Very, very tough to get this list down to only 10 spots, so I had to take it to 12 (top that, “Spinal Tap”). And this is even with no new episodes of “Fargo,” “Game of Thrones,” “Veep,” or “Mr. Robot” this past year. Even with that (seemingly) reduced competition, there are lots of shows I couldn’t find a space for…
Best Non-Fiction “Character”: Ma Anand Sheela in “Wild Wild Country”…If this had been a scripted television show, there’s not a doubt in my mind Sheela would’ve been the year’s best character. This is the type of part an Indian woman never gets to play in something scripted–sexy as hell, devious, simultaneously loyal and self-serving to a bogus guru, fun to watch, funny, amoral, determined, mean enough to poison salad bars, but also facing a huge uphill battle against The Powers That Be. The fact that you wind up sympathizing with her more than many of the “good guys” is a testament to how script-writing should be done, and, yes, I am still talking about someone who is alive and well.
Best Trend: Cowboy right hands like James Fletcher Chace (Brendan Fraser) in “Trust” or Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) in “Yellowstone”…Sure, “Yellowstone” and especially “Trust” had flawed first seasons with a few characters that didn’t make total sense, but “Trust” livened up whenever Fraser’s Chace entered a scene. There’s something about his calm, capable presence in the midst of all of Danny Boyle’s tripped-out fakery that almost makes the acidic-editing and other characters tolerable. And even though “Yellowstone” is the better show, it’s never better than when Hauser’s Rip is beating someone to a pulp and/or committing murder as the only person Kevin Costner’s rancher can really count on. This is a trend I wouldn’t mind seeing more of…
12. Most Welcome Septuagenarian: Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) on “Murphy Brown”…This is the first year I’ve done this countdown where I didn’t have “Veep”‘s Selina Meyer or “Parks and Recreation'”s Leslie Knope as liberal women in sharp political comedies to add to a list, so it was more than welcome for Murphy Brown to kinda, sorta fill that void in a mostly topical reboot that didn’t hide its liberal icon’s politics. In 2018, Murphy may not be the most expected face of the resistance–especially since the new show around her isn’t great–but damned if it wasn’t great seeing her take on this current era.
11. Best Couple: Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and Detective Moss (Paula Newsome) on “Barry”…I wish I could’ve included the PTSD-addled Barry in this countdown, but Bill Hader’s title hitman gets no points whatsoever for his season finale behavior. Cousineau and Moss are such a great couple—you root for them more than you’d ever expect—that it’s a reminder of just how rarely you see characters like this on TV: older, but still with romantic longings, mischief, and deserving of happiness. When Gene says “I’m old enough to know that something like this doesn’t come around everyday,” he’s not bullshitting–for once.
10. Best Arsenal of Characters: Sacha Baron Cohen in “Who is America?”…Which was your favorite character in this insane Showtime series (woefully underrated by most critics)? Was it the NPR uber-liberal–which Cohen nails to a T–or the “Truthbrary” dumb ass who honestly can’t see everything he’s saying is wrong? Those are my personal favorites, but maybe you preferred the sexually ambiguous YouTube host or subtly sadistic Israeli Colonel. Either way, we got to see a master at work, doing what he does best–creating fully insane “characters” that are fully believable because even ordinary Americans now seem to be playing a “part” on social media or even real life.
9. Most Hasty Exit: Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Kukoo (Kubra Sait) in “Sacred Games”…What a bummer that the towering Indian crime lord Ganesh Gaitonde dies in the first episode of “Games,” although the show decides to unfurl in flashbacks to fill in his fascinating backstory–is Ganesh a straight thug or a Hindu avenger inflaming tensions between Hindus and Muslims? Almost as bad is Ganesh’s transgender girlfriend Kukoo (the luminous Sait) dying fairly soon in the first season. We hardly knew the Indian “Bonnie and Clyde”…if Clyde had taken over a mega-city through near-genocidal actions.
8. Best Dual Play: Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) in “Counterpart”…This fascinating series delves into two versions of the same character, and they’re both excellent. It says something about the stiff competition this year that I wasn’t able to move this character up higher, because he definitely deserves it.
7. Best Support: Michael (Ted Danson), Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) in “The Good Place”…These are the last characters that aren’t really the leads of their own series, but anyone who’s seen “Place” knows exactly why that is. Ted Danson’s Michael has ruled this series ever since his maniacal cackle in the season 1 finale, but I was genuinely touched when Janet–who gets better each episode–told him in “Janet(s)” that no one is going to save them but him. It’s the kind-of pep talk you feel he’s fully earned. And Jamil somehow makes the series’s most phony character also the most lovable. Tahani is such a good-hearted name-dropper you get the sense that she actually does want to help people.
6. Best Resurrection (Sort-Of): Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) and Dan Conner (John Goodman) in “Roseanne”…I haven’t made it through but a few episodes of the Roseanne-less “Conners” but that’s largely because I’m not a huge fan of series existing after their title character has perished, weirdly enough. [I also think Barr’s very-fast ouster from “Roseanne” had less to do with her myriad of stupid tweets than with ABC executives wanting to have a version of “Roseanne” without the difficult Roseanne for some time now.] What I do know is that people who refused to watch the “Roseanne” reboot because of Barr’s dumb politics actually missed out on one of the year’s best, most humane shows about what it is to live in 2018, particularly in a place that’s not often seen. Dan and Roseanne are old, fat, forever struggling, not cool, and it was riveting watching them trade pills or wonder how in the hell they’re going to fix a flooded basement. [Goodman debating hiring illegals vs. union workers while his house is literally underwater is as close to “Death of a Salesman” style-genuine pathos as you’re likely to get in a 2018 broadcast sitcom.] While most broadcast TV comedies are getting more cartoony–ever notice how the characters all seem to speak in that too-fast and theaterical modern sitcom voice?–“Roseanne” went to something like sitcom grindhouse, and its title character dealt with things we almost never see in popular entertainment. Maybe that’s why it was too good to last…
5. MVP on a Struggling Show: Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) in “Ozark”…As much as I loved the first season of “Ozark,” it felt like the second season had a little too much going on, burning through plot lines at the rate of a hurtling comet. Jason Bateman still fully impresses as conflicted, soul-weary everyman Marty Byrde, but Linney’s Wendy really stepped up, fully enjoying the role of mafia spouse in a way Carmela Soprano or Skylar White were never fully allowed to. It’s often lamented that TV struggles with female anti-heroes (which is why I think the reaction to the somewhat-goofy “Killing Eve” was so euphoric), but Wendy shows things are trending in the right direction.
4. Most Complex, Fully Realized Jerks: Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and Tilly (Patricia Arquette) in “Escape at Dannemora”…Matt and Tilly aren’t supposed to be likable or even that relatable. After all, Matt is a senseless murderer (although the series wisely waits until late in the season to show us what he did, pulling a reverse “Assassination of Gianni Versace” to great effect) and spoiled inmate who acts like the guards work for him, but he’s fascinating to watch. Del Toro makes the man’s every instinct feel like a near supernatural gift for survival—until, ironically, he’s not inside the prison walls, which is Matt’s ultimate tragedy: he wants to escape prison so badly, even though it’s where he might be the happiest and definitely most fully in control.
And then there’s Arquette’s nearly unrecognizable transformation into Tilly, a woman who thinks nothing of cheating on her near-idiotically loyal second husband with two convicted murderers (she cheated on her first husband with him before using him to help cheat her first husband out of custody of their young son), and wants to help them escape to Mexico for a half-baked fugitive fantasy where she has sex with both. [You get the sense they could tell Tilly just about anything, and her profound boredom would propel her to believe it and help them.] Arquette stands in for a million women festering in charmless small towns across America (she lives in a town primarily known for being freezing) who talk about how much they want to escape, but never actually move.
3. I’m Rooting For Him: Jeff Pickles (Jim Carrey) in “Kidding”…Jeff Pickles is a beloved children’s show host (clearly modeled off Mr. Rogers) who gives almost all his money away to charity, rarely curses even in private with adults, and believes so strongly in helping others, he pays the medical bills and living expenses of the man who accidentally killed one of his twin sons in a car accident. Yet Jeff seems plagued by a family that mostly hates him (his manager father is looking for ways to replace him on his own show, his estranged wife resents that Jeff isn’t more selfish with his money, and his son uses survivor’s guilt to lash out at his father in a typical obnoxious Showtime-series kid way). The series is a powerful, surprisingly thoughtful examination of what it means to be a good person even when no one seems to care about the person doing the good deeds, and even though Jeff begins unraveling, the audience remains conflicted. On the one hand, we might like to see him get “worse” and finally find selfish happiness. On the other, many, many people need him and not everyone gets to be happy. It’s a dilemma, but even when Jeff does something horrible–like running over his estranged wife’s bad news lover in the shocking season cliffhanger–you can’t help but root for him.
2. Most Deserved Hero: Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) in “The Americans”…With a final season this good, you can fully understand why Matthew Rhys won the Emmy. Jennings has wanted to be the hang-dog moral center of “The Americans” for a while now, but he finally got to live up to that promise this year. He had to betray his wife to save his country (a reform-minded Russia under Gorbachev, despised by his own security services), and you only hope there are still a few patriots like him left in the Russian security service, even as it increasingly looks like nobody has the guts to stand up to Putin.
1. Most Subtly Terrific: Captain Frances Crozier (Jared Harris) and Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) in “The Terror”…Anyone who’s seen this show knows I could’ve picked a half dozen characters to add to this list (I was tempted to pick not only Dr. Goodsir but also Tobias Menzies surprisingly deep James Fitzjames, who broke my heart with his “I’m a fraud, brother” speech), and that’s a testament to the depth of character this series–based on and operating like a great novel–displays. Captain Crozier is the most capable man on the doomed Navy expedition—doomed mostly because he’s not the one leading it and the one who is won’t listen to his advice—but because he’s Irish, he can never move up the ranks of the British Navy nor be with the high-society British lady he loves.
In alternate episodes, Crozier is a raging alcoholic, selfish, petty, sour, and the best damned leader you could ever have. The men make many devastating choices, but many of the men not following the often hilariously plain-spoken Crozier is the biggest one. And Lady Silence is the series’s most ambiguous character (actress Nielsen displays a lot with just her eyes), but gets to display the full gamut of emotions with only a few gestures, expressions, and choice sentences. These two are struggling leaders trying to lead missions that have gotten fully away from them, and even though they’re rarely at the same purposes, you want them both to find a way to survive.