Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
Baranski has been a consistent hitter for the CBS legal drama from the start, but she knocked it out of the park in Season 3. Whether it was Diane's rise to firm leader in Will's absence, her increased mentorship of Alicia or her suddenly very busy love life, Baranski, who manages to do both slick and poignant at the same time, juggled it all without letting fans see her — or the always powerful Diane — sweat.
Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead
Even though his character's death was the worst kept secret of the season, Bernthal's mixture of intensity and sadness during Shane's swan song was the beating heart of the back half of The Walking Dead's second season. Though it is easy to write off Shane as a loudmouth and a hothead, Bernthal's layered, tortured-soul performance always reminded viewers that whether Shane was sacrificing Otis or plotting to kill his best friend Rick, he was really doing it for only one reason: to protect Lori and Carl, the only people he had left to love.
Patricia Clarkson, Parks and Recreation
It must have been a challenge for the Parks and Recreation writers to come up with Tammy 1 given Megan Mullally's very memorable work as Tammy 2, a terrorizing sexpot and the second ex of Ron Swanson. They arrived at Tammy 1 as a repressed ice queen who first met Ron as the candy striper who delivered him when he was born. (She later taught him in Sunday school too.) Only Clarkson, with her steely gaze, could make that kind of domineering seem hot to Ron, reducing him into a clean-shaven, can-do trooper overnight.
Elisha Cuthbert, Happy Endings (OMG I AGREE)
Cuthbert spent Season 1 playing the straight (wo)man heartbreaker who dumped Dave at the altar, but she found her groove in the second season, as she made Alex the most a-mah-zing dimwitted sweetheart since Rose Nylund. Between adopting a racist parrot, planning to order penis cakes and penis-shaped pinatas for a baby shower, and dressing as Ellen DeGeneres to be the "top" lesbian, Cuthbert made dumb so delightfully goofy that we wonder why she hasn't been doing comedy all along. Plus, she's officially the greatest eater on TV.
Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, Homeland
It's easy to get lost in the tightly plotted thrills of Showtime's Homeland, but the drama's real strength lies in the two riveting performances at the show's center. Danes plays a whip-smart CIA agent bent on stopping terrorists, including Lewis' suspicious Brody, a Marine sniper who suddenly resurfaces after an eight-year absence. Both are damaged goods — Carrie's a bipolar workaholic who hooks up with strangers for sport and Brody's an American hero who after so many years of isolation can't be made whole — and yet both actors are able to have their complex characters hide behind ambiguous poker faces. They, like the audience, are constantly kept guessing.
Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad
How do you root for an anti-hero as morally gray as Walter White? Pit him against the villain to end all villains: Gus Fring. But even then it's hard. Cold, calculating and as much feared as he's respected, Esposito's mild-mannered meth kingpin was mesmerizing to watch, as the actor created a bad guy so complex, rich and sympathetic that sometimes we found ourselves rooting for him. Alas, all villains meet an end, and Gus' death will go down as one of the best in TV history.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ringer
It had been a while since Buffy SMG was on our TV, but she returned bigger than ever in Ringer, which offered up not one, but two roles for Gellar in Bridget and Siobhan, twins who fell out of touch after the death of Siobhan's son. A far cry from playing the quick-witted vampire slayer, Gellar has convincingly led viewers to believe she's a stripper with the heart of gold in one scene and a nefarious entitled housewife in the next.
Jack Gleeson, Game of Thrones (BOW DOWN)
Fairness ends with this teen tyrant's blond hair. As the barely pubescent successor to the Iron Throne, Joffrey is an entitled snot who shrilly demands punishment for those who've wronged him or just had the bad manners to disagree with him. The shrewd Gleeson, with his big eyes and delicate features, embodies the slithering tiny king with creepy gusto. We love to hate him, and we love to see him royally slapped even more.
Max Greenfield, New Girl
Who's that guy? It's Schmidt! Greenfield has proven to be a stealth scene-stealer, elevating d-baggery to penthouse-level heights. It's thanks to Greenfield's lovable (but not cutesy) performance that keeps Schmidt endearing. And that's an accomplishment when you consider the following: Schmidt's appreciation for cashmere, his painted-on tight shirts, his extreme germophobia… We're only slightly embarrassed to say this self-styled sexual snowflake makes us wish it were the Season of Schmidt all year 'round.
Megan Hilty, Smash
It's hard for anyone to come down with McPheever when Megan Hilty totally steals the spotlight week after week. As Ivy, Hilty plays the veteran chorus girl vying for the part of Marilyn Monroe (against Katharine McPhee's naive Midwesterner Karen). And unfortunately for McPhee, Hilty's real-life Broadway chops shine whether she's belting original show tunes, going on a drugged, drunken bender or facing off with the volatile director with whom she happens to be sleeping. Hilty's like the best of both soap operas and the Great White Way.
Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives
For eight years, Lynette has been the slightly crazy yet relatable lady on Wisteria Lane, and Huffman's consistently grounded and sympathetic portrayal helped push her to the forefront for the series' final season. Despite a universally despised storyline, Huffman's walked the tightrope between dramatic pathos and big laughs well enough to keep viewers emotionally invested through Lynette's wackiest schemes to win back her ex-hubby and her deep despair over the possibility of losing the fight.
Jimmy Iovine, American Idol
When it comes to the differing opinions offered on American Idol, Jimmy Iovine is the only one who consistently knows what he's talking about. As the contestants' mentor, he refuses to sugarcoat his critiques ("It was a classic choke," he mused recently about Elise), but his thoughts come across as constructive rather than flippant. With his signature blue-tinted glasses and New Yawk accent, he's a loveable voice of reason who says what everyone else is thinking — just like Simon in the show's glory days. Now if only we could get Iovine on the actual judging panel!
Gary Janetti, It's a Brad Brad World
All season long, Gary was the grounding force for Brad as he set out to make a name for himself as a solo stylist. But for their anniversary, Gary went crazy — in the best, most over-the-top way possible. He decided he would pay tribute to the first time they met. It was at production of Les Miserables, a musical they are both obsessed with. What sweeter way to honor that love than recruit Brad's friends, family and pal Megan Mullally to flashmob him at their anniversary party with a rousing rendition of "One Day More"? (Answer: There is no better way.)
Lisa Lampanelli, Celebrity Apprentice
If you're anything like us, you watch Celebrity Apprentice for the boardroom trash-talking. So, of course we were thrilled when "queen of mean" Lisa Lampanelli was added to the cast. And while she's delivered more than her share of boardroom zingers ("Get ready for an elevator ride, Lou!"), the biggest surprise has been how well she's performed in the actual tasks. She's been the driving creative force for her team in almost every challenge, delivering smart campaigns that prove Lampanelli's wit is about more than just a bunch of four-letter words. Hire her, Trump — or she might roast you again!
Jessica Lange, American Horror Story
Homicidal Southern bigotry never looked so good, and only Lange, doing her Tennessee Williams best in kitten heels, can pull off American Horror Story's complicated grande dame. Those ghosts never stood a chance against her hot-blooded determination to rule the supernatural roost.
~*Leighton Meester*~, Gossip Girl
Meester could have easily checked out two years ago like her co-star — we're looking at you, Blake Lively. Instead, she acted her butt off to give B new depth during her nightmare of a marriage and her growing feelings for Lonely Boy. While many of the show's story lines have become laughably bad, Meester is one of the select stars talented enough to embrace the comedy in the show's many absurdities without making light of Blair's inner turmoil.
Joseph Morgan, The Vampire Diaries
In theory, we shouldn't like anyone who joins The Vampire Diaries with a plan to kill the Salvatore Brothers. But somehow when Morgan's Klaus was introduced as the biggest, baddest vampire ever, we were captivated. Morgan's charm shines through both his character's deliciously evil plots and deep-seated need for a good hug. We hope these warring vamps can make peace, because we don't want to see Morgan leave Mystic Falls.
Lana Parrilla, Once Upon a Time
It isn't enough just to be named the Evil Queen. Parrilla truly makes us hate her week after week with quiet malevolence, offering sly smiles to prove she's ahead of everyone else in Storybrooke. In a secondary revelation, Parrilla has even managed to make Regina, who had a rough beginning, sympathetic. Now we know she'd just as quickly offer us a shoulder to lean on as she would a poison apple — and that's pretty evil.
Phaedra Parks, The Real Housewives of Atlanta
Everybody knows that when it comes to Atlanta's most watchable housewife, NeNe Leakes is so no longer it. While she spent the entire season trying to stir up drama, whining about so-called haters, Phaedra had a ball in her own world. She decided to become a mortician. She taught us what a prayer cloth is ("a covering so that you don't offend people with your luscious thighs and kneecaps when you're in service"). She invited one of her most well-endowed clients to Kandi's birthday party. She brought the girls to Africa for some bonding (and bickering). And she threw a royal christening for her son Ayden Adonis. You can't make this stuff up!
Michael Pitt, Boardwalk Empire
Spoiler alert: The real reason Jimmy Darmody's death at the end of Boardwalk's second season was so shocking is simple: We couldn't believe the show would let go of one of its strongest players this early in the game. As Jimmy attempted to take back Atlantic City from his former mentor Nucky, Pitt effortlessly colored his character with shades of ruthlessness and half-hearted uneasiness. Although the flashier parts of Pitt's performance were fun to watch, we were most taken by the quietness with which he played out the final scenes of a man who was made hollow by his own incestuous mother, who took his future from him long before he even knew what it would become. He will be missed.
Purrfect the Cat, The Voice
Sure, on the surface, it doesn't look like Purrfect the Cat does much besides occasionally keep "papa" Cee Lo Green's lap warm. But not just any feline could upstage the outrageous Voice coach. Thanks to a hilarious Twitter feed that posts live show updates and adorable pictures, the slightly self-involved four-legged friend single-handedly paw-edly turned the singing show's social media efforts from the butt of jokes to the toast of Twitter. Meow!
Naya Rivera, Glee (....really?)
Rivera put a very different face on McKinley High's LGBT community as Santana not only struggled to come out, but also demanded to define herself on her own terms. Rivera's surprisingly multi-layered portrayal defied stereotypes, and her subtle approach allowed Santana to show her soft side (abuela, why?) without losing the hard Lima Heights Adjacent edge — her bold criticism of Mr. Schue, the Finn slap heard 'round Ohio — we've always loved.
Jerry Saltz, Work of Art
What other reality show judge would so deeply regret an elimination decision (Lola!) that he would miserably explain his mistake and how he arrived at it for all to read? Who would tell us all about the Man Spanx he had to wear for the show? Only the kind of person so blunt and honest and hilarious that he makes for the perfect television critic, as sharp and at times snide as Simon Cowell, minus all the showboating and manipulation
Jeffrey Wright, House
It takes a special kind of character to stand up to Hugh Laurie's House, but when you cast a heavyweight actor like Jeffrey Wright, most of the work is already done. As Dr. Walter Cofield, the arbitrator brought in to evaluate House's diagnostic process after Chase was stabbed by a mentally unstable patient, Wright commanded every scene he was in — not by chewing scenery, but with the subtle confidence that comes from knowing Cofield is both House's intellectual equal and a sincere threat to his future at the hospital. It's a shame he couldn't stick around for the series' final episodes.