Singling out just one TV performance is a fool's errand. (We're looking at you, Emmy Awards.) The result of having so many wildly different shows on TV, many of which blur the line between genres, is that we're treated to a lot of excellent turns from actors every year. For our list of the best TV performances of 2023, we limited ourselves to just 20 selections, and even that didn't always feel like enough.
Some pulled off impossible feats, like Rachel Weisz, who made us forget that there aren't actually two Rachel Weiszes with her chilling work on Dead Ringers, or Jharrel Jerome, who made a 13-foot-tall teen feel grounded on I'm a Virgo. Steven Yeun breathed furious life into a pathetic loser on Beef, while Emma Stone got darker than ever on The Curse. There was no separating Succession's Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook, or Reservation Dogs' impossibly talented young foursome, whose indelible chemistry kept us coming back for more. And we couldn't choose just one performance from 2023's comedy king Ken Marino, who made two bumbling idiots so lovable on The Other Two and Party Down.
All distinct in their own way, these were the actors we couldn't imagine their shows without — the ones who lit up our screens and felt utterly irreplaceable. Here are TV Guide's picks for the best TV performances of 2023.
The buzziest master detectives in pop culture share a certain look and charisma: Think Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc, Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot. A Murder at the End of the World introduces a new kind of hero for the whodunit genre. Emma Corrin's Darby Hart is inexperienced when it comes to solving murder mysteries, and would much rather keep to herself than interact with others. But she's also a brilliant hacker and an inquisitive thinker, which becomes pivotal after witnessing a death at a billionaire's exclusive retreat. Corrin steps into this lead role with ease and convincingly delivers two versions of Darby across time periods. Darby is flawed — and the older version of her is reserved and jaded. But Corrin's performance invites us all to root for the amateur sleuth to crack the case. -Kat Moon
Superhero fatigue is real, and 2023 was no exception. But Korean drama Moving breathed fresh air into the genre by focusing on its superheroes' relationships with their parents — who also have otherworldly powers. Han Hyo-joo gave the show's most stirring performance as Lee Mi-hyun, a mother with one goal: to keep her son, Kim Bong-seok (Lee Jung-ha), grounded — literally, because he's not able to control his levitation ability. Han's rendering of the character is at once sturdy and tender. There's no denying Mi-hyun's resilience: She's faced a gravity-defying challenge in raising Bong-seok. But Han's layered portrayal makes Mi-hyun the rare fighter who is marked by a gentle spirit. -Kat Moon
Unless your family includes an 8-15 year old, there's a good chance you missed Goosebumps, Disney+'s surprisingly great horror series adapted from R. L. Stine's popular books for kids. Unfortunately, that means you probably also missed a tremendous performance by Justin Long, whose recent unhinged outing in 2022's Barbarian carries over here. Long gets to flex twice: first as a bookish high school teacher who moves into a new town after inheriting a haunted house from a distant relative, and second as the ghost of an enraged teen boy who possesses the teacher's body and sets out to enact revenge on those who may have been responsible for his death. Long ping-pongs between an awkward adult who doesn't fit in and an arrogant teen who forces his way in, sometimes in the same scene, sometimes at the same time (Long does some serious hand acting when the two characters fight over the same body), providing Goosebumps with the necessary humor to balance out the scary stuff (which is actually scary!). -Tim Surette
Watching Showtime's The Curse is a journey that only the strongest among us can undertake. The epitome of cringe comedy with a dose of politically pointed drama, the Showtime series follows a white savior couple who bafflingly believe that hosting an HGTV home renovation show in a predominantly Hispanic and Native American town will earn them good will. That's why you latch onto Emma Stone, who is brilliant at luring the audience in with the illusion that one of our most beloved actresses can't actually be playing someone as horrible as the people around her. And yet that's where she gets you. People have come to expect an uncomfortable viewing experience with her co-star Nathan Fielder. But as Whitney Siegel, Stone gnaws at the expectations of her own image and eventually becomes something completely — and chillingly — unrecognizable. -Hunter Ingram
I think we've found Chris O'Dowd's life potential. The Irish actor's preternatural ability to play the eager doofus makes him a television unicorn. He's a walking contradiction of misplaced know-it-all confidence and a sheepish acceptance of his place in the world as a beta male, making him a perfect fit for The Big Door Prize's Dusty. The small-town cynic who isn't on board with everyone's sudden obsession with a machine that supposedly tells people their life potential makes use of all of O'Dowd's talents, from his awkward tall guy posture to his repeated "no, no, no..." when something isn't going his way. His charm — a mix of rubber-faced expressions, physical comedy, and puppy dog eyes — embodies everything that Apple TV+'s metaphysical comedy is, emotionally vulnerable yet laugh-out-loud funny. As a comedy show's leading man, few fit the bill better than O'Dowd in 2023. -Tim Surette
Edi Patterson brings a very particular and hilarious brand of unhinged comedy to The Righteous Gemstones, so going opposite her as her lover/partner/ex-lover/husband is no easy task, but Tim Baltz is consistently up for the challenge as BJ. BJ doesn't fit into the world of the Gemstones. He's simple and quiet, and he loves to do weird things, like swirling and drinking milk out of a wine glass. But what Baltz understands is that this lack of belonging is precisely what makes BJ such a profoundly funny character. He's constantly in over his head, whether he's verbally sparring with Judy or fighting naked men in the streets, and Baltz plays him with a straightness and honesty that's both hilarious and remarkably difficult to pull off. -Kyle Fowle
The bright, shining light of Ted Lasso's often tedious third season was Phil Dunster. His cocksure footballer Jamie Tartt was introduced as a preening maverick on the field and a narcissistic dimwit in the locker room, which gave the comedically gifted Dunster solid material to work with. However, in Season 3, he was given the opportunity to explore the depths hiding under the "ICON" hat. As Jamie tested his capacity for empathy (pronounced empatheh) and accepted that even skilled athletes have room for improvement, Dunster peeled back each new layer with humor and sensitivity. He injected Ted Lasso's moments of corny earnestness with enough genuine humanity to render them charming, and he proved a delightful foil for Brett Goldstein's cranky Roy Kent, making their odd couple dynamic a season highlight. The reinvention of Jamie Tartt was no small feat, but Dunster convinced us he could've done it in his sleep. -Allison Picurro
Fellow Travelers is so dependent on the intimacy between its two leads that it almost feels wrong to only single out one of them. But Jonathan Bailey is handed the Showtime drama's trickiest role and emerges as its conflicted conscience. Tim Laughlin is a man of vibrant contradictions: a closeted Catholic government employee turned San Francisco social worker and a wide-eyed nerd whose naive idealism gradually transforms into activism. Bailey keeps Tim feeling like the same person across the decades, latching on to the truth that, in every era, Tim is a man who does not want to hide. His inescapable relationship with Hawkins Fuller (a magnetic, fantastic Matt Bomer) gives Bailey the opportunity to play around with Tim's backbone, constantly recalibrating how willing he is to put up with Hawk's secrecy. Fellow Travelers' steamy sex scenes are making headlines, but the emotional aspect of Tim and Hawk's relationship demands even more vulnerability from the actors, and Bailey's pointed, heartbreaking performance drives it all home. -Kelly Connolly
I'm A Virgo, admittedly, has a lot going on — and fortunately, it's got a fantastic ensemble cast to help juggle it all — but stories this kooky, existential, and radicalizing ultimately live and die on the capacity of their lead. That's what makes Jharrel Jerome, the titular Virgo in Boots Riley's fantastical odyssey, such an outright joy to watch. As the impressionable Cootie, Jerome oscillates effortlessly between endearing ignorance and a soft, subdued edge, breathing life into a fable that could have easily used the character as an empty trope. Watching him stumble through traditional rites of passage is not unlike crossing paths with a newborn baby deer. It's all the more comical with the added irony of his impossible stature, as Cootie is also a 13-foot-tall giant. His surreal coming-of-age pairs perfectly with Riley's radicalizing message — the writer-director rarely pulls his punches, and the series is all the better for it — but Jerome's performance never softens the blow. It's a daunting balancing act, and the ideal showcase for an actor who remains frustratingly under the radar. -Lyvie Scott
Though the actors playing the adult characters in Yellowjackets have received more award recognition, it's the stars playing the teens who are the heart of the show. And in Season 2, Sophie Nélisse is the standout. Young Shauna is grieving from the start of the season: Her best friend Jackie (Ella Purnell) just froze to death, leaving Shauna staggering between the realms of reality and imagination. But staying in the land of hallucination becomes more tempting than ever when Shauna loses her baby in a brutal episode. Nélisse vacillated between anguish, fury, and denial with intensity and delivered some of the season's most harrowing scenes as Shauna transformed from an openhearted girl to a hardened young woman. -Kat Moon
In its first three seasons, Barry gave Sarah Goldberg plenty of room to go big, but in the series finale, she communicates volumes with nothing more than a smile. While Season 4 gives us glimmers of the frantic egomaniac who spent years clawing her way forward, the quiet moments are when Goldberg's incredible range comes through. As Sally falls into a catatonic state of passivity and brunette wigs after accepting that Barry (Bill Hader), who has seen her most animal self and loves her anyway, is the best she's ever going to do, Goldberg shows us just how dark she can get, to stunning results. Her lack of an Emmy nomination this season, the Television Academy's last opportunity to give Goldberg a long-deserved trophy for four seasons of extraordinary work, is borderline criminal. -Allison Picurro
On one of the most underrated series of the year, Clark Backo gives a startling, electric performance as Emma Valentine, a librarian who, after giving birth to her son, begins to experience a number of chilling and inexplicable occurrences. As she tries to get to the root of what is haunting her, Emma descends into madness, leading her to commit a horrifying and confusing act of violence in front of her husband. With much of Emma's development happening in the first three episodes, Backo is tasked with playing a character who changes drastically in a short period of time — one minute she's a young and spirited romantic lead; the next she's an exhausted and concerned mother. The Changeling wants you to wonder whether Emma's worries are all in her head, but Backo's manic desperation ensures the viewer remains firmly on her side. -Allison Picurro
Even more than the first, the second season of Somebody Somewhere keeps coming back to Sam's (Bridget Everett) singing. Everett, a versatile actress, comedian, writer, and cabaret singer, knows how to work a crowd with the kind of confidence that Sam is still trying to summon within herself. Sam's grief for her late sister has left her both guarded and raw, and Everett strips down her performance until Sam's barely repressed pain is the loudest thing about her — even when she's landing bawdy jokes and trading laughs with best friend Joel (a winning Jeff Hiller). Somebody Somewhere lives in the push and pull between community and isolation, and as Sam tries to rejoin the world, Everett plays that emotional tension with delicate precision. She ends the season singing with abandon, but the second-to-last episode closes on a virtuosic performance of a different kind: a long scene that holds on Sam, devastated by the death of her former voice teacher, Darlene (Barbara E. Robertson), as she listens to a recording of her last lesson and sings. Everett's work is so finely tuned that all she has to do to command the screen is breathe. -Kelly Connolly
Yeah, it's a shortcut to accolades for an actor to take on multiple roles in a single TV series, but when done right, it's well deserved. Oscar winner Rachel Weisz took a break from being a movie star and appearing to be sane to executive produce and star in Prime Video's Dead Ringers, a televised out-of-body experience about twin sisters Beverly and Elliot Mantle, a pair of brilliant gynecologists with disparate personalities (Beverly is practical and reserved; Elliot is an orgy of vices) whose twinly codependency on each other reaches bizarre heights over the limited series' six episodes. Aside from the obvious physical cues — Bev wears her hair up while Elliot lets her hair down — it's up to Weisz to differentiate between the two, and she subtly uses the curves of her eyes and lips to mark each twin while breathily delivering Beverly's lines and spitting out Elliot's. And while special effects have come a long way, it's Weisz who convinces us what we're seeing is real when the two share the screen; at no point does the trickery look fake, in large part thanks to Weisz. Individually, Weisz has created two incredible characters. Together, she has crafted one of the year's most impressive performances. -Tim Surette
Is it even a cult comedy series if Ken Marino hasn't left his mark on it? In two of the year's funniest shows, Marino, who has long been one of TV's greatest treasures, made stealing every scene he was in look easy. In Party Down's long-awaited third season, Marino returned as inexorable catering team leader Ron Donald, who, even after all these years, is still white-knuckling professionalism and doggedly getting back up after being knocked, often humiliatingly, down to the ground. In The Other Two's third and final season, he gave us a (slightly) more grounded Streeter Peters, who continued gamely accepting the indignities of his job while adjusting to the changing dynamics of his relationship with Pat (Molly Shannon). He sported Ron's unflattering flattop haircut and balanced Streeter's reading glasses at the end of his nose, and he did it all with aplomb. In the hands of a less skilled actor, Ron and Streeter, two off-puttingly pathetic losers, could get tiring, but Marino makes you feel for those idiots, time and time again. -Allison Picurro
Technically, you can separate the Rez Dogs; the show did it beautifully all the time. But on a list of the year's best performers, why would you? D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, and Devery Jacobs were marvels in Reservation Dogs' final season, as they were in every season before that. Woon-A-Tai traded Bear's raw woundedness for confidence as his character found his place in the community. Factor navigated Cheese's insecurities without letting go of his insistent kindness. Alexis brought soul to wisecracking Willie Jack, a spiritual leader in training. And Jacobs — whose impressive contributions to the season also included writing and directing — was impossible to look away from as Elora, the group's brittle voice of reason, went after the life she wanted. They never overplayed their material, letting the show's chill sense of humor and big heart shine through them, and they were as fun on their own as they were together, giving Reservation Dogs the flexibility to take their characters anywhere. This show worked because it trusted its young leads, and because they trusted the show right back. -Kelly Connolly
The Last of Us is the second TV Western to cast Pedro Pascal as a reluctant father figure tasked with shepherding a special child on a dangerous journey, a pattern that everyone is aware of but no one complains about, because he's very good at it. Even when the HBO drama seemed at risk of being buried under the weight of its own hype, Pascal's gruff charisma kept us watching. Joel, a smuggler hollowed out by the death of his daughter, is an anchor for the audience — a link to the memory of life before the apocalypse — and a protector for his teenage charge, Ellie (Bella Ramsey, also perfectly cast), and Pascal radiates grizzled dependability. There's a spark of unpredictable violence in him, too, and the story's video game origins come through in Joel's particular set of skills, but Pascal modulates his action hero toughness and guilty conscience with middle-aged exhaustion. His presence is so powerful it reshapes the debate around Joel's violent choice in the finale: Is the actor turning his appeal on its head, weaponizing the audience's instinct to excuse him? Or is he just easy to excuse? However you view the finale, Pascal makes the moral debate more fun. -Kelly Connolly
There's a joke in the Mrs. Davis finale that thrilled me like nothing else I watched this year. It is brazenly, perfectly stupid, and despite the team of people it took to make it happen, it would not have worked without Betty Gilpin's performance. The same could be said of the show. As Gilpin's Sister Simone reacts to the news that the all-powerful AI she's been fighting is more mundane than she ever could have imagined, she vibrates, quite literally, with rage. That ability to operate on her own frequency is what makes Gilpin such a fascinating performer, and it's also what makes the absurdity of Mrs. Davis so easy to believe in. Gilpin moves through the series like a human exclamation point, both heightening the comedy and grounding the emotion with piercing sincerity. Every choice she makes is interesting, and every choice she makes feels true, even when the show is at its weirdest. In one season, she marries Jesus (Andy McQueen) and sets him free, rides a horse, does card tricks, rescues the Holy Grail from the belly of a whale, pulls off a heist, and cries while speaking to an app. She makes all of it divine. -Kelly Connolly
Loss can bring families together but will more often than not rip them apart, and across its 10-episode final season, Succession managed to do both to its core trio of siblings. Every member of the stellar ensemble deserves praise, but it was the spiky, lived-in chemistry between Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook that gave the season its devastating magic. In the wake of their father's death, the Roys were left teetering as the fate of their family's legacy was thrown into question. Kendall, the de facto eldest whose name had been outlined and crossed out, pursued what he saw as his singular purpose with resolute intensity; Roman pre-grieved, sold his soul, and then crumbled to pieces in front of a live audience; Shiv, chilly and bitter after a lifetime of being shut out by her brothers, father, and husband, dealt the final blow. They pushed each other away in one scene and clung to each other in the next. Together, they formed a fractured unit, but their father's voice, always encouraging them to betray each other, echoed too loudly in their heads for them to go down any other path. All three actors displayed a staggering capability to bring out their characters' darkest traits. Crucially, they also made the audience feel for these irreparably broken people. Even when their characters went down separate spirals, Strong, Culkin, and Snook remained uniquely in sync. -Allison Picurro
If there's one emotion Beef centers, it's rage. And Steven Yeun's Danny Cho is a character study in what happens when you suppress years of rage. Danny is angry about many things: his failing business, his dwindling bank account, and, most recently, a diabolical road rage incident with Amy Lau (Ali Wong), an entrepreneur who appears to live the life he's dreamt of. Yeun portrays with nuance a character whose actions are a result of bottled-up emotions. Watching Danny pushes viewers to confront themselves: Which of us hasn't experienced the stifling need to keep the cap on that bottle sealed, for fear of what might burst from within? The last thing he wants is sympathy — Danny's pride wouldn't let him accept it. But Yeun's performance invites the audience into his character's quiet pain. Danny's beef with Amy is specific, but the crushing expectations of an immigrant family and unrealistic standards placed on Asian Americans in this country are familiar to many. When Danny finally lets out his rage, he's not the only one who finds solace. -Kat Moon