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Buzzsaw | Matthew Gilbert

The best TV performances of 2017

Asia Kate Dillon in a scene from “Billions.”Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME/SHOWTIME

See the list of Matthew Gilbert’s favorite 20 shows of 2017.

It’s the end of the year as we know it, and I feel fine . . . about the year in TV, particularly some of the remarkable performances. I’ve listed many of them here, in no special order. A few obvious ones — Claire Foy in “The Crown,” Matthew Rhys of “The Americans,” Sterling K. Brown in “This Is Us” — aren’t included simply because there isn’t enough space for everyone.

Asia Kate Dillon in “Billions” (Showtime)

Dillon was an awesome addition to the series, which is steeped in the men’s club where politics meets big money. Kudos to whoever came up with the idea of throwing a nonbinary character (played by a nonbinary actor) into all the macho conflict between Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis. It’s a compelling contrast. Dillon brings the perfect balance of intelligence, morality, and modesty to the role, challenging stereotypes about what it takes to triumph.

Sophie Turner in “Game of Thrones” (HBO)


Of all the rich performances on “Game of Thrones,” I tend to like Turner’s the best. Her Sansa is chilly and pallid but, as she has grown across the series and suffered unspeakably, she is also unshakable. Despite her travails, Sansa’s wit remains fully intact, and if you thought early in the season she’d be fooled by Littlefinger, you were sorely underestimating her. Watch Turner’s biting contempt as she says to the man she will later murder, “No need to have the last word Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever.”

Alexander Skarsgård in “Big Little Lies” (HBO)

Alexander Skarsgård in "Big Little Lies."HBO via AP

Nicole Kidman, as the wife and victim of Skarsgård’s abuser, has rightfully won tons of kudos. Her arc — empowerment through coming out — is essential to the value of the drama. But the two were a team, with Skarsgård a standout as one of those seemingly normal but super creepy guys, a spoiled violent misogynist child armed with the body and muscles of a full-grown man. He was thoroughly, convincingly repulsive, and his fate is a perfect nod to the era of #MeToo.


Cameron Britton in “Mindhunter” (Netflix)

The first season of this based-in-fact show, about the FBI’s early years of profiling serial killers, got a huge bump of creepy energy from the towering Britton. He played “Co-Ed Killer” and necrophiliac Ed Kemper, and his manner during the jailhouse interviews with two agents was gentle enough to be thoroughly unnerving. He brought palpable menace to a show that could have been merely a cerebral exercise in darkness.

Andrea Martin in “Great News” (NBC)
and “Difficult People” (Hulu)

This “SCTV” alum and theater queen brings her spot-on comic narcissism to both of these TV roles, and I can’t get enough of it. She makes cartoonishness into a fine art, as she steals scenes while leaving plenty of air in the room for the other actors. On “Great News,” she intrudes in her daughter’s life; in “Difficult People,” she’s too self-absorbed to bother intruding on anyone else; in both, she is hysterical.

Pamela Adlon in “Better Things” (FX)

Adlon was a kick and a half on “Californication,” but she’s a fully rounded lead character here. And she’s a powerhouse — passionate, cynical, profane, hysterical, and, most important of all, resilient. She’s fully committed to every second of her series, as it ranges from drama to comedy and back again. Her “Very No” scene, in which she says “no” to a romantic prospect for almost two full minutes, is a tour de force.


Julia Garner in “Ozark” (Netflix)

Julia Garner in “Ozark.”Jackson Davis/Netflix

Laura Linney brought fine shades of comic absurdity to this good “Breaking Bad”-like drama as a wife accepting and embracing the family’s difficult position with the mob. But Garner — who also plays a teen courted by Philip Jennings on “The Americans” — nearly stole the show as the townie crook who becomes part of the family’s money-laundering operation. She was wily and self-confident, but underneath it all she was just a kid looking for guidance.

Michelle Dockery in “Good Behavior” (TNT)

Dockery is a long way from “Downton Abbey” on this under-appreciated neo-noir, as grifter, ex-con, and recovering addict Letty Raines. I was endlessly impressed by her work here, as she gave us a woman whose instinct to fight and rebel keeps her from succumbing to misery and brokenness. Can she maintain a moral hand over her partner in crime and love, Javier the hitman, now that she has killed?

Elisabeth Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)


I can’t say enough about Moss’s turn in this haunting series. As Offred, she is a prisoner of a male-centric country where fertile women are used for breeding, and where she can rarely speak her mind. But her deep resistance to the state of the world is always somewhere in her eyes, the only sign of hope in this dire dystopian portrait.

Alan Rosenberg in “Shameless” (Showtime)

The entire cast of this series is remarkable, not least of all Emmy Rossum and Jeremy Allen White. This season, Rosenberg has stood out as Professor Youens, a wizened alcoholic who knows he’s destroying his life but has chosen not to care. A recurring character over the years, Rosenberg’s Youens has developed into one of the show’s most tragic figures. He reached out to help Lip a few seasons back, and now Lip has reached out to help him in return, in scenes of urgency and dread.

Yvonne Orji in “Insecure” (HBO)

Yvonne Orji (left) with Issa Ray.HBO

As Issa’s best friend, Molly, Orji gives us a recovering serial dater looking not just for sex, but for a romantic spark. That’s probably why she wasn’t feeling it with the perfect man this season, played by the perfect actor, Sterling K. Brown. Molly also found herself victimized by the gender pay gap in her professional life as a lawyer, shining in tricky scenes of a black woman struggling to be treated fairly while not having to deal with “the angry black woman” stereotype.


Marc Maron in “GLOW” (Netflix)

Marc Maron in “GLOW.”Erica Parise/Netflix/Netflix

Maron played an entertaining version of himself with wry neurosis on his eponymous IFC series. But on this look back at the 1980s inception of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, he went for — and found — a more complicated character. As the director of the show, Sam, he was a crotchety but beloved coach.

John Lithgow in “Trial & Error” (NBC)

I’ve never been a fan of Lithgow’s comedic work, especially in “3rd Rock From the Sun,” but his turn as the clueless accused murderer in this silly comedy was masterful. Everything his sincere, tone-deaf Larry said seemed to make him seem guiltier — and Lithgow made that irony work again and again.

Michael Zegen in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Lead Rachel Brosnahan is fantastic as the 1950s housewife-turned-comic in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s latest. And, as her newly estranged husband, Zegen is a standout with a complex emotional arc of his own. He gives us toxic masculinity, then bitter regret, then anger, then love, each phase as sincere as the next as he slowly recognizes that his ex is a stronger person than he is. Zegen’s resume includes memorable turns on “Rescue Me” and “Boardwalk Empire” (as Bugsy Siegel).

Alex Høgh Andersen in “Vikings” (History)

Alex Hogh Andersen in “Vikings.”Jonathan Hession /History

I have been a great fan of Travis Fimmel as the charismatic Ragnar, so I wondered how this show would continue to thrive without him. The answer came in the form of Andersen, a Danish actor who plays Ragnar’s crippled son, Ivar. Andersen delivers a physically challenging performance, as Ivar crawls, but his brilliance as an actor is in his eyes, which convey equal parts cruelty, wisdom, loyalty, and stubbornness. He evokes Fimmel’s enigmatic expressions while making the part entirely his own.

Ted Danson in “The Good Place” (NBC)

Danson just keeps getting better, and his role here as the wily Michael is proof. He’s fully committed to the clever madness of the show, where the good place turns out to be the bad place. In his hands, the philosophy that fuels the comedy is as funny as it is insightful. Is he playing his guests or are they playing him? Danson’s answer seems to be: Yes. Honorable mentions to the rest of the cast, particularly D’Arcy Carden who plays the chipper AI assistant.

David Thewlis in “Fargo” (FX)

The British actor was repulsive as the bulimic monster V.M. Varga, who torments and uses a local businessman. Fitted with the most nauseating fake teeth I’ve ever seen, Thewlis exuded both wry humor and cold nihilism. He was a grotesque personification of amoral greed for the entire season, which was set in 2010, in the fallout of the 2008 recession.

Sarah Gadon in “Alias Grace” (Netflix)

Sarah Gadon in “Alias Grace.” Jan Thijs/Netflix

Based on a real 19th-century crime, this powerful miniseries adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel revolved entirely around Gadon’s riveting performance. Did her imprisoned maid commit two murders? As she tells her story of abuse and oppression compellingly and unblinkingly, you begin to realize it doesn’t really matter.

Jessica Lange in “Feud: Bette and Joan” (FX)

As Joan Crawford in the early 1960s, Lange was spectacular. Her performance was the focal point of the entire season, as she exuded rabid insecurity with every word and movement, with every beauty treatment and massage. Lange gave an outsize performance that was just right for the portrayal of such a prickly drama queen, but if you looked in her eyes you could see the pain that drove her.

Zach Woods in “Silicon Valley” (HBO)

Some of the boys on the show get tiresome after a while, but not Jared. He’s sweet, sensitive, nurturing, and apologetic — he’s the traditional mother figure in the “Silicon” gang, turning gender clichés on their head. I love the way Woods refuses to squeeze irony into his performance, instead giving us a truly tender man in a den of wannabe wolves.

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