Television

The TV Club, 2019

Entry 14: The best TV performances of 2019.

Collage of Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon dancing in a striped shirt, Mahershala Ali in True Detective wearing a suit and looking serious, and Jeremy Strong in Succession on a boat pouting with headphones on. Text in the corner says 2019 TV Club.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by FX, Graeme Hunter/HBO, and HBO.

The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.

Friends:

I’ve been watching so much of The Simpsons on Disney+ lately, so let me begin by paraphrasing beloved zombie Shakespeare: Is this the end of 2019 TV Club?

I came in to this missive hoping to write about some of my favorite performances of the year (and I will get there). But I wanted to lead off with how grateful I am for the presence of this feature to cap off the past four years of my life and for the presence of the three of you, specifically, as my friends and colleagues. The collegiality that exists within the TV critic world is a rare and wonderful thing, and I am lucky enough to know that times a dozen after a year in which I told so many people a secret I thought would end my career, only to have them say, “Oh, sure, yes. Now I get you.” There is too much television, but there are never too many friends.

Before my mushiness becomes a cancerous growth that takes over Slate whole (I can already hear the publication’s editors fighting to keep it contained to the above paragraph), let’s talk about something else there can never be enough of: great TV acting!

Forthwith, short paragraphs on 10 of my favorite TV performances of the year. Caveat: I’ve always found acting difficult to write about. But caveat to that caveat: The more I work with actors in my own projects—and especially the more that I come to recognize that I, myself, live in a body in the midst of my transition—the more I’ve come to love watching how other people inhabit theirs, which has made me feel slightly more qualified to write about acting, a thing I will never, ever possibly do as well as any of the below folks.

Michelle Williams did something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in Fosse/Verdon, particularly in the show’s penultimate episode, in which she receives a phone call from Fosse while on vocal rest after an invasive surgery. He uses the occasion to give her some terrible news about how little he clearly regards her importance to their partnership, and she rasps out angry words that she can barely make heard. He keeps speaking over her, and she somehow matches him thanks to the power of pure fury. Williams is so delightful in comedy, but she keeps getting cast in these sorts of dramas because she’s so good at finding new ways to play imploding stars that fight back against the forces of the universe to go nova instead. Hers was my TV performance of the year.

But you know who else was stunning? Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll! Lyonne has always been the kind of live-wire performer who deserves better from the entertainment industry. She reminds me of the young Robert Downey Jr., with her ability to enter a scene, seem to take nothing in it seriously, then break your heart. In Russian Doll, she ran right into the maw of her character’s aching, endless need with the kind of freight-train rush that would destroy anybody else. She couldn’t escape her death; she couldn’t escape her life either. Too many actors would have made this scenario cutesy, and the opportunities were right there. Lyonne never did.

Another crumpled tin can of a performance is thanks to Jeremy Strong of Succession. The performances that have been getting awards recognition from this show are the more obviously showy ones—particularly those of Brian Cox and Kieran Culkin—but it’s Kendall Roy who makes this show work. For Succession to be any good, there needs to be a reminder that this family is destroying the world thanks to its internecine squabbling but also that the pain Logan Roy has inflicted on his children is very real. Somehow, Strong conveys both of these things in nearly every scene. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders and can destroy everything he touches. He’s the product of abuse. It’s like the dilemma of the 2010s in one guy, and Strong never makes a false choice, always going small when others might go big.

It’s been easy to forget that there was another season of True Detective this year, but it was my favorite of that show’s run. And a large portion of that is thanks to Mahershala Ali in the central role. At a certain point, I will become tired of watching roles where Ali sits very, very still and speaks with a hushed whisper that reveals how much tension exists within his every muscle, but 2019 was not that point. He gets bonus points for taking the show’s gimmicky “sometimes he’s an old man” idea and making a full meal of it, showing how one cop devolves across decades.

I guess we’re going to keep talking about HBO performances, because here’s Bill Hader from Barry next. Apparently what I responded to this year were performances where very reserved people revealed just how deadly they could be, but I’ll never stop being impressed how Hader showed that Barry could be a great actor if he just figured out how to funnel just enough of his rage into a performance to be electric while holding just enough back not to be scary. Unfortunately, he does not know how to hold anything back. (This cast is an embarrassment of riches, though. I love everybody in it and am going to single out Sarah Goldberg in particular for her remarkable work in Season 2.)

HBO? HBO! Because when you absolutely must have a new Watchmen series, casting Regina King at its center is the right call. We all know that King can play essentially any emotion in the book to absolute perfection—witness the way she breaks down when she realizes her husband might be taken from her forever—but what I was struck by in watching her Watchmen work was her sheer physicality. There’s a blunt force but balletic quality to her in this show, and it’s a quality women are rarely allowed to show on TV, much less black women. She’s fantastic at the emotional stuff, but she’s also a battering ram. What a balance to negotiate!

I’m talking a lot about lead performances here, so let’s focus on one of the year’s best supporting roles: Michael K. Williams in When They See Us. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of When They See Us, a show I respected more than I felt emotionally engaged by it. And yet, perhaps, that was the point—to force me to see something and get as angry as the show wanted me to be. The times when I most felt like the show was having that desired emotional effect were the times Williams came into the story, using his immense power to get you to empathize with him at all times, to make you feel sadness, to feel rage, to feel the way a traumatic situation like this becomes a black hole, sucking up anything even remotely nearby.

Meanwhile, in network TV land, NBC’s Superstore has frantically been trying to pack a bunch of dark story turns from the end of its fourth season back into a box in Season 5 (sometimes successfully!). But one thing the show has done beautifully is make Nico Santos a very real, very human face of the horrific immigration systems this country has built. In its fourth season finale—when Santos’ character, Mateo, is taken by ICE—the series revealed that all along its goal was to get you to fall in love with this character, then shatter anything you might think you know about his situation. It’s weirdly like a fun house mirror of When They See Us.

It would be really tricky to do a list like this without mentioning Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but watch me try, because I want to talk about Sian Clifford, whose work as Claire ended up being the beating heart of Fleabag Season 2 for me. Waller-Bridge smartly places a rom-com in which Claire is the hero in the background of the Hot Priest action, and Clifford plays a woman who’s used to not being the center of attention because she ignores all of her own desires (and Fleabag is right there to hoover up any attention sent in the family’s general direction). The scenes in the finale where Fleabag and Claire affirm their essential bond and where Claire realizes just what she must do to be happy are just lovely rom-com resolutions, and they’re happening in the B plot.

And finally, Pose is kind of a mess, but it would be somewhere in my 10–20 list, because it’s my mess. For every time it seems like its entire conception stems from Ryan Murphy’s jealousy of Tony Kushner, it somehow wrestles his desire for preachiness into a story where the preachiness is deserved. For me, the second season’s best performance was Mj Rodriguez, who confronted death itself in her attempts to become a mother to all the little queer kids who need a new home. It is really, really hard to play a fundamentally good person, because people who have secrets to hide are so much more inherently compelling. But Rodriguez not only plays a good person but also what’s effortless about her goodness. She’s like a hug embodied in a performer, and I hope she gets some of the awards attention that has been lavished on Billy Porter.

There are so many more people I could talk about here, actors whose work made me brim with joy for getting to see cool humans do cool things —check out this YouTube video from Olly Thorn to see an actor giving a great performance in a place where he doesn’t seem to be performing at all. But 10 is a nice, round number, after all, and I’m sure many of you would love to add to my list. (I’m already mad I didn’t put Jason Ralph on there for The Magicians. What a year for men giving wounded, vulnerable performances on TV!)

Again, thank you all for taking me into your hearts and into this lovely TV Club. I live for this week every year, and I hope we all find each other again in 2020.

Until then, happy holidays and Merry Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show (only on Amazon).

Emily

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.