The 20 Best Television Characters of 2014

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In this Golden Age of Television, great stories on the small screen are imbued with a film-like quality, which really only works because fascinating and wholly believable characters are at the foundation of these incredible narratives. Last year, many of the characters who won our hearts did so through compelling, dramatic turns. But this year, it would appear that we wanted our characters to make us laugh—really laugh, preferably to the point of tears, and with exceeding cleverness. So we’ve chosen a varied group of TV characters who moved us in more ways than one. The actors behind these roles made us laugh, they made us cry, and they made us think and theorize, even through the laughter and tears. Here are our picks for the 20 greatest characters of 2014.

20. Tina Belcher


Actor: Dan Mintz (voice of)
Show: Bob’s Burgers (FOX)

The eldest child in the Belcher clan has become the breakout star of this animated series for a very simple reason: we all can relate to her. While her presence on the show is often there to balance out the outlandishness of her siblings, Tina has captured the hearts and butts of Bob’s Burgers fans who have also stumbled through puberty, while trying to cling on to some measure of their childhood. If you had your own version of her signature groan of worry and fear, then you were probably a Tina. In our mind’s eye, she eventually discovers riot grrl, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and punk rock, but until then, we are more than happy to cheer her on through every awkward interaction with Jimmy Pesto, Jr., every Equestranauts convention, and every hastily scribbled page of her Erotic Friend Fiction.—Robert Ham

19.

Sarah Manning and Alison Hendrix
Actor: Tatiana Maslany
Show: Orphan Black(BBC America)

While not without its definite moments of greatness, Orphan Black’s sophomore outing nearly twisted itself into a proverbial pretzel in an attempt to one-up its inaugural season. Despite the second season’s flaws, however, what does carry over from the show’s breakout year is the immense dedication of Tatiana Maslany, and the specificity she brings to each of her five recurring characters. Certainly, in looking back, it was the likes of Sarah Manning and Alison Hendrix that worked to keep the show afloat whenever it found itself in choppy waters. As the series’ lead character and anchor, Sarah continues her reign as one of TV’s best heroines—a British ex-con, forever oscillating between confident, resourceful badass, and vulnerable, self-doubting mother figure. On the other end, there’s Alison, the Type A suburban soccer mom who can always be counted on to counterbalance the show’s heavier moments with some much-needed levity—even when said relief concerns such macabre topics as murder and alcoholism. Together, Sarah and Alison perfectly encapsulate why this offbeat sci-fi program has so thoroughly ingratiated itself into the hearts of its fans.—Mark Rozeman

18.

Nora Durst
Actor: Carrie Coon
Show: The Leftovers (HBO)

One of the most interesting character arcs in The Leftovers’ inaugural season belonged to Nora Durst. She moved through the early episodes with a mixture of steely determination and mischievousness, both imprinted on her after the disappearance of her whole family in the “Sudden Departure.” As the layers began to peel away, though, the aching hurt that sat at her core became more and more apparent. And it often threatened to overtake her in moments, like the terrifying scene where she put on a bulletproof vest and paid a prostitute to shoot her at point blank range. Her most interesting moment, though, came at the very end of the season when her cold demeanor completely melted in the presence of a baby abandoned on her boyfriend’s doorstep. If left both her and us reeling with fear, joy, and confusion, mixed with a desperate hope to find out what Nora’s future holds.—Robert Ham

17. Annalise Keating


Actor: Viola Davis
Show: How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)

Annalise Keating is not your typical, white-hat wearing professor, and her complexities make her one of the most polarizing and fascinating characters of the year. Somehow, you root for her, and applaud her tactics—though they be illegal, malicious, shady, or all of the above. In the mind of the viewer, her wrong doings are justified. She’s a woman of power, who defines justice as easily and as swiftly as she defies it. But she is humanized her through her weaknesses, as the audience gets to see her in a way that the other characters on the series do not. In one powerful scene, she strips down, beginning with her wig, and removes the tough, physical exterior (literally), to seemingly reveal a vulnerable interior. Because we come to know Annalise on a relatively deeper level, we empathize with her, and—in a way—she has us viewers dangerously wrapped around her finger (much like she does the other characters). Annalise is one of the greats because she is a master of manipulation, and by the end of the first half of this season, she has everyone believing and trusting her—including herself.—Lesley Brock

16. Ilana and Abbi


Actors: Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson
Show: Broad City (Comedy Central)

From the opening scenes of Broad City’s freshmen season, there was a rapport between Ilana and Abbi that most shows take years to create between characters. The two worked together for years before the series, and that real life connection seeps through every episode of Broad City, which is why it became one of the best new series of 2014. Together, Ilana and Abbi are the two extremes we all try to balance in our twenties: Ilana with her laissez-faire attitude, focused more on fun than responsibility, while Abbi tries to be taken seriously in her career and her aspirations—all while also trying to be as much fun as her best friend. Their struggles (from trying to get concert tickets while broke, to realizing how far they’ve grown away from past friends) are universal. And in the hands of Ilana and Abbi, their simple quests seem epic in scope, and are always, completely hilarious.

15. Mellie Grant


Actor: Bellamy Young
Show: Scandal: (ABC)

The President’s wife has always been a terrific character. She is, after all, not your typical woman scorned. But this season, IDGAF Mellie Grant has been positively glorious. The death of her son propelled the First Lady to a new point (in some ways, a new low) in which she realized that nothing else really mattered. She spent her days wandering the White House in a bathrobe and Uggs, eating friend chicken and potato chips with her morning cocktail. This unlikely version of Mellie provided the series with some much needed comic relief. I loved IDGAF Mellie, but what’s truly amazing about Bellamy Young’s transformative performance is that, through it all, Mellie’s grief was palpable. On a show filled with over-the-top plot twists and ridiculous shenanigans, her pain was excruciatingly real.—Amy Amatangelo

14. Vee Parker


Actor: Lorraine Toussaint
Show: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

If you’re looking for the most truly evil character of 2014, this is it right here. The drug lord used her defacto position as the only parental figure her foster children had ever known to manipulate them, destroy their egos, and build her drug empire. When she returns to Litchfield prison she must face her old foe Red, along with the realization that she’s not Queen Bee any more. She immediately gets her claws into Taystee, turning her makeshift daughter into a drug dealer, once again. Vee is completely vicious. She lulls her prey into a sense of calm before her attack (the worst example being when she slept with her foster son R.J., before having him killed.) But her most heinous act came when she tried to pin Red’s attack on the defenseless and blindly devoted Suzanne. Lorraine Toussaint is a wonderful actress with a long list of credits, but Vee was a career-defining moment. Vee could have been one dimensionally evil, but Toussaint infused her with vulnerability and desperation. Litchfield may be better off without Vee, but her character will be missed.—Amy Amatangelo

13. Daryl Dixon


Actor: Norman Reedus
Show: The Walking Dead (AMC)

Undeniably, the most resourceful member in Rick’s crew is Daryl Dixon—he can track, hunt, shoot, and also diplomatically diffuse drama. Although he’s not an especially big fellow, he possesses the essence of the ‘gentle giant.’ For some time, it was difficult to determine whether or not he was heinous like his brother Merle, but eventually it became apparent that the Dixon parents made many mistakes with their first child, but learned their lessons by the time Daryl came around. He won our hearts back in Season Two (when he made it his doomed mission to find Sophia). And those same hearts broke for him this past season, as we witnessed yet another failed mission to save Beth. And after much discussion about this character’s sexuality, it has been confirmed that he is indeed straight… and definitely single. Which is good to know.—Madina Papadopoulos.

12. Diane Lockhart


Actor: Christine Baranksi
Show: The Good Wife (CBS)

Baranski has always delivered as Diane Lockhart, the formidable lawyer and partner of Lockhart & Gardner. But this season brought us a new version of a longtime favorite. What sets Diane apart from many of the other excellent characters on The Good Wife is that she’s imbued with an almost villain-esque quality at times. She is beyond ambitious, and she knows how to put a whole vision before the smaller parts. That big picture mentality made her a rock, and a huge asset to Florrick Agos, as she transitioned from one firm—the firm she helped built—to another (then transitioned back, in a brilliantly calculated move that brought them back to their original offices). While Alicia Florrick struggled to put her emotions aside and truly assist Cary Agos in his difficult (and wholly terrifying) trial experience, Diane kept a necessary clear head. Baranski is amazing to watch because, even with her genius maneuvering, millions upon million in client billings, and impeccable style, her heart consistently shines through. It may sound cliché, but the truth is, we all want to be Diane—in some way or another—when we grow up.—Shannon M. Houston

11. Sherlock Holmes


Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch
Show: Sherlock (BBC/PBS)

Let’s put it very simply: Nobody has ever done Sherlock Holmes remotely as well as Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s emerging as one of the great actors of his generation, and barring any misfortune will be a star for years to come, but Sherlock will always be the seminal point at which the journey started. Cumberbatch, pale of face and gaunt of limb, is a possessed by a crazed, frenetic genius that sees him marching through London, rattling off theories and facts in a machine-gun staccato, complete with incredible insights, witty asides and the occasional (and delightful) puzzlement at the behavior of ordinary humans. The phrase “lights up the screen” is a cliche, so let’s say that when the camera finds Cumberbatch, the screen explodes into supernova technicolor. He is absolutely captivating, entertaining and superlatively manic as Holmes, and you get the sense that nothing (even his own death) can keep him down. —Shane Ryan

10. Hannibal Lecter


Actor: Mads Mikkelsen
Show: Hannibal (NBC)

With Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter so thoroughly engraved in the public consciousness, the idea of anyone else stepping into the role is as close to pop culture sacrilege as you can get (though Brian Cox did an admirable job as a pre-Hopkins Hannibal in Manhunter). In rebooting the Thomas Harris universe for television, writer Bryan Fuller decided to go in a different direction with actor Mads Mikkelsen, and the gamble paid off handsomely. A national treasure in his native Denmark, the steely-eyed Mikkelsen has proven to be one of the great modern screen presences. As Lecter, the actor oozes equal parts charm, sexuality and menace. Whereas Hopkins played up the character’s more flamboyant, Bond villain-esque aspects, Mikkelsen presents a more cunning, Machiavellian figure. He’s a monster hiding behind an expensive, stylish suit and, try as you might, you just can’t escape his orbit.—Mark Rozeman

9. Molly Solverson


Actor: Allison Tolman
Show: Fargo (FX)

TV has never before had such a quietly confident character. Deputy Molly Solverson, as so brilliantly portrayed by Allison Tolman, was a delightful and refreshingly different female portraiture. She wasn’t defined by a male character or a romance (although she was one half of the show’s only romantic coupling). And she was smarter than almost everyone—certainly most of the men around her. From the onset of the series, Molly knew the murders in Bemidji were not what they appeared to be, and that Lester Nygaard was not an innocent insurance salesman who had tragically lost his wife in a home invasion. While her theories are dismissed by her superiors, Molly remains doggedly determined. One of her best scenes came in the penultimate episode, when the two FBI agents believe Molly and tears of relief spring to her eyes. Finally she is vindicated. Tolman gave a breakout performance and, in one season, created an iconic character who will long be remembered. Most TV characters, no matter how fantastic, could only exist in the world of television. Molly was that completely believable rarity. She could have been your best friend. The second season Fargo will feature all new actors, and will be set in 1979—there’ll be no Deputy Solverson, and that’s our loss. I could have watched her for countless more seasons.—Amy Amatangelo

8. Erlich Bachman and Peter Gregory


Actors: T.J. Miller and Christopher Evan Welch
Show: Silicon Valley (HBO)

Erlich Bachman is a horrible person. He’s also smart, charming, and utterly determined to succeed regardless of what it takes, all of which gives him the complexity of a real human. Erlich is the type of layabout who knows that he’s valuable despite his work ethic, and T.J. Miller plays him like a bristly, protective mother bear for both Pied Piper and the app’s developers. His strongest role, though, is to act as the uber-id for Silicon Valley, a representation of the greed and appetite of the tech industry, without any of the do-gooder façades that surround Hooli and other startups. Erlich is neither hero nor villain, he’s simply epicurean capitalism incarnate, and as a result his unpredictability animates a show filled with developers more interested in staring at computer screens than going on an acid trip.

In Silicon Valley, where the ability to write code is practically mandatory for characters, Peter Gregory is the nerd king. So it’s no surprise that Gregory is clearly on the autism spectrum—but where other shows would play this up for a cheap laugh, the late Christopher Evan Welch fills Gregory with pathos. Even while he offers flat, emotionless advice, there’s always a sense of Gregory’s inner turmoil, the ways his anxiety has had to combat his brilliance, and the resulting character neither belittles nor valorizes him. Instead, it fills out a commonly misrepresented pop culture stereotype. While he takes up less screentime than anyone else in Silicon Valley’s main cast, Gregory dominates every scene he’s in, as Welch offers the audience a workshop on the power of minimalist acting. —Sean Gandert

7. Don Draper


Actor: Jon Hamm
Show: Mad Men (AMC)

After years of dodging his past, it was ultimately Don Draper’s troubling behavior in his present that proved to be his downfall. This year’s mid-season finale left us with a newly single ad man, who’d managed to keep his job by the skin of Roger’s teeth, salvage his relationship with Sally, and he finally proved to be a decent mentor for Peggy. We’ve no idea how Draper’s opera will end, But, it seems far less likely that he’ll be the same man, tumbling from the window in the opening sequence.—Deirdre Kaye

6. Boyd Crowder


Actor: Walton Goggins
Show: Justified (FX)

Walton Goggins is the greatest character actor of the 21st century.

Fine, that statement might not be true at the moment, but I think it could be. His big break came in The Shield, where he played cop-gone-really-really-bad Shane Vendrell, and his excellence there led to the role of Boyd Crowder on Justified. (He was also great as the sadistic slavemaster Billy Crash in Django Unchained, and provided a brief respite from an otherwise disappointing sixth season of Sons of Anarchy as a cross-dressing prostitute.) In Justified’s five seasons, Boyd Crowder has gone from white power terrorist (he was so good as a bit player in the first season that they brought him on board full time for the second) to saved preacher to Kentucky backwoods criminal overlord. At every step of the way, he’s maintained the fierce energy that characterizes all of his work; like Cumberbatch, this is an actor who can barely be contained by the screen. He’s bursting out of himself, but he does it in slow, measured ways; he can be darkly funny, threatening and charming in the same scene, and it never feels forced. There’s a fire in his eye, but there’s something deeper and more considered, too; an old man’s wisdom, packaged within a young man’s vitality. If you look at the trajectory of Boyd Crowder on paper, you might think the plot was a little hard to believe. But when you actually see him holding court in the hollow, Goggins-as-Boyd is nothing more or less than the perfect man for his world. As always. —Shane Ryan

5. Captain Raymond Holt


Actor: Andre Braugher
Show: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)

Andre Braugher’s gravitas and steely demeanor lends itself perfectly to drama. But when you capture that essence, and transplant it to the world of sitcom, it provides just as much value in terms of entertainment. Captain Holt is so much more than the stern boss against whom Andy Samberg’s goofball Jake Peralta bristles. He’s the finest comedic force in a series loaded to the brim with excellent characters and performances. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has found countless ways to mine humor from Holt, who consistently and perfectly expresses intense emotion in a flat, affectless fashion (“Kwazy Kupcakes” anyone?). And most importantly, this is a fully-developed and unique TV character; Holt is a gay, black man who has risen through the ranks, to become Captain of an admittedly ragtag group of cops on a quest to clean up the streets. Bonus points are also accrued for every flashback to Holt’s early days on the force—afro, mustache, jive talking, and all.—Chris Morgan

4. Mort/Maura Pfefferman


Actor: Jeffrey Tambor
Show: Transparent (Amazon)

Given the rarity of transgender characters in television, it would have been tempting (and understandable) for Transparent creator Jill Soloway to contextualize Maura Pfefferman as a shining and dignified representative of the community. And while Jeffrey Tambor’s phenomenal performance endows Maura with a warm, relatable humanity, the show’s genius lies precisely in its refusal to treat its central figure with kid gloves, often revealing her to be just as selfish as the progeny she frequently admonishes. Far from being alienating, however, Maura’s flaws only serve to make her more complicated and, thus, more achingly human. Though the show has already, in its limited run, done much to highlight the trials of the transgender experience, Soloway and her team have done good in assuring that Maura is a compelling character first and a trailblazing statement second.—Mark Rozeman

3. Selina Meyer


Actor: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Show: Veep (HBO)

Like Steve Carell’s Michael Scott in The Office before her, Selina Meyer has the wonderful ability to be both exasperating and endearing at the same time. What separates her, though, is that for all her mismanagement, Meyer is also both smart and savvy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the Vice President as both a Washington insider, and someone always trying to find her balance in the game of politics. The way she straddles so many lines creates a complicated character who’s never quite sure of her own capabilities. This central uncertainty ends up being Meyer’s most defining trait. And as she speeds from one crisis to the next, there’s always a question of her true character, one which not even Meyer is capable of answering. It would be easy for a satire to simply make fun of a character, but Veep’s handling of Meyer never betrays the fact that she is ultimately a well-meaning human who’s simply been ruined by the political system in which she’s become entangled.—Sean Gandert

2. Rust Cohle


Actor: Matthew McConaughey
Show: True Detective (HBO)

It would be incredibly easy for Rust Cohle to be a complete joke. Just a few wrong lines of dialogue, or an ever-so-slightly broader performance would turn him into a stereotype of the super cop. Instead, due to dialogue that hits just the right level of purple, and perhaps the best performance of Matthew McConaughey’s entire career, Cohle is a trapped, soulful man always one step away from going too far. It would be simplistic to say that Cohle is the first season of True Detective, but despite the show being about a pair of cops, it’s Cohle’s obsessive search for truth—in a world he’s convinced doesn’t have any—that kept audiences on edge. While the internet would have you believe he’s all one-liners, Cohle speaks strongest in his silences, in those moments where he’s not performing for either the police or the suspects, as those are the times when he reveals how deeply empathetic he really is.—Sean Gandert

1. Tyrion Lannister


Actor: Peter Dinklage
Show: Game of Thrones (HBO)

We’re now four years deep into the Game of Thrones series run, and Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion Lannister continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. After a series of emotional scars last season rendered the youngest Lannister a shell of his former, rambunctious self, the fourth season saw our favorite Machiavellian schemer put even further through the ringer. Such tribulations subsequently resulted in an outpouring of long-repressed anger that produced some of the most explosive television of the year. Never was this more apparent than the barnburner that was Tyrion’s courtroom speech in “The Laws of Gods and Men,” in which the character verbally lashed out against all those who had denigrated him over the years, for the “crime” of being a dwarf. Even when Tyrion’s seemingly righteous fury morphed into something much more sinister by season’s end, Dinklage’s compelling portrayal made it all but impossible to turn away.—Mark Rozeman

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