It was a very, very competitive year for quality TV characters, and this marks the first time all three of the top three have been female characters…
Most Polarizing, Possibly Great Character: V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) on “Fargo” …Some hated Varga and some loved…well, at least enjoyed watching his Dickensian wit mixed with Faustian vibes. He seemed almost supernatural at times, and the season’s somewhat anticlimactic ending wouldn’t have worked if you weren’t truly interested in seeing this devil get his due.
Best Group of Characters All-Around: “Glow”…Netflix’s wrestling dramedy is so strong with great characters, it was hard to single just one or even five out for acclaim.
Best Character in a Bad Show: Walton Goggins as Rip Taggart in “Six”…Much of this is due to Goggins considerable skills, but the scenes involving him (as a captive of Boko Haram in Nigeria and then Chad, making this the rare series remotely interested in Africa) are so exceptional it got me to watch the entirety of this thing.
Best Character in an Uneven Show: Lee Pace’s Joe Macmillan in “Halt and Catch Fire”…He was reinvented more times than “The Fantastic Four” movies, and season four’s more mature, thoughtful Joe MacMillan (who honestly is just in love with the possibilities of new technology) is the best, an altruistic inventor dazzled by the feeling of “What’s possible?”
Runner-Up: Special shout-out to “Vice Principal”‘s Walton Goggins’s Lee Russell and Danny McBride’s Neal Gamby…Two fuck-ups I never stopped rooting for.
10. “Mindhunter”‘s Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton)…Groff’s FBI guy starts out a little dry, before pulling back the dark urges lurking right beneath the surface of his time period (this is when 70’s America was being rocked by the Manson murders and a new breed of psycho), and Britton’s Kemper is one of the scariest TV villains in years, a genial, even jolly psychopath who lures you in with self-awareness that seems to acknowledge the absurdity of his crimes. His studying eyes rarely leave whoever he’s talking to, seeing right through them even as they think they’re studying him.
9. “The Leftover”‘s Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn) and Grace Playford (Lindsay Duncan)…The sensational third and final season has many delights, but one of my favorites is the admirable way it treats two characters over the age of 65. Glenn’s Garvey Sr. may be inflated with a sense of his own importance but he earnestly believes in his foolhardy mission to save the world from a flood, and the scene where he tells his son (who has to go on a mission to prevent said flood) “If I could do this instead of you, I would” broke my heart. Duncan’s Playford really only gets one killer scene, but it’s outstanding: an extended monologue about the loss of her kids, who she only thought were raptured.
8. “Silicon Valley”‘s Ehrlich Bachmann (T. J. Miller)…Admit it, the fifth season of HBO’s winning comedy just won’t be the same without Miller’s gleefully vulgar Bachmann, a guy who is so masked by offensiveness and avarice that you almost miss what a big heart he truly has.
7. “Mr. Robot”‘s Elliot (Rami Malek)/Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and White Rose/Zhang (B.D. Wong)…The fantastic duality of this series’s hero and villain are like ultra-realistic superheroes hiding in a cracked-mirror version of our times. Zhang is both the head of The Dark Army hacker group and the Minister of China’s state security (their equivalent of CIA director, but arguably much more powerful and less accountable to a larger state-security bureaucracy), and one of the third season’s best scenes suggests it’s him that puts Trump into The White House (Zhang is pulling so many strings, he sponsors an Alex Jones-type talk show nut). Meanwhile Elliot begins to have real doubts about the purpose of his revolution, and begins questioning whether he was just a puppet all along. Wondering if your revolution is even really yours is something more people should wonder about in this age of “rebellion” that gives us figures like Trump.
6. “American Crime”‘s Shae Reese (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) and Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez)…Shae is a modern-day sex slave who only thinks she’s in total control and Luis is the noble heart of the third season, desperately seeking answers in the murder of his son. Their endings were some of the most heartbreaking, affecting, alive television a broadcast network has aired in a decade. And so, naturally, ABC cancelled this series not long after the third season aired.
5. “Veep”‘s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss)…She keeps winning Emmys because she deserves to. This season saw Selina out of the White House and more freewheeling than ever. No matter how awful she gets, you can’t stop rooting for her.
4. “Ozark”‘s Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman)…Bateman’s stressed-out, underfire money launderer must successful wash millions of dollars through the Ozarks for a drug cartel that seems inching to kill him. The wonderful interplay between Bateman and Laura Linney (as his adulterous but eventually loyal wife) are only slightly less tense than Bateman’s many scenes at the barrel of a gun. He takes a shut down, emotionally numb figure and makes him startlingly alive by fearing for his life from moment to moment, a life he’d barely wanted when the show begins.
3. “The Handmaid’s Tale”‘s Offred (Elizabeth Moss)…As a woman stripped of her identity and forced to play the part of invisible child surrogate/sex-slave (one character refers to the handmaid’s as “wombs with legs”), Moss has to do the tricky work of subtext, letting Offred’s true feelings seem just out of reach. As the emotional core of the series, it’s almost a let down when we’re not following her. [The novel is told entirely through her perspective, so scenes without Offred are unsatisfying add-ons almost as a rule.] Although, a special shout-out to Ann Dowd’s terrifying Aunt Lydia, the closest this pious universe has to a true believer, which doesn’t make her less frightening.
2. “Feud”‘s Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange)…Too few people saw or cared about this tale of two aging divas battling it out, and while Susan Sarandon did her best to bring Bette Davis alive, this miniseries is owned by Lange’s Crawford, an aging matinee pin-up that speaks volumes about how Hollywood (or the world) prizes sexuality before throwing it away past a certain sell-by date. Crawford is game, but constantly manipulated, putdown, or insulted, and a scene with her dentist—in which it’s revealed that she’s had her back teeth pulled to accentuate her cheekbones, and doesn’t see anything wrong with that—speaks volumes about the sacrifices people are asked to make in pursuit of stardom.
1. “Alias Grace”‘s Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon)…I love an unreliable narrator, and Grace Marks (the possible murderess that a doctor is asked to mentally evaluate before she can be released) is as fascinating as they come. I don’t want to spoil too many twists and turns, but a series’s finale hypnosis scene is a stunner.