9. Colin Belfast – Homecoming
In a way, Homecoming’s Colin Belfast and Maniac’s James Mantleray are two sides of the same coin. Though each with their own very distinct foibles, and each with their own arcs of redemption (or not), Colin and James are of the same type (relatively new to the screen) of comically over-confident, deeply flawed men who are in over their heads and simply will not admit it. Julia Roberts’ performance in Homecoming is the standout, but as far as characters are concerned, it’s Bobby Cannavale’s Colin who truly shines. Smooth-talking but furious, resourceful but overreaching, and desperately stressed from day one, Colin is a sight to behold. Through the power of positive thinking, a charming man’s self-assurance and, it’s undeniable, a decent amount of brilliance, Colin has risen through the ranks at Geist, and his frenzied attempts to keep rising are wonderful to watch. They’re especially wonderful when tempered by his ultimate reckoning in the finale, in an immensely gratifying scene with Audrey the (supposed) secretary. Colin is a delicious character to hate, both when he’s at his highest and his lowest.
8. DeMarcus Tillman – American Vandal
I tried to limit this list to one character per show, but American Vandal snuck through twice, and I don’t even care. No other show, comedy or not, creates characters who are so funny, so complex, and so real. And this season’s spotlight was stolen back and forth again and again by Kevin (up above) and DeMarcus. The athlete bused in to boost a private school’s star basketball program (and probably its diversity), DeMarcus might be a nod, in a show so versed in its documentaries, to 1994’s Hoop Dreams. Played expertly by Melvin Gregg, he’s everything you want from a mediocre student/star athlete who’s both an outsider and the king of the school, and the way he interacts with classmates and teachers — as a meal ticket, as a friend to all but friend of none, and as one of the only black kids — is extraordinarily nuanced. And, just like Kevin, DeMarcus proves himself by the end of the season to have far more going on than his stereotype suggests. It’s nothing outrageous, nothing explosive — it’s just what you’d expect to hear from a 17-year-old in his situation if you only took the time to listen.
7. Barry Berkman – Barry
This is the list’s other title character, and his spot is well deserved. 2018 had some strong tv debuts, but its finest contribution just might be Barry. The show is a work of art. A big honorable mention goes to Anthony Carrigan as NoHo Hank, the adorable Chechen mobster, but Bill Hader’s Barry Berkman (or is it Barry Block?) is the real star. Barry’s single-minded drive to find happiness is inspiring, especially as he leaves one unforgiving sphere (the seedy underworld of assassins and mafiosos) for another (a class for aspiring Hollywood actors). Having only seen four episodes last spring, I wrote a piece on how well Barry represented a relatively novel character trait: optimism. With the rest of the season in mind, I stand by that judgment, but I think it needs a little amending. Barry’s stoic insistence on bettering his life through will alone is inspiring, it’s true. But it’s the times he fails — and his resulting despairing fury and resigned grief — that make it truly magical.
6. Christine Baskets – Baskets
Baskets doesn’t get even close to enough credit. The weird and warm FX comedy about a family in Bakersfield, California perfectly balances comedy and heart, and at the center of both is matriarch Christine Baskets, played inimitably by Louie Anderson. Christine is domineering and flighty, but also loving and joyous. She’s long-suffering and eager to sacrifice for the sake of her sons (two of them played beautifully by Zach Galifianakis), but she’s also open to discovering herself as her own person, taking steps to change her weight, her social circle, and her love life. She’s a stellar representation of a woman who thinks of herself as a mother first but is also, as people tend to be, her own fully formed human being. And she’s embodied with obvious affection and razor-sharp comedic timing by Anderson who, I’ve found myself forgetting over and over again, is not actually a mother himself.
5. Amma Crellin – Sharp Objects
If this were a list of best performances, Sharp Objects’ contribution would be, hands down, Amy Adams as Camille. But since we’re looking specifically at characters, the award for most fascinating goes to Camille’s younger half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen). Sharp Objects is about a lot of things, but maybe chief among them is perception of womanhood. From devoted mothers to promiscuous teenagers to career women who “got out,” no one matches the preconceived notion of femininity they seem to represent… and no one doesn’t match better than Amma. With a ribbon in her hair and a prized dollhouse at her feet, Amma is an expert and deceiving her mother into thinking she’s a good girl, a child who’ll never grow up. It’s a ruse Camille sees through instantly, but having grown up the same house, it’s one she understands… or at least she thinks she does. That’s because even Amma’s ruse is a ruse, and her “real” identity — the rebellious party girl in short shorts who steals liquor and stays out past curfew — is just another feminine trope that doesn’t really exist. As the very last seconds of the series prove, Amma has a lot more going on than anyone, even Camille, could have suspected, and everything we thought we knew about her (and about women) is thrown into sharp and horrifying relief.
4. Bash Howard – GLOW
Do I feel strange highlighting one of the only men in GLOW, a show full of interesting women? Yes, I do, so you don’t need to ask me. But I’ve overcome my own feelings of weirdness for the sake of Chris Lowell’s Sebastian (Bash) Howard, a tv producer in over his head in more ways than one. Last season Bash’s presence was a little odd, and I for one wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. Season 2, however, brings Bash sharply into focus and to the emotional forefront, as his seemingly innocuous hunt for his missing friend/butler Florian leads to him to places he never anticipated. The scene in which Bash, riding the high of success, learns that Florian has died of AIDS, is one of the best performances (and virtually wordless, no less!) of the year. Bash’s ashamed and solitary grappling with grief and his own sexuality is incredible, and his quiet but explosive outbursts throughout the season are heartbreaking. His solution in the finale — marrying Rhonda so she can stay in the country the show can have a spectacle — is something else. It’s an answer to his loneliness, a way to repress his feelings, and a chance to genuinely help a friend. It’s a desperate and flawed act, a plan doomed never to last, but its imperfection is magnificently human, and Bash’s ability to conjure it up is a beautiful piece of characterization.
3. Henry Fondle – BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman season 5 reckons with its own normalization of toxic behavior in expert fashion. But while the subtle interweaving of reality and fiction (all in a show that is, itself, fiction) is worthy of endless praise, just as much credit is due to the creation of the completely un-subtle Henry Fondle. Invented by Todd (“I know what sex is. I am not a child. I’m just not great at building robots,” he explains deftly), Henry Fondle is basically a multitude of dildos on wheels who spouts dirty talk… and rises meteorically through the ranks of the entertainment industry. Sound familiar? While BoJack is a flawed but deeply human…horse… navigating Hollywood and his own intense fallibility, Henry Fondle is his cartoonish counterpart, the show’s chance to express, in no uncertain terms, society’s tendency to tolerate, willfully misinterpret, and even reward a very specific type of indecent behavior. And unlike BoJack, who has room and desire to grow, Henry (and all that he stands for) can be gotten rid of, Lennie Smalled away by a mournful Todd. Is it hyperbolic? Sure. Is it funny? Of course it is. But Henry Fondle’s ability to crash upward to CEO of Whattimeisitrightnow.com, as well as his ultimate downfall and demise, are no less telling than BoJack’s season-long character arc. Even when it’s at its funniest, BoJack Horseman is deadly serious and fantastically on point.
2. Kim Wexler – Better Call Saul
It’s hard to name an un-fascinating character in Better Call Saul. Hell, even in flashbacks, Chuck was a scene stealer this year. But Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler is the real showstopper. Brilliant and capable of anything, but also very much in love with Jimmy and called by the siren song of his less-than-legal dealings, Kim has always been captivating. Season 4 sees her more than ever between worlds, balancing serious legal work with its… less serious counterpart. But her most outstanding new role is doing double duty as the outward expression of Jimmy’s grief for his brother Chuck, the grief that he either can not or will not show. A pervading theme throughout the season, it’s demonstrated best in one of the year’s most powerful scenes, as Jimmy off-handedly reads Chuck’s final letter to him in between spoonfuls of cereal, and Kim slowly breaks down with emotion. It’s incredible. But the culmination of her shouldered grief, with the return of the letter in the final minutes of the season, is even better. Certain that Jimmy has finally broken through his hardened shell, she’s blindsided (as are we) by the realization that his ultimate show of emotion has just been yet another con. The final shot of Kim, confronted with a stark new understanding of the man she loves and has championed for years, speaks volumes more than anything Jimmy himself could ever say or do.
1. Teddy Perkins – Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
What the hell is Teddy Perkins anyway? Credited as “Himself” and, apparently, in character for the entirety of his eponymous episode’s shoot, Donald Glover’s creation extends much further than what we see on screen. But even the small portion we do see is so complete, so utterly bizarre, and so straight-up frightening, there was no one else who really could’ve claimed this top spot. A gifted but rotting musician warped by a domineering father and suffering from a “rare skin condition,” Teddy is, ostensibly, a Michael Jackson type. (Or rather, his brother, Benny, who wears exactly the same clothes and always covers his face, is). But that type is explored so deeply and adeptly, and expanded upon so much in the episode’s mere 35-minute runtime, that Teddy Perkins is a character utterly apart. He’s unique and terrifying, a microcosm of the pressures of a veritable grocery list of influences including fame, abuse, racism, and fear. It’s a shock at the end of the episode to see that Teddy and Benny really are two separate people. But maybe Benny was so damaged that he dissociated himself into a completely new body. In the Gothic nightmare world of Teddy’s mansion, it seems completely possible.