Kristen Bell, Brian Cox, and… the narrator from Love Island? These are ten of the folks who we think are giving the best performances on the small screen.
Kristen Bell, Brian Cox, and… the narrator from Love Island? These are ten of the folks who we think are giving the best performances on the small screen.

Pop CultureFebruary 18, 2020

Ten great TV shows, ten perfect TV performances

Kristen Bell, Brian Cox, and… the narrator from Love Island? These are ten of the folks who we think are giving the best performances on the small screen.
Kristen Bell, Brian Cox, and… the narrator from Love Island? These are ten of the folks who we think are giving the best performances on the small screen.

Our writers celebrate the best performances you can watch right now on NEON. Basically? They’re iconic.

We all love a good story, and a great plot twist can turn a mediocre TV show into addictive weekly viewing. But what really keeps us coming back are the characters, and seeing actors at the height of their power and talent working to bring those characters to us in vivid, fully-realised detail.

In celebration of that fact, we’ve raked across the bountiful harvest of television on NEON to pay homage not just to the great characters, but to the performers who dive deep and go long to bring those characters to you.

Brian Cox as Logan Roy in Succession

No one says “fuck off” quite like Logan Roy in Succession. Whether directed at one of his endlessly disappointing children, the paparazzi, a family therapist with a tough job ahead of him or a waiter who’s spilt some champagne, those two little words are always delivered with such withering disdain you can’t help but wince in sympathy. Played with gruff intensity by veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox, Logan Roy is the patriarch of a dysfunctional American media dynasty. One of the most compelling characters in a show full of compelling characters, he’s clinging desperately to power in the face of ill health, major business challenges and subordinate offspring, and in a single episode can swing from gentle and fatherly (“C’mon Shiv, talk to me”) to terrifying bully (“There are NO! FUCKING! RULES!”), with varying nuanced shades in between. Genius show, genius character, genius actor. / Alice Neville

Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter in His Dark Materials

In the very excellent source text of His Dark Materials, Mrs. Coulter is exactly as a child would view her: a terrifying villain, whose goals are clear but exactly what drives her is murky – as the actions of adults often are, even to their fellow adults. It’s a gift of a role for an actor, but also a potential enigma: what makes her as cruel as she is, and how is she able to hold warmth for Lyra while also, in no uncertain terms, being her jailer? Ruth Wilson, also tremendous in The Affair, dives into these complexities and revels in them. One of the best things about the adaptation is that we get to see Mrs. Coulter the way she sees herself: someone for whom complete control is the goal, whether it’s control of the world or her own emotions. So when she loses control, as she does in one brilliant scene early on when her daemon mauls Lyra’s, it’s a terrifying snapshot into a soul that has blackened itself into amorality.

It’s not the bigger moments where Wilson breaks loose and screams where she earns her pay cheque, it’s the ones where she has to bring herself back, realising that her goal of staying in control at all times is a dream, constantly out of her tightly-clenched grasp. / Sam Brooks

Iain Stirling as The Narrator on Love Island UK

In a show filled with beautiful people and rippling bodies, it’s ironic that Love Island UK’s greatest performance comes from someone we never set eyes on. Scottish comedian Iain Stirling narrates every episode of this reality TV juggernaut, and his self-deprecating humour and sarcastic one liners about the non-stop drama are an utter joy. Whether he’s dropping shade about an Islander’s questionable behaviour or mocking the contestants during one of the show’s completely bonkers challenges, Stirling’s wry observations celebrate how ridiculous Love Island UK can be. He brings the banter to the villa, which is just as well, given much of the show involves people looking for their soul mate while they catch giant pretzels on poles tied around their waists. It’s a mad old world, but like Iain Stirling reminds us six nights a week, that’s the power of love. / Tara Ward

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

A masterclass in understated screen acting, Jared Harris’s performance as Valery Legasov in Chernobyl has a haunting power that somehow lingers long after you’ve finished watching. He’s as close as we get to a hero in the HBO miniseries. The real Legasov was a kind of hero, though they turn it up a bit in the dramatisation. But even then it’s a stoic heroism, in muted colours.

There are glimpses in Harris’s performance of Lane Price, his pitch-perfect, pitiful, unbearably believable character in Mad Men. But Legasov is a long way from Price – he has a steel that the ad agency bean counter never did. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman before him, Harris has that ineffable quality of quietly extracting the humanity in flawed, weathered, complex, and ultimately tragic figures. He has a knack, too, of playing characters that, well, die. As he told the Guardian: “My wife said, ‘I can’t believe it. Why are they doing this to you again?’ It’s a problem career-wise.” / Toby Manhire

Jeremy Irons as Ozymandias in Watchmen

I binged all of Watchmen over Christmas like the fun-loving family gal that I am, and was completely enraptured by Jeremy Irons as Ozymandias. Playing the smartest man in the history of the world who is banished to live in a bizarre isolated manor, Irons is typically phenomenal and menacing for a brittle old guy who sometimes wears a cape. But it’s only as we begin to realise the true parameters of his groundhog day existence that Irons really dials it up to 11. And when I say dial it up to 11, I mean he unleashes an earth-shattering fart that Changes Everything. I’m not going to tell you why, or when, or how the fart comes to fruition, I’m just going to tell you that it has to be heard to be believed. / Alex Casey

Jim Carrey as Jeff Pickles in Kidding

It was probably my early-20s obsession with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which piqued my initial interest in Kidding, but it was Jim Carrey’s performance through the electric first season which set its hooks in my brain. Like that mumblecore classic, the show sees Carrey teaming up with surrealist French director Michel Gondry in a role near-perfectly suited to his talents, with his performance as Jeff Pickles giving the show a central figure who manifests tragicomedy in almost all facets of his life. 

He’s an omnipresent kids’ TV star dealing off-screen with the unresolved trauma of his own son’s death; a man seen by the world as a paragon of gentle goodness yet consumed by a barely concealed rage; and a deeply moral human who carries the weight of his influence heavily while his svengali father seeks to co opt and merchandise his name, likeness and even his voice in as many formats as can be found. As the show spirals, Carrey’s deft traverse of the gap between pain and catharsis becomes only more powerful. With his famously elastic face leaning less for the slapstick gurning of Ace Ventura than something similar to Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, his Jeff Pickles is a very sad man who believes that if he can just keep smiling, maybe the world will stop collapsing. / Matthew McAuley

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal 

For all that Scandal was written off as the sillier step-sibling of Netflix’s House of Cards, there’s no question that Scandal is the show that holds up better. While House of Cards feels impossibly dated now (not just because of the lead actor), Scandal is a perfectly-preserved piece of political soap opera. The show has a great ensemble cast, but Scandal’s main weapon is the rocket launcher at the centre: Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope. She tracks the character’s development from intelligent, competent, and still somewhat open-hearted fixer at the start of the show, into a diamond-tough, amoral operative by the end of its increasingly unhinged six seasons. She’s never less than compelling to watch, whether she’s reading a client the riot act or dangerously dangling a glass of red wine over white furniture. / SB

Regina Hall as Dawn Darcy in Black Monday

Perhaps because lionising financial titans is as unfashionable now as any time since the great depression, Black Monday made a small splash when it landed last year (and a second season is coming in March). But the story of the only black-led firm on Wall Street deserved more shine than it got, evoking the coked-out kinetic energy of the decade in a pop, almost cartoonish style.

The cast is crazy, including Don Cheadle, Paul Scheer and Girls’ Andrew Rannells, but it’s Regina Hall who is the show’s emotional and dramatic core. She plays Dawn Darcy, who carries the double weight of being black and a woman in one of the most racist and sexist environments on earth, and delivers a deft, resonant performance. It ultimately reveals that, just as Mad Men was ultimately about Peggy and not Don, Black Monday’s star is not Cheadle’s Maurice Monroe, but is instead driven forward by Dawn’s combination of intellect, calculation and magnetism. / Duncan Greive

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars in Veronica Mars

Some actors find their character over time, developing and taking hold of the role as the show throws more plot at them and deepens the narrative waters. Others find their character right from the start, like Kristen Bell with Veronica Mars, a remarkable achievement given that the role was more or less her first big break. Veronica is there from the get-go – a hard-boiled, noir-inspired teen detective, as quick with her snark as she is with her stun gun, and with a permanent high-school-shaped chip on her shoulder.

The stealth joy of Bell’s performance is how she found new angles in the character, especially in the fourth season when she started to drop her guard and show us a Veronica who wasn’t just ready to love, but desperately in need of it. It’s one of the best television performances of the new millennium, and one that’s easy to forget because of how brilliant it was right from the jump. / SB

David Schwimmer as Captain Herbert Sobel in Band of Brothers

No such thing as small roles, as they say. And despite Schwimmer only appearing in three episodes of the 10 episode miniseries, he remains one of the most memorable parts of it all. Playing the ruthless disciplinarian Captain Sobel, he veers wildly between being a towering figure of authority, and an incompetent buffoon. 

Throughout his short stint in the show, Schwimmer gives the briefest flashes of vulnerability, before losing everything that matters to him. It’s a performance that hints at much greater complexities in the human being below the surface. But isn’t that the way with organisations that operate along military lines, when discipline is required to flatten out individuality. After going through that, otherwise sensitive people can be contorted into grotesque new shapes and destroyed, a process that is portrayed brilliantly by Schwimmer in just a few short cameos. / Alex Braae

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