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15 Best TV Performances

The 15 Best TV Performances of 2020

In a year when TV was more valuable than ever, these are the performances we can't stop thinking about

It was awfully hard to see our friends for much of 2020, due to the pandemic that's still raging today. Not to sound too corny, but for many of us who spent most of the year isolating, our social worlds shifted over to the screen, where we spent quality time a whole new set of friends: the characters in our favorite TV shows. 

We spent more time with the new Perry Mason this year than we did with our parents, got more relationship advice from High Fidelity's Rob than we did from our most trusted pals, and laughed along with Schitt's Creek's Alexis Rose like she was our one true BFF. It's been a weird year.

But these characters got us through 2020, and they couldn't have happened without the wonderful work of the actors who brought them to life. TV Guide is celebrating the 15 best TV performances of 2020, which features a diverse roster of performers from a wide variety of shows, in a year when they were more valuable than ever.

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Cate Blanchett, Mrs. America

Where to watch: Hulu

Cate Blanchett, Mrs. America

Sabrina Lantos/FX

Whenever Cate Blanchett takes on a role, we expect greatness. When she took on the role of Phyllis Schlafly in FX on Hulu's limited series Mrs. America, there were additional challenges involved: playing a woman who was hated by many American women while being at the forefront of cultural revolution. With her usual aplomb, Blanchett turned in a nuanced performance that depicted Schlafly's thirst for power and influence while at the same time showing how the patriarchy held her back. Blanchett turned in an Emmy-worthy performance that almost made us feel some sympathy for Schlafly. Almost. –Diane Gordon



Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You

Where to watch: HBOHBO MaxHulu with HBO add-onAmazon with HBO add-on

Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You

Natalie Seery/HBO

If I May Destroy You was one of the greatest TV triumphs of the year, it's hugely thanks to the incredible talent of its creator, star, writer, and co-director Michaela Coel. As Arabella, a part-time writer, full-time social media influencer, Coel does something particularly special, mining her own real-life experience to tell a moving, infuriating, and at many points uncannily funny story about the aftermath of sexual assault. Coel is magnetic and impossible to look away from, a natural comedian who can make a moment like Arabella filming a video on the toilet for her literary hero feel grounded in reality, but it's the way she explores Arabella's searching, breathless trauma as she struggles to piece together the night of her rape that really brings the performance to life. To watch Coel on this show is to declare your undying devotion to follow her career as long as she continues to grace us with her presence. –Allison Picurro



Shalita Grant, Search Party

Where to watch: HBO Max

Shalita Grant, Search Party

Jon Pack/WarnerMedia

If I had anything to say about it, Shalita Grant would already have an Emmy for her performance as Cassidy Diamond in Season 3 of Search Party. As Dory's (Alia Shawkat) rookie lawyer, Grant is captivating from her very first moments on screen, when Cassidy picks Dory up after an overnight stint in jail. In trendy sunglasses and leather gloves, her hair swept up in a complicated twist, she delicately bends her wrist like she's meeting a member of the royal family and speaks with Kardashian-worthy vocal fry as she tells Dory, "It's an honor to call myself your lawyer." Grant steals every scene she's in, playing Cassidy as a young woman ("30 and single," as she tells it) who is simultaneously over-confident and insecure as she tries to prove herself while working on Dory's case, despite the fact that she's clearly in over her head. In a show all about skewering millennial stereotypes, Cassidy — with her Instagram-worthy makeup, absurdly tone-deaf one-liners, and a job she holds only because of nepotism — is maybe the best work of satire yet, and among a stacked cast of excellent actors, Grant gives the most magnetic and hilarious performance. Look no further than Cassidy's improvised opening statement in the season's first courtroom scene, which she punctuates with dramatic physical comedy, for a perfect example of Grant's genius. –Allison Picurro



Shira Haas, Unorthodox

Where to watch: Netflix

Shira Haas, Unorthodox

Anika Molnar/Netflix

Shira Haas came into Netflix's Unorthodox as a relative unknown outside of her native Israel and emerged an Emmy-nominated rising international star thanks to her stunning performance in the German limited series. Haas plays Esty Shapiro, a young woman who escapes her oppressive life in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn for a new, secular life in Berlin. Haas' performance is almost unimaginable in its vulnerability; it required her to shave her head on-camera and, in the series' unforgettable climax, sing a cappella. Those big, exterior moments complement the smaller, more intimate and finely skilled emotions that play across her unusually expressive face like little storms. –Liam Mathews



Ethan Hawke, The Good Lord Bird

Where to watch: Showtime

Ethan Hawke, The Good Lord Bird

William Gray/SHOWTIME

Can we give out awards for yelling? If so, Ethan Hawke wins them all. As controversial abolitionist John Brown, a religious zealot who fought for the freedom of enslaved people just before the Civil War with the fury and violence of a vengeful god, he is entirely unbuckled. Hawke's Brown unloads on slavers and those who support slavery with spittle and sermons of a man feeling the full power of the Holy Ghost, and it's glorious every single time. But Hawke is also adept at playing the surprising comedy of The Good Lord Bird, toning down the rage and embracing Brown's obliviousness to great effect. If this isn't the best performance of the year, it's certainly the most intensely entertaining. –Tim Surette



Katja Herbers, Evil

Where to watch: NetflixCBS All Access

Katja Herbers, Evil

CBS

There are several aspects of Evil's riveting first season that have haunted me since the CBS series wrapped in early 2020, but nothing more so than the final reveal that professional skeptic, forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) may be [SPOILER!] possessed by a demon. A twist of this magnitude could have felt out of left field, even for a show as out-there and off-kilter as Evil, were it not for Herbers' performance, which subtly prepared you for this revelation, always teasing how far Kristen might go when pushed but often leaving her motivations opaque. Like the show itself — which likes to walk a fine line between confirming supernatural or scientific explanations for bizarre events — Herbers' portrayal of Kristen and the psychologist's possible moral corruption is deliciously ambiguous. Even with the knowledge of the finale's twist, you're able to interpret Kristen's behavior across the season in drastically different ways, but never be 100 percent sure about any hypothesis. It's an impressive balancing act, and one Herbers makes look easy. –Sadie Gennis



Nicholas Hoult, The Great

Where to watch: Hulu

Nicholas Hoult, The Great

Netflix

Villains tend to be remembered far more than their heroic counterparts, and though that's not really fair, it's certainly the case with The Great. Needlessly cruel, Nicholas Hoult's self-obsessed Peter III of Russia shows little concern for others, seeks constant validation from the insufferable men with whom he's surrounded himself, and lashes out before he can be exposed as weak. Hoult shines brightest when Peter's loudest and worst tendencies are on display, but it's the quieter moments that ultimately stay with you, as the actor's innate charm peeks through in rare glimpses of Peter's humanity, revealing he is not a raging asshole so much as he is a clueless man-child with an inferiority complex who's been thrust into a situation he's ill-equipped to handle. You never really feel bad for Peter, instead cheering on Elle Fanning's Catherine as she schemes to overthrow him in the name of progress, but as the season advances and Hoult peels back the few layers Peter possesses to dig into his weaknesses, it becomes more and more difficult to simply write him off as a one-note character — and that's all Hoult's doing. –Kaitlin Thomas



Zoë Kravitz, High Fidelity

Where to watch: Hulu

Zoë Kravitz, High Fidelity

Hulu

One of the saddest TV losses of the year was High Fidelity, which Hulu canceled after just one season. While I'll miss the show as a whole, what I'm most disappointed about is that we won't get to see Zoë Kravitz as Rob again. Stepping into the role previously played by John Cusack in the 2000 film of the same name, Kravitz made the updated version of the sardonic record store owner her own, painting a portrait of a complicated woman who cheats on her partners, drinks too much, and will happily tell you why Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is overhyped. And yet, despite all of that (or maybe because of it), Kravitz turned Rob into someone you'd want to be friends with. When she breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience, she allows us to gaze upon the rich tapestry of her failed relationships, her veil of detachment cracking into something much more vulnerable with each episode. As Rob, she's dry, witty, and effortlessly cool, inviting us to share her skepticism of the mere concept of love. Kravitz is one of those actors who can do more with a roll of her eyes and an expertly timed frown than many can say with a sprawling monologue, and while it's a shame Hulu cut High Fidelity short after a truly great first season, I'm glad we got to see her play this character at all. –Allison Picurro



Nathan Lane, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Where to watch: Showtime

Nathan Lane, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Showtime

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels fit Nathan Lane like a bespoke pinstripe suit. As Lewis Michener, a veteran officer of the LAPD in the late 1930s, Lane sold City of Angels as a period piece on the strength of his snappy noir flair. He wore the show's heightened theatricality so well that he grounded the whole story. But while it would have been enough just to watch him call people "slick" and "pal" with conviction, what can't be overstated is that Lane also delivered a flat-out incredible dramatic performance, carrying an immense sadness that wore him down as the season went on. Lewis, a Jewish man investigating the rise of the Nazis, was the show's conscience, grieving the world's seemingly boundless capacity for prejudice. City of Angels wouldn't last, but Nathan Lane is forever. –Kelly Connolly



T'Nia Miller, The Haunting of Bly Manor

Where to watch: Netflix

Amelie Smith, Benjamin Ainsworth, and T'Nia Miller; The Haunting of Bly Manor

Eike Schroter/Netflix

To explain exactly the sort of tightrope T'Nia Miller had to walk in The Haunting of Bly Manor would be a spoiler — but of course, that's the point. Miller took a role that hid a dark secret and managed to disguise the truth at the center of her story without ever contradicting it. Hannah Grose, Bly Manor's dependable housekeeper, was the show's emotional anchor, a woman driven by her sense of duty to the children in her care. But Miller imbued Hannah's calming presence with a vibrance that hinted at her strong force of will, even as she deprived herself of the romance that could have made her happy. Hannah's sense of honor was her tragic undoing, but unlike the Wingrave kids, we'll never forget her. –Kelly Connolly



Wunmi Mosaku, Lovecraft Country

Where to watch: HBOHBO MaxHulu with HBO add-onAmazon with HBO add-on

Wunmi Mosaku, Lovecraft Country

Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

Lovecraft Country's Ruby Baptiste, the practical older half-sister of Jurnee Smollett's Leti, almost looked like a thankless role on paper. But Wunmi Mosaku made Ruby unforgettable. A well-educated singer who was overqualified and yet perpetually overlooked for her dream job, Ruby found an unexpected way to open the doors that had been slammed in her face when she was given a potion that allowed her to present as a white woman. As Ruby unlocked her own conflicted ambitions, Mosaku gave a performance as precise as the stiletto her character would eventually wield as a weapon. Her vulnerability had backbone, and her quest for power was never without heart. From the moment she was introduced — as, fittingly, a performer with complete control of her audience — Mosaku was charismatic, electric, and just so cool. Kelly Connolly



Annie Murphy, Schitt's Creek

Where to watch: NetflixCW Seed

Annie Murphy, Schitt's Creek

Pop TV

Alexa, play "A Little Bit Alexis." Annie Murphy's stellar performance as selfish socialite turned aspiring publicist Alexis Rose was one of the best character arcs we've seen in a comedy. Alexis' road to independence on Schitt's Creek was sincere, earnest, and at one point, featured crows flying about in a hilarious marketing mishap. As Alexis prepared to start her new life in New York City, we saw how far she had come; she forged her own path, recognized her goals, and embraced her family, no longer running away from them. Murphy delivered heart and perfect comedic timing, earning her a well-deserved Emmy. We love this journey for her. –Aliza Sessler



Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Never Have I Ever

Where to watch: Netflix

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Never Have I Ever

Netflix

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was still in high school when she sent in the self-recorded tape that landed her the lead role in Mindy Kaling's first Netflix comedy, which makes her multidimensional and extremely relatable performance as Devi — a teenager determined to overcome the grief sparked by her father's sudden death by hooking up with the hottest guy in school — an actual marvel. Despite never having been on a professional set before landing the role in Never Have I Ever, Ramakrishnan hit all of the notes, from laugh-out-loud physical comedy to heartbreaking emotional climaxes, and she made it look easy. While Devi isn't without her faults, Ramakrishnan's leveled performance kept you rooting for the teen, even when she was screwing up. The endearing performance — specifically in the latter episodes, when Devi can no longer suppress her exploding grief — cemented Ramakrishnan's status as a breakout star, and made us extremely excited to see what she does next (after several more seasons of Never Have I Ever, of course). –Megan Vick



Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason

Where to watch: HBOHBO MaxHulu with HBO add-onAmazon with HBO add-on

Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason

Merrick Morton/HBO

The mostly-good-but-definitely-not-perfect reboot of Perry Mason was buoyed by an all-good-and-damn-near-perfect performance by Matthew Rhys, who brought the classic character to the modern age not just with boozing and f---ing, but with an inner rage that we all could relate to. Rhys was actually the second choice to play Perry Mason; Robert Downey Jr. (who is an executive producer on the series) was slated to take on the role, but his feature film commitments made it impossible, and frankly, we're all better for it. Fresh off receiving long overdue recognition for The Americans, Rhys made Perry an exhausted grump with a bent moral compass that saw him skirt the law to get justice, but with his soulful eyes during times of defeat and menacing outbursts during times of rage, we not only allowed it, we forgave it. Rhys is the regular-guy hero that our generation needs. –Tim Surette



Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul

Where to watch: Netflix

Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul

Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

It's not a secret that Rhea Seehorn is the best thing about Better Call Saul, and has been for years now. As mostly by-the-book attorney Kim Wexler, Seehorn impressively holds her own as the lone woman in a sea of incredible men who, for most of the show's run, have gotten the bigger and flashier moments. For so long, so much of what made Kim stand out was Seehorn's powerful ability to do the most by saying the least. But that changed in Season 5 when Seehorn was given the chance to pull the curtain back and reveal a new, darker side of Kim, one who was willing to cross moral and ethical lines she had only briefly stuck her toes over before. Whether she was making plans to take down a former coworker or holding her own against an imposing drug lord, Seehorn's commanding performance wasn't just the best work we saw on Better Call Saul this year, but likely on all of TV in 2020. –Kaitlin Thomas


Keep the celebration of 2020 going!
Check out TV Guide's roundups of the best shows of the yearthe episodes we couldn't stop talking about, and all the shows we lost this year.


Edited by Kaitlin Thomas and Noelene Clark
Illustration by Jessie Cowan