If it weren’t for the remarkable performances on this list, television just wouldn’t be as good as it is. We laugh, we cry and we cheer because of the raw emotions and comedic timing that these actors and those not on this list work so hard to perfect. A note, the performers on the list are just from shows that I watched this year.
And now, here are the 35 best performances on television in 2018:
Alex Lawther as James (“The End of the F***ing World”)
If you’ve seen the chilling “Black Mirror” episode titled “Shut Up and Dance,” then you will know just how good Alex Lawther is at playing a creep. In the case of this character, however, he has some charm to him. Self diagnosed psychopath James goes on a coming-of-age journey to figure himself out alongside Alyssa (Jessica Barden). Lawther excellently mixes charm and humor with a sense of discomfort in these eight episodes.
Alexa Nisenson as Charlie (“Fear the Walking Dead”)
One of the best episodes of the fourth season of “Fear the Walking Dead” finds Charlie in a rather awkward place. “Close Your Eyes” is dark and disturbing, with a huge reason being Alexa Nisenson’s emotional portrayal of grief and hopelessness. Thanks to her charisma, Nisenson manages to evolve her character from public enemy number one after killing one of the most beloved characters to a place where viewers actually feel compassion for her.
Alycia Debnam-Carey as Alicia Clark (“Fear the Walking Dead”)
Alycia Debnam-Carey is one of the best performers not just in “Fear the Walking Dead,” but in the entire “TWD” franchise. Her character Alicia has had several episodes focused on her difficult time in the apocalypse, but 2018 was her most devastating year yet. Pure grief and mental exhaustion are recurring aspects of Alicia in Season 4 as her entire family is lost to the harsh post-apocalyptic world. She can be badass when she needs to be, but she also has an emotional side to her that really allows Debnam-Carey to shine. Her performance in “Close Your Eyes,” opposite Nisenson, is too good to put into words. Other notable demonstrations of her immense talent include “Good Out Here” and “No One’s Gone.” If there was any kind of logic to television awards, Alycia would be nominated for everything.
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes (“The Walking Dead”)
The end of an era. After eight full seasons and over 100 episodes, Andrew Lincoln exited “The Walking Dead” and began his journey in a film trilogy that is expected to begin production in 2019. Without any doubt, Lincoln is the best performer on the show and he never fails to deliver emotional and impactful beats as Rick Grimes. In his final episode “What Comes After,” Lincoln lays it all out on the table as he bids farewell to his family, those fallen and alive. There’s also the undeniably heartbreaking episode “Honor,” which saw the powerful bond between Rick and Carl come to an end.
Antoinette Robinson as Coco Conners (“Dear White People”)
Staring on a highly underrated series, Antoinette Robinson really put herself out there in the sophomore season. A chapter based entirely around her character Coco’s difficult decision regarding abortion made for some truly heartbreaking and thought-provoking material. This particular episode really allows Robinson to show the full weight of said decision, making it one of the most realistic depictions of what a woman goes through whilst weighing her options. There is still humor, but Antoinette really shines in a dramatic light here.
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill (“Better Call Saul”)
The “Breaking Bad” franchise is chock full of acting powerhouses and Bob Odenkirk’s talent has been on full display since he entered the world in the original series’ second season. However, his own show has really allowed Odenkirk to take Jimmy McGill to some truly emotional places and gives so much more depth to the character. The evolution from a sleazy lawyer to the crime organizer that we all know and love is fascinating to watch, mostly because of Odenkirk’s ability to demonstrate every single emotion; he sometimes shuffles through every emotion in a matter of minutes…and it is glorious.
Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles (“Atlanta”)
The entire main cast of “Atlanta” is on this list, because it is one of the most talented ensembles on television today. Brian Tyree Henry’s “Paper Boi” shines most clearly in “Robbin’ Season,” particularly the episode “Barbershop.” This whirlwind bit of television captures the genius absurdity of the show, but also the ability of this performer to demonstrate raw irritation and mental exhaustion in a way that few are able to do. You can feel the frustration that Alfred feels and the situations he finds himself in become more and more ridiculous, not just in this episode, but in the entire season.
Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes (“The Walking Dead”)
Ask any fan of “The Walking Dead” and they will probably tell you that the loss of Carl at the start of 2018 was one of the most emotional moments in the show’s history. After being severely underused throughout Season 8, the series bid farewell to the child soldier in a devastating episode that paid tribute to his character and the sacrifice he made. Chandler Riggs delivered his best performance to date in the episode, really showcasing all that he and his character had learned over the past eight years. While the highly controversial exit may have hurt the image of the show in some ways, this will go down as one of the most memorable performances in the series run.
Cody Fern as Michael Langdon (“American Horror Story: Apocalypse”)
2018 was a HUGE year for Cody Fern as he gave award-worthy performances on three different shows. While his work on “American Crime Story” and “House of Cards” certainly deserve praise, it is his portrayal of the literal Antichrist that stands out the most. While the eighth season of “American Horror Story” may have been a mess overall, the inclusion of Fern really saves it from being a total lost cause. There’s an unexpected sense of moodiness to the character that mixes with his frightening persona. At some points, you uncomfortably feel bad for him and at other times, you just want the badass coven of witches to take him down.
D’Arcy Carden as Janet (“The Good Place”)
Season 3 of the best show on television in 2018 wouldn’t be nearly as incredible as it is without D’Arcy Carden. She is seriously so talented and it is solidified in this year’s winter finale, titled “Janet(s),” as she somehow manages to perfectly portray the entire main cast in yet another wacky expansion of the show’s universe. She’s a comedic powerhouse that really shatters all expectations when it comes to playing a character.
Danielle Brooks as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson (“Orange is the New Black”)
While the 6th season of the veteran Netflix series may have been the worst of the show yet, one thing remains totally consistent. In the more recent seasons, Danielle Brooks’ portrayal of Taystee has shifted from being mostly comedic to primarily dramatic. With that, Brooks is able to deliver the best acting on the show. Her emotions pour out, specifically in this season’s dramatic conclusion to her character’s criminal trial.
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”)
To say that this is a “good” performance would be a gross understatement. This is certainly in the top five out of this list. Darren Criss steps into the role of one of history’s notorious serial killers, showing a wide range of emotions in the process. This portrayal really did an excellent job at presenting this killer as more than just a generic villain, and tried to understand the methods behind his madness. While he may have previously been known for his role on “Glee,” it seems as though Criss has set himself up to be an acting juggernaut across genres.
Donald Glover as Earnest Marks (“Atlanta”)
If you’re not a fan of Donald Glover at this point…what are you doing? He is incredible. The entire cast of “Atlanta” is incredible, and Glover manages to present his character as a relatable and loving, standing out from the pack. Perhaps the most stunning performance of the year, comes from him in Season 2’s “Teddy Perkins.” Glover plays the titular character and it is TERRIFYING, yet there is an uncomfortable comedic element that really adds a whole other layer of complexity.
Frank Dillane as Nick Clark (“Fear the Walking Dead”)
In a year that was especially difficult for fans of the “TWD” shows, this was one of the biggest losses. Frank Dillane’s Nick struck a cord with viewers immediately in the Pilot episode that aired back in 2015. Over the years, his character came to be the heart and soul of the series with the fourth season proving this even more. His darkened path really allowed Dillane to show the ruthlessness to his character. The real emotional punch came in “Good Out Here,” wherein Nick’s arc comes to an end and Dillane really sells the devastation, fear and confusion of the moment.
Jessica Barden as Alyssa (“The End of the F***ing World”)
The other half to Lawther’s James, Jessica Barden’s Alyssa is just as compelling and oddly hilarious. There’s this badass element to the character that beautifully mixes with an untapped vulnerability. Her humor and savagery masks the trauma that she experiences, making her an extremely layered character that feels so unique. Barden presents her character as a young woman trying to find her place in the world whilst struggling to express herself and open up.
Judith Light as Marilyn Miglin (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”)
When discussing this series, many might overlook this particular performance…and that’s a shame. Judith Light’s portrayal of a grieving wife in the spotlight following her husband’s murder is heavy. While the character isn’t at the center of the entire story, she does play a major role in showcasing the emotional toll that Andrew Cunanan’s killing spree had on those left behind.
Justina Machado as Penelope Alvarez (“One Day at a Time”)
Justina Machado brings so much to yet another underrated show on this list. Her character is a hardworking mother, daughter and a veteran. Very rarely are depression and anxiety represented in a realistic way on television, but Machado’s Penelope does just that. There’s also the humor that she really makes a central part of her character, which is wholly important and serves to showcase her as being multi-faceted.
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings (“The Americans”)
For six seasons, Keri Russell gave some of the most consistent and epic performances on television as Elizabeth Jennings. Her stoic nature and ruthlessness makes her the definition of “badass.” Combined with Matthew Rhys, the series really has such a remarkable dynamic between the two. In the final episode of the series, Russell hammers in the emotional gravity of the tricky balance between her role as a mother and of a Soviet spy.
Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop (“The Good Place”)
Everyone knows that Kristen Bell is funny, but she really shows off her dramatic chops in Season 3 of her incredible series. The episode, “A Fractured Inheritance” is where she really shines this year as her character Eleanor comes face-to-face with her mother after believing her to be dead. This particular episode and the season as a whole allows Bell to demonstrate her character’s growth and development.
Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones (“Marvel’s Jessica Jones”)
2018 saw the Netflix-Marvel Cinematic Universe collapse as most of the show were cancelled, leaving just “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” surviving into 2019. While the second season of the former may not be as strong as it’s first, the performance from Krysten Ritter is better than ever. Jessica is truly a tortured soul, and Ritter captures this by putting the emotional trauma out for the world to see. She still has the toughness that we love about her, but she is far more vulnerable and emotional as her family tears apart at the seams.
Lakeith Stanfield as Darius Epps (“Atlanta”)
This performer is left off of many of the nominations list and isn’t always included with his fellow “Atlanta” cast members. There is no reason for that, because Lakeith Stanfield continually gives performances that make Darius one of the most lovable and entertaining characters to watch on the show. His genuine fear and confusion is a main focal point in the aforementioned “Teddy Perkins,” but he always brings this level of acting, regardless of tone or the situation within the episode.
Lauren Cohan as Maggie Rhee (“The Walking Dead”)
Andrew Lincoln wasn’t the only high level departure from the zombie drama in 2018. After being a staple in the series since 2011, Cohan made an apparently temporary exit, but not before showing her character’s growth and determination as a leader. Season 9 showed her character to be far more ruthless and vengeful, allowing for her character to pour her heart out about the losses she has suffered. Particular praise should be given for her performances in “Wrath” and “What Comes After” as Maggie faces a future in which her husband’s killer is allowed to remain alive.
Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson (“This Is Us”)
Super Bowl Sunday this year was quite traumatic for fans of this series. In part, this was because of Rebecca’s gut-wrenching reaction to the death of her beloved husband in the episode which aired following the championship game. This particular moment in the series is one of the most brutal and honest portrayals of genuine shock that has been seen on screen. You can feel the pain, sorrow and confusion that Mandy Moore pours out as her world comes crumbling down. Without any doubt, Moore should have at least been nominated for an Emmy, because she is pretty much perfect.
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings (“The Americans”)
The end of the spy-drama in 2018 marked the end of years of brilliant performances from Matthew Rhys as Philip. Everything that needs to be said about this inclusion on the list can be seen clearly in the series finale as his character’s secrets come out and he is confronted by his best friend, Stan. The final season of the series shows the character to be in a different mindset than when his spy persona was the central focus, allowing for the conclusion of the story to really be grueling for him and his character. His Emmy win for this role is overdue and shows that the voters know what they’re doing sometimes.
Maya Rudolph as Connie, the Hormone Monstress (“Big Mouth”)
No one…and I mean no one will EVER be able to say “bubble bath” as perfectly as Maya Rudolph. “Big Mouth” has captivated viewers and the Hormone Monstress is a huge reason why. Her charm and sassy sayings make the character so damn fascinating to watch. She’s downright hilarious in this role, but there is also a ton of wisdom to be had here. Here’s hoping for years and years of more iconic sayings from Rudolph in this role.
Melvin Gregg as DeMarcus Tillman (“American Vandal”)
The stakes were raised and the crime was intensified in the second season of the Netflix mockumentary. In this iteration, a major focus was on Melvin Gregg’s star basketball player, accused of poisoning the school. While he might not yet be a household name, Gregg’s charisma and talent certainly might make that a possibility. His character is presented as a total millennial with all of the privilege that comes with being a student athlete.
Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson (“This Is Us”)
Jack Pearson is an incredible father, husband and human being. Milo Ventimiglia captures this in his portrayal of the Pearson patriarch. Season 3 really allows for more backstory of the character as viewers see the tumultuous home life of Jack that serves as a catalyst to his time serving in Vietnam. This particular story arc packs a lot of emotional punches and viewers get to see a whole other side to Ventimiglia’s performance of the character. Matched with Mandy Moore, this is an absolute dynamic duo.
Noah Emmerich as Stan Beeman (“The Americans”)
Since the very start of the series, there was a comforting aura present with this character. Over the years, he had to harden as the weight of his job as an FBI agent pulled him down. At the end, Noah Emmerich gives his finest performance in the role as he confronts what he thought were his best friends in the Jennings. The look of betrayal on Stan’s face in that final standoff in the parking garage is exactly why Emmerich is on this list.
Penélope Cruz as Donatella Versace (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”)
Picking individuals from this limited series is difficult because the entire cast is fantastic. Along with the others on this list, Penélope Cruz really stands out. Unfortunately, she isn’t always the focus on the series, but she still steals every scene she is in. Stepping into the role of a living figure is no easy task, but Cruz captures the very public grief that Donatella Versace experienced over 20 years ago. This portrayal shows the importance of persevering in the face of complete and utter tragedy.
Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler (“Better Call Saul”)
One of the absolute best parts of the “Breaking Bad” prequel series is none other than Rhea Seehorn’s Kim. She’s pretty much the perfect television character in every sense of the word. In the second episode of Season 4, Kim lashes out at Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin in quite possibly Seehorn’s greatest moment in the series. She’s such a likable and down-to-earth person who begins to develop a sharper edge in the latest episodes as Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman begins to rub off on her.
Rita Moreno as Lydia Riera (“One Day at a Time”)
This list just would not be complete without LIVING LEGEND Rita Moreno. Her role on one of the top shows of 2018 is a testament to her talent in both drama and comedy. She can be downright hilarious as her character Lydia pokes fun at her family members. In other scenes, Lydia provides comfort and sometimes chaos to her daughter and grandchildren. Particular praise should be given to her scenes with her Justina Machado, because those two together is simply television gold.
Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth Pearson (“This Is Us”)
Something that “This Is Us” really manages to excel at is allowing each member of the cast to have their moment to shine. In 2018, the character of Beth is given more time in the spotlight than ever before. Viewers really get to see things from her perspective, including her being laid off from her job and struggling with being unemployed. Susan’s work in Season 3 is the best part of the odd Randall campaign arc that is especially prevalent.
Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay (“Westworld”)
“Westworld” is a difficult show to watch sometimes and the characters aren’t exactly easy to connect with. That being said, Thandie Newton’s Maeve is the standout. Her quest to find her daughter in the malfunctioning park is a compelling journey. Even though she is one of the “hosts,” there is so much human emotion that Newton brings to the character as she becomes more and more cognizant. If there were more characters like this, “Westworld” might be more of an enjoyable show.
Zahn McClarnon as Akecheta (“Westworld”)
Speaking of strong characters in “Westworld,” Zahn McClarnon’s Akecheta has to be mentioned. Funnily enough, this is another “host” who is ironically more human than the actual human characters on the show. In the second season’s “Kiksuya,” Akecheta’s story is told as he searches for the love of his life. McClarnon really knows how to act with his eyes, not even needing to speak a line of dialogue to bring forth all of the emotions he is feeling.
Zazie Beetz as Van Keefer (“Atlanta”)
This rounds out the entire main cast of “Atlanta” being on this list. Zazie Beetz is yet another crucial player in the story and her standalone episode in the second season proves just how compelling her portrayal is. “Champagne Papi” is one of the most entertaining episodes of the season, partly because of Beetz’ hilarious performance whilst celebrating New Year’s Eve at Drake’s mansion with her drugged friends.
What are your picks for the best television performances of 2018? Share them with us in the comment section!