The 25 Best TV Characters of 2018

TV Lists Best of 2018
The 25 Best TV Characters of 2018

The best TV characters of 2018, 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. (Plus, there are more of them than ever: This year’s list was so hard to pin down we ended up expanding it from 20 to 25.) There are deranged stalkers and best friends, hard-charging attorneys and Russian spies, two pornographic filmmakers, a pansexual witch, and, well, a Janet. In other words, our fascination with TV’s best characters knows no bounds, except that they hold our attention. Mission accomplished. —Matt Brennan

Here are the 25 best TV characters of 2018:

25. Beth Pearson, This Is Us
Actor: Susan Kelechi Watson

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For too long, Beth was on the sidelines, waiting patiently as other characters had their time in the spotlight. Beth has always offered a humorous take on the Pearson family she married into and, of course, she and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) offer up serious #relationshipgoals. But this season, Beth finally got a story line of her own—and it’s a good one. She’s clearly put a lot of stake in her career and how her career defines her. Being unceremoniously fired has her off-kilter. She’s a devoted mom who makes the time for Girl Scout cookie sales and knows just the right thing to say when her oldest daughter tells her she thinks she might be gay. Beth is a great mom, but also a fallible one who makes mistakes and doesn’t have all the answers. On a show that can often be fantastical, Beth remains grounded in reality. (And yes, I’m choosing to ignore the midseason finale, which had her putting Randall on the couch in a completely out of character move.) —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: NBC)

24. Rogelio de la Vega, Jane the Virgin
Actor: Jaime Camil

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From the start, Jane Villanueva’s long-lost father, telenovela superstar Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil), has been Jane the Virgin’s entirely unsubtle secret weapon. As a chronically insecure actor dedicated to making one of the sillier corners of the television world as excellent as possible, Rogelio is always dependable for comic relief, which this year took the form first of increasingly outlandish physical/prop comedy on the outsized set of Los Viajes de Guillermo, and then of the backstage intrigue involved in getting Hollywood’s own River Fields (Brooke Shields) to board an American adaptation of his most beloved telenovela, The Passions of Steve. Meanwhile, as a giant ball of emotion, Rogelio is always dependable for pulling our heartstrings, whether that’s as a man unselfconsciously loving his best male friend, or as a partner finally getting to marry the love of his life (and then supporting her through a major health scare), or as a father getting to be both a major player in his adult daughter’s life and a new dad to his and Darci Factor’s (Justina Machado) infant daughter, Baby. No matter which of these roles he is playing, if Rogelio is in a scene, you know he is going to be outstanding, and like no character anywhere else on television. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Adam Rose/The CW)

23. Oliver, The Bold Type
Actor: Stephen Conrad Moore

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As head of the fashion department at Scarlet magazine, 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 fooled by a Balenciaga bag or an Instagram star. He plays the game, but he knows it’s a game. And when it matters, he lets down his veneer just a little to tell Sutton (Meghann Fahy) to chose love, in a perfectly Oliver piece of advice: “No white after Labor Day and never walk away from love.” Oh, that we could all have a boss like him. —Amy Amatangelo

22. Moira Rose, Schitt’s Creek
Actor: Catherine O’Hara

Catherine O’Hara’s former soap star, with a wardrobe of whites, blacks, and slate grays in a woozy array of textures and patterns, sporting so much costume jewelry that one fears she’s going to throw out her back, might be a walking Magic Eye image of Harry Winston’s work bench. Or, for that matter, a Dr. Frankenstein voice coach’s bungled experiment: Her accent skates uncertainly through American, Canadian, and British registers, and that’s when she’s not test-driving her Cockney to buy a used car. The narcissistic matriarch of the spoiled Rose clan, stripped of their fortune and plopped down in the rural burg of Schitt’s Creek, Moira—as played by O’Hara, dressed by costume designer Debra Hanson, and written by Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy and his team—is the main reason to tune in; she’s high camp catnip (“What is your favorite season?” “Awards.”) with a wig collection that qualifies as the best drama on television. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Courtesy of PopTV)

21. Tom Wamsgans and Cousin Greg, Succession
Actors: Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun

From the infield taunts of the pilot episode, Tom Wamsgams’ (Matthew Macfadyen) venomous treatment of Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) is the splinter in Succession’s nail bed, and, while the series comes up to speed, its foremost attraction. Despite the ceaseless abuse to which Tom submits his young charge, though (“Buckle up, fucklehead!” in particular is an instant classic of homosocial hazing), both men are outsiders to the family dynasty at the series’ center—the exquisitely slimy Tom is engaged to the patriarch’s lone daughter, Siobhan (Sarah Snook); the thrillingly oblivious Greg is the grandson of his estranged brother. The relationship that results is one of the most astute (and blisteringly funny) depictions of power’s personal application currently on TV: While they’re focused on each other, both Tom and Cousin Greg are playing sin eater for the awful family of which they’re so eager to be a part. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO)

20. Lydia Riera, One Day at a Time
Actor: Rita Moreno

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Lydia is such an amazing character and such a vital part of One Day a Time that she spent almost the entire second season finale in a coma and still was the most vibrant, important character in the room. She’s the living embodiment of the Netflix comedy—simultaneously old-fashioned and forward thinking. She’s steeped in tradition but also her heart is big enough to allow room for all sorts of people and perspectives. Supportive and loving but also holding her children and grandchildren to a high standard. And oh, man, can she dance! —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: Netflix)

19. Eileen Merrell and Harvey Wasserman, The Deuce
Actors: Maggie Gyllenhaal and David Krumholtz

I defy you to find a better depiction of friendship on TV in 2018. Porn artistes Eileen and Harvey were bonded by their highbrow approach to an industry’s early days: Former sex worker Eileen takes a shine to directing and finds a healthy, grumpy-but-kind mentor in porn director Harvey. What follows is a fruitful personal and professional relationship that has hiccups and bumps as battles over money and style complicate their warm friendship. That they make it through, coming out stronger on the other side thanks to all the boons and pitfalls of working with your friends, makes their sweet relationship the show’s most fun to watch—all while making the inside baseball of both film production and pornography accessible for the layman. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

18. The Monarch and Dean Venture, Venture Bros.
Actors: Christopher McCulloch/Jackson Publick, Michael Sinterniklaas

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The creators of The Venture Bros. now regret once calling their masterpiece “a show about failure,” but it is—the failure, in particular, of the masculine power fantasy, as its name might suggest. (Its seventh season release this year felt… timely.) But it’s also a show about family, as its name certainly suggests. And no two characters form a better binary system around which those themes can uneasily orbit than the nerdier Venture twin, Dean, and his father’s arch-nemesis, the Monarch. (Both of whom, arguably, have some claim to inspiring the show’s title.) Unlike his brother, Hank, Dean can’t stand the superscientific, superheroic obsessions of his father and everyone surrounding his family: He sees them as poison, for him and for everyone he loves. The problem, of course, is that he’s actually good at super-science—and that his fixation on how awful it is might actually be the real poison, damaging his relationship with his over-eager brother, and perhaps even his moral compass itself, more than he thinks. The Monarch is, in many ways, Dean’s polar opposite: Dr. Thaddeus S. “Rusty” Venture’s most dedicated enemy, a butterfly-themed supervillain who has perfected the diabolical laugh and is seemingly addicted to terrorizing a man who inherited almost none of his father’s—make that their father’s?—genius. And yet the Monarch, despite seemingly encapsulating mustache-twirling evil, can’t quite bring himself to cause Rusty’s demise, and he finds the bureaucracy and backstabbing surrounding the villainous hijinks he and his compeers commit under the auspices of the Guild of Calamitous Intent tired and uninspiring. It’s almost as if he… might have a redemption arc coming? If he does, it will be… deadly. —John Maher (Photo: Adult Swim)

17. Claire Fraser, Outlander
Actor: Caitriona Balfe

Many have said that 2018 is the year of the woman, but the fact is, women have created their own destinies since the dawn of time in spite of circumstances pushing them down. This spirit is embodied in the character Claire Fraser. First appearing in the pages of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, and now on Starz’s TV adaptation, she has travelled through time to be with the man she loves and is fiercely independent, doing what she believes is right no matter the consequences. Claire Fraser shows that romance and career can co-exist for women as well as men, and it’s why her character has survived the test of time. —Keri Lumm (Photo: Starz)

16. Joe Goldberg, You
Actor: Penn Badgley

Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg on You is a romantic. At least, in his own head. In reality, he is a psychotically unstable stalker who is willing to murder anyone and everyone standing in the way of his attainment of true love—even, You’s shocking-but-unsurprising finale proved, if the person is the very object of that true love.

That men like this exist in the world is no surprise—Law & Order: SVU and Criminal Minds don’t pull their stories from thin air—nor is the fact that so many of the behaviors that mark Joe’s brand of dangerous masculine possessiveness are used by Hollywood to sell audiences on the “complicated” (but charming!!!) path to heterosexual romance. What is a surprise, though, is that Hollywood would take that complicated (read: dangerously toxic) bit of cognitive dissonance and make its very avatar the obviously villainous star of a series. We are not meant to like Joe. Every millisecond of You tells us to not like Joe, to fear Joe, to keep any Joes we might meet at a great, great distance. And yet, as Penn Badgley was all too aware—and as coverage of the series proved out, time and again—our cultural training to see the Joes of the world as redeemably romantic is so strong that in between all the killing blows, keeping him at a distance is hard. That’s quite a revelation about ourselves to have to grapple with. Luckily (I guess?), we’ll soon have a second season in which to do that grappling. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime)

15. Kelli, Insecure
Actor: Natasha Rothwell

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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—and she won’t stop having it until a Taser takes her down. She delivers delightful quips (“All my sex ghosts in this graveyard!”), 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. The third season of Insecure truly allowed the character to blossom. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Kelli got her own show. —Amy Amatangelo

14. Lenù Greco and Lila Cerullo, My Brilliant Friend
Actors: Margherita Mazzucco, Elisa Del Genio, Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace

Unsurprisingly, the response to HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s sublime novel, the first of four in her “Neapolitan cycle,” has been rather muted. After all, the lives of two girls in midcentury Naples, poor strivers hoping to escape the fates of the older women in their midst, are not the raw materials of the Internet’s next obsession. In point of fact, the friendship between bookish narrator Lenù Greco and her seething, ferocious and, yes, brilliant friend, Lila Cerullo, is thrilling indeed—most vitally because the series is not a “portrait of female friendship,” in the abstract, but a garrulously, violently specific portrait of this friendship, and of both Lenù and Lila as individuals. Such rich characterization is essential to the series’ thoroughgoing belief that position, perspective, matters, and that any change thereto—continuing in school or leaving it, getting married or remaining single, standing at a remove from the action or leaping headlong into the scrum—can ripple down the years in ways none of us can predict, or expect. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Eduardo Castaldo/HBO)

13. Sean “Dud” Dudley, Lodge 49
Actor: Wyatt Russell

Lodge 49 flew mostly under the radar this year, but its first season was an absolute delight, thanks in no small part to its naive main character, Dud. Despite being broke, homeless, aimless and mourning, Dud is completely open to the magic of the universe. His optimism might often be misplaced as life constantly lets him down, but his mug of cheap beer remains half-full, and it has an effect on the rest of society’s downtrodden around him. Dud is the post-recession everyman who refuses to give up no matter how soul-crushing life becomes. —Josh Jackson (Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

12. Michael Burnham, Star Trek: Discovery
Actor: Sonequa Martin-Green

Through much of Discovery, Michael Burnham is so many things other Star Trek protagonists are not: a strong black woman, a convicted criminal, a Starfleet dishonorable discharge, and a cold, distrusting cynic. She’s also capable of moral compromise in the service of a greater good, and watching her wrestle through moral decision-making in the nascence of Starfleet’s space exploration is part of what makes Discovery a worthy entry in the franchise’s mythos. (Given complaints of abusive conditions in the show’s writers’ room, this is a feat.) Burnham’s path shifts under her feet constantly, whether due to tragedy, adversity, or mishap, and even though her team doesn’t always view her as a team member, her race toward moral redemption is exactly the sort of story Star Trek thrives on. In the words of Burnham: “We have to be torch-bearers.” —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: Jan Thijs/CBS)

11. Avery Brown, Murphy Brown
Actor: Jake McDorman

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As I wrote last week, so much of CBS’s Murphy Brown revival is not as good as I want it to be. The clunky jokes land hard, and all the characters are still struggling to find the magic of the show’s first run. Except for Avery, who was just a toddler when the show went off the air in 1998 and is now a 29-year-old news reporter. Avery is the continuation’s one true bright spot. His easy rapport with his mom, Murphy (Candice Bergen), and the rest of the cast is the only time the show seems truly relaxed and in a groove. I’ll confess that I’ve been a fan of McDorman’s since Greek (an awesome show you should binge now if you’ve never seen it), where he brought that same impish charm. Maybe next season the series should be called Avery Brown. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: CBS)

10. Cousin Ambrose, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Actor: Chance Perdomo

Ambrose Spellman wasn’t a part of the witchy Spellman family us millennials came to know and love on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch in the 1990s. It’s easy to wish he could have been—what sitcom hijinks would he and an animatronic Salem have gotten up to!—but the fact that we all got to be caught completely off-guard by the deliciously wry, warlocky languor of this particular bough of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s more macabre family tree is part of what made the Netflix series’ debut so strong. Narratively, Ambrose works as the perfect fulcrum upon which Sabrina’s dual realities can balance—as a young-presenting person, he can appeal to her as a “fuck the man!” peer, while as a chronologically older person, he can appeal to her as a family/magical elder—and thus is key to the central conceit of the series. As an individual, though, Ambrose is even more compelling: His position as a man enduring decades of house arrest for a renegade plot to blow up the Pope that he wasn’t even responsible for gives him complicated emotional baggage to work through on his own, while also giving the audience insight into the political and interpersonal snarls within the witch community. Meanwhile, his role as a possibly pansexual proponent of free love self-consciously making his way back into the dating scene after all those decades of house arrest is both novel and heartwarming. And with the first season leaving off with Ambrose partially freed, in complicated part due to his burgeoning romance with Luke (Darren Mann), his CAoS-defining star can only rise. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Diyah Pera/Netflix)

9. Barry, Barry
Actor: Bill Hader

Barry and Bill Hader are so closely linked in my mind—and probably yours, too, if you’ve watched the dark comedy’s first season—that finding the line between performance and character as written is a bit like figuring out whether a magician’s sleight of hand or crowd work is what truly masked his trick. You know you’ve been had, but nailing down the moment it got you seems beside the point. Barry’s initial simplicity—an unhappy hitman who discovers a love of acting—belies so many issues (self-esteem, trust, etc.) that watching the show becomes an ancillary act of therapy. Diagnosing Barry becomes the best way to understand him, and the writing of the show deftly shapes the character through incidents that always keep us on the edge of our seat as we try to protect our beloved patient. That he kills people somehow never makes us care any less. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

8. Pearl, Steven Universe
Actor: Deedee Magno

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Steven Universe’s most boundary-shattering episode of 2018 may have been “Reunited,” but my favorite entry was the one that shattered Pearl’s boundaries: “A Single Pale Rose.” It revealed the stacked layers—matryoshka doll-style—of trauma buried in her psyche, explaining her personality, her facial tics, and the compromises she’s been forced to make through the whole series. Her love for Steven, her physical tendency to cover her mouth in horror, and her sometimes-standoffish approach toward her team all stemmed from a relationship that grew abusive, despite its noble intentions and Pearl’s own nostalgia. Through Pearl, Steven Universe went from being a show about radical empathy and inclusion to a show that was also about the nuanced pain people in power can inflict on their underlings. Pearl was silenced against her will and suffered for literal eons. Nevertheless, she persists. —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: Cartoon Network)

7. Diane Nguyen, Bojack Horseman
Actor: Alison Brie

BoJack Horseman is a show about a misanthropic, anthropomorphic horse and his mid-career mishaps, but really, it’s a show about depression. And while BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) gets the splashiest onscreen treatment where mental illness is concerned, it’s his friend Diane Nguyen whose character best captures the subtle shades of clinical depression. The character has issues, chief among them being that Diane is a Vietnamese-American woman, but she is voiced by Alison Brie, who is white. That said, Brie brings a remarkable specificity and breadth of emotional behavior to Nguyen, from malaise to rage to despair to mania. In many ways, Nguyen is emblematic of the struggles of modernity: a daughter of immigrants out of touch with her heritage (“The Dog Days Are Over”) and her abusive family (“Live Fast, Diane Nguyen”); an underappreciated editorial talent forced to pick up crap digital media jobs and uncredited writing roles to get by (all of Seasons Two through Four); a woman forcing herself to be the only adult in the room at the expense of her own emotional bandwidth as her male romantic partners and friends practically get away with murder (the whole series, basically). It all adds up to one of the most riveting arcs in one of the best shows on television. And with BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg making concerted efforts to make strides in the show’s diversity, Diane’s story can only get better. —John Maher (Photo: Netflix)

6. Kim Wexler, Better Call Saul
Actor: Rhea Seehorn

Played with precision and grace by the extraordinary Rhea Seehorn—now in her fourth consecutive year giving the most underrated performance on television—Kim Wexler, with her taut blonde ponytail and sleek, simple pantsuits, has long been the object of her fans’ worst fears: The commonest response to Kim’s appearance on screen is worry, anxiety, dread. Increasingly, though, the character’s arc is the beating heart of Better Call Saul. No longer “the girlfriend” or “the associate”—if she ever was—Kim has emerged, over time, as a heroine on the order of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson or Halt and Catch Fire’s Donna Clark and Cameron Howe, a female foil so essential to the drama that she turns out to be its backbone. She remains unfailingly loyal to her boyfriend, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), but as Season Four unfurls, and he completes his transformation into the sleazy Saul Goodman, it’s her ambitions, her hopes and dreams, her fate that become the series’ unknown quantities. There may be no character on TV I care about more: If anything happens to Kim, I swear I’ll never recover. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

5. Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans
Actor: Keri Russell

It says something (OK, it says a lot of things) that these several months later I am still angry at the TV Academy for not giving Keri Russell her much-deserved Emmy for playing workaholic Russian spy Elizabeth Jennings (née Nadezhda) in the final season of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ Cold War-era drama. This is a character who murdered innocent people, turned her daughter into a spy-in-training, neglected her other child, and repeatedly duped the FBI agent across the street into believing she was just really into being a travel agent. And somehow—somehow!—Russell’s performance, coupled with the show’s brilliant writing and direction, made us all want to wish her character the best when she made it safely back to the motherland. At least there’s hope at the Golden Globes. Don’t mess this up, HFPA. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)

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

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Who could’ve imagined how far Janet would have come? The great joke character with tons of weird and complex metaphysical potential made D’Arcy Carden a household name (among TV critics, at least) in The Good Place’s first season, but the show’s dedication to its infinitely intelligent assistant gave Carden the role of a lifetime and fans a character so intensely complex that the episode modulating the human protagonists into Janet is one of the series’ best. The character impressions aren’t a necessity to the character’s non-personality personality, but they certainly make Janet’s ever-evolving identity as infinite as its void. Even if Carden wasn’t tasked with one of the biggest asks in 2018 TV, Janet would stand alone as an achievement in joke dedication and the brilliant comic minds that know to make the best out of an unexpectedly incredible thing. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

3. Eve and Villanelle, Killing Eve
Actors: Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer

Will Graham versus Hannibal Lecter. Dexter Morgan versus Trinity. Sean McNamara and Christian Troy versus the Carver. The best games of serialized cat-and-mouse have to mix the right amount of danger and surprise twists with a reciprocal appreciation for each side’s work (and the occasional homoerotic undertone never hurts either). Unfortunately, it’s so often the case that these televised battles of wits usually involve (white) men. Then there’s the ladies of Killing Eve: Oh’s too-smart-for-her-own-good MI5 agent, Eve, and Comer’s international assassin who is known by many monikers. Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s adaptation of Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novellas was not simply an allegory for female friendships. It was enchanting, tantalizing and engulfing. And we’re not just talking about the costumes. —Whitney Friedlander

2. Darius Epps, Atlanta
Actor: Lakeith Stanfield

Darius Epps is Atlanta’s drug dealer/philosopher, the thoughtful and eccentric one-man entourage to Brian Tyree Henry’s drug dealer/rapper, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles. He’s a pastiche of apparent contradictions that simply work. Played with both aloofness and genuine pathos by Lakeith Stanfield, Darius feels both magical and real—we all have that friend whose life works on a different set of rules than the rest of us, the stoner genius pondering existence on some grander scale, navigating the everyday with his own moral code. Unbothered by the cynicism of those around him, Darius lives a life without worries or regrets. We could all use a Darius in our lives, or a little more Darius in ourselves. —Josh Jackson (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX)

1. Diane Lockhart, The Good Fight
Actor: Christine Baranski

The delightful cackle. The fabulous wardrobe. The statement jewelry. Is there anything Diane Lockhart doesn’t do to exquisite perfection? Diane has been a terrific TV character for nine seasons (seven on The Good Wife and two on The Good Fight), but now she’s right where she should be—at the epicenter of the action. The second season of The Good Fight found Diane a bit unmoored as she struggled to figure out exactly how to proceed in Trump’s America. (She even started micro-dosing. As enchanting as Diane is, a high Diane is somehow even better.) She became a character who represented us all, one who understood the absurdity of our current situation and knew that the only thing to do was laugh and then get to work. Diane Lockhart is 2018. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: CBS All Access)

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