TV 2020: Best Performances–Kaley Cuoco, The Flight Attendant (HBO Max) ; Harley Quinn (DC Universe)

Best TV Performances of 2020–Comedy and Drama


Best TV Performances 2020

Clockwise from top left: Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae in ‘Insecure’; Paul Mescal in ‘Normal People’; Kaley Cuoco in ‘The Flight Attendant’; Nicco Annan in ‘P-Valley.’

Kaley Cuoco, The Flight Attendant (HBO Max); Harley Quinn (DC Universe)

Cuoco was impressive on The Big Bang Theory, even if she did not get sufficient credit that she deserved.  In her first year post that show, Cuoco was strking in The Flight Attendant, a comic thriller, dominated by her stylish, confident star turn, inviting laughs and more serioys concerns in equal measure. This came on the heels of Cuoco’s lead vocal performance in DC Universe and now HBO Max’s Harley Quinn, a sharply written series anchored by her high-energy line readings. Cuoco was also an executive producer on both shows.

Ensemble, The Conners (ABC)
The comedic prowess of this TV-canon cast — especially John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert and Lecy Goranson — has been noted for more than 30 years. And yet the post-Roseanne ensemble never ceases to impress — perhaps even more so now, as they’ve subtly updated their multi-cam performances to an era of single-cam supremacy. The actors have not only forged an enviable chemistry over their years of collaboration, but have created a parchingly dry and fiercely unsentimental mordancy as unmistakable as the show’s famous harmonica riff. — INKOO KANG


Ethan Hawke, The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
The role of abolitionist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird would be a gift to any actor, so driven is the historical figure by white-hot righteousness, bottomless personal tragedy and farcical delusions of grandeur. And yet Hawke has made it impossible to imagine anyone else as Brown, the actor’s trademark intensity and middle-age lack of vanity a perfect fit for a character so remarkable, pitiable, absurd and wholly unpredictable. The miniseries’ lyrical dialogue feels somehow natural coming out of Hawke’s mouth, while his face briefly allows the turmoil within Brown to emerge before certainty in his at-all-costs anti-slavery crusade takes over again. — I.K.

Paul Mescal, Normal People (Hulu)
One half of the miniseries’ star-crossed Irish romance, Connell is a difficult role to make compelling: a young man who often just wants to recede into woodwork. However much he’s in love with Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), he retreats from defending her to his mocking friends, letting her in during a paralyzing bout of depression or even sticking up for himself as a working-class college student amid wealthy, oblivious classmates. And yet Mescal consistently finds the reserves of pain and insecurity in Connell’s desire for anonymous blankness, as well as the cowering, self-incapacitating humanity in his character’s fear of loving too much. — I.K.

Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, Insecure (HBO)
TV’s funniest duo — playing 30-something mismatched best friends Issa and Molly — are such comic geniuses they can make you laugh out loud with the smallest facial twitch or with their entire bodies. The actors’ chemistry was obvious from day one, with their BFF characters bantering so quickly and playfully with one another that they often seemed to be making up their own love language on the spot. That effervescence has been increasingly balanced by darker moments in the often strained relationship between Issa and Molly, especially in the most recent season, which allowed Rae and Orji to finally brandish their considerable dramatic skills. — I.K.

Jurnee Smollett, Lovecraft Country (HBO)
There are times, especially in the second half of the season, when I couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, or why. But in shows this bizarre, sometimes it’s enough to believe that the actors/characters care what’s happening — and there is no point during the entirety of this period horror pastiche at which Smollett isn’t 100 percent locked in. The Friday Night Lights and Underground veteran, who has earned the right to be considered an A-list star a dozen times over by now, gives a blazing turn; in one early scene, she’s on a rampage with a baseball bat, and if any moment was designed to be the representative gif of 2020, it’s that one. Plus, Smollett and Jonathan Majors’ chemistry should be bottled (though to what end I’m not sure). — D.F.

Tracey Ullman, Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
Ullman may have been the last actor cast on the star-studded Mrs. America, but the legendary sketch comedian held her own against the likes of Cate Blanchett and Margo Martindale as Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, in historical hindsight one of the least sympathetic figures of the Second Wave (for her homophobia). Ullman’s performance was a consummate balancing act, making the poison-tongued, endlessly self-promoting, terrified-of-irrelevance Friedan wholly understandable, if not always “likable.” The infamous debate against Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafy is a tour-de-force showcase, with Ullman allowing us a raw glimpse of Friedan’s essence by letting her initially charming irascibility curdle into hopeless self-destruction. — I.K.