None of us are particularly enamoured of the year 2020. But before we write its obituary with satisfaction, let’s consider what kept us going. That was television, which just continued on as other arenas shut down. That was thanks to content already made. And Canadian TV kept chugging along, too, either in the all-Canadian category or in the made-in-Canada classification. We watched a lot of TV, allowing us to savour fine Canadian acting.
Now, you could say there were a lot of great performances of the kind we dislike. Such as certain CBC execs pretending to know how to run a public broadcaster with integrity and aplomb. Those were failed performances, so let’s not even go there.
Instead, here’s a list – not meant to be definitive – of great performances by Canadian actors this year.
Brian Markinson as Bukansky on Tribal (APTN): This underrated, minimalist First Nations police procedural arrived as something that hits you like a slap in the face. Markinson was brilliant, all addled rage and simmering resentment as Chuck (Buke) Bukansky, a bristling but almost broken-down veteran detective. He inhabited the role with relish and it was a punchy, powerful performance.
Jessica Matten, as Officer Samantha (Sam) Woodburn on Tribal (APTN): Playing Bukansky’s nemesis Matten pulled off something rare – a truly multilayered character in a police procedural. The Sam character is complicated, engaging in unsettling (for the viewer) games. Matten who was excellent in Frontier and Blackstone adds extra heft to an already potent role, an Interim Tribal Police Chief, a woman taking charge in a male-dominated field.
Crystle Lightning as Maggie in Trickster (CBC): Lightning has been acting since she was nine years old, but in this role, as the sometimes overprotective mother to main character Jared, she’s on fire. Indomitable, foul-mouthed, funny and hard-partying, Maggie is carrying centuries of experience.
Ric (Richard) Waugh as Mr. Bradley in The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix): It’s a small but important role, and more than a mere reminder that the best show of 2020 was made partly in Canada. Bradley’s is the corner store/pharmacy in Lexington, Ky. (Cambridge, Ont., actually) where Beth gets her drugs and steals magazines. Mr. Bradley is in a few vital scenes and Waugh is perfect as the man who sees everything but acts oblivious.
Elliot Page as Vanya in The Umbrella Academy (Netflix): Page’s work held the sprawling series together, especially in its intense second season. Vanya is the most delicately defined and mercurial of the super-heroes and Page dwells zealously in the role, adding an amazing urbanity.
Hamza Haq as Bashir ‘Bash’ Hamed on Transplant (CTV/NBC): When Transplant was picked up by NBC, it wasn’t only a matter of the network needing finished content while the pandemic shut down many productions. As the central character in the highly charged and unusual medical drama, Hamza Haq gave the network a new, dazzling star. You cannot take your eyes off him in a role that he’s so clearly, intensely invested in.
Rebecca Liddiard as Madelyn in Departure (Global TV/Peacock): Liddiard is one of those Canadian actors you might pass on the street and be only vaguely aware of her star-power. Incredibly hard-working, she deserved praised for terrific work in Alias Grace and the much lighter Frankie Drake Mysteries (both CBC). As Madelyn, the sole survivor of a plane crash in the terrific thriller Departure, she’s the equal of co-star Christopher Plummer, which isn’t an easy achievement.
Jayne Eastwood as Lady in Hey Lady! (CBC Gem): At 73, Eastwood has the role of a lifetime. And you can tell she both savours it and nails it. After all, it is rare to play a mom who gets to say, after she’s introduced as her son’s mother, “I’m not his mother, I’m just the poor wretch who gave birth to the bastard.” It’s a scorcher, her work here.
Honourable mentions: Everyone in Decoys (CBC Gem), a delightfully droll cracked-Canadian diversion. Laurence Leboeuf as Magalie in Transplant. Karine Vanasse as Delorme in Cardinal (CTV). Christine Horne as Margaret in Malory Towers (BBC/CBC Gem).
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.