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Vacation Robo-Post: Great Performances of 2010

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A 1920s gangster, a football coach (and maybe not the one you’re thinking of), a therapy patient in a strange land. Like my list of great TV quotes from 2010, this one is incomplete in the extreme. But think of it as a starting point for discussion, and in the comments, let the rest of us know: what do you say were TV’s best performances of 2010?

First, a handful of mine:

Anna Torv, Fringe: I noted John Noble’s performance in the “Peter” episode earlier, and his Walter Bishop remains outstanding. But in the dual role of Olivia/Fauxlivia, Torv absolutely came into her own this year. While some credit goes to the writing, it was Torv’s shaded performance that sold Olivia’s alternate-universe twin as an actual separate person—not just a cartoon villain version of the original, but a real person, a little more assertive and confident, and just a touch rapacious. Meanwhile, she convincingly portrayed the trauma and confusion of her captured-then-returned Olivia, whose emotional (and complicated) reunion with Peter made an outlandish situation real and moving.

Michael Pitt, Boardwalk Empire: There were plenty of performances I could have picked from the Murderer’s Row on this new HBO drama—Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, Kelly MacDonald as Margaret, Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White, Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein and Michael Shannon as the over-the-top but compelling Agent Van Alden. But Pitt deserves special credit for coming out of nowhere and creating from whole cloth a new character in this historical fiction. His Jimmy Darmody was an intellectual brute, a former Princeton student who was made into half a monster by The Great War, and is self-conscious enough to know it, showing every twinge of emotion on his face.

Christina Hendricks, Mad Men: Again, on this show you could as well pick a name out of a hat. But Hendricks, often covered as eye candy and sometimes overshadowed by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, et al., had her best year yet as Joan, who confronted her age, her past and her future as her husband left for Vietnam and she got in a delicate situation with old flame Roger Sterling.

Dot Jones, Glee: Glee has had an uneven second season to say the least, and the show has thrown a defensive line of crazy material at the school’s new football coach: the wheelchair-football arc, the Beiste-as-premature-ejaculation-control-fantasy storyline and a stint posing as Santa Claus. Throughout, she’s stayed constantly in touch with the reality and humanity of her character—exactly the sort of thing this show needs to ground its stylistic fantasy.

Donald Glover, Community: Another strong ensemble with many lights, but season two seems to have recognized something special in Glover and the character of Troy, the childike ex-jock who’s good for far more than the Troy-and-Abed kicker scenes.

Madison Burge, Friday Night Lights: I’m a broken record here, but in yet another strong ensemble, Burge took the unenviable task of introducing a new character, Becky Sproles, in an established high school football drama, and proved more than up to it. Amid the tough women and rally girls of FNL, Becky is something different: positive (but hiding a lot of pain), intelligent but awkward, simultaneously nervous and confident. And in “I Can’t,” in which she faced the decision to have an abortion with both anguish and the shaky maturity of a girl who had to grow up quickly, she bolted 100 yards to the end zone.

James Badge Dale, The Pacific / Rubicon: AMC’s Rubicon may not have panned out the way he wanted it to, but Dale had one of the biggest years of any TV actor in 2010. In HBO’s WWII miniseries, he went from dry to intense as a writerly Marine witnessing (and committing) the horrors of war. In Rubicon, he gave a quiet passion to Will Travers’ nerdy spywork, pulling off the difficult job of creating an action hero, most of whose action takes place between his ears. (Props also to Arliss Howard and Michael Cristofer in that series.)

Matthew Fox, Lost: I was never a Jack guy. (Nothing against Fox’s performances in earlier seasons; actually I had always admired Lost for making its male lead someone who, as far as I was concerned, could be an arrogant jerk.) So I would not have guessed I could have gotten very emotionally involved in a very Jack-centric finale. Fox (along with the rest of the Lost team) proved me wrong; his rendering of Jack’s self-sacrifice in the series’ final minutes was a moving reminder of what there was to love about the show since he first opened his eye(s) in the Island’s jungle.

Irrfan Khan, In Treatment: HBO’s therapy show is like a playoffs of acting—a series of one-on-one bare-bones duels in which each participant has little material with which to create a character but words, some furniture and the occasional cigarette. (And here, cricket bat.) The Slumdog Millionaire actor was the class of the season as Sunil, a bitter yet philosophical widower who sees himself as a prisoner in his son’s home—and whose daughter-in-law sees him as a possibly grave threat.

Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation: If they gave out an Emmy for Best Eyes in a work of comedy, Plaza would walk off with it. Given a broad-strokes character—the sullen, sarcastic intern—Plaza has made April a distinctive person, in part through her low-key expressiveness, in part by forging a distinct and different relationship with each character in P&R’s ensemble. She deserves a glowing annual review.

I’ll stop here: what were your top performances of 2010?