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20 Best TV Characters of 2016

From bat-wielding bad guys to hipster-stoner sidekicks, these were the small-screen heroes and villains that made our year

They designed the architecture of heaven and raised hell, prosecuted the Trial of the Century and put an innocent man in prison, ran Harlem's underworld and created Westworld – they are TV's class of 2016. When we think back to the sitcoms, sadcoms, streaming-service gamechangers, cable dramas, British imports and homegrown network shows that kept us binging all weekend long and/or tuning in week after week, these are the folks that had us chattering on Twitter and turned good shows into great showcases. It didn't matter if they were stoner philosophers or supervillains, neurotic comedians or The Walking Dead's bat-man Negan. These were the characters that helped make our last 12 months of bleary-eyed TV viewing a year to remember.

A quick note: We kept our picks confined to characters that were either introduced in the 2016 seasons of returning shows or in series that premiered in 2016. That's why, say, GoT's Ramsay Bolton and TWD's Glenn Rhee are AWOL; ditto MVP actors like Rhea Seehorn (Better Call Saul) and Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish). 

Michael, 'The Good Place'

Justin Lubin/NBC

Michael, ‘The Good Place’

So far, NBC's metaphysical comedy has taught as that the universe is cruel. only allowing the best of the best to spend eternity in paradise. So thank God – or whoever/whatever's running this operation – for the kindly, curious Michael, an all-powerful afterlife "architect" whose love of humanity offers a glimmer of hope to us ordinary dopes. And thank The Good Place creator Michael Schur for hiring sitcom legend Ted Danson, who's honed his ability to combine calm confidence with hilarious befuddlement. One minute this immortal being is creating a yogurt-filled utopia for the newly dead; in the next, he's getting distracted by a giant bowl of paperclips. Either way, he's a delight. NM

Eleven, 'Stranger Things'

Netflix

Eleven, ‘Stranger Things’

As a psychokinetic weapon for a sinister government initiative, Eleven (played by the gifted Millie Bobby Brown) is both the most powerful and the most vulnerable character in Netflix's insanely popular hit show – a withered lab rat who clings to the humanity that's being drained out of her, bit by excruciating bit. At times, the world bends to her will like Carrie on prom night; at others, she's a hollowed soul who has to be nurtured into friendship and trust after years of manipulation by Matthew Modine's cruel father figure. She sacrifices herself and asks for little more than a pile of Eggo waffles in return. She's the hero we don't deserve. ST

Marcia Clark, 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story'

Byron Cohen /FX

Marcia Clark, ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’

As the O.J. Simpson trial unfolded through the bulk of 1995, it opened up a national conversation on race, celebrity justice, and 24/7 cable television; the concept of sexism in modern society, however, was less talked-about. Among its other virtues, Ryan Murphy's The People v. O.J. Simpson did much to revive the reputation of Marcia Clark, the chief prosecutor who faced not only a murderer's row of defense attorneys, but tabloid sniping about her appearance, her voice and her personal life. Sarah Paulson plays her as a flawed but resilient warrior against impossible headwinds, with a personal commitment to standing up for a serially abused victim and other women like her. It's both a stunning reclamation and a remarkably showstopping performance from start to finish. ST

Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, 'Luke Cage'

Netflix

Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, ‘Luke Cage’

Mahershala Ali is having quite the year. Not only has his turn in the indie drama Moonlight earned him serious awards-season heat, his parallel gig as a street-level supervillain in this Marvel/Netflix series showcased his more cutthroat side (literally). Like Wilson Fisk in Daredevil before him, Luke Cage's Cottonmouth combines winner-take-all crimelord ruthlessness with a taste for high culture (in his case, the art and music of Harlem) and a genuine, if twisted, sense of love and loyalty. For the bulk of the season, this dapper, hip-hop–loving mobster – dig the Biggie portrait! – was not so much Cage's antagonist as his co-leading man. Thanks to Ali, we got a bad guy every bit as complex and engaging as the hero himself. STC

Sarah, 'Horace and Pete'

Sarah, ‘Horace and Pete’

For our money, the nine-minute unbroken closeup on the face of barkeep Horace Wittel's ex-wife as she told the story of her shocking affair with her new husband's elderly father was 2016's true TV tour-de-force. Played by veteran actor Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), the character's outlandish plight became the beating-heart centerpiece of Louis C.K.'s self-released show – a combination of 20th century theater, old-school live television dramas and indie-film digressions – and its most eloquent example of a life of quiet desperation. Sarah was the year's most gut-wrenching portrait of empathy, desire, and sadness, one stammered sentence and furtive glance at a time. STC

Dennis Box, 'The Night Of'

HBO

Dennis Box, ‘The Night Of’

On a show with no shortage of high-caliber acting talent – John Turturro, The Wire's Michael K. Williams, Rogue One's Riz Ahmed  – it was Bill Camp's turn as the quietly confident Detective Dennis Box that ended up being the HBO series' standout performance. Soft-spoken but deceptively shrewd, this "subtle beast" was a living demonstration of the warped system. Using his undeniable skill and genuine thirst for justice – both of which frequently put him at odds with the rest of the force – Box helped railroad the wrong man into prison; though he eventually cracked the case post-retirement, the damage was already done. The character actor's twinkling eyes and craggy face perfectly telegraphed the cop's blend of wit and weariness; you watched as he went from who's-that-guy to a star in eight episodes flat. STC

Portia, 'Search Party'

TBS

Portia Davenport, ‘Search Party’

It's near-impossible to appreciate Meredith Hagner's performance in TBS' Serial-meets-Girls comedy without also acknowledging her partner in crime, the very funny John Early – their shallow hipster sidekicks to Alia Shawkat's amateur private eye are really a double act. But her struggling actress gains a slight edge, thanks to the dose of pathos to her bubbly, fatuous persona brings to this out-of-left-field gem – whether it's barely disguising her alarm at being forced to cozy up to creepers or trying to confidently discuss her whitewashed role as a Latina cop on an awful network procedural. If you rewatch all of the noirish mystery-sitcom's near-perfect 10 episodes, you might come to believe that Hagner is actually the series' real low-key heroine. PR

Darius, 'Atlanta'

Guy D'Alema/FX

Darius, ‘Atlanta’

Every classic sitcom needs its own version of Seinfeld's Kramer or Taxi's Jim Ignatowski – the weirdo who keeps the other characters on their toes. Without Darius, Donald Glover's Atlanta would still be a brilliantly low-key, mostly realistic dramedy about a moderately popular local rapper and the sullen cousin trying to capitalize on his success. But add Keith Stanfield's easy-living, drug-taking philosopher to the mix, and suddenly there’s the possibility that any given episode will feature a weird, wonderful detour. It might be to a pawn shop to buy a samurai sword; or maybe to a shooting range where the patrons don't take too kindly to our man's preference for targets shaped like dogs. Regardless, whenever Darius showed up, you knew you this FX insta-classic was headed into wonderful, warped territory. NM

Maria Bamford, 'Lady Dynamite'

Netflix

Maria Bamford, ‘Lady Dynamite’

These days, TV is lousy with shows about industry types trying to navigate the pitfalls of showbiz. But none matched either the frenzied glee or the naked vulnerability of Lady Dynamite's semiautobiographical lead character. In toggling back and forth between Maria Bamford's stand-up comic (named, of course, "Maria Bamford") dealing with insufferable Hollywood types and her time in a Minnesota psych ward recovering from a mental breakdown, the show draws a bright line between the moments when we're frantically pretending to be okay … and the moments when we admit that we're clearly not. The weird specificity of her plight — and the bright smile Bamford draws across her character's tragedy mask — only makes her more relatable. JS

Gatsby the Dog, 'High Maintenance'

Gatsby the Dog, ‘High Maintenance’

It takes a lot of range to sell a performance of instant infatuation, romantic longing and resigned despair; it takes a virtuoso to do it all without a line of dialogue. But HBO's stoner comedy/experimental short series – an extension of creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld's beautifully skewed online vignettes – landed a consummate canine pro in its inaugural season's unlikely stand-out story. A New York City pooch falls in love with his New Age hippie walker (Orange Is the New Black's Yael Stone), and what could've been a goofy one-note premise is, thanks to some crack editing and a poodle-mutt performer named Bowdie, is suddenly imbued with serious emotional consideration. Of course the dog in question is named Gatsby – what else would you call an emblem of unrequited love and utter heartbreak? CB

Agent Dom DiPierro, 'Mr. Robot'

Michael Parmelee/USA Network

Agent Dom DiPierro, ‘Mr. Robot’

How can you make an audience root against a revolution? That was the task that Grace Gummer had to shoulder as the driven young FBI agent Dom DiPierro, arguably the main antagonist of Mr. Robot's bleak, brilliant second season. A Sherlock Holmes for the millennial set, this fed kept following the money as the show's hacker group fsociety led her to deeper and deadlier territory. Yet her drive and determination slipped when we saw her at home: Achingly alone with nothing but tech gadgets and cybersex for companionship, she was at the center of the season’s most striking portraits of urban alienation. STC

Dr. Robert Ford, 'Westworld'

John P. Johnson/HBO

Dr. Robert Ford, ‘Westworld’

Smile, and smile, and be a villain. As the co-founder and chief narrative architect of the Westworld theme park, Dr. Robert Ford is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare; he'd recognize Hamlet's description of evil every time he looked in the mirror. Or would he? As played by Anthony Hopkins, who taps the quiet menace he mined so effectively decades ago as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Ford spends the bulk of the HBO hit's first season manipulating and murdering everyone, human or android, who threatens his control. But late-game twists hint at an even more disturbing truth behind Ford's highly erudite villainy, this time one out of Nietzsche: To fight monsters, is it necessary to become a monster yourself? STC

Phoebe Waller-Bridge ‘Fleabag’

Amazon Studios

Fleabag, ‘Fleabag’

Spiraling depression never felt so magnetic as it does on the title character in Phoebe Waller-Bridge's black comedy. As she careens through her life in London, from disastrous sexual encounters to familial tension to petty theft, Fleabag gives us the play-by-play, breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. It's a narrative tactic that makes us complicit in the more despicable things she does, like Richard III calmly informing us he's going to start murdering the royal family. She is by turns wryly funny, cruel and utterly heartbreaking, originally conceived by Waller-Bridge for a one-woman play – which might be why she feels more personal and fleshed-out than virtually any other character this TV season. JS

Negan, 'The Walking Dead'

Gene Page/AMC

Negan, ‘The Walking Dead’

Yes, there are moments when Jeffrey Dean Morgan's portrayal of The Walking Dead's alpha a-hole villain threatens to tip into pure mustache-twirling camp; you could almost see chunks of chewed scenery the size of Lucille stuck in the actor's teeth. But AMC's megahit show has been in need of a proper over-the-top nemesis ever since the Governor shuffled off this mortal coil, and the bat-wielding, swagger-strutting Negan more than fits the bill. The Watchmen star clearly seems to be having fun playing the character's banter-heavy, bad-ass side to the hilt, but make no mistake: As the Season Seven opener's double execution proved, this guy plays for keeps. And if the series sticks to comics' arc of the leather-jacketed bad guy, then we've barely even scratched this divisive character's surface. Batter up. DF

Tig, 'One Mississippi'

Patti Perret/Amazon Prime Video

Tig Bavaro, ‘One Mississippi’

Comedian Tig Notaro's public processing of recent tragedies in her life – a breast cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy, various back-to-back ailments, a breakup and her mother's untimely death – has taken on many forms, from stand-up performances to documentary to memoir. But along with screenwriter Diablo Cody and showrunner Kate Robin, she also turned it into what may be the darkest sitcom of the year: One Mississippi, which follows one "Tig Bavaro" as she returns to her Deep South hometown after her mom's death. Notaro's semi-fictional avatar greets all the punishing curveballs life throws at her with an unblinking deadpan stare – a modern Buster Keaton facing down the speeding steam engine of emotional disaster. JS

Richard Roper, 'The Night Manager'

Des Willie/AMC

Richard Roper, ‘The Night Manager’

Hugh Laurie is best known for his role as a cantankerous medical genius on House, but that show's good doctor never crossed the line between colorful misanthropy and plain-old evil. As Richard Roper, a rapacious, murdering arms dealer of this standout John le Carré adaptation, Laurie relished the opportunity to sink his teeth into a true monster; he's the type of guy who opens up a refugee camp as a cover for a bomb-peddling business that will undoubtedly produce more refugees. And he does it sleeping perfectly well at night, next to the beautiful woman he's terrorized into staying by his side. The show starts off by gingerly suggesting that men like him rule the world in the shadows. By the end, it all but confirms the notion. ST

Issa Rae, 'Insecure'

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Issa Rae, ‘Insecure’

In expanding her web series Awkward Black Girl into an HBO sitcom, writer-producer-star Issa Rae upped the narrative ambition but kept her biggest asset: herself, playing a socially clumsy young woman who has a habit of looking into mirrors while trying out rap lyrics. Insecure is a show about the different personae that our heroine has to adopt. whether she's with friends, boyfriends, clients or co-workers. It works so well because we get such direct, intimate insight into what's going on inside the heroine's head. We figure her life out along with her, one dope rhyme and self-aware pep talk at a time. NM

The Punisher, 'Daredevil'

Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Frank Castle (a.k.a.The Punisher,) ‘Daredevil’

The soldier/family man turned remorseless killing machine known as the Punisher was Daredevil's enemy, ally and cautionary-tale photo-negative – it depended on which point you tuned in to this Netflix series' sophomore season. But you have to credit actor Jon Bernthal for making all three facets of the infamous Marvel antihero work so well. The combination of sensitivity and sad-eyed, surly machismo he displayed in The Walking Dead made him the perfect choice to introduce the antihero to the MCU (small-screen division), but this was more than the finest superhero casting since Robert Downey Jr. signed on as Tony Stark. Frank Castle was the representation of vigilante violence taken to its logical, lethal extreme – a man who demonstrated the remarkably fine line between fighting crime and cracking your moral compass altogether. STC

Tulip, 'Preacher'

Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC

Tulip O’Hare, ‘Preacher’

Actor Ruth Negga is in the Academy Awards conversation this year thanks to her fine performance in the film Loving. But her best work on-screen in 2016 was arguably in AMC's latest comic book adaptation – a picaresque adult fantasy where she plays a gun-slinging mercenary with a heartbreaking past. In a show that features an intoxicated vampire, a telepathic minister and actual angels from heaven, it's not easy for a gal who's just good with a pistol to become the breakout character. But Tulip O'Hare's wild-child ways, steely resolve and deep feelings for her old preacher pal Jesse Custer always make her the most charismatic figure in any scene. NM

Chuck Rhoades, 'Billions'

Jeff Neumann/Showtime

Chuck Rhoades, ‘Billions’

Before Chuck Rhoades, the hard-charging U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, enters into a titanic battle of wills against brazen hedge-funder Bobby Axelrod, we see him tied on the floor of his bedroom, taking a golden shower from his dominatrix wife. He's supposed to be the good guy in the fight against the ultimate avatar of Wall Street greed. But this Showtime drama itself urinates on his righteousness at every turn, exposing the weakness and hypocrisy that underscores his own quest for power. Paul Giamatti sinks his teeth into the role with a pit-bull ferociousness and cup that nearly spilleth over with every rage-spitting invective. But more often than not, the actor's performance reveals a man who, despite his pathetic flaws, seeks justice by any means necessary. ST