Debate of the Day: The Best TV Acting Performances

walter white

Yesterday, I posted about how Anthony Hopkins wrote a letter to Bryan Cranston expressing that his turn as Walter White was “the best acting I have seen – ever.”

It made me reflect on the entirety of Cranston’s work as Walter White on the show, and how far he had to alter his character from beginning to end, and all the powerful moments he was forced to handle in different ways. Truth is, it’s hard to think of many better performances across all of television history. Yes, there are other great shows out there, and some are probably in totality better than Breaking Bad, but do they have any performances like Cranston’s? I’m just not sure he can be matched.

I’ve been trying to think of other actors who have come close. To me, James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano comes to mind, though that may be an easy go-to. Maybe Martin Sheen on the West Wing. Glen Close on Damages. These are just folks who come to mind when I’m considering what performances have really made an impact on me, even years later.  I’m curious to see who you all might select for your own, so feel free to post them in the comments. Bonus points if its a show I haven’t seen yet, and will now try to check out on your recommendation.

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  1. I know that you Paul in particular aren’t the biggest fan of the show, but I think one of the most criminally underrated performances in recent years was John Noble’s Walter Bishop on Fringe.

    His character’s arc from beginning to end, including **SPOILER ALERT** the way he played Walternate is really what made the show to me.

    If you need proof of how great this show could be, you just need to watch the episodes “Peter” and “Subject 13”.

  2. Maybe not the entire performance, but I was stunned by Mark Addy’s Robert Baratheon during one scene. At the end of S01E05 (I think) there was a scene where he and Lena Heady’s Cersei were talking about their past and their marriage. It’s still one of the best scenes of the show to me.

  3. What Frothy Ham said.

    Also have to give massive props to Ian McShane from Deadwood and — though we’re still only a season in — Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal. Two of the great screen villains, I think.

  4. I think Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black is certainly in the discussion. We’re very early in that series, and it will take time to tell, but so far, there are few equals IMO.

    I give a huge nod to the work Matt Smith has done as the Doctor as well. On his own, separating that role from how others before him played it, its one of the best jobs I can ever think of.

  5. I agree with so many of these. I also think Matt Smith really brought something special to the table, and I’m surprised he’s not more popular. Then again, I never got on board the Ten train, so I’m already slumming it here in the outskirts of the fandom.

    I’d like to submit Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. She’s amazing in everything she’s ever done, but Violet Crawley is a pure distillation of all her strengths as an actor. She kills every line in every one of her scenes.

  6. I agree with a lot of these, but I have to give Babylon 5 a thumbs up. I can’t even single out a single actor. The story and the writing were so strong that I actually cried during an episode once. That has never happened to me before or since. It is my favorite show ever, and the cast is, as far as I’m concerned, spectacular.

  7. Walton Goggins for Shane Vandrell The Shield. And to prove it, I submit his completely opposite role (in temperment) as Boyd Crowder in Justified.

  8. All great suggestions. I’m going with Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark.

    @Sara Clemens DA is a good show with some great performances in it. I think the entire downstairs crew is underrated.

  9. Finally! More people who give Matt Smith the credit he deserves for Dr Who. I think Martin Sheen is incredible, but would say that Richard Schiff or Janel Malony give just as good performances, if not better over the course of the programme. How about Damian Lewis in Band of Brothers?

  10. John Lithgow as the Trinity Killer on Dexter.

    I would have said his role in Buckaroo Banzai as Lord John Whorfin, but he is clearly over-shadowed by Christopher Lloyd’s John Bigboote.

  11. Terry O’Quinn as John Locke in Lost then…


    When he played the Man In Black which was like a complete 180 change, amazing stuff!

  12. One that may not have been seen much if at all outside the UK

    Dominic West playing Fred West in Appropriate Adult…he really channeled the sick bastard that Fred West was and it was an amazing performance.

    Obviously Dominic was also awesome as McNulty in The Wire

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