The television landscape is so sprawling and, especially these days, full of A-list actors. The rise of prestige television has given fans shows where some of our favorite movie stars are transitioning from the silver screen to the small screen. But that’s no reason to discount the up-and-coming actors that have made their mark with one specific performance.
We’re looking at eight performances that broke through the sheer abundance of TV and made us take notice. These actors didn’t just give great performances, but gave us characters who went into our hearts and transformed their respective shows into something special.
In no order, below are the 8 best breakthrough performances of 2022, so far:
1. Iman Vellani (“Ms. Marvel”)
Iman Vellani may have dressed up as Ms. Marvel for Halloween, but no amount of costumed shenanigans prepares an actor for the role of a lifetime — the role she was born to play. Vellani’s debut as Kamala Khan in Disney’s “Ms. Marvel” is nothing short of revelatory, a star-making turn that also showcases every ounce of her mischief, wit, gravity, and charisma. Her Kamala Khan is authentic in every way, from the South Asian culture woven into Bisha K. Ali’s series to the Avengers superfan’s online fangirling to the total havoc she experiences in gaining both superpowers and a crush at the same time. It’s a hall of fame MCU debut and the start of a cosmic career. –Proma Khosla
2. Jeff Hiller (“Somebody Somewhere”)
“Somebody Somewhere” is the little series that could, taking a simple story and filling it with down-to-earth characters expelling big emotions. Bridgett Everett plays Sam, a woman trying to find herself while living in her Kansas hometown. Because Sam is such a mess, the script has to give someone to temper her. Enter Jeff Hiller’s Joel, whose meekness and love of religion shouldn’t go well with Sam’s personality. But the two eventually form an impenetrable bond that ends up being the core relationship of the series.
Joel’s shyness is so darling, but underneath that is a man who is protective of his friends and strives to push them. Part of Sam’s reticence towards letting Joel in is that he challenges her. Joel tells her to put a bra on, go outside, and try to make her life hers. At the same time, he’s also struggling to find out what he wants himself. In Episode 5, wherein Joel is trapped in a drainage pipe with a puppy during a tornado, Hiller gets to do some brilliant comedy, but also illustrate Joel’s reluctance to take time out for himself. When he tells his partner that he wants marriage and a Vitamix in his life, it’s a huge step forward for Joel owning who he is, and Hiller makes it utterly perfect. –Kristen Lopez
“The Girl From Plainville”
3. Colton Ryan (“The Girl From Plainville”)
The challenge in playing a real person, especially one who died so tragically, is making sure the resulting performance isn’t one-note. Theater actor Ryan (“Dear Evan Hansen”) more than rose to the challenge in the Hulu miniseries “The Girl From Plainville,” based on the upsetting true story about a teenager, Conrad (Ryan), who killed himself on the encouragement of his girlfriend (portrayed by Elle Fanning). Ryan’s multi-layered performance finds the actor navigating emotionally difficult family scenes as well as sweet puppy love moments with Fanning — complete with a full “Glee”-inspired musical number! The result brings to life Conrad’s whole world, making viewers sad about the ending but glad to have known him. We can’t wait to see what Ryan does next. –Erin Strecker
4. Jessica Lowe (“Minx”)
Jessica Lowe did amazing work this year upending the dumb-blonde stereotype as Bambi on HBO Max’s ’70s comedy “Minx.” Bambi is introduced to audiences as the typical blonde ditz. She doesn’t read a lot and gets thrown by big words, but as the series shows, anyone is capable of growth so long as they’re open to it. In this case, Bambi teaming up with burgeoning magazine editor Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond), inspires her to educate herself. And yet Lowe never underestimates or diminishes the talents Bambi already has. The relationship that develops between Bambi and Joyce’s sister, Shelly (Lennon Parham) is a great example, as Shelly’s practicality mellows out Bambi, while Bambi’s free-spirited openness and love for everyone helps Shelley awaken her own sexuality. And Lowe has to jump between all of these different emotions while still playing a character who works at a ’70s porn mag! –KL
5. Tramell Tillman (“Severance”)
“Severance” is a show built on precision, with camera moves made and interiors designed with an incredible amount of care and intention. The show’s ensemble is integral top to bottom, but there are plenty of times when Tillman’s Milchick feels like the pin holding everything together (at whatever speed he happens to be moving through the twisting Lumon hallways). Even with some of the answers unspooled over the course of the first season, Tillman represents the best form of ambiguity that “Severance” thrives on.
Milchick is a company man, and Tillman gives a performance that somehow combines duty, fear, charm, stability, and danger into the purest, most potent form of middle management put on screen in ages. Equally comfortable delivering a smile as he is a sense of menace (often at the same time), Tillman’s ability to move between both those worlds only makes that same movement of the characters around him feel that much stronger. –Steve Greene
6. Janelle James (“Abbott Elementary”)
Every workplace comedy has a character who doesn’t believe they’re the villain. And then there’s Janelle James’ performance as Ava in ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” Ava isn’t the villain, but she honestly doesn’t really care whether you think she is or not. The Quinta Brunson-created comedy is already near-perfect, but James’ performance takes it to a higher level with a character who’s kooky, hilarious, and you still love despite her selfishness.
Episode 9, —titled “Step Class,” was a great showcase for James’ talents. Ava agreeing to help teach the girls of her school step dancing was, as fellow educator Janine (Brunson) saw it, an opportunity for disaster. And it’s assumed that Ava does bail on the girls, until Janine discovers that Ava is caring for her grandmother who has dementia. For a character that is so loud and outlandish, it was a chance for James to downplay her acting and show that Ava does have people she loves in her life other than herself. It’s a fantastic performance for a fantastic character. –KL
7. Minha Kim (“Pachinko”)
“Pachinko” is a remarkable season of television, namely in the way that it can locate so much tragedy and resilience and uncertainty and determination in the decades-spanning tale of a single family. What makes all of that even more astounding is the way that Kim is able to thread together all of those emotional ideas whenever she’s on screen. She never overplays the pain and vulnerability of a character having to deal with the loss of family members and her very home, leaving room for the moments of joy that Sunja manages to find along her own personal journey.
There’s a care and gentleness in the performance that better allows Sunja’s story to reverberate generations later. To have that much presence and understanding of how to play every facet of a tumultuous life (in a demanding shoot as varied and nuanced as the subject matter itself) would be a feat for anyone. That she accomplishes it all in her first major on-screen role is even more of a reason to take note of what comes next. –SG
“Conversations With Friends”
8. Alison Oliver (“Conversations With Friends”)
It can be quite tricky to play a character who not only represses many of their authentic emotions but who is actually described as having a secret interior life. Reserved people aren’t typically talkative or demonstrative in the way we’ve grown accustomed to seeing folks behave on TV. They’re not going to spill their darkest secrets over a cocktail or get into an embarrassing public debacle. Rather, they’re going to watch bar patrons in polite silence and leave a place before anything embarrassing can happen — just like Frances does in “Conversations with Friends.” She laughs and sips her wine at the local pub, without saying much, and she flees her secret crush’s play performance before he even knows she’s attended.
But what we learn about Frances, why we’re drawn to her and feel for her, isn’t simply written into the part; it’s not that she’s a plain person who we’re informed to care about because of our privileged perspective into her private life. Alison Oliver builds Frances with patience and vulnerability. She doesn’t try to do too much; smaller scenes can speak for themselves, without her overextending to emphasize how we should feel, and bigger moments carry a natural urgency, as if she’s feeling everything for the first time. One other key: Her eye contact is specific in a way that reticent individuals should recognize — easy and true with people she trusts (like her best friend, Bobbi), fleeting and downcast with anyone who intimidates her, whether it’s a respected author (like Melissa) or her husband, who Frances fancies, Nick (Joe Alwyn).
Her eyes tell Frances’ story, almost by themselves. You can see how her feelings for Nick morph in how she looks at him. Even when their chats are vague or their relationship undefined, one glance at Oliver’s gaze tells us how she’s feeling, what she hopes for, and ties us to those dreams right beside her. And after her performance in “Conversations with Friends,” we’ll follow Oliver to whatever project she joins next. –Ben Travers
Read more: The Best TV Shows of 2022, So Far
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