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The Hollywood Reporter’s TV Critics Pick 10 Standout Performances Post-Emmys

The Hollywood Reporter logo The Hollywood Reporter 11/21/2021 Daniel Fienberg
From left: Swagger’s O’Shea Jackson Jr., Reservation Dogs’ Devery Jacobs, Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae, What We Do in the Shadows’ Kayvan Novak, and Maid’s Margaret Qualley. From left: Swagger’s O’Shea Jackson Jr., Reservation Dogs’ Devery Jacobs, Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae, What We Do in the Shadows’ Kayvan Novak, and Maid’s Margaret Qualley.

Jennifer Coolidge, The White Lotus

Ask any group of White Lotus fans to list their two or three favorite performances from the Mike White comedy, and you’d probably get mentions for nearly every actor in the ensemble. It’s hard to imagine, though, any such list not beginning with Coolidge as Tanya. It’s a career-capping turn for the American Pie scene-stealer and Christopher Guest ensemble favorite, with Tanya starting off as a seemingly familiar lush, boozy Coolidge hedonist, only to bit by bit let the actress peel back those layers of excess and expose the inner sadness that we somehow never would have attributed to the life of Stifler’s mom. This grief-stricken, lovelorn woman starts off as a character we laugh at and, instead, becomes a woman we cry for. — DANIEL FIENBERG

Selena Gomez, Only Murders in the Building

The magic of Only Murders in the Building lies in the chemistry among its three leads, but Gomez deserves special mention for her droll performance as Mabel. Even as the character keeps her cards close to the chest, burying her secrets deeper and willing herself to underreact, Gomez’s eagle-eyed gaze draws our own, making us wonder what’s going on beneath hers. Her Mabel is a youthful counterpoint to her older pals, wryly schooling them in millennial slang or teasing them with her deadpan snark, but she carries a sense of melancholy that makes her feel like an ancient soul. Whether she’s making us laugh or breaking our hearts, she’s pure charisma. — ANGIE HAN

O’Shea Jackson Jr., Swagger

The Apple TV+ drama deserves all the kudos for the note-perfect casting of its young ballplayers, which include multiple actors who’ve never acted professionally before. But the rock at the center of the team is Jackson as Ike, their coach, mentor and sometimes father figure. Jackson assumes the lead role with the ease of someone who knows he can command the audience’s attention without making a big fuss of it. Ike combines the fundamental decency of a Coach Taylor type (down to his extremely adorable chemistry with Christina Jackson, who plays his wife, Tonya) with the prickliness of a man still haunted by disappointments and failures. Though Ike can be guarded, he never feels distant thanks to Jackson’s dialed-in performance. Jackson isn’t just operating at the highest level — he’s doing it with a style that looks downright effortless. — A.H.

Devery Jacobs, Reservation Dogs

When it comes time to give awards for casting, the conversation should start and end with Reservation Dogs casting director Angelique Midthunder, who was tasked with finding a quartet of plausibly teenage Indigenous actors. During the first eight episodes of Sterlin Harjo’s FX on Hulu half-hour, each of its young stars gets to carry episodes, and whether it’s Paulina Alexis’ entirely sui generis comic line-readings or Lane Factor’s consummate sincerity or D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai’s ruminative charm, they all shine. We’re singling out Jacobs because while she’s extremely funny when required — the episode set around the local medical clinic is the show’s sharpest piece of comedy — Elora Danan carries much of the series’ emotional weight with her grief over the death of a close friend a year before the series’ beginnings. Jacobs, Quebec-born and part of the Mohawk nation, is a star among stars here. — D.F.

Lee Jung-jae, Squid Game

Of all the wretched souls in Squid Game, none endures a more dramatic journey than Gi-h**. Depending on the episode, he’s a desperate loser or an unlikely hero, a broken shell of a man or the flame-haired embodiment of justice. What remains consistent is his position as the show’s emotional center. It’s a testament to Lee’s work that he’s able to exert such a strong and consistent gravitational pull, even as his character flits through so many different modes. Lee plays Gi-h** with the slumped shoulders of a man who’s been knocked around by life, but also with the guileless smile of one who hasn’t completely given up on it. His face remains an open book even as the corners of his mouth start to sag, reflecting our own anguish and anger at what he and his fellow players are forced to endure. Narratively and thematically, Squid Game lives or dies by its ability to make us care about the humans cornered into this inhumane system. Lee makes it unthinkable that we might ever fail to. — A.H.

Nick Mohammed, Ted Lasso

Jason Sudeikis, Brett Goldstein and Hannah Waddingham all picked up well-deserved Emmys for the Apple TV+ comedy’s first season, but the most compelling arc of the second season belonged to Mohammed’s Nate. The actor executed a precise 12-episode heel turn that left some viewers feeling betrayed as a beloved underdog turned into a simmering cauldron of bad decisions and vicious backstabbing. Through subtle costume shifts, a deadening of his eager-to-please line-readings and a gradual hair-whitening that dedicated fans caught onto at various stages, Mohammed was able to transform a lovable Ewok into the season’s Darth Vader without sacrificing hints of those relatable traits that made him a favorite in the first place. — D.F.

Kayvan Novak, What We Do in the Shadows

It’s likely that the stars of the FX series haven’t broken through with individual award recognition because it borders on impossible to choose between Matt Berry’s impeccable bombast, Harvey Guillén’s puppyish enthusiasm and Natasia Demetriou’s off-kilter romanticism. It would be fair to single out Mark Proksch for Colin Robinson’s latest energy-draining arc, but when you think of the name “Colin Robinson,” chances are good that you say it in your own Nandor the Relentless voice, so … Advantage, Novak! Nandor was put through the emotional wringer in this fall’s episodes, suffering through a doomed romance, a doomed gym membership, a doomed flirtation with aerobics and a doomed attempt at “super slumber.” Taking a character generally known for his mammoth stature and his absurd accent and giving him real heart, Novak compellingly and hilariously answered the question, “What would it look like for an ancient vampire to have a midlife crisis?” — D.F.

Margaret Qualley, Maid

The plot of Maid seems engineered to provoke sympathy: Who isn’t going to feel for the sweet single mom fleeing an abusive relationship in the face of unimaginable odds? But it takes a special performer to make it feel as raw and real as any life we’ve witnessed firsthand. Qualley’s finely tuned work shades in what could have otherwise come across as self-important sermonizing. Maid requires Qualley to plunge headfirst into the depths of Alex’s misery, and she carries herself like a woman just barely keeping herself together through sheer force of will. Her enormous eyes betray hurt or panic or terrified hope, when even Alex herself dares not let herself feel them. But her elastic, expressive face also retains a playfulness that refuses to let us reduce her to the sum of her circumstances — no matter how hard the world works to do just that. — A.H.

Alan Ruck, Succession

The collective cast of Succession never seems to be wanting for praise. And yet, in typical Connor Roy form, Ruck rarely seems to be the one getting the due. Thankfully, the Conheads have something to celebrate in the third season as the “least relevant” Roy — the half-sibling with no serious designs of taking over Dad’s business — finds himself with actual leverage for once. Ruck brings a new glint of confidence to the character, letting out the Roy ruthlessness underlying his typically mild-mannered, good-humored demeanor — even as he continues to embrace the tragicomic idiocy that makes Connor an easy punching bag. Write off Connor’s 2024 aspirations if you want; his family already seems to have. But there’s no sleeping on Ruck’s memorable performance as the most forgettable Roy. — A.H.

Rosa Salazar, Brand New Cherry Flavor

If you have a project that requires ambitious audience buy-in, having Salazar as your lead is a tremendous boon. In the case of Netflix’s Brand New Cherry Flavor, you have a story that includes witchcraft, zombies, women birthing kittens from their mouths (and other orifices), Hollywood executives and all manner of other unsavory elements. If the show worked for you, it’s probably because of Salazar’s wide-eyed acceptance of the ever-escalating lunacy. Her expert deadpan gives the audience permission to laugh at the uncomfortable supernatural events, and she takes her character on a completely plausible journey from optimistic artist to soulless femme fatale chewed up by the Hollywood dream factory, then makes us wonder if that darker side was always there. Holding her own opposite no less a scenery-chewer than Catherine Keener, Salazar is tremendous. — D.F.

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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