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A Year in Review: 15 Memorable TV Performances from 2016

Nora Dominick ’17/ Emertainment Monthly Executive Stage Editor

As 2016 comes to a close it’s time to look back at this year in TV, specifically the groundbreaking performances that graced our screens all year long. Some actors and actresses made us laugh while others made us sob. From brand-new characters to old favorites, there’s a lot to celebrate.

Emertainment Monthly’s resident TV nerd Nora Dominick breaks down her top 15 favorite performances of 2016. Check out the full list below!

Beware spoilers ahead!

1. Sarah Paulson, The People vs. O.J Simpson

Sarah Paulson in The People vs. O.J Simpson. Photo Credit: FX
Sarah Paulson in The People vs. O.J Simpson. Photo Credit: FX

It’s the performance that finally earned Sarah Paulson an Emmy Award in 2016 and it’s one we won’t soon forget. Paulson’s exceptional work as Marcia Clark in The People vs. O.J Simpson went above and beyond expectations as she brought Marcia’s story to millions of people. Her shining moment of the season came in the episode “Marcia, Marica, Marcia.” She commands the courtroom, but still manages to strike a balance between the Marcia portrayed on screen and the Marcia at home. While Paulson has several memorable TV roles, Marcia Clark will no doubt define her career for years to come.

2. Chyler Leigh, Supergirl

Chyler Leigh and Melissa Benoist in the Supergirl episode "Changing." Photo Credit: Liane Hentscher/The CW
Chyler Leigh and Melissa Benoist in the Supergirl episode “Changing.” Photo Credit: Liane Hentscher/The CW

Season 2 of Supergirl is lightyears better than season 1. Between the change in network (Godbless The CW) to beautiful character development, Supergirl has hit its stride. While all the characters are thriving, it’s Chyler Leigh’s work as Alex Danvers that deserves a special shout out. Her coming out story this season tugs at our heartstrings and Leigh brings her A-game with every episode. Leigh’s best moment of 2016 comes during the episode “Changing” where she comes out to Kara (Melissa Benoist) thus starting her journey. If you aren’t watching Alex and Maggie’s (Floriana Lima) love story unfold on Supergirl you are missing out!

3. Milo Ventimiglia, This Is Us

Milo Ventimiglia in This Is Us. Photo Credit: NBC
Milo Ventimiglia in This Is Us. Photo Credit: NBC

It’s the groundbreaking drama that has defined the 2016 TV season, This Is Us astounds week after week. While every actor and actress on the show defies expectations, it’s Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson that brings us to tears every, single week. Ventimiglia’s work opposite Mandy Moore is heartbreaking, heartwarming and memorable all at once. While Ventimiglia has enjoyed numerous exceptional TV roles, Jack Pearson will no doubt define his acting career. Every week, he breaks our hearts and then pieces them back together. There are several stand-out moments of his from 2016, however some of his best work comes opposite Lonnie Chavis as young Randall. Between pushing him to go to a gifted school to physically carrying him on his back, Ventimiglia and Chavis have a bond that comes across every week.

4. Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things

Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things. Photo Credit: Netflix
Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things. Photo Credit: Netflix

Stranger Things changed the TV game in 2016, but it’s Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven that made our heart grow three times more this year. Alongside the rest of the exceptional cast, Brown re-defines TV and her work is something to celebrate. Eleven is an outsider looking for a way to fit in, something everyone can relate to. With every episode of Stranger Things, Brown’s work goes above and beyond expectations. Some of her best work comes in the season finale, “Chapter 8: The Upside Down.” Every struggle the group has gone through comes to a head and Brown leads the cast with fierceness. 2016 wouldn’t have been the same without Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven.

5. Claire Foy, The Crown

Claire Foy in The Crown. Photo Credit: Netflix
Claire Foy in The Crown. Photo Credit: Netflix

God Save the Queen! Netflix unleashed it’s latest drama The Crown in 2016 and with it came a breakthrough performance by Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II. A career-defining role, Foy brought her A-game with every episode. As she takes Queen Elizabeth II through her early days of her reign, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role. Alongside Matt Smith, Foy portrays a political figure that is genuine, kind and tough. With every episode, her portrayal only gets better and better. Some of her best work actually comes in the second episode, “Hyde Park Corner,” when Elizabeth learns of her fathers passing. It’s no wonder Foy has racked up several award nominations heading into 2017. If you aren’t watching The Crown, it’s time to venture into the depths of the British monarchy.

6. Lauren Cohan, The Walking Dead

Lauren Cohan in The Walking Dead episode "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be." Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Lauren Cohan in The Walking Dead episode “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead’s latest season has been the most gruesome in the shows history. Starting out with the death of two major characters, The Walking Dead has undergone a massive change in 2016. While every single member of the cast has stepped up their game, it’s Lauren Cohan’s work as Maggie Greene Rhee that stands out the most. After watching Glenn (Steven Yeun) brutally murdered, Maggie doesn’t stop moving. She’s the first one to suggest that they fight back against Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). 2016 brought some of Cohan’s best work ever on The Walking Dead. From the heartbreaking moment when she stands after Glenn’s death to the epic speech she gives to Gregory (Xander Berkeley) at The Hilltop, Cohan has transformed Maggie into a strong, leading female character. We can’t wait to see Maggie and Cohan rise up when The Walking Dead returns in 2017.

7. Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us & The People vs. OJ Simpson

Sterling K. Brown in This Is Us and The People vs. O.J Simpson. Photo Credit: NBC/FX
Sterling K. Brown in This Is Us and The People vs. O.J Simpson. Photo Credit: NBC/FX

It’s very rare that in one year an actor could give two unbelievable performances and yet, Sterling K. Brown managed to do just that. He began the year portraying Christopher Darden in The People vs. O.J Simpson. His work opposite Sarah Paulson created one of the most memorable duos during the 2016 TV season. His work earned him a 2016 Emmy Award and it’s no surprise. He brings Darden’s story to life with such grace and heartache it’s no wonder he became one of the most talked about actors.

Then, Brown went onto star in the groundbreaking drama This Is Us where he brings to life Randall, one of the Big Three who reconnects with his birth father. On this show, Brown, once again, defies the odds and creates a character that is brilliant, heart warming and sympathetic. Brown had an incredible year and we can’t wait to see where he takes Randall in 2017.

8. Holland Roden, Teen Wolf

Holland Roden and Tyler Posey in the Teen Wolf episode "Radio Silence." Photo Credit: MTV
Holland Roden and Tyler Posey in the Teen Wolf episode “Radio Silence.” Photo Credit: MTV

In 2016, Teen Wolf began its final season and with it the actors and actresses are giving it all they’ve got. In particular, Holland Roden has brought Lydia to new and exceptional heights. With Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) taken by The Ghost Riders, Lydia struggles to remember him. Roden has transformed Lydia into one of the strongest female characters on TV. After being introduced as the stereotypical popular girl, Lydia has become so much more. While Teen Wolf has only aired five episodes of its final season so far, Roden already shines. In the episode “Radio Silence,” the spotlight finally lands on Roden as she gives a tear-inducing performance when Lydia finally connects with Stiles and remembers him. As Teen Wolf heads into its final few episodes in 2017, Roden will surely continue her streak of incredible moments.

9. Donna Lynne Champlin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Donna Lynne Champlin in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Photo Credit: The CW
Donna Lynne Champlin in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Photo Credit: The CW

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the unsung heroes of 2016. Rachel Bloom has created a show that celebrates differences and it’s a show that you need to be watching. While Bloom’s Rebecca leads the cast of characters with heart and humor, it’s Donna Lynne Champlin’s Paula that continuously steals the show. Since season one, she’s had Rebecca’s back, but with season two Paula’s had to deal with some of her own struggles, namely an abortion. Champlin handles the storyline with grace and courage and she continuously knocks her musical numbers and dramatic moments out of the park. We raise a donut to you Donna Lynne Champlin and all that you accomplished in 2016!

10. Thandie Newton, Westworld

Thandie Newton in Westworld. Photo Credit: HBO
Thandie Newton in Westworld. Photo Credit: HBO

Westworld changed dramatic TV during 2016 and while every single actor on the hit show has outdone themselves, Thandie Newton as Maeve is exceptional. Newton’s skills are showcased episode after episode as she builds her character. Particularly, Newton’s work in “The Adversary” sets her on a course for greatness on Westworld. In a sea of exceptional acting and characters, Newton still manages to stand out and create something unique with the character of Maeve. Maeve has become a fan favorite across the board and Newton’s portrayal gives Westworld another edge as one of the best new TV shows of 2016.

11. Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Lauren Graham in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Photo Credit: Netflix
Lauren Graham in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Photo Credit: Netflix

2016 will forever be the year that Gilmore Girls returned to our TV screens thanks to the power of Netflix. With its return, Lauren Graham brought back Lorelai Gilmore with such fierceness and heart that it’s hard to determine where Graham ends and Gilmore begins. Her work opposite every member of the cast is exceptional as she tells Lorelai’s story in the wake of her father’s death. Although Graham works best opposite Kelly Bishop, Alexis Bledel and Scott Patterson, it’s her epic monologue in “Fall” that solidifies this as her best performance to date. Only a truly special actress (and character) can bring an entire fanbase to tears with a monologue about a girl, her father, an annoying ex-boyfriend, and a pretzel.

12. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Walking Dead

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Walking Dead episode "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be." Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Walking Dead episode “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Negan’s reign has begun on The Walking Dead and the apocalypse will never be the same. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has defied expectations as he springs Negan from the pages of Robert Kirkman’s comic book universe. It takes a special kind of actor to create a villain fans love to hate and also hate to love. With every sadistic smile, Morgan worms his way into The Walking Dead fans hearts and it’s something we try to stop from happening. He entered the universe with a bash and now he’s here to stay. Morgan’s work opposite every member of the cast from Chandler Riggs to Christian Serratos is career-defining. He’s played memorable characters in the past, but Negan is a whole new beast. 2017 will continue Negan’s reign on The Walking Dead and we are anxiously awaiting his next move against our gang.

13. Kit Harington, Game of Thrones

Kit Harington in the Game of Thrones episode "Battle of the Bastards." Photo Credit: HBO
Kit Harington in the Game of Thrones episode “Battle of the Bastards.” Photo Credit: HBO

He rose from the dead in 2016 and we are so thankful. After a heart stopping Game of Thrones finale in 2015 that saw the death of Jon Snow, his resurrection in 2016 was all the more memorable. Kit Harington gave his best performance as the Bastard Stark this year, as he brought Jon Snow to new, incredible heights. While death is never a good thing on a TV show, Jon’s death gave Harington his best material. From leading an entire army in the epic “Battle of the Bastards” to reuniting with Sansa (Sophie Turner), Harington brought his A-game and gave us a performance to celebrate. In general, 2016 gave us the best season of Game of Thrones and we can’t wait to see how the story unfolds in 2017.

14. Caitriona Balfe, Outlander

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in the Outlander episode “Dragonfly in Amber.” Photo Credit: Starz
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in the Outlander episode “Dragonfly in Amber.” Photo Credit: Starz

One of the most underrated actresses on TV, Caitriona Balfe leads the hit Starz drama Outlander with fierceness and heart. Her work opposite Sam Heughan continues to be breathtaking, genuine, and beautiful as they tell the story of a romance lost with time. In particular, Balfe upped her game in 2016 with Claire’s heart wrenching storylines in season 2 of Outlander. With each episode, Balfe hones her craft and creates memorable TV moments. Her tear inducing farewell to Jamie in the season finale is just one of the many stand out scene Balfe gives us. Need further proof Balfe killed it during 2016? Simply watch the Outlander episode “Faith.” If you make it through that episode without praising Balfe’s genius, there’s something seriously wrong with you.

15. Rami Malek, Mr. Robot

Rami Malek in Mr. Robot. Photo Credit: USA Network
Rami Malek in Mr. Robot. Photo Credit: USA Network

Hacking never looked so good! Rami Malek created some of the most jaw dropping moment in 2016 with his work in Mr. Robot. Although season 2 of the hit USA show was less than favorable, Malek’s performance continued to be a standout. With every new storyline, Malek, alongside Christian Slater, redefines the word “plot twist.” 2016 wouldn’t have been the same without Malek’s career defining turn as Elliot. We hope 2017 brings the revitalization of Mr. Robot, but one thing is certain, Malek will continue to dominate.

What were your favorite TV performances of 2016? Sound off in the comments below!
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