Best Group: “The Good Place”…This series may be a victim of its own success, as there was simply no way I could pick just one or two characters to list here. Conscientious Chidi (William Jackson Harper) grew smoother and more relaxed in the final season, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) found new layers of management skills and maturity, Tahani (Jameela Jamil) learned to forgive a gossip columnist bully who tortured her on Earth, and Michael (the peerless Ted Danson) may very well save all of humanity. And this is without even mentioning Janet (D’Arcy Carden)! As you can see, there was no way to pick…
10. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis Dreyfuss) in “Veep” …In “Veep”‘s final season, it turned Selina from a beleaguered Vice President into a President Frank (or Claire) Underwood wouldn’t want to double-cross. By going from anti-heroine to full-blown villain, “Veep” became the comedic equivalent of “Breaking Bad,” something I have never seen a female protagonist on a comedy series do. By the end, Selina had broken new barriers of awfulness–betraying everyone who had the misfortune to be around her (including her country). Did I mention this is supposed to be a comedy? But softening her in the eleventh hour or making some miraculous transformation into a good person wouldn’t have worked at all. By staying bruise-black, “Veep” stayed true to its vision of a politician who will do anything to become President.
9. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) in “True Detective” …Although the season is just so-so, Wayne (a Vietnam vet turned Arkansas cop suffering from dementia in his old age) is a compelling character, as we watch him ebb and flow over three different time periods, trying to piece together his memories as he’s experiencing them. The season’s final shot (Wayne disappearing in the lush, frightening jungle of Vietnam) is the best allegory I’ve ever seen for disappearing into the fog of dementia. That Wayne actually solves the case without knowing it is devastating.
8. Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) and Luz Ojeda (Cristina Rodlo) in “The Terror” …The second season of “The Terror” isn’t anywhere near as good as the first (which was the best series of 2018), but whatever does work can be found in the love story between Chester and Luz, two people that would be together if only events they have no control over (like WWII and anti-Japanese fears) weren’t controlling them–especially a terrorizing ghost (played by Kiki Sukezane, in a frightening portrait of how pain can almost be a supernatural force, driving her from beyond the grave–also a great character).
7. Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku) in “Bob Hearts Abishola” …Abishola is so radically different from any rom-com heroine that most critics may not realize how subtly subversive this show really is. Abishola–a single mom nurse from Nigeria being quietly pursued by a good-hearted, but unglamorous sock tycoon while living with her extended family–exists so far outside the Rom-Com industrial complex (in which upwardly mobile white women from Rebel Wilson to Reese Witherspoon to Tiny Fey to Amy Schumer to Zooey Deschanel engage in zippy dialogue) that her soulfulness sometimes reads as “low energy” rather than flesh-and-blood real.
Abishola can be sterner and quieter than we’re used to seeing out of Meg Ryan-inspired heroines (this one is not going to need a box of tissues if a date doesn’t work out), and doesn’t really need big speeches proclaiming her strength to actually convey strength. She mostly wants to be left alone to do her job and raise her son, and is surprised to find herself awakening to the possibility of romance after so many years of “no nonsense.” It’s a gradual, beautiful dawning, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it on television.
6. Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) in “You” …The second season of “You” is not good (way too many similarities to “Dexter” season 2, as well as substantially less tension than season 1), but there was one huge upgrade: the main person our “hero” stalks. [Quinn even called out his season 1 obsession as a mediocre person, and I shouted “yes” to the TV.] Our protagonist has finally met “the one,” and a chance at real love. Naturally, he recoils from her…typical of Joe, but that doesn’t make Quinn any less fascinating.
5. Uncle Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins) in “The Righteous Gemstones” …While sitting here scratching my head as to why the singular talent that is Walton Goggins would be on CBS’s “The Unicorn” (a series that operates from the ludicrous premise that being a widowed father is catnip to women instead of a lonely, exhausting grind), Goggins had another ace up his sleeve the whole time: Baby Billy, who steals every scene he’s in on a series full of scene stealers. The comedic genius that is Danny McBride has crafted great ensembles before (“Eastbound and Down,” “Vice Principals”) but there’s not a non-hilarious person in “Gemstones,” and Baby Billy tops them all.
You may need to be from the South to appreciate just how accurate this portrayal of a washed-up, money-hungry evangelist really is: the genial humor disguising deep jealousies and resentments, the razzle-dazzle showmanship, the penchant for much younger women and gigantic chompers, and I could not stop smiling at the “Good Old” country song that is “Misbehavin'” which sounds like half the songs at the Grand Ole Opry on slow nights. Even Billy’s near-death experience (being struck by lightning) is a chance to cash in with a “Heaven is Real”-esque coloring book…which sounds exactly right.
4. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in “Game of Thrones” …Even though the characterizations in season 8 of “Game of Thrones” were awful (half my worst characters list is devoted to it), there was one character that stayed true to herself: Arya. After an unconvincing season 7 that saw her lurking around threatening Sansa, season 8 was a return to form: she single-handedly saved Westeros (and was actual foreshadowed properly!), took charge in her relationship with Gendry, walked away from certain death instead of choosing vengeance, and even had the most interesting ending of the season. Rather than a prequel series centered around the Targaryen Civil War, I would prefer to follow pirate Arya as she finds out “what’s West of Westeros?” [Arya’s travel companion The Hound (Rory Clegane) was also solid, and his suicide-by-fire rallying cry–finally getting revenge on the brother that ruined his life–was one of the most emotionally satisfying moments of season 8.]
3. Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) in “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” …After the shocking turn of events in the pilot episode, Krystal is a bankrupt single mother with no assets but her husband’s large inventory in a pyramid scheme. She soon sets about making lemons into lemonade in a world that either wants to fuck her or fuck her over, and has little interest in her otherwise. That Krystal is bizarrely hilarious (her pageant winning puppet routine), sexy, occasionally depressed, pragmatic, and always likable even when exploring her dark side (unlike “Veep,” Krystal is an anti-hero that never really goes full-blown villain) is a testament to just how well-written this character is, and Dunst’s excellent, fully committed performance (correctly nominated for a Golden Globe, getting one right in the TV category for once).
2. Spear (“voiced” by Aaron LaPlante) in “Primal” …This one may be a head-scratcher, but Spear is a near-wordless caveman on an animated series that is one of the most beautiful and moving I’ve ever seen. That he can convey so much emotion while being not only dialogue-less but also animated is a testament to how well this character is crafted. In the first episode alone we see him lose his entire family, get revenge, and then form a lasting alliance with a dinosaur who’s in a similar boat. I know it sounds crazy, but I would be surprised if even the most straight-laced viewers weren’t unexpectedly moved by his struggle.
The Best TV Character(s) of 2019: Elliot Anderson/Mr. Robot (Rami Malek) and Whiterose/Minister of State Security Zhi Zhang (B.D. Wong) …It’s perfectly fitting that our protagonist–who has multiple personalities to the point we’re not always sure who we’re watching–would have an antagonist who also has to show one “face” to the world while living in another. [These are great allegories for the shifting identities of the internet, but also the Chinese concept of “Face” where you may never be presenting your real feelings and nature.]
These two characters allowed “Mr. Robot” to explore the meaning of identity, and the push and pull of different sides…who may have overlapping agendas (or may not). That our main character literally doesn’t know who he is or most of his past may be fitting for a man who spent the first season trying to wipe out financial history, a good example of how the political is always personal. And their sole face-to-face scene this season was a riveting dialogue on the way outside society can shape identity without our knowledge or permission.