The editors at TV Guide are as guilty as anyone of spending 45 minutes searching for a new show to stream, only to return to an old fave like Parks and Recreation or Friday Night Lights. But that would be a shame considering the amazing new series and breakout actors this fall TV season.
We couldn't stand the thought of you missing out on all the talent fresh on the scene this season, so we're casting a spotlight on 10 breakout performances by actors who are also breaking boundaries, as well as five brand new shows that kept us on the edge of our seats as we binged episode after episode. (It's a hard job, but someone's gotta do it.)
Here, you'll find the fruits our arduous labor: TV Guide's inaugural Freshman 15 class. The Freshman 15 are the ones to watch. They're actors who everyone will leap to say they were fans of first, and the shows that will come to join the ranks of the new classics. 2018 has proven itself an amazing year for television (if nothing else), and we hope you discover some fresh faves to stan — till next year's Freshman 15 anyway.
Sonya Cassidy, Lodge 49
AMC's delightful Lodge 49 is full of misfits and lifelong character actors who are unlikely to carry a show on their own because of unreasonable Hollywood standards, but the outlier in this series about oddballs is Sonya Cassidy. The British actress could easily grace fashion magazine covers or star in shampoo commercials, yet here she is in the quirky drama, sticking out like a sore thumb while she's surrounded by couch-hopping surfers and space cadets. But that's where she shows she can hang with the looniest of her costars.
With Liz Dudley, underachieving sister to hopeful brother Sean (Wyatt Russell), Cassidy has developed the most interesting character in a show full of fascinating ones, which is no easy task considering she's surrounded by weirdos with intestinal parasites who search for mysticism and the secrets of alchemy as part of the titular lodge. Liz is instantly likable; she's an underdog who could be doing so much more than squeezing into the male-fantasy uniform of the Irish bar she works in. But she self-sabotages any opportunity she gets to rise up the ranks, frustrating those around her — but not to the point they push her away; she's too much fun to be around.
As Liz responds to chances by rolling her eyes (or literally jumping off of an executive training corporate cruise), Cassidy lets the truth about her character slip out with an empty glance: She is fearful of failure, deathly uncomfortable with success and change, and weighed down with the burden of supporting her brother and paying off her debt. It's an incredibly difficult role to pull off convincingly, but Cassidy excels at it. Cassidy has had success in her native England, but as a member of Lodge 49, she's about to become a star in the U.S. -Tim Surette
Nik Dodani, Murphy Brown
Nik Dodani is the resident millennial on CBS's revival of the baby boomer classic Murphy Brown. He was 3 years old when the show went off the air for the first time in 1998. He knows who Dan Quayle is, but that's because he's a well-informed person, not because he remembers when the vice president made Murphy Brown Public Enemy No. 1 in the culture wars of the early '90s. And you know what? It's a good thing he wasn't there, because his newness makes him the freshest part of the revival.
Dodani plays Pat Patel, social media director for the Murphy in the Morning news show, and he brings a delightfully different energy to the sitcom. With his loud blazer-and-T-shirt combos, fluffy hair and preference for sneakers without socks, Pat would draw attention anywhere, but that's doubly so when he's the only young person of color surrounded by a bunch of old white people. Dodani holds his own alongside TV vets like Candice Bergen and Faith Ford. And his own biography helps inform the character; he's worked as a producer for MoveOn.org, and he volunteered on Elizabeth Warren's 2012 Senate campaign. It's easy to imagine him teaching social media strategy to his costars in real life as well as on the show.
Dodani's also great on Netflix's Atypical as Zahid, the hilarious best friend of main character Sam, and he's a smart and funny stand-up to boot. He made his late-night debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September. He has a unique point of view, a few different skill sets and a lot of charisma, and he's only 23, so he's only going to grow from here. Don't be surprised if you see him leading his own sitcom in a few years. -Liam Mathews
Victoria Pedretti, The Haunting of Hill House
Whoever cast The Haunting of Hill House deserves all the Emmys. Not only do the actors playing the Crain family look staggeringly alike, but not one of the greener actors ever seem out of place next to Hollywood standouts like Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton. But of all the up-and-comers in the cast, no one made quite as strong of an impression as Victoria Pedretti, who plays the youngest Crain child, Nell. With fewer credits to her name before Hill House than 13-year-old Lulu Wilson (Young Shirley), 12-year-old Mckenna Grace (Young Theo) and even 7-year-old Violet McGraw (Young Nell), Pedretti was a true Hollywood newcomer when she took on the role in the horror series. And yet Pedretti completely embodies the distraught young woman whose tragic story largely drives the first half of the season.
Pedretti's ability to effortlessly vacillate between the most visceral turmoil to an effervescent peacefulness to literally being the ghost nightmares is not only impressive but also absolutely essential to the series, in which several of the most pivotal moments are anchored by Nell. The reveal that she is the Bent Neck Lady and has been haunting herself for decades was a powerful revelation made only more so by the horror we see reflected back in Nell's own eyes. And the series' surprisingly hopeful ending hinges largely on viewers believing Nell's acceptance of her own fate and coming to terms with it much like she has. Hill House is one of the best new shows this year, horror or otherwise, and it's hard to imagine it having such a strong impact without Pedretti's performance providing such a captivating emotional through-line. -Sadie Gennis
Nicole Maines, Supergirl
Over the course of its four seasons on the air, Supergirl has never shied away from commenting on the cultural conversation, whether it be a subplot about alien immigrants (as in literal aliens) or why there's no stronger moniker for a superhero than "girl." That's why it came as no surprise when this fall, Supergirl introduced TV's first transgender superhero with the debut of Dream Girl, aka Nia Nal played by newcomer Nicole Maines.
Nia's storyline is inspiring not just because her character is breaking new ground but because her character represents so much more than just a TV first. Nia is a young trans girl, yes, but she's also a million other things. She's insecure, she's passionate, she's intrepid at times and overly cautious at others, and above all of that, she's incredibly brave. Nia's a cub reporter who may hesitate to believe in her own pitches, but will then turn around and lecture her editor-in-chief about accountability and the illusion of balance in the face of injustice. In Nia's second episode, she came out as trans to James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) in a powerful scene, but that's far from the only focus of her storyline in the series, which is a testament to the good writing on Supergirl. The likability of the character, meanwhile, is all Maines, who comes across as charming, funny and incredibly relatable.
Most exciting of all, we've seen the first signs of a romantic subplot for Maines' character beginning to emerge this season, and we can't wait for more. To not only see trans representation in the superhero genre, but also a trans love story that's a sweet rather than pain-filled affair is an important step forward for not just Supergirl, but TV as a whole. -Lindsay MacDonald
Diona Reasonover, NCIS
It's not easy taking over for the most popular character on the world's most-watched TV show, but Diona Reasonover is not only killing it, she's also finding out how it died (that's a little forensic pathology humor for you). Reasonover made her debut on NCIS as Ducky Mallard's (David McCallum) assistant, Kasie Hines, in Season 15, and then she became a full cast member in Season 16 when Kasie took over the lab after Pauley Perrette left.
Kasie Hines may have taken Abby Sciuto's place in the lab, but that doesn't mean Reasonover is a plug-and-play replacement for Perrette. She's injecting fresh humor and personality into the legacy procedural in her own way. Kasie has her quirks — she has no problem with blood, but swabbing a toilet seat is a challenge, for example — and it'll be fun to keep seeing them be revealed over the years to come as more and more of Reasonover's comedic range and natural, nerdy charm surface in the character. NCIS is such an institution at this point that joining the series this late in the game must feel like transferring to a new high school in junior year, but Reasonover is doing an admirable job of integrating with the ensemble of people who have been on the show since she was in grade school, and reinvigorating it for a new generation of fans.
And acting on NCIS is just one thing Diona Reasonover does; off-camera, she's written for the shows I Love You, America and I Love Dick. NCIS and experimental feminist dramedy I Love Dick are about as different as two shows can be, and someone who can do both is a talent to watch indeed. -Liam Mathews
Sarayu Blue, I Feel Bad
In the history of American television, there have been only two shows led by South Asian stars: The Mindy Project and Master of None. I Feel Bad, starring Sarayu Blue, is the third entry in this entirely too slim category, and it does something completely different than its predecessors: It looks at a holistic slice of Indian-American life rather than specific angles (love, friendship, work, etc.) and offers a unique view into a culture clash that instantly solidifies, for most of the American desi diaspora, as a sense of home.
A key factor is Blue's effortless performance as Emet, a first-gen kid who is still growing into her final auntie form, despite the fact that she's married with three kids already. Blue weaves Emet's work life and home life together seamlessly... in the sense that Emet is just as likely to fall apart in both realms. And because of Blue's comedic chops, even when Emet's life is crumbling around her, there's always something to smile about. Sometimes it's as simple as the wildly roundabout way she leads her coworkers at a video game company to intersectional feminism. More often than not, it's the brilliant scenes with her mixed-race family that push Blue's performance to the next level. With the help of her TV parents, the legendary Madhur Jaffrey and Brian George, Blue artfully creates a narrative where growing up into your parents might not be such a bad thing after all.
Under Blue's guiding light, a show that could feel trite — a woman who struggles to have it all! — becomes an excellent entry point to a truth most adults learn the hard way: There is literally no point in your life when you will have matured enough to handle all the problems that you'll face. -Krutika Mallikarjuna
Brandon Micheal Hall, God Friended Me
Brandon Micheal Hall is a vaguely familiar face. Fans of the cult hit Search Party and the criminally short-lived The Mayor fell for Hall's undeniable charisma, and soon the rest of America will, too, now that he stars in CBS's hit dramedy God Friended Me.
Hall truly shines as Miles Finer, an atheist who finds his disbelief in the divine called into question when a series of social media friend requests from God — or someone pretending to be God — throw him into the path of exactly the right people at exactly the right time. In the wrong hands, Miles' character could easily find himself at the center of a schmaltz fest, but Hall deftly navigates the line between sincere and corny.
Hall's interpretation of Miles turns what could be a lazy stereotype — angry atheist with a podcast ironically preaching from a digital pulpit — into a deft exploration of how to be open to new people and experiences after surviving immense tragedy. And that's not a season-long character arc; that's square one, where Miles starts in the pilot. By framing a character that could easily slide into blowhard territory with warmth, compassion and a natural instinct to question the world around him, Hall serves up one of the few characters truly worth rooting for this fall season.
Bringing together the most cynical of skeptics and the most devout of the flock, Hall's incredibly earnest performance as someone who might not believe in God but does believe in the goodness of other people provides common ground we can all enjoy. And common ground is something we sorely need right now. So sit back and prepare to yell "Preach!" at the TV repeatedly, because Brandon Micheal Hall is about to make a believer out of you. -Krutika Mallikarjuna
Melvin Gregg, American Vandal
The second season of American Vandal hinged on two things: a whole lot of sh-- and DeMarcus Tillman, played effortlessly by 30-year-old Virginia native Melvin Gregg. Tillman was St. Bernardine's prize basketball prospect, already making him big man on campus, but it was his effervescent personality that elevated him to legend status, revered by the students, faculty and community alike. That kind of magnetic charm is hard to come by in both real life and television, and particularly easy to see through while watching a high school-set TV series about two teens investigating fecal-related crimes. But there was Gregg, not only selling Tillman's charisma to the students, but to all of us watching the season so that we became captivated by him, too. Whether he was raining threes on the court or slapping fives in the hallway, DeMarcus felt like a believable larger-than-life figure destined for greatness.
"A lot of people at school think they try to be cool, but that ain't really cool," DeMarcus says as we learn more about him. "But being cool and being a weirdo? I think that's super cool." Gregg says the line so convincingly and so earnestly, we're instantly hooked — and he instantly becomes the popular kid who gets along with everyone.
However, as the season escalated, so did the finger-pointing about who really was the Turd Burglar, and Gregg revealed layers to Tillman that led everyone to suspect he may be the culprit. As the accusations flew, the chiseled facade of a confident young man began to crack, and underneath we saw a boy who felt pressured to live up the lofty standards everyone else had put upon him. In one of the best scenes on television of all time, Gregg as Tillman confesses to both his turd-related crime and also to the crushing loneliness that led the most popular boy in school to being catfished and manipulated in the first place.
DeMarcus' character was central not just to the investigation at the center of American Vandal, but to the rattling themes of the struggles high school teenagers face today. Gregg captured the facade that Millennials (and now Gen Z) constantly put on to survive and excel socially in their teenage years, leading to one of the most sympathetic on-screen depictions of how teens utilize technology. It's ironic that social media has played a large part in Gregg's success — he was a Vine star and used one hell of a Denzel Washington impression to gain notoriety — but it nearly took down DeMarcus Tillman. But Gregg will be able to leave social media behind soon as his star rises and everyone knows his name. -Tim Surette
Daniel Ezra, All American
The CW's All American is not a universal story; it's a singular tale about football, systemic inequality, high school high jinks, the thrills of victory and the flaws in the American dream. None of it would be as grounded nor as realistic as it is without the particular talents of its lead, Daniel Ezra.
All American follows a kid named Spencer James (based on the true story of Spencer Paysinger, the athlete) who's plucked from gritty South Los Angeles to play ball in Beverly Hills. Ezra brings with rage, frustration, innocence, vulnerability and occasional humor to — to say nothing of the physically demanding work it takes to convincingly play football, which Ezra makes look effortless. On the field he's graceful and tough; off the field, where his character navigates rough terrain in South Los Angeles and the sting of prejudice in Beverly Hills he's frightened and brave, with Ezra deftly handling all these hairpin turns with finesse. Perhaps making all this even more commendable is that Ezra is from the UK, where "football" means something else entirely, and Ezra spent months learning the specific mannerisms of South LA's black youth by immersing himself in the neighborhood. It shows.
Spencer wears a lot of hats on this show: he's a burden-carrying son to a stressed out mom, an uber-responsible brother to an impressionable kid, an ally and protector to his lesbian best friend, he's a man of pride and earned respect among peers who treat him like an outsider. Ezra manages all these roles with gravitas. And while Spencer James' story may not be a universal one, Ezra's delicate, measured portrayal of the young champion fighting to make a better way for himself and his community rings with humanity that'll deeply resonate with anyone who sees it no matter where they're from. --Malcolm Venable
Cole Allen, Kidding
Being a kid actor is hard in general, but being a kid actor on a show meant for adults opposite Hollywood icons sounds almost impossible. Enter Cole Allen, the youngest entrant on TV Guide's Freshman 15 but by no means the least impressive. The 12-year old actor co-stars on Kidding, the Jim Carrey tragic comedy on Showtime about a Mr. Rogers-esque children's show host in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
Allen doubles as Will, the living child of Jeff Pickles (Carrey), and Will's twin brother, Phil, who died in a car accident a year before the show begins. In the flashbacks where both Will and Phil are alive, Allen portrays two brothers with polar opposite personalities, often having to play off each other. In the current-day scenes, Will is processing his own grief as his parents get divorced and his father goes headfirst into his own downward spiral. He delivers as many laughs as he does heartbreaking moments, especially as young Will, who carries the immense guilt over having his dead brother's face. It's a complicated part — even for a veteran actor — that Allen handles with grace and soul, whether Will is screaming at his parents or enjoying his first real crush, and his performance is an integral part of Kidding's unique mix of surreal comedy and tragic emotion.
In addition to going head-to-head with Carrey, Allen goes toe-to-toe with Frank Langella, Judy Greer and Catherine Keener, each an acting legend in their own right, in every episode. And not only does he hold his own, but when he's done for the day, Allen still has to go home to do algebra homework. Keep an eye on this kid because he's going places. --Megan Vick
The Haunting of Hill House
Netflix releases so many shows in such quick succession that it's becoming harder and harder for any one to truly break through the noise. But The Haunting of Hill House — Mike Flanagan's reimagining of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel of the same name — did just that, and likely set a bunch of executives scrambling to find the next big horror hit. But anyone who thinks that Hill House's success is built on its horror elements doesn't understand the show's appeal. What makes Hill House such a provocative story is the family drama at its core. And when we say "family drama," we don't mean the type you see on This Is Us, where viewers' emotions are manipulated for unearned tears and melodramatic twists. Instead, The Haunting of Hill House is, ghosts aside, one of the most accurate explorations of grief and family trauma to ever hit the screen.
The way Flanagan played with Jackson's original work also pushes the boundaries of how we define an adaptation. With Hill House, the characters and storyline from the novel are largely absent, and yet the ways in which Flanagan repurposes the themes and motifs from the novel to create this wholly new story maintains the intimacy between the two works. The storytelling in these 10 episodes is also so layered and complex that it's a show that begs for re-watch, taking full advantage of its streaming home. Throughout the season, things are revealed that completely shift the way you interpret what you've already seen and make you want to rewind as soon as possible to see how it all fits together. Plus, a second (or third or fourth) viewing gives you the opportunity to put on your detective's cap and hunt down all the little Easter eggs and ghosts hidden throughout the series that you were previously too immersed in the storyline to notice. It's truly a show that keeps on giving. -Sadie Gennis
Lifetime has worked hard the past few years to establish itself as a destination for edgy, provocative television, and it's definitely achieved that goal with its latest series, YOU, a twisted tale about a dangerously disturbed and compulsive young man obsessed with a grating, narcissistic graduate student, who has plenty of issues of her own.
This campy thriller takes the well-worn premise of a man so in love that he'd do anything for the woman of his dreams and sheds light on how truly horrifying that kind of devotion can really be. After their initial meet-cute, Joe (Penn Badgley) becomes obsessed with Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and begins stalking her, all the while pretending to be a wholesome bookstore manager. Eventually, the two begin a consensual relationship, and Joe proves that he'd do anything to keep his new girlfriend in his life — and he's got the creepy dungeon to prove it.
But what raises YOU to the next level — besides the well-placed moments of wry, self-aware comedy — is that it's able to make you root for Joe, even though you know he's an unhinged, violent criminal. This internal struggle is exactly what makes YOU so intriguing for viewers. One moment, you'll accidentally catch yourself swooning over how compassionate Joe is as he takes care of his neighbor's kid, and the next you'll remember that he killed Beck's ex-boyfriend, stole her phone and masturbated outside her window while watching her. And yet you'll still somehow find yourself rooting for Joe to escape whenever he's on the verge of getting caught. It's a trippy ride, trying to untangle all of your feelings when watching YOU, but that's exactly what makes this show so addicting. It's a good thing Lifetime gave it a Season 2 pickup (over a month before it even premiered) because we're already craving our next fix of this messed-up romance. -Lindsay MacDonald
God Friended Me
When you hear the title God Friended Me, the immediate instinct for anyone under the age of 30 is likely, "Ah, a show I will have to tolerate watching with my parents when I'm home for the holidays." The combination of God and Facebook seems tailor-made to cater to a significantly older demographic, but as the old adage goes, don't judge a book by its cover (or a show by its title). This fall TV season, God Friended Me is the fresh, sincere and compassionate take on life we didn't even know we needed.
That's because despite what the title may imply, the show isn't really about religion at all. Yes, the main character, Miles Finer (played by the wonderful Brandon Micheal Hall), is an atheist. Yes, his estranged father (Joe Morton) is a preacher. So of course there's an ideological family battle royale. But the show isn't set up to prove one party right. It truly doesn't matter to the creators of the show if the Facebook account that supposedly belongs to God and has Miles questioning the guiding principles of the universe is really operated by a divine being or not. It's simply a tool to remind its characters that they can make a difference just by showing up for other people.
What God Friended Me really believes in is humanity. On this show, heaven is other people, and the baseline of the universe is that most people want to be good but aren't sure how to go about doing that. While that may seem completely fantastical in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Eighteen, it's common ground that people who are deeply religious and people who are not at all can meet on, which makes God Friended Me one of the few shows of the fall season that's truly a feel-good watch. If you need something warm and comforting that also serves as a reminder of what we can be at our best, show up for God Friended Me, and God Friended Me will show up for you. -Krutika Mallikarjuna
If the high school football drama has become a genre unto itself, The CW's All American is an important entry into the canon. But All American goes where The O.C. or Friday Night Lights didn't — into the heart of inner-city Los Angeles, where standout player Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) fights for respect on and off the field as he's plucked from his tough environs to play for a better future in Beverly Hills. As a result, James embarks on a journey to a more affluent world nearly every week, exposing him to a new, often hostile environment and viewers to a poignant tale of two neighboring but very different American cities.
While a good chunk of All American deals with issues around class and race as Spencer adapts to his new surroundings, the show offers plenty more to chew on. Spencer's transfer explores the murky ethical waters the young athlete wades into as he realizes he's being exploited for school profit. There's a central mystery around Spencer's parentage too (with Taye Diggs acting as a father figure in Spencer's coach Baker); a love triangle involving the coach's daughter Olivia (Samantha Logan) and her friend Leila (Greta Onieogou); and a compelling storyline about a Spencer's best friend, Coop (Bre-Z), who faces discrimination from her family over her sexual orientation. There's a lot going on in All American, but in the best way, and Daniel Ezra's grounded, complex portrayal of a young man having to make adult decisions makes the series feel more original and definitive than a mere offshoot of the shows preceding it. It's a standout series for The CW, a network stuffed with superhero shows often told from one perspective, and for the broadcast season as a whole, which now has a timely, culturally relevant young adult drama packing as much emotional punch as it does gridiron grit. -Malcolm Venable
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina brought to life one of the darkest series in the Archie comics collection and thrilled us with its Season 1 debut. Even though it's billed as a companion series to Riverdale, Sabrina's home on Netflix allows the drama to go darker than its CW counterpart ever could.
Kiernan Shipka leads the cast as the spunky Sabrina Spellman, who must decide whether she wants give her soul to Satan on the evening of her 16th birthday or continue living a regular, mortal life. As a half-witch and half-mortal, Sabrina feels torn between the two realms and spends the majority of the first season trying to live with one foot in each world. You can guess how well that works out for her.
While Sabrina's connection to the mortal world is crucial to the premise, it's the exploration of the witchy universe that left us hungry for more — especially after the finale cliffhanger that left Sabrina leaning into the darker world of magic and away from her mortal, high school friends. Her classmate Prudence's (Tati Gabrielle) absolute devotion to the dark arts and the Dark Lord are honestly what we came to see, and Sabrina could learn a little from her enthusiasm. And with Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) serving as one of Sabrina's primary antagonists, the constant push and pull between the two creates some of the juiciest conflicts of the series.
In between its campy fun and dark themes, Sabrina is genuinely scary. (Please don't get us started on how many nightmares the show's demons inspired.) It's a perfect fall treat that leaves us itching to return to its magical world of witches, warlocks and wardrobes to die for. -Megan Vick
Senior Editor: Krutika Mallikarjuna
Video Editors: Ndumiso Mafu, Jay Julio, Aaron Segura and Aliza Sessler
Creative: Robert Rodriguez and Sushant Sund