It’s rare to find a TV performance like the one given by Paul Walter Hauser in “Black Bird.” The six-part miniseries from Dennis Lehane, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, is an expertly paced, gripping prison drama. It’s powerful as a portrait of self-reckoning, as a cop’s smug son winds up behind bars for dealing drugs. But is elevated to an even higher level by Hauser, as a serial killer who’s both wily and demented. He is riveting.
That got me thinking about some of the other recent great TV performances. Even as the latest golden age of TV has faded, and cable excellence has led to streaming bloat, and “Breaking Bad” has given way to “Ozark,” we are surrounded by memorable acting turns, both leading and supporting. Here are a dozen actors who’ve stood out in recent months, who’ve reminded me that TV continues to offer plenty of gems.
Zahn McClarnon, “Dark Winds” (AMC)
He’s always good, but in this AMC series adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s fiction he is a remarkably potent lead. It’s often what he doesn’t say that defines his scenes, as his Tribal Police officer Joe Leaphorn investigates murders in the Navajo Nation. McClarnon is mesmerizing, with a steady gaze and a weary demeanor, and he makes this fine six-episode crime procedural into something even more haunting and human.
Erin Doherty, “Chloe” (Amazon)
Wow, just wow. Doherty, best known for playing Princess Anne in “The Crown,” gives a star-making performance in this engaging six-part British miniseries on Amazon. She plays Becky, a depressed woman who’s obsessed with the social media scrolls of the always-smiling Chloe and her fabulous friends. When Chloe dies, apparently by suicide, Becky pursues her obsession more actively, adopting the name Sasha and insinuating herself into Chloe’s fashionable circle. I couldn’t take my eyes off Doherty as she shape-shifts from scene to scene. Is she Anna Delvey (boo) or Sydney Bristow (yay)? She will make you wonder.
Ben Whishaw, “This Is Going to Hurt” (AMC+)
The British actor, who has stood out in “The Hour,” “A Very English Scandal,” and “London Spy,” delivers an intense, unforgettable portrait of an OB/GYN at the end of his rope at a London hospital. In this seven-part adaptation of Adam Kay’s memoir — now on AMC+ and, fingers crossed, possibly on AMC in the future — Whishaw’s Adam is a disaster happening in slow motion. Overworked, exhausted, unable to focus on the problems in his romantic relationship, he is a sweet guy whose good nature has been corrupted by his job. His caustic wit is a fierce weapon, pushing others away and diminishing his own pain, and Whishaw doesn’t soften his ruffled temper at all.
Jeff Bridges, “The Old Man” (FX)
This guy has only grown more natural over the decades, to the point where you never feel him acting or trying to create an effect. Not surprisingly, Bridges gives us one of the year’s best leads so far as a former CIA agent on the run. You can see his thinking in his eyes — but only if he lets you. In this FX drama, he can be cagey and inscrutable when the situation calls for it, and the situation calls for it plenty. His scenes with Amy Brenneman and Alia Shawkat are dynamic, as they prod him into self-revelation.
Gary Oldman, “Slow Horses” (Apple TV+)
Watching Oldman as a sour, slovenly MI5 agent named Jackson Lamb in this Apple TV+ series, I felt as though I could see the actor having a good time. Lamb is in charge of an office of agents who’ve fallen into disgrace for various reasons, and we see him taking great pleasure in shaming them and assigning them useless tasks. As the intelligence thriller gains momentum, Oldman shines as its blackly comic center, never far from a glass of brown liquor, his cynical commentary always as witty as it is damning. Oldman makes it palpable: This guy has no darns to give.
Claire Foy, “A Very British Scandal” (Amazon)
Foy was something as Queen Elizabeth in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” and she is something quite different in this beautifully fashioned fact-based Amazon three-parter. She’s the Duchess of Argyll, Margaret Campbell, a sexually liberated woman going through an ugly public divorce in 1963 and getting shamed by a nation. She isn’t some kind of self-aware feminist heroine so much as a persistent person who knows what she wants and what is right. And she is stubborn enough to fight back despite backward social mores.
Colin Firth, “The Staircase” (HBO Max)
As the man who maybe murdered his wife, Firth is a faceted marvel. He plays Michael Peterson in this HBO Max eight-parter, and he captures not only Peterson’s physicality, but, more powerfully, his contradictions as a man who can seem alternately guilty, innocent, untruthful, honest, family-oriented, self-centered, sincere, and droll. Firth demonstrates exactly how a scripted version of a real person can offer even more, in some ways, than footage of that real person, as the camera follows his every emotional shift, no matter how slight or ambiguous.
Jon Bernthal, “We Own This City” (HBO)
This potent six-part HBO miniseries from David Simon and George Pelecanos is all about police corruption in Baltimore, and Bernthal plays the nihilistic ringleader with an abandon that is terrifying. His Sergeant Wayne Jenkins bullies his colleagues into rogue activity, promoting thefts of confiscated money and evidence-planting. Bernthal is just right in the role, a man-child driven by the basest of human instincts, strutting his way around drug-bound neighborhoods like the top dog in an occupied territory. He is effectively despicable.
Ayo Edebiri, “The Bear” (FX on Hulu)
Jeremy Allen White from “Shameless” is perfectly cast as the star chef who takes over his late brother’s Chicago restaurant, but the show is given special distinction by Edebiri. She plays a smart, talented new hire at the restaurant who bears harassment from the grumbling older employees with a grace that is at once infuriating and moving. Her Sydney is wise enough to keep her eyes on the prize, but a streak of impatience doesn’t help her in the long run.
Jeff Hiller, “Somebody Somewhere” (HBO)
He’s the best friend to Bridget Everett in her lovely HBO series set in Kansas, and he brings heart and soul to her and to us. He’s funny — his Joel is a goofball, and some of the nuttiest moments on the show belong to him — but he’s also moving. He pushes Everett’s character, Sam, to sing onstage, which is exactly what she needs to do in order to find joy, but he’s less effective when it comes to figuring out how to cope with his own struggles.
Danielle Macdonald, “The Tourist” (HBO Max)
Ultimately, this HBO Max amnesia thriller, with Jamie Dornan as a man who wakes up in a hospital with no memory, wanders a bit after a compelling start. But as the young cop who is glamorized by the man and driven to help him, Macdonald, an Australian actress who was in “Unbelievable” and “Bird Box,” is wonderful throughout. She’s sweet, but underneath she’s filled with sorrow and regret about settling for mediocrity in her love life. The series becomes her journey toward self-knowledge as much as it is his.
Jenifer Lewis, “I Love That For You” (Showtime)
I couldn’t get enough of the veteran “Black-ish” actor, who is larger than life in this comedy. She’s the no-nonsense CEO and founder of the successful Special Value Network — a takeoff on QVC — and she pushes her on-air hosts, played by Vanessa Bayer and Molly Shannon, to sell super hard. She’s a rich snob, she’s openly sex-positive, she’s a controlling bully, she’s fire, she’s ice, she’s hateful, she’s tragic, and she is endlessly funny.