With so many outstanding TV shows there are, naturally, a plethora of truly outstanding performances. This year, we decided to mix up our list to make it a celebration of different categories of great performances, from full ensembles to dynamic duos to stand-out individual moments. This is about honoring the TV shows we loved, and the actors who helped take them to the next level. Below, the Paste TV editors and writers have picked 40 of our favorites (with a cutoff date of November 15th, so no Mandalorian or Witcher yet).
For more of our Best of 2019 lists, check out the 50 best TV shows, 25 best episodes, and 10 best new series.
Perpetual Grace, LTD
When a TV show casts Ben Kingsley, Jackie Weaver, and Jimmi Simpson in lead roles, you sit up and take notice. When you find out that the series also stars Luis Guzman, Damon Herriman, Chris Conrad, Terry O’Quinn, and Timothy Spall, you’re already well on your way to knowing that Epix’s weird little gem Perpetual Grace, LTD, is one of the best series of the year. Plenty of shows can and do waste great casts, but not this one—creators Steven Conrad and Bruce Terris’ scripts are perfect for each idiosyncratic performance (of note, young Dash Williams is a breakout star). But if Perpetual Grace, LTD, was just a series of quirks, it wouldn’t have been as excellent as it was. Instead, each actor found a particular pathos at the core of their characters that gave them depth and soul—most especially Simpson, Herriman, and Conrad, who joined together as an unlikely gang of sweet, strange, broken men. Perpetual Grace is an artistic achievement and an acting tour de force, and well worth finding on your cable dial. —Allison Keene
Every so often a TV series debuts quietly and without much fanfare proceeds to blow us away. Based on a true story, Unbelievable follows two determined female detectives (Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver) as they track down and arrest a serial rapist, a rapist whose attacks were so seemingly unconnected that no one had realized they were all perpetrated by the same man. The series stood out because it wasn’t the typical mystery series where the rapist was revealed in some big gotcha moment. It was about the day-to-day drudgery and dogged police work that it takes to solve a crime. The long hours and longer days of chasing leads that go nowhere and seemingly fruitful clues that turn out to be red herrings. With every line of dialogue uttered, Collette and Weaver conveyed the world-weariness that comes from years on the job and the practicality it takes to do the job well and an empathy rarely seen in TV detectives (Weaver’s scene with a victim in the second episode is a masterclass in and of itself). Their performances are complemented by Kaitlyn Dever as the first victim, Marie Adler. A foster child who grew up bouncing from home to home, Adler is not believed when she tells the police of her attack. Dever conveys Marie’s insecurities in the face of the police manipulating Marie to get the story they want, even when it’s not the truth. These three women told a story that was truly unbelievable.—Amy Amatangelo
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
There are two groups of people who deserve performance respect when it comes to Netflix’s glorious fantasy series Age of Resistance. The first is the incredible voice cast, who don’t just speak in their normal tones but really get into character. This might not seem like a big deal, but as productions hire screen actors as voice actors so they can tout big names behind-the-scenes, there has been so much lost in translation. Not so with Age of Resistance, particularly regarding the Skeksis (including Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, and Awkwafina) and our hero Gelflings (Nathalie Emmanual most especially, although all are truly great). Bill Hader and Andy Samberg also provided a brief but memorable scene as an unexpected comedy duo, giving outlandish vocal performances to two fully outlandish characters.
But just as worthy of praise here are the exceptional puppeteers, whose physical performances not only defined the characters, but (as they were filmed first) informed the voice actors’ portrayals. Special shoutouts here go to Warrick Brownlow-Pike, Dave Chapman, Kevin Clash, Katherine Smee, Olly Taylor, and Victor Yerrid (Hup!), although like the voice cast, everyone involved is deserving of immense praise for creating such a beautiful and immersive world. —Allison Keene
What We Do in the Shadows
Big comedy casts are tricky, especially when needing to nail a vibe in the first season while also establishing your world and relationships. It has to be even trickier when those relationships are between ageless vampires and their servants. The FX newcomer won my heart thanks to the powerful rapport between Natasia Demetriou and Matt Berry, both of whom are joyous gifts to American comedy, and stuck the landing thanks to a bevy of guest stars. The cameo-filled “The Trial” is one of the most logistically impressive pieces of casting in recent TV memory, with most every pop culture vampire either namechecked or appearing alongside the comic deadpan of Harvey Guillén and Mark Proksch. Kayvan Novak, who has a tough job following in Taika Waititi’s velvet-shoed footsteps as the evenhanded lead bloodsucker, still manages to carve out a comic niche separate from his peers without being bowled over by the bombastic punchlines of Demetriou and Berry. Plus, anyone who can hang with Tilda Swinton and Danny Trejo in the same scene is a bigger badass than most anyone else on TV.—Jacob Oller
David Makes Man
Even casual readers of this site will know that when it comes to OWN’s gorgeously rendered coming-of-age drama David Makes Man, we are always ready to gush. As David/Dai/DJ, the series’ tender, traumatized, stretched-far-too-thin teen lead, Akili McDowell is easily the show’s breakout star. But as a particularly tense scene in a Halloween church service in the latter half of the short first season so deftly demonstrates, David’s world is defined, both in enriching ways and in deeply limiting ones, by all the people who need him to sacrifice or subsume his own needs for such different, often countermelodic reasons. Alana Arenas’ Gloria and Nathaniel Logan MacIntyre’s Seren squeeze David’s (and our) heart as his in-recovery single mom and his closeted, domestically abused best school friend, respectively, while Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), Shinobi (Jordan Bolger), and even queer youth ally Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles) loom ominously as figures of alternately dangerous, alternately supportive authority filling the vacuum left behind in David’s apartment complex after the recent murder of his father figure, Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who himself is haunting David’s dreams in an an effort to keep him on a path to a bigger, better future. Even the smaller, sweeter characters in the series, the ones whose presence is often meant to lighten the mood—David’s little brother, JG (Cayden Williams), his A-type classmate, Marissa (Lindsey Blackwell), the neighbor girl he has a crush on, Tare (Teshi Thomas), and Star Child (Logan Rozos), the queer runaway teen holing up with Mx. Elijah—ultimately weigh on David as more people who need him to stretch himself in more divergent directions. We all are responsible for making our own ways into adulthood, sure, but as David Makes Man so clearly underscores, the path so many people have to walk to get there is lousy with other people’s hopes, needs and crushing expectations. —Alexis Gunderson
The Good Place
The Good Place is an embarrassment of comedic riches. You have Ted Danson, who already starred in one of the greatest comedies of all time, as Michael the architect of The Good Place who seemed to be good, was revealed to be bad and is now good for real. There’s Kristen Bell, who has created not one but two iconic characters (Hi Veronica and Anna), as the reformed bad girl Eleanor. There’s William Jackson Harper as the perpetually stymied Chidi. Jameela Jamil as the name-dropping debutant Tahani. Manny Jancito as Jason, whose love for Blake Bortles knows no bounds. And there’s D’Arcy Carden who has created so many Janets (roller bladding Janet forever!) that this paragraph about the show’s ensemble could be about her alone. Together they make up one of comedy’s greatest casts. Their comedic beats and rapport cannot be matched. Let’s savor the joy they bring viewers as we head toward the series finale. —Amy Amatangelo
When They See Us
Every one of the men and women who signed up for one of 2019’s most brutal series deserve a medal for taking on the story of five young men whose lives were torn apart by the criminal justice system, for no reason other than they were outside on the streets the night a young woman was attacked (a young woman they had no contact with whatsoever). The cast includes numerous standouts, most especially Jharrel Jerome as the only actor to play both the older and younger versions of his character, the member of the Central Park Five whose jail time lasted the longest. John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, and Michael K. Williams as the parents unable to save their children from the system broke our hearts, while Vera Farmiga, Famke Janssen and Felicity Huffman (whose relationship with the criminal justice system has changed dramatically in recent months) proved fearless in depicting the people who carried out one of America’s greatest miscarriages of justice. When They See Us could not have been easy to make, but these actors stepped up for the greater good, and today and in the future, their work will be appreciated. —Liz Shannon Miller
Legends of Tomorrow
In the beginning, Legends of Tomorrow was created from great secondary characters of other Arrowverse shows. Though its first season struggled to find a balance among them (or a compelling villain), once the show hit its stride, it’s never looked back. Free from the constraints of comic book expectations, Legends decided to just go fully bonkers. That included, rather wonderfully, constantly changing up its cast. Though several core members have remained, the rest of been in flux, with the series never afraid to kill off, change out, or boot a character and have another one who looks like the first one but is actually totally different. Miraculously, it all works!
The series MVPs are Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, and Dominic Purcell, but newcomers Nick Zano, Tala Ashe, and Matt Ryan have come to feel like family (the same has also been true for Maisie Richardson-Sellers once they let her play a character who actually got to have some fun). And that’s the thing—Legends is fun. The writers tailor the stories to match the talents and interests of the show’s actors now, and their banter in the face of outrageous time travel-based storytelling gives the show surprising depth. The actors are also all clearly up for anything, which includes some truly wackadoodle plots, but their genuine enthusiasm is contagious. It all works, thanks to this outstanding yet ever-changing cast. —Allison Keene
On Our Block
Netflix’s rollicking, impossible-to-define teen comedy On My Block has been a four-hander since tween-aged Monse (Sierra Capri), Ruby (Jason Genao), Jamal (Brett Gray) and Cesar (Diego Tinoco) were first caught spying on an older kids’ block party in a one-shot cold open that set the series’ tone. While Capri, Genao, Gray and Tinoco have continued to strike all the right chords with which to best resonate with one other in Season 2, though, to limit our praise to just them—especially after a season that saw each of them turn to support systems outside the inner circle following the various life-changing events—would be to overlook all the smaller voices that make the series shine. Well, we say smaller, but when we’re talking about characters as complexly built and expertly executed as Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia), Spooky (Julio Macias) and Ruby’s pot-smoking, cash-laundering Abuela (Peggy Blow), “smaller” is a wild understatement. But for a series as much about the block as the kids that live on it, the kind of voices that would make that an understatement are exactly the voices we’re ecstatic to see. We can’t wait for them all to return in Season 3.Alexis Gunderson
In no particular order, the Roys—Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Matthew Macfadyen (by proxy), Alan Ruck, and Hiam Abbass (plus J. Smith-Cameron)—actually make us want to watch a story about incredibly wealthy and mostly morally bankrupt white people jockeying for power. It shouldn’t be so compelling, but it gosh darn is. Succession’s Season 1 character work paid off beautifully in Season 2, thanks hugely to its cast. I mean, how else can I explain my crush on Kendall Roy? It should not be and yet it is, because Jeremy Strong makes it so. Who knew that we would turn on Shiv and love Roman so much by the end of Season 2? The scripts are exceptional, but these actors … the choices they make! Look no further than Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom having a breakdown and pelting Greg with water bottles, or using another person as a human footstool, or forcing his wife’s lover to pour his champagne back in the bottle. My God it’s fantastic. Or what about Roman and Geri’s weird proxy sex or Greg just awkwardly reacting to literally anything? The show is a Shakespearan tour de force, and we are in its thrall. —Allison Keene
Season 3’s opening scene, introducing Olivia Colman as a more middle-aged Elizabeth II, was alarmingly ham-handed, seeming to suggest that not only could audiences not be trusted with a cast change but that Colman might be shocked to learn she was not Claire Foy. Happily, the script moved on. As much as we were reluctant to say goodbye to the splendid younger cast, we’re hardly suffering with this one. Colman’s Elizabeth is more impassive than Foy’s, seeming by turns flinty and just plain dowdy, and managing to inflect her signature blank stare with an almost incomprehensible range of implications. Meanwhile, the cantankerous Duke of Edinburgh has been taken on by Tobias Menzies-his Prince Philip feels like less of an outlaw, and every bit as much of a mixed bag. Helena Bonham-Carter picks up Princess Margaret where Vanessa Kirby left off. These principal actors all did a fantastic job of integrating into the show, developing excellent chemistry not only with each other but with the younger actors who had their roles for the first two seasons (I did miss Harry Hadden-Paton as Martin Charteris).
But some of the truly striking elements of the Season 3 cast are characters we don’t see earlier-perhaps most remarkably Jane Lapotaire as Philip’s crazy-not-so-crazy mother, Princess Alice; she’s absolutely riveting. Other standouts are Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten (he’s basically playing a modern-day Tywin Lannister, but I love it), Josh O’Connor as a remarkably relatable Prince Charles and Erin Doherty as Princess Anne, in a portrayal that might best be summed up as “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.” Season 3 was an ambitious transition, and the new cast has proved more than equal to the challenge, managing both fidelity to biographical detail and imaginative character development. —Amy Glynn
The cast of Pose draws viewers into their world of 80s New York ball culture world and envelops you in its over-the-top cat-walking and nuanced performances. Billy Porter rightly gets so much of the attention as emcee Pray Tell, balancing his outward flamboyance with a layered character. But the entire cast is amazing: Dominque Jackson as the take-no-prisoners Electra; MJ Rodriguez as mother-figure Blanca; Indya Moore as the sweet but damaged Angel; Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross as the catty yet vulnerable Lulu and Candy. The show has the distinction of having largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles but that fact is just a footnote to the fantastic vibrant stories these actors tell.—Amy Amatangelo
?It’s quite a feat to turn a one-woman stage show into an Emmy-winning ensemble TV series where the act of naming a character simply Godmother or Priest can tell the audience legions about this role even before the start of the quick, jagged, overlapping dialogue. Much of this has to do with star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s God-given talent for writing. But it also says something about her friendships. Waller-Bridge relied on her close friends, including Andrew Scott who played the aforementioned verboten cleric in the Amazon show’s second season, to portray most of the parts. Hiring people who already know how your brain works seems to add an intimacy and familiarity to a show that already benefits from a lead who can say as much as a Shakespearean sonnet with the simple raise of her eyebrow. —Whitney Friedlander
The title of what might be Netflix’s best comedy is a tribute to its wonderful cast, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, who are a richly beautiful ensemble representing so many different ethnicities and body types (important, given the amount of spandex involved). They are all so unique, but they are also all so gorgeous in their unique ways—one must call out specific members, like Alison Brie as the engine driving the show’s train forward, Betty Gilpin as the star who aspires to control things behind the scenes, and Britney Young, the true beating heart of the show, whose innocence and passion and virtue make her so compelling to watch. But really, one of the show’s greatest joys is how well all of these actors have come to work together, how clear it is that this is a true community of great players, how much this is a series based on mutual love and support. God, who wouldn’t want to be a member of GLOW? —Liz Shannon Miller
So many of Stranger Things’ sins are easily covered up by the strength of its sprawling cast. Great character pairings (particularly Joe Keery and Gaten Matarazzo, and later, Maya Hawke) are the true driving force of the series. Despite a number of narrative missteps, where Stranger Things never falters is in the kinship we feel with those in each generation of the cast—from the kids to the teens to the adults. Not every actor is as strong as the next, and not every new group or pairing works as well as the show thinks it will, but it is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Overall, Stranger Things remains a delight because of its unabashedly full-tilt performances. And Steve’s hair. I mean, come on, it deserves its own award. —Allison Keene
Jane the Virgin
With her heartbreaking, history-making seven minute, twenty second monologue the filled the entire second act of the series’ final season opener (“Chapter Eighty-Two”), Gina Rodriguez obviously put in the performance of her Jane the Virgin career. But while that monologue will be marveled at as long as people are watching (and re-watching) the CW’s most joyfully ambitious project of the decade, the greater truth is that Jane the Virgin wouldn’t be Jane the Virgin, especially in its critical final season, without the whole of its inimitable cast. Yes, we’re talking about Jaime Camil’s groundbreakingly lovable Rogelio de la Vega and Yael Grobglas’ tenderly intense nemesis-turned-sister, Petra, but we’re also talking about Andrea Navedo and Ivonne Coll as the best, most complexly rendered mom and abuela Jane could have asked for, and we’re talking about Justin Baldoni and Brett Dier as emotionally compelling opposing struts in a love triangle that could have collapsed under the weight of telenovela tropes any number of times, but ultimately gave the series the exact romantic structure it needed. And we’re talking about Anthony Mendez’s glorious Latin Lover Narrator, and Yara Martinez’s (underused!) mess of a half-sister-turned-plot catalyst, and Diane Guerrero’s (equally underused!) whirlwind of a best childhood friend. Even the kid actors—Elias Janssen and Mia and Ella Allan—brought real oomph to Jane’s final season. And that’s before even mentioning the bonkers guest turns from Brooke Shields, Rosario Dawson, Justina Machado, Bridget Regan, and all the Young Janes who popped back in for one final visit in the series’ big finale.
That’s one big, gushing block of text, and thank you, sincerely, for powering through it, but look—if you watched Jane all through the end, you know as well as we do that so much muchness was exactly the point, and that all those people listed above, both in character and out, are the reason the series made the deep, emotional impact it did. We are so happy that Jane’s big sprawling, love-filled family is one we got to, for at least one last season, be a small part of. —Alexis Gunderson
Up Next: Dynamic Duos