McGhee