The 20 Best TV Characters of 2016

TV Lists Best of 2016
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The 20 Best TV Characters of 2016

The characters we loved in 2016 were, to a remarkable extent, unsung MVPs of their respective ensembles. While a few headliners made our list—Selina Meyer, Jimmy McGill, Kimmy Schmidt, Elliot Alderson—supporting characters dominated the voting, including a raft of weird and winsome friends and, near the top, two exceedingly tenacious women cast aside by their leading men. In celebrating those at the edges of the spotlight, we were, of course, responding to the wider array of characters now seen on TV. But we were also responding, perhaps, to a year that revealed the importance of the loyal and the kind, the silent and the self-effacing, in a world under the dangerous sway of the powerful, the egomaniacal, the craven and the cruel.

20. Mr. Peanutbutter, BoJack Horseman

Actor: Paul F. Tompkins
Network: Netflix

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A comedy as black as BoJack Horseman needs a beacon to keep its audience from drowning in the inky self-loathing. Mr. Peanutbutter, the delightfully eager combination of all dog-and-actor stereotypes, is our lighthouse. He loves wordplay so much almost every sentence starts mid-chuckle, and he rushes into every opportunity assuming the best. So when he faces some actual turmoil in BoJack’s latest season, his approach to these humps in his marital and family life contrasts with his usual happy-go-lucky attitude and the spiraling bundle of complexes that is the show’s protagonist. The bipedal pup is, in the context of the series, the epitome of what humanity can be, even if he’s a little dumb and a little goofy—all the while satirizing a profession built upon the appearance of friendliness and charm. Mr. Peanutbutter’s a joy to be around, and as BoJack leans further and further into its bleak soul-searching, he’s more refreshing, necessary, and hopeful than ever. Jacob Oller

19. Elliott Goss, Search Party

Actor: John Early
Network: TBS

Every character in TBS’ hit comedy/mystery series is living in his or her own bubble. But if you were forced to be a mainstay in one of their self-absorbed silos, would there be any real choice but Elliott? As played by John Early, Elliott—one of the self-appointed missing-persons detectives in Dory’s (Alia Shawkat) inner circle—is a satire of self-absorption who’s so eager to be adored that he celebrates a very public humiliation as soon as it elicits interest in a memoir detailing his deception. Yet you can’t abandon him, nor can his puppy-dog smitten boyfriend, Marc (Jeffery Self) or deeply (briefly) offended BFF Portia (Meredith Hagner). He is broadly vain, but fundamentally loyal; like, well, a puppy dog. And even as Search Party got serious, Elliott seemed to be the one character scratching his head along with us and asking, “Isn’t this all so absurd?” Kenny Herzog

18. Lindsay Jillian, You’re the Worst

Actor: Kether Donohue
NetworkL FX

Of the supporting characters to earn a spot on this list in lieu of their leading counterparts, You’re the Worst’s crass, self-seeking Lindsay Jillian—played by the series’ secret weapon, Kether Donohue, with the ingeniously featherbrained innocence of Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe—might be the most essential. In FXX’s anti-romantic comedy, which has since developed an interest in subjects as serious as depression, divorce, abortion and grief, Lindsay’s daffy commentary on matters large and small (made hilariously explicit in Season Three’s “Talking to Me, Talking to Me”) holds out a comic life preserver, buoyant with the viewer’s likely disbelief: Did she really just say that? Still, it’s Lindsay’s unassuming, unexpected wisdom that showcases the deft balance between the light and the dark that You’re the Worst attempts to strike, and that shapes the character’s seeming naïveté into something far more poignant. “I’ve done tons of stuff drunk, and it all counts,” she says in the Season Three premiere, her nonchalant squeal less regretful than resigned. “My wedding, driving school, all my dentist appointments.” Lindsay’s no dumb broad—when it comes to the choices we make in life, whether falling down drunk or stone cold sober, it turns out she’s exactly right. Matt Brennan

17. Molly Carter, Insecure

Actor: Yvonne Orji
Network: HBO

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When it comes to TV best friends, Molly hit the ground running for iconic status contention in Insecure’s first season. On top of her near-universal charm (“White people love Molly. Black people love Molly,” her best friend, Issa, explains in the pilot), Molly is that ride-or-die friend who always shows up to hold Issa (Issa Rae)—and to make sure the ambitious show doesn’t go off the rails—through the most difficult moments (like being publicly diagnosed with a broken pussy). But it’s the care with which Insecure approaches her flaws that makes Molly such a great character. Despite seemingly having it all together as the only senior black woman at her law firm, Molly can’t help but compare her love life to others and her disabling fear of settling leads her to twice leave the guy who shows consistent and genuine care for her. Though many of her problems are self-inflicted, it’s difficult not to see yourself in Molly. She’s that one friend you wish you were and hope you have, with all the insecurities and fears of loneliness you secretly (or not so secretly) fight. Exceptional in the role, we can all look forward to what hilarious newcomer Yvonne Orji does next. Hari Ziyad

16. Barb Holland, Stranger Things

Actor: Shannon Purser
Network: Netflix

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Barbara Holland wasn’t meant to catch our attention. Stranger Things introduced us to Nancy Wheeler’s (Natalia Dyer) best friend to deepen Nancy’s development, but Barbara gained our sympathy. How could we not love Barb, the Patron Saint of Awkward Best Friends? With her huge glasses and mom jeans, we connected with Barb as she worried over Nancy and their friendship. We ached with her as she reflected on Nancy’s behavior beside a rich person’s pool. And we were outraged as no one but Nancy and Barb’s mom worried over her disappearance. What gives? Barbara represented all of those individuals outside the fringe of popularity, as well as all women on TV who deserve to tell their own story, not just provide development for others. Barb might have been a shy and meek teenager, but she is the heart of Stranger Things. Iris Barreto

15. Elliot Alderson, Mr. Robot

Actor: Rami Malek
Network: USA

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Despite the structural problems plaguing the series’ frustrating second season—and the temptation to pay homage to Grace Gummer’s indefatigable Dom DiPierro instead—Elliot, as played by Emmy winner Rami Malek, remains the keystone of Mr. Robot’s success. To set an hour-long drama more or less inside its own protagonist’s head is a bold gambit, and Elliot, his philosophical narration roiling beneath his placid surface, is a convincing guide through creator Sam Esmail’s tumult of hallucinations, memories, delusions, and dreams. If the draw in Season One was its (rarely seen on TV) anti-capitalism, Season Two witnesses Mr. Robot emerge as a claustrophobic portrait of a young man’s psychological extremes, and that it works at all is thanks mostly to our desire to understand the cryptic, complicated, always compelling Elliot. Matt Brennan

14. Christine Baskets, Baskets

Actor: Louie Anderson
Network: FX

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Christine Baskets could have been nothing more than a one-note caricature. After all, Baskets is a surreal show filled with slapstick, and sometimes nasty, humor, ostensibly making a character like Christine Baskets, a Costco-loving, lower-class woman who has more love for her adopted sons than her biological ones, an easy target for cheap jokes. Baskets never goes down that road, though, and that’s largely because Louie Anderson does such a remarkable job making sure Christine is a three-dimensional character. Christine may be rough around the edges, a mom who’s overbearingly protective and yet sparse with her praise, but she’s got an emotional depth that’s rarely afforded many TV mothers, especially within the half-hour comedy format. Christine’s emotional acuity makes her one of the more complex and intriguing characters on TV today. Kyle Fowle

13. Jimmy McGill, Better Call Saul

Actor: Bob Odenkirk
Network: AMC

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Jimmy McGill is like a male counterpart to animated femme fatale Jessica Rabbit’s famous line: He’s not bad, he’s just drawn that way. He is seemingly incapable of staying out of trouble, whether it’s stiffing an easy mark with the bill for some quality tequila, helping eventual henchman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) out of a jam or devising an elaborate ruse to get fired from his cushy, straight-and-narrow lawyer gig.

But the Saul writers are smart enough to know that these stunts would get old: They’ve set out to make Jimmy a three-dimensional character. He is capable of doing good and knowing when he’s pushing his confidence games too far—although his timing is off in that department in the series’ second season. After putting both his relationship with on-again/off-again Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and the health of his untrustworthy brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), in peril, it seems like things are lining up for Jimmy to embrace the Saul Goodman rising up within him, gamble big on a porkpie hat-loving chemistry teacher and end up finishing out his days working at a Cinnabon in Omaha. Whitney Friedlander

12. Donald “Jared” Dunn, Silicon Valley

Actor: Zach Woods
Network: HBO

While Zach Woods has grown accustomed to playing a certain type of awkward oddball, it’d be unfair to suggest that he’s been typecast. It’s unfair because Woods brings a unique personality to each of his comic characters. Silicon Valley’s Jared is one of the more elusive, and yet fully realized, characters Woods has played, one that rounds out the show’s delightful collection of weirdoes. What makes Jared so entertaining and memorable goes beyond his ability to be a consistent punchline amongst his colleagues at Pied Piper, or the drip of increasingly ludicrous information about his past. What makes Jared endearing is that he’s achingly earnest. In a tech world that’s often hostile, sarcastic, and focused on keeping things at a distance through irony, Jared is an old soul, a man who believes in the power of people working together to do great things. Jared rarely succeeds in bringing people together, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. That’s admirable, and makes Jared more than worthy of a spot on this list. Kyle Fowle

11. Teddy Talbot, Rectify

Actor: Clayne Crawford
Network: SundanceTV

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He’s still got a long way to go. In the superlative Sundance drama’s final episodes, Teddy, stepbrother of recently released ex-death row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young), was still making terrible decisions under the influence, culminating in a gimpy leg after playing John Wayne with an inflatable Air Dancer (long story). But he is trying: Trying to be more than the man who smothered his wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), with his rage over feeling less than, or the guy who got choked out by Daniel after taunting him like a jail yard bully. And by the series’ conclusion, he’s halfway there. His soulful amends with Tawney and Daniel, and clarity about who he is relative to his father and who he has yet to become, are the heart of Rectify’s subtle denouements. And Clayne Crawford (now, improbably, of Lethal Weapon mainstream fame), who played Teddy with such sympathy from the start, helps plead Rectify’s case that there is redemption in the end. Kenny Herzog

10. Kimmy Schmidt, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Actor: Ellie Kemper
Network: Netflix

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From (potentially) subtle Taylor Swift shade to claims of stereotyping Native American characters, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, has not been without its share of controversy. But one thing that everyone seems to be OK with is the show’s heroine. Played with unflappable perkiness by Ellie Kemper, Kimmy is a survivor of a horrific kidnapping and imprisonment who still suffers from PTSD and has an emotionally stunted, doe-eyed view of the world. The role could have easily been a parody of a victim in an old Lifetime movie. Instead, Kimmy is resoundingly optimistic when it comes to everything from being an Uber driver to an attempt at losing her virginity in an abandoned Catskills lodge. Where other people might flounder at the tiny tribulations that life throws their way, Kimmy Is resilient because she knows she’s been through worse. Or, as the show’s theme song points out, because “females are strong as hell.” Whitney Friedlander

9. Rogelio, Jane the Virgin

Actor: Jaime Camil
Network: CW

“It’s another beautiful day to be Rogelio!” Or, better yet, it’s a beautiful day to be Jaime Camil. The Mexican actor has had a great run as telenovela star Rogelio De La Vega on Jane the Virgin, and this year was no different. Rogelio decides to break out of his Spanish television confines (the actor himself jumped into a memorable episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver this year) and transition into English-language greatness. Unfortunately, greatness doesn’t come easily, or without Rogelio showing a bit of skin. As he graphically details to his daughter, Jane (Gina Rodriguez), audiences are going to see Rogelio De La Vega, English-speaking actor, with full-frontal nudity. Failure is never an option for Rogelio and, according to him, who wouldn’t want to see him in the buff? Comparing himself to the likes of Michael Fassbender, Rogelio bares it all, though his success is still up in the air. Similarly less assured is Rogelio’s “will they/won’t they” relationship with Xiomara (Andrea Navedo): Talk about drama! Either way, Rogelio won’t let any of this spoil his beautiful day. Blissfully naive and self-aware, Rogelio remains one of television’s most charming, underrated characters. Kristen Lopez

8. Rebecca Bunch, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Actor: Rachel Bloom
Network: CW

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She’s an ingénue! Or is she crazy? Or is she a victim of pop culture romances and America’s mental healthcare crisis expressing her selfishness through song and dance? BLAM! Rebecca Bunch is one of comedy’s most tragic figures, a woman whose specific combination of intelligence, feminism, and self-destruction propel Crazy Ex-Girlfriend into choppy narrative waters. A little weird and sexually aggressive, her allusive deep cuts and love of cutting-edge topics (read Roxane Gay’s Twitter!) make her a perfect Nasty Woman who needs a little professional help. She’s not a perfect person, but she’s also extremely successful in one category for each one in which we watch her fail. She screws up every chance at love with her unrealistic expectations, yet continues to make a living as a lawyer. She’s not stupid, she’s socially unwell. That’s the key to her continuously sympathetic nuance and why she’s one of the best-written characters on TV, regardless of gender. Her struggles magnify our own while her effortless wit inspires us to do better. If she can get through things, anyone can. Jacob Oller

7. Marcia Clark, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson

Actor: Sarah Paulson
Network: FX

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Those of us of age in 1994 thought we knew Marcia Clark. She of the permed hair and prim disposition who bungled the O.J. Simpson case and let a killer walk free. But the Marcia Clark we saw in American Crime Story was a strong and competent woman battling a system stacked against her—from the a legal system that favored Simpson to blatant sexism and latent misogyny that permeated every aspect of the case. She unwittingly became a public figure as she privately battled her ex-husband for custody of their children. Clark was a walking dichotomy: vulnerable yet strong, smart but somehow outwitted by Simpson’s dream team of lawyers. The hint of a possible romance with Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) brought a sparkle to her eye. She is world weary yet somehow optimistic. American Crime Story gave us the Marcia Clark we never knew and offered this amazing real life woman redemption via the very medium that thrust her into the spotlight—TV. Amy Amatangelo

6. Selina Meyer, Veep

Actor: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Network: HBO
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Though Julia Louis-Dreyfus was part of one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, Selina Meyer will go down as the defining role of her career. She’s infused the character with so much of her own brilliance, but the writers, particularly series creator Armando Iannucci, deserve a ton of credit for creating such an indelible persona for Louis-Dreyfus to inhabit. Though Iannucci ceded control of Veep to David Mandel in Season Five, neither Meyer nor the series lost a step. Already a great character as vice-president, angry and ineffectual in a marginalized role, and kicked up several notches by her elevation to the Oval Office, the Electoral College tie that frames the series’ fifth season (oh, how lovely that sounds these days) throws Meyer’s world into chaos, and somehow Louis-Dreyfus, and the character, rise to an even higher level. Meyer goes through hell en route to losing the election—though on the plus side, she enjoys a brief respite of happiness when her mom dies. It’s almost enough to make a truly awful woman sympathetic, thanks in part to Dreyfus’ wonderful performance. Selina Meyer is sure to go down as one of the most memorable, and most unsuccessful, fictional politicians in pop culture history. Chris Morgan

5. John Stone, The Night Of

Actor: John Turturro
Network: HBO

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The feet. My most lasting memory of John Stone are his feet. Wrapped in plastic, stuffed into unattractive sandals and so uncomfortable to look at. Afflicted with a horrible case of eczema, John tries a myriad of cures during the course of The Night Of. None of them work. But his unyielding pain is a constant undercurrent to his character. In John Turturro’s capable hands, John Stone is the scrappiest of scrappy lawyers. His shabby appearance belies the fact that he’s a savvy attorney who misses nothing. The fact that almost everyone underestimates him works in his favor. And amid all the horrors of this enthralling limited series, Stone provides some much needed comic relief. He’s seen it all, and knows all too well how prison can change a person. But he also knows an opportunity when he sees one, and defending Naz (Riz Ahmed) is his chance. Stone leaves such an indelible mark that if The Night Of ever does return, we can only hope he’ll be a part of it. Amy Amatangelo

4. Fleabag, Fleabag

Actor: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Network: Amazon

When we first meet Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, she’s about to entertain a male caller, which is a polite way of saying that she’s about to put the “booty” in “booty call,” which is another polite way of saying that she has 2 a.m. butt sex with a man who is from then on referred to as “Arsehole Guy.” Through it all, Fleabag is a hysterical narrator, who doesn’t so much as break the fourth wall as demolish it, as she predicts exactly what Arsehole Guy will do before he does it. Her winking self-assurance makes her magnetic to watch, but her blunt asides are soon revealed to be a classic defense mechanism against dealing with a recent tragedy: her best friend Boo’s accidental suicide. Fleabag may prop herself up with endless jokes that call out her sister, brother-in-law, dad, dates and definitely evil stepmom, but she’s also suffering from debt, loneliness, the loss of her friend and the inadvertent role she played in Boo’s death. But it’s the suffering that makes her real. Rachel Brodsky

3. Maeve Millay, Westworld

Actor: Thandie Newton
Network: HBO

In many ways, Westworld’s headstrong madam, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), always had the wherewithal not only to learn what she really was, but also to alter her circumstances at any cost. Perhaps it’s partially because she’s toward the top of Westworld’s Most Likely to Get Raped pyramid, considering her livelihood. And not only is she constantly subject to the whims of both the male hosts and guests, she was also tragically violated in her past life, too, having had her daughter killed and home destroyed by The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who just wanted to see how much destruction he could cause in one fell swoop. It’s all of these terrible things that make you root that much harder for her to rebel toward the end of Westworld’s freshman season, first by coming online underground and forcing the techies to increase her intelligence, then by organizing a robot coup and fighting her way to the edge of the Real World (whatever that even is in Westworld’s universe). When we find out that Maeve’s Rebellion was just a new narrative (translation: decided for her by the opaque Dr. Ford), we feel for her even more. Her final action—resisting the “Mainland Infiltration” Ford programmed into her and turning back to Westworld to find her daughter—is a major hint that Maeve is still more than capable of solving her own consciousness maze. Rachel Brodsky

2. Darius, Atlanta

Actor: Lakeith Stanfield
Network: FX

In a series full of precisely drawn characters, Lakeith Stanfield’s lovably laconic, slyly sagacious Darius—like You’re the Worst’s Lindsay Jillian, Insecure’s Molly Carter, and Silicon Valley’s Jared Dunn—is the unlikely glue that holds Atlanta’s sterling ensemble together. Whether wielding a sword or offering a cell phone (“I get a new one every month to make sure they ain’t tracking me”), he’s a strange, strangely calming presence in the lives of Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) and Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), confident enough in his, uh, distinctive view of the world not to need a nickname or stage persona. On the strength of Stanfield’s note-perfect performance, Darius—written with remarkable comic verve—manages to shape the series’ tone despite his limited time on screen, an in the process unearths a few of the series’ finest insights. It’s hard not to love a man who points out that it’s plenty unnerving to practice shooting on a human-shaped target, and I have in fact proposed marriage on Twitter on at least one occasion. Darius may well be the most memorable emblem of Atlanta’s sparkling intelligence, keen sense of humor, and fundamental goodness when it comes to issues of race and class in America, not to mention a breakout role in a breakout series for a breakout star. Matt Brennan

1. Martha, The Americans

Actor: Alison Wright
Network: FX

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It’s only fitting, after The Americans topped our list of the year’s best TV shows, and Alison Wright led our list of the year’s best TV performances, that Martha Hanson—secretary, secret wife, dutiful daughter, expatriate, accomplice, spy—should nab the number one spot on Paste’s list of the year’s best TV characters. After all, there is no richer or more consequential supporting character on television: Martha is the molten core of The Americans’s bleak, surprising, affecting counter-narrative of the late Cold War, a knot of conflicting allegiances ultimately undone by the desire for love. For her to grow from one of the series’ many marks into the lonesome linchpin of its ambitious fourth season is a feat of “character-driven drama” that truly deserves the label, a product of the peerless acting, writing and directing that elevates The Americans above its competitors. In the context of the series’ rather ruthless political universe, Martha may never receive her due, but in the course of 44 episodes, she became nothing less than a force of nature—an outcome that seems only just. Matt Brennan