- Great TV shows rely on exceptional actors who click with their characters, forming a deep connection that helps them disappear into their roles.
- TV actors are getting more respect, and the standard of acting on TV has never been higher, with longer development time for actors alongside their characters.
- From Don Draper to Villanelle, the perfect actor for a role can bring a character to life in a way that nobody else could attempt to mimic.
TV shows need great actors if they are to have any chance of success, but some shows rely entirely on their cast. Some of the most memorable characters in TV history probably wouldn’t have worked if a different actor had been cast in the same role. This can be because a particular actor is so outstanding that it’s hard to imagine someone else in the role, but it’s more often the case that an actor just clicks with a character, forming a deep connection that helps them disappear into the role.
Even in the age of prestige TV, actors tend to get more respect in movies. There are plenty of remarkable actors working in TV who are helping to shift this commonly held belief, and there is also less of a delineation now between TV actors and film actors. This all means that the standard of acting on TV has never been higher. One major advantage TV has over film, from the perspective of its performers, is that actors have longer to develop alongside a character. Ultimately, this can mean TV actors make a role entirely their own, to the point that nobody else could attempt to mimic them.
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10 Don Draper (Mad Men)
Don Draper is defined by his contradictions. Everyone loves him, but nobody really knows him. He excels at his work, but he’s constantly drunk in the office. He has everything that he wants, but there’s a deep-seated sadness within him. These contradictions highlight the bright facade he presents to the world to hide the truth. He’s an ad man through-and-through, to the extent that he treats himself like another product to be sold to people. Jon Hamm is handsome, charismatic, and smooth, making him the perfect actor for Don’s carefully curated personal image.
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9 Villanelle (Killing Eve)
As a highly-skilled assassin, Villanelle must be able to instantly adapt to any situation. Jodie Comer’s remarkable range allows her to transform from one scene to the next, providing a chilling portrayal of a sociopathic shape-shifting contract killer. Her flawless repertoire of accents is a huge bonus. Comer also has just as much mysterious allure as Villanelle, which is key to selling Eve’s obsession with her. Villanelle represents the ideal of everything that Eve does not. She’s cosmopolitan, independent and elusive, in contrast to Eve’s passionless existence working for the British government.
8 Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)
The “Golden Age” of The Simpsons has some brilliant comedy writing, but the cast is just as important in making some of the show’s best jokes memorable, even after so many years. Dan Castellaneta plays multiple roles on The Simpsons, including Abe Simpson, Krusty the Clown, Mayor Quimby and Barney. He gives each of his characters fantastic moments, but none are as regularly hilarious as Homer. Castellaneta’s voice for Homer is the perfect encapsulation of the character’s empty-headed overconfidence, and his line reads make some of Homer’s best quotes even better.
7 Lenny Bruce (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel)
Lenny Bruce isn’t the only Marvelous Mrs. Maisel character based on real life, but he stands out as the one who gets the most attention. Lenny isn’t just inspired by real people in the same way that Midge or Susie are. He is a direct portrayal of the legendary counter-culture comedian. Looking at old clips of Lenny Bruce on stage shows how accurate Luke Kirby’s portrayal is, but Kirby also has to extrapolate his idea of Lenny Bruce to create an image of the comedian off-stage. Kirby’s Lenny Bruce is suave and debonair, but with tragedy deep within his soul.
6 Selina Meyer (Veep)
The cast of Veep is packed full of comedy talent, from Sam Richardson as the charming doofus Richard Splett to Hugh Laurie as the two-faced career politician Tom James. However, for the show to work, it’s important that Julia Louis-Dreyfus outshines them all in the central role. Having proven her stellar comedy credentials on Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus arguably delivers an even better performance as Selina Meyer across seven seasons of Veep. She handles Selina’s erratic mood swings with aplomb. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also an artist when it comes to abusive profanity.
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5 Frank Reynolds (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia)
Frank Reynolds is central to many of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s best episodes, but sometimes he’s just as hilarious as a supporting character with no real investment in the gang’s schemes. This is down to Danny DeVito’s scene-stealing ability, and the way he so perfectly embodies Frank’s unique brand of chaos. DeVito is responsible for most of the show’s outrageous physical humor, like when he clambers, fully nude, out of a leather couch. His brilliant comedic partnership with Charlie Day is the icing on the cake, but every character in It’s Always Sunny benefited from his introduction in season 2.
4 Rebecca Welton (Ted Lasso)
An uber-rich sports team owner who uses the club as a means to enact her personal vendettas, Rebecca could easily have become a detestable villain. In fact, at the beginning of Ted Lasso she is cast as the primary antagonist, but Hannah Waddingham is able to inject an extraordinary amount of pathos. Ultimately, Rebecca’s honesty and kindness redeem her. Her personal journey is key to some of Ted Lasso‘s most emotional moments throughout the series, but it’s hard to envision her character becoming so popular without Waddingham’s deeply moving performance.
3 Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal)
Following in the footsteps of Anthony Hopkins would be a daunting task for any actor, especially in one of his most iconic roles. Mads Mikkelsen was a perfect casting choice, having developed a reputation as an actor who plays villains exceptionally well. Mikkelsen brought his own unique twist to the role of Hannibal Lecter, defying direct comparisons between himself and Hopkins. However, he still captured Hannibal’s clinical evil, masked by an aristocratic and erudite charm. It was a difficult task, but Mikkelsen inhabited the role of Hannibal so naturally that he seemed an ideal fit.
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2 Lucille Bluth (Arrested Development)
Lucille Bluth is the out-of-touch matriarch of Arrested Development‘s Bluth family. She is cruel, self-absorbed, and manipulative, but Jessica Walter makes sure she is also utterly engrossing. Walter taps into Lucille’s old-money ennui, depicting her as a bored and controlling character who will decimate her children’s happiness for a morsel of power. The key is that Walter knows just how loathsome Lucille is, and this allows her to be in on the joke alongside the audience. A less actor could easily have made the character little more than a bland villain.
1 Fleabag (Fleabag)
Fleabag is one of the most personal TV shows ever made, and nobody else could have played Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s cynical protagonist. Even Fleabag’s unusual name is drawn from Waller-Bridge’s own life, underlining her deep attachment to the character. Fleabag is emotionally immature and self-destructive, although this can be traced back to the traumatic loss of her best friend. Waller-Bridge somehow manages to couple such tragedy with achingly relatable humor, and her control over the character allows her to take her to dark and hilarious places. The rest of the cast just has to match her.