14 Most Underrated TV Performances of 2021

Best Underrated TV Performances 2021, Margaret Qualley in Maid, Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad, and Zahn McClarnon in Reservation Dogs
Netflix; Amazon Studios; FX on Hulu

The year 2021 was filled with fantastic television which was supported by equally fabulous performances. And while some stars get the proper recognition, others are sometimes sorely underrated.

Whether it was a masterclass in drama or understated comedic chops, there were plenty of performers who were able to capture something special in their TV journeys. Among the sea of stellar and underappreciated portrayals, we’re rounding up some of the year’s finest from shows such as Reservation Dogs, WandaVision, Ted Lasso, Midnight Mass, and more.

Scroll through the list, below, for a peek at some of 2021’s most underrated performances, and let us know what roles you wish you saw more of onscreen in the comments section, below.

Zahn McClarnon as Big in Reservation Dogs - 'Come and Get Your Love'
Shane Brown/FX

Zahn McClarnon, Reservation Dogs

For a while now, Zahn McClarnon has been a wildly underrated member of any ensemble he’s a part of, but hopefully, his role as Officer Big in this hilarious and heart-wrenching new series will start raising more attention. McClarnon particularly shines in the show’s fifth installment, in which he recounts memories of his childhood on the Native American Reservation where he’s mentoring Cheese (Lane Factor). Thankfully, the show’s already been renewed for Season 2, ensuring our chances of seeing Officer Big’s much-deserved return.

The Underground Railroad - Thuso Mbedu
Amazon Studios

Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad

Despite her lengthy resume of titles, Mbedu is a relative newcomer in the United States, but that’s sure to change after her moving performance as Cora, a slave who attempts to change her life by escaping on the underground railroad system in an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel. Aided with the stylish directing of Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins, Mbedu is mesmerizing in her determination and raw emotion as she contends with the evils and circumstances surrounding her.

Hamish Linklater as Father Paul in Midnight Mass

Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass

It’s hard to select just one underrated performer in Mike Flanagan‘s most recent Netflix outing, but it’s safe to say that Hamish Linklater is among them. The actor who portrayed Father Paul in the dark drama offered him plenty of chances to deliver moody and impassioned sermons that display his character’s fanaticism for religion. As the series plays out, that fanaticism stands as a symbol for addiction and its powerful grasp on the individuals it impacts in the series. Linklater perfectly embodies these traits for his role, disappearing in a way that should draw more critical attention.

Anna Baryshnikov in Dickinson - Season 3
Apple TV+

Anna Baryshnikov, Dickinson

For three seasons now, Baryshnikov has played Emily’s (Hailee Steinfeld) close-knit sister, Lavinia, and somehow the young performer finds a way to wow viewers more with each passing episode. Baryshnikov’s knack for delivering hilarious lines with a blasé attitude is one of the best things on TV this year, and her embracing of Lavinia’s love for performance art is a true gift to everyone who tunes in.

WandaVision Season 1 Paul Bettany
©Marvel Studios 2021

Paul Bettany, WandaVision

Marvel’s had an extraordinary TV run this past year, and while WandaVision has remained a clear favorite since the series arrived back in January. Still, one of its key players deserves the same kind of love Elizabeth Olsen is has been getting for her portrayal of Wanda Maximoff in the mind-bending show and that would be her love Vision. Bettany, who has played the serious synthezoid in Wanda’s ideal version of Westview.  His comedy chops shined through in the early episodes before his more serious tone takes over for moments of anguish and heartbreak. Perhaps a subtler approach than his onscreen counterpart Olsen, but Bettany’s performance isn’t one to be overlooked.

Maid Margaret Qualley

Margaret Qualley, Maid

The young and talented Qualley may have experience with recognition whether it’s for her roles in shows like The Leftovers or Fosse/Verdon, but she makes a name for herself as the down-on-her-luck Alex in Netflix’s limited series. Inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir, Qualley perfectly embodies the single mother as she struggles against the system, attempts to make a liveable wage, and cares for her mentally unstable mother, played by Qualley’s real-life mom, Andie MacDowell.

Ted Lasso Season 2 Nick Mohammed as Nate
Apple TV+

Nick Mohammed, Ted Lasso

He may have been one of the most endearing characters of the Apple TV+ hit’s first season, but this latest chapter served as Nick Mohammed‘s villain origin story for Nate the (not so) Great. Starting as a Kit Man for AFC Richmond, Nate was mostly ignored until Ted (Jason Sudeikis) took him under his wing as an assistant coach. But as Nate’s ego grew and Ted had less time to pay attention to him, Nate decided to take his talents to a new team, betraying his pals in the meantime. The turn felt startling, but if you pay attention to Mohammed’s subtle performance carefully enough, he helps lay the groundwork with the writers to hint at Nate’s big betrayal, and as painful as it was for fans and Ted, it was brilliant for Mohammed.

Mare of Easttown Julianne Nicholson HBO

Julianne Nicholson, Mare of Easttown

It’s easy to get caught up in the star power of HBO‘s limited drama series Mare of Easttown, particularly when the lead is Kate Winslet, but it takes an equally talented star to balance her performance and that job was filled by the extremely underrated Julianne Nicholson. Sure, we loved Evan Peters as Mare’s partner Detective Colin Zabel, and Jean Smart as her tough-loving mother, but Nicholson’s performance as Mare’s bestie Lori was on another level. Thankfully, the Television Academy acknowledged her performance with an Emmy, but we’re hoping this role helps Nicholson become the household name she deserves to be.

Succession Season 3 Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook

Matthew Macfadyen, Succession

Um… we need to talk about Tom, Tom Wambsgans. Matthew Macfadyen killed it as the Roy by marriage man who shifted between helpless despair sparked by the possibility of jail time and a determination to take his fate into his own hands. Instead of leaving his next move up to his unfaithful wife Shiv (Sarah Snook), Macfadyen’s Tom proved he’s fit to play with the big dogs in the ring that the Roys oversee, he just had to stab Shiv in the back to get there. Macfadyen’s subdued performance makes Tom’s actions all the more shocking and leaves us excited to see what he’ll do next.

Trying Season 2 - Rafe Spall and Esther Smith
Apple TV+

Esther Smith, Trying

Along with an underrated performance by Esther Smith, Apple TV+’s Trying is a sorely overlooked gem that managed to top its first outing with a heart-warming second season that was lifted by Smith’s Nikki and her bubbly optimism. When that bright outlook on her adoption process falters, Smith’s equally talented costar Rafe Spall is there to pick up the slack as her longtime boyfriend Jason. Together, they weave a beautiful tale of struggles and triumphs and Smith’s performance makes it all possible.

William Jackson Harper in Love Life - Season 2

William Jackson Harper, Love Life

We loved him as Chidi in The Good Place, but Harper manages to break away from his prior role and create something beautifully realistic and authentic as Marcus Watkins, a man who thought he knew everything about his romantic side until circumstances turned his life upside down. It may have helped that the role was tailored to the performer, but Harper hit every high note whether it was comedic, dramatic, or straight-up stressed. And this wasn’t the only underrated performance delivered by the actor in 2021 as he also killed it in The Underground Railroad as Royal alongside Thuso Mbedu.

The Sex Lives of College Girls Amrit Kaur

Amrit Kaur, The Sex Lives of College Girls

HBO Max‘s new comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls is a hoot, due in part to the stellar performance of Kaur, who plays Bela Malhotra in the Mindy KalingJustin Noble title. Attending Essex College, Amrit takes on the role of wide-eyed freshman with ease as she follows a career in comedy while lying to her parents and making them believe she’s pursuing a medical degree. Just like the rest of her suitemates, Bela’s more than a little in over her head when it comes to campus life, but Kaur’s powerful performance proves Bela can overcome the obstacles in her way.

Modern Love Lucy Boynton and Kit Harington
Amazon Studios

Kit Harington, Modern Love

Once known as the King in the North on Game of Thrones, Harington proved he has a knack for the romantic comedy genre with his single episode of Amazon Prime Video‘s anthology series. Despite the installment’s connection to everyone’s harsh COVID-19 realities, there was a hopeful tone to the episode and Harington’s performance as a young professional who strikes up a conversation with a student (Lucy Boynton) as they plan to wait out the virus during the first lockdown in March 2020. Perhaps it’s Harington’s willingness to be the butt of the joke, but the actor surely won more hearts than he already had with this sweet role.

Hacks Season 1 Meg Stalter and Paul W. Downs

Meg Stalter, Hacks

Sure, Jennifer Coolidge was hilarious in The White Lotus, but one of the year’s finest comedy performances belongs to Meg Stalter on HBO Max’s Hacks. We lived for every episode that saw her character Kayla messing up Jimmy’s (Paul W. Downs) day. Serving as the agent’s assistant, her skewed view of workplace protocols and oblivious confidence was everything viewers need in a comedy. Don’t sleep on Stalter’s performance because it’s one of 2021’s best in comedy.