While the 2022 Emmy nominations won’t be announced until July 12, we’re already crossing our fingers that some of our under-the-radar favorites get surprise nominations this year. We fully anticipate Bill Hader getting a nomination for his superb work on HBO’s Barry (we endorse it and a win too) and Zendaya for continually being the strongest part of Euphoria and won’t be surprised to see shows such as Hacks, Succession, and Ozark get multiple mentions as well. With phase one of Emmy voting having ended this week, we wanted to shine a light on performances that are as worthy as the obvious selections.
While there’s a likelihood that, at the very least, two of the mentioned below will hear their name announced, there’s a depressing chance that some of these series won’t be mentioned at all. Despite us having lived in the era of Peak TV for quite some time now, 2022 has seen an enormous surge in terrific programming, from network comedies to timely and potent miniseries, to some of the best makeup and hair work done in recent memory (looking to you Pam & Tommy.) We are being capsized by television as we struggle to keep up with everything everyone has been talking about (season three of The Boys and season two of Hacks are waiting in my queue while I try and make time for the quiet breakout American Auto while binging every single season of The Great Pottery Throwdown.)
It’s hardly a real problem to have, but it definitely means that some of the very best performances of the year won’t be recognized outside of fans and critics. Here are 21 performances we think deserve some Emmy love this year.
Janelle James and Tyler James Williams – Abbott Elementary
For everyone who watched this year’s sitcom darling Abbott Elementary, there was always going to be lines drawn in terms of which characters rose to be fan favorites. And while the entire cast is terrific (and truly highlights the necessity of great casting in general) there are two that stuck out in particular. Janelle James as the selfish principle Ava was an instant, vapid, and venomous delight with her self-serving attitude and total lack of self-awareness. James made already hilarious and zippy dialogue sing further with her pointed delivery that always made it seem like she was laughing at her verbal sparring partner (and she often was) and her absolute disdain for Janine’s (Quinta Brunson) sincerity always made us feel the evisceration she was doling out.
Williams, meanwhile, played the tonal opposite of James’s Ava as the uptight Gregory who, like Adam Scott’s Ben in Parks and Recreation, is just weird enough so that he doesn’t play as the straight man character to other, more colorful players. However, the greatest aspect of Williams’s performance (and an aspect that demonstrates his cred as a sitcom veteran) is the ingenuity of his reaction shots. Gregory is in a permanent state of exasperation and bewilderment while working as a substitute teacher and, rather than simply always showing that by looking confused or annoyed, he runs the gamut of multiple emotions in each situation he finds himself in. It’s always him looking for the camera, trying to verify that someone else bore witness to whatever absurdity taking place, that garners the greatest laugh, Williams playing it as if we’re all in on the same secret.
Brian Tyree Henry – Atlanta
Regardless of the overall, questionable quality of season three of Atlanta, if there’s one thing that never shifts it’s the quality of work that Brian Tyree Henry puts in and it’s no different this time around. He’s always oscillated between drama and comedy, often to greater, dramatic and comedic effect, with ease but he is given one of his truest, finest moments in episode five, “Cancer Attack” that follows as Alfred and the group try to find his phone. Despite seemingly low stakes it quickly shifts into something more contemplative as he exhumes inner insecurities about writer’s block and his place as an artist. It works so well because of Henry’s expressive use of silence and his open and emotive eyes that truly sell the moment and the one-on-one with the would-be phone thief. At this rate, the nomination should be one for the entire series of work and the exemplary performance he’s delivered in all three seasons.
Sarah Goldberg – Barry
To pick a single performance from the bleak yet exemplary HBO series Barry is foolish, considering actors such as Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, and Anthony Carrigan all delivering some of the best performances on television today. That said, Sarah Goldberg might be one of the biggest surprises in a series full of talents. She’s always been good but season three fully unleashed Goldberg’s full abilities as Sally was put through the wringer, from personal highlights to some of the lowest moments she’s ever had to endure. From her cowering in fear from Barry’s imposing figure, to her hysterical, happy tears at the premiere of her series, her elevator meltdown, and, finally, her shock and incomprehensible horror in the finale after murdering the biker she so happened to cross paths with on his way to kill Barry, she’s knocked it out of the park over and over again.
Patti Harrison – I Think You Should Leave
By all accounts (or at least from what I can tell from a speed read on the Emmy website) Patti Harrison – nor Tim Robinson – has been even submitted for Emmy’s love for her performance in the hilarious sketch comedy series from Robinson I Think You Should Leave. That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t use the opportunity to point out that, in the given Emmy eligibility time frame, no actor has been as funny or been in as rewatched a clip (as it is in my home at least) than Harrison. Anyone who saw her film last year with Ed Helms Together Together will already recognize how she modifies her vocal tones and textures for any given comedic bit but it’s the delivery that truly sings. Will anyone else give us this line as beautifully unhinged as she does? Likely not. Give her all the awards.
Mary Hollis Inboden – Kevin Can F*** Himself
A tonally ambitious series, Kevin Can F*** Himself had as many fans as it did dissenters who didn’t quite fall in line with the dark spin on the conventional sitcom story the series was trying to tell. However, for anyone who watched, it was clear that the breakout star was the naturalistic Mary Hollis Inboden as Patty, Allison’s (Annie Murphy) friend and confidante. Perfecting the just outside of Boston accent, her performance is largely an internal one, where her emotions are at war with her actions, both of which are read clear as day through her expressive eyes. The authenticity and agency brought to the character add to the overall intrigue into the character’s life and what led her to this moment, but the immense warmth that she emanates in the role first draws us into her orbit.
Taika Waititi – Our Flag Means Death
Having become something of a divisive filmmaker since his broadly written Jojo’s Rabbit and his, uh, off-putting turn in the Ryan Reynolds-led Free Guy, Taika Waititi needed a project that highlighted his charisma. He got just that with the HBO comedy series Our Flag Means Death, a pirate parody of sorts that, while strong from the start with a crew of comedic talent, became enormously more winsome with the addition of Waititi’s Blackbeard and his will they (they will) romance between him and Stede Bonnet, The Gentleman Pirate (Rhys Darby). Believably menacing in one moment while simultaneously espousing his dry, off-the-cuff delivery for comedic effect in the next, perhaps the greatest aspect he brought to Blackbeard was the enigmatic quality he instilled in him. The writing can’t be discounted and there’s plenty of build-up in making the character aloof and emotionally volatile, but so much of the chemistry and heart he brings to his relationship with Darby is a testament to what feels like at times Waititi’s untapped potential as an actor.
Kim Min-ha – Pachinko
A decade and global spanning international drama of one family’s losses and triumphs over three generations, Apple TV’s Pachinko is one of the standout series of the year so far with its impeccable direction and excellent page-to-screen adaptation. Most impressive however is the leading actress of the portion set in the past and as teenage Sunja, Kim Min-ha, in her breakout role.
Possessing both a quiet grace and subtle, formidable power, she is spellbinding as Sunja, through her many losses, paving the way for Youn yuh-jung to pick up the reins once he reconvenes with the character in the present day. Her raw talent as an actress is particularly noticeable in a scene where Sunja is giving birth to her first son, wearing a mask of relative tranquility if slight discomfort in front of her husband, only to let loose a primal wail of pain once he’s out of earshot. It’s both a nod to the character’s inner strength and the longstanding, societal accepted suffering of women as commonplace, as well as the fearsome ability of Kim, as she conceals so well in the moments with her husband that, in retrospect, we can see so much of the grit and white-knuckling it took for her to hide it. Naturalistic, poised, and bright-eyed, she’s not just one of the best performances on television this year but also one of the most exciting up-and-comers.
John Cena – Peacemaker
We’re surprised by this inclusion too but there’s no doubt that John Cena delivers a tremendous and layered performance in HBO’s Peacemaker. Given greater stories to work with here as opposed to The Suicide Squad where he debuted the character, Cena as Chris – aka Peacemaker – is, despite his hulking physicality, incredibly vulnerable and insecure, making him a much more fascinating and tragic figure. Cena balances the transitions between earnest stupidity, to broad comedy, and genuine pathos with ease, but it’s the commitment and sincerity in each that makes it such an interesting portrayal. As Peacemaker, he’s going against what we’ve come to expect from this type of violent antihero. It’s not so much that he has a moral code (though he certainly seems to attain one) but more that each action he takes – for good and bad (and it’s a lot of bad) is conveyed with openness by the actor’s face so that we realize he’s learning about his own capacity for growth as we are.
Adam Scott and Tramell Tillman – Severance
Part of what made Apple TV’s Severance so, so good was the unlikely group of talent brought on board and just how well the core group of them played off of one another. While it would be nice to highlight each member, it’s Adam Scott as our protagonist Mark and Tramell Tillman as the group’s handler, Milchick, that stand out. Scott has always been a great actor, something fans have seen in series such as Parks and Recreation and Party Down, yet in Severance, it still feels like we’re witnessing new aspects of the actor he’s yet to explore, especially in playing what is, essentially, two versions of the same character as he adds minute details to separate the two.
In comparison, Tillman’s Milcheck is a much bolder character, as he is, presumably, the one with the power. The threat of his character comes from the charade of politeness he upholds so that even him simply trying to dance at an office celebration is met with a sense of foreboding. A deeply physical actor in how he holds himself, it’s the rigid posture met with the venomous bite behind the niceties that make him so engaging, a character of conflicting attributes.
Park Hae-soo and Anupam Tripathi – Squid Game
Lee Jung-jae and HoYeon Jung as Seong Gi-hun and Kang Sae-byeok are, without question, deserving of any and all awards attention they receive. Both were captivating and heartbreaking in equal measure. However, I’d argue that Park Hae-soo and Anupam Tripathi were just as good as the characters Cho Sang-woo and Ali Abdul. Park in particular is given a difficult role to embody as a character who we’re never meant to fully trust (and never do) yet he still manages to build sympathy for the character, so that his desperation can appear both selfish and devastating. Meanwhile, Abdul plays well with the naivete of the character that ultimately is his undoing, as he puts too much trust in those around him who’ve named themselves allies.
The two in episode six, “Gganbu”, make for a striking dynamic and bring out the best in one another’s performances, both delivering on the ires of each, with Cho Sang-woo winning out in the end for his deceit, though it never feels much like a triumph – the wins never do in Squid Game. Abdul’s open sincerity met with Park’s barely concealed self-loathing combine for a traumatic, and lastingly effective sequence, and one that audiences would be recalled long after the season’s end.
Himesh Patel, Matilda Lawler, Daniel Zovatto, Danielle Deadwyler – Station Eleven
Despite somehow falling under the radar in a, to be fair, packed year of television, Station Eleven is one of the very best shows to be released in 2022 – if not the best. This can be attributed to the expansive world-building and exquisite, introspective writing, the phenomenal and emotive score from Dan Romer, and ultimately a message of hope, one that challenges the belief that the end of the world needs to mean the end of humanity, instead positing the notion of what if our world could continue, celebrating the life and virtue that came in the before times rather than only mourning?
However, for all the richness brought to the visuals and text, there is a core four performances that further anchor and emphasize the greatest elements of the series. Himesh Patel and Matilda Lawler as the younger versions of Jeevan and Kirsten set the stage for one of the most important relationships on the show and their growth over the series is simply beautiful work. Patel delivers a truly star-making performance as the out of his depth Jeevan who forcibly finds himself having to mature after facing loss and the trauma that comes with it, while Lawler brings a gravitas to the eight-year-old Kirsten without ever crossing over into precocious territory. She’s a kid, but one who too has had to grow up much too quickly.
Meanwhile, Daniel Zovatto as cult leader The Prophet and Danielle Deadwyler as the author of the titular Station Eleven comic are much more ancillary characters but ones whose work on the periphery directly impacts the rest of the characters. Zovatto, despite being introduced as a threatening, mysterious figure, becomes increasingly engaging as a character who never truly lost the feeling of being a forgotten, abandoned little boy. Deadwyler too isn’t what we first make her out to be, becoming a hero in her own right in a moment of such devastating, narrative catharsis that it will take your breath away. Both are given pivotal moments in the last few episodes as their characters come to their natural if tragic, conclusions.
Sadie Sink – Stranger Things
I’ve already spoken at length about how the episode “Dear Billy” from season four of Stranger Things is one of the best installments the show has ever done and, in large part, it’s due to the tremendous work from Sadie Sink as the troubled and grieving Max. Sink has always shone as Max and her star has started to grow in the past year or so outside of the series in films such as Fear Street 1978 and the music video for “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”. That said, “Dear Billy” builds an entire episode around her and her character’s internal battles in a way that’s euphoric and cathartic as Sink delivers a commanding yet conflicted performance as a teen girl reckoning with her trauma. Subdued and fearful in one moment, steel-eyed and resolved in the next, she’s transportive, making us hold our breath as she runs from Venca and back into the arms of the friends who cherish her. While Sink has always been poised for breakout status from the show, it was season four that truly shined a light on her full range of abilities.
Phil Dunster – Ted Lasso
While the entire cast of Ted Lasso is strong and there’s no denying the charisma, humor, and pathos that Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, and Brett Goldstein bring to their roles (all Emmy award-winning), Phil Dunster as the insufferable yet sympathetic Jaimie Tartt might be delivering the best performance on the show.
While “Man City” was an obvious standout for the actor, he’s been hilarious since season one, putting out a puffed-out bravado that’s easily wilted while possessing a level of innate sweetness that allows us to root for him, even when he’s being, inarguably, the worst. Season two allowed growth and revelations for the character which went a long way in explaining just why the character turned out the way he did, and by allowing him to go from appearing on a thinly veiled “Too Hot to Handle” parody, to earning his place back on the team to his confrontation with his abusive father, the show allowed Dunster to deliver on all cylinders. As still just one of many supporting characters, it’s exciting to think of just what he might do next.
Kayvan Novak – What We Do in the Shadows
If we were being honest, we’d say that every member of the main cast of What We Do in the Shadows deserves awards love. That said, over the past few seasons, it’s Kayvan Novak’s performances as the bumbling ex-warrior Nandor that’s been the seemingly most overlooked in comparison to his showier castmates. What’s excellent about Novak is how he plays small in moments where so many actors would go big, often as quiet and contained as he is a true force to be reckoned with. His particular vocal inflections and the way he holds himself speak to the type of vampire Nandor is without us having to know too much of his background – though, the more we learn of it, the funnier Novak’s portrayal of the former leader is, as he’s completely lost that level of high ground.
Sophie Nélisse – Yellowjackets
With a cast as vast and varied as the Showtime hit Yellowjackets which spun the Lord of The Flies storyline into something inherently more terrifying by casting it with teenage girls, it’s difficult to pick favorites. And while Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, and Melanie Lynskey as the adult counterparts of their characters are the ones seemingly receiving most of the buzz right now, when I think of the show it’s two scenes with Sophie Nélisse as the teenage Shauna that can still cause chills. The first was her absolute terror when trying to attempt a self-abortion before she’s found and the very real fear and panic that she infused into her moment of desperation. The second [spoilers for the end of season one] is her very last scene in the season when she discovers the fate of Jackie. While she wasn’t given as many showy moments as some of her costars, she could elicit the most empathetic emotions as she poured every ounce of grief that comes with losing the person who knows you better than yourself. Just truly heart-shattering work.