The greatest overlooked TV performances of the last 20 years

Suranne Jones plays landowner Anne Lister in HBO’s “Gentleman Jack.”
Suranne Jones plays landowner Anne Lister in HBO’s “Gentleman Jack.”Jay Brooks/HBO

I hate it when I watch a great performance on TV, and it gets little to no attention. I want everyone I know to watch it, to celebrate it, to tell their friends about it. I want Emmys, Golden Globes, magazine covers, memes. Oh, by the way, I also hate it when everyone else loves the same performance I do, because then I have to share; but that’s a topic best saved for my therapist. Accepting that I’m not Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s biggest, onlyest fan has not been easy.

Right now, I’m going through this with Suranne Jones. She isn’t just the star of HBO’s “Gentleman Jack,” an 1830-set drama about landowner Anne Lister, who kept a coded diary of her affairs with women. Jones is a gale force wind on the show, driving it forward with her confidence and cool. She gives us a dynamic woman living out gender fluidity and attractions to women at a time of ignorance and intolerance. Her Anne rejects social convention — and has the money to do it — as she fervently and undauntedly pursues her desires. But then Jones adds in a hidden vulnerability that can be heartbreaking. It’s the best, most faceted performance of the year, though few seem to know that.


This is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of under-the-radar brilliance. My grudges live cozily in the back of my brain, and it’s time to share a few of them. (I have a feeling that Mj Rodriguez of “Pose” may be joining them in the future, alas.) Determining which performances were under-acknowledged is always tricky, so my standard of measurement here is that the performance cannot have been nominated for an Emmy. It can’t be famously snubbed, either — Michael K. Williams, who played Omar on “The Wire,” I’m thinking of you here. Also, I’ve chosen to stick to work that was on the air by 2000 and later.

Gillian Anderson
Gillian AndersonSteffan Hill/BBC

Gillian Anderson in “The Fall”


I can’t say that her performance as Dana Scully on the original “X-Files” prepared me for the extraordinary work Anderson has done since the 1990s. The first evidence of her excellence was her turn as Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” in 2000, and since then she has stood out in a number of roles — as Lady Dedlock in “Bleak House” and, currently, as the sex-therapist mother in the wonderful Netflix series “Sex Education.” In “The Fall,” she brings her own complex spin to the procedural crime drama, and it’s riveting. Her Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (note the guitar brand-name) is charismatic, intuitive, obsessive, sex-positive, and steely when necessary; she is also mysterious and morally ambiguous enough to keep us watching her intently for every tiny clue of her true feelings. Like Helen Mirren before her in “Prime Suspect,” she rules in a male-dominated sphere.

Mia Wasikowska
Mia WasikowskaClaudette Barius/HBO

Mia Wasikowska in “In Treatment”

In season one of this extraordinary drama about a therapist (Gabriel Byrne) and his clients, the Australia-born Wasikowska was mind-blowingly good (with a perfect American accent). She played Sophie, a suicidal teenaged gymnast who falls apart — and then puts herself back together again — with the help of Paul Weston’s trustworthy presence in her life. Wasikowska, with the nuanced scripts by Sarah Treem, makes each step of that process crystal clear — the pain that manifests as cruelty and sarcasm, the testing of her therapist, her efforts to push him away, and her ultimate awareness that she deserves love and respect. She breaks your heart a few dozen times before she allows room for some resolution. Oddly, Emmy voters ignored her — and I had to think it was because her last name is so darn complicated.


Aden Young
Aden YoungTina Rowden/Sundance TV/Sundance TV

Aden Young in “Rectify”

In his slow, quiet way, Young was an imposing lead for four seasons on this remarkable series, which ran on Sundance. You could feel the acute sensitivity of his character, Daniel Holden, a man convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend who is released from death row after 19 years thanks to new DNA evidence. You could always tell, as he introspectively watched the world pass by him, that his growth had been stunted while he served time, that he was still a child in many ways, that he was ill-equipped to deal with others’ suspicions of him. The entire show seemed to move forward at Young’s pace — slowly, mesmerized, wary. One of the miracles of Young’s turn was that it was never tedious; he made Daniel’s interior world palpable and trackable.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in “Oz.”
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in “Oz.” Eric Liebowitz/HBO

The cast of “Oz”

If you watched this dark prison drama, which was doing the HBO thing before “The Sopranos,” you probably know what I’m talking about. The cast, led by Lee Tergesen, Christopher Meloni, J.K. Simmons, Eamonn Walker, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje among others, went there and back and there again. They gave raw — and often literally naked — performances as men in extremis, bringing both homicidal and suicidal impulses to the surface in service to a script about the worst of human nature. “Oz” was a microcosm of a world at war, with Rita Moreno’s Sister Pete as one of the few kind hearts beating at its center.


Khandi Alexander
Khandi AlexanderWill Hart/HBO

Khandi Alexander in “The Corner”

This is one of the best-evers, and I’m convinced that Alexander was ignored by Emmy voters because she was so effectively unsettling. The six-part miniseries, co-written by David Simon of “The Wire” and directed by Charles S. Dutton, was an uncompromising and intimate look at drug addiction in Baltimore. It’s not a crime drama; it’s about the daily, mundane lives of a family of junkies, with Alexander painfully authentic as the mother trying to kick. She was amoral when it came to her own drug use, but then she was passionate about keeping her son clean. The story was hard to watch, refusing to deliver happy endings as it put a magnifying glass up to scoring dope, using, getting money to score, searching for a cigarette. But ultimately, it was hard to watch without feeling compassion for its characters.


Travis Fimmel
Travis FimmelJonathan Hession/HISTORY/HISTORY

Travis Fimmel in “Vikings”

In this transporting and brutal series, Fimmel — at one point in his career a Calvin Klein model — transformed himself to play Ragnar Lothbrook for four seasons. By the time he left the series, it was hard to imagine him without blood on his face. In his commanding turn, he became the laconic, nonconformist leader who liked to throw his friends and foes off balance, and who often had an ironic smirk playing around his mouth. He brought us along on every step of Ragnar’s epic journey of faith, from pagan gods to Christianity to atheism, and his performance was powerful enough to resonate on the show after his departure. By the way, I have encountered many who’ve disliked Fimmel in “Vikings,” and to them I say “[RASPBERRY].”

Emmy Rossum
Emmy RossumWarren Feldman/SHOWTIME/SHOWTIME

Emmy Rossum in “Shameless”

Yes, William H. Macy is flashy and good as Frank Gallagher, the always-plastered Fagin of the South Side. But it’s Emmy Rossum who, until her departure at the end of the most recent season, has held the show together on a dramatic level. Her Fiona was the oldest sister and surrogate mother whose intense loyalty to her siblings undermined her need to find self-realization and pursue her ambitions. Rossum never telegraphed Fiona’s struggle between self and selflessness; she gave us a young woman living in the moment of her life, physically comfortable with herself but psychologically unable to move forward, haunted by finding her father’s self-destructive tendencies in herself. It will be interesting to see if the show loses its narrative balance when it returns without its most compelling player.

 Clive Owen
Clive Owen Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Clive Owen in “The Knick”

Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of medical surgery in 1900 New York was stunning, from the look of the daylit operating theater and dim tenements where poor people were dying to the unashamed racism of many of the characters. And Owen, as Dr. John Thackery, was its perfect anti-hero, a man who is fighting to forward the art of surgery but losing his humanity as he faces the constant failure and death of his patients. Like Dr. House, he is also an addict in need of help, doing drugs in Chinatown at night to try to keep his depression at bay. But Owen does exactly nothing to sentimentalize his character; his performance is uncompromised. I also want to point out another unsung performance on the show: André Holland, as a black doctor straining to channel his rage into something productive.


Noah Emmerich in “The Americans”

Michelle Dockery in “Good Behavior”

Joel Kinnaman in “The Killing”

Ray Stevenson in “Rome”

Dean Norris in “Breaking Bad”

Wendell Pierce in “Treme”

Kaitlin Olson in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

Ellen Barkin in “Animal Kingdom”

Chloe Sevigny in “Big Love”

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