The 32 Best Limited Series + TV Movie Performances of 2019

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Keeping up with all your favorite TV? What about one-off miniseries and TV movies? With ever more viewing options available and ever more top-tier talent gravitating toward these forms of storytelling on the small screen, singling out the best performances can be tough. Below, we’ve assembled 32 of 2019’s worthiest SAG Award contenders in the increasingly competitive limited series and TV movie categories.

Patricia Arquette, “The Act”
A 2019 Emmy winner, Arquette served TV audiences an-all-too-disturbing character likely to linger in their memory. On Hulu’s based-on-a-true-story miniseries, she disappears into the role of Dee Dee Blanchard, a mother suffering from Munchausen by proxy. Her lived-in portrayal of this mental illness can be equal parts agonizing and infuriating for viewers; she’ll make your skin crawl.

Lizzy Caplan, “Castle Rock”
What a terrific casting choice is Caplan as nurse-with-a-screw-loose Annie Wilkes, one of Stephen King’s most beloved villains. The actor unearths more and more compelling range with every role, and her reinterpretation of this psychopath—or is she?—becomes bone-chilling not just for its suspense and potential for violence, but for its humanity.

Toni Collette, “Unbelievable”
Collette wears her no-nonsense cop with ease, instilling the viewer with the trust the detective requires to successfully shepherd you through this twisty, at times tedious investigation. Detective Grace Rasmussen doesn’t care about being liked, but you can’t help but root for her while she tracks down the bad guy.

Carmen Ejogo, “True Detective”
Ejogo is as enthralling a presence on screen as she is a soothing one. She made use of both qualities on Season 3 of HBO’s anthologized character study as schoolteacher-turned-crime writer Amelia Reardon, captivated by a twisting case and the man trying to solve it. Throughout the season’s time jumps, she and Mahershala Ali never lose their audience, charting an intimately authentic relationship.

Aunjanue Ellis, “When They See Us”
It’s essential for a character to give a commanding, positive voice in a story as gut-wrenching—and true to life—as this one. As Ellis’ Sharonne Salaam guides her son Yusef through his unearned hardship, she’s inspiring and authoritative, her strength helping him (and us) maintain faith.

Kathryn Hahn, “Mrs. Fletcher”
Is anyone better at conveying desire than Hahn? It’s more than just a bite of the lip or a fluttering of her eyes; she uses her face and body to turn silences into stunning arias of yearning. With a laptop as her primary scene partner in this tale of a single mother whose empty nest syndrome leads to nuanced sexual awakenings, Hahn demonstrates a vulnerability that can break your heart or crack you up, as needed.

Joey King, “The Act”
Her long résumé can already attest to King’s range, but “The Act” will be the defining role that proves her dramatic chops. As the real-life Gypsy Rose Blanchard, King altered her voice and appearance to become the Munchausen by proxy victim, torn between her desire for independence and her devotion to her mother. Both her obedience and deception are chilling; by the end, it’s hard to remember King is only pretending.

Laura Linney, “Tales of the City”
Linney revisits Mary Ann Singleton and gets back to her onscreen roots on Netflix’s “Tales of the City.” Mary Ann was one of her breakout roles on Armistead Maupin’s original LGBTQ soap, and the Emmy winner again taps into the charming aloofness and world-worn vulnerability of an outsider who finds an unlikely home in a queer-run boardinghouse in San Francisco.

Sienna Miller, “The Loudest Voice”
The scene stealer on Showtime’s retelling of the saga of Roger Ailes and Fox News was Miller as Beth Tilson Ailes. The actor fully transformed into a woman who was somehow deserving of both pity and scorn. Her love-knows-no-bounds protectiveness of her husband managed to resonate with us, daring us to ask: Can we relate to these monstrous people?

Helen Mirren, “Catherine the Great”
What’s not to love about Mirren the Great? Her tsarina is coldly inflexible yet warmly charming, ruthless yet empathetic, strong yet vulnerable, and everything all at the same time. The dame looks right at home in the time period and those stunning costumes, of course, but her performance also feels refreshingly timely.

Niecy Nash, “When They See Us”
When Nash is onscreen, you may forget that this Netflix miniseries has the stories of five teens at its center. Her portrayal of Deloris Wise, grieving her son Korey’s childhood as he’s unfairly tried as an adult, is as heartbreaking as those guilty verdicts. We knew Nash knows comedy, but her dramatic skills shine under Ava DuVernay’s direction.

Emma Thompson, “Years and Years”
Art imitates life in Thompson’s Viv Rook—she’s a brazen and outlandish public figure who achieves political ascendance by nature of her shock value. The farther this BBC One and HBO miniseries stretches into the future, a feat of speculative fiction, the more this actor’s performance as a true-to-life populist leader leaves the audience both in disbelief about what’s happening and somehow able to see how we got there.

Kerry Washington, “American Son”
It takes temerity to play the kind of material facing Washington in Christopher Demos-Brown and Kenny Leon’s Broadway-to-screen story of a mother awaiting dreadful news about her son. Washington’s viscerally felt performance could be studied for its sheer nerve.

Emily Watson, “Chernobyl”
Watson’s whip-smart, no-nonsense Ulana Khomyuk is a positive presence amid the grim landscape of the Chernobyl disaster’s aftermath. The actor commands the technical language with ease while never letting us forget her humanity, instantly earning trust in Khomyuk’s heroic mission.

Merritt Wever, “Unbelievable”
Wever built Detective Karen Duvall into a flawed, kind, and undeniably human character. With sexual assault victims, she’s compassionate and careful, but in the moments focused on the investigation, her relentlessness brings you to the edge of your seat. Already an Emmy winner for comedy and drama, Wever proves she has chops to spare.

Michelle Williams, “Fosse/Verdon”
Williams’ riveting, Emmy-winning turn as Gwen Verdon, spanning decades, is an example of studiousness and authenticity; her vocal mannerisms and ease at dance attest to this actor really doing her homework. But what pushes Williams’ spectacular performance over the edge is simple: She’s having so much damn fun.

Ruth Wilson, “Mrs. Wilson”
This story was personal for Wilson, and it showed in her portrayal of her grandmother Alison. As Alison is repeatedly confronted by the unexpected in the wake of her husband’s sudden death, Wilson makes the plot points character-focused and endlessly compelling with her command of every frame.

Christopher Abbott, “Catch-22”
You can’t decide if you are rooting for or against Abbott’s John Yossarian in Hulu’s darkly comic miniseries about WWII pilots unable to escape the Air Forces. Is he just a snotty, privileged guy? Or are we seeing a man experiencing in real time the toll that post-traumatic stress disorder takes? The fact that he’s both is what makes Abbott’s performance worthy of awards attention.

Mahershala Ali, “True Detective”
Yet another in a string of unmissable performances, Ali’s Detective Wayne Hays further solidifies the actor’s status as one of today’s brightest stars. Watch the way he moves his eyes as an old man, struggling to remember (or intentionally obfuscating?) the details of a case so disturbing, it unfolds over the course of decades.

Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Spy”
The extraordinary true story of desk clerk-turned-Mossad spy Eli Cohen (undercover as Kamel Amin Thaabet), who played a fascinating role in the 1967 conflict between Israel and Syria, is painted in vivid detail by an actor from whom we may not expect such material. Baron Cohen forgoes his signature silliness in service of a twisty and bingeable minidrama that must be seen to be believed.

Asante Blackk, “When They See Us”
It’s a lot to expect a first-time actor to carry the weight of a project like “When They See Us,” but Blackk does. His portrayal of a defenseless, innocent teen abused by the criminal justice system drives home the unfairness at the center of this story. He captures Kevin Richardson’s youth in ways that re-emphasize how it was stolen.

Russell Crowe, “The Loudest Voice”
We’ve all been dying to shower disdain on Roger Ailes, haven’t we? At least, that’s what Crowe’s performance as the morally bankrupt leader of Fox News invites us to do. In his portrayal, the man’s greed for power, more than money, is his blatantly visible motivation. It’s spectacularly physical acting; Crowe delivers bloodcurdling stares at underlings that only a man of such power could wield.

Jared Harris, “Chernobyl”
Fans of Harris are no strangers to the tragic characters he’s played, whether it’s the doomed king of England or an in-over-his-head ad exec. But his Valery Legasov might top them all. A fierce advocate for safety and truth in the face of a criminal cover-up, Harris acts as the series’ guide to truly understanding both the technical and political powers at play in the titular nuclear disaster.

Jharrel Jerome, “When They See Us”
Jerome is the only actor to depict both the teen and adult versions of a member of the Central Park Five. On top of that achievement, the fourth part of this series follows him through the prison system to which he’s been unjustly sent. The Emmy-winning star so vividly captures Korey Wise’s pain as he struggles to maintain his innocence, it’s impossible to forget.

Denny Love, “Looking for Alaska”
The trick facing Hulu’s miniseries adaptation of John Green’s beloved high school drama was getting teenaged actors to credibly capture the high highs and low lows of adolescence. Enter Love as Chip “The Colonel” Martin, whose swaggering charisma gives way to authentic vulnerability in one of the show’s most memorable character arcs. Love’s rapid-fire delivery alone makes him a rising star to watch.

Ian McShane, “Deadwood: The Movie”
South Dakota is becoming a state and Al Swearengen, the ruthless builder of its empire, is dying. McShane, whose preternaturally confident take on Swearengen earned him a Golden Globe when “Deadwood” the series aired in 2004, returns for this satisfying final installment reuniting our favorite characters and providing unexpected closure. The actor reminds us it’s never too late to add new layers to an already fascinatingly complex character.

Aaron Paul, “El Camino”
What happened to Jesse Pinkman after the explosive finale of “Breaking Bad”? Paul’s return to the character gives fans what they’ve been craving: an even deeper dive into the character than the series gave us. The audience feels right there with Jesse, experiencing every awful moment; it’s like Paul can pull us directly into the danger right there alongside this broken man who’s lost everything.

Sam Rockwell, “Fosse/Verdon”
In depicting one of musical theater’s most fascinatingly fraught collaborations and relationships, “Fosse/Verdon” had to grapple with gender dynamics and the way history remembers men who are deemed geniuses. Part of what made Rockwell’s performance as Bob Fosse so refreshing is that he didn’t shy away from showing the director’s notoriously womanizing ways.

Ashton Sanders, “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”
It’s thrilling to watch Sanders hit role after role (“Moonlight,” this year’s “Native Son”) out of the park. The young actor brings his quiet magnetism—those intense eyes!—to the role of Bobby Diggs, better known as RZA, in Hulu’s retelling of an American dream come true. Wu-Tang Clan’s leader is, thanks to Sanders, a compassionate and conflicted visionary harnessing his fellow rappers’ talents to become the world’s biggest hip-hop group, against all odds.

Stellan Skarsgård, “Chernobyl”
Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina would be a curmudgeonly grandfather if “Chernobyl” were a different sort of series. But it’s the story of a real disaster—and of a person who endangered millions of lives in the name of patriotism. His journey begs viewers to come around, the same way he does, to the truth. But the actor’s portrayal forces audiences to understand what it meant to be a Soviet leader at the time.

David Tennant, “Good Omens”
Tennant as a snake-eyed demon who tempts Eve and wreaks havoc on mankind? It’s sheer casting bliss. The success of Amazon’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s novel depended largely on compatible actors who could channel the authors’ bizarro cleverness and play off each other endlessly. Tennant’s delicious, malicious Crowley opposite Michael Sheen’s pearl-clutching angel Aziraphale makes for heavenly TV.

Michael Kenneth Williams, “When They See Us”
Bobby McCray goes through every conceivable emotion when his son, Antron, is accused of a crime he did not commit. And although he never apologizes with words for his wrongs, thanks to this actor, we see his regret in his face and body. With Williams, what is not said holds infinitely more weight than what is. 

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 3 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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