The best breakout TV performances of the year, from twins and vamps to werewolves and superheroes

Check out these engaging performers who may not have name recognition yet, but no doubt soon will

Published December 26, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Milly Alcock from “House of the Dragon”, Iman Vellani from “Ms. Marvel” and Ayo Edebiri from “The Bear”

 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/HBO/FX/Disney/Marvel)
Milly Alcock from “House of the Dragon”, Iman Vellani from “Ms. Marvel” and Ayo Edebiri from “The Bear” (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/HBO/FX/Disney/Marvel)

Despite the prevailing narrative, 2022 was not the year that COVID went away; rather, more diseases joined it in keeping many of us home, either being sick or trying to avoid being sick.

While some people had moved on from the early pandemic hobbies like making sourdough, by this year many of us weren't so ambitious and fit ourselves back into the familiar butt grooves in our couches. Thus, that made the wealth of TV and streaming more important than ever.

Returning shows like "Stranger Things" and "The White Lotus" offered a few familiar faces to revisit, but it was the new blood that got us excited. Whether they were true newcomers or perhaps overseas talent that broke through to our shores, there's nothing like finding a new actor to stan.

In a year when so much was discouraging, Salon is here to celebrate the breakthrough actors who brightened our TVs:

Janelle James on "Abbot Elementary" (ABC)
Abbot ElementaryJanelle James on "Abbot Elementary" (ABC/Gilles Mingasson)

Role: Principal Ava Coleman

Why they're a standout: It should be so easy to despise this woman. Think about it – Ava got her job through blackmail, misappropriates funds meant for school supplies to score self-care items she uses during school hours ("How does having a principal with muscle tension serve them?") and is more concerned about her social media following than how well her kids' level of academic achievement. But James' high-wattage smile and confident strut down Abbott's hallways sell every goofy moment she's onscreen before she says a word, and her flawless, chuckle-salted delivery flavors every myopic line that comes out of her mouth. James' sparkling expressiveness makes the case for Ava as someone who's willfully feckless, not harmful, and ultimately can be persuaded to do the right thing – as long as the person who's asking is hot. And while we wouldn't want to work for Ava, a person can't be blamed for wanting to borrow her confidence: "I would ask what I would bring," she declares as the staff discusses one of the many team efforts they pull off to keep the school going, "but I already know that I'm enough."  – Melanie McFarland

Amira Ghazalla on "The Baby" (HBO)
The BabyAmira Ghazalla on "The Baby" (HBO)

Role: Mrs. Eaves/Nour

Why they're a standout: In a show like HBO's sleeper hit, "The Baby," which centers on a murderous infant searching for a mother that will love them unconditionally, despite the body count piling up around them, the inevitability of there being at least one character who's of the "f**k this baby" mindset has to be handled delicately. Mrs. Eaves, played by Amira Ghazalla, could easily have come across as a villain in that she spends the majority of her screen time literally attempting to hunt and kill a baby, but her chain-smoking reasonableness anchors this show and keeps it from going off the rails into ridiculousness. Although Ghazalla has had quite a few smaller roles in some impressively large-scale projects such as "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Last Jedi," "Game of Thrones," and "Sense8," HBO's "The Baby" gave her a breakout role in her seven-episode arc as "Mrs. Eaves." In an interview with Premiere Scene, Ghazalla said that as a mother of two she approached the scene-stealing role with the understanding that "motherhood is not for everyone," and appreciated how "The Baby" handled those difficult dynamics in a way that questions the norm. Murderous babies with magically manipulative abilities are certainly out of the norm, but Ghazalla's depth and range as Mrs. Eaves cemented "The Baby" as a standout for the year. -– Kelly McClure

Ayo Edebiri on  "The Bear" (FX)
The BearAyo Edebiri on "The Bear" (Matt Dinerstein/FX)

Role: Sydney Adamu

Why they're a standout: We've all

been there – the youngest person on the work team on the lowest rung with a surfeit of creativity and wonderful ideas, maybe a little headstrong, but justifiably agitating at receiving no respect from your co-workers. Sydney Adamu represents that part of us while also serving as an audience stand-in. As the newly minted sous chef at The Original Beef, she's innovative, organized and an able problem solver. As a young woman in a kitchen full of veterans, most of them men, she's often left on the outside of her boss's mess-making, then left to clean it up. Edebiri broke through via "Big Mouth" and "Dickinson," both titles that play to her comedy skills. But as Sydney she plays it absolutely straight, vibrating with rage when her ideas are disrespected but just as often swallowing the chaos and soldiering on. The secret sauce that tips her performance over from great to tremendous is her ability to convey rage exploding in slow-motion, a skill that builds through the season before erupting, fabulously, in the second-to-last episode – right before she calmly delivers a chef's kiss of an exit speech designed to surgically rip out her hero's heart at his lowest moment. – Melanie McFarland

Simone Ashley on "Bridgerton" (Netflix)
BridgertonSimone Ashley and Jonathan Bailey on "Bridgerton" (Liam Daniel/Netflix)

Role: Kathani "Kate" Sharma/Lady Bridgerton

Why they're a standout: This year's diamond is Simone Ashley, whose portrayal of Kate Sharma in the second season of Shondaland's sexy Regency-era scripted series won both hearts and accolades. From the get-go, Ashley had big shoes to fill following Phoebe Dynevor's success as Daphne Bridgerton in the first season. But despite the skeptics and outcry over the series' decision to stray away from the books, Ashley persevered and delivered a performance that exceeded expectations. 

Kate, our headstrong leading lady, takes on a multitude of responsibilities, the biggest of which is being the older half-sister of Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran). Alas, in true "Bridgerton'' fashion, conflict arises when Kate is enamored with her sister's soon-to-be husband, Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), who reciprocates her feelings (with all the heavy-breathing chemistry that entails). Slowly but surely, we see Kate abandon her aloof front as she teeter-totters between what's expected of her and what she desires. Watching Ashley perfect this balance is both satisfying and touching. Not to mention, it's made all the more better by her emotive eyebrow scrunch — a simple gesture that holds so much meaning and power. In the wise words of Queen Charlotte, "Flawless, my dear." – Joy Saha

Railey and Seazynn Gilliland on "High School" (Amazon Freevee)
High SchoolRailey and Seazynn Gilliland on "High School" (Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee)

Role:  Tegan and Sara Quin

Why they're standouts: When it came time to cast who would play pop duo Tegan and Sara Quin in Amazon/Freevee's adaptation of their memoir, "High School," the performers, along with show creator Clea DuVall, faced the seemingly impossible task of not only finding identical twins to take on the roles, but identical twins who could sing, play guitar and act. Railey and Seazynn Gilliland had zero experience in the latter requirements, but when Tegan chanced upon the twins' TikTok videos she could so easily relate to them, and after sharing her find with Sara they both agreed that they'd be a perfect fit. In an interview with Variety, Railey, who plays Tegan in the series, admits that she'd heard of Tegan and Sara before but hadn't previously listened to their music. When Tegan DM'd her on TikTok to ask if she and her sister would be interested in auditioning, she was flattered, but confused, and also a little bit terrified. Agreeing to an audition over Zoom, it was clear to all parties involved that Tegan and Sara had met their Tegan and Sara, and watching the Gilliland twins fully nail the general vibe of being queer teens exploring the world as a pair learning to know their own hearts and interests as sisters – as well as individuals unique unto themselve – has the bittersweet bite of nostalgia mixed with a reassurance that being true to yourself is difficult but so worth the angst that can often go along with it. – Kelly McClure

William Gao and Yasmine Finney on "Heartstopper" (Netflix)
HeartstopperWilliam Gao and Yasmine Finney on "Heartstopper" (Netflix)

Role: Tao and Elle

Why they're standouts: They may play the second leads in "Heartstopper," based on Alice Oseman's webcomics, but they hold their own in portraying a challenging, evolving relationship between two British teenagers. Gao lends Tao a loose-limbed insouciance that belies the simmering anger and frustrations underneath. While his passionate nature can come out in sulks or a fit of interpretive dance/twerking, Finney counters that energy with a calm sweetness, portraying Elle as a teenager who has an unshakeable sense of self. She also knows Tao well and finds his dramatic ways amusing, especially when she can get a rise out of him with a dry, pointed remark about his love of "Donnie Darko." Their well-crafted chemistry is made all the more challenging as their characters also try to navigate the potential for more than friendship. As relative newcomers to the screen, the two are mesmerizing, and it's easy to see why Finney has already landed a role in the upcoming season of "Doctor Who." – Hanh Nguyen

Milly Alcock on "House of the Dragon" (HBO)
House of the DragonMilly Alcock on "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)

Role: Young Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen

Why they're a standout: The standout of "House of the Dragon," HBO's prequel to "Game Of Thrones" is Australian actor Milly Alcock, who appears in just five out of the 10 episodes of the first season. As the young Targaryen who would be queen, Alcock stole every scene she was in with her impeccable execution of High Valyrian and her chemistry with both Matt Smith, who plays uncle Daemon Targaryen, and Fabien Frankel, who plays Ser Criston Cole. She also masterfully perfects Rhaenyra's proud and arrogant demeanor, which is only fitting for King Viserys I Targaryen's (Paddy Considine) heir and the rightful Queen of Westeros.

Alcock is not slated to return to the second season of "House of Dragon" nor is she keen on playing more fantasy roles. In a recent interview with Herald Sun, she said she'd "rather work not a lot and do work that I am really proud of and passionate about." Nevertheless, we're excited to see what roles Alcock will pursue in the near future. – Joy Saha

Bailey Bass on "Interview With the Vampire" (AMC)
Interview with the VampireBailey Bass on "Interview with the Vampire" (Alfonso Bresciani/AMC)

Role: Claudia

Why they're a standout: Sure, Kirsten Dunst played the scene-stealing child vamp in the big-screen version of Anne Rice's novel, but Bass makes this Claudia her own. At 19, she's able to embody the complexities of Louis' (Jacob Anderson) undead teenage offspring – both her youthful exuberance at a luxurious new existence ("It's so soft!" she squeals upon test-driving a new coffin) and later the sensuous thirst of wielding unchecked power. And while it's chilling to watch such a cherubic-faced young woman with fangs bared and blood staining her clothes, the physical incongruity is only part of her performance prowess. It's also in her Southern-inflected voiceovers where we can hear notes of pitch-black humor as she recounts her blood-curdling experiences in her diary – or the nonchalant thread of malice that comes through as she speaks telepathically to Louis while playing chess with Lestat (Sam Reid). Bass gives dimension to the usual portrayal of a teenager, transforming mere petulance into a chilling premeditation. – Hanh Nguyen

Kate Berlant on "A League of Their Own" (Prime Video)
A League of Their OwnKate Berlant on "A League of Their Own" (Anne Marie Fox/Prime Video)

Role: Shirley

Why they're a standout: My favorite kind of performance is the one that wins me over. I was initially suspicious of Shirley. She's very, well, a lot and her obsessive compulsive tendencies and hypochondria are played at first in "A League of Their Own" as over the top, for cheap-feeling laughs. Who brings a humidifier on the road in 1943, as Shirley does? (Were there even home humidifiers in 1943?) But to watch the Rockford Peaches athlete with her long Amaryllis braids slowly learn about her teammates, people not like her, and realize more about the world, is to watch the wheels turning, to witness a young, sheltered woman grow up. And despite the often exaggerated actions of Shirley, Berlant is strongest in subtle asides. Lines that other actors might throw away, she makes shine. 


Berlant is also a comic. Her first, solo standup special "Cinnamon in the Wind" was filmed in 2019 and is currently streaming on Hulu. Berlant also stood out in the maligned "Don't Worry Darling" as perpetually pregnant Peg. In a surreal world, she makes it suburb. Nobody puts Berlant in a corner. – Alison Stine

Iman Vellani on "Ms. Marvel" (Disney+)
Ms. MarvelIman Vellani on "Ms. Marvel" (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Role: Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel

Why they're a standout: Playing Marvel's first female, teen, Muslim superhero is a challenging role to tackle as a young actress. But Iman Vellani, the 20-year-old Pakistani-Canadian star who plays protagonist Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel, does so flawlessly. In the same vein as Spider-Man, Kamala is a high school student by day and a young hero by night, fighting crime and rescuing innocent civilians on the streets of Jersey City. Her current alias also pays homage to her main idol, former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, whom she embodies in her heroic endeavors.


Vellani perfectly captures the giddiness of a young girl who's following in the footsteps of her idol and tapping into her newfound super powers. And even though she's a descendant of a Djinn, she's still a regular teenager at heart who does everyday teenager things. We see Kamala taking her driver's exam (albeit unsuccessfully), butting heads with her strict mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) and later, developing a crush on a fellow human hybrid named Kamran (Rish Shah). Vellani's toothy smiles paired with her adolescent quirks ultimately makes Kamala feel familiar — simply put, it feels like we're watching a close friend of ours kick butt on screen. – Joy Saha

Minha Kim on "Pachinko" (Apple TV+)
PachinkoMinha Kim on "Pachinko" (Apple TV+)

Role: Sunja

Why they're a standout: Many of the

year's best performances rely on skilled delivery of dialogue and revealing undiscovered tones within the writing. In contrast, Kim commands many of her most indelible scenes by saying little to nothing, knocking us sideways with a tear drawing a ribbon down her otherwise placid face. Sunja is based on a character in Min Jin Lee's

novel about Koreans living under Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. Her choice to move to Japan changes her family's fate, and her own. Sunja could have been realized as a tragic figure. Instead, Kim fortifies her with a profound resolve and tenderness, speaking volumes through the cast of her gaze or her low, soft voice. It's shocking to know that this is one of the actor's first major roles, especially given that the mature version of Sunja is played by Academy Award winner Yuh-Jung Youn ("Minari"). Kim doesn't merely hold her own, she meets Youn's energy with her quiet determination. Together, they pour a soul into this underappreciated drama. – Melanie McFarland

Daniel Weyman on "The Rings of Power" (Prime Video)
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of PowerDaniel Weyman on "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power" (Ben Rothstein/Prime Video)

Role: The Stranger

Why they're a standout: Weyman had probably one of the greatest challenges an actor could face for much of the first season of "The Rings of Power." His role was silent. Then, he had to do a lot of angry roaring. Then, as if those difficulties weren't thorny enough, he had to be the character that everybody hated, that viewers thought might be, just might be, a really bad guy, the baddest guy in the vast Orc and Snow-troll laden universe of the "Lord of the Rings" prequel. 


I always believed in The Stranger, and in Weyman, because the eyes don't lie. His eyes radiated kindness always, and confusion and desperation. Towering over the Hobbit ancestors Harfoots, he's had a rudimentary costume of a tattered robe/blanket he has to swirl around, after starting the story naked and in a flaming meteor, and his dialogue has been limited. But Weyman does so much with so little. His Stranger is a performance brimming with empathy and the heartbreaking pain of wanting to belong, wanting to do good. Most importantly, you want to see more of him, and see his Stranger succeed in his quest for redemption. In a show with a lot of standouts, sometimes the quiet ones are the most powerful. Watch "The Rings of Power," you cowards. – Alison Stine

Patty Guggenheim on "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" (Disney+)
She-Hulk: Attorney at LawPatty Guggenheim on "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Disney/Marvel Studios)

Role: Madisynn King

Why they're a standout: Drunk club girls

are an easy punchline. That's why they've made so many appearances on the Weekend Update segment of "Saturday Night Live," played by an array of actors. Guggenheim's Madisynn King is not your average Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party.  She's not empty-headed, she's unfiltered; she's not insufferable, she's just frequently and extremely wasted. She's also a plucky, as one would expect of a woman who can barely totter across the room in heels but can musically let you know her name is spelled "with two Ns, one Y, but it's not where you th-i-i-i-i-i-iink!"


Madisynn drops into our lives by way of a "diff dimensh" otherwise known as a hellscape, which she navigates like any other rad party, or her hometown of Fort Lauderdale. But Guggenheim's off-kilter, perpetually swaying performance makes us want to stay with her for a little while. She elevates Madisynn from a basic bump-in-the-road cameo to potential sidekick material for Wong, ultra-serious Master of the Mystic Arts, mainly by forcing him to lighten up and finding common ground in a shared love of prestige TV. Which she consistently spoils. Guggenheim's unabashed, inebriated joie de vivre in the role makes us hope that we'll get another date with Ms. King and Wongers in the future. – Melanie McFarland

Jeff Hiller on "Somebody Somewhere" (HBO)
Somebody SomewhereJeff Hiller on "Somebody Somewhere" (HBO)

Role: Joel

Why they're a standout: Joel could have been just another best friend, a sidekick to the main character in HBO's bittersweet "Somebody Somewhere." And when the lead is the always magnificent Bridget Everett, as a woman in her 40s who never really made what she wanted to out of her life returning to her Kansas hometown, that's a tall shadow to stand in.


But Jeff Hiller stands out. And, rather than dwell in Joel's long suffering, he stands up for himself. He enacts change in his own life. He's the small town guy you never really thought of back in high school — and you should have because now, entering Year Four in a global pandemic, you realize the people who matter most are the ones who love unconditionally, dream wildly and encourage you to do the same. He's not looking back, he's not giving up and neither should you. Anxious and unapologetic, Joel does it all. He sings. He plays the piano. He Zumbas. He vision boards. Hiller's portrayal is a quiet masterpiece of forgiveness, strength and above all else, authenticity. Unassuming, that's how the big love gets you. – Alison Stine

Matilda Lawler on "Station Eleven" (HBO Max)
Station ElevenMatilda Lawler on "Station Eleven" (HBO Max)

Role: Kirsten Raymonde

Why they're a standout: In this atypical and uplifting version of the apocalypse we're introduced to two versions of Kirsten Raymonde. Mackenzie Davis plays her as the adult co-leader of a traveling band of actors and musicians. Lawler, however, plays her eight-year-old version, a kid forced to transform overnight from a child actor to a survivor of a virus that wipes out most of humanity overnight. What does that do to a young girl? Lawler shows us through a performance that steadily loses its innocence, hardening through fear of abandonment into disappointment and, ultimately, turning into something feral before returning to a different version of girlhood. With most child actors sharing a role with an adult, you can see the quirks and traits of the older actor coached into their youthful version. Lawler's performance, however, is stalwart enough for one to imagine it challenging her counterpart to step up her game, and makes us look forward to seeing more from her in the (hopefully much better) future. – Melanie McFarland

Lola Tung on "The Summer I Turned Pretty" (Prime Video)
The Summer I Turned PrettyLola Tung on "The Summer I Turned Pretty" (Dana Hawley/Prime VIdeo)

Role: Isabel "Belly" Conklin

Why they're a standout: We're going to be honest here: Belly is the worst. And to be fair, she's written that way in Jenny Han's books, about a teenage girl who finally starts getting some attention from boys while summer vacationing at a family friend's beach house. But even though Belly is whiny, somewhat selfish and definitely stringing along various guys as she tries to figure out her own feelings, Tung's winning portrayal is what affords Belly a heaping helping of grace. Tung landed the role while still attending Carnegie Mellon, and it's clear why she won out against other more established actors. She allows Belly to be a teenager in all of her messy glory, but never skimps on the enthusiastic charisma and vulnerability that lends authenticity. We may not all relate to Belly's exact circumstances or identity, but we don't need to when Tung creates such a vivid, sympathetic character that even has us forgive her many missteps. – Hanh Nguyen


Emma Myers on "Wednesday" (Netflix)
WednesdayEmma Myers on "Wednesday" (Netflix)

Role: Enid Sinclair

Why they're a standout: While the allure of the vampire in books, television and film is undeniable, I've made it a point of pride for myself to enthusiastically remain team wolfie, if presented with a choice between the two. When the "Twilight" saga films started hitting the theaters in the mid-2000s, I was the only one in my group of friends on Team Jacob. Oz was always my favorite out of the male characters on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And I take up every opportunity to suggest to fans of Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" that they shouldn't overlook her wolfie series, "The Wolf Gift Chronicles." Even Dracula, the most famous vampire there is, will tell you "There's much to be learned from beasts." While I agree with Salon's Culture editor, Hanh Nguyen, that Netflix's take on "The Addams Family," "Wednesday," can be more style than substance at times, Emma Myers' role as teenage werewolf Enid Sinclair made the series worth watching. Well, her and Christina Ricci as Mrs. Thornhill of course. I would never dream of disparaging the OG Addams. Prior to her role as Enid in "Wednesday," Sinclair has been a relative unknown as far as big budget productions go, but not for long. – Kelly McClure

Sabrina Impacciatore on "The White Lotus" (HBO)
The White LotusSabrina Impacciatore in "The White Lotus" (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)

Role: Valentina

Why they're a standout: The unsung hero of "The White Lotus" Season 2 is undoubtedly Valentina. Serving as the resort's rigid manager, Valentina is not a self-proclaimed misandrist, but she certainly makes it clear that she's not a fan of her male subordinates, particularly Rocco (Federico Ferrante). It's these small moments of comical disgust where Sabrina Impacciatore's performance really shines through. Her broad smile, which appears without fail when she converses with her co-worker and crush Isabella (Eleonora Romandini), is gone in an instant once a man steps into the picture.

Impacciatore also excels in showcasing Valentina's more vulnerable side, like when she purchases a starfish brooch for Isabella or has her first sexual encounter with a woman in the comfort of the hotel she manages. However, her most iconic showcase is when she tells Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), who is attempting to channel Monica Vitti in an all-pink getup, that she looks more like Peppa Pig. Even better, the line was completely improvised by Impacciatore. – Joy Saha


By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

MORE FROM Hanh Nguyen

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.