This year was an embarrassment of riches when it came to exceptional television performances, so when it came time to pick just a few to highlight, it was near impossible.
From Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer and American Horror Story: Apocalypse’s Leslie Grossman to The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto and You’s Penn Badgley, 2018 was the year of the TV masterpiece, and we’re celebrating the actors and actresses who gave it their all and then some.
The lucky 17 who made our list this year play wildly different people on vastly disparate shows, but they all have one thing in common: They’re as in tune with their characters as they have ever been, and often leave us desperately wanting more.
Without further ado, ET spotlights the biggest TV scene stealers worthy of recognition for their slam-dunk performances on the small screen in 2018.
Penn Badgley in You
Penn Badgley became TV famous through the salacious teen soap Gossip Girl, but in You, he sheds Dan Humphrey’s skin to reveal Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager so obsessed with the idea of being The Ideal Boyfriend he resorts to stalking, kidnapping and all-out killing. It's a role Badgley admitted to being incredibly uneasy with. “There are moments throughout where I’m like, Hmm, I understand it better now, I wish I could have done something different,” Badgley told ET in July. “Overall, I believe in the performance and I believe in the show, but I think I’m still discovering Joe.”
Even so, Badgley’s Joe is terrifyingly likable, a truth that intrigues and fascinates the actor playing him. “What time are we in? What moment are we in that we find this so compelling? I'm not saying it's bad to find it compelling, but what is it that people like so much?” Whatever the answer is, knowing there’s another season of Joe’s twisted morality coming (R.I.P. Beck!) is enough to keep us fully engaged. - Philiana Ng
Jenna Coleman in The Cry
In SundanceNow’s gripping four-hour adaptation of the Helen FitzGerald novel The Cry, Jenna Coleman plays a young mother, Joanna, whose 4-month-old son disappears while she and her husband are visiting family in Australia. What follows is a breathtaking exploration of the psychological disintegration of a woman under public scrutiny as her marriage falls apart and the mystery of what happened to their missing son comes to light -- all told through unique slivers of the past and present. “It was such an emotional marathon,” Coleman told ET in November, who went straight into filming PBS’ Victoria right after The Cry wrapped. “It was a lot like playing chess, because you have to be constantly playing a version of the truth which was conceivable but believable from various perspectives. We kept calling it ‘going down the vortex.’”
The 32-year-old actress points to one scene that gave her all the ammo she needed to play Joanna. “It always struck me, that image of her in the beginning in episode one. She’s looking in the mirror -- this self-possessed, cold woman in court wearing this red dress who’s very calm, in command -- and then cutting back to this reduced, small woman [prior to her son going missing]. How are these two people the same person? What happened to this woman to make her that woman?” she said. “That’s what drew me to it -- the journey she must go on and how do we convince the audience over four hours, because that’s a hell of a journey.” - Philiana Ng
Jodie Comer in Killing Eve
There would be no Killing Eve without Jodie Comer’s fierce, delicious portrayal of the psychopathic assassin Villanelle, who goes toe to toe with Sandra Oh’s MI5 agent Eve Polastri for much of the first season. Comer has been charming British audiences for a while now, but it’s the delightfully juicy BBC America cat-and-mouse drama that has made the 25-year-old actress a force to be reckoned with in America. She’s been snubbed at major awards shows (ahem, Golden Globes and SAG Awards), but it’s become abundantly clear that Comer’s peerless work on the small screen is just as significant as Oh’s. Consider Villanelle and Eve’s first real interaction in the fifth episode, where a simple meal between foes conveys the intricate layers of their engrossing relationship. - Philiana Ng
Carrie Coon in The Sinner
No matter who she plays, Carrie Coon seemingly never gives it all away, and that might just be what makes her one of this generation's greatest performers. In The Sinner, the 37-year-old actress' ability to tell her character's story through morsels plays even more to her advantage; she shines in the USA Network anthology series as Vera Walker, a formidable cult leader whose son becomes the center of the show's "whydunnit." Coon is equal parts frightening and enchanting in the series, which makes her even more compelling to watch. "She's not someone who's looking for praise or to be liked," executive producer Derek Simonds told ET of Coon. "There's a real integrity to her approach as an actor, an honesty, and that seems in the DNA of Vera as a character." - Jennifer Drysdale
Kieran Culkin in Succession
Never has there been a more lovable prick than Succession's Roman Roy, and we owe it all to Kieran Culkin. The actor -- who has lived in the shadow of his last name for most of his life -- breaks free from the pressures of family fame in HBO's summer breakout hit as his character tries to do the same. Culkin was originally asked to read the part of Cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun, but quickly realized that the role of a loathsome scumbag son of a billionaire was more up his alley, and for that, the 36-year-old actor earned a Golden Globe nomination. It's not easy to get people to root for a rich a**hole, but somehow, Culkin does it. - Jennifer Drysdale
Julia Garner in Dirty John and Ozark
Dirty John's Terra Newell and Ozark's Ruth Langmore seemingly couldn't be more different. One is the daughter of a wealthy Orange County interior designer who fights against her mother's con-artist husband, and the other is the destitute daughter of a convict in the Ozarks, doing her best to keep up with a con of her own. Julia Garner, who grew up in the Bronx, is neither of those people, yet she somehow portrays both flawlessly. From her accents to her attitude, the 24-year-old actress slips into characters like one would expect of a performer with twice the experience, and manages to rule every scene she's in. - Jennifer Drysdale
Betty Gilpin in GLOW
Betty Gilpin’s first career Emmy nomination, for portraying GLOW’s Debbie Eagan, may have sent her into “shock and denial paralysis” earlier this year, but it came as no surprise to anyone who’s watched her stellar turn as the Netflix comedy’s soap star-turned-star-spangled sparrer. While Debbie’s wrestling alter ego, Liberty Belle, is the picture of patriotic poise, the show’s second season saw her taking on a heel role outside the ring, sifting through the remains of her crumbled marriage and grasping for creative power as the show’s sole female producer. But while her character was sinking to rock bottom, Gilpin’s performance soared, bringing a heartfelt humanity to Debbie’s animated anguish and stealing scenes both dramatic and comedic. - Meredith B. Kile
Leslie Grossman in American Horror Story: Apocalypse
When Leslie Grossman first joined FX’s horror anthology series for 2017’s American Horror Story: Cult, many fans heralded it as the actress’ big return to the TV world of creator Ryan Murphy, who first cast her as Mary Cherry on the short-lived cult soap Popular. Thanks to Apocalypse, she’s now firmly part of the AHS family and has created another iconic character, the hilariously unlikable and scene-stealing Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt, whom Grossman says was partly inspired byReal Housewife Tinsley Mortimer. With Murphy teasing many of the Coven women -- which now includes Coco -- returning in future seasons, fans can expect to see even more of Grossman’s bewitching performance. - Stacy Lambe
Manny Jacinto in The Good Place
When you’re casting a character who’s supposed to be aloof (but in an endearing way), silly (but in a charming way) and seriously dumb (but in an adorable way), it can easily go very, very wrong. That wasn’t the case with The Good Place’s lovable doofus Jason Mendoza, brilliantly played by Manny Jacinto, who adds a surprising level of depth, a dash of naive optimism and an infectious whimsy to his performance. Three seasons in, Jacinto has consistently earned his mark as the show’s undeniable revelation; he delicately toes the line between the broad comedy and the unexpectedly deep one-liners that make Jason’s inherent idiocy that much more captivating to watch.
In less capable hands, the Jacksonville Jaguars (and Blake Bortles!) lifer would have become a mere caricature by this point, which would have been a major drag. Who else can you count on to give you forkin’ gems like the above? - Philiana Ng
Stephan James in Homecoming
It’s been a monumental year for Stephan James, who exquisitely leads Oscar contender If Beale Street Could Talk and holds his own opposite Julia Roberts in Amazon’s Hitchcockian psychological thriller Homecoming. As Walter Cruz, a young military veteran being treated by therapist Heidi Bergman, whose job is to help transition soldiers back into civilian life, the 24-year-old James adds a seasoned deftness and empowering empathy rarely seen at his age in this Golden Globe-nominated performance. Even more stunning is the attention he demands onscreen with a mere gesture or a look; the freshman finale produced one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series, when Walter suggests he doesn’t remember his time at Homecoming or Heidi (or does he?).
"I don't think I've seen the caliber of creativity and professionalism and joy and truth that Stephan brings -- it's unique to him and it's incredible and it made a situation that, on paper, was really daunting and overwhelming and not for the faint of heart," Roberts told ET in September. James’ career is only just beginning and seems primed for A-list success. - Philiana Ng
Richard Madden in Bodyguard
On paper, there’s a lot to dismiss about Bodyguard. After all, it’s about a secret service agent type, Richard Madden’s stoic, square-jawed PTSD-suffering war vet Sergeant David Budd, who’s assigned to protect one of Britain’s controversial senior officials. But press play on the very first episode and it quickly becomes clear that this is not your grandmother’s British spy drama -- and that’s a very good thing. The opening sequence in the first episode, which sees Budd desperately stopping a suicide bombing on a London-bound train, features one of the most intense 20-minute standoffs you’ll ever see on TV today, and Madden’s ability to play a guy whose job is to remain outwardly collected while inwardly feeling anything but is a masterclass in nuance.
If we had to pick, his best episodes remain hour two, for its thrilling, stress-inducing car shootout, and the finale, for the heart-pumping impasse between a bomb-strapped Budd and the hesitant police, both of which showcase the Game of Thrones alum’s deft hand in showing every crevice of a man crumbling from within. Bodyguard was the U.K.’s most-watched program in years, and it’s obvious why. Over the course of six hours, it evolves into a conspiracy drama so twisty, unpredictable and unbelievable, you’re literally on the edge of your seat as you, like Budd, frantically seek out the truth. It’s a roller coaster ride we’re all hoping continues for years to come. - Philiana Ng
Thandie Newton in Westworld
Few performances are as completely vulnerable as they are shrouded in mystery, but that's exactly what Thandie Newton gives to Westworld. The 46-year-old actress captivated audiences as Madam Maeve Millay, the host who runs the park's brothel, in season one of the HBO series. It didn't take long for Maeve's layers to unravel, giving her more human components than most characters on non-sci-fi dramas, and with the stakes upped in season two, Newton delivered. The actress' standout episode of the season was no doubt episode five, which follows Maeve's journey through Shogun World.
The episode, which she called "punishing" due to the weeks of work she had to spend learning Japanese and embodying the culture, ended up earning her Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series at the 2018 Emmys. "I've been playing Maeve for two seasons now, and I kind of thought that [I might win in] season one, but after that, you know, the time was gone for awards," she told ET backstage at the awards show. "But here I am!" - Jennifer Drysdale
Mishel Prada in Vida
Many may recognize Mishel Prada from her role in Fear the Walking Dead: Passage, where her character’s badass instincts help her survive a zombie apocalypse. This year, Prada returned to the small screen to personify another warrior worthy of a throne in season one of Starz’s Vida. The 28-year-old actress plays Emma, who along with her little sister returns to Boyle Heights, their childhood neighborhood in East Los Angeles, to deal with their mother's sudden death.
We see Prada at her best in episode three of the six-episode series when, still dealing with the loss of her mother, she tries to take over the family business and finally comes out to her sister. "[Vida] is a love letter to brown queerness that we don't often see on television," Tanya Saracho, showrunner and creator told ET earlier this year. "And it’s also a love letter to brown females with agency who are coming to terms with their power and trying to figure that out." - Elisa Osegueda
Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman in This Close
SundanceNow’s groundbreaking dramedy This Close was created by two deaf actors, Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, and more importantly, stars them too. It’s a beautiful, bold tale of friendship and love all centered around two best friends trying to navigate the ups and downs of their 20s while living in Los Angeles. (The premise was largely inspired by Stern and Feldman’s real-life friendship.) “We wanted the whole deaf thing -- and Josh would tell you, the gay thing also -- to be more of an added layer than anything else,” Stern told ET this year. “I think once you focus on misconceptions, the story becomes very specific. And then it's very easy for characters to become one-dimensional. People are very rarely just one thing, and we didn't want to create characters that didn't feel like people.”
The show -- already in production on season two -- is messy, complicated and unafraid to show the ugly side of life and love, and that’s something Stern values more than anything else. “I definitely feel like we're entering in a very new and exciting period of time where I'm seeing an influx of diversity onscreen, and that has started to trickle down to include deaf people,” she said. “I hope it continues to expand, and I hope that people consider deaf people and disabled people when they think about diversity.” - Philiana Ng
Cecilia Suárez in La Casa de las Flores (The House of Flowers)
It could be hard to stand out in a series so saturated with personalities, theatrics and family drama, but it's all in the approach for Cecilia Suárez. It's something as simple as her character Paulina de la Mora's hilariously drawn-out and exaggerated accent in Netflix's La Casa de las Flores (The House of Flowers) that has made her the show's undeniable breakout star; there was even a social media challenge to mimic Paulina's cadence. Suárez's decision to change her voice impressed the show's creator, Manolo Caro, so much that he had the first few episodes re-dubbed.
"She takes a lot of risks with me," Caro recently told ET of the actress. "She is a woman who listens to me and knows my sense of humor and knows how to deliver without a lot of guidance." It's Suárez's killer instincts that show the depth of her performance and demonstrate that sometimes, less can be more, even on a telenovela-inspired series. - Jennifer Drysdale
Sydney Sweeney in Everything Sucks!, The Handmaid's Tale and Sharp Objects
The 21-year-old Sydney Sweeney had a major breakthrough in 2018, showcasing her range in a variety of intense roles on critically acclaimed shows. Her portrayal of Nick’s child bride, Eden, in the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale built to one of the series’ most traumatic scenes, when, in the penultimate episode, her character chose to die by drowning rather than renounce her sin of infidelity. Sweeney’s performance on the HBO miniseries adaptation of Sharp Objects was similarly impactful, though she appeared in just one episode as the doomed rehab roommate of Amy Adams’ Camille. It wasn’t all darkness and death, though, as the actress also played a pitch-perfect embodiment of every drama club’s not-so-mean girl as Emaline in Netflix’s short-lived ‘90s high school comedy Everything Sucks. - Meredith B. Kile