Picking Media for a list like this is a bit of a bonus: In addition to getting an omniscient embodiment of pop culture, there’s the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Lucille Ball, the otherworldly confidence of Starman-era Bowie, and the iconic flair of “Seven Year Itch” Marilyn Monroe. If you’re going to have a mythical showdown, best have Gillian Anderson on your side. Media may not have popped up in every episode, but it was impossible not to take note when she did. May she feature prominently in many of the series’ showdowns to come.
The saga of Dylan Maxwell has many classic players. Peter Maldonado is the great documenter of high school truths, Alex Trimboli is the finger-pointing semi-villain, and Dylan is the poster boy for the questionably accused. But none of those characters capture the nuances (and dangers) of taking part in a true crime expose quite like Mr. Krazanski (Ryan O’Flanagan), the Hanover High history teacher who gets caught up in the drama in the most unexpected ways. Of all the high school tropes that “American Vandal” looked at, this version of “the cool teacher” may have been the one it nailed the best.
All deserved praise for the Hormone Monsters, but there’s something about the left-field nature of including a four-decades-dead jazz legend in a show about changing bodies that feels as random and unpredictable as puberty is. Even when he’s not actually singing, Jordan Peele has the perfect musical cadence to Ghost Duke’s sincere and horribly outdated advice on love and growing up.
We’re big fans of the way that this Freeform show treats its millennial main characters, and a lot of that comes straight from the boss. As the editor-in-chief of Scarlet magazine, Jacqueline is a marked contrast to the fire-breathing bosses of the usual fictional media outlets. She’s someone that you believe that Jane and Kat would want to look up to and learn from, someone with the gravitas to make Sutton and the rest of the magazine staff pay attention. A firm leader with a vested interest in the success of all those working under her? It’s the kind of person you wish were more often in power.
For a show that never fails to surprise, the ascension of Nathaniel as one of the most reliably entertaining characters on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” makes perfect sense. After fan favorite Greg’s departure halfway through Season 2, Nathaniel quickly became an important lingering member of Rebecca’s inner circle, both professionally and otherwise. On the music side, Scott Michael Foster has been more than up to the task, making “Let’s Have Intercourse” and “I Go to the Zoo” two of the show’s most made-to-relisten-to songs this year. (Seriously, few other people could have turned the line “I won’t be back to normal ’til I see what your nipples look like” into art.)
In a world in love with labels, Lionel’s search for his own identity on his own terms was just one of the fascinating character studies made possible in Justin Simien’s TV adaptation of his 2014 film. While the ostensible lead of the series may be Logan Browning as Sam White, DeRon Horton’s performance kept us enraptured, and it’s exciting to imagine how his journey will evolve over future seasons.
Sci-fi TV has always been a home for strong women unafraid of being their natural bad-ass selves, but Bobbie Draper, the hardcore Marine introduced this season on “The Expanse,” was more than a tough officer — she also revealed a strong moral core that put her in the center of the action. Heroes sometimes aren’t the people who fight, but the people who stand up for what’s right.
The core of “Fargo” as a series has been built not just on nefarious sorts committing misdeeds, but the good-as-gold law enforcement officers investigating them. And while we love Allison Tolman and Patrick Wilson, Carrie Coon’s portrayal of Gloria Burgle, aware of how badly the world can treat a person but still vulnerable enough to struggle when the worst came true, stands out as something something both heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s never hard to root for a character played by Coon, given her capacity for being so human on screen, but we’ll never forget Gloria’s reaction to, finally, winning her battle with technology.
Pick any of the GLOW team at random and they’d be a great fit for this list. But with a story as compelling outside the ring as it is inside, Debbie’s search for trust, understanding, and fulfillment is the not-so-secret DNA to a show that became of the summer’s most pleasant surprises. A woman who can show the vulnerability of a personal crisis while still landing a top-rope piledrive is a heroine that 2017 could use, regardless of when the show takes place.
Initially, we only really got to know Offred through her voice-over, the everpresent suppressed thoughts that reveal the rage pounding with every pulse of her heart. But as “The Handmaid’s Tale” unspooled more of her backstory, let her choices in the past reflect upon her choice in the present, we came to know the real June — a woman who might never thought of herself as strong enough to win a war, but who in the end might be a real source of hope in a bleak, desperate world.
It may take a few paragraphs to suss out exactly how Lenny fits into the framework of “Legion.” But whenever Aubrey Plaza was on screen in FX’s decidedly different take on the superhero, there was a distinct sense of excitement in the idea that Lenny could literally be anything. The prankster ghost that occasionally braves the light, but mostly lingers in the shadows, David Haller wouldn’t be the same protagonist without this particular mischievous force fueling the fire.
“Man Seeking Woman” always had its special brand of surreal delights when the show was centered on the impossibilities of the dating world. But the show reached another level in its third (and tragically, final) season with the arrival of Lucy, Josh’s first true chance and true love. Katie Findlay worked seamlessly into the fabric of the show, playing both the whimsical fantasy sequences and grounded reality of a long-term relationship with ease.
Ed Kemper represents everything that “Mindhunter” was and can be going forward. The internalized violence, the manipulative nature of sociopathy, the disconnect between the monsters we imagine and the ones that exist right in front of our faces. The central investigative duo of Holden Ford and Bill Tench each had their compelling moments over the course of the show’s debut season, but it was in their conversations with Kemper that the mission statement of “Mindhunter” truly came to life. Even if Cameron Britton never pops up on screen again as Kemper, his farewell scene in Season 1 was a fitting mix of everything that will haunt the show going forward.
Irving, played by the always magnetic Bobby Cannavale, has revealed a lot about himself in the third season of “Mr. Robot” — without actually saying a damn thing. He’s an aspiring novelist. He knows cars. He’s a BBQ connoisseur. He’s a stickler for the rules. And he may be the most powerful person in the world right now, thanks to the power he has over those fueling the anarchy tearing society apart. Irving may not be a good man, but he is certainly a fascinating one.
Amidst the rest of the “Neo Yokio” satire of/love letter to the upper crust New York social scene, one thing stands above them all. Delivered in a sing-song butler cadence, Jude Law’s performance as Charles is the perfect Siri for the 22nd century. When one of the later episodes offers an extra layer to Charles’ backstory, it’s a Toblerone-worthy addition that has us almost single-handedly hoping for a Season 2.
It’s always interesting when a character who seems to be introduced strictly as comic relief ends up becoming the center of a deeply emotional storyline. Elena’s best friend, introduced as a teen playing so much into goth trends that those photos are going to be embarassing for her in just a few years’ time, was also revealed to be the daughter of undocumented immigrants, whose deportation factored heavily into the show’s first season. We very much hope that Carmen’s doing okay now, even if she chooses not to show it.
“Star Trek: Discovery” threw a lot of elements together when crafting the backstory of Michael Burnham: a orphaned human child adopted by one of the most famous Vulcans of her era and raised alongside Spock on Vulcan, all before proving her ability to hold her own at the Vulcan Science Academy and signing up for her first Starfleet commission. Yet Sonequa Martin-Green gave her a realness over the first half of Season 1 that revealed not just how that backstory shaped her, but how she’s now evolving beyond it. “Trek” as a franchise has always relied on its more alien characters to explore the nature of humanity. Burnham is somehow planted between both worlds.
Whatever the hell Michael Cera was doing when he was a guest star for five minutes in one episode of “Twin Peaks,” it was perhaps one of the most memorable moments of The Return. A beautiful microcosm of Cera’s inherent talents and David Lynch’s inherent weirdness, Wally Brando brought “Wild One” flare to the town of Twin Peaks, and left us all forever changed.
To be clear, this is in reference to Diplo, the character played by James van der Beek on the Viceland comedy “What Would Diplo Do?”, not the actual man born as Thomas Wesley Pentz who is one of the world’s better known DJs. It’s understandable if you get them confused, because technically the Beek from the Creek is playing a parody of the man. But the parody has developed a life of its own thanks to JVDB’s fearlessness when it comes to making Diplo a brilliant musician who also happens to be a goodhearted, but sometimes petty, dumb-dumb. The only network executive on the planet who would think this is a good idea for a character-based sitcom is definitely Spike Jonze. Fortunately for us all, Jonze has a job at Viceland.
The man wants what the man wants, and he wants his Cherry Coke Zero, no please or thank you on offer. Tempestuous, idiosyncratic, and unlike anything else on television, Jude Law’s whole-hearted commitment to the role made the dopest of Popes a fascinating figure in 2017.