Our resident telly expert Hannah Dunleavy has been gobsmacked by the amount of decent roles and astounding performances on TV this year. She picks her top 20.
Oh yes, while at times it felt like women were taking quantum leaps backwards, on television the slow and steady progress of recent years led to a bumper year of great roles for great actresses. Interesting roles, complicated roles, beamed straight into our living rooms.
I can’t watch everything, try as I might, so I’m sure there’ll be things you loved that I didn’t get round to watching. But, nonetheless, here are the 20 ‘best’ performances by women on TV this year. Do with it what you will. (Although I’d suggest you watch them.)
20. Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones (HBO)
Yeah, I know. Not Diana Rigg. What days are these? No, but really, after series upon series of playing second fiddle to the rest of the Stark children, Turner finally got to try something new, as Sansa did the thing that comes to us all eventually: she turned into her mother. And she was pretty marvellous too.
One of the best scenes on TV this year – when the houses of the North pledged to Jon Snow – was a set-piece more drowned in testosterone than a city-centre taxi queue. AND it featured a rousing speech from a tiny girl lord. And yet Turner, who doesn’t speak at all, completely owns the whole thing.
People must be falling over themselves to give her work.
If there’s an encouraging theme to this list, it’s probably that, while so many characters might be easy to admire, a lot them just ain’t that easy to like.
Alison Hughes is a prime example: the mother of an autistic child, whose battle to do right by her son means she oversteps all marks. She speaks first and thinks later and is entirely tone deaf to the needs of the rest of her family.
I think it says something about the strength of Christie’s performance that it seems as much a drama about how a family accommodates a huge personality as it is about a family with an autistic child. And it’s all the better for it.
Christ on a bike. The constraints of adapting a novel – here one by Zadie Smith – into a short TV adaptation means although some of Natalie’s story often felt rushed, like the uncovering of her deceit, her reaction to it was extraordinary.
Her beslippered roam around London was a fist-chewing shitshow. Bravo.
The big surprise of the year came in the second series of Fey’s delightful Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Not that she isn’t super talented, which she obviously is, but given her appearance in the first series was essentially a long-running impersonation of prosecutor Marcia Clark (and more on her later), I wasn’t expecting this.
As Andrea Bayden, Kimmy’s alcoholic psychiatrist, she was essentially playing two roles, as if they were two separate women who just so happened to never be in the same room together. Which is not only ripe for comedy but also pretty spot-on with how a lot of drinkers view their drunk selves. At the risk of being all “she’s so funny and smart”, I’m just going to say, “she’s so funny and smart” and leave it there.
If death couldn’t separate them, I’m not going to try.
Genuinely the most surprisingly lovely thing on TV this year, a tale of first love and second chances that made me cry at the sight of two lights flashing together to Heaven is a Place on Earth. What a weird year this has been.
Much like the OJ Simpson trial itself, the first in new anthology series American Crime Story seemed to appeal to an American audience way more than the rest of the world. That said, there was a lot to enjoy in parts of the series. Most of which had Paulson in them.
In fact, the series’ greatest strength was in pointing out that while race politics dominated the trial, gender politics had a huge role to play. Largely in the steaming pile of misogyny placed in front of prosecutor Marcia Clark by the media.
Paulson plays it perfectly as the woman who’s so easy to get behind but at the same time so tough to actually like. She won an Emmy for it. Which seems about right.
If you hadn’t already guessed it, The Crown‘s not exactly my bag. That said, it’d hardly be fair to opine on television and not watch one the most lavish productions of the year. Plus, not watch Eileen Atkins? What am I, an actual idiot?
Actually, despite falling into the over-reverent and not-historically-accurate traps, there was a lot to like about Netflix’s attempt at big BBC-style fodder. Not least the aforementioned Atkins and Jared Harris – and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, a performance that so reminded me of a younger Maggie Gyllenhaal I’ve convinced myself we’ll see the American playing an older incarnation of the Queen’s younger sister some time in the future.
But the real star of the show is clearly Foy, who takes a tough role (a woman everyone knows both everything and nothing about) and makes it look easy.
I’m not surprised that no major UK channel has picked up Ray McKinnon’s epic Southern Gothic about the release of a man after 20 years on death row, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Rectify is beautiful to look at, it’s beautiful to listen to (although its greatest strength is in knowing when to say nothing) and it’s got some of the blackest humour on TV.
It also has some of TV’s best performances (take a bow Aden Young and Clayne Crawford). It seems desperately unfair to single one woman from the cast out, but in the fourth and final season Spencer really excelled, despite not having a huge presence. Amantha is blessed/cursed with exactly the sort of steamroller personality needed to get a brother out of jail, but it also impacts on her ability to get on with most of the rest of the world. And, as she’s had to learn not only to let him live his new life, but had to start to live her own, Spencer’s been an absolute treat to watch.
No, but seriously, will some bastard please put this on normal TV.
The best thing on Veep. Which isn’t as obvious as it sounds. This series is absolutely riddled with brilliance, so competition is tough. First Louis-Dreyfus had to compete with the core cast, which includes Tony Hale and Anna Chlumsky. Then they threw Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole into the mix. And then Hugh Laurie. And then John Slattery. And Louis-Dreyfus is still the best thing in Veep.
Hilariously funny, utterly without vanity and more gorgeous than ever.
There’s no doubt the BBC’s drama about life after the murder of Damilola Taylor was really about fathers and sons, so it was slow and steady work for most of the show for Mosaku. But really, it was all about that amazing speech Gloria Taylor gave her family at the end, so powerful and proof, if any more were needed, that Mosaku’s a star in the making.
I know, you think she should be higher. In truth, I was reluctant to put Brown in the list at all, because she doesn’t fulfil the criteria of ‘woman’. Which may seem pedantic but, considering the media spent the summer circling her like an oddball at a playground, it seems some people need reminding.
That said, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge her bravura performance as Eleven, a role so lacking in dialogue it must barely have existed on paper. Well done that 12-year-old girl.
In truth, Dee was an incredibly frustrating character, in no small part due to the fact the central mystery of the drama meant her past and her motives had to remain somewhat oblique. So kudos to the ever-reliable Riseborough for finding a real person in what could so easily have been a series of cliches.
I said it at the time and I’ll say it again: the scene where she explains her weird dream to her dad is a masterclass performance, so loaded with subtext, sadness and menace it makes the skin crawl.
If you read Standard Issue with any regularity, you’ll know already of my ability to wang on about both the character Lindsay Denton and her real-world counterpart, Keeley Hawes.
And in series three, relieved of her need to play it ambiguously, Hawes got to let loose as we saw Denton in all her ball-grabbing, floor-mopping, Steve-playing glory.
And then she literally eyeballed a gun. That’s great TV right there.
Well, well, well. There we all were, expecting Evan Rachel Wood to be star of the show (as per the pre-promotion) and instead it was Newton who burst through the saloon doors and shot the place up. (Yes, I know it was Wood who got the Golden Globe nomination. No, I don’t agree.)
I could write an essay about what didn’t work for me about Westworld; in fact I probably did. But what did work was Maeve. Bold, smart, beautiful and one half of TV’s most preposterously hot duo ever, Newton was all over Super Maeve like a rash, dahling.
And praise where praise is due, she not only looks incredible naked, but also used every time she was asked about her nude scenes as an opportunity to point out she felt a lot more objectified while dressed as a madam than she ever did with it all hanging out.
Thandie, dahling, I salute you.
The sheer proliferation of good TV means that some of the best of it (Rectify, The Leftovers) remains so poorly watched. The Americans is on that list but its appearance is perhaps the most inexplicable. It’s a remarkably addictive mix of Cold War thriller and domestic drama, as Russell and her on (and off) screen partner Matthew Rhys work deep undercover as KGB agents posing as a married couple in 1980s Washington. (Both leads picked up about-time-too Golden Globe nominations last week, for the excellent fourth series.)
Russell is a steely eyed, glossy voiced and pert-bottomed wonder as Elizabeth Jennings, as she juggles killing men with her bare hands with raising the children ‘the authorities’ told her would strengthen their cover. She’s arguably the most interesting female character on TV right now and inarguably its first great female antihero. Which deserves an almighty round of applause. No, really.
Yeah, I know, it’s not the most flattering of photographs but it’s probably what you’d have seen in the mirror the moment you realised the life had been accidentally squeezed out of Poussey on the canteen floor. (I sometimes wonder, if the series’ makers had known what a shithawk 2016 was going to be, whether they might have chosen to save us this additional trauma.)
Three previous series of OITNB had already shown Brooks was proper versatile, but the events of the tail-end of the fourth asked some pretty big questions of her and she more than delivered. So much so that ‘what Taystee does next’ is one of the enticing proposals TV has in 2017.
Yes indeed, two entries for OITNB this year. And unlike Danielle Brooks, who’s been a vital weapon in the series armoury from the get-go, Petty came out of nowhere to steal the show. Since Lolly was introduced in series two, she’s been a plot mover for the writers, and a source of amusement and/or general irritation for the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary.
But series four saw her struggle not to lose whatever remained of her grasp on the real world become the sad heart of the show. The sight of her alone in a box, clutching a potato, was TV at its most powerful.
So long Lolly, it was gut-wrenching.
I like to think that years of reviewing TV would allow me to come up with a better description of Lancashire in Happy Valley than “fucking hell” but there you have it. Fucking hell.
It may sound like an insult to say Lancashire takes an extraordinary creation and makes her ordinary. But that’s the genius of Happy Valley, a series which finds the heroic in the everyday: in the ability to just keep getting up in the morning, in trying to learn from your mistakes, in trying to be a decent human being.
The series was really an embarrassment of riches in the actress stakes but special mention to Susan Lynch (my unlikely pick for next year’s Best Actress in a Supporting Role Bafta), who was incredible in the final episode, despite her character being barely conscious throughout. The two scenes Lancashire shares with her (stumbling across her attempted suicide and later visiting her in the hospital) almost defy description other than to say I felt like I had been punched in the throat when I watched. And for some time after.
The thing is, you either watch Orphan Black and you get it, or you don’t and you’re wondering why I didn’t pick that woman from that thing you watched and really liked.
In many ways, it’s unfair to judge other women against Maslany, as it’s like comparing Jessica Ennis-Hill with a single-event athlete. Her individual performances might not win her medals, but when you remember that she’s actually doing seven different things at the same time, it’s kind of difficult to not view her as some kind of goddess.
It’s this flexibility that really makes Maslany so frigging special. (Although I’d assume the ability to put up with the punishing schedule that comes with playing seven parts is also crucial.) She can literally do anything: drama, horror, comedy, action sequences, accents, singing and dancing – a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g.
The Emmys righted one of its longstanding wrongs this year by giving her the Best Actress award and about fecking time, because Maslany is, quite simply, the most talented woman working in acting today. In any medium. The end.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.