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Saluting the Top Five MVPs of Summer TV

Five stars who made this summer's TV offerings compelling, thrilling, and strange.
  • Zendaya, Kristen Bell, and Julio Torres are three of the stars who made TV sizzle this summer.
    Zendaya, Kristen Bell, and Julio Torres are three of the stars who made TV sizzle this summer.

    The Summer of 2019 is OVER, kids! We're past Labor Day, the NFL season has kicked off, and the weather is creeping down into that autumnal sweet spot that never lasts as long as you want it to. So it's time to look back at the summer that was on television. In particular, the people whose performances so compelled us. We've already tipped our cap to  the reality stars who made summer TV so fun. This time we're looking at the actors and actresses who shined so brightly on narrative shows. (We're exempting HBO's Succession,  because its season is straddling the summer/fall divide and if we didn't, it might occupy all five slots.)

    5. Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies

    Meryl Streep as Mary Louise Wright in Big Little Lies (HBO)

    If we said that the second season of HBO's Big Little Lies was a triumph, we'd be telling the biggest little lie of all. But what remains undeniable is that bringing Meryl Streep in to play Celeste's (Nicole Kidman) mother-in-law was the one stroke of genius the show still had up its sleeve. The mere fact of Streep's presence was a kind of bombshell twist, given how impossible it seemed to up the ante on a cast led by Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern. And in that first episode with her passive-aggressive sniping at Madeline and her primal dinner-table scream, Streep was worth her weight in gold. We're not sure anybody could have salvaged the courtroom-heavy conclusion to the season, but Streep managed to maintain her gravitas throughout. Fake teeth and all.

    4. Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars

    Kroisten Bell in Veronica Mars (Hulu)

    We live in an era of reboots and revivals, each one more precarious than the last. Thankfully, the one flawless execution was Hulu's revival of Veronica Mars, which featured a compelling season-long mystery, complicated new characters, and the welcome return of some old favorites. And while so much oxygen was taken up arguing for and against the season's controversial twist ending, what's maybe gotten lost is that Kristen Bell saddled up to accept a truly daunting acting challenge: living up to the reputation of the teenage role that made her famous. How terrifying. But she was flawless in giving us a Veronica that felt recognizable but older and more experienced. We can't wait to see what comes next.

    3. Julio Torres in Los Espookys and My Favorite Shapes

    Julio Torres in a promotional photo for his My Favorite Shapes comedy special. (Netflix)

    Say what you will about the glut of Peak TV, but if it means we live in an age where the bizarre and wonderful comedy of Julio Torres gets a place to flourish on our TV screens, we're all in. First Torres co-starred on HBO's charming Friday night Spanish-language comedy Los Espookys as a wealthy heir to a chocolate empire whose boyfriend is a mystery box best left unopened. Torres co-wrote every episode with co-star Ana Fabrega, which explains the show's peculiar, delicate, oddball sensibility. That sensibility was also on display in Torres's HBO comedy special My Favorite Shapes, where his deadpan delivery and knowingly childlike ability to draw out specific stories from abstractions was put to hilarious effect.

    2. Russell Crowe in The Loudest Voice

    Russell Crowe transformed into Roger Ailes in The Loudest Voice (Showtime)

    While it may not have been the most fun to spend the summer in the company of the bigoted, rageful, manipulative, and cruel sexual harasser Roger Ailes, there's no denying that Oscar-winner Crowe delivered a powerhouse performance as the late Fox News tyrant. While The Loudest Voice was a bombastic wallow in the worst version of recent American history, Crowe's performance was admirably committed, never once requesting sympathy for the devil he was portraying while also never taking cheap shots at the character that might let the audience feel good about hating him.

    1. Zendaya in Euphoria

    Zendaya (right) with Hunter Schafer in Euphoria. (HBO)

    In what was perhaps the most impressive star turn on television in years, Zendaya — who wasn't exactly an obscure figure, having appeared in two Spider-Man movies and The Greatest Showman — took a major leap as the star of HBO's teens-in-crisis series. Euphoria captured more than the attention of the usual critical voices. Almost every conversation I've had about TV this summer has included the "Are you watching Euphoria?" interlude. Intense without being alarmist, artistic without being aloof, those descriptors could apply to the show and its top-billed star equally. It's always exciting to watch a young star take the leap to the next level, and with Euphoria, that's exactly what we watched Zendaya do this summer.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Euphoria, Big Little Lies, Los Espookys, The Loudest Voice, Veronica Mars, Julio Torres, Kristen Bell, Meryl Streep, Russell Crowe, Zendaya