The Primetime Emmy Awards announced their nominations recently, and many of our favorite shows are in the running once again. The final seasons of Succession and Better Call Saul shined bright, and the voters took notice with many nominations for the two stalwarts. New shows like The Last of Us also featured strongly amongst the nominees. And despite the many different awards categories, the acting ones get our attention the most. Great characters are either made or broken by the performances of those wearing their hats, and we want to count down the best Emmy-winning portrayals in TV history! This doesn't mean these are the best performances overall, just the best of the ones that won Emmys.
1 – Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008)
The concept of Breaking Bad wouldn't have survived past the first season without Bryan Cranston. The revelatory performance of the comedic actor previously from Malcolm in the Middle and Seinfeld was able to suck audiences into the show's orbit, making us fall in love with the narcissistic science teacher who is diagnosed with cancer. The multitude of layers Cranston adds to Walter White later in the series is perhaps more impressive, but the weight of his first-season portrayal remains the most important.
2 – James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos (2003)
There would be no golden age of television without Tony Soprano and the man who brought him to life: James Gandolfini. The calm-demeanor Gandolfini conjured an incredible fire to bring sociopathic energy out of this iconic crime boss. The fourth season of The Sopranos saw Tony hit a breaking point in his marriage to Carmela Soprano, and the final episode conflicts between the two remain the best verbal sparring in TV history.
3 – Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano in The Sopranos (2003)
Only one actress has the vigor to go toe-to-toe with James Gandolfini in The Sopranos, and Edie Falco did more than enough to stand out in our minds. The pain Carmela Soprano feels after years of being emotionally abused by Tony comes to a head in the middle of the series, and her outpouring of thoughts and feelings is as raw and realistic as it gets.
4 – Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in Succession (2020)
Kendall Roy is the ultimate broken boy in TV history, a rich nepo baby who doesn't deserve our love but somehow garners it through the sheer intricacy of Jeremy Strong's performance. No season is Strong greater than the second one of Succession. His arc through the ten episodes, from his father's brown noser to the backstabber behind the curtain, is compelling and thrilling, and you can feel all of Kendall's roller-coaster ride through Strong.
5 – Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in Veep (2012)
The queen of the Emmys, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is a star on every show she appears in. Her long string of wins for HBO's political satire Veep began with the show's first season, where she introduces us to Selina Meyer's trademark sense of humor, ignorance, and self-importance. She would continue to alter the character as she became more powerful, but Louis-Dreyfus is at her most recognizable immediately.
6 – Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy (1956)
Lucille Ball is the pioneer of all sitcom performers. Not only did she show the way for future female portrayals on TV, but her excellent delivery and likable character development as Lucy Ricardo has aged incredibly well. Watching I Love Lucy still produces quite a few laughs to this day!
7 – Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory (2010)
Sheldon Cooper has a lot of quirks that some people find offensive, but the unbelievable grasp of the character's personality that Jim Parsons had was something to behold. This was the first of four awards that Parsons won for this role as The Big Bang Theory remained a ratings juggernaut throughout the 2010s.
8 – Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad (2014)
The final season of Breaking Bad is a crescendo like no other, with all of the consequences of Walter White's actions crashing down around him and his family. Bryan Cranston gives a masterclass in acting by demonstrating his character's misery, redemption, and regret that you can never take back.
9 – Zendaya as Rue Bennett in Euphoria (2022)
Sam Levinson's borderline-pornographic high school drama is a little heavy on the eyes most of the time, but Zendaya helps to ground the series and make it human. Her deception of Rue's drug addiction and apathy towards life is never more haunting than in the show's second season. This was the second time Zendaya won an Emmy for this role, and she'll get more chances when the show returns for a third season.
10 – Bea Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls (1988)
All of the women in The Golden Girls are outstanding, legendary comediennes. Bea Arthur stands just slightly taller, literally and metaphorically, because nobody can deliver a quip or a jaw-dropping retort like Dorothy Zbornak. Arthur won this award due to her chemistry with Herb Edelman as her ex-husband in a fantastic third-season episode where the two pretend they're still married.
11 – Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Wambsgans in Succession (2022)
There aren't any likable characters in the wealthy world of Succession, but Tom's journey into a powerful figure fueled by years of emotional turbulence starts getting off the ground and running in the third season. Standout scenes include Macfadyen's portrayal of manipulation in the presence of Greg Hirsch (played by Nicholas Braun).
12 – Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad (2014)
Aaron Paul's vulnerability and understanding of Jesse Pinkman's struggle make him an easy person to root for when comparing him to Walter White. Jesse needs a nudge in the right direction and could turn out fine, but his puppy-dog eyes for Mr. White won't let him get off the mat. Paul's perfect mix of misery and fierce outbursts make this his best season playing Jesse.
13 – Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos (2004)
David Chase's mob family drama always featured some of the strongest supporting characters on TV, and Michael Imperioli finally got the recognition he deserved in the show's fifth season. Christopher starts to self-combust when he finds out his long-time girlfriend has been discussing the family's crimes with the FBI. Imperioli is excellent at finding just a glint of humanity in his disloyal, despicable character.
14 – Patricia Heaton as Debra Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond (2001)
It takes a few seasons to adjust to the audacity of Debra Barone. Everybody Loves Raymond is a little outdated in that it always depicts the men as powerless to their domineering wives. Still, Heaton does a fantastic job of making Debra sympathetic to the audience and convincing us that Raymond deserves to be on the receiving end of lectures.
15 – Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay in Friends (1998)
The cast of Friends was equally important to the sitcom's worldwide success, but Lisa Kudrow's role was often the most difficult to pull off without looking corny. Phoebe is a slightly weird, quirky, and unique presence in a friend group that is otherwise somewhat ordinary. Kudrow ensures that Phoebe is always just enough in touch with reality that she is relatable to the audience.
16 – Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1975)
Betty White's career was a dream. Her main roles in several sitcoms made her recognizable to generation after generation of fans. Her performance as Sue Ann Nivens, the sexually promiscuous sidekick character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, is what most fans will think of when White's best work comes to mind.
17 – Bill Hader as Berry Berkman in Barry (2018)
Bill Hader always had the potential to be a great storyteller, which came to fruition in Barry, HBO's dark comedy about a hitman-turned-actor. Hader's influence on the show comes in many forms, but his acting performance in the first season helps audiences adjust to the series' tone.
18 – Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker in All in The Family (1972)
Archie Bunker may be deemed inappropriate for 21st-century audiences, but you can't erase him from the history books. Carroll O'Connor was excellent in capturing all of the outdated, sometimes bigoted personality traits of the Bunker patriarch. Fifty years later, there are still laughs to be had from All in the Family.
19 – John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell/The Trinity Killer in Dexter (2010)
John Lithgow has been a TV staple throughout the last several decades. His guest performance on the fourth season of Dexter as a serial killer who murders in threes was jaw-dropping. He formed the perfect foil for Michael C. Hall's title character, culminating in a climactic and dramatic finish to the 13-episode season.
20 – Eric Stonestreet as Cameron Tucker in Modern Family (2010)
Cameron Tucker is one of the most beloved LGBTQ characters in TV history due to his innocence and well-intentioned humor. Eric Stonestreet is quick-witted and hilarious in his depiction of a suburban gay father and husband and therefore remains the standout of the Modern Family cast.
21 – Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer in Seinfeld (1993)
On Jerry Seinfeld's show about nothing, Kramer was probably the easiest character to understand. Kramer is the friend we want to go away when he's too much and return when we need excitement. No matter what co-star was in the scene with him, it always seemed like Kramer was the most compelling.
22 – Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in Ozark (2022)
This Netflix crime series took a lot from its peers, but one unique aspect of the story is Ruth Langmore. Julia Garner is a powerhouse of iconic line delivery and emotional devastation in the show's final season, saving her best for last. Ruth simply can't stand working with the Byrdes any longer, and she lets them know in the ways only she can.
23 – Anna Gunn as Skyler White in Breaking Bad (2014)
Despite the unfair complaints about her character from fans of Breaking Bad, Anna Gunn took the criticism in stride and became one of the best characters on the show. As Skyler reaches her breaking point with Walter's drug crimes, she tries to find a way out, but things have already gone too far. Gunn shows Skyler's regrets and desperation perfectly.
24 – Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson in The Closer (2010)
Women rarely win awards for their depictions of police in TV shows and movies. Kyra Sedgwick brought toughness and light to the TNT drama The Closer. By the fourth season, most viewers could see her talent and how it carried an otherwise ordinary cable procedural.
25 – Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum in Magnum, P.I. (1984)
There weren't as many great TV performances in drama before the 2000s due to the formulaic, safe nature of network shows. Magnum, P.I. was one of the rare ones that allowed actor Tom Selleck to shine in revelatory ways. Thomas Magnum was a charismatic, strong investigator who Selleck solidified as one of the ultimate cool guys of the 1980s.