There's no set formula for what makes a TV performance great. Some make you laugh, others make you cry, and some just make you yell loudly at your screen. This year, our favorite TV performances came from actors in breakout roles, beloved stars allowing us to see them in new ways, and everything in between. What they have in common is that they made us think about their characters in dynamic and interesting ways.
Dark turns from Sarah Goldberg in Barry and Colton Ryan in The Girl From Plainville kept us rapt even when we wanted to turn away. Others, like Frankie Quiñones in This Fool, Edi Patterson in The Righteous Gemstones, and Janelle James in Abbott Elementary, were MVPs of their respective comedies. There were the duos who lit each other up, like Interview with the Vampire's Jacob Anderson and Sam Reid or Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, while the cast of Severance proved that there really is strength in numbers. Some vibed hard (Jake Johnson in Minx), and some were breathtakingly honest (Jerrod Carmichael in Rothaniel). No two were the same; all were irresistible.
Below, you'll find TV Guide's ranking of the 20 best TV performances of 2022. These were the ones we couldn't stop talking about — the ones who elevated their shows and held our attention as we waited to see what they'd do next.
Frankie Quiñones is the type of comedian who creates characters and performs extensively as them, like he's a one-man sketch comedy show. He saved one of his best characters for Hulu's This Fool, a South Central Los Angeles-set comedy about a man named Julio (Chris Estrada) who helps former gang members rehabilitate after they're released from prison. Quiñones plays Luis, Julio's reluctant-to-go-straight former gangbanger cousin, and Quiñones artfully straddles the line between wanting to stay hard for the streets and struggling to throw down because of his age (he can barely make a fight because he ate too many Bagel Bites). It's an absolute joy because of his unbridled enthusiasm and his trademark complaining about anything and everything. This Fool is a gem, and Quiñones is the one who keeps its edges sharp. Sometimes the best performances simply come down to who can make you laugh the hardest. -Tim Surette
The titular role at the center of Apple TV+'s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey was built to win awards by the bucketload. The 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey is a man feeling the effects of dementia who undergoes a medical trial that gives him extended moments of lucidity, which he uses to help solve the murder of his nephew. It's the opportunity to play two completely different characters — even more, if you include flashbacks to his younger years — and Samuel L. Jackson crushes it. The best example of his skilled performance is in the powerful third episode, "Sensia," in which Jackson snaps in and out of characters as Ptolemy revisits his own life — at one point even playing Ptolemy as a young child — while going through a series of fever dreams and coming into his own power as he becomes the man he used to be. -Tim Surette
When we ask someone to act for us in that jokey "I'm a casting director" way, we always say, "Show me happy! Show me excited! Show me sad!" We never say, "Show me depressed." That's because showing depression in its true form is about those moments in between the big ones, the constant, hardly noticed behaviors that others dismiss as general sullenness. As The Girl From Plainville's Conrad Roy, the teenager who would eventually end his own life at the behest of his girlfriend, Michelle Carter (an excellent Elle Fanning), Colton Ryan made those unseen moments seen and felt. We saw the battle between the will to live and the inexplicable, powerful urge to end it all rage in Ryan's head, while his actions to the outside world lied and said, "I'm going to be OK." Roy's final day in the finale — as he soaks in the last moments of what he appreciated about living and the final goodbyes he gave his unsuspecting family — is a powerhouse performance of subdued physical acting, right down to the sense of reluctance before he makes his ultimate decision. -Tim Surette
It's not easy to play the most out-of-control woman on TV, but as the savvy young investment analyst Harper Stern, Myha'la Herrold commands Pierpoint & Co.'s bustling trading floor with the effortlessness of someone who could do it in her sleep. She began Season 2 of Industry, HBO's quiet gem of a finance drama, reluctantly re-entering the office post-COVID and ended it getting kicked out entirely by her boss/mentor/f---ed up father figure, Eric (Ken Leung). Herrold has to be confident yet insecure, vulnerable yet closed-off, ambitious yet rash. You want to scream at the screen every time Harper makes another awful decision, like doing meth with her estranged brother or, in one of the season's most compelling set pieces, brazenly attempting insider trading, but Herrold's greatest talent is making sure you end each episode firmly on Harper's side. -Allison Picurro
John Early has long deserved recognition for the work he did playing the vain Elliott Goss on Search Party. It's one of the most deftly funny TV performances of the past decade, and in the underrated HBO Max comedy's final season, Early was at the top of his game. Search Party is a show that asks absurd things of its actors, and Early especially has a talent for making every wild turn in Elliott's story seem realistic (hello, Dr. Carpet). Of course he decides to adopt a kid to maximize his brand, and of course he only wants to have sex with Dory (Alia Shawkat) because he feels left out after learning both Drew (John Reynolds) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) slept with her. Elliott may be the most self-serving monster of his narcissistic foursome, but it's a testament to the groundwork Early has spent years laying that you're still kind of rooting for Elliott in the end. With his cartoonishly expressive face and uncanny ability to deliver a throwaway line in a way that makes it stick in your brain forever, Early pulled off a high wire act with ease. -Allison Picurro
At its best, the limited series Black Bird is like a play about two characters, Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), a charming but selfish man seeking redemption for the bad choices he's made, and Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), a mentally unstable convict suspected of murdering multiple girls. In prison, Jimmy is trying to get Larry to confess, and Larry is enjoying the attention Jimmy is paying to him. Egerton and Hauser are marvelous together, pushing and pulling each other to deeper and darker places. Hauser gives the showier performance, with his reedy voice and crazy eyes, but Egerton's desperate attempts to hold himself together for the sake of his justice-seeking assignment keep the show grounded in what's really at stake. -Liam Mathews
Though Viserys Targaryen could be described concisely as "a good man, bad king," Paddy Considine's portrayal of the King of the Andals is anything but simple. In House of the Dragon, Considine plays a ruler troubled by the fractures in the Seven Kingdoms, a father distressed by the divides in his own family. But what makes Considine's Viserys so tragic is that despite the obvious splinters everywhere, the king is driven by a staunch hope for unity. Considine deftly injects his character with a sincerity tinged with optimism. The actor gives his most winning performance in Episode 8, where Viserys is at his weakest physically but leaves the strongest impact on the the lords and ladies of Westeros — and on the audience. Considine's dying Viserys exudes inimitable strength as he takes his last steps and breathes one final breath. -Kat Moon
It takes Himesh Patel's Jeevan a year to admit he's not OK, but Patel's bitterly soulful performance makes that clear from the beginning. The British actor, who landed his first Emmy nomination for his work in Station Eleven, plays Jeevan as lost and exhausted in the midst of a dizzying pandemic, a reluctant healer who remains convinced he's selfish even as he keeps doing the right thing. The tension Patel brings out in Jeevan grounds the whole show. He's bewildered and funny (railing that the Station Eleven graphic novel is "so pretentious!"), angry, crumbling under pressure, hallucinating his dead brother, and deeply trustworthy even when he lies. Patel understands that the most heroic thing about Jeevan is that he's just some guy doing his best. -Kelly Connolly
Playing teenage Sunja in Pachinko may be Minha Kim's first major acting role, but her performance is a master class in emoting. Kim had a tall order in front of her: to bring to life a character familiar to many thanks to Min Jin Lee's book on which the show is based, and to offer a glimpse of the Zainichi experience — ethnic Koreans who moved to Japan largely between 1910 and 1945 and faced severe discrimination. Kim more than meets the challenge. Her portrayal of Sunja is marked by grit, the character's resolve only growing as her suffering builds. Pachinko could have easily been a dark exploration of Sunja's trauma. But while the series is heavy, the vigor that Kim brings to her character makes the show about a woman's courageous fight to survive. -Kat Moon
In The White Lotus' second season, Aubrey Plaza walks the streets of Sicily with the energy of a final girl in a horror movie. From the moment we're introduced to Plaza's Harper, her face is twisted in a pained grimace, her body clenched with tension. She's technically on vacation with her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), and their friends who aren't really their friends, Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy), but there's no rest for Harper as she grows suspicious of their motives for inviting her and Ethan on the trip. Her judgmental jabs are frequent and cutting. She sizes up her surroundings with a sharp and searching gaze. She seems filled with an inexplicable dread that gives the season its foreboding edge. It's a muted turn from Plaza, playing against her usual off-kilter weirdo type, and she's never been more compelling. -Allison Picurro
TV's vibe king of the year was Jake Johnson, who became a one-man advertising campaign for Minx on the strength of his unbuttoned shirts alone. As Doug Renetti, a savvy '70s skin mag publisher with year's grooviest wardrobe, Johnson is irresistibly entertaining. He plays Doug with the wry, tacky charm of a salesman and the air of mystery to match — you want to like him in spite of how unknowable he is, or maybe because of it. But as the first season begins to sour on Doug's ego, it becomes clear how carefully calibrated Johnson's performance has been from the start. A lot rides on how Minx sees his character, who seems like a porn guy with a heart of gold until he seems like an arrogant bastard. Johnson plays Doug as both, and neither. He is, maddeningly, a human man. -Kelly Connolly
Consider Ayo Edebiri The Bear's secret sauce. As Sydney, the talented and idealistic sous chef to Jeremy Allen White's increasingly overworked Carmy, Edebiri gave the kitchen dramedy's breakout performance, offering a nimble look at a young professional trying to establish herself as her working environment spirals further into chaos. Without her steady presence, both the Original Beef and the series would fall apart; she's naturalistic and dryly funny, a quiet force, but never showy. Her succinct dressing-down of Carmy is as enthralling as a later scene where she earnestly confesses her desire to "cook for people and make them happy and give them the best bacon on Earth." The Bear moves at a breakneck pace, but Edebiri holds our attention. -Allison Picurro
Sarah Goldberg's snub at this year's Emmys wasn't just confusing; it was inexcusable. Sally, Barry's (Bill Hader) narcissistic girlfriend, is a tough character — much of Barry's fan base harbors a hatred for her that echoes the Skyler White mania of yesteryear — and that's exactly what makes Goldberg's performance so exceptional. In Season 3, Sally gets her first taste of power when she becomes showrunner and star of a runaway hit TV show and promptly lets it go to her head, only to plummet back down to Earth when it's all ripped unceremoniously from her. As Sally succumbs to her own moral corruption, Goldberg does her darkest work yet. It's hard to watch Sally fall so far, but Goldberg is impossible to look away from. -Allison Picurro
How many times does someone need to die a horrific death on camera to get an award? However many times The Staircase's Kathleen Peterson died apparently wasn't enough, as Toni Collette — who played out Kathleen's demise via accident, murder, and owl — didn't win an Emmy, losing out to The Dropout's Amanda Seyfried. But Collette should have won; her ability to be a vivacious mother in one scene, a scorned wife in the next, and an extremely convincing corpse in another was just the cherry on the top of her befuddled look at the bottom of a staircase while she slipped around on the blood that poured from her head in TV's most horrific death scene of the year. And as demanding as that sounds, Colin Firth's performance might be an even greater achievement. Firth played Michael Peterson as a subtly attention-seeking dirtbag who thought he was more charming than he was, with enough confusion and insecurity seeping through in the quiet moments that he seemed like two different people simultaneously. It's a thankless, heavy lift to embody someone as despicable as Michael Peterson, which is probably why he was beaten out by Dopesick's Michael Keaton for the Emmy, but I'll give him the recognition he deserves. Yet as good as Firth and Collette's individual performances were, it was when they shared a screen that the Petersons really came alive, their faulty marriage oozing from the cracks of their perfect veneer. -Tim Surette
Sheryl Lee Ralph won Abbott Elementary's Best Supporting Actress Emmy, and she deserved it. But Janelle James also would have deserved it for her performance as Abbott's incompetent, selfish, and utterly hilarious principal, Ava Coleman. Her word choice and cadence will burrow into your mind and have you repeating lines like "lemme back my tasty ass up" when you're putting your car in reverse without even realizing you're doing it. (OK, maybe that's just me. But I'm sure you have a go-to Ava line of your own, and if you don't yet, you will.) -Liam Mathews
There's no separating Jacob Anderson and Sam Reid on this list because there's no separating Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat de Lioncourt, hard as Louis may claim to have tried. (Was it raining, Louis?) As the Louis of the past and the Louis of the present, Anderson essentially plays a dual role, one he imbues with acute pain and so much humanity, even as Louis fears he's losing his. Reid's Lestat is a scenery-chewing show pony, able to say more with a flick of his wrist or a tilt of his head than many actors can with an entire monologue. Their sizzling chemistry and wholehearted commitment to making Louis and Lestat's hell marriage as toxic as possible is what makes Interview with the Vampire work. Separately, Anderson and Reid are exemplary. Together, they're lightning in a bottle. -Allison Picurro
Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill and Rhea Seehorn's Kim Wexler sentenced themselves to separate purgatories in the final season of Better Call Saul. Kim went silent in Central Florida, and Seehorn stripped her performance of all but the faintest hint of Kim's steel-trap brain, projecting burned-out terror beneath her carefully crafted drabness. Jimmy, meanwhile, hid behind the sad-clown bluster of Saul Goodman, made himself over as Cinnabon manager Gene, then backslid into a menacing version of Saul — or was he Viktor? — who was all crime and no comic relief. Odenkirk juggled it all, and he did it while working within — or was he shattering? — the confines of Breaking Bad. Both he and Seehorn did complex, devastating work in the back half of Season 6, threading the needle between wearing a mask and becoming it.
And this was a love story! The tragedy of the second half of Better Call Saul's final season was set in motion by the breathless first half, as Kim and Jimmy dug their heels deeper into a dangerous con to keep the thrill alive. Seehorn and Odenkirk, whose performances were so entwined every line delivery hinged on the one before, pushed their characters' chemistry to near-claustrophobic extremes, making the question of who was corrupting whom feel entirely beside the point. What mattered was that Kim and Jimmy would kill for each other. The collateral damage gave their romance a destructive legacy, but the actors never lost track of the sweetness of it. Better Call Saul is, so far, one of the all-time great shows without a single Emmy, an injustice voters will have one last chance to correct when the final half of Season 6 is eligible next year. If the Television Academy doesn't award Rhea Seehorn for crying on a bus or Bob Odenkirk for nearly strangling Carol Burnett, it'll be a Saul Goodman-level crime. But, as Kim might say, so what? The magic already happened. -Kelly Connolly
The funniest TV moment of the year came courtesy of Edi Patterson's leg. Judy, the erratic and undeservedly confident middle sibling of a megachurch dynasty she plays on The Righteous Gemstones, doles out a violent kick to a bathroom stall door before telling her baffled sister-in-law that her brothers harbor a secret desire to "hook up" with her. It's a moment of utter derangement, a nonsense reaction to a non-issue that Judy herself started and exacerbated, and it all adds up to a powerhouse comedic performance. No one else could play this character, something Patterson reminds us of when Judy does things like smash a bus window with her bare fist or accuse her father of having an affair with his old colleague ("Daddy, that man is not cute"). It's hard to stand out in a cast composed entirely of scene-stealers, but Patterson, as bombastic as she is unselfconscious, has turned Judy into the show's sharpest weapon. She's absolutely heavenly. -Allison Picurro
Where to start with the cast of Severance, the stacked ensemble who helped make the Apple TV+ sci-fi workplace drama 2022's most impressive new show? Narrowing it down to just one actor is an impossible task when every performance is so connected, each presenting a different snapshot of what a bad job can do to a person. A heartbreakingly gentle Adam Scott leads the series, pulling double duty as both halves of Mark Scout, the company man looking for answers, while a sinister Patricia Arquette delights and terrifies as Lumon's Severed Floor manager, Harmony Cobel. There's John Turturro as Irving, whom he plays with a wide-eyed innocence that allows him to fall headfirst into a forbidden romance with Christopher Walken's Burt in one of the best TV surprises of the year. As Helly, Britt Lower is captivating in her caged-animal desperation, and Zach Cherry ensures that Dylan's depths sneak up on you. And where did the extraordinary Tramell Tillman, who plays Lumon's unsettlingly cheerful Mr. Milchick, come from and how can we keep him on our screens forever? Their performances complement each other, with a collective chemistry that helps maintain the series' eerie atmosphere. It's impossible to imagine Severance without any of them. -Allison Picurro
Before Rothaniel, Jerrod Carmichael was a well-regarded comedian who hadn't quite broken through to comedy's top tier. He had the talent, but he hadn't quite found the subject matter that would define him as a comic. It turns out that he needed to get honest. In his third stand-up special, Carmichael reveals two things about himself that the public hadn't known before. One is that his first name isn't actually Jerrod; it's Rothaniel, a portmanteau of his grandfathers' names. The other is that he's gay. The special is raw in the sense that we're watching Carmichael work out some big stuff in what feels like real time, but it doesn't feel raw, because Carmichael's laid-back persona and quick wit make the vulnerable, emotionally intense material go down smooth. He's figuring himself out onstage in front of us, allowing himself to be as messy, imperfect, and refreshingly real as any comic has ever been. Carmichael went to the Emmys in a white fur coat with no shirt underneath, won the award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special, and said in his speech, "I wanted to win, I'm happy I won. I made something that was of great personal consequence to me, and this definitely contributes to the meaning of it." He's honest but guarded in a way only he can pull off. -Liam Mathews
Honorable mentions: Paulina Alexis, Reservation Dogs; Andre Braugher, The Good Fight; John Cena, Peacemaker; Jessica Collins, Acapulco; Claire Danes, Fleishman Is in Trouble; Julia Garner, Inventing Anna and Ozark; Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta; Katja Herbers, Evil