Love it or hate it, 2018 was a banner year for television. I advise you to take the term “best” with a grain of salt. “Best” does not necessarily refer to the moral aptitude of the character, but rather the depth and performance, what characters add to their respective shows overall. Some add gravity, some add drama, some broke barriers of representation. Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant)’s juxtaposition of trying to reconcile classic suburban existence with his spouse’s murderous new hobby acts as Santa Clarita Diet’s center of gravity; the show wouldn’t work without it. Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson) anchors This Is Us by having the self-awareness other characters lack, drawing the show back when it becomes to soap-operatic for its own good. Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) redefines the spy genre in Killing Eve.
Joel Hammond, Santa Clarita Diet
In a show about a housewife-turned-zombie, Timothy Olyphant stars alongside Drew Barrymore as Joel Hammond, the affable husband of Barrymore’s flesh-feasting character. Joel begins as a typical SoCal suburban dad: working as a realtor, smoking pot in his garage, and… trying to accept his wife’s double life as a man-eating undead monster? Ridiculous as it may be, Joel deftly takes on the role with as much grace as one can, insisting that Sheila (Barrymore) is his wife and he will stand by her through anything. He helps her find “bad people” to kill, tries to keep the police off their backs, and feverishly searches for a cure for her cold-blooded condition. Joel’s juxtaposition of trying to reconcile classic suburban existence with his spouse’s murderous new hobby is Santa Clarita Diet’s center of gravity. Without it, the show wouldn’t work at all.
Paula Proctor, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
A middle-aged “soccer mom” type with the abilities of a criminal mastermind? Name one other time you’ve seen a character like that. Paula (Donna-Lynne Champlin) appears to be the classic mother figure: warm, caring, and concerned, like she might whip out a plate of brownies at any moment. While she has her motherly moments, the best thing about Paula is her love of schemes, heists, and manipulation. Determined to help new friend Rebecca win over the object of her obsession, Josh, Paula spends most of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend embroiled in a series of decidedly criminal hijinks. In season one alone, she secretly guides Rebecca through a dinner with Josh’s parents, steals transcripts, and installs illegal tracking devices. Her best moment comes during her song to Rebecca: “After Everything I’ve Done For You (That You Didn’t Ask For).” Paula isn’t just a sidekick, however: she has her own separate plotlines, exploring her failing marriage, her pursuit of her law degree, and even ruminations on her first sexual experiences. Ever wanted to see a 40-something woman belting about penises in a grocery store? Look no further.
Beth Pearson, This Is Us
In an admittedly saccharine family drama, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson) is This Is Us’s anchor to reality. Her straight-shooter attitude makes her unafraid to call the Pearsons out when they become too soap-operatic for their own good, which is often. When her husband, Randall, invites his estranged biological father, a recovering addict, to stay in their house without consulting anyone, Beth lays it out flat for him: “How long is your crack-addict biological daddy gonna be sleeping in our 6-year-old daughter’s bedroom?” When brother-in-law Kevin has a career crisis that leads to extended camp-out in the basement, Beth asks him bluntly, “when you leavin’?” In short, Beth Pearson has the self-awareness that her in-laws so desperately lack. Also, the woman swears on Oprah, so clearly she knows who the real higher power is.
Tahani Al-Jamil, The Good Place
Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) is one of the residents of the afterlife, a self-centered socialite raised in high-society Britain. She frequently humblebrags about her glamorous life on Earth, with outlandish comments such as “I haven’t been this upset since my good friend Taylor was rudely upstaged by my other friend Kanye, who was defending my best friend, Beyoncé.” Tahani’s stunning good looks, history of humanitarian work, and effortless charm make her seem unattainable- until you learn every “good” deed she’s ever done was fueled by the desire to outshine her sister and gain approval. Now, the concept of the “perfect princess” being revealed as self-absorbed and corrupt is hardly new (see any high school movie in existence). You’re supposed to hate the perfect princess. What makes Tahani different is that the revelation of these negative traits do the opposite. Finding out that she’s not so great somehow makes her more likable.
Captain Raymond Holt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) is a truly unique character, both demographically and personally. A black, gay police captain, Holt is no stranger to adversity, but it’s his deadpan demeanor that makes him memorable. Braugher somehow manages to make lines delivered in the most monotone voice possible the funniest gags on the show, leading to countless memes among fans. Holt gets bonus points for his husband, Kevin, and their corgi, Cheddar.
Princess Carolyn, BoJack Horseman
It’s not every day you meet a pink, anthropomorphic cat who works as a Hollywood (or Hollywoo) agent. As BoJack’s eponymous main character’s long-suffering agent/manager/ex-girlfriend, Princess Carolyn balances her all-consuming professional life with her compulsive need to fix everything and everybody. Everybody, that is, except herself. She sums herself up in season 2, “My life is a mess right now and I compulsively take care of other people when I don’t know how to take care of myself.” She certainly has her own tragedies to overcome, such as trying to start a family in her 40s, resulting in multiple miscarriages. Voiced by Amy Sedaris, PC comes to everyone’s rescue, but no one seems to come to hers, and it is that tragic irony that makes her the best and most relatable character on the series. She may be a cat, but she’s heartbreakingly human.
Casey Gardner, Atypical
Atypical is a criminally underrated show that follows the family of Sam Gardner, a teenager with autism. Sam juggles coping mechanisms, life, and love while his parents deal with issues such as infidelity, self-interest, and the realities of having a child with autism. At the crux of it all is Casey Gardner (Brigitte Lundy-Paine), Sam’s neurotypical sister. Despite being often overlooked by her family, Casey seems to hold everyone together: helping Sam at their shared school, bonding with their father, and coping with the fallout of her mother’s infidelity. She has her own teenage issues to deal with: getting a scholarship to an elite prep school and feeling out of place, her growing feelings for a female teammate, and confusion about her first sexual encounter.
Abe Weissman, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
No one, NO ONE but Tony Shalhoub could have been cast as Abe Weissman, the titular character’s lovably uptight father. A mathematics professor at Columbia, Abe is high-strung, sharp, and cantankerous. I suspect that if Abe had been portrayed by any other actor, the character would have been flat and one-dimensional. He is man who commands respect and authority without having to ask for it. Shalhoub’s rapid-fire delivery doesn’t miss a beat of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s trademark supersonic dialogue, and something in his voice and assortment of tweedy sweaters holds a sense of comfort, almost as though he’s part of your own family. The moment that truly defines Abe is when he tells his daughter “Life isn’t fair. It’s hard and cruel. You have to pick your friends as if there’s a war going on. You want a husband who’ll take a bullet for you, not one who points to the attic and says ‘they’re up there.’” Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching Shalhoub’s Emmy-winning performance on Monk, but even Abe’s most asinine rants feel fatherly and reassuring. Somehow, you know he wants the best for you.
Eve Polastri, Killing Eve
Killing Eve has gotten rave reviews, and it’s largely due to Sandra Oh’s portrayal of British agent Eve Polastri, which has earned her the distinction of becoming the first actress of Asian descent to be nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. I truly struggle to describe Eve. Every attempt feels like an oversimplification. She’s simultaneously relatable and yet inaccessible, all of us and none of us. She oversleeps and runs late for work, but she’s as a MI5 agent tracking an international assassin, with whom she develops a growing obsession. Unlike most spy drama heroines, she’s no Mary Sue. She’s not some sly seductress in a catsuit, but a typical-looking professional in a pantsuit and messy bun, like someone you’d see on your train commute. She jets all around Europe in her pursuit of the assassin, and it’s this mutual obsession that acts as the crux of the whole show.
Villanelle, Killing Eve
If I’m going to mention the mutual obsession that defines a show, I have to mention the other half: international assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Like Eve, Villanelle is so multi-dimensional she’s almost impossible to define. Villanelle is a relatively normal-looking young woman in her 20s, a chameleon that’s able to blend into virtually any environment. She shows little emotion or fear, carrying out her assigned high-profile murders as casually as a trip to the corner store. She seems to genuinely enjoy killing, making the depth of her character utterly impenetrable.
Connie the Hormone Monstress, Big Mouth
Two words: Maya Rudolph. Big Mouth is more or less run by “hormone monsters” or the physical embodiments of teenage hormones. This hormone monstress, called Connie, makes up the heart of Big Mouth’s cringe-worthy, achingly accurate portrayal of puberty. Initially “assigned” to Jessi, Connie delivers endless one-liners that feel ripped from my 7th-grade diary, such as “Listen to me! You wanna shoplift lipstick! You wanna listen to Lana Del Rey on repeat while you cut up all your t-shirts! You wanna scream at your mother and then laugh at her tears!” In season 2, she guides Jessi’s rash behavior in the wake of her parents’ divorce, most memorably shouting at drug store patrons “Stand back! My girl’s parents are going through a divorce and SHE NEEDS TO ACT UP!” Good lord, was there ever a more truthful description of female adolescence?