My Best (and Worst) of 2014 TV week continues. Yesterday I shared my Top 10 shows of the year, and today I’m unveiling the 10 best performances of 2014. These knockout performances aren’t all leads (two of them are supporting), but they all anchor their respective shows, which would be lost without them. Here are the crème de la crème, in alphabetical order:
Carrie Coon, The Leftovers
I ran hot and cold on The Leftovers, which careened wildly between brilliance and annoyance, but never when Coon was onscreen. As Nora Durst, who lost her entire family in the Sudden Departure, Coon’s performance was often heartbreaking, yet always captivating. She was neck and neck with Ann Dowd, who commanded the screen in her largely-silent performance as Guilty Remnant leader Patti, but Coon pulled ahead during an unforgettable scene in the finale in which Nora was finally forced to comfort the loss that she had kept bottled up for years. This was the year that Coon made a spectacular leap from the stage to TV and movies (where she was also a standout in Gone Girl), and I’m not sure how either medium had existed without her.
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Alicia Florrick is the gift that keeps on giving for Margulies. This year alone, she’s grieved the loss of her former (and likely future) boyfriend, solidified her emotional divorce from her governor husband, fought to free her law firm partner from prison and embarked upon an already-bitter run for State’s Attorney. But the actress shines brightest in the moments where she’s not saying a word: her furtive elevator gazes, her pregnant pauses on the phone and the way she’s a bit too eager about the glass of wine in her hand. She’s also not afraid to take Alicia into unexplored avenues, particularly ones that make viewers realize Alicia isn’t as “good” as we’d like to believe.
I wrote about Margulies and The Good Wife here.
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
If Orphan Black fell back to earth a bit in Season 2, that certainly wasn’t the fault of Maslany, who was superb once again as she gave life to a more than a dozen distinct clones. Any one of them — particularly soccer mom Alison and assassin Cosima — would warrant Tatiana a slot on this list; add them up and her work ranks among the most stunning acting ever seen on television. And her infectious, impromptu clone boogie party in the finale gave new meaning to the song “Dancing with Myself.”
Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
McConaughey seemingly collected all the awards this year (except for the Emmy), but months after his weekly visits to a podium, the potency of his Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club turn has receded, while Rust Cohle remains as vibrant as ever. As the series jumped back and forth through time, McConaughey kept peeling off layer after fascinating layer, often accompanied by another hypnotic monologue. Costar Woody Harrleson, creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga deserve a ton of praise, but the entire project would have collapsed without McConaughey.
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
When I named The Americans the best show of 2014 yesterday, I noted that the series is clicking on all fronts. Well Rhys is clicking most of all as Philip Jennings. His degree of difficulty is astounding: at times, the Welsh actor is pretending to be a Russian pretending to be an American pretending to be whatever alias Philip has assumed that week. That he keeps all those balls in the air, while also struggling with Philip’s shifting loyalities, is a wondrous achievement.
Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin
Every year at Television Critics Association press story, there is one actor who completely captivates and charms the room. This summer, that was Rodriguez, who worked the same magic that she exhibits each week on Jane the Virgin. The show’s soapy silliness and outrageous premise could never work without it being grounded in something very real, and that’s all due to Rodriguez, who single-handedly keeps the show from becoming a parody of itself.
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
Most actors are lucky if they get one defining roles in their career. Tambor now has three: Hank Kingsley, George Bluth Sr and Maura, his best, and most fearless performance yet. There are so many ways that a cis actor playing a transgender role could have gone horribly wrong, but all of Tambor’s instincts have been spot-on. We cheer and weep for Maura, in all phases of her life, even if we’re not always sure that we actually like her.
Robin Lord Taylor, Gotham
Gotham remains very much a work in progress, but the show had one thing right from the start: Taylor’s riveting turn as Oswald Cobblepot, the man who will one day will become the Penguin. In a show bursting with too many villains, he immediately seized the show’s focus and refuses to relinquish it, thanks to the perfect mix of braggadocio, sycophancy and pathos. I would be perfectly happy if this show were called Penguin, because he’s the one character I truly care about.
Allison Tolman, Fargo
Fargo arrived packed with top-shelf actors, including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Kate Walsh, but Tolman somehow came in and stole the miniseries out from under all of them. As the Marge Gunderson-esque Deputy Molly Solverson, Tolman could have been crushed by comparisons to Frances McDormand, or even her fellow actors. Instead, she confidently made the role her own, one disheartened grimace at a time. I worry that Hollywood won’t know what to do with her now (though I loved her arc on The Mindy Project), but she was the find of the year, and I look forward to (hopefully) watching her eventually act her way through the entire FX slate (your move, The Americans!).
Aden Young, Rectify
I can’t think of another actor who would be disciplined and restrained enough to remain so bottled up as recently-released Death Row inmate Daniel, but Young proves every episode that less can be much, much more. (Here’s my pitch for a TV show: Alicia Florrick and Daniel team up for a show in which they do nothing but silently take elevator rides, walk around and sit in silence. It would be absolutely riveting.) This season, Young took advantage of Daniel’s slightly-expanding emotional palette and allowed slivers of sentiment to break through.
I wrote about Young and Rectify here.
Check back on Wednesday, when I’ll pause the accolades to discuss the year’s 10 biggest disappointments.