The BEST TV Characters of 2016

By | January 1, 2017

People Vs. OJ…Veep…Westworld…The Night Of…

Best Self: Campbell Scott as himself in “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll”…Having a celebrity play themselves rarely leads to anything other than smiles or a soft chuckle, but “Sex” gave Scott his most interesting role since “Roger Dodger,” as a manipulative, hilarious genius trying to stage a Hamilton-rip-off. He has only a half-dozen scenes total, but he almost single-handedly saves the series’ lackluster second (and final) season.

Best One-Off Role: King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) in “The Walking Dead”…He’s only in one episode of the seventh season (so far), but Ezekiel—a sly, perceptive zookeeper and amateur actor playing the role of tiger-conquering king that can see through people—has made a stronger impression on me than Negan.

Most Important Role Model: Former President Graves (Nick Nolte) in “Graves”…Nick Nolte plays a Reagan-esque former Republican President trying to make amends for his awful legacy by pulling a “Bulworth” and rediscovering his soul. Watching Nolte get teary-eyed at the consequences of his bad policies is so moving it just might influence You-Know-Who (cough, Trump, cough) if he ever watched anything he wasn’t in.

Runner-Up: Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy) in “The Path”…Is Meyerism real or a Scientology-like scam or maybe a worthy charity? The show is playing its answers ambiguous—for now—but it’s more clear that Cal Roberts (the current leader while the founder is nearly dead) doesn’t believe in much besides himself. He knows how to manipulate a faithful follower’s marriage to be with her or push out a rival. He’s the dark heart of the series, and a case-study in how every religion is a little self-serving.

10. Nicole (Nicole Byer) in “Loosely Exactly Nicole”…Okay, so maybe Campbell Scott had some competition in the self-casting-department this year. “Nicole” the series fell through the critical-acclaim-cracks this year while other edgy, black-starring comedies were being praised for “breaking stereotypes” (even as they largely reinforced them). Meanwhile, Nicole the character is the most cliche-busting comedy heroine since “The Mindy Project” debuted. She’s proudly fat, sexy, hilarious, screwball-comedy-smart, and performing with a glee that is downright contagious, tossing off verbal grenades with a fairy godmother’s smile.

9. D (Ethan Suplee) in “Chance” and Ivar (Alex Hogh Andersen) in “Vikings”…When was the last time you saw disabled characters like this? On “Chance,” Hugh Laurie gets criminally upstaged at every turn by a possibly insane bruiser named “D.” We don’t know if he’s got PTSD, a more common mood disorder, or he’s a violent psychopath, but whatever the diagnosis, he’s the kind-of friend we wish we all had as he gets Dr. Chance out of one scrape after another. Over on “Vikings,” the series is transitioning from legendary warrior-king Ragnar to his five sons, and especially Ivar who is disabled below the waist. I don’t think I have ever seen a character that can’t walk kill nearly a dozen people, all of them warriors. Ivar is just as dangerous as his famed father, but consistently underestimated, and their scenes together (especially in a doomed England raid) are some of the most emotionally-affecting Ragnar has ever had.

8. Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer) and Ray (Craig Robinson) in “Mr. Robot”…Mr. Robot’s second season was equal parts infuriating and interesting, but it’s hard to deny that the series newest characters worked best. Gummer’s FBI agent was vulnerable, badass, curious, perceptive, and isolated, perfectly peeling back the layers of a millennial professional’s anxiety in her lonely discussions with her operating system. While Robinson’s Ray was one of the most multi-dimensional “bad guys” on TV—and a revelation for the actor not unlike watching comedian Anthony Anderson go bad on “The Shield” season 4—he could go from tender to terrifying in a few seconds. [Of course, “Mr. Robot” is allergic to success, and had to eventually make the character a hallucination.]

7. Michonne (Danai Gurira) in “The Walking Dead”…I’m fed-up with most of “The Walking Dead” favorites, but Michonne has managed to add new layers every season. A year ago, could you have ever imagined her laying a big, open smooch on Rick right before he goes on a mission? The romantic side looks good on her, and she’s becoming more open but no less badass. [I would also say their romance is the only good thing about Rick right now.]

6. Henry (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Jacob Nighthorse (A Martinez) in “Longmire”…”Longmire” excels in characterizations of Native American men—I say men because the show has so far not presented a Native American woman that isn’t a victim of white men and subsequent plot catalyst—like the thoughtful vigilante Henry, the sly old crime boss Malachi, Zahn McClaron’s frustrated cop, and best of all Jacob Nighthorse, a modern casino mogul that shows how thoroughly this show is updating the cowboys and Indians narrative.

5. Man in Black (Ed Harris) and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) in “Westworld”…Two flipsides of the same coin. Harris’ human character wants to break into a more dangerous game while Maeve is desperate to escape into the privileges of humanity. Finding out the backstory of who “The Man in Black” really is was one of the best TV moments of the year, and Maeve is thrillingly ambiguous, at times the true heart of the series and at other times a frightening harbringer of the doom artificial intelligence may bring for mankind. And special kudos to Thandie Newton for bravely doing about half of her scenes nude. Plus, Anthony Hopkins’ Ford was the cool, otherworldy creator-God we might wish was running the real world too.

4. Mac Conway/Quarry (Logan Marshall-Green) and Buddy (Damon Herriman) in “Quarry”…This underrated Cinemax gem is the most realistic portrait of hitmen on television since “The Sopranos” went off the air. Mac/Quarry is a PTSD-suffering Vietnam vet turned reluctant hit man (the show is set in Memphis in the early 70’s) struggling to readjust to life back home after being implicated in a war crime. The character somehow manages to make alienation look universal and relatable, but the sweaty, frazzled character shows you just enough spark to make the case for just how tough violence is to give up. And more seasoned hitman Buddy is the most against-type gay character since “Rubicon” went off the air. Plus, it certainly doesn’t help that he’s played by “Justified” veteran Herriman—who does the best Southern accent from an Australian or UK actor I’ve ever heard—and Buddy is as sly and hilarious as Dewey Crowe was dumb and hilarious.

3. Johnny Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) in “People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”…Really, you could make a case for half-a-dozen characters on this series (including O.J. himself, nicely fleshed out by Cuba Gooding Jr. as an unraveling-but-cunningly ambiguous football star) but Johnny and Marcia are the dueling soul of the series. Marcia’s vulnerable custody disputes and unwavering belief in the facts shows you just how the real Clark could lose the slam-dunk of the century, and Paulson does something I thought impossible: make me feel sorry for a prosecutor. While the “ACS” version of a more idealistic Cochran transcends the slick huckster archetype usually portrayed, getting at a guy trying to bring attention to police harassment through a celebrity trial that had nothing to do with it. You can easily disagree with either one, and still wind up really liking them.

2. John Stone (John Turturro) in “The Night Of”…A very different kind of lawyer can be found here, struggling like crazy against bad skin, bad cases, a bad system, and a bad deal generally. Does he really want to help a likely-innocent Pakistani kid accused of murder or just get famous off the case? Stone winds up being the most moral person in any room—usually involving crafty cops, a lazy judge, speechifying higher-end attorneys, or a willfully dishonest prosecutor—despite frequently being told he’s not good enough to be there. Not bad for a guy with rotting feet, but a good heart.

1. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis Dreyfuss) in “Veep”…The first time the top spot has ever gone to a comedy character but maybe that’s because Selina feels closer to tragic. [You know the anguish she feels over an electorale college tie is damn-close to Hillary.] POTUS Meyer is sexy, scary, razor-sharp, desensitized, vulnerable, caustic, pathetic, mean, and oddly sympathetic, and keep in mind this is for a comedy show. Much has been made that TV’s dramas don’t have enough anti-hero roles for women, but the best anti-heroine on TV can easily be found in a comedy, guiding us through this terrifying election year.

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