The 20 Best TV Characters of 2017

TV Lists Best of 2017
The 20 Best TV Characters of 2017

The best TV characters of 2017, as chosen by Paste staff and TV contributors, are those we’ve come to love—or loathe, in some cases—with the sort of intensity particular to a medium that keeps us tuning in over time. There are serial killers on our list, and the sons of corrupt leaders (hint, hint), sidekicks, sexpots, heroes and heroines. What brings them together, whether the stars of a standout series or supporting characters on a middling one, is their ability to captivate us over the course of weeks, months, or years, to make everything else fall away when they’re the center of attention. Sometimes they’re objects of ridicule, sometimes of respect, but they’re always, without question, the star of the show.

20. Eric Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., Saturday Night Live
Actors: Alex Moffat and Mikey Day

The best Saturday Night Live impressions boil down a person to his or her very essence. I’ve never met the Trump sons and cannot state with authority whether Donald Jr. is that pompous or Eric that clueless and simple minded. But that is certainly how they’ve come across. Day’s Donald Jr. exudes a smarmy condescension while Moffat’s Eric has perfected the guy who desperately wants to be important (but so isn’t) and has a knack for always blurting out the wrong thing. Their finest moment this year came when Eric starts eating Fun Dip before Donald shows him how he can dip the candy in even more sugar. Moffat’s “mind blown” expression may be the most I’ve laughed all year. As 2017 progressed and the actions of those in the Oval Office became more and more difficult to laugh at, the Trump off-spring were a welcome respite from an increasingly disturbing political storm.—Amy Amatangelo

19. Mamacita, Feud: Bette and Joan
Actor: Jackie Hoffman

The old play-on-words “don’t just do something, stand there”? Yeah, Jackie Hoffman’s Mamacita epitomizes it. Although Hoffman wasn’t given the reams of scene-chewing dialogue that were allotted to Feud: Bette and Joan stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon for their respective portrayals as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, she could say so much with the raising of an eyebrow arch or the opening of a door. Deadpanned lines like “Miss Joan forbids sweets. She says sugar is a dangerous food. I take my thrills where I can” are funny as well as telling about what it was like to be Crawford’s constant companion and housekeeper. In fact, Mamacita was such a true friend and devout employee to Crawford that her decision to leave when the abuse got too much says more about the latter’s rock bottom than any scene of booze-soaked outbursts or failed attempts at seduction ever could. —Whitney Friedlander

18. Titus Andromedon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Actor: Tituss Burgess

Titus Andromedon, equipped with snappy one-liners and ridiculous charisma, is the exhausting drama queen viewers will always adore. And as a character whose idea of an accomplishment is “holding in a fart,” he’s also the lazy person inside all of us manifested on the screen. Season Three saw actor Tituss Burgess deliver some of his most iconic moments yet (Titus emulating Beyoncé will always be a high point) while successfully growing the character. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus is finally ready to fight for love and put another person’s needs first, but he’ll do it with his trademark style… and constant, outrageous complaining. We wouldn’t have it any other way. —Frannie Jackson

17. Rebecca Bunch, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Actor: Rachel Bloom

Played by series co-creator Rachel Bloom with tragicomic abandon, she’s not a conventionally “likable” protagonist—nor, for that matter, a conventionally “anti-heroic” one. She is, especially in Season Three of The CW’s truly, madly, deeply inspired musical comedy, the perfect emblem of the medium’s potential to create complex, engaging characters. Left at the altar, cycling through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally—after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder—a kind of acceptance, she condenses our most fundamental desires—for purpose, for self-knowledge, for love—into a frequently dark, sublimely funny, endlessly watchable package. There’s no heroine on TV who makes such an outsized genre so incandescently human: I can no longer imagine my Fridays without Rebecca Bunch. —Matt Brennan

16. Rogelio De La Vega, Jane the Virgin
Actor: Jaime Camil

There are so many ways that a character like Rogelio De La Vega—telenovela superstar extraordinaire, demander of all things lavender, Narcissus reincarnate—could have gone terribly wrong. On paper, he sounds less like a real person and more like an unbearable cartoon. In Jaime Camil’s capable hands, though, he is utterly, lovably human, layered with complexity and consistently the brightest spot of every episode. For all that there is basically nothing Rogelio wouldn’t do for his career (including an entire story arc in his latest telenovela-within-a-telenovela in which he is traveling through the GI tract of the lady scientist with whom his shrunken Gulliver of an alter ego is in love), there is even less that he wouldn’t do for his family and friends. The blossoming of his relationship with his long-lost adult daughter, Jane (Gina Rodriguez), has obviously been the focal point of much of this aspect to his character, but his long-awaited marriage to Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) and the surprise birth of his baby daughter with Darci (Justina Machado) this season, along with his organically developed best friendship with Michael (Brett Dier) since the show’s beginning, have all given him the chance to show a kind of genuine, un-self-conscious vulnerability that is rare for men on television in general, let alone for men who are otherwise the comic relief. In a show that regularly brings me to tears, it is shocking—but lovely—how often it is Rogelio’s stories that are the triggers. May Rogelio De La Vega be a model for the best funny men yet to come. —Alexis Gunderson

15. Jared Dunn, Silicon Valley
Actor: Zach Woods

Standing ramrod straight and (mostly) pitching his voice at a near-whisper, Jared Dunn might be lost amid the swirl of outsized personalities and epic self-owns that characterize much of Mike Judge’s blistering satire. But Jared, thanks to the series’ craftier-by-the-season writing and Woods’ unmatched comic finesse, is instrumental in the success of the ever-evolving Pied Piper, and of Silicon Valley, too: As the team’s endearing voice of reason, he becomes the series’ ethical backbone, holding Richard (Thomas Middleditch) to account for his many lapses of judgment—and thereby prevents our heroes from becoming the sort of mercenary figures Silicon Valley is designed to send up. —Matt Brennan

14. Wynonna Earp, Wynonna Earp
Actor: Melanie Scrofano

Scrofano Emmy Wish List.JPG
For all that 2017 has been one long, raging inferno (literally, for one whole coast of the country), it has gifted us no shortage of badass lady heroes, both in fiction and IRL. Among the most welcome was SyFy’s cursed black sheep savior Wynonna Earp, who came roaring back onto our screens in the eponymous Wynonna Earp’s second season with one middle finger up, the other on her magical demon-wasting pistol’s trigger. Already stuck in Season One with a demon-killing curse she never asked for, Wynonna found herself in the middle of Season Two magically fast-forwarded through to the final trimester of a surprise pregnancy she, always triple-careful with birth control, also didn’t ask for, and while this particular twist came about in response to star Melanie Scrofano’s real-life pregnancy (which, NB: she did her own stunts), its parallels to the unfair sacrifices savior narratives force on their heros were both poignant, and a reminder of how female heroes can have just as much dimension and grit as male ones without needing to follow a male hero’s blueprint. The badassery of her pregnant fighting form, added to her already formidable sisterly loyalty and the ability to shit-talk even Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon) under the table, made the Wynonna Earp of 2017 unforgettable. —Alexis Gunderson

13. Randall Pearson, This is Us
Actor: Sterling K. Brown

Randall Pearson is a great husband, an even better dad, a devoted son and a loving sibling. He’s almost too perfect. Except he isn’t perfect. He can be felled by anxiety and the feeling that he has to be perfect. That he can never make a mistake. That everyone is counting on him. That vulnerability, that chink in the armor, makes Randall a character we can all relate to, a character we’ve all been at some point in our lives. Most importantly, Randall realizes his own shortcomings. He knows he can’t keep his foster daughter from her mother or hold on to his anger at his mother for keeping his birth father from him. He knows when he is wrong and someone else is right. And he’s man enough to stay home and have his wife go back to work. Randall is the “this” in This is Us.Amy Amatangelo

12. Jessica Huang, Fresh Off the Boat
Actor: Constance Wu

ABC’s Tupac-era family comedy, Fresh Off the Boat, hit a solid, dependably funny stride early on, and four seasons in, it hasn’t lost a single step. But where every other member of the Huang family has settled into a comfortable groove on Orlando’s suburban streets, Jessica Huang, family matriarch, is still barreling forward in an ever-electrifying bid for dryly comic domination, stealing nearly every scene she is in. From her racking up of personal and professional victories to her kids-aren’t-friends parenting philosophy to her endless bafflement at white and/or American culture, Jessica simultaneously defies and embodies the stereotypes her role as a Taiwanese immigrant and mom might demand; from her evolving best friendship with Honey (Chelsey Crisp) to her obsession with Stephen King to her unflappable belief in her own mystery-writing genius, she is flawed and hilariously human. In the end, Jessica Huang is only ever fully herself, proving more than any other sitcom mom I can think of that moms? They’re people, too. —Alexis Gunderson

11. Rick Sanchez, Rick and Morty
Actor: Justin Roiland

In a show boasting infinite parallel universes, Rick C-137 is the “Rickest Rick” of them all. He’s a self-centered genius, the kind of man who would rather turn himself into a pickle than participate in a family counseling session. A rude alcoholic with an ego the size of a moon, Rick continues to prove himself a terrible father and grandfather. So why do we watch this horrible character’s antics? Because Rick (voiced by the talented Justin Roiland) is fascinating. You can always bet that he’ll act out of self-interest, but you’ll never be able to predict how he’ll go about it. The result is a show that also boasts infinite surprises, fueled by Rick’s completely original character. —Frannie Jackson

10. Paige Jennings, The Americans
Actor: Holly Taylor

Thanks to Holly Taylor and The Americans’ showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, Paige Jennings—conscientious student, social justice warrior, loving daughter, once-devout Christian, reader of Marx, fighter-in-training—might be the most compelling teenager on television, all without the adolescent theatrics that mark so many of her peers. Whether dating the son of an FBI agent or developing the skills of a nascent spy, Paige emerges in the series’ underrated fifth season as her parents’ child, and yet every uncertain step into the fold of the family business (tradecraft, not travel arrangements) reminds us that she’s still so young. By the time she joins Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) in “Darkroom” to read purloined images of Pastor Tim’s (Kelly AuCoin) diary, she is the foremost emblem of The Americans’ own evolution, into the finest family drama on television. —Matt Brennan

9. Molly Carter, Insecure
Actor: Yvonne Orji

When it comes to BFFs, Molly (the excellent Yvonne Orji) is, as the saying goes, “hashtag goals”: She’s unfailingly loyal, unafraid to be honest, and terrifically funny. (“That’s French for palace, bitch!” remains one of my favorite lines of the year.) But Season Two of Issa Rae’s comedy builds on Molly’s romantic struggles—falling for a married man and longtime friend, Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson), despite her qualms about his open relationship—by giving her an even juicier subplot, this one involving her frustration at work—namely, that she’s underpaid and underappreciated at the law firm where she’s an accomplished associate. It would be all too easy for Insecure to shoehorn Molly into the role of lovelorn sidekick / comic relief, but the collaboration between Orji and the series’ writers turns her into one of TV’s most watchable (and quotable) supporting characters. Though always rooted in the particulars of life as a black woman, Molly’s trials and triumphs aren’t simply a mirror of Issa’s: They’re a mirror of the viewer’s, too. —Matt Brennan

8. Forrest MacNeil, Review
Actor: Andy Daly

Forrest MacNeil is a tragic hero of nearly Shakespearean proportions, which is not the way one expects to describe the protagonist of a half-hour Comedy Central series … yet, here we are. Forrest loves his family—his wife Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair) and his son Eric (Kaden Gibson)—but he also loves his television show, and that is what proves to be his undoing. “Life—it’s literally all we have,” the reviewer muses to open each episode. “But is it any good?” His televised search for an answer to that question costs him everything. The Review host torpedoes his own marriage in one of the show’s first episodes, irrevocably ruining his relationship with his wife simply so he can evaluate and rate divorce. He loses custody of his son because he’s too busy “Being Batman.” He gets himself stabbed, shot, kicked in the balls, mauled by a tiger and institutionalized … all for the love of his work. Andy Daly’s ceaselessly chipper performance somehow manages to make Forrest sympathetic even at his worst, and despite the host’s knack for overzealous self-destruction, we yearn for him to someday come to his senses. Forrest’s fantastic passion for critical analysis—a pursuit similar to, say, this very list—is his tragic flaw. How could we not connect with that?—Scott Russell

7. Helena, Orphan Black
Actor: Tatiana Maslany

Orphan Black revolves around a group of clones, and Helena has remained the craziest of the bunch for five seasons. Raised by nuns and then a deranged cult member, Helena enters the series as a homicidal maniac hellbent on her sestras’ destruction. But her familial relationships with the other women transform her into someone who would kill for them—and have fun along the way. This year gifted us with Helena the murderous pregnant mama, featuring the character at her most loyal and insane yet. You never know what you’ll get with Helena, but in actress Tatiana Maslany’s hands, she’s always ridiculously entertaining. —Frannie Jackson

6. Edmund Kemper, Mindhunter
Actor: Cameron Britton

Chances are, if Mindhunter is anywhere near your radar, you’ve heard the name Ed Kemper. Newcomer Cameron Britton’s chilling portrayal of the real-life serial killer is the highlight of the Netflix crime drama’s first season, cementing Britton as its breakout star despite his character’s sparing screen time. Kemper is impossible to pin down—the man is a cypher, a monster whose human mask is so convincing, it might even be real. He’s as creepy as he is charismatic, capable of the grisliest crimes, yet able to conjure downright geniality when he wishes to. He speaks eloquently in a calm, muted monotone about premeditated murder, discussing the temperature of blood as casually as one would discuss the temperature of the air outside. It’s as if he’s a professor of murder and mutilation, lecturing the viewer about himself. Britton’s physically imposing build completes the character of “Big Ed” Kemper, a 6’9”, 300-pound approximation of a human being. It’s singular minds like his that Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) are so keen on studying—Kemper is the key to the series, casting a long shadow (in more than one way) over one of Netflix’s most promising new shows.—Scott Russell

5. Android, Dark Matter
Actor: Zoie Palmer

Android Dark Matter Characters List.jpg
I don’t know what it says about 2017 that this Best Characters list includes not one but two idiosyncratic artificial intelligences in our top 5, except that maybe we are, collectively, beginning to truly accept the fact that humanity could just…be better. In any case, SyFy’s space mercenary comedy Dark Matter gave us one last gift before its abrupt cancellation: Zoie Palmer’s loving and beloved Android, who brought to the crew of the Raza a much needed sense of lightness and a reminder of the kind of uncomplicated joy the discovery of the good parts of the world can bring—when she wasn’t kicking every kind of ass, that is. And while Android was a compelling character from the moment she appeared (kicking the whole crew’s asses) in the pilot, Season Three found both her and the mythology of the Raza’s world developed enough to start reaching far outside the box, giving Android not just access to a more advanced personality chip with which to appear unsettlingly human, but also enough growing autonomy and sense of self to decide not to use the chip as a mask, electing instead to grow more deeply into her own, weird person. That we will never get to see what her future brings in a world facing an AI revolution is a true shame. In the meantime, we’ll always have her and Three’s (Anthony Lemke) two-person Canadian French folk band. —Alexis Gunderson

4. Eileen Merrell, The Deuce
Actor: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Eileen “Candy” Merrell is the heart of The Deuce—a single mom, content to let her own mom raise her son while she maintains an apartment in the city, the only prostitute on the show without a pimp, one with a strict no-kissing rule and no-nonsense policies with her clients. Pressured by pimps who want to own her on one side and violent johns on the other, Candy becomes fascinated by the possibility of making movies—pornographic ones. She’s a woman with ambition, and if her dreams are unusual, that makes her all the more fascinating. —Josh Jackson

3. Lindsay Jillian, You’re the Worst
Actor: Kether Donohue

Lindsay Jillian is the worst. She’s selfish, rude, and thoughtless. But she’s also the best. Loyal to her friends, full of hilarious bon mots (hiding in a trash can she declares “Shhh! I’m a grouch!”) and she tries to never allow herself to be defined by what others think of her. The shaky (at best) fourth season was mired in inconsistent character behavior and wandering and repetitive plots but you could always count on Lindsay to surprisingly be the voice of reason (when Gretchen declares she going to put herself first for once, Lindsay responds with pitch perfect delivery, “For once?”) and to make us laugh when not much else about the show was funny. Finally liberated from ex-husband Paul, Lindsay blossomed this season. Whether she suddenly found herself caring about her career or confronting her absentee father figure Lou Diamond Phillips, Lindsay was growing up. Now let’s just hope the show remembers that for Season Five.—Amy Amatangelo

2. Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale
Actor: Elisabeth Moss

First-person narratives can be a hard sell, as audiences are put in the position to always root for the lead character and her point of view even if we don’t believe we’d act the same in our own lives. But how many viewers of The Handmaid’s Tale can honestly say they’d hold up as well as star Elisabeth Moss’ confused and frustrated heroine in Hulu’s Emmy-winning dystopian drama? Offred (nee June) played the only hand she had; to appear mild-mannered and cowardly (maybe even a little flirtatious) toward her dogmatic captors while she gathers information and bides her time before going in for the kill. —Whitney Friedlander

1. Janet, The Good Place
Actor: D’Arcy Carden

America’s favorite vest-wearing, boundless void-dwelling, earthquake-causing, reboot-prone humanoid repository of infinite knowledge (“busty Alexa,” for short) began Season Two of Michael Schur’s afterlife sitcom as a particularly rich running gag, and enters next month’s midseason premiere as its most valuable player. Buoyed by D’Arcy Carden’s upbeat, committed, star-making performance, Janet becomes one of the central engines of the series’ humor, a kind of field experiment in madcap philosophizing. As “Jeanette,” the bimbo on Michael’s (Ted Danson) arm as he faces his own existential crisis; as the object of Jason’s (Manny Jacinto) misplaced affections; as the lonely figure who creates her own damaged boyfriend, Derek (Jason Mantzoukas); and most especially as the guileless objective correlative of her universe’s moral chaos, Janet comes, in the end, to reflect that of our own. She even delivers what may be the line of the year, transforming the overwhelming shit storm that was 2017 into a peppy, four-word mantra: “Hi guys,” she says. “I’m broken!” —Matt Brennan

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin