As a TV critic, the question I get most often is “what should I watch?” It’s a fair question, one that is nearly impossible to ask in the modern TV landscape. With 400 scripted shows (and counting) in 2018, the list of “must-watches” is still very long. It is often easier to default to the best performances of the year. If you can turn someone onto a show that is hitting the apex of a performer, that is often more exciting than the show itself.
As I wrote my review of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” I watched a little event called the NBA Finals. As Lebron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson fought tooth and nail for the game, it was exciting to watch Hall of Fame players in their prime. This got me thinking, what if TV had a true way to discuss actors and actresses at their pinnacle? The Emmys, after all, get to some shows late (Jon Hamm winning for the 6th season of “Mad Men”). In some cases, they don’t get to a performance at all (e.g. Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope).
There’s also the divide between comedy and drama that inevitably leaves some races weaker than others. Was Poehler’s performance as Knope in 2015 less deserving of an Emmy than Hamm’s victory lap performance as Don Draper? At worst, it was the 5th best leading performance of the year, regardless of gender. Yet she went home empty handed as Julia Louis Dreyfus walked home with her 6th Emmy.
So, in honor the NBA Finals, I decided to create my own system to rank the very best of the year. Borrowing from the All-NBA concept, this would be my ballot for 1st team, 2nd team, and 3rd team All-TV. Going a step further, I also included a “Rookie” 1st and 2nd team, available only to shows that premiered during this Emmy season. For this category, no reboots or revivals were eligible. I broke down the “teams” to 3 positions: Lead, Supporting, and Flex. The flex position could be either a Lead or Supporting performer (although it went to leads each time). I did not take genre into account. Only the best performances were eligible, regardless of drama or comedy. With the ground rules in place, let’s dive in.
First Team All-Television
Lead: Elisabeth Moss – “The Handmaid’s Tale” & “Top of the Lake: China Girl”
Lead: Keri Russell – “The Americans”
Supporting: Ann Dowd – “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Supporting: Thandie Newton – “Westworld”
Flex: Donald Glover – “Atlanta” & “SNL”
In 2018, we had two actresses delivering all-time performances in their show’s respective peaks. Elisabeth Moss is absolutely dominating the screen in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and is essentially the Lebron of TV. She might pick up a 2nd performance nomination this year if “Top of the Lake: China Girl” breaks through. If she gets both nominations this year, she will have 10 performance-based nominations in 10 years. What a run.
However, she’s going to have to fight and claw her way here, as Keri Russell closed out a career-best role without as much hardware to show. It’s not her fault “The Americans” was perennially ignored by the Emmys. Russell willed the showed to become one of the 30 greatest shows of all time. What’s even crazier, she turned performance over a season as the series concluded. Russell may not win the Emmy, but it was undeniably one of the 2 performances that mattered the most to TV in 2018.
However, make room for the supporting women. Once again, Ann Dowd is just incredible on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She forces the show to become a tough watch and dominates her screen time. It’s the best supporting role TV had in 2018, allowing Dowd to eye a 2nd consecutive Emmy for her work. Dowd may also struggle to hold the crown, as Thandie Newton has clearly become the best character on “Westworld” this season. Newton toes the line between lead and supporting, and it wouldn’t shock me if she eventually makes the jump. Her intensity is something to behold, and she jumpstarts the show regularly. Even if you think the show is slumping, Newton is certainly not the reason.
Finally, Donald Glover continues his ascendance to superstardom. He helmed the best comedy on TV in 2018, despite skipping some episodes. That knocked him down to a flex position, but what’s remarkable is that the show doesn’t crumble without him. He dove into the emotions of Earn, while also giving the weirdest performance of 2018 as “Teddy Perkins.” Simply put, it is impossible to talk about the modern TV landscape without Glover as an integral part of the conversation.
Second Team All-Television
Lead: Sterling K. Brown – “This is Us” & “SNL”
Lead: Rachel Brosnahan – “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Supporting: Brian Tyree Henry – “Atlanta”
Supporting: Henry Winkler – “Barry”
Flex: Bill Hader – “Barry” & “SNL”
Another woman grabs a Lead spot, as Rachel Brosnahan set the world on fire in late 2017. Her starring role as the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the frontrunner for the comedy actress Emmy and with good reason. Brosnahan is charismatic, hilarious, and was born to deliver Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue. She’s the breakout star of the 2018 Emmy season and seems likely to take home the Emmy.
Sterling K. Brown turned in another marvelous performance in “This is Us.” He seems poised to win a second Emmy for Lead Actor in a Drama, and the race is not close. Brown is one of the most emotive actors on television today. He combines subtly with big showy moments. Brown is simply the king of the category. His celebrity continues to grow and is another member of the “SNL” club this season. Like Donald Glover and Bill Hader, Brown was also excellent on the show.
An actor who was truly given the ability to stretch this year was Brian Tyree Henry. Henry felt extremely close to a nomination for the first season of “Atlanta.” Now, he enough of a star to take over two episodes. His sigh is one of the most iconic pieces of non-verbal acting on TV today. This season, he effortlessly made Paperboi one of the most compelling characters on television.
Perhaps one of the best surprises of 2018 is the return of Henry Winkler. A year ago, he was mostly a guest star on TV, and would occasionally show up in Adam Sandler films. Now, he is one of the comeback stories of the year. While he may not pick up an Emmy nomination (he’s a bubble candidate), his return to form is a departure from the Winkler who created an iconic character in the 1970s. What more could you ask from him?
Finally, the reason for Winkler’s comeback is none other than Bill Hader. Hader made his bones on SNL, but many were unaware of what a great dramatic performer he could become. Hader quickly changed opinions on that topic, combining his skills to create one of the most heartfelt and sad characters to grace television in years. As an assassin looking for a way out, Hader was sincere and vulnerable. He wore his emotions on his sleeve, and continued daydreams allowed him to constantly show his range. How anyone can talk about the year in TV and not mention “Barry” in the first few sentences is outrageous. He should be the winner for Comedy Actor unless he’s denied for Glover’s charismatic performance.
Third Team All-Television
Lead: Allison Brie – “GLOW”
Lead: Matthew Rhys – “The Americans”
Supporting: Megan Mullaly – “Will & Grace”
Supporting: Laura Dern – “Twin Peaks”/”The Tale”
Flex: Kyle MacLachlan – “Twin Peaks”
Welcome to the team that might as well be renamed “the most underrated performers” page. Across the board, the actors/actresses here are some of the strongest talents, yet remain criminally underrated. At the top, Allison Brie does not get close to the amount of attention her role on “GLOW” should demand. She has a far more difficult role than many give her credit for, especially given how unlikeable her actions become. Playing the heel is difficult, and Brie also brings a physicality to the role that allows her to disappear into the character.
There are many subtle actors in the business, but there is only one Matthew Rhys. Rhys has delivered powerhouse performance after powerhouse performance on “The Americans” for years. Like his partner Keri Russell, Rhys knocks it out of the park in the show’s final season. Like his character, he disappears in each character and moment. He delivered one of the best scenes of the year in a garage, speaking in hushed tones. That scene alone would qualify him for the list. Rhys will likely miss the Emmy win, but he was astounding this season.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone to underrate a two-time Emmy-winner like Megan Mullaly. Yet Mullaly, who was nominated 7 times for playing Karen Walker, doesn’t quite generate the same level of excitement as others on the list. Yet Mullaly delivers one of the best performances of her career playing Walker, often surpassing her humor from the original series. While the rest of the “Will & Grace” cast is strong, none come back at this level. While Sean Hayes may win another Emmy from pure nostalgia, Mullaly feels like the standout after being away for so long.
Yet Mullaly’s show was only gone a mere 12 years. Meanwhile, Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern helped to revive “Twin Peaks” after a twenty-six-year hiatus. MacLachlan drives the show, and his return as Dale Cooper was everything a “Twin Peaks” fan could possibly hope for. MacLachlan really delivered something special once again, instantly carrying the absurd and dynamic show. However, MacLachlan doesn’t quite do it on his own. Dern provides an excellent foil to MacLachlan during long stretches of the show. Beyond just “Twin Peaks,” the HBO acquisition of “The Tale” makes her eligible to win Emmys in back-to-back years, so don’t be surprised if she pulls it off.
Rookie All-Television First Team:
Lead: Rachel Brosnahan – “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Lead: Allison Brie – “GLOW”
Supporting: Henry Winkler – “Barry”
Supporting: Marc Maron – “GLOW”
Flex: Jodie Comer – “Killing Eve”
Rookie All-Television Second Team:
Lead: J.K. Simmons – “Counterpart”
Lead: Maggie Gyllenhaal – “The Deuce”
Supporting: Tony Shalhoub – “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Supporting: Betty Gilpin – “GLOW”
Flex: Sandra Oh – “Killing Eve”
The “Rookie” team is full of TV and film vets who have finally picked up starring roles. Marc Maron might be the most surprising supporting performance of the year. While Maron has long been a cult favorite of the alt-comedy scene, his performance was not really something we saw coming. Maron grabbed several award nominations early in the season, so it will be interesting to see if the momentum continues.
Meanwhile, J.K. Simmons got a to play double duty in the Sci-Fi espionage thriller “Counterpart” for STARZ. Simmons delivers not one, but two, of his career-best performances in the show. It’s something special that really utilizes the character actor to his fullest. Maggie Gyllenhaal really shows her dramatic range in surprisingly resonant “The Deuce” on HBO. Gyllenhaal might be giving her career best, and while the show fluctuates at times, she’s the constant that makes the show go. She embodies the character in every scene and may find her way into the Emmy race despite the early release.
Finally, the return of Tony Shalhoub to television has been a welcome site. Shaloub already built his legacy in TV, so returning to the medium was an obvious choice. He excels on “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and remains a dominating presence when he wants to take over a scene. Shaloub is a TV icon, and it’s easy to remember how he became such a star.
There are a few newcomers as well. Brosnahan is the most talked about newcomer and should hold onto that title for some time. However, Jodie Comer and Betty Gilpin both give incredible performances as well. Comer is one of the breakout stars of the year with “Killing Eve,” a series that also gives us the best Sandra Oh in years. Comer and Oh create a sexual and psychological tension between their characters that made it one of the most exciting new shows in 2018.
Meanwhile, Gilpin oozes movie star charisma while playing a soap opera star. Gilpin carries her confidence with her across scenes, and her chemistry with Allison Brie is palpable. Gilpin also imbues her character with emotion and frustration for her circumstances. It’s a surprisingly deep character, and Gilpin is excellent at delivering both comedy dramatic moments. Both shows lean heavy on their female relationships, and each mines their material for all its worth.