Pop Culturing: The 5 Best TV Performances of 2020

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Sunday November 29, 2020

Anya Taylor-Joy, left, with Thomas Brodie-Sangster, right, in a scene from "The Queen's Gambit."
Anya Taylor-Joy, left, with Thomas Brodie-Sangster, right, in a scene from "The Queen's Gambit."  (Source:Courtesy of Netflix)

As we enter the post-Peak TV era, movie stars and big names appearing on the small screen is nothing new. And, thanks to the pandemic, the lines between TV and movie continue to get blurred, especially with miniseries like the cinematic "We Are Who We Are" and "The Queen's Gambit." There was no shortage of incredible talent in front of the camera this year; some established actors pulled off some stellar performances while other, younger people solidified themselves as ones to watch. Below is just a small highlight of the incredible TV performances of 2020 as well as a list of nominations.

5. Maya Erskine as Maya Ishii-Peters, "PEN15" Season 2 (Hulu)

Towards the end of the amazing second season of the Hulu comedy "PEN15," Maya Erskine, who plays a 13-year-old version of herself in 2000, is rehearsing for a part in a middle school play. As she reads the lines alone in her bedroom, the scene changes and we're inside Maya's head, where she's dressed like Bette Davis in a '40s noir. She fires off an amazing monologue, full of hilarious cliches, but she's selling the script. The episode later cuts to Maya doing the same speech in front of her peers, but she's terrible. The stars of "PEN15," which includes the amazing Anna Konkle who plays Maya's BFF and is also playing a 13-year-old version of herself, often get lauded for their juvenile performances but Erskine often finds moments in "PEN15" to step outside of that character to do some incredible work.

4. Amanda Collins as Mother, "Raised by Wolves" Season 1 (HBO Max)

Playing a super-advanced humanoid A.I. has been done before (like recently on HBO's "Westworld," or a few years ago with Alicia Vikander in "Ex Machina"), but no actor has pulled off a role quite like Amanda Collins in the HBO Max sci-fi series "Raised by Wolves." In the Ridley Scott-directed show, Collins plays Mother, a weapon of mass destruction known as a Necromancer, reprogrammed to raise human children on a new planet to start the human race over. Collins is in full control here, of her face and her body movements, when she has to act super-robotic verses when her guard is down and Mother acts more human. It looks effortless, but it's something extremely difficult and a performance you can't take your eyes off of.

3. Michaela Coel as Arabella, "I May Destroy You" (HBO)

Michaela Coel has been endlessly lauded for her stellar new show "I May Destroy You," in which she stars as Arabella, a young author and social media star who is dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault. Coel earned praise for her writing, but her performance is also unmatched. She plays Arabella as a complex woman who is often funny, insightful and frustrating. It's an incandescent performance where Coel solidifies herself as someone who is not only a master at writing, but is an equally impressive actor.

2. Gaia Girace as Lila Cerullo, "My Brilliant Friend" (HBO)

A lot of changes happen on the second season of "My Brilliant Friend," but most of those changes happen to Lila, a very young woman forced into marriage and into being a mother in '50s Italy. We see the story mostly through the eyes of her childhood best friend, Elena Greco (Margherita Mazzucco), but Gaia Girace's performance as the stunningly beautiful and rageful Lila is captivating. She can be spiteful and fiery, looking for revenge, and other times she can be vulnerable and broken. Girace gives a tour de force of a performance that is truly amazing.

1. Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, "The Queen's Gambit" (Netflix)

With the mega popularity of Netflix's new miniseries "The Queen's Gambit," Anya Taylor-Joy had a breakout year playing the show's lead, Beth Harmon, a young chess genius in the '60s. Though she's had great performances in the past ("The Witch," "Thoroughbreds," "Emma.") Taylor-Joy has several hours to show off her skills. From playing a determined preteen learning about herself and the game of chess, to growing up into a confident young woman who is dominating chess world, Taylor-Joy is fully in command. It's a once-in-a-career turn; a performance she'll always be known for — and rightfully so.

Honorable mentions: Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley, "The Queen's Gambit" (Netflix); Jin Ha as Jamie, "Devs" (FX on Hulu); Issa Rae as Issa Dee, "Insecure" (HBO); Mark Ruffalo as Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, "I Know This Much is True" (HBO); Rosie O'Donnell as Lisa Sheffer, "I Know This Much is True" (HBO); Anna Konkle as Anna Kone, "PEN15" (Hulu); Ashlee Grubbs as Maura, "PEN15" (Hulu); Jordan Kristine Seamón as Caitlin Poythres, "We Are Who We Are" (HBO); Chloë Sevigny as Sarah Wilson, "We Are Who We Are" (HBO); Fred Armisen as Wally, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO); Nicole Kidman as Grace Fraser, "The Undoing" (HBO); Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Cherise, "High Fidelity" (Hulu); Catherine O'Hara as Moira Rose; Amy Sedaris as Peli Motto, "The Mandalorian" (Disney+)

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.