But for all the reaction and commentary to the politics unfolding off screen, TV was also at its best when it let viewers escape or made them laugh. Doing the latter was a pair of debuts, Insecure and Atlanta, from creators and stars Issa Rae and Donald Glover. The HBO comedy saw Rae finally transform her Internet star power into success on TV, while Atlanta ignored any conventions of traditional sitcoms to become the breakout comedy of the year. “The show was a fresh voice that showed what it’s really like to be black in a way that’s universal,” says Brian Tyree Henry, who is also enjoying breakout success as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on the FX comedy, as well as guest-starring role on This Is Us.
Letting audiences escape were Legion on FX and HBO’s Westworld and The Leftovers, which closed out its grief-stricken series with the best performances either of its stars, Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, have ever delivered onscreen. As for Legion and Westworld, the two buzzy sci-fi series had audiences trying to pick apart the narrative as their twists and turns continued to dumbfound them (and its stars). For Dan Stevens, who plays David Haller on the FX creation from Noah Hawley, “not knowing” anything allowed him, as an actor, to just play with what was given to him.
And for Thandie Newton, a fiery standout as Maeve Millay in Westworld, filming the first season of the HBO adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film left her with newfound freedom. “I just felt liberated from my own doubt about self and power and my creative force,” she says. “I gave everything to Westworld and I was so thrilled with the result.” The result also earned her a Golden Globe nomination and some of the best reviews of her career.
In the current era of Peak TV it’s becoming increasingly hard to stand out, but that’s what these 15 potential nominees did. ET sat down with Billions breakout Asia Kate Dillon, who is challenging the Television Academy to think beyond gender norms, Transparent writer Our Lady J and the many stars mentioned above to discuss their standout performances of the season.
--Additional reporting by John Boone, Hillary Crosley Coker, Raymond Johnson, Philiana Ng and Elliott Smith