There will be so many pieces published this month touting the top television shows of 2021. Trust me, I know because I’ve read at least 10 of them this past week. So instead of adding to that particular chorus, instead I’ve decided to focus on the actors that stood out during what has been an amazing year of television. From comedy to drama, from network to limited series, below are 21 of the best of the best from this calendar year. Of course everyone probably won’t make this list, but that’s OK. This way you can tell me who you thought should’ve made it and we can have fun dialogue. Cool? Cool. Let’s go!
21. Eve Jihan Cooper
Brianna aka Professor Sex, Queens (ABC)
It’s been refreshing watching the former First Lady of Ruff Ryders do her thing as Brianna. Here she’s finally got a character that allows her to show some range, unlike earlier in her career when she was kinda ungood at comedy while starring in her own sitcom, and being very one-note in the Barbershop films where she was known most for complaining about an empty apple juice bottle. With Queens she’s a three-dimensional person, allowed to mourn, laugh, show strength, and also do what she does best: rap. I honestly can’t wait until she returns from maternity leave in April.
20. David Costabile
Mike “Wags” Wagner, Billions (SHO)
It’s so easy to look past the contributions of Costabile, who has been starring as “Wags” since Billions‘ beginnings, especially with leading men Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti chewing up most of the scenes in which they appear. But there was something different about this character during Season 5. It’s like he applied the George Costanza method of doing everything the opposite of how he usually did them. And it worked. Even with all the conniving and revenge he plotted carefully throughout this year’s episodes, he wound up winning in the end. It was breathtaking, and comical, to watch. Can’t wait to see what the character has in store as he deals with new office dynamics next season.
19. Amin Joseph
Jerome Saint, Snowfall (FX)
Listen, there’s loyalty and then there’s what Uncle Jerome has shown throughout the character’s stint on FX’s smash hit Snowfall. If there were such a thing as loc step, that’s what he and his nephew Franklin have been in from the beginning of their “partnership.” Until this season, where we started to see cracks in the dam, and it finally burst. In a show that was already well-acted, Joseph’s acting was on a whole other level as he finally decided that he had enough. It’s a wonderful thing to watch play out, even as he rocks that terrible jheri curl wig.
18. Alana Arenas
Gloria, David Makes Man (OWN)
Yes, everything about Season Two of David Makes Man was uneven… except the performance of Arenas as David’s mom, Gloria. In fact, it can even be said that the actress was more impactful without having a major storyline in the sophomore season of the series. She’s definitely the definition of quality over quantity, using every second she spent of screen convincingly portraying a troubled mother who’s constantly attempting to hold on to her sons, by any means necessary. Watching her go through every emotion possible is like watching an acting masterclass. Here’s to a third season and the hope that her third season brings us even more of Arenas’ charm.
17. Brett Gray
Jamal, On My Block (Netflix)
Yes, this is absoLUTEly a selfish pick, especially with the terribleness that was the final season of the Netflix teen dramedy. However, even with less than great material to work with, Gray excelled. As usual. If you follow me here you know what I think of the comedy duo that is Jamal and Abuela, and they were on great display this past season, but Gray giving Jamal the complexities that came with crushes, and dealing with death, and giving his character a proper final act is why he made this list. Gonna miss them kids. Who am I kidding? Really, just Jamal.
16. Holland Taylor
Prof. Joan Hambling, The Chair (Netflix)
If we’re being honest, The Chair was fine. It was a good, well-acted limited series that served its purpose when it streamed earlier this year on Netflix. Sandra Oh was her usual self, enriching a character that didn’t have much to work with. And Holland Taylor… whew. For me, she was the breath of fresh air the series needed. To see her play against her younger counterparts set the screen on fire. And to see her finally win in the end made me smile more than I care to admit. Another great performance during a career of them. Bravo, Ms. Taylor. Bravo.
15. Brendan Hunt
Coach Beard, Ted Lasso (Apple TV Plus)
This is a shout out to the ultimate sidekick, the man that stands beside the man whose name is in the title of Apple TV Plus’ number one series. This goes to the usually unflappable, almost always steady right hand man. The coach that keeps everything on point without so much as a complaint (unless it’s about his on again, off again relationship, which is crazy and toxic in itself). This season’s episode that provided a showcase for Coach Beard also provided a glimpse into how the midwesterner gets down. Like, for real. Brendan Hunt deserves all the nominations for this breakout event. It was a great night.
14. Kareem Green
Kareem, Brooklyn Misdemeanors (SHO)
If you went in to Brooklyn Misdemeanors not knowing whether you’d be tuning in each week, hopefully once Kareem Green appeared on the screen you realized that this series would have to be appointment television. The stand up comedian made the most of his ancillary role as stepfather to the lead character and stole every single scene in which he appeared. There were so many laugh out loud moments throughout the season and I’m pretty sure (outside of that terrible dye job) Green was responsible for most of them.
13. Yolonda Ross
Jada, The CHI (SHO)
We’ve rocked with Jada since the beginning of The Chi, from the moment she appeared on screen and knew her no good son was up to no good and had a young lady hiding under the bed. We’ve seen her care for those in need and give sound advice to those that needed it. This past season, however, was different. It was Jada, played with such nuance by Ross, that needed the encouragement when she received a life-altering diagnosis. Those scenes were so well done it made an impact in real life, with Ross becoming an advocate for those coping with the illness. That’s when you know you’ve done a good job. Respect.
12. Jennifer Coolidge
Tanya McQuoid, The White Lotus (HBO)
It’s a true testament to great acting when you enter a series seemingly a one note character and over the episodes reveal an amazing number of layers that make people feel for your plight. Now granted, Coolidge did an amazing job as her character dealt with the aftermath of her mother’s death but we still haven’t forgiven her for what she did to Natasha Rothwell’s character. She did such a great job that she’s the only character that has been announced as coming back for The White Lotus‘ sophomore season. Kudos, but shame on her for that other thing.
11. Natasha Rothwell
Kelli, Insecure (HBO)
We’ve chosen to praise Rothwell for her ongoing underrated brilliance on her other HBO series, Insecure. For five seasons she has given us several laugh out loud moments (“Remember me different!”) and has been the glue that has kept the foursome in tact. This season’s revelation that she was dead (she wasn’t really, but… you just have to watch!) and her subsequent declaration that she will live life out loud (and apparently with a podcast) has given us more insight into Kelli’s world… and still not enough. However many times we see her on our screens leading up to this month’s finale, Rothwell deserves as many of our flowers as is humanly possible to hand out. For her acting, and her directing. And everything else she brings to the table.
10. Kate Winslet
Mare Sheehan, Mare of Easttown (HBO)
There are many limited series that are churned out by premium outlets and streaming outlets alike, and most of them are snooze fests. They’re self-indulgent and drag us along with the promise of revelations but with no real memorable moments. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with HBO’s Mare of Easttown, with Kate Winslet commanding the screen and giving us that good acting that kept us coming back week after week. The award-winning actress usually stands out amongst her peers, but her role as Mare (a former basketball legend in her hometown… go figure!) was as believable as it was riveting. She deserves our praise.
9. John Stamos
Marvyn Korn, Big Shot (Disney Plus)
I have to preface this paragraph by saying I walked into Disney Plus’ Big Shot with no real expectations. It was one of those series that I figured I would check out even though it probably wasn’t for my demographic. There’s no way I expected it to affect me like it ultimately did. And that’s mainly because of the good acting of Stamos, who shined brightly as basketball coach Korn. There was one episode that really cemented my admiration for his character. I’d tell you what it is but I’d rather you watch the season and then come back so we can see if we felt the same way. Either way, congrats to Stamos for his performance. It made me glad I gave this series a fair… shot. I know. I’ll see myself out.
8. O’Shea Jackson, Jr.
Coach Ike Edwards, Swagger (Apple TV Plus)
Speaking of basketball coaches, Jackson too stars as the head strategist for a DMV high school prep team that chronicles the ups and downs of the coach and players as they strive to achieve the ultimate goal: a championship. I know, I know. It sounds just like every other series that involves sports, and to some degree, it’s true. However, thanks to Jackson’s performance as Ike Edwards, it doesn’t stop there. He instead uses this platform to display a three-dimensional character that has to deal with–and not in any particular order–his team, his wife’s pregnancy, the parents of his players, his ex-teammates, a sneaker executive, COVID, fellow coaches, racism… listen, it’s a lot. And Jackson shows he’s up to the challenges. In fact, he shines throughout the chaos. Applaud that man.
7. Regina Hall
Carmel, Nine Perfect Strangers (Hulu)
What’s remarkable about Hall as an actress is that she could’ve made the list TWICE: once for her maniacally funny performance during the latest season of the Showtime comedy Black Monday, where she plays off of Don Cheadle flawlessly, and of course for this role for the Hulu limited series Nine Perfect Strangers where her character showed a range that probably won’t be duplicated by anyone else anytime soon. Hall has definitely showed in the past that she can be taken seriously as a serious actor, but this role cemented her as one of the best–and most versatile–actors of her generation.
6. Kathryn Hahn
Agatha, WandaVision (Disney Plus)
You know what was so great about Hahn’s role in the Disney Plus limited series WandaVision? It’s that you had to know that she was there for much more than simply playing a next door neighbor but didn’t know just how much she’d wind up doing. And then, it happened. Agatha showed up (it was Agatha all along… duh!) and showed out, schooling Wanda and making sure Westfield wasn’t responsible for more death than it needed to be. Seeing the actress use all of her gifts on the Marvel stage made me smile. I literally cannot wait to see what else Agatha is all about. Or, along. Ah, never mind. You know what I mean.
5. Kevin Hart
Kid, True Story (Netflix)
I wrote in another piece that this role, as Kid in the Netflix limited series True Story, was probably the one Kevin Hart thought would propel him to the next level as an actor. It will not, but not because of Hart. He did everything possible with the material he was given, and outside of the first episode where it seemed like he and Wesley were working on a scene in an acting class that would include feedback from their classmates, the Philly native rose to the occasion and proved he was up to the challenge. Congrats to Hart, and here’s hoping his next dramatic script lifts him to where he wants to be.
4. Uzo Adoba
Dr. Brooke Taylor, In Treatment (HBO)
While I was late to the In Treatment train, I’ve definitely been on board with the depth of Adoba’s talents and will never hold back the praise she deserves. This role as Dr. Brooke Taylor on the HBO serial is no different, allowing her to play off of veteran actors (key word being play since it feels like she’s having big fun) and serve an acting masterclass in the process. Adoba played the role so well, I’m pretty much convinced she’s the doctor I’d want if I needed psychological treatment. Who am I kidding? I do, but what makes me sad is thinking that if she were a real doctor, she’d be booked up solid.
3. Jean Smart
Deborah Vance, Hacks (HBO)
It’s been a stellar HBO year for Smart, who plays a supporting role as Kate Winslet’s mom in Mare of Easttown and carries most of the dramedy Hacks with help from co-star Hannah Einbinder. Deborah Vance is a comedian set in her ways and Smart sets the screen on fire every episode, displaying the hostility, angst and stubbornness that comes with age and lack of flexibility. And then, something clicks and we are along for the ride as she takes her acting, and her comedy, to the stratosphere. Just brilliantly done.
2. Steve Martin
Charles, Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
In any other year, Steve Martin would be at the number one spot on this list, if for no other reason than he is STEVE MARTIN and throughout his illustrious career he’s always been that refreshing change of pace you didn’t even know. you needed when checking him out. In anything. He was definitely that in the Hulu series Only Murders in the Building, playing a former actor that has a love for solving mysteries. Well, murders really. Hence the title of the show. Anyway, we get to see the full Martin here, playing straight man to the insane Martin Short and giving lessons in comedy to Selena Gomez. And he has a love interest… for a minute. The man is a national treasure, even when playing a local resident in a Manhattan co-op.
1. William Jackson Harper
Marcus, Love Life (HBO)
THIS man is the reason Steve didn’t make it to number one, and for the greatest of reasons. Harper’s performance as Marcus Atkins in HBO’s second season of Love Life restored my faith in the rom-com. In the ability for a Black man to carry a series on a huge platform. In love not having to be over exaggerated or zany or unbelievable in order to succeed on television. Harper was imperfectly perfect in this role, showing all of the flaws, the ups and the downs, the mindset necessary to date in the greatest city in the world. He did that while making those circumstances seem relatable. What made the performance even more compelling was that although the series didn’t give us a happily ever after, seeing how Harper handled everything else over the ten episodes gave us confidence that he’d be OK. Flaws and all. That in itself constituted a flawless landing.