TV performances that are practically flawless

It's one thing for an actor to bring a character to life in spectacular form in a movie. It's quite another to put the same level of craft and care over the course of multiple television seasons. Creating a perfect TV performance requires an immense dedication to — and an intimate understanding of — a role. Often, an actor is going to be embodying the character for a long time — sometimes years on end. They take the character through a myriad of highs and lows and follow them through longer journeys and arcs. 

This isn't to say there's no merit in a great performance that's shorter-term. We've been blown away by plenty of actors who took on roles in miniseries and one-shot episodes. We're also living in an era in which TV is better than it's ever been, and with that explosion in choice and quality comes a quantity of incredible performances we've never experienced. That being said, there are great performances and then there are flawless ones. The following belong solidly in the latter category. 

Matthew McConaughey's finest hour

Between 2013 and 2015, we experienced a magical era in entertainment. Rising from the ashes of crappy romantic comedies and punchlines about how often he could be spotted shirtless, Matthew McConaughey ushered in The McConaissance, a career reinvention in which he proved himself a compelling leading man who could disappear into any role without even ditching his thick Texas accent. While the film Dallas Buyer's Club may have been the one that scored him an Oscar and Interstellar marked the most high-profile film of that era, there's no role he took during that era that has the cultural imprint of Rust Cohle from the HBO series True Detective.

Cohle is a bleak, nihilistic detective worn down from years of undercover work, loss, and substance abuse. He never gives a straight answer to any question, managing to turn something as simple as "How'd you sleep?" into a riddle. He's simultaneously obnoxious and endearing despite sounding like a 15-year-old who's just seen Fight Club for the first time. McConaughey excels in the role, playing off Woody Harrelson's Marty with odd couple chemistry. Cohle could read as parody if not for the nuance McConaughey brings to the role. Any future True Detective actors have big shoes to fill.

Ben Mendelsohn played the perfect black sheep

Anyone who had a complicated relationship with a family member is going to find Netflix's Bloodline way too real to get through in a single sitting. The show analyzes complex family dynamics between parents, siblings, and family by marriage in extraordinarily raw fashion. There's no poor acting in the series and Kyle Chandler as the Rayburn family patriarch John is truly exceptional, but nobody knocks it out of the park quite like Ben Mendehlson as the family's black sheep, Danny.

Danny's arrival in the show's pilot signals a proverbial storm on the horizon. He's effectively been excommunicated from the Rayburn clan and it quickly becomes clear why. He's wild — not in the sense of a constantly-partying fratboy as much as a live wire near running water. It doesn't take much to set him off, and when that happens, he burns things to the ground. Mendehlson's portrayal is darkly charismatic and very careful in its steps, a necessity considering Danny's tendency to pivot sharply from friendly to terrifying in a matter of seconds. Those turns never seem unbelievable thanks to the care Mendehlson puts into the role. His avatar of chaos is a true standout among the entirety of Netflix's original content. While the show is very good on its own, his performance is what makes it can't-miss binge television. 

Emmy Rossum's underappreciated masterclass

It's odd that Shameless is so often talked about as a comedy. The show is very funny, but there are few television stories as genuinely and consistently gutting as those of the Gallaghers. For every great laugh the show provides, there's an equally devastating moment that will knock the wind out of you. While most of the award nominations have gone to William H. Macy for his role as Frank, the family's absentee father, it's Emmy Rossum's stunning portrayal of Fiona Gallagher that serves as the true linchpin of the show, and the kind of TV performance that will keep people talking for years to come.

Fiona is the big sister and surrogate mother to her family, a precarious position to be in considering the trainwreck that is her personal life. Through the series she helps them with (or deals with herself) substance abuse, pregnancy, depression, bipolar disorder, and jail sentences. She's a tremendously written character, and the talent Rossum brings to the role is unparalleled. She creates a Fiona who seems perpetually on the verge of knocking down the house of cards that is her life, always walking a tightrope trying to keep everything from collapsing around her. The performance is vulnerable and affecting, and whenever she stumbles and everything goes wrong, it hits you like a nuclear warhead. Rossum's Fiona Gallagher is one of the great modern television performances — it's just too bad more people aren't aware of it.

Eva Green brought prestige to an oft-maligned genre

Showtime's Penny Dreadful could have had a healthy run if it merely stuck to its roots in gothic horror and fantasy, playing up the pulpier elements of its source material. The show, which revolves around a fictional universe in which Victorian horror icons like Dorian Grey and Victor Frankenstein exist in the same world, instead chose to become something more. It cast a crew of exceptional British actors and played up the Shakespearean overtones of its story, elevating the artistic integrity of its genre roots to the forefront. While the whole cast is exceptional (former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton is especially good as a pseudo-Alan Quartermain) the standout is easily Eva Green as Vanessa.

Vanessa is a woman whose entire life has been surrounded by darkness, by otherworldly forces seeking to use her to their whims. Her strength lies in her constant refusal to be anything but a bright light in her dark world. You could argue for Green's excellence in the role solely based on the extent to which she seems to disregard her own physical well-being for the sake of performance. Vanessa goes through several drastic physical transformations, and a scene involving a seance sees her contorting her body gruesomely. However, to focus on her physical commitment would be to sell short the empathy and tenderness Green instills into Vanessa. Few times have characters like this felt so undeniably human. Penny Dreadful is all the better for it. 

Aaron Paul stole the show and our hearts with it

There's nothing left to say about Bryan Cranston's five-season run as chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White that hasn't been said a million times before. What doesn't get discussed nearly enough is the fact that Breaking Bad is far from a one-man show. Cranston is lucky enough to be surrounded by a whole crew of impeccable actors, none of whom manages to stand out more than Aaron Paul as burnout screw-up Jesse Pinkley.

Paul's performance is the heart and soul of Breaking Bad. Whereas in Walter we see a character perpetually spiraling into darkness, Paul's Jesse presents us with a kid who has a heart of gold and is trying desperately to do better in every facet of his life. He fails constantly, but Paul gives us someone to root for. He turns a slacker most of us probably wouldn't have talked to in high school into maybe the only likable main character on the show — one of the only ones the audience consistently wants a happy ending for. When he finally finds it, it's one of the most memorable TV moments of all time. Furthermore, amidst the show's gutting drama, Paul's performance will never fail to make you laugh. Finding the comedy in a show like Breaking Bad is an impressive feat in and of itself. Paul's performance may always be in the shadow of Walter White, but it'd be criminal to not give the guy his props for such a magnificent turn. 

Jake Johnson played the weirdest of the weirdos

Few comedies have balanced a gradual transition from conventionality to bizarre quite like New Girl. Over the course of its run, it transformed from a quirky Zooey Deschanel vehicle to a truly out-there comedy about some of the strangest characters on TV. Few characters embody that evolution quite like Nick Miller, played to perfection by Jake Johnson.

Nick enters the series as a comedic straight man, pretty conventional and clearly set up to be the Ross to Deschanel's Rachel. His neuroses and quirks are dealt out slowly over the first two seasons, and by the time season four begins he's a bonafide nutcase (in an endearing fashion) — an emotionally stunted conspiracy theorist who at times implies that he might not be fully literate. Johnson embodies Nick perfectly, especially shining when doing or saying something ridiculous that Nick clearly believes is entirely normal. He brings a great deal of heart to the role that keeps Nick grounded even when he's going off about his distrust of banks and cell phones. Taking a character from a normal place to such a weird one is tricky to pull off for a writer's room. Luckily they have Johnson to anchor the character and make it all work.

Daniel Kaluuya broke our hearts

In the wake of Get Out and Black Panther, it's easy to forget where now-superstar actor Daniel Kaluuya got one of his first major exposures to American audiences: an early episode of the pessimistic sci-fi anthology Black Mirror. Kaluuya appears in the series' second episode, titled Fifteen Million Merits, and it's a performance for the ages.

Each episode of the show explores the disquieting implications of a facet of technology or media. In this case, the story revolves around a sort of twisted reality show in a dystopian world, one in which the only way one can rise from their societal rank as a grunt working an exercise bike all day is to win an American Idol-esque game show. We explore this world through a character named Bing and follow his romance with a fellow biker only to see her sucked into the world of this reality show. It's an almost Shakespearean tragedy and Bing, played by Kaluuya, is among Black Mirror's most memorable characters. We follow him from stagnancy to elation, elation to love, love to heartbreak, and heartbreak to an unending, seething rage. It's a difficult character arc to tackle, but Kaluuya's chops are clearly up to snuff. Watching him makes it abundantly clear why he's become the star he is today. 

Krysten Ritter introduced us to a new kind of superhero

Christopher Reeve and your Robert Downey Jr. are great, but they've got small-screen competition: Krysten Ritter's Jessica Jones definitely belongs on the list of all-time great superhero castings. Ritter is a tour de force in the series, which takes its name from her character, and in every way deserves to be named amongst the heavy hitters of superhero actors. It's all the more impressive when you realize that Jones is unlike any other protagonist viewers have seen in the genre, and Ritter delivers an incredible TV performance to do it proper justice.

Jessica Jones is a former superhero turned private investigator — every detective novel stereotype made flesh with the addition of superhuman strength and a few other cool powers. When we meet her, we see a different kind of Marvel hero — a victim of abuse at the hands of a sadistic ex-boyfriend who used mind control to bend her to his whims. Ritter is dealing with emotions and traumas that are incredibly real, ones that viewers of the show are far more likely to have experienced themselves than those of Thor or Captain America. As such, Ritter bears a great deal of responsibility in performing this role, and she handles it with poise and grace, masterfully navigating Jessica through a multitude of complex emotional highs and lows. It also definitely doesn't hurt that she's great at sardonically quipping her way through every confrontation with a bad guy that comes her way. 

Reese Witherspoon felt all too real in Big Little Lies

If True Detective is HBO's effort to showcase the skill of two massively talented male actors, Big Little Lies is their effort to do the same for a group of some of the most talented female actors on the planet. Every woman in the show is tremendous, from Laura Dern to Nicole Kidman, but Reese Witherspoon's performance is perhaps the most memorable.

Her Madeline is a seemingly simple character with a wealth of complications beneath her surface. She's a woman with an all-too-real desire to convince her neighbors and family that everything is fine. Madeline is on her second marriage and struggling with raising an older daughter who's in the dregs of her teenage years and a younger daughter who's already too perceptive for her own good. She constantly runs into her ex, who parades around town with his new younger wife clearly looking to rub it in Madeline's face. Witherspoon channels a defensive combatant bluster into Madeline, an abrasiveness that keeps people at too great a distance to see how close she is to crumbling. It's a remarkable performance in a show already chock-full of them.

Idris Elba's Luther is an absolute juggernaut

When Hollywood came calling, Idris Elba (of Pacific Rim, Thor: Ragnarok, and others) easily could have stepped away from his role as police detective John Luther in the BBC series Luther. He hasn't. The show has, amidst Elba's ascent as a movie draw, continued on, a clear testament to how much he enjoys playing the character. It makes perfect sense, as Elba's Luther is by far the most compelling role he's ever taken on — and a forum for some of the most consistently great work of his career.

John Luther is a bull in a china shop. He's a ruthless, violent detective with anger management issues and a disregard for any authority that isn't his. He'd probably be a villain if he weren't so dang cool. That might be what's most impressive about Elba's performance as Luther. In addition to tackling such a wide array of dark emotions, he never forgets to make Luther the coolest cop on TV. From his icy demeanor to his trademark tweed jacket, you can't help but wanna be him — save for the anger management issues and constant barrage of tragedy, that is. 

Jon Bernthal proved that with the Punisher, the fourth time's the charm

Any man stepping into the role of Frank Castle faces an uphill battle. He's a complicated character in any incarnation, less superhero than vigilante, less a symbol of hope than a force of nature. There's also a lot of danger in taking a guy who ruthlessly murders any wrongdoer dumb enough to cross his path and playing him as too fun, too good, too likable. Jon Bernthal is not any man — he's a remarkably talented actor who succeeds where Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, and Ray Stevenson have failed. He pulls off playing the Punisher.

The series balances insight into the Punisher's mindset, life, and tragedy without forgetting to point out that his whole "trauma-ravaged madman who shoots people with big guns" schtick isn't exactly aspirational. That said, the series is written from the Punisher's point of view, and as such, he can't be so repulsive that audiences tune out. 

Bernthal walks that tightrope perfectly. His take on Castle is more sad than anything. He's scary and brutish at the right times, but at all times there's a lingering heartbreak, a grim and thunderous cloud hanging over Bernthal's head. In the series' closing arc, Frank is told of the concept of a Memento Mori, a reminder that even powerful men die. As he finally exacts his revenge on the man who set him up and killed his family, Bernthal gutturally grunts, "I'm a reminder." It's about as perfectly performed a Punisher moment as there will ever be. 

Timothy Olyphant gave us a modern-day cowboy

It's been a long time since the era of Bonanza and Gunsmoke had westerns ruling the TV airwaves. Make no mistake, though, we still love a good cowboy. They're fewer and further between these days, but there's nothing like a TV show about a bona fide old-school gunslinger. No show has updated that classic archetype to the modern era quite as well as Justified, which features Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal whose cowboy ways don't stop at his hat and southern drawl.

The show follows Raylan, originally created by legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard, as he's forced to relocate to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky after a shootout gone wrong in Miami. Aside from taking on criminals of all sorts, Raylan is confronted with old friends, enemies, and family ties he's made every effort to escape since leaving. Underneath the cowboy cool demeanor and quick draw, Olyphant instills a simmering anger in Raylan, one that's amplified by how well Olyphant performs the character's quieter moments. We love a classic western shootout, but Raylan is never more engaging than he is when talking to his ex-wife, his antagonist Boyd (played immaculately by Walton Goggins), or confronting his father. Olyphant brings equal charisma and empathy to a character that could be a one-note gunslinger. Instead he delivers one of the most memorable TV performances — and easily the greatest cowboy character — of television's modern era.