The 30 Best Performances on Television in 2017

A breakdown of the best performances in yet another year of the Golden Age of Television.

| December 27, 2017

2017 may have been a rough year for the world, but it certainly was not a letdown when it comes to acting on television. In the ever expanding world of television, there are numerous series and actors that are ignored due to the sheer magnitude of talent on screen at any given moment. Even series that may not succeed on every level to compete with prestige television can still deliver wickedly impactful performances that help to reel the viewer in. . From an abusive and manipulative husband to a kickass lawyer with a plethora of personal issues, the scope of talent reaches far and wide. Relive the best of 2017 with this list of the top 30 performances, ranked in alphabetical order.

Alexander Skarsgård in “Big Little Lies.” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Alexander Skarsgård as Perry Wright (“Big Little Lies”)

The character of Perry might just be one of the most terrifying characters on television in 2017, a large part in thanks to the performance. Skarsgård plays the charming father and loving husband on the outside, while slowly building up the evil and manipulative abuser persona on the inside. The rage of Skarsgård’s Perry excellently matches the fear of Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, developing over the seven episodes as a powerful tale of domestic abuse is told. The blend of charisma and terror helped to earn Skarsgård the Emmy Award for Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie in 2017, an award that he is definitely deserving of for this role.

Alycia Debnam-Carey as Alicia Clark (“Fear the Walking Dead”)

The character of Alicia has become a fan favorite in the “TWD” franchise, mostly due to the refreshing performance of Debnam-Carey, who has aided in developing the prospective college student into an Infected-slaying hero. Season 3’s heartbreaking episode “This Land is Your Land” really allows Debnam-Carey and her character to shine as she must dig deep to save an entire community. Balancing the need to stay alive, while attempting to lead others, the character of Alicia is pushed to some horrific places and Debnam-Carey perfectly portrays the trauma and grief, but also the small moments of levity. While she may be best know for her role as Commander Lexa in The CW’s “The 100,” it’s clear that Alycia is multi-talented and can juggle multiple iconic roles.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes (“The Walking Dead”)

The leading man of the horror drama has always brought his top game, but this is especially true in the most recent seasons. Lincoln manages to portray the stress of a father, husband and leader trying to keep his extended family alive in the harsh apocalypse, all the while maintaining some semblance of humanity. The key to his performance rests in the eyes, where dozens of emotions are exuded as the character of Rick is forced to kill, defend and risk every single day. Look no further than Season 8’s “The Damned” and “How It’s Gotta Be” for examples of the raw talent that Lincoln possesses. He may not get much love during awards season, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Lincoln is one of the most underrated actors on television at the moment.

Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul” (Photo courtesy of Michele K. Short/Sony Pictures Television/AMC)

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill (“Better Call Saul”)

It’s no secret that Season 3 of the “Breaking Bad” prequel is the best of run of the series yet with Odenkirk and the rest of the cast upping their game. What “Better Call Saul” does best is allowing the titular character to be picked apart and furthered past his silly lawyer persona in the original series, thanks in large part to the gripping presence of Odenkirk. The rich back and forth with other top performers Rhea Seehorn and Michael McKean allow for the character of Jimmy McGill to become something deeper than a comedic relief; this is a testament to Odenkirk’s ability to switch back and forth between humor and seriousness, while blending the two qualities at other times.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II (“The Crown”)

Breaking onto the scene at the end of 2016, the Netflix take on the royal family allowed for the promising British actress to captivate the entire world and rack up numerous award nominations and wins. “The Crown” may be a massive production, but Foy’s portrayal of the young monarch is intimate and personal. Queen Elizabeth II may be one of the most distant and untouchable figures alive, but this in-depth look behind-the-scenes of her life really allows Foy to present the leader as someone who is relatable and familiar, yet still regal and larger-than-life. Down to her mannerisms and voice, the performance captures the Queen’s personality in such a realistic and believable way.

Daniel Sharman as Troy Otto (“Fear the Walking Dead”)

Frightening, yet charming. Strategic, yet impulsive. The character of Troy is definitely one of the best aspects of the show’s third season with Sharman bringing an added layer of complexity to the already morally-conflicted story. From his first appearance, fans were captivated by Sharman’s ability to make his character feel relatable and an emotional center all the while he commits horrific atrocities on screen. The performance really shines in particular in scenes with Kim Dickens as Madison, Frank Dillane as Nick and Sam Underwood as Jake, establishing several fascinating dynamics that transcend the season. If you need more proof of the talent that Sharman possesses, just watch Season 3’s “Brother’s Keeper” to see the flurry of emotions at work.

Danielle Brooks in “Orange is the New Black.” (Photo credit: Jojo Whilden/Netflix)

Danielle Brooks as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson (“Orange is the New Black”)

The expansion of the story in the most recent seasons of “OITNB” has allowed many of the cast members to step forward into the spotlight and showcase their talent. This is especially true for Brooks, who has always been one of the strongest characters in the series, but she really becomes a juggernaut in Season 5. While she may seem like one of many comedic elements in the story, there is a goldmine of emotional depth in the character and the latest season allows Brooks to explore that depth more than ever. Impacted by the loss of a close friend, Taystee goes to some dark places and the performance evokes grief, trauma, survivor’s guilt and anger; a speech given by the character in the fifth episode of the season, “Sing it, White Effie,” takes fiction out of the equation for a moment, making a powerful statement on institutional racism, injustice and privilege.

David Harbour as Jim Hopper (“Stranger Things”)

When Season 2 of the Netflix phenomenon debuted, it was clear from the first episode that Jim Hopper would be one of the standout characters. While the character may have originally seemed like the stereotypical careless small town sheriff, the unraveling of his personality over the course of the series has allowed Harbour to tap into the emotional core of Hopper. A tough and brazen man on the exterior is blended with the soft and caring man on the inside as Hopper comes to care for orphaned Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), establishing a heart-warming dynamic between two wickedly talented actors. Harbour’s ability to switch from passionate rage to apologetic remorse is just one of the many reasons that the character has resonated with so many.

Evan Peters as Kai Anderson (“American Horror Story: Cult”)

This is a bit of a bold statement, but Peters’ portrayal of Kai Anderson may just be the best performance on television in 2017. As a staple in the entire series run, Peters has always nailed his many different characters; “Cult” is where he takes a step above every other aspect of the season to deliver something that is truly scary. By utilizing the fear and paranoia of the world following the 2016 election, the character of Kai is a prime example of how radical ideology can slowly fester and grow into a deadly trap for which there is no escape. What Peters does so well is that he takes the familiar persona of a politician and digs deeper to perfectly demonstrate the evil intents that sometimes lie beneath the surface. It’s also worth noting that over the course of the eleven-episode season, Peters portrays a mind-bending seven characters, including Kai, Andy Warhol and Charles Manson.

Freddie Highmore in “Bates Motel.” (Photo credit: Cate Cameron/A&E Networks)

Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates (“Bates Motel”)

2017 will be a year to remember for the many downright terrifying performances on television and a prime example of this is Highmore’s final season as the iconic “Psycho” character. “Bates Motel” is certainly one of the most underrated shows in recent memory, thanks in large part to Highmore’s wicked portrayal of a young man trying to keep his motel afloat while struggling with mental illness. The character of Norman Bates, particularly in this final season, just has to appear on screen to make the audience uncomfortable. Whether he is going about his daily chores or straight up killing people, there is an aura that Highmore presents to keep the terror alive throughout every single episode. There’s also genuine emotion and heart that is evoked in scenes with Max Thieriot’s Dylan and Vera Farmiga’s Norma, adding additional layers to the already complex psycho.

Indira Varma as Ellaria Sand (“Game of Thrones”)

While the Dorne storyline of “Game of Thrones” may be the most unpopular among fans, there is no denying that Varma’s chilling performance as the Sand Snake mother in Season 7 is one to remember. She had previously established herself as a whirlwind performer in the devastating Season 4 episode “The Mountain and the Viper” as her character was faced with the honorific defeat of her lover. In a similarly gut-wrenching scene in the most recent season (“The Queen’s Justice“), Ellaria comes face-to-face with Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Varma delivers one of the most epic performances in the entire series run, showcasing the grief, terror and anger of a mother when her child is threatened.

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle (“Marvel’s The Punisher”)

In 2017, Netflix released its darkest Marvel television series to date with the standalone story based around the prolific character of Frank Castle. Based on his initial appearance in Season 2 of “Daredevil,” viewers were immediately captivated by Bernthal’s frightening, yet wholly emotional portrayal of the famed comic character. What Bernthal does so well is showcase a man suffering under the weight of PTSD while desperately trying to carry out revenge against those that killed his family; the performance allows for every layer of the incredibly complex character to be felt in shades of rage, passion and pain. Bernthal has an impressive list of film and television credits, but Frank Castle is by far the best to date, a role he was absolutely born to play.

Justin Hartley in “This Is Us.” (Photo courtesy of Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Justin Hartley as Kevin Pearson (“This Is Us”)

When “This Is Us” burst onto the scene in 2016, it was clear that television viewers would be treated to several years of out-of-this-world performances from the ensemble cast. Hartley was part of that ensemble in the first season, but year two of the series has really allowed him to stand out and develop his character in such an impactful and breathtaking way. The episode titled “Number One” is a harrowing tale of Kevin’s dwindling mental state as he succumbs to the symptoms of opiate addiction and alcoholism, much like his father before him. The pain and desperation is present on Hartley’s face as he breaks down throughout the season before hitting a low-point in the aforementioned episode. While his co-stars receive much of the attention and focus, and rightly so, Hartley also deserves the praise for giving such a captivating depiction of loss and struggle.

Karla Souza as Laurel Castillo (“How to Get Away with Murder”)

The ABC legal drama is another ensemble with an insanely talented cast, but Season 4 has allowed Souza to demonstrate her acting chops more than ever. While Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating may have been at the center of much of the emotional trauma in previous seasons, Laurel is really forced to deal with a significant amount of heavy material. Burdened by the loss of a boyfriend while dealing with the hardships of pregnancy, Souza’s character is a fantastic amalgamation of perseverance in the face of devastation. If you need any evidence that this performance is worthy of praise, just view the Season 4 episode “Live. Live. Live.” to witness a disturbing, yet powerful look at a young woman fighting to save herself and the life of her newborn.

Khary Payton as King Ezekiel (“The Walking Dead”)

The zombie drama is known for finding the perfect fits to bring the eclectic band of comic characters to life on screen. Potentially the best case of this is in recent seasons is Khary Payton in the role of the larger-than-life leader King Ezekiel. First introduced in Season 7, Payton’s character becomes a crucial mainstay in the “All Out War” story arc as his leadership skills are tested unlike ever before. Delivering epic and glorious speeches to rally his followers, Payton has become well-known for his ability to flawlessly speak in Shakespearean-tongue. Where he really shines is in Season 8’s “Some Guy,” which focuses heavily on the character of Ezekiel as he is forced to watch as his entire army is slaughtered; the tragedy of the situation is expressed on Payton’s face as he takes the character to a darker place than ever before.

Kyle MacLachlan in “Twin Peaks.” (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME)

Kyle MacLachlan as Dougie Jones/Dale Cooper (“Twin Peaks: The Return”)

Some people loved the return to a town both wonderful and stranger, while others (myself included) were left disappointed. There’s one thing that most everyone can agree on and that’s the mind-blowing greatness of MacLachlan’s revival of his beloved 90s character. A major portion of this season rests on the back of MacLachlan as he portrays multiple versions of Dale Cooper, each with their own quirks and traits; one version is the embodiment of evil and chaos, allowing for MacLachlan to show off a terrifying side of himself, while the iconic Dougie Jones takes on a more humorous persona that also has shades of the original Cooper. If this list were a complete ranking of performances of the year, MacLachlan would definitely be in the top 10; without any doubt, he is fully deserving of an Emmy nomination in 2018.

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister (“Game of Thrones”)

In the penultimate season of HBO’s fantasy drama, the manipulative and selfish villain becomes far more intimidating, calculating and unforgiving as the great game nears its end. These aspects of the Cersei are the result of of years of development and buildup, finally allowing Headey to have her character bask in the glory of near victory. Everything this “Mad Queen” has been through over the past years is visible on Headey’s face in every single scene she’s in; this performance is especially noteworthy because of the fact that while the character keeps much of her emotions on the inside, they are still very much implied and felt. Headey is the type of actor that tells a whole story just from her glances and the slight movements of her head. Season 7 may not have received the same critical praise as that of previous years, but Headey shines regardless.

Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson (“This Is Us”)

It’s no secret that “This Is Us” has one of the most talented ensembles on television at the moment with Moore being among the best of the best. The character of Rebecca is a mixed bag when it comes to her role in the series, being a mother, wife and an aspiring singer; she struggles to balance these roles and the relatable stress of being overworked and underappreciated is portrayed beautifully on-screen by Moore. Over the two seasons of the show, this performance has allowed the audience to feel a multitude of emotions, but none have been more real and effective than a tense argument scene between the character of Rebecca and her TV-husband in the Season 1 finale “Moonshadow.” Not only does Moore have the ability to stand strong on her own, but she has an absolutely spectacular dynamic with every single member of the cast.

Millie Bobby Brown in “Stranger Things.” (Photo credit: Netflix)

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven (“Stranger Things”)

The character of Eleven will go down as one of the most iconic television characters of the decade…and maybe even of all time. Her mysterious demeanor, childlike innocence and desire to be loved are just a few of her characteristics that Brown perfectly depicts. The badassery of this heroine is showcased in not only her action scenes, but also the various intense standoffs she is involved in. The character is shown to have endless layers as seen in her more personal scenes, particularly those with Finn Wolfhard’s Mike and David Harbour’s Hopper; Brown plays off of her fellow actors and helps to develop a fascinating dynamic on-screen. After the premiere of the first season, Brown became a cultural sensation and the second season only furthers this as she takes her beloved character to new heights. A testament to her abilities as an actor is the fact that she carries an entire episode by herself; “Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister” may be polarizing to fans, but Brown dominates her as she is given her own solo episode.

Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson (“This Is Us”)

If there were an award for the best father on television, it would definitely go to the patriarch of the Pearson clan. Much like his co-lead Mandy Moore, Ventimiglia has captured audiences by drawing them in with his parental presence. Jack has his struggles with alcoholism and balancing family time with work, but there’s one thing that is certain about him: he loves his family dearly. This is perfectly demonstrated in the chats he has with each of his children and his wife, allowing Ventimiglia to showcase his speech-giving talents and his ability to be a cathartic figure to both the other characters and the audience. His falling-out scene with Moore in Season 1’s “Moonshadow” is quite possibly the most realistic argument between spouses portrayed on television. Jack’s charm and quirks are a testament to Ventimiglia’s strength as a character actor.

Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright (“Big Little Lies”)

As one of the most harrowing performances of 2017, Kidman delivers a rich, heart-breaking and truthful depiction of the secrets the lie under the surface of a marriage. Domestic abuse is sometimes a touchy subject when it comes to mainstream television, but the situations acted out by Kidman and Skarsgård are not sensationalized; instead, this story arc is brutal look at a serious issue that affects people of all classes. The internal struggle of Celeste is visceral and raw, allowing the audience to feel the weight of each and every move she makes. Kidman exudes fear, but also an element of building courage as her character finds the strength to seek out help and ultimately, find comfort in her friends. This portrayal is a highlight of “Big Little Lies” and was universally celebrated, earning Kidman an Emmy award in 2017.

Noah Schnapp in “Stranger Things” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Noah Schnapp as Will Byers (“Stranger Things”)

While he may have been underutilized in the first season of “Stranger Things,” Schnapp is really given strong material in the sequel, allowing him to show the world just how talented he is. The viewer has an attachment to all of the characters, but Will Byers is special because of all that he has been through; in Season 2, he experiences even more trauma and the performance of Schnapp conveys just how horrific the experience is for Will and his family and friends. The post-traumatic stress is apparent on Schnapp’s face as Will struggles to return to some semblance of normalcy. There’s also his possession scenes later in the season, which are difficult to watch due to the raw emotions that are evoked; Schnapp should be commended for playing the dark sequences in a way that makes the viewer and other characters both fear and sympathize with him. Without any doubt, this young actor is the standout of “Stranger Things 2” and will hopefully continue to be given a major role in the show’s future seasons.

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson (“Mr. Robot”)

The third season of USA’s “Mr. Robot” is by far the best and stands out as being tonally different and far more catastrophic than ever before. Malek’s portrayal of Elliot is especially captivating to watch as he juggles his mental illnesses while dealing with the consequences of his actions of his alternate personality, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). Elliot is a rather quiet character and a considerable amount of his story is told through the glares, twitches and emotional cues that Malek has expertly mastered. The internal moral dilemma that Elliot finds himself in is enhanced by his desire to keep his loved ones safe and away from the danger that the ever-lurking villains threaten to enact; there’s authentic fear, anger and sadness that the portrayal beautifully explores, helping to establish the character as far more human than he appears on the surface.

Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Martha Mackenzie (“Big Little Lies”)

This is a role that Witherspoon was born to play. The sass and the keep-it-real attitude is wholly entertaining to watch as Madeline interacts with Renata (Laura Dern) and the moms of Monterrey. While Nicole Kidman may have delivered the most harrowing performance in “Big Little Lies,” there is something to be said about Witherspoon’s portrayal of a mother trying to do best by her children while also attempting to keep her marriage afloat, simultaneously searching for true happiness. There is plenty of levity here and the humor that Reese possesses is absolutely crucial to the character as she lights up the screen with her presence. She also has the ability to switch to a more serious side that allows the character to be a vulnerable and grounded, especially in the scenes that involve her older daughter and husband. “Big Little Lies” is a group effort from the entire cast, but Reese is the beating heart at the center that encompasses all of the rich emotions of the story.

Regina King in “American Crime” (Photo credit: Nicole Wilder/ABC)

Regina King as Kimara Walters (“American Crime”)

Due to low ratings, “American Crime” died a silent death after three brilliant seasons detailing a plethora of issues affecting American citizens, particularly minorities. Throughout the entire run of the show, King gave stellar performances in her three separate roles of the anthology series, making her the standout performer of the bunch. In Season 3, King’s portrayal of Kimara is a moving look at the hellish situations that social workers see on a daily basis. The character is one who truly seeks to help people, particularly minors that are being exploited, all the while facing her own quest to have a child with struggling with infertility. There’s a sense of fatigue and desperation that King conveys, showing the lack of resources and support that social workers and other civil servants are forced to deal with while doing their jobs. She may not have won the Emmy for this season (she did for the first two seasons), King’s final performance in “American Crime” is one that will definitely sit with viewers for quite some time.

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler (“Better Call Saul”)

A huge reason for the success of Season 3 is the story arcs of Kim Wexler and the performances given by Seehorn. Kim is one of the most determined and hard-working characters on television and her work ethic is matched by the unrelenting stress and exhaustion that Seehorn expresses. The relationship between Kim and Jimmy allows both actors to develop a beautiful rapport, which is both satisfying, but also worrisome, given the fact that the former doesn’t appear in “Breaking Bad” and may be nearing the end of her arc. Still, the character is absolute joy to watch and Seehorn’s portrayal is wholly underrated; what could be incredibly mundane sequences are made thrilling by the presence of Seehorn. Look no further than the final episodes of Season 3 to see just how talented Rhea is in this role with a particular scene in “Fall” being especially worthy of praise.

Ron Cephas Jones as William Hill (“This Is Us”)

“This Is Us” is a show that has perfected the craft of making its audience cry. This is especially true in regards to the character of William, who managed to capture the hearts of both the characters and the viewers with his chill personality and desire to forge a relationship with his son Randall (Sterling K. Brown). Ron Cephas Jones has had smaller roles in many recent TV hits, such as “Marvel’s Luke Cage” and “Mr. Robot,” but he truly shines in the NBC family drama that has become a household name. The portrayal of the sickly character is not depressing, but rather Jones uses the cancer that is ravaging William to showcase the importance of life; he’s not bitter or terrified about his impending death, instead he is content in the fact that he is able to spend time getting to know his son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters. Season 1’s “Memphis” is by far one of the most emotional episodes in all of television with Jones delivering some of his most impactful acting to date, alongside Brown. Simply put, the portrayal of William allows the viewer to see him as a father/grandfather figure, establishing a unique bond with the character.

Ruth Negga in “Preacher” (Photo credit: Skip Bolen/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare (“Preacher”)

There is a certain magical feeling that AMC’s “Preacher” seems to evoke; maybe its because of the wacky scenarios, but a large part of it is definitely due to the cast. Negga absolutely stands out due to her charming, yet deadly badass persona in Tulip. She’s wickedly funny and the comedic element only adds to her depth as a character, as seen in the shooting human targets scenes in Season 2. Negga also plays Tulip in a way that gives her this intimidating side and makes her an true force to be reckoned with. The character is still severely underutilized in the second year of the show, but she is given necessary expansions to her backstory that allow Negga to take the character to some darker and more emotional places; she conveys so much heart and soul, but also a lot of heartbreak and devastation.

Sterling K. Brown as Randall Pearson (“This Is Us”)

The man, the myth, the legend that is Sterling K. Brown is one of the best things to happen to television is quite some time. He captivated audiences early in 2016 with his portrayal of Christopher Darden in “The People vs. O.J: American Crime Story” and later stepped into the role as Randall in “This Is Us.” Not only is Brown the best performer in the cast (which is one of the most talented casts on TV), he plays the best character in the series. Anxiety is something that is rarely shown in media, but Randall’s struggle with it is visceral, real and relatable, combining the talent of the writers and Brown. There is a lot of “dad humor” and awkwardness that the character possesses that balances with the more serious side of him. Season 1’s “Memphis” was previously mentioned in this list and it is a chilling and raw exploration of loss and love that Brown perfectly captures alongside Jones. Without any doubt, this performer and his character are gifts to the world of television.

Viola Davis as Annalise Keating (“How to Get Away with Murder”)

While the “How to Get Away with Murder” hype may not be as big as it was when the show first premiered, Viola’s performance as the conniving lawyer wrapped up in lies is still wholly engrossing. Season 4 is different tonally than previous years and the character of Annalise isn’t riding on top of the world, but rather working to make up for her past crimes and mistakes. Viola plays the character in a vulnerable way that feels closed off at times with shades of her usual badass self still popping up. She commands the screen and lights up the room with her presence even when Annalise may be dwindling out of control. Viola shines in the tense courtroom standoffs and angry rants, but there is additional talent in her emotional scenes that help to present the character with humanistic qualities. Season 4’s “Live. Live. Live” contains one of Viola’s finest performances to date, capturing the grief, fear and remorse of a mother that lost her child.

Do you agree with this list? Who were your favorite performers on television in 2017? Share your picks by commenting below! Be sure to check out the list of the best television shows of 2017.

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Television

Jeffrey Kopp is the Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Niner Times. He is a junior double majoring in Communication and Political Science, with a minor in Criminal Justice. His interests include writing and keeping up with an excessive amount of television shows. He is also the go-to expert on all things “The Walking Dead.”

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Jeffrey Kopp is the Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Niner Times. He is a junior double majoring in Communication and Political Science, with a minor in Criminal Justice. His interests include writing and keeping up with an excessive amount of television shows. He is also the go-to expert on all things “The Walking Dead.”

Twitter