I just listed worst TV characters of 2020, and now let’s get to the best…
Best All-Around Characters: “Mrs. America”…This amazing miniseries is a victim of its own success since it actually has too many great characters to pick just one. Almost every episode follows a different main character and is a brilliant way to showcase all the different ways women play to (or transcend) their own archetypes. For example, Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly could’ve been a cartoon villain, but she’s just as vulnerable, insecure, thwarted, and determined as the heroes of the series. Margo Martindale’s Bella Abzug makes every scene crackle, Uzo Aduba and Tracey Ullman find the real people beneath their icons, and Sarah Paulson’s Alice (a Schlafly backer who oh-so-gradually sees the light) just might have the best arc of the series.
Honorable Mention: John Brown (Ethan Hawke) and “Onion” (Joshua Caleb Johnson) from “The Good Lord Bird”…Hawke plays Brown to the hilt, crazy speeches and relentless positivity included. This might clash with the historical portrait of Brown (supposedly much more straight-laced) but who cares when Brown is this much fun? He’s the mentor you always wanted as he provides good cheer and words of affirmation during even the darkest times, and makes it easy to see why so many people would follow him into a suicide mission. For his part, “Onion” is mostly trying to survive (a boy disguised as a girl), but it’s really his story as he hilariously narrates his own journey of love, liberty, and the pursuit of his (eventual) happiness. It is impossible to root against either of them, even if you already know how the story ends.
Runner-up: Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) from “Black Narcissus”…Too much of the miniseries adaptation is a total snooze because Gemma Arterton’s prideful head nun never really seems all that tempted to break bad. Luckily, Sister Ruth seems to be gradually unraveling (or perhaps liberating) into honest resentment and lust. Is she experiencing altitude sickness, her true personality (breaking through the phoniness of her convent), or being literally possessed? Franciosi’s excellent performance toggles between any of those answers and Ruth’s “true” self as a cherubic young nun.
12. Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) from “Warrior”…Ling is the only character on this series who makes sense all of the time. Naturally, she’s portrayed as the antagonist, but I’d take her in a second over most of the protagonists. Ling is razor-sharp (it’s one of the only things that’s kept her alive) and you can always see the wheels that have to turn because no one around her wants to do the smart thing.
11. Homelander (Anthony Starr) and Stormfront (Aya Cash) from “The Boys”…Remember, these are “the best” characters of the year, not the most likable or heroic. And one of the few reasons I still watch “The Boys” (every episode is dumber and farther fetched than the one before it) is for Homelander, who arguably has a better story arc than most of the protagonists (frightened boy turned into Uber-monster and perhaps capable of fatherhood). And Cash’s Stormfront was an excellent addition as a Nazi superhero hiding in plain sight with catchy viral videos and “girl power” marketing. In a season that too often forgot to have actual villains, Stormfront didn’t let us down.
10. Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) from “Ozark”…Laura Linney is one of the most underrated actresses alive, and you can feel her bringing every moment of life she can to one of the best characters she’s ever played. Wendy is the pragmatic head and emotional heart of “Ozark.” Almost everything she does makes sense, which I can’t totally say about any other character. This season, she had to scramble against frenemy cartel lawyer Helen (the toweringly impressive Janet McTeer) and take care of wounded-baby-bird brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey). “Take care of” ultimately having a tragic double meaning that would break a gargoyle’s heart.
9. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) from “Better Call Saul”…I wish I could rank Kim higher, I truly do. She’s become the unlikely breakout star of “Saul” (some people now consider her the lead) because of her steely determination, razor-wire intelligence, and unwavering devotion to Jimmy McGill (for better or worse…definitely worse). Watching Kim have to outtalk one of “Saul”‘s scariest villains was riveting and inspiring, all at the same time. [Perhaps the only reason she’s not ranked slightly higher is because the character is clearly self-defeating and doomed. And maybe I’m not trying to get much more attached for next season’s inevitable fall.]
8. Forest (Nick Offerman) from “Devs”…Forest is supposed to be the villain in this miniseries, but I found myself hanging on Offerman’s every cryptic word and pregnant pause. He hooks you with what he’s not saying, just as much as surprisingly accessible speeches on quantum physics and predetermination. The scene where Forest loses his family is one I will never forget.
7. Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan) from “Tehran”…An Israeli spy (born in Iran) who is trapped in the title city with Revolutionary Guard trying to track her every step, and then unexpectedly reconnecting with her Iranian roots. Sultan may be more a beautiful image than a fully formed actress (she’s a former model), but that actually works for the character since this is someone who has to convey most of their inner thoughts with the tiniest changes in facial expressions. Tamar’s deceptions have to change on a dime, and this is as much a riveting, character-driven narrative as it is a spy thriller. Yet there was one potential spy that may have dominated their narrative even more…
6. Donald J. Trump (Brendan Gleeson) from “Comey Rule”…If it weren’t for my extraordinary Trump aversion, I’d probably have to admit that this deserves to be ranked higher (there’s just something in me that won’t let him crack the Top 5). Still, Gleeson gives an excellent performance as a man it’s actually quite difficult to imitate. Something in him gets at the cagey, duplicitous inner-workings of Trump–which sounds easier than it is. In the first part of “Comey Rule,” Trump is only talked about and glimpsed from a distance, like a classic monster movie villain or the shark from “Jaws.”
In the second part, we get uncomfortably close to his inner workings, from cringe-worthy first impressions (Trump repeatedly interrupts Comey’s “pee tape” briefing to rant about everything from his ex-wife to the campaign) to an infamous dinner soaked in dread. Most Trump characterizations are so cartoonish that it can be easy to forget he’s a Russian asset who is either intentionally or unwittingly hurting the United States. “Rule” brings back some of that existential dread many of us felt the second Trump took office. And yet I had to rank Trump’s deep state nemesis just a little bit higher…
5. Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) from “Homeland”…It makes me feel better moving on to Patinkin’s reliable national security honcho Saul Berenson. He’s the kind-of person we hope is in charge when things go horribly wrong: brilliant, perceptive, and a “Cassandra” of sorts since one of the problems of being the only guy who’s right is that other people usually don’t know it. In the middle and late sections of the season, when tensions between the US and Pakistan are at a boil, you can visibly see Saul’s frustration and world weary scrambling to prevent the apocalypse.
4. “Mother” (Amanda Collin) from “Raised by Wolves”…Shows centered around robots rarely work since the robots either become unrealistically humanized or there remains a hollow center at the core of the series. But “Mother” somehow avoids that fate. We’re always aware we’re watching a robot with very real limitations, and yet also believe she could be a fully functioning mother. The fact that she’s also a reprogrammed “Necromancer” (a war robot with near-Godlike powers) adds a thrilling extra dimension as does the late-series twist of her own pregnancy, plus what she actually gives birth to. There’s lots of meditations on what it means to be a mother and/or what constitutes a “real” mother (“Big Little Lies,” “Little Fires Everywhere,” almost everything on Own or Bravo), but this sci-fi allegory might be the most thought provoking one yet.
3. Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) from “The Outsider”…Erivo’s detective is brilliant, quirky, heartbreaking, and interesting enough to keep me watching a series that is only so-so. While on the trail of a cold-blooded supernatural monster, Holly paradoxically grounds the investigation in the human and is the least infuriating person in the room as she clearly sees this thing for what it is. [Others are painfully slow to believe, and at least a couple die before they actually do.] As an added bonus, Holly even finds time for a genuinely sweet romance and hauntingly explained backstory. By the end of the season, it’s clear she may very well be the title character and we’d be more than happy to watch her future adventures.
2. Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (E’myri Crutchfield) from “Fargo”…The narrator of the fourth season is also its heart, courage, and brains. From the opening moments of the season—wherein Ethelrida is abused at a racist Catholic school under the charade of “teaching her discipline” while she gives a prologue on the inner-workings of Kansas City crime up to that point–I was hooked on this character. With her world wise voice and perceptive eyes, Smutney sees more than any of the supposedly cunning mobsters and lawmen around her.
This is also one of the few characters you’re actively rooting for, and you’re on the edge of your seat every time she has to deal with the villainous serial killer nurse Oraetta Mayflower, who’s inarguably more dangerous than any of the warring gangsters or even Ethelrida’s trigger-happy fugitive aunt. In fact, the whole season could be construed as Ethelrida’s “Alice in Wonderland” trip through the Kansas City underground.
The Best TV Characters of the year: Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) and Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) from “The Good Place”…How could I pick anyone else? One of the best shows on TV ended their season in early 2020, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Even through CoVid, even through a recession, and even through the Presidential race that never ended (it’s looking like they might literally have to evict Trump from the White House). No matter what else happened during 2020, I can remember Chidi Anagonye and Eleanor Shellstrop saving the afterlife (so much bigger than the world, although they saved that too) and being funny, romantic, heartbreaking, and unforgettable while doing it. Who knew “The Good Place” was a stealth love story all along? Now these are great characters.