Television has been more important than perhaps ever over the past 20 months or so, as many of us have spent way more time at home than we'd maybe like. Whether we were looking for laughs (thank you, The Other Two, Hacks, Reservation Dogs, Only Murders in the Building, Bowen Yang, and more), or looking to get caught up in some drama bigger than our own (here's lookin' at you, Succession, Midnight Mass, The White Lotus, Mare of Easttown, and Squid Game), 2021 delivered all of that and so much more (hey, Bo Burnham and that game-changing alliance on Big Brother). Here, in no particular order, we celebrate the great performances — both individual and ensembles — that we couldn't stop talking about this year.

best TV Performances of 2021
Credit: Netflix; Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu; Emmanuel Guimier/Netflix; CBS; RICARDO HUBBS/NETFLIX; Mario Perez/HBO

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Bo Burnham: Inside
Credit: Netflix

Bo Burnham, Inside

Perhaps it's disingenuous to single out Bo Burnham's performance in Inside — because he also wrote, scored, directed, and edited this musical masterpiece. What starts as an exercise in pandemic creativity — can one be funny when stuck in a room? — soon reveals itself as the most innovative comedy special in recent memory, a claustrophobic journey that's meticulously crafted, disarmingly intimate, and of course, very, very funny. His performance careens from cartoonishly unhinged villain ("Welcome to the Internet") to unsettlingly cheery kids' TV host ("How The World Works"), proving that if anyone can heal the world with comedy, it might be Burnham. —Devan Coggan

The White Lotus
Credit: Mario Perez/HBO

Jennifer Coolidge, The White Lotus

As the White Lotus' eccentric grande dame, Jennifer Coolidge's Tanya could have easily veered into caricature territory. Instead, thanks to bold choices and a pitch perfect performance from the star, she's a fully realized (if ridiculous!) person that you almost want to sympathize with — even as she's subjecting other vacationers to the most uncomfortable eulogy ever given on TV. She's so great in the role, that when it was announced that the show would be getting another season, she was the first (and so far only) member of the cast announced to return. There's no word yet on if she'll be reprising her role as the self-dubbed "alcoholic lunatic" or playing a new character in The White Lotus anthology, but here's to hoping we haven't seen the last of her brutally honest deadpan queen. —Lauren Huff

Big Brother
Credit: CBS

The Cookout, Big Brother

Xavier Prather, Derek Frazier, Azah Awasum, Kyland Young, Hannah Chaddha, and Tiffany Mitchell formed the most dominant alliance in reality TV history by finding a common goal in what is an individual game—making sure Big Brother crowned its first ever Black champion in a non-celebrity season. (Shout-out to Tamar Braxton for winning Celebrity Big Brother 2). Xavier ultimately took home the prize money, but all six ended up winners once the mission was accomplished, giving viewers one of the most entertaining seasons ever in the franchise's first installment since CBS instituted a new mandate requiring all their reality shows feature casts that were all least 50 percent people of color. Coincidence? —Dalton Ross

Only Murders In The Building
Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

The cast of Only Murders in the Building

Forget who killed Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), the biggest twist in Hulu's murder mystery comedy was the criminally delightful chemistry between veteran comedic partners Martin Short and Steve Martin and their unexpected third amigo, Selena Gomez. Surrounded by game supporting suspects like Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane, the big three are so good together as aspiring podcast sleuths, Charles-Haden Savage, Oliver Putnam, and Mabel Mora, that they might have even been able to make Splash! The Musical work. —Derek Lawrence

Credit: Emmanuel Guimier/Netflix

Omar Sy, Lupin

We'd like to report a robbery: Omar Sy's charming French thief made off with our attention spans in Netflix's relentlessly entertaining two-part crime thriller, deftly balancing the show's high-stakes drama (the Louvre jewelry heist! That catacombs escape sequence!) with its thoughtful and timely examinations of class, race, and power. Knowing there's a Part 3 on the horizon means there's one last mystery to solve: What ransom do we need to pay to watch it as soon as possible? —Jessica Derschowitz


Margaret Qualley, Maid

Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Hollywood) delivers a grounded, no-nonsense performance as Alex —a young mother trying to escape an abusive relationship and working as a cleaner to provide for her daughter— that keeps what could be a melodramatic series from drifting into emotional manipulation. Whether Alex is dealing with her alcoholic ex (Nick Robinson), her bipolar mother Paula (Andie MacDowell, who is the actress' real-life mom) or a system that seems to be designed to thwart her at every turn, Qualley hits each beat with an authenticity that will leave you thinking about the protagonist's plight long after the credits rolls. You could say Qualley Maid this show shine as brightly as one of Alex's freshly polished surfaces. —Ruth Kinane

Ted Lasso
Credit: Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

The cast of Ted Lasso

Jason Sudeikis' mustache-wearing, whistle-blowing Kansas transplant would be the first person to remind us that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Fortunately for Ted Lasso, every single actor on the roster delivered a pitch-perfect performance in season 2, from Hannah Waddingham's steely Rebecca and Toheeb Jimoh's idealistic Sam, to the gut-wrenching slow-build of Nate's villain arc (executed masterfully by Nick Mohammed). Plus, we have to give a special shoutout to the swoon-worthy romance between Juno Temple's bubbly Keeley and Brett Goldstein's growling Roy Kent. (Hell, Goldstein's eyebrows almost deserve a "best performance" nod of their own.) And we haven't even mentioned standouts like Cristo Fernández as the endlessly energetic Dani Rojas, or James Lance as the silver-haired Trent Crimm (The Independent)! This is one team that's worth believing in. —D.C.

Impeachment: American Crime Story
Credit: Kurt Iswarienko/FX (3)

Sarah Paulson/Annaleigh Ashford/Beanie Feldstein, Impeachment: American Crime Story

Despite Clive Owen's creepily good turn as President Bill Clinton, it's the women of Impeachment: American Crime Story that really have a chance to shine. The show doesn't have a bad turn in the bunch, but it's completely anchored by Beanie Feldstein's portrayal of Monica Lewinsky, Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, and Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones. As real women, all of whom were exploited and put through the wringer of extreme media scrutiny to one degree or another, their portrayals could have easily veered into parody or mimicry, but each actress in their own unique way brings empathy and understanding to their characters' plight. This even applies to Paulson's Tripp, so often made out to be the villain in the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. She's certainly not outright loveable here, but Paulson's portrayal seeks to help us at least understand the complex nature of her character's decisions, and this is inherent in her costars' portrayals, too, which is ultimately why the show largely works. —L.H,

Credit: Marvel Studios

Kathryn Hahn, WandaVision

The superhero genre is littered with forgettable, power-hungry villains — which is part of what makes Kathryn Hahn's WandaVision performance such a revelation. As nosy neighbor Agatha Harkness (a.k.a. Agnes), Hahn hits the perfect balance of comedic camp and malice, whether she's peeping over white-picket fences or belting out Grammy-nominated earworm "Agatha All Along." It's no wonder that she's getting her own Disney+ spin-off series. —D.C.

Credit: Elizabeth Fisher/Paramount+

Katja Herbers, Evil

The Devil works hard, but Katja Herbers worked even harder in the spooky Paramount+ thriller's second season as she explored the many ways Kristen's guilt over killing a man manifested itself  — from committing adultery to beating up a man in a grocery store for cutting in line and her dramatic confession to the police. The entire time she kept the audience wondering if she was actually possessed or dealing with a psychological issue. On top of that, Herbers also showed off her physical comedy chops in the show's excellent silent episode. That being said, Kristen's harrowing and full body breakdown in the finale was her best scene of the season, especially because of how convincingly she went from crying to making out with David in the wake of her confession. —Chancellor Agard


Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass

In a show filled with excellent monologues, no one monologued quite like Hamish Linklater. At the center of Midnight Mass' story about a highly religious small town was Linklater's Father Paul, a trusted local priest and a man with a very big secret. Linklater beautifully toed the line between the man who stood at the front of his congregation, certain in his beliefs and intoxicating to his followers, and the man behind the curtain, desperately trying to hold onto his faith in the face of something terrifying. Monologue after monologue, Linklater was so captivating, it was easy to understand why people might follow him … even to their deaths. —Samantha Highfill

Rutherford Falls
Credit: Colleen Hayes/Peacock

Michael Greyeyes, Rutherford Falls

Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) may be a descendant of his town's founding family, but Terry Thomas is Rutherford Falls' true power player. As the savvy, charming CEO of Running Thunder Casino, Greyeyes commands his every scene with undeniable charisma and impeccable comic timing. He also delivered what may be the single best sitcom monologue in all of 2021 — "I won't rest until my nation gets every single thing that was taken from them" — in Falls' standout seventh episode, appropriately titled "Terry Thomas." But Greyeyes' ensures that Terry is more than just a flinty adversary for Nathan; he's a devoted (if slightly overeager) dad who wants his kids to grow up in a world where Native people can thrive, not just survive. —Kristen Baldwin

Reservation Dogs
Credit: Shane Brown/FX

The cast of Reservation Dogs

There's many reasons why the coming-of-age series from co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi landed at the top of EW's best shows of 2021 list, but none stand above the immediately lived-in and fully-formed big four of Willie Jack, Elora, Bear, and Cheese. The friend hangout comedy is nothing new, but this world and these characters are, and each of the young previously-unknown actors make a fresh impression, both together and in their own spotlight episodes. But you better learn the names Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, and Lane Factor now before they take over Hollywood. —D.L.

The Other Two
Credit: HBO Max

Heléne Yorke, The Other Two

Heléne Yorke's Brooke Dubek, one of the titular Other Two siblings of a show biz family from the HBO Max comedy, has all the makings of a gay icon. You could argue she's an amalgam of some of the best in the category. She has the searing hot barbs of Will & Grace's Karen Walker (it's not shade if it's not subtle); she has the theatrics and casual disregard for reality of Schitt's Creek's Moira Rose; and she's a boss like Just Shoot Me!'s Nina Van Horn. But she's also wholly herself. Behind the comic opera of a walking disaster that is Brooke, Yorke brings humanity to the character that's so brutally relatable it makes viewers of a certain age, especially those in New York City, reexamine their own lives. She's the everyman's gay icon. —Nick Romano

Credit: Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max

The cast of Hacks

While most conversations praising Hacks this year revolved around the brilliance of Jean Smart (yes, it's true that she even played her own wax figure!), it's almost criminal that Hannah Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Kaitlin Olson, Paul W. Downs, Megan Stalter, and the rest of the whip-smart, hilarious cast haven't gotten even a small percentage of that same attention. Every single actor on HBO Max's searing comedy deserves the spotlight here — even Smart's own role as legendary stand-up comic Deborah Vance wouldn't have been the same without Einbinder's genius portrayal of a young TV writer who is reluctantly hired to help evolve Deborah's act when her historic Las Vegas residency faces extinction. It's their Odd Couple pairing of jaded, grating veteran and cynical, desperate newcomer that crackles onscreen as their mutual disdain for each other evolves masterfully throughout the first season. Just like how it's taking a team to bring Deborah's act into the 21st century, it took an entire ensemble to make Hacks one of the best new shows of 2021. —Sydney Bucksbaum

Jordan Klepper vs. Iowans Who Think Trump Won | The Daily Show
Credit: Comedy Central

Jordan Klepper, The Daily Show

If "civil discourse about polarizing topics" was an Olympic sport, Jordan Klepper would have more hardware than Michael Phelps. The Daily Show correspondent spent 2021 talking to Americans who have very strong opinions about very serious things — the COVID vaccine, Jan. 6, mask mandates in schools — and he did it all with good-natured curiosity, non-confrontational logic, and hilarious wordplay. ("If only this city had a seamless way to get food to their door, a freshdirect way to get it," the comedian muses to an unvaccinated New Yorker complaining that he can't dine in restaurants.) Klepper even managed to maintain his composure while reporting on the ground during the Jan. 6 insurrection. "Could I ask why you're carrying a pitchfork?" he asks one Trump supporter, who insisted that he was allowed to carry the implement because it was "farm equipment." Klepper's response is absolutely aces: "Are you farming today?" Perhaps in his downtime, the comedian can teach a journalism class on the importance of follow-up questions. —K.B.

Credit: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Girls5eva

Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry is always a delight, from hitting high notes in Hamilton to ruling the courtroom in The Good Wife. But Girls5Eva's Wickie Roy might be the role she was born to play — an impossibly talented diva who brings a fierce determination to everything she does, whether that's shooting geese at the Van Nuys airport, belting out an aria at her translucent piano, or delivering her best Jim Carrey impersonation in The Maskical: The Musical. —D.C.

Mare of Easttown
Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO

The cast of Mare of Easttown

Why single one person out when the whole cast is so worthy of recognition? As Mare, the town's troubled sheriff, Kate Winslet is phenomenal, wearing all of her character's grief and trauma on her sleeve  — you feel it in her gait, in her voice, and every look in her world-weary eyes. As her best friend and a woman deeply embedded in the show's central mystery, Julianne Nicholson's Lori is at once a deeply tragic figure and so incredibly relatable. Evan Peters' Detective Zabel is adorably earnest, and who could forget Jean Smart's hilarious turn as Mare's mother? That's just the tip of the iceberg, as all the characters in the show feel like fully realized people with fully realized problems, and that is largely thanks to the performances of this cast, which is truly a trove of television riches. —L.H.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Alligator Loki, Loki

Is too late for the Emmys to create a category for best reptilian performance in a TV show or miniseries? Loki introduced us to several different variants on everyone's favorite morally ambiguous mischief-maker, including Sophia Di Martino's Sylvie, Richard E. Grant's Classic Loki, and Jack Veal's Kid Loki. But the standout has to be their tiny, lizardy costar, who steals every scene he's in. Give him a hand! —D.C.

Bowen Yang
Credit: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Bowen Yang, Saturday Night Live

Bowen Yang has been a standout on Saturday Night Live since his freshman season, but 2021 felt like SNL was fully in its Bowen Era. The first Chinese American cast member and the first out gay man to survive beyond one season, Yang made history again as the first featured player to score an Emmy nomination. He was a highlight in sketches alongside even his most seasoned castmates, but really stole the show during stints on Weekend Update with a powerful — yet howlingly funny — commentary on the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, a Fran Lebowitz impression that even the humorist was compelled to weigh in on, and a takedown of twink Willy Wonka by a proud gay Oompa Loompa, but it was his instant classic Iceberg That Sank the Titanic character, who just wanted to promote his album called simply Music, that melted away any doubt that Yang is the show's MVP. —Jillian Sederholm

Credit: Byron Cohen/FX

GaTa, Dave

Just call me the hype man for our favorite hype man. Audiences fell in love with GaTa after season 1's "Hype Man" — one of EW's best episodes of 2020 — which explored the mental health journey for the character, as well as the rapper-turned-actor behind him. Season 2 didn't feature an explicitly GaTa-centric episode, but instead layered his arc in the background, only for it to explode the forefront in the showstopping finale, which found Dave (and us) worried that GaTa was in the midst of a "manic episode," leading to the duo's first real blowup and a rare fire from the often-comedic GaTa. It's midway through the intense scene when his sister comes in and asks "Dave" to be quiet. This serves as a reminder both that GaTa's real name is Davionte and that Dave's story is GaTa's story. Meanwhile, we're just sitting back and enjoying the gander. —D.L.

Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

The cast of Succession

If the season 3 finale was the only episode of Succession that existed, it alone would prove a dynamic masterclass in acting. The Emmy-winning HBO series' stars — especially Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, and Alan Ruck — delivered new depths of desperation, conceit, deceit, vulnerability, emotional anguish, and unpredictability. The latter has been a big contributing factor in keeping viewers (and the actors, no doubt) on their toes and invested since day 1, thanks to creator Jesse Armstrong and the writers' ability to keep things compelling. And not in a banal way but compellingly authentic to the core of these power-hungry people. Add to the mix Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Braun, and J. Smith-Cameron, who are all vital parts of what is arguably the finest drama ensemble on television right now — a cast of characters we love to hate, and hate to love. And if that's not the epitome of a great performance, I don't know what is. —Gerrad Hall

Credit: Antony Platt/Hulu

Michael Keaton, Dopesick

Dopesick told the story of the start of the opioid epidemic from various perspectives, but none more important than the doctors and patients affected. To put it plainly, Dopesick wasn't going to work if the audience didn't care about the little people. But Michael Keaton's charming small-town doctor made sure we cared. Keaton beautifully embodied the doctor who simply wanted to help, the doctor who'd show up to an elderly patient's house every single day just to make sure she took her pills. And that made it all the more devastating when he himself became addicted to opioids. Suddenly, Keaton's task changed entirely as he delivered a heartbreaking portrayal of a man whose brain chemistry had been irreparably altered, all because he'd trusted a doctor just as his patients had trusted him. —S.H.

Dr. Death
Credit: Scott McDermott/Peacock

Joshua Jackson, Dr. Death

As Christopher Duntsch, Joshua Jackson gets to put his abundance of onscreen charm to good use to play the slippery (and likely sociopathic) surgeon, whose patients entered his operating room for complex but routine spinal surgeries and left maimed or dead. All of Duntsch's cockiness and charisma is on full display here, and whether he's portraying an idealistic, youthful version of the character or an increasingly desperate and dangerous older one, Jackson doesn't skip a beat. Duntsch may have botched his role, but it's safe to say that Jackson didn't do the same. —L.H.

The Wonder Years
Credit: Erika Doss/ABC via Getty Images

Dulé Hill and Saycon Sengbloh, The Wonder Years

At first, it seemed like Dulé Hill's cool dad Bill Williams would be the standout character of the new Wonder Years, with the West Wing alum bringing suave charm, smooth wit, and dramatic gravitas to the role of the professor-slash-funk musician. But then Hill's onscreen wife Saycon Sengbloh got a remarkable showcase in the series' fourth episode, in which Dean (Elisha "EJ" Williams) watches his mom, Lillian, at work. Like Dean, you come away with a new appreciation for her, noticing anew the terrific, understated work veteran stage actress Sengbloh delivers each week. But really, both Hill and Sengbloh are at their best when they're together, always sparkling with chemistry and bringing a light touch to potentially heavy-handed material. They are — dare we say it? — wonders. —Tyler Aquilina

Sex Education
Credit: Jon Hall/Netflix

Connor Swindells, Sex Education

Talk about a character arc. When Sex Education first premiered, Adam Groff was the school bully that was almost impossible to like. But the more that the audience was allowed into Adam's life, the more that started to change. At the center of Adam's evolution is Connor Swindells, whose performance in the third season completely changed Adam's role in the story. It's a subtle performance, as Adam's main characteristic is the fact that he hides just about every emotion, but it's one that leaves an impact. Adam Groff is no longer just the school bully. And Connor Swindells is showing Hollywood what he's capable of. —S.H.

Credit: Eric Liebowitz/FX

Michaela Jaé, Pose

The joy of Pose, beyond the glitz and dips of the ballroom scene throughout the decades, has been watching this group of women grow into themselves as actors. The Steven Canals-created drama cast a troupe of largely fresh faces with few professional credits between them. Season 1 wasn't perfect, but you could see the drive in their eyes and the effort they put forth into crafting these characters. By season 3, they became fully realized, and Mj Rodriguez, now going by Michaela Jaé these days, is the cream of that crop. As Bianca, Mother of the House of Evangelista, Rodriguez became the emotional anchor of a show that is all about finding the family you weren't born into but the family you choose. It's easy to draw parallels between Bianca and the actress behind her. She begins on the fringes of the ball scene, hoping to score a trophy and be acknowledged by her community. She ends the story as a leader of a space she created for herself and her children. —N.R.

Squid Game
Credit: Noh Juhan/Netflix

Lee Jung-jae, Squid Game

If you can, for just a moment, think of something else besides the kink we didn't know we needed (i.e. a smiling Gong Yoo slapping your face), let's talk about the core performance of Squid Game: Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun, a father so desperate for money in order to remain close with his daughter that he subjects himself to a cruel tournament run by 1 percenters with a near-guaranteed mortality rate. The South Korean actor delves much deeper into the general theme of wealth disparity and mines core truths. It's not just about a few wielding the majority over power over the poor, it's about the systems that are in place to keep the poor poor, which are made more devastatingly real by the specificity of Lee's emotional portrayal. —N.R.

Credit: Russ Martin/FX

Matt Berry, What We Do in the Shadows

Matt Berry takes the grandiosity and slapstick absurdity of vampire Laszlo Cravensworth so seriously that it just makes the character come across as more grandiose and absurd — which is a good formula for the comedic chaos that is What We Do in the Shadows, which, like the immortal bloodsuckers themselves, seems to only get better with time. Three seasons in, the cast, led valiantly by its core trio, come with the confidence that their big swings are consistently landing, and that gives them room to swing even bigger. Amid a season with a cult of fang-pulling jazzercise vampers, an Atlantic City casino jaunt, and a baby bursting forth from the corpse of an energy vampire, Berry's Laszlo remains the goofiest of these three stooges. (Two words: Jackie Daytona.) —N.R.

Cruel Summer
Credit: Bill Matlock/Freeform via Getty Images

Chiara Aurelia, Cruel Summer

There was so much to love about Cruel Summer, but the true breakout from Freeform's '90s-set mystery series was Chiara Aurelia. The relative newcomer played Jeanette Turner, a teen who, over the course of three summers, goes from geek to chic to utter outcast after she's accused of being involved in the disappearance of town's it-girl Kate Wallis, and steals her perfect life, including her boyfriend and best friends. Aurelia portrayed Jeanette's evolution with impressive skill, masterfully switching from a sweet teen who's uncomfortable in her own skin in 1993 to mega popular girl filling Kate's spot in the social hierarchy in 1994 to her final stage of angry, rebellious social pariah trying to clear her name in 1995. And while her era-appropriate hair, makeup, and wardrobe helped signal where Jeanette is in each timeline, it's the way the actor brought all those personality changes to life that was the biggest jaw-dropping twist of this already twisty and addictive whodunnit. —S.B.

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