We’re all main characters in the lives of our immediate family and best friends. We’re secondary characters in the lives of our casual friends and co-workers. And tertiary characters—”minor” characters—fill our world. The second cousin who always makes holiday dinners and weddings so much fun. The pre-school teacher who taught both of your children. The woman at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows your coffee order (Hi, Hannah!). The friend from college who you have lunch with every once in a while.
TV worlds are much the same, populating their fictional settings with main characters and secondary characters, but also with terrific tertiary characters who fill out the show, making it more vibrant and entertaining. They never get the A or even the B plot, but the show wouldn’t be the same without them. Think Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dot Com (Kevin Brown) on 30 Rock, or Kirk (Sean Gunn) on Gilmore Girls.
Sometimes a tertiary character is so good they become a secondary one. Sarah Steele’s Marissa Gold was so beloved on The Good Wife that when it came time for spinoff The Good Fight, she was one of three characters chosen to lead the charge. Or think about where Bellamy Young’s fabulous Mellie Grant was in the first season of Scandal versus the final season of Scandal.
We polled our trusty TV team to come up with the best tertiary characters of 2018.
Brad Bottig, The Middle (ABC)
Performer: Brock Ciarelli
Really, this entire column should just be called “the Brads,” as Brock Ciarielli’s hilarious alter ego epitomizes all that a tertiary character can be. As Sue’s enthusiastic best friend, Ciarlelli made me smile every time he came on screen. A staple since the show’s first season, Brad could have been a one-note joke—Sue (Eden Sher) doesn’t realize that her boyfriend is probably gay. But over the course of nine seasons, which included a touching coming-out story, he became so much more than that. Brad was Sue’s biggest cheerleader and strongest confidant. The Middle would not have been the same without him. Let’s hope if the reported Sue spin-off comes to fruition, Brad makes the leap to series regular. He was, quite simply, a fantastic character. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: ABC)
Oliver, The Bold Type
Performer: Stephen Conrad Moore
Oliver is a main character in Sutton’s (Meghann Fahy) life, but a tertiary one in the larger world of The Bold Type. As head of the fashion department, Oliver always looks fabulous (obviously) and expects only the best from the people who work for him. He suffers no fools, accepts no excuses, and tolerates nothing but excellence. He’s also good for a zinger (“Next time it’s black people snack time, send me a memo.”) and for seeing situations exactly as they are. He won’t be tricked by a Balenciaga bag or an Instagram star. He plays the game, but he knows it’s a game. Oh, that we could all have a boss like him. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: Freeform)
Performer: Natasha Rothwell
We all need a friend like Kelli. Unlike Molly (Yvonne Orji) and Issa (Issa Rae), Kelli loves being Kelli. She’s not plagued with self-doubt or regrets. She’s happy with who she is, happy with her life, happy getting busy with a hook-up under the table at a diner. Kelli brings the fun. But she also calls it like she sees it and takes no prisoners. You may be able to lie to yourself, but you cannot lie to Kelli. Rothwell is such an enjoyable and engaging actress—check out what she’s able to do with her small part in Love, Simon—that she was bumped up to series regular in Season Two. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Kelli got her own show. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: HBO)
Janine, The Handmaid’s Tale
Performer: Madeline Brewer
One of the most successful elements of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian speculative novel is the way it deepens and explores the backstories of characters who function as relatively symbolic and two-dimensional beings on the page. Janine, a Handmaid who might already have been a little nutsy before the fundamentalist revolution that gave rise to Gilead, has been tortured by the regime into a state of chaos. By turns violent and meek, seemingly addled and strangely lucid, out of it and poignantly wise, she’s a vitally necessary source of oxygen in the narrative. When things are especially dismal, Janine’s stunning in her relentless determination to see beauty. When there is desperation, she has completely shocking outbursts of humor. She quotes Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) as if the woman were a guru and not the torturer who had Janine’s eye put out for speaking out of turn. Janine is a chaotic character, and it’s often hard to tell if she’s completely insane or actually much smarter than everyone else, but her childlike ideation seems to give her a measure of immunity from the barbarities of the system—being a little untethered seems to make her oddly unbreakable. Sometimes, in an unreal situation, the person whose grip on reality is a little fungible might really have the advantage. —Amy Glynn (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)
The Jenkintown Posse, The Goldbergs
Performer: Noah Munck, Matt Bush, Shayne Topp, and Sam Lerner
Is there a better group of friends on TV? Rivaled only by Eddie’s friends on Fresh Off the Boat, Barry’s (Troy Gentile) pals hilariously vacillate from being the Greek chorus in agreement with all Barry’s shenanigans (I mean, who else would go along with Big Tasty the rap star) or the hesitant voice of reason. Naked Rob (Munck), Andy Cogan (Bush), Matt Bradley (Topp) and Geoff Schwartz (Lerner) seem like such a believable group of pals because they are. The real-life JTP even guest starred on an episode this past February. Say it with me now, JTP! —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: ABC)
Performer: Khris Davis
Atlanta’s second season wouldn’t have been the same without Paper Boi’s mooching roommate, Tracy. Tracy was the Kramer in a cast set upon by Kramers, the talkative guy who puts the “con” into confidence and owns his everyman clownishness with such humanity that he slides into the ensemble like he’s always been there. Whether he’s protecting his carefully cultivated waves or his friends as an amateur bodyguard, Tracy provided boneheaded stability and genuine loyalty in a show whose comedy often plumbed the more surreal depths of its industry and locale. He’s a rock-solid, scene-stealing reminder of people’s ability to bounce back and retain their personal code when faced with nothing but oppression and rejection – and he does so while being utterly hilarious. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX)
Mail Robot, The Americans
Mailmobile by Lear Sigler, Inc.
Beep beep boop. Don’t mind us. Carry on with you conversation about tertiary human characters as we sputter about bumping into things at inopportune times, causing leaks within the FBI, and leading to one of the saddest death scenes ever on a series riddled with creative character demises. Although it never got a backstory of its own, The Americans’ comically blundering Mail Robot was more than just a postal service receptacle and physical embodiment of how lax security was in the 1980s as it aimlessly carried secure documents around the office. It was so beloved by fans of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ Cold War-era spy drama that it garnered its own Twitter account and magazine feature before being sent to roam the halls of network FX’s Los Angeles office. Perhaps it’s still taking up elevator space, awing latchkey teens, avoiding angry bosses, and hoping a kind-hearted secretary will offer it some affection. —Whitney Friedlander
Performer: Gayle Rankin
The reason GLOW is such a fantastic show is that all of its characters are terrific. There’s no weak link in this highly entertaining comedy. But there’s something about Sheila, who dresses like a She Wolf not just for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, but all the time. Her deadpan delivery creates some of the funniest moments. Her view of the world is from a unique and unconventional perspective. Take, for instance, her description of the comedy Cheers: “It’s great. It’s about an invisible woman named Vera.” Only Sheila would identify with Norm’s never-seen wife. Seeing the world from Sheila’s point of view is a delight.—Amy Amatangelo (Photo: Netflix)
Diogo on The Expanse
Performer: Andrew Rotilio
The Expanse is such a sprawling series with a deep-bench cast that it seems like everyone should be equally secondary/expendable, but in its complexity it has instead managed somehow to make every recurring character more or less primary. And then there’s Diogo, the dirtbag teen Belter kid desperately in need of guidance whose moral apprenticeship to the Good in Season One is cut short by Miller’s (Thomas Jane) suicide-by-protomolecule. He then goes full Space Pirate under the wing of Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris) and the OPA in Seasons Two and Three. The show could live without him—and it will, considering he ended his arc with a real, impactful BANG in the third season finale—but he was so fun and foul-mouthed, and so very much the embodiment of the delicate sociocultural prickliness out in the Belt, that the show was richer for every scene he was in. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Syfy)
Crate and Barrel, Bosch
Performers: Gregory Scott Cummins and Troy Evans
Bosch started good, but has gotten excellent as it’s spent time living in its own world, feeling out new ways to make it more and more mundanely real. Crate and Barrel, the most prominent of the detective teams working in the same precinct as—but never with—Bosch (Titus Welliver) and Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector), are the most humorous, least necessary key to this effort. Their dynamic with one another is so fraternal and genial, and their work so thorough and confidently executed, that every scene they’re in they make you think, “Oh, so that’s what Bosch’s life would be like if he could manage any kind of work-life balance.” Bosch doesn’t need them to do his job or live his story, but Crate and Barrel are the ones joking around in the background, making the Thanksgiving dinners, solving the big cases Bosch is too distracted for, keeping the precinct running like a real, lived-in, workaday dream. I hope they never leave. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .