From ‘Game of Thrones’ to ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ the 10 best TV drama performances over 10 years
In the decade after the 2007 finale of “The Sopranos,” the drama that ushered in TV’s golden era, we’ve been on quite a run. Serial storytelling on TV has hit a high, and so has TV acting. In my effort to isolate the best performances of the past 10 years, I found myself splashing around in an embarrassment of riches.
Here are my selections — after much torturous cherry-picking — for the best dramatic performances on TV since 2008. I decided to choose particular roles, even though many of the best actors — notably Elisabeth Moss and Hugh Laurie — have delivered a number of fine performances. Next week: My top comic performances.
1. ELISABETH MOSS
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” 2017-
If she’d only been in “Mad Men” and “Top of the Lake” during the past 10 years, she’d still be on my list. But her work on “The Handmaid’s Tale” is beyond beyond. I can’t say enough about her emotionally complex turn in this haunting series. Her June/Offred is a prisoner in an authoritarian country where she can rarely speak her mind. But thanks to Moss, we always know what she’s thinking and feeling. Her deep resistance to the state of the world is constantly lurking somewhere in her eyes, the only sign of hope in this dire dystopian portrait.
2. JON HAMM
“Mad Men,” 2007-15
So much of “Mad Men” was about unexpressed emotion, and the ways that suppression can invade our lives. Don Draper was the perfect vehicle for that theme, a man who, like many men of his era, strained mightily to withhold his feelings. And Hamm was the perfect actor to play Draper, his face so carefully guarded and his voice so smooth but menacing. Those occasions when Don’s emotions did break through — when his brother killed himself, when his friend Anna died — were stunning proof of Hamm’s range, as he turned from distant man to sobbing child. Hamm’s Don personified advertising — he was a master of seduction riddled with secrets and lies — as he and show creator Matthew Weiner shaped one of the most complicated characters TV has known.
3. PETER DINKLAGE
“Game of Thrones,” 2011-
He has been surrounded by excellence on “Game of Thrones” — notably from Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Diana Rigg, Charles Dance, and Iain Glen — but still, as Tyrion Lannister, Dinklage stands out as the epic’s most layered character. Dinklage brings the wisdom, the strategic eye, and the nobility required to play the “half-man” — but then he adds in an irresistibly sardonic sense of humor, which emerges even when things are going badly for Tyrion. He also brings a bit of melancholy, lest we think Tyrion isn’t emotionally self-aware. Surrounded by monsters, literally and figuratively, Tyrion often serves as the audience surrogate, and his reactions never disappoint.
4. TATIANA MASLANY
“Orphan Black,” 2013-17
As a small population of clones, she delivered many different performances in one show, and each was distinct and textured. She was funny, tragic, campy, and, always, dramatically sound as she brought all the personalities to life. The scripting of “Orphan Black” was inconsistent, and the plot eventually became too complex to hold all of Maslany’s characters together. But the show was always worthwhile, if only to see one of the great magic tricks of the millennium.
5. BRYAN CRANSTON
“Breaking Bad,” 2008-13
Of course. The show was about how a person can change, or, differently, how a person’s true self can emerge in time, prodded by, say, a cancer diagnosis. And Cranston powerfully embodied that theme, as he turned the passive, repressed Walter White into an aggressive creep and made that transformation seem natural and inevitable. By the end of the series, Walt’s ego — so bloated and needy — was his biggest enemy. Cranston’s scenes with Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul were always marvels, as heavy-duty as his work on “Malcolm in the Middle” was light and joyous. Cranston gets extra credit for his stunning portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way.”
6. KYLE CHANDLER
“Friday Night Lights,” 2006-11
It was one of network TV’s most emotionally honest dramas, and Chandler, as football coach Eric Taylor, was its moral conscience. Eric was a devoted father, mentor, and husband, and Chandler managed to convey that — and gentle masculinity, too — without schmaltz or an excess of earnestness. With the amazing Connie Britton, he was part of one of TV’s most realistic marriages, as Eric and Tami fought to keep a happy balance between growing as individuals and growing as a couple. Chandler was fine, if miscast, in “Bloodline,” but his Emmy-winning performance in “FNL” was one for the ages.
7. GABRIEL BYRNE
“In Treatment,” 2008-10
Byrne’s work as therapist Paul Weston was, in a way, a tribute to the art of listening. If you watched him throughout his sessions — each episode of the three-season wonder was a client’s session — you saw a man whose reactions were playing out in his tired eyes, his hands, and his positioning in his chair. At first, Paul seemed like a cold soul, but the more we saw of him, not least of all during his sessions with Mia Wasikowska’s young gymnast and those with his own therapist, the more we felt his quiet compassion and self-awareness. Byrne had fewer lines than anyone, but he registered in the biggest way.
8. HUGH LAURIE
“House” was a network series, but it took after cable dramas by giving us an antiheroic lead character — something the networks had generally resisted in order to draw viewers with honey. Laurie was indelible as Dr. Gregory House, bringing us deep inside the medical genius’s very twisted psyche. House was manipulative, stubborn, disdainful, in constant leg pain, and, thanks to Laurie, consistently fascinating. The actor perfectly honored the drug-addicted genius House was modeled after, Sherlock Holmes. Laurie gets additional kudos for the miniseries “The Night Manager” and the series “Chance.”
9. CLAIRE FOY
“The Crown,” 2016-
Foy was remarkable in “The Crown,” in that she made a thoroughly unremarkable queen, Elizabeth II, thought-provoking and layered. She gave us a naive daughter thrown into some of the most difficult situations of the 20th century, a young woman who wants to protect her marriage but who is also committed to owning her power. Foy, who’ll be replaced by Olivia Colman next season as a middle-aged Elizabeth, adopted the static facial expressions of a queen holding her cards close to her chest, but, with the astute script from series creator Peter Morgan, she also subtly humanized her. Oh, and in the extra credit department, Foy has done outstanding work in “Wolf Hall” and “Little Dorrit.”
10. IDRIS ELBA
Elba, formerly doing business as Stringer Bell on “The Wire,” has been consistently excellent on this show, even when, in later seasons, the material has been rushed or flimsy. His John Luther is a brooding, rumpled sleuth who is quietly tormented by his failures. Given all the cruelty and violence he has witnessed, Luther feels like an alien being in the world of ordinary people — a quality Elba makes heartbreaking. His demons help him relate to the criminals he’s chasing, but they also keep him in close proximity to a nervous breakdown.
VERY HONORABLE MENTIONS
“Feud: Bette and Joan,” 2017
As Joan Crawford, Lange oozed rabid insecurity. She also killed on “Horace and Pete” and “Grey Gardens.”
“Boardwalk Empire,” 2010-14
Pitt’s Jimmy was the show’s least stereotyped character. An introverted veteran scarred by his incestuous mother, he was all Freudian torment and early Brando brooding.
He gave us a wry contemporary twist on the father of forensic crime-solving. Cumby was also aces as an aristocrat in “Parade’s End.”
“American Crime,” 2015-17
She was extraordinary on “Southland” and “The Leftovers,” but her work on “American Crime” was as versatile as it was powerful.
“Downton Abbey,” 2011-16
Her Mary on “Downton” struggled not to be victimized by the sexist limitations of her era. She’s just as sharp on “Good Behavior” as a grifter ex-con.
He turned Ragnar Lothbrok into an expert at keeping his foes and his family off balance. With his laconic style and ironic grins, he was commanding.
“Men of a Certain Age,” 2009-11
Turns out he’s a good dramatic actor, and he hit all the right notes as a sad, angry gambling addict on this too-short series.
It was hard to imagine any actor other than the “Deadwood” star playing Raylan Givens, the smooth, laconic cowboy marshal.
“The Fall,” 2013-
Her forceful turn as an instinctive detective who refuses to abide by gender conventions is far more complex and masterful than her work on “The X-Files.”
“The Americans,” 2013-
He’s intense and perfectly torn as the ruthless Russian spy worn down by moral compromise.