The Top Limited Series + TV Movie Performances of 2020

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Photo Source: Natalie Seery/HBO

It becomes more and more true every year: limited series and films made for television are such a thriving element in the growing entertainment landscape, that any roundup of the medium’s acting contenders doubles as a list of today’s most talented stars. For your Screen Actors Guild Award consideration: the unmissable TV performances below. 

Uzo Aduba, “Mrs. America”
At this point in awards history, it’s a fact: If Aduba can be nominated, she will be—and for good reason. Whether in a character-driven role like on “Orange Is the New Black” or as real-life Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president, on Dahvi Waller’s stunning limited drama, Aduba always acts with equal parts head and heart.

Cate Blanchett, “Mrs. America”
One of this TV season’s greatest treats was watching Blanchett scheme. Actors should study her take on Phyllis Schlafly—as long as they remember that no one could ever replicate her distinct subtleties. Her multilayered work as the conservative queen of the 1970s, a woman seeking power and finding her voice as she advocates for policies that would prevent her fellow American housewives from doing the same, is elevated by her restraint.

Rose Byrne, “Mrs. America”
It’s damn near impossible to portray a real-life cultural icon, especially one who’s still active today. It’s a testament to Byrne’s grace as an actor that she never skims the surface of caricature when stepping into the bell bottoms of Gloria Steinem, mother of feminism’s second wave. Instead, impressively, Byrne reminds “Mrs. America” viewers that behind those emblematic aviators is a human being who hurts and fails just like us.

Michaela Coel, “I May Destroy You”
The range that Coel taps into to deliver the very real story of her sexual assault on this follow-up to her series “Chewing Gum” is nothing short of heroic. Her Arabella is equal parts frightened and frightening in the complex aftermath of her assault. Watching Coel detangle her character’s pain from the power it has unearthed within her makes for some of the year’s best TV.

Michelle Dockery, “Defending Jacob”
How well can we really know our loved ones? That’s only one of the fairly earth-shaking questions Dockery’s Laurie finds herself forced to grapple with on Mark Bomback and Morten Tyldum’s dark, meditative eight-part thriller. When Laurie’s son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), is credibly accused of murder, her foundation—her very identity, it seems—begins to crumble, a process Dockery illustrates with deft precision.

Daisy Edgar-Jones, “Normal People”
It’s not often an actor gives a debut performance that leaves as lasting an impression as Edgar-Jones does on “Normal People.” There are no fancy set pieces or ensemble cast for her to hide behind as Marianne, half of an intricately connected couple. Edgar-Jones brings a beloved literary character off the page and embodies her so wholly, it’s as if she was born to play her.

Shira Haas, “Unorthodox”
Calling Haas’ part in this critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning drama a leading role hardly feels sufficient. In practically every frame, the breakout star carries this story of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing Brooklyn for a secular life in Berlin. The weight of the stakes facing her Esty Shapiro is visible on this actor’s subtly expressive face.

Marielle Heller, “The Queen’s Gambit”
However much praise has been heaped on Heller for her work on Scott Frank’s miniseries is not enough. She’s always had a knack for directing poignant characters, but her Alma, adoptive mother to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth, is proof that she’s as capable of doing so in front of the camera as she is behind it. On a show that leads foremost with its head, it’s Alma who provides the heart.

Nicole Kidman, “The Undoing”
Kidman deserves every acting award on record for her follow-up collaboration with “Big Little Lies” creator David E. Kelley, including (if there were such a thing) best performance by an eyeball in a leading role. The heavy lifting her pupils alone do in this story of paranoia and perception speaks to the laser-like grasp this star has on her characters’ reactions.

Eve Lindley, “Dispatches From Elsewhere”
On Jason Segel’s enigmatic and whimsical meta-tale of ordinary people seeking out the extraordinary, Lindley stakes her claim as a star to watch. As Simone, a trans art student and museum docent, she turns curiosity into a driving force so compelling it’s practically tangible; watching her sort out the mysteries of the Elsewhere Society, and her feelings for Segel’s Peter, remains one of the season’s highlights.

Sonoya Mizuno, “Devs”
You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next on FX’s “Devs,” a story about a tech giant running a super-secret time-and-space-bending experiment, but you can be sure that Mizuno will offer a reliable proxy for the audience while the plot unfolds. Her Lily shuffles through grief, anger, confusion, frustration, and awe while discovering, along with the viewer, the dark and dangerous depths of the unknown.

Winona Ryder, “The Plot Against America”
David Simon and Ed Burns’ adaptation of this story of an alternate 1940s America with a Nazi Germany-sympathizing government feels a little too timely for comfort. Underlining that discomfort is Ryder as Evelyn Finkel, the woman torn between her no-longer-safe Jewish family and her husband (John Turturro), a prop of the rising fascist movement. This increasingly complex story is tethered to her increasingly anguished performance.

Octavia Spencer, “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker”
How did a hair-care pioneer become America’s first Black female millionaire? Rooting for Spencer’s Madam C.J. Walker every step of the way, we’re reminded that history’s groundbreakers were usually ordinary people clinging to a dream with hope and grit. Based on the biography written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, this limited series is a fabulous showcase for Spencer, who is finally getting the lead roles she’s long deserved.

Yvonne Strahovski, “Stateless”
Inspired by the real-life story of an Australian citizen unlawfully detained in one of the country’s immigration centers, “Stateless” finds Strahovski bringing pure, unfiltered emotion to the camera lens, especially in scenes where her detainee Sofie’s paranoia is reaching breaking point. But you can always count on this actor to deliver drama with just the right amount of restraint—no small task given this story’s extremes.

Holland Taylor, “Hollywood”
In this alternate history of post-WWII Hollywood, some studio bigwigs are—gasp!—women. Watching Taylor as Ellen Kincaid, an executive with an eye for talent, you’re reminded how frustratingly rare the phenomenon still is. You also root for the Emmy-nominated Taylor and revel in her stateliness and ability to deliver a line like it’s borne out of her.

Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Queen’s Gambit”
As much a character study in addiction as a chess prodigy’s coming-of-age tale (and a gorgeously wrought period drama to match), this Netflix hit owes a heaping sum of its success to leading lady and rising star Taylor-Joy. Her skill at rendering Beth Harmon’s growth is physicalized acting at its finest, and every moment she levels those enormous eyes at her chess adversaries, or up at the ceiling, becomes iconic.

Tessa Thompson, “Sylvie’s Love”
If there’s one takeaway from Eugene Ashe’s period drama, let it be that Hollywood needs more stories of Black love like this. As a 1957 Harlem record store clerk, Thompson floats across the screen like a dream. But along with her co-star Nnamdi Asomugha, the leading lady plays sorrow with as much flair as she does buoyancy; as we all know, every great love story is also a tragedy. 

Kerry Washington, “Little Fires Everywhere”
What a spectacular return to TV drama this is for Washington, one of those Hollywood stars who can straddle the line between juicy melodrama and multilayered subtlety. Her work as Mia Warren, a newcomer to the story’s picture-perfect suburban neighborhood, makes Liz Tigelaar’s small-screen adaptation of the best-selling Celeste Ng novel all pleasure, no guilt.

Reese Witherspooon, “Little Fires Everywhere”
Witherspoon has perfected the art of revealing the layers of a woman and mother trying to hold herself and her family together. On “Little Fires Everywhere,” she deepens that excavation as kids, husband, friends, co-workers, and a mysterious new neighbor orbit around her Elena Richardson. She’s so good at portraying a woman gradually unraveling, you might feel a little bad for enjoying it.

John Boyega, “Small Axe: Red, White and Blue”
Steve McQueen’s anthology of films, collectively titled after the proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” spotlights and honors West Indian culture in 1960s and ’70s London. As real-life British cop Leroy Logan, MBE, a founding member of the U.K.’s Black Police Association, the understated yet extraordinary Boyega both draws inspiration from real-life events and invents a detailed character study all his own.

Bryan Cranston, “Your Honor”
As this Showtime miniseries ratchets up the stakes in its tale of a prominent judge covering up his son’s hit-and-run, Cranston reminds us this kind of material is his forte. Without ever overdoing Michael’s emotions, he suggests a rising tension and desperation scene after scene. How far would you go to protect those you love? Cranston has us asking that question and believing wholeheartedly in his own answer.

Jeff Daniels, “The Comey Rule”
Writer-director Billy Ray’s retelling of the 2016 presidential election may have provided Daniels his most fascinating material yet; these days, the truth is stranger than fiction. As James Comey, he projects poise, confidence, even calm. Yet the poker-faced actor lets us peek behind the curtain, his eyes revealing just how much Comey knows that Donald Trump’s efforts to slander his opponents are, to say the least, very, very bad.

Chris Evans, “Defending Jacob”
So much is unsaid between Andy Barber and his family members, entangled in a murder investigation and steadily realizing their quaint suburban life will never be the same again. This series’ restraint allows Evans, a master at plumbing and conveying endless depths of subtext, to both generate empathy and keep us guessing. His final moment is one of wordless stillness, but it’s somehow utterly devastating.

Brendan Gleeson, “The Comey Rule”
Gleeson’s scheming President-elect Trump is terrifying. This is the arrogant, conniving, power-hungry Trump, not the bumbling fool or puppet version. So convincing is the legendary actor’s physical performance, from gait to facial expressions to that growl in his voice, that this rendition, for better or worse, may become what you think of when Trump comes to mind.

Hugh Grant, “The Undoing”
It’s impossible to discuss Grant on “The Undoing” without spoiling the ending; this is a murder mystery, after all. Centering Grant as husband, father, and sociopathic cheater-liar-murderer Jonathan Fraser is more than just a clever bit of casting, given our collective fondness for his charmingly romantic roles. Grant capably walks the line between sympathetic and bone-chilling, causing us to second-guess right up to the series’ final, heart-pounding moment.

Ethan Hawke, “The Good Lord Bird”
What makes Hawke a star is also what makes this Showtime miniseries he co-created with Mark Richard great: He can combine weighty historical drama with epic, rollicking entertainment. The actor’s irreverent take on the intensely religious and violent abolitionist John Brown, whose spark helped ignite the American Civil War, must be seen to be believed. And believe you absolutely will.

Hugh Jackman, “Bad Education”
To call Mike Makowsky and Cory Finley’s HBO film “Bad Education” Jackman’s best-ever onscreen work would verge on sacrilege, given his bona fides as an entertainer of all stripes. But it’s justified: His performance as Frank Tassone, the real-life superintendent of a Long Island school district, is so deliciously dastardly, you can’t help but want him to get away with embezzlement.

Jude Law, “The Third Day”
Felix Barrett, the mind behind Punchdrunk’s live hit “Sleep No More,” set out to make an equally immersive TV experience with folk-horror thriller “The Third Day.” Pulling us down its psychological rabbit hole is Law’s turn as Sam, a man drawn to a mysterious British island and its unnerving local customs. Often rendered in trippy close-up, Law’s wide-eyed, haunted stare reveals almost as much as it hides.

Dylan McDermott, “Hollywood”
Actors are usually allowed to have quite a bit of fun in a Ryan Murphy production, but McDermott seems to be taking that license to the next level with his portrayal of Ernie West. As a slick pimp who runs his business out of a gas station and revels in taking customers “to dreamland,” McDermott chews scenery to alarmingly entertaining effect.

Paul Mescal, “Normal People”
Heartfelt, devastating, so vulnerable you almost can’t bear to witness it—Mescal on this miniseries adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel checks so many boxes of what makes a great performance. Opposite Daisy Edgar-Jones, with whom he generates the kind of turbulent chemistry it feels like it would take years to develop, he stakes his claim as a star to watch.

Leslie Odom Jr., “Hamilton”
One of the highlights of 2020 echoed the fervor of Broadway in 2015: With the Disney+ arrival of the filmed “Hamilton,” homebound fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing musical get to relive the full stage production, led by its impossibly talented original cast. To anyone who missed Odom’s daring, nuanced, heart-wrenching turn as Aaron Burr, the founding fathers’ would-be villain—don’t wait for it.

Shaun Parkes, “Small Axe: Mangrove”
Lesser-known stories of fights for social justice deserve no less attention than the movements in history textbooks. In fact, they deserve more. “Mangrove” stars the stunning Parkes as Frank Crichlow, owner of Mangrove restaurant, which was targeted by racist policemen in 1970 London. The film is effective thanks to Parkes and his castmates, who turn what could have been mere symbols into flesh-and-blood people to whom we can, and must, relate.

Jeremy Pope, “Hollywood”
As one of the aspiring storytellers of this miniseries’ titular town, Pope has us rooting for him to make it big from his first moments as Archie Coleman. For modern audiences, we know his screenwriting success will require an uphill battle; how wonderful that Pope’s Archie is full of enough earnest determination to pull it off.

Chris Rock, “Fargo”
If this story weren’t true, you would never believe it. Noah Hawley’s ever-expanding “Fargo” universe takes us on Season 4 to 1950 Kansas City, Missouri, where Rock’s Loy Cannon leads a Black crime syndicate clashing with a rival mafia. The comedian earns his dramatic acting bona fides here, convincingly rendering Loy ruthless before developing the character throughout the story’s kaleidoscopic action, introducing subtle hints of humanity.

Mark Ruffalo, “I Know This Much Is True”
Playing opposite yourself as twins might sound like a dream acting job. But it comes with risks: You have to pull off the illusion seamlessly, making the audience forget they’re seeing one performer, and you can’t ever verge on gimmickry. The Emmy-winning Ruffalo avoids such issues with astonishing precision in this adaptation of Wally Lamb’s novel, imbuing both brothers with distinct interiorities as well as magnetic physicalities.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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