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Best of the Arts

Best of the arts 2022

On TV, breakthrough performances brightened the small screen

From left: Tyler James Williams, Quinta Brunson, and Sheryl Lee Ralph in ABC's "Abbott Elementary."Gilles Mingasson/ABC

This year, along with the shows that managed to stand out among the more than 500 that were released, a number of actors have broken through. These faces in the crowd gave noteworthy performances that brought them a little closer to broader familiarity and, with luck, more good roles.

Some were already known, to some extent. If you watched “Inside Amy Schumer,” or if you’re up on New York’s alt-cabaret scene and the comedy circuit, you may already have been aware of Bridget Everett and her dynamic, transgressive persona, her bawdy humor, and her singing chops. Her appearances on TV talk shows have been memorable, if you happened to catch them.

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But she was a force to be reckoned with in “Somebody Somewhere,” a portrait of a lonely, grieving woman looking for her people in smalltown Kansas. The HBO series, which has been renewed, won a solid audience, and it has enabled Everett to reveal her dramatic abilities, along with her comedic and musical skills. There are scenes in which she can move you to tears, not least of all when she sings during the open-mic nights at a local church. As well as being a subtle, lovely portrait of a middle-age reassessment, it is the perfect vehicle for its lead actor, one that has brought her the recognition she deserves.

Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller (right) in "Somebody Somewhere."Elizabeth Sisson/HBO

Similarly, Paul Walter Hauser already had a Hollywood profile before starring as a serial killer in “Black Bird,” an Apple TV+ true-crime miniseries adapted by Dennis Lehane. Most notably, he was the title character in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” a movie that failed at the box office. But his turn as Larry Hall is a haunting piece of work that has earned him kudos — and I’m betting it will earn him an Emmy nomination as well. With his childlike, sing-songy voice and Civil War muttonchops, he is unforgettable — even when you might truly want to forget him.

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I’ve known about Britt Lower because she was a regular on a show I adore, “Man Seeking Woman,” as the main character’s sister. But the rest of the world found out about her thanks to her extraordinary performance this year on “Severance,” an Apple TV+ show that caught on in a big way and got nominated for 14 Emmys. As Helly R., a new employee at the mysterious Lumon Industries who just went through the severance process, she provides the great spark of revolution that drives the story line. She also embodies a central irony, as Helly desperately tries to reunite herself, unaware of who she is on the outside.

If you saw the second season of Netflix’s “Bridgerton” — and many people did — chances are you are now fully aware of Simone Ashley. She’s the actor who played Kate Sharma, who traveled from India with her sister and mother to find her sister a husband. She doesn’t realize it, but she is the romantic heroine, as she fights her attraction to Anthony Bridgerton. The show is fluffy and predictable, borrowing plots from a variety of Regency and Victorian classics, but Ashley is memorably charming.

Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma and Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton in "Bridgerton." Liam Daniel/Netflix

When “House of the Dragon” gave us the adult Rhaenyra, I was momentarily disappointed; Milly Alcock was just right as the younger version and I hated to see her leave. But there was no denying the powerful presence of Emma D’Arcy, as she gave us a princess both ambitious and compassionate as her birthright is being challenged. D’Arcy makes Rhaenyra’s calmness appealing, and her maternal wrath even more so. For me, D’Arcy is the face of the flawed HBO series, and she’s the best reason to return for the second season.

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This year also saw the breakthrough of an entire cast — the “Abbott Elementary” ensemble. As on “The Office,” which the ABC mockumentary sitcom resembles, each player is essential, each one quirky — or decidedly not quirky — in their own way. The show was nominated for seven Emmys, and, not surprisingly, four of them were for acting. I didn’t know about any of these actors before “Abbott Elementary”; now I know of and admire them all. Quinta Brunson, who created the series, has become a star, and Sheryl Lee Ralph made it onto everyone’s radar with her rousing Emmy acceptance speech, which she opened by singing lines from “Endangered Species.” Each of the teachers is a kick, as is the principal, played with aggressive indifference by Janelle James.

I had never heard of Ayo Edebiri before I saw “The Bear,” in which she plays the ambitious new sous chef, Sydney, at the Chicago beef restaurant. She somewhat quietly walked away with the first season of the Hulu series, as she and Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy form a bond of mutual respect — after she impatiently snuck her own risotto dish to a customer. As Sydney bears harassment from the grumbling older employees, she displays a grace that is at once infuriating, moving, and unforgettable.

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One of the pleasures of AMC’s “Interview With the Vampire” is watching Jacob Anderson move into the leading position so naturally and effortlessly after his supporting work as Grey Worm on “Game of Thrones.” His performance of Louis de Pointe du Lac as a Black gay man was true to the angstful character from Anne Rice’s novel while emphasizing his identity as an outsider. The series, renewed for a second season, rides high on his complex work, filled with longing, torment, and growing spite. He is an especially human member of the undead.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.