Whilst in the modern era of entertainment television is held to the highest esteem, on a par (if not more culturally superior) to cinema, there was a period of time when this simply wasn’t the case. At the turn of the 21st century, it was Tom Hanks’ Band of Brothers, produced by Steven Spielberg along with HBO’s The Sopranos that would transform the medium from a platform dominated by daytime schlock to a place where serious dramas could be played out.
Where television was once looked down on as an inferior form of entertainment, reserved for sitcoms and frivolous daytime shows, Spielberg’s production had shown that it could carry the same spectacular qualities as cinema, if the subject matter was properly cared for. Shortly after Band of Brothers came HBO’s critically acclaimed The Wire, followed by Lost from ABC that would help to spark a roaring fire of TV popularity.
Fueling a domino effect that would later lead to a flurry of high-profile television including Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, suddenly the ‘small screen’ carried as much significance as the glitz of Hollywood cinema. As a result of such inflated budgets, more focus has been put on production and thus, more high-profile actors have been drawn to television.
From the ‘90s mystery of Twin Peaks to the ongoing boardroom fury of Succession, let’s take a look into the ten greatest acting performances in television history.
The Top 10 greatest acting performances in television history
10. Lena Headey – Game Of Thrones (2011-2019)
For a while at least, the fantasy series based on the books by George R. R. Martin Game of Thrones, had the cultural zeitgeist by the throat, with fans baying for its blood, guts and dragons each episode.
High stakes fantasy led by sincere performances fuelled the belly of the show, with actors Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jack Gleeson each delivering fan-favourite performances. It was Lena Headey, however, as the villainous Cersei Lannister who truly owned the show, delivering consistently remarkable performances as an intimidating, vulnerable and cruel leader.
Constantly in a battle for power, Lena Headey perfectly portrayed this maniacal mother and controller of Westeros.
9. Kyle MacLachlan – Twin Peaks (1990 – 2017)
David Lynch’s vastly influential TV series Twin Peaks redefined the potential of television storytelling by traversing the mysterious landscape of surrealism in a way that captured mainstream attention. At its centre stood the compelling lead character of Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper.
FBI Agent Dale Cooper arrives in the strange town of Twin Peaks to order to make sense of a bizarre murder case involving a young girl named Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). With a fascinating optimism, wisdom and infectious enthusiasm for food, just like us, Cooper is an outsider to the isolated community of Twin Peaks and he undertakes the gigantic task of deciphering its elusive dialectics.
Endlessly charming and unperturbed by the weird things happening around him, MacLachlan’s performance as our reliable guide who holds our hand and takes us into a world where logic has been relegated to the realm of redundancy is a joy.
8. Edie Falco – The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)
One of the greatest television programmes ever made, (if not the greatest) The Sopranos is jam-packed with stellar performances from right across the supporting cast, including the likes of Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico and Drea de Matteo.
Though, standing up to Tony Soprano and the extraordinary performance of James Gandolfini is no easy task, making Edie Falco’s work as wife Carmela Soprano, one of the series most outstanding. Constantly at moral odds with her husband’s job whilst trying to maintain a happy family, Carmela’s character is highly understated though is ultimately crucial to The Sopranos story at large.
In turning Carmela into a loveable, sympathetic, yet enigmatic individual, Edie Falco helps to spin one of the most enthralling narratives in television history.
7. Jon Hamm – Mad Men (2007 – 2015)
Creating a character so influential that his fictional name has suffused into the lexicon of everyday conversation, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is a complex fractured mind, leading AMC’s influential Mad Men with gusto.
The head of an advertising firm, Draper’s life is defined by alcohol, debauchery and constant guilt, living as a broken man Draper sees the industry he loves slowly transform with the changing tides of American politics.
His character in Mad Men would allow Jon Hamm to excel in cinematic roles in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver as well as Ben Affleck’s The Town, though it was his complicated, stylish character in the TV series that he would truly become known for.
6. Brian Cox – Succession (2018 – )
Taking contemporary television by storm, HBO’s Succession, created by Jesse Armstrong, the mind behind Four Lions, In the Loop, and Peep Show, is a wildly entertaining business drama about inter-familial deceit.
Following the Roy family, known for controlling the worlds biggest media and entertainment company, the series is led by the egomaniac, Logan Roy, an elderly businessman set in his intimidating ways.
Played with ferocity by Brian Cox, Logan Roy is one of the most intimidating television characters of modern memory, controlling his empire with an iron fist and a zero-tolerance policy for tentativeness. As the driving force behind the successful show, Brian Cox’s performance is a revelation.
5. Matthew McConaughey – True Detective (2014 – 2019)
Helping the actor to define his career transformation (aka his McConaissance), True Detective was a jagged crime drama born from the grit of the American heartland, featuring an equally broken Detective Rust Cohle bruised from many years of psychological torment.
Working perfectly opposite Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart, Matthew McConaughey was a cynical, cruel individual with a complex moral compass that created a truly unpredictable character.
Deeply philosophical, Rust Cohle was a many-sided character though McConaughey was able to wrestle his identity down to the ground, ultimately putting together a captivating performance as a man on the edge.
4. Stephen Graham – This is England (2010 – 2015)
Changing the face of independent British cinema upon its release in 2006, This is England directed by Shane Meadows introduced several influential actors to the fold of the industry, including Thomas Turgoose, Joe Gilgun, Jack O’Connell and Stephen Graham.
As the story continued into its serialised form, Stephan Graham’s skinhead convict Combo became a figure of great dominance as he found himself in and out of prison, a looming shadow over the existence of the main cast of characters.
One of the finest actors of the generation, Stephen Graham’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary, effortlessly making one of cinema’s most hated characters into a figure of sympathy. Across each mini-series, his performance is truly iconic.
3. Michael K. Williams – The Wire (2002 – 2008)
A mainstay across The Wire’s five seasons, Omar Little was one of its defining characters. A duster coat wearing, shotgun-wielding menace to street-level drug dealers, this Robin Hood-esque character was delivered with wit, humour and steel-eyed cool in equal parts.
A homosexual, and a privately tender character, Little was a stark juxtaposition to the stereotypical notion of criminals being machismo straight guys. Michael K. Williams knew that this was a great thing and that this element of Little’s character was critical in challenging attitudes towards homosexuality in America.
In 2005, Williams explained that he thought Omar was well-liked because of his honesty, lack of materialism, individuality and adherence to his strict moral code.
2. Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)
As the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White transforms himself from an innocent father to a ruthless gangster across the course of five stunning seasons, Bryan Cranston’s transformation is marvellous if also genuinely heartbreaking.
Winning four Emmy awards, three back-to-back, for his performance across the series, Bryan Cranston managed to create a broken protagonist that reeked of psychological pain and turmoil as he watched the fantasy life he’d pieced together crumble. So good was his performance that the legendary Anthony Hopkins wrote him a letter reading: “Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen – ever […] This work of yours is spectacular – absolutely stunning. From what started as a black comedy, descended into a labyrinth of blood, destruction and hell. It was like a great Jacobean, Shakespearian or Greek Tragedy.”
1. James Gandolfini – The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)
In ways more intimate and effective than before, James Gandolfini defined the true potential of the antihero by silently making the audience complicit in every single transgression he commits. His career-defining performance as Tony Soprano in the classic HBO show is one of true excellence.
An anti-hero with a torn moral compass, Gandolfini transformed the image of the stereotypical gangster by imbuing the character with a genuine heart and troubled mental health.
Underneath Tony Soprano’s insane sociopathic tendencies is a kind-hearted man, and with Gandolfini’s magnetic charm and transparent vulnerability, this sympathy could be easily elicited. The Sopranos presents its leading man not as a ruthless gangster but as a troubled family man, more afraid of his own social engagements than the crime that surrounds him every day.
Such a revolutionary story required an industry-leading performance. James Gandolfini provided just that.