Memorable TV performances of the decade

Memorable TV performances of the decade

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Monday, 13th January 2020
(credit: BBC/Luke Varley/Two Brothers/AMC/ITV)
(credit: BBC/Luke Varley/Two Brothers/AMC/ITV)

The past decade has witnessed a revolution in TV. The unstoppable rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon heralded in the golden age of television.

Series binging over weekly releases has become the new norm, and brand new, high-quality TV content seems to be in endless supply.

The competition for viewers’ attention has intensified tenfold, and the leading broadcasters have risen to the challenge.

At the beginning of a new decade, we look back at some of the most memorable performances and series of the last ten years.


Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad 

Walter White’s journey from disillusioned and downtrodden chemistry teacher to the most dangerous drug lord in the American south-west saw the character join the likes of Tony Soprano and Don Draper in the ‘anti-hero hall of fame’.

Viewers were initially endeared by Walter’s out-of-depth incompetence and watched in awed terror as he transformed into a fully-fledged villain across Breaking Bad’s five series.

The unlikely partnership between Walter and his former pupil, the drug-dealing burnout Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) not only provided comical relief, but powered Breaking Bad’s high-stakes drama and most saddening moments.

While Walter’s aggressive alter-ego Heisenberg provided the most memorable scenes in the series (think “I am the one who knocks” and “Say my name!”), it was the pairing of this corruption with sustained glimpses of humanity that kept viewers rapt.


Olivia Colman – Broadchurch 

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch (Credit: ITV)

Broadchurch quickly became a word of mouth hit when it began in 2013, becoming the first murder mystery series that everyone was watching.

The delightful chemistry between David Tennant’s miserable DI Alec Hardy and his friendly foil, Olivia Colman’s DI Ellie Miller, provided some much-needed heart to a truly bleak story.

Detective Miller becomes the empathetic eyes through which viewers see a tight-knit town torn apart by tragedy. She is faced with the difficult task of turning an investigative eye onto a community in which she is so deeply embedded.

During the devastating revelation at the end of the first series, Colman’s depiction of grief and pain is one that remains with the viewer long after the credits roll.

Colman’s performance saw her win an RTS Award for Actor – Female in 2014, with judges recognising her “typically believable, warm and utterly empathetic performance”.


Matthew McConaughey – True Detective 

The 2010s saw a seemingly never-ending stream of whodunnit crime series, but True Detective offered something more unconsciously insidious than the gory serial-killer scenes we’d come to expect.

When detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are presented with a disturbing murder case in 1995, the crime scene resembles a ritualistic killing that throws the pair into the menacing realms of cultish religion.

Spanning the next 17 years, McConaughey portrays Cohle’s descent into the dark recesses of his mind. A nihilistic man struggling with demons, including a dead child and ex-wife; the detective is driven to the mind-altering escape of hallucinatory drugs.

What follows is a strange, intoxicating take on the ‘psychological drama’, where the show’s otherworldly elements offer a truer insight into Cohle’s tormented mental state than the rational.


Sarah Lancashire – Happy Valley 

Viewers are first introduced to Happy Valley’s indomitable sergeant Catherine Cawood coolly negotiating with a drunkard threatening to set himself on fire; a no-nonsense police officer seemingly unaffected by the threat of crisis.

What follows is an intricate dismantling of this unflappable persona, as Happy Valley delves into the psychological depths of its troubled protagonist.

Catherine is forced to confront her past family trauma when the man she believes drove her daughter to suicide, the abhorrent Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), is released from prison. Lancashire presents a nuanced depiction of a mother psychologically scarred by grief, who must straddle the boundaries of morality and the law in search of retribution.  

Lancashire’s stellar performance landed her the RTS Programme Award for Actor – Female in 2015. The judges stated that “the brilliance of [Sarah’s] performance elevated this powerful piece to another level”.


Idris Elba - Luther

Neil Cross’s crime thriller Luther provided some of the scariest TV moments of the decade, with its brutal portrayal of kidnappers and serial killers in London’s gritty underbelly.

Idris Elba shone as the troubled DCI John Luther, an unorthodox detective struggling for justice against restrictive police protocol. Respected and revered by some colleagues, feared by others, Elba’s portrayal of Luther revealed the complexities of a man teetering on the edge, both personally and professionally.

The cat and mouse chase between Luther and the psychopathic astrophysicist Alice, played by Ruth Wilson, provided a palpable tension that took the series to dark corners of human depravity.  

Elba’s brooding performance won him the RTS Award for Actor – Male in 2014, with the judges commenting: “An extraordinary screen presence; charismatic and powerful. A complete joy to watch”.


Claire Foy – The Crown 

For a series that has become known for its huge budget, opulent sets and polished production value, Claire Foy’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown is marked by its unshowy restraint.

The first series follows the effects of the Queen’s early coronation on her family and marriage. Foy captures her difficulty adjusting to a personal life dictated by public duty, between being a good wife and a good monarch.

Alongside Matt Smith as Prince Phillip, the pair confront the usual strains of marriage, but under extraordinary circumstances. As husband to the Queen, Philip must relinquish his title as Navy Officer while being ineligible for the title of ‘King’, and he does so with much reluctance.

The complex power struggles and centuries old traditions weigh heavy on Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II, with the actress reflecting the frustration and misery of a life under the microscope while retaining the essential elegant nobility of her subject. 


Jodie Comer – Killing Eve 

Psychotic, lethal and devilishly charming, Jodie Comer’s RTS award-winning performance as the Russian assassin Villanelle became instantly iconic as soon as she donned the pink tulle dress.

From killer hairpins to poisonous perfumes, Villanelle’s murderous methods are far from conventional - she slaughters in style.

Comer’s performance sees her seamlessly shapeshift into a global range of characters: a not-so-friendly French neighbour, a glamorous Italian party attendant, an American recovering addict, to name but a few.

Indeed, when Comer scooped the award for Best Actress at this year’s Emmy’s, international fans were stunned by her most surprising transformation of all: the real Scouse accent that she so effortlessly hides on screen.

While Jodie Comer had already become a familiar face on TV through previous roles in My Mad Fat Diary and Doctor Foster, her performance in Killing Eve has been career defining so far.

With an upcoming role alongside Ryan Reynolds in new comedy blockbuster Free Guy, it’s fair to suggest that Comer’s career is just getting started.


Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge – Fleabag 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge achieved an astonishing feat with her second series of Fleabag: creating arguably the most affecting portrayal of true romance and loss on television through two fully realised yet nameless characters, in under three hours.

The show kept viewers on the edge of their seats watching the electrifying chemistry between Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Andrew Scott’s Priest unfold. Indeed, the two actors complimented each other so perfectly that choosing one over the other seems impossible.

Viewers were confounded by the subtle brilliance of the third episode’s ending, in a staggering plot-point which saw the Priest acknowledge Fleabag’s fourth-wall breaking asides intended only for the viewer, demolishing audiences’ expectations of the premise in the process.

With just a few words, “where did you just go?”, Waller-Bridge’s writing elevated Fleabag’s relationship with the Priest from mere desire to one of true soulful understanding.

The empathetic power of Scott and Waller-Bridge’s performances left no viewer in doubt of the genuine love between a troubled priest and grieving young woman, who through meeting each other finally learn how to live with themselves.


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The past decade has witnessed a revolution in TV. The unstoppable rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon heralded in the golden age of television.