Say what you will about 2018, it gave us some amazing characters — most of them strange, funny, and representative of something bigger than themselves. For the most part I’ve stuck to newcomers, and you’d be amazed how close you can get to 18 with remarkable debut characters alone. There are a few, however, who’ve been with us for years. They’re included mostly because their presence this season is different and special, marked by change or growth or importance to the script.
They’re also there because I love them.
One important note: Since some of these characters are defined by big events, I haven’t gone out of my way to avoid spoilers. So if you’re worried about that sort of thing and you see a picture of a character you’re not caught up on, scroll fast! There are a couple of doozies…
Without further ado, here are the 18 best tv characters of 2018.
18. James – The End of the F***ing World
The End of the F***ing World is a beautiful show that came out of nowhere at the beginning of the year. (Yes, it was technically 2018 that it released internationally). There’s a lot to praise about the show but, in my book, the finest is its creation of James (Alex Lawther), a 17-year-old who believes he’s a psychopath and is on the lookout for his first murder victim. He gets more than he bargained for with his classmate Alyssa, who’s a fantastic character in her own right, and the two launch on a brash, dangerous, and joyful road trip of young love and adventure. The revelation, first to the audience and then, finally, to James himself, that he’s not a psychopath but just a grieving and lonely teenager on the confusing cusp of adulthood, is absolutely beautiful. And his final act of the season, one of love and sacrifice and shouldered responsibility, is incredible. The End of the F***ing World is, somehow, coming back for a second season. God, I hope James comes back, too.
17. Frank Reynolds – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
I’ve praised It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia a lot this year. Fair warning — I’m going to keep doing it in the coming weeks. Most of my praise for the finale has gone to Rob McElhenney’s work on and off camera, and it’s utterly deserved. But as far as sheer character development goes, he’s got nothing on Danny DeVito’s Frank Reynolds. As Always Sunny has developed a conscience over the years and the younger members of the gang have become less willing to offend, even in the name of satire, Frank has drifted off in the other direction, getting older, weirder, and (a symptom of both) more likely to say or do anything. He’s become the voice of outmoded thinking, your uncle who brings up things he shouldn’t at Thanksgiving and gets something of a pass because the rest of the world has passed him by. And it works very well. It allows the show to keep voicing the things it did in a simpler time (the long-lost 2000s), but with the firmer excuse of satire, and with the added safety net of the rest of the gang’s unenthused reactions — case in point Mac’s horrified disbelief at Frank’s insistence that if he makes one false move at a drag brunch, “these fairies are gonna poke me fulla holes.” That ramped up tone-deafness makes for an incredible moment of growth and reconciliation as Frank, of all the people in the world, is moved to tears by Mac’s attempt to come out to his father. This raving, aging man, whose mind exists in some long-passed decade, finally understands a new perspective and changes his mind. It’s something that pretty much never happens in Always Sunny, a show whose characters are mostly defined by their cruelty and lack of empathy, and it certainly never happens for Frank, the foulest, most out of touch, and least changing of all. It’s beautiful. Maybe there’s hope for all those uncles at Thanksgiving yet.
16. Rosa Diaz – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Rosa has always been a gem on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Tough as nails and fiercely protective of her privacy, Stephanie Beatriz’s portrayal is as inspiring as it is funny, and her representation onscreen is extremely important. But it’s because of her impenetrability over the years that Rosa’s gradual warming as of late has been so special. After coming out as bisexual last year (an important milestone in and of itself) Rosa has started welcoming the Nine-Nine more and accepting them more as her family (especially given how her biological family came up short). And this gradual warming is the center of the year’s most effective and engaging episode, “Show Me Going.” Though she isn’t even onscreen for most of it, the rest of the precinct’s reaction to Rosa being in danger is beautifully moving. The final minutes, when she finally returns safe and lets all her friends hug her, not even begrudgingly, speaks volumes.
15. Villanelle – Killing Eve
A murderer obsessed with the person hunting them is far from a new concept. Neither is a highly skilled but volatile assassin. But Jodie Comer makes both feel fresh with her terrifying portrayal of Villanelle (or Oksana, depending upon who you ask). Sometimes unflappably focused and capable, sometimes pinging around Europe on the slightest of whims, it’s hard to say exactly how in control of her own life Villanelle is. Willing and able to inhabit any number of masks, her attempts at playing “normal” are so charming and convincing that it’s easy to find yourself lulled by them, and it’s never clear when or if the masks come completely off. Her fixation with Eve (an incredible Sandra Oh) seems genuine, but all of their interactions are tinged by Villanelle’s almost involuntary need to, for lack of a better term, camp it up. This person can invoke kindness, fear, and grief at the flip of a switch. Is it any different when she summons up wide-eyed psychopath? Her final meeting with Eve, when she lets her guard down and admits that all she wants out of life is “normal stuff,” is the closest she comes to earnestness. But is anything Villanelle does earnest? It’s impossible to say. Given how this one foray worked out for her, though, it’s understandable if she takes a while to be earnest again, and I’m so excited to see where next year takes her.
14. Doctor Henry Goodsir – The Terror
It’s hard to have a moral compass when you’re stranded near the north pole, but if anyone does, it’s Dr. Goodsir. A naturalist with a rare empathy and an appreciation for beauty (also a real person, to boot), Goodsir, played beautifully by Paul Ready, is the man you desperately hope will survive what you know from the beginning to be a doomed mission. Spoiler: he does not. But his death, in a show that’s just one death after another, stands out for its emotion, its poignancy, and, of all things, its beauty as, just before committing suicide, he douses himself in poison in an effort to kill his brutal and cannibalistic shipmates. For Goodsir, a healer and a man marked by his kindness, it’s a twofold sacrifice, and one that’s heartbreaking in its necessity and, ultimately, its futility.
13. Doug Forcett – The Good Place
The Good Place is rife with amazing characters, (honestly, who is there not to love in this show?) but its finest creation this year is Michael McKean’s Doug Forcett. In a way Doug has been with us since day one — he is the beatified college stoner on the wall in Michael’s office, the one person who correctly guessed exactly how the afterlife works. And the introduction of the real Doug, at long last, is unexpected and sublime. A stoner kid no longer, he’s devoted his life to earning points to get into the Good Place, resulting in an incessant barrage of over the top, harebrained, sometimes conflicting acts of selflessness. (All alone in a house with his weird foibles, it almost feels like Michael McKean is having one last loving go at Better Call Saul’s Chuck McGill). And the revelation in the mid-season finale — that even Doug is destined for the Bad Place — means he may be the key to an afterlife conspiracy even bigger than we thought!
12. Rebecca Bunch – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
For the most part I’ve been avoiding main or title characters, not really by design, but because so often the smaller parts are more interesting. And that holds somewhat true for the small parts in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — the show is excellent at portraying growth, and the ways in which its characters have evolved from their early more comic types into fully fledged, complex people is fascinating. But there’s no one whose growth is more fascinating, not to mention more groundbreaking for its representation on tv, than Rebecca’s. This past year especially (which includes the back half of season 3 and the front half of 4) has approached Rebecca’s character from a whole new direction: one of understanding. Armed with an explicitly stated diagnosis (Borderline Personality Disorder), frequent therapy, and a support system of friends, Rebecca (played by insanely talented creator/writer Rachel Bloom) has become a massively important player in the onscreen conversation about mental health. And yet somehow, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hasn’t lost its teeth, either. Managing to avoid the pitfalls of the Very Special Episode, the show is still razor sharp and funny… with the monumental difference that the titular crazy ex-girlfriend knows herself now, and is making a concerted (though blessedly still flawed) effort to live her life one day at a time.
11. Kevin McClain – American Vandal
American Vandal has a superpower no other show seems to have right now, and that’s the ability to create pitch-perfect parodies that feel so real, you forget they’re parodies. It does it admirably with the true crime genre, but even more impressive are its characters: highly specific high school tropes who are so hilariously exact you swear you’ve known them. Last season did it expertly with stoner-slacker Dylan Maxwell. And this season nails it again with Travis Tope’s Kevin, the performatively refined kid who’s mistaken vague Anglophilia for intellectualism, speaks like a thesaurus, and surely moderates several subreddits. (I’m not going to say I was Kevin in high school, but I will say that a few of his quirks hit especially close to home…) But as good as it is at crafting character types, American Vandal is just as skilled at humanizing them, and the gradual build of empathy for this weirdo we’ve all known (or been) is remarkably organic, genuine, and downright inspiring.
10. Dr. James K. Mantleray – Maniac
With a bad wig, innumerable mommy issues, and a very serious… condition… Justin Theroux’s James Mantleray is perhaps the most delightfully weird aspect of a show that trades heavily in the delightfully weird. Called back from a disgraced absence in the eleventh hour to helm the project that is both his life’s work and his attempt to process his relationship with his estranged mother (a fabulous Sally Field), James is at once an expert and completely out of his depth, determined to prove himself, yet willing to throw it all away when he gets overwhelmed. James is seemingly forever one misstep away from a total meltdown, and the wide-eyed jumpiness and awkward abruptness Theroux gives him are a joy to watch. When the unthinkable happens — James is forced to call his mother for help — his transparent bravado and panicked helplessness (and even temporary blindness!) are enormously fun, yes, but also a little bit devastating.