Our Favorite TV Performances of 2020, From Michaela Cole to Jared Padalecki

Rhea Seehorn, Michaela Coel, James Marsden
AMC; HBO; Netflix

It's quite possible that we have never watched more TV than we did this year, which is saying something because, well, we write about it. But the (ongoing) lockdowns and quarantines pretty much guaranteed that our craving for good content was as strong as our need for comfort food.

Of course, not all shows, and so not all performances, are created equal. Thankfully, some astounding acting took place on our screens from actors who moved us, cracked us up, and kept us riveted with their commitment and talent.

Here, TV Guide Magazine and TV Insider staff members share their favorite performances of 2020.

Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You (HBO)

 

I May Destroy You

HBO

Some scenes in HBO's I May Destroy You might give you the urge to change the channel and look for something lighter to watch. Don't you dare reach for the remote. Former Chewing Gum star Michaela Coel who writes, produces, and stars in the ultra-dark dramedy, gives an electrifying performance as Arabella, an up-and-coming writer dealing with the trauma of sexual assault. Coel's expressive face communicates the depths of Arabella's pain, even as she's posting smiling selfies on social media or smooth-talking her agents who are desperate to see her next book. Expect lots of love from the Emmy Awards come 2021. — Eric Andersson

James Marsden, Dead to Me (Season 2, Netflix)

 

Netflix

Stars Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini of course knock it out of the park as dysfunctional BFFs Jen and Judy, but I need to give a special shoutout to James Marsden this time around, who does a full 180, going from playing Judy's jerk ex-fiancé Steve to Jen's sweet, grieving love interest and semi-identical brother, Ben. It should be ridiculous, but it's just too much fun for me to care! —Emily Aslanian

Amy Sedaris, At Home With Amy Sedaris (truTV)

 

AT HOME WITH AMY SEDARIS SEAMSTRESS

(Credit: truTV)

Southern matron Patty Hogg. Ronnie Vino, booty-shaking regional wine lady. “Amy Sedaris,” touchy host of a local home show. Those are just three of the uber-colorful characters star/cocreator Amy Sedaris brings to life in the surreal delight that is truTV’s At Home With Amy Sedaris. From wardrobe to accent to individual quirks, Sedaris commits to these meme-ready oddballs. She even pulls up her nose with Scotch tape to play Patty’s feral granddaughter, Nutmeg! — April P. Bernard

David Tennant & Michael Sheen, Staged (Hulu)

 

In the clever British import Staged, filmed during the pandemic, the Good Omens co-stars reunite as...the Good Omens co-stars, due to reteam for a play in London's West End that got postponed as the U.K. went into lockdown. Playing exaggerated versions of themselves in the (mostly) scripted comedy, they intend to rehearse the play over Zoom, but succeed only in bantering, bickering, and capturing the universal moods of 2020: boredom, irrational obsession, jealousy over a friend's hobbies and refrigerator contents, and the fear that your neighbors will think you drink too much.  — Mandi Bierly

Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul (AMC/Netflix)

 

Better Call Saul Season 5 Kim

Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Better Call Saul's been fostering a dark horse who has yet to receive the recognition she deserves. Rhea Seehorn's performance as Kim Wexler in the Breaking Bad prequel's fifth season is flawless. While she's surrounded by giants like Bob Odenkirk, Gianacarlo Esposito, and Jonathan Banks, she shines just a little bit brighter than the vets in a series that continues to raise the bar. Her face-off with cartel baddie Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) was Emmy-worthy, so here's to hoping she gets the justice she deserves. — Meaghan Darwish

Paul Mescal, Normal People (Hulu)

 

paul mescal normal people

Hulu

I read Sally Rooney's heart-wrenching novel long before Hulu turned her words into hit series Normal People, and newcomers Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones are Connell and Marianne in every way that counts. Mescal perfectly portrays Connell's high highs and low lows as he explores a relationship with his schoolmate and struggles with internalized depression that manifests in a tear-jerking therapy session with a college counselor. His performance stayed with me long after the final credits rolled. — MD

Gillian Anderson, The Crown (Netflix)

 

Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) takes questions from reporters

Netflix

The question about performances on The Crown, which had already racked up a handful of Emmy wins in its first three seasons, was whether anyone could equal John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. The answer we now know is "yes." And it took another prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to provide a juicy enough role, one that allowed Gillian Anderson to take advantage of her compelling personal and political storylines — and, perhaps most delightfully, to inhabit Thatcher’s physical persona. I always thought one thing before each episode: I hope this one has Anderson in it. — Michael Fell

Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul (AMC/Netflix) (Yes, Again!)

 

Better Call Saul Season 5

AMC

On dark drama Better Call Saul, hardworking attorney Kim Wexler is as tightly wound as her corkscrew ponytail. Rhea Seehorn expertly conveys her character’s desire for control: just watch her contain an involuntary exasperated sigh, showing how Kim automatically compartmentalizes emotion so she can move on to practical action (a move relatable to many women bent on workforce success). It's also clear that a rebel resides inside the Type A persona. To bring out her inner delinquent, Kim relies on wily, fun-loving lawyer boyfriend Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). In the finale, Kim shocks Jimmy by revealing her plan to take down a rich, sleazy lawyer to fund a pro bono practice. Seehorn’s every smirk and nod is both part of her conversation with Jimmy and an acknowledgment of her new self. It will be interesting to see what Seehorn does in the final season if Kim breaks bad. — Kate Hahn

Pamela Adlon, Better Things (FX)

 

Pamela Adlon Better Things Season 4

FX

The rain pours down (literally) throughout the fourth season of FX’s stellar comedy Better Things, but there’s no dampening every amazing element of the world that Pamela Adlon has created. Whether we’re laughing at her beleaguered actress mother, Sam Fox, or feeling Sam’s pain when life hits too hard, the actor/director/writer/producer leaves you awestruck over at over and how she makes it all look so damn easy.  — Jim Halterman

Baby Yoda, The Mandalorian (Disney+)

 

Some may say he's just a puppet (ahem, Michael Fell), but you find me any human actor who breaks your heart more than when that lil' green thing casts his knowingly sad, saucer-like eyes at Mando (Pedro Pascal) before leaving with Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian's already epic season finale. Go ahead, I'll wait. — Damian Holbrook

Tom Payne, Prodigal Son (Fox)

 

Prodigal Son Season 2 Characters Malcolm

Barbara Nitke/Fox

I dare you to find someone who has more fun playing a guy who chops off someone’s hand and answers a call from his serial killer dad while holding down a landmine before leaping out a window. Tom Payne plays Malcolm Bright on Prodigal Son with the kind of joy — particularly when he seems a bit unhinged — that may not seem like it belongs in such a dark story, but that without which the character would just not be the same. — Meredith Jacobs

Jared Padalecki & Jensen Ackles, Supernatural (The CW)

 

Jared Padalecki Jensen Ackles Supernatural Series Finale Behind the Scenes

CW

For 15 seasons, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles made Sam and Dean Winchester believable as brothers who would do anything to keep each other alive (or bring each other back from hell). But — spoiler alert! — when Dean dies during a routine hunt, they have to say goodbye (until their reunion in heaven). They cry, I cried, and when Dean brings up standing outside Sam’s dorm room at Stanford, I cried harder. It may be the most heartbreaking TV moment of the year. — MJ

LaRoyce Hawkins, Chicago P.D. (NBC)

 

Chicago P.D. - Season 6

Matt Dinerstein/NBC)

Chicago P.D.’s Kevin Atwater (LaRoyce Hawkins) has had a rough time this season. After telling the truth about a racist cop, he faces escalating harassment from fellow members of the police department. Hawkins does an excellent job portraying Atwater’s strength in his convictions, as well as his controlled rage at how he's mistreated. — Amy Miller

Nathan Lane, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (FX)

 

Jim Fiscus/Showtime

The second iteration of Penny Dreadful lacked the supernatural thrills of the premiere season and was quickly cancelled, but two performances stand out, that of Mexican actress Adriana Barraza as a housekeeper and bruja, and the invaluable Nathan Lane. The Broadway star’s deeply moving portrayal of a hardboiled Jewish cop in 1930’s Los Angeles dedicated to fighting rising fascism in his beloved LA is one of his best. — Ileane Rudolph

Hamza Haq, Transplant (NBC)

 

Transplant Episode 2 Dr Bashir Hamed

Yan Turcotte/Sphere Media/CTV/NBC

Infused with underlying sadness at losing his parents and then his Syrian homeland to unceasing war, refugee emergency room doctor Bashir “Bash” Hamed radiates intelligence and empathy in new Canadian hospital show Transplant. All that, plus a talent at surgical MacGyvering and a scoop of sexy is thanks to Canadian actor Hamza Haq. The show makes me cry but Haq is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. — IR

Billie Piper, I Hate Suzie (HBO)

 

Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) sullenly walks down the road after her nudes leak online

HBO

Maybe it’s recency bias, but I can’t stop thinking about Billie Piper’s manic, wounded performance in I Hate SuzieShe’s absolutely magnetic and weirdly relatable as Suzie Pickles, a former teen pop-star-turned-middling-actress embroiled in a phone hacking scandal. The character’s insecurity and simmering panic as her life falls apart has been thrilling to watch, every fissure manifesting in Piper’s dazzling and terrifying eyes. Wherever she is, I hope Suzie Pickles is OK. — John Russell