The 20 Best Television Characters of 2015

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It’s painful when your favorite doesn’t make the list, isn’t it? But of all the end-of-year lists we’ve compiled here at Paste TV, this one might be the most well-rounded. First off, some incredible women characters are dominating this year. Our TV screens were blessed with the presence of actors like Regina King, Kirsten Dunst and Aya Cash. But if you’re looking for any other patterns in our collection, that’ll prove to be somewhat difficult. We’re celebrating great villains, like Pablo Escobar and Mike Milligan, and new, very different male hero types in the way of Mr. Robot’s Elliot and Master of None’s Dev. With such an incredible year in TV, there’s no way we could recognize every great character. My personal favorite was a role written for a man, but ultimately given to the great Loretta Devine—the smooth-talking, gay extortionist CeCe from a fascinating show that far too many people missed out on, Being Mary Jane. Another incredible character who tragically didn’t make our list is the great Annalise Keating. All of that to say, I feel your pain. Tell us your favorites in the comments below, but first hear out our writers as they make their cases for the 20 best TV characters of 2015.—Shannon M. Houston

20. Rebecca Bunch
Actor: Rachel Bloom
Show: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Rebecca Bunch is not “crazy.” Sure, she turned down a partnership at a fancy New York law firm to follow her ex-boyfriend Josh—a person she hadn’t seen or spoken to in years—to West Covina, California in an attempt to win him back. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does its best to make sure that through all that, Rebecca stays relatable. She’s neurotic, no doubt, and we can see some of the roots of that through flashbacks to her rough childhood and interactions with her cold mother. But the crazy never gets so out of control that we’re no longer rooting for Rebecca to woo Josh (or maybe start something up with his best friend, Greg).—Bonnie Stiernberg

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19. Erika Murphy
Actor: Regina King
Show: The Leftovers

Erika Murphy wasn’t in much of the second season of The Leftovers as the show often busied itself with the unraveling of Kevin Garvey’s state, and the plight of John Murphy’s Sisyphean crusade to keep the world outside Jarden, Texas at bay. But when Erika came into focus, the episode would immediately become electric with Regina King’s highwire acting work. Here was a woman whose home life was collapsing and whose world started to crumble with the arrival of the strange family moving in next door. Rather than withering away, she set her jaw, lowered her stare, and remained a fiery center amid the chaos. And when faced with the probing questions and barely-masked contempt of Nora, she turned ice cold and venomous. King’s performance was the ideal follow up to her Emmy-winning turn on American Crime, and one that, in a perfect world, will net her a few more statues.—Robert Ham

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18. Donna Clark
Actor: Kerry Bishé
Show: Halt and Catch Fire

In the past decade, television has explored a vast array of different narratives and characters. Unfortunately, the overriding theme of this most recent Golden Age would still read something along the lines of “White Men and Their Problems.” Here is where AMC’s ratings-troubled, yet phenomenal drama Halt & Catch Fire becomes essential viewing. The show’s first season positioned Donna as a brilliant engineer, stuck in the role of under-appreciated 1980s housewife. By season’s end, she (and, by extension, Kerry Bishé’s portrayal) had emerged as one of the series’ most potent creations. Going into the second year, the Halt team wisely choose to push Donna into a more managerial position, resulting in some of 2015’s best TV moments. To be clear, Donna is a strong character not because of her technological expertise (though that’s certainly a factor), but because of how she fights to keep her dignity intact despite her life collapsing around her. This year alone found her working tirelessly to keep a struggling start-up afloat, address her crumbling marriage and make a devastating personal choice concerning the future of her family. Donna is tangible proof that one doesn’t need a troubled antihero to make a show work; rather, you only need great writing and the proper performer to bring it to life.—Mark Rozeman

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17. Leslie Knope
Actor:   Amy Poehler  
Show: Parks and Recreation

When you think back to the first season of Parks and Recreation, it’s difficult to think of that version of Leslie Knope as a character that would eventually becoming Governor of Indiana. It’s even more difficult to think of that version of Leslie becoming one of the most iconic, beloved characters in TV history. For this, you can credit the writers and showrunner Mike Schur and, of course, the wonderful Amy Poehler, who was as good as ever in the end. The time-jump in the final season reinvigorated the show, and Leslie, who had been spinning her wheels, had new life breathed into her. Her fight, and reconciliation, with Ron Swanson made for great TV, and all season long, Leslie Knope continued to remind us why she will be remembered fondly for years to come.—Chris Morgan

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16. Shelly Pfefferman
Actor: Judith Light
Show: Transparent

Shelly Pfefferman is a flaky narcissist like the rest of the Transparent cast, but the question I want to ask myself is why I like her so much more. First, some evidence for the first claim. Not only does she get excited about certain ideas and quit the minute they require actual work (condo board!)—she attribute powers of death to herself, as when she confronts the painful news of a miscarriage with the claim that it was her fault due to some esoteric curse. As parents go, she and Maura are both pretty rotten examples, but there’s something about Shelly’s nervous energy, and the way she flutters about, in constant hummingbird motion, without really focusing on any one thing, that probably reminds many of us of our own mothers. That’s a credit to Judith Light, who brings a sprightly humanity to Shelly that renders her less nakedly solipsistic. When Maura leaves her, we feel bad in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily feel for the other characters. She’s fragile, and her delicate nature isn’t a put-on, but a real rawness to the world’s pain, as shown by her pathological averseness to being alone. And hey, she’s also very funny! This is the textbook example of a utility character who may not come to the forefront of your mind when you consider the show, but whose presence matters so much more than you’d expect.—Shane Ryan

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15. Selina Meyers
Actor:   Julia Louis-Dreyfus  
Show: Veep

For reasons we may never know, Julia Louis-Dreyfus excels at playing self-absorbed women with questionable ethics, who are constantly teetering on the brink of chaos and destruction. As Elaine on Seinfeld, she fit right in with the rest of the narcissists, and she’s taken that quality to a new extreme on Veep. The pinwheeling presence of Selina Meyer is so consistently captivating, and so hilarious, that it seems wildly unreasonable to look at anyone else, male or female, as the year’s best comedic actor. She has the ambitions of Caesar, but the emotional fluctuations of a child. She pouts, she cheers, she cries, she postures, and she glad-hands, but you never get the sense that there’s anything solid beneath the surface. (Another prize Meyer should win: Worst mother of the year.) Like everyone else in the show’s D.C. milieu, her ideals were long ago lost to cynicism and compromise, and now her entire focus is on the climb—but she’s not even very good at that, hence the constant dance on the edge of a career cliff. The reality would be sad and frustrating in real life, but as the centerpiece of a brilliant satire, Louis-Dreyfus is a genius.—Shane Ryan

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14. Jimmy McGill AKA Saul Goodman
Actor:   Bob Odenkirk  
Show: Better Call Saul

Bob Odenkirk  was great as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, providing a kick of comedy here and there as the quintessential sleazy lawyer. Odenkirk also showed dramatic chops occasionally, but it still seemed uncertain as to whether Odenkirk, and the rest of the Better Call Saul crew, would be able to turn him into a leading character on his own show. Well, as we all know by now, they were more than up to the task. Of course, we barely see Saul Goodman, as we know him, in season one of Better Call Saul. Instead, we watch the younger, scrappier, and (slightly) less ethically compromised lawyer Jimmy McGill. The show gave him true depth, and perhaps even an air of tragedy—and Odenkirk deserves a huge amount of the credit. Who would have ever imagined the guy from Mr. Show earning an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Drama?—Chris Morgan

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13. Boyd Crowder
Actor: Walton Goggins
Show: Justified

Is it any wonder that Boyd Crowder turned to preaching after his very timely arrest? As played by Walton Goggins, he was as charismatic and charming and ingratiating as a pancake makeup-encrusted televangelist, while still remaining deadly as a viper. One look into those deadly eyes, and one listen to that easygoing Southern drawl, and you too would follow that man into the line of fire. He made the slow demise of his criminal empire seem downright criminal, even as you winced while he doled out the worst sins imaginable.—Robert Ham

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12. Phil Miller
Actor:   Will Forte  
Show: Last Man on Earth

For Phil Miller, it wasn’t the end of the world and, rather than the deaths of millions, his downfall lies in the ongoing internal conflict with himself. Throughout the first season, Phil constantly put his foot in his mouth, lied and was willing to leave people to die in order to get what he wanted. Despite all this, it’s a testament to Will Forte and the writers that Phil continued to be a sympathetic and always likable character. As the second season progresses, Phil has finally discovered that there’s something more to lfe than himself and in dealing with this, Phil has become more interesting, without the self-centered nature that defined him prior. No matter how Phil evolves and progresses as the world is being rebuilt—whether he’s trying to regain friends or blow up Pitbull’s yacht—it’s always going to be fascinating and hilarious to watch.—Ross Bonaime

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11. Elizabeth Jennings
Actor:   Keri Russell  
Show: The Americans

Another year, another handful of career highlights for Keri Russell (as well as show husband Matthew Rhys), courtesy of FX’s The Americans. With each passing year, the Soviet spy formerly known as Nadezhda gets pushed through the ringer more and more. This manifests itself in both emotionally wrought domestic concerns (her increasingly complicated relationship with daughter, Paige) as well as insanely visceral set pieces (a certain scene involving impromptu dental work firmly stands as one of the year’s most WTF moments). In both cases, Russell is tasked with putting her all into the performance and, without fail, constantly rises to the occasion. Attention to everyone still putting off on catching up with the show—you are missing one of TV’s very best.—Mark Rozeman

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10. Peggy Blumquist
Actor: Kirsten Dunst
Show: Fargo

There are comic roles and there are tragic roles. But a tragically comic role is perhaps one of acting’s greatest challenges. In the second season of Fargo, Kirsten Dunst taught a master class in pulling off this tricky character type. Instead of pity, Dunst’s performance evoked empathy. We may have laughed at her plenty, but Dunst never let Peggy become a caricature. Clearly mentally unhinged, Peggy had some of the most hilarious lines of the season (“It’s just a flying saucer, Ed. We gotta go.”), but also represented the struggle women faced in the ‘70s (and even now). Peggy longed for something more. She wanted to be, in her own words, fully actualized. Scrappy as hell (she successfully fought off a myriad of attackers), but in full denial about just about everything (the man she hit with her car, what prison will be like), Peggy is definitely a character we hope to meet again in the Fargo universe.—Amy Amatangelo

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9. Gretchen Cutler
Actor: Aya Cash
Show: You’re the Worst

At once, the manic actions and self-destructive tendencies of Gretchen started to make sense as, during the second season of one of the year’s best comedies, she sunk deeper and deeper into depression. And all at once you started to feel just like Jimmy, desperately wishing you could find the right words or magic formula that would snap her right out of it. Like him, you wanted the fun-loving, irresponsible and sexy friend back. Through her sharp acting and comic timing, Aya Cash had already established that Gretchen was the kind of girl that the men and women of the world either want to be or want to fuck, or both. By doing so, she also made her descent into her personal darkness even more unbearable to witness. We appreciate Gretchen now more than ever, and look forward to seeing where she winds up next season.—Robert Ham

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8. Peggy Olson
Actor:   Elisabeth Moss  
Show: Mad Men

This scene alone is reason enough to justify Peggy’s inclusion on our Best Characters of 2015 list. With a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, sunglasses hiding her hangover and a lewd painting under her arm, Peggy strutted into McCann Erickson like she owned the place and she didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. The already-iconic moment epitomized Peggy’s evolution from the timid wallflower of season one, to the confident, let’s just say it, bad-ass of the final season. And, not that she needed a man, but after years of questionable romantic choices (Pete, Ted), Peggy finally found happiness with Stan. She is woman. Hear her roar.—Amy Amatangelo

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7. Pablo Escobar
Actor: Wagner Moura
Show: Narcos

Wagner Moura is one of those actors with huge amounts of what I call “unclassifiable charisma.” Yes, that term needs work, but it’s more than just a bulky word soup. It’s a term that describes those performers who aren’t necessarily the most obvious candidates for stardom, based on any superficial quality, but have a presence that is so magnetic, and humming with energy, that they command a kind of unlikely attraction. Moura has this dynamic something in spades, and while Narcos was a good enough show to survive with a mediocre lead, it was his performance that elevated it to greatness. The show itself was stylish, rather than strictly realistic, and it needed somebody to bring a kind of verve to Escobar to match the tone. Moura did just that, portraying the kingpin with intensity, aggressive sexuality and no small amount of humor. You could always sense his power, and his total lack of morality, but you wanted to watch him thrive nevertheless. Thanks to Moura, the only thing worse than the prospect of Escobar’s next atrocity was the prospect of looking away.—Shane Ryan

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6. Elliot
Actor: Rami Malek
Show: Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot ’s central figure is the kind of role most actors dream of digging their teeth into—a radical, yet brilliant anti-authoritarian whose mood ranges from cold and calculating to full-on manic and crazed. One part Robin Hood, and one part Edward Norton’s Narrator from Fight Club, it’s certainly an intimidating role to step into. Enter Rami Malek. After a series of notable supporting turns in the likes of The Pacific and Short Term 12, Malek finally gets the chance to flex his acting muscles and let the world know what he’s capable of. And boy does he deliver. Boasting the kind of expressive eyes that would have made him the envy of the silent film era, Malek beautifully embodies each layer of Elliot’s complex personality, whether it be the righteous crusader, the sociopathic cyber-vigilante or the tormented addict, lost in the forest of his own mind. It’s the kind of performance that changes the life of the actor giving it. Here’s hoping that the show’s second season honors Malek’s commitment to excellence.—Mark Rozeman

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5. Kimmy Schmidt
Actor: Ellie Kemper
Show: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

No other figure on television this year ran further against the grain of the completely dour age in which we are living than young Kimmy Schmidt, the plucky redhead, rescued from an underground bunker and strange religious cult, and fending for herself and her friends in the awkward and uncomfortable streets of New York City. This was a hero for our times, willing to stand up for what’s right in her battle against the charismatic Reverend Wayne, brave enough to admit her limitations and actually do something about them, and charming enough to inspire everyone around her to think bigger, try harder, and take more chances. Oh, and she’s incredibly funny while doing it all. Kimmy Schmidt, you are just the bright shimmer of sunshine that this country needs right now. Hurry back to our screens as soon as you are able.—Robert Ham

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4. Dev Shah
Actor:   Aziz Ansari  
Show: Master of None

Master of None was our choice for the best new TV show of 2015, and at the heart of it is Dev. Aziz Ansari’s pasta-loving, commitment-fearing protagonist leads us through meditations on everything from Sylvia Plath, to modern romance, to diversity on television and how we view our immigrant parents or grandparents. He’s not perfect—no one is—but he’s the perfect central character for the most thoughtful, hilarious show to grace our screens in 2015.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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3. Jessica Jones
Actor: Krysten Ritter
Show: Jessica Jones

How do you like your superheroes? Do you prefer unfailing do-gooders? Are you fond of torture scientists? Maybe you like your superheroes to have a bit of an ego and a snarky streak? Jessica Jones, the title character of Marvel’s second Netflix venture, doesn’t really fit into any of these categories, though she will oblige your craving for snark. Beyond that, she’s arguably the most grounded character ever put to screen in Marvel’s forays into either the movies or television. Like the best of her cinematic forebears, Jessica has baggage in the shape of a real-life trauma that weighs her down throughout the series; it’s that trauma that colors Jessica Jones as programming that’s not for the faint of heart. The series’ rape survival narrative is shockingly blunt, and that theme is housed foremost in the deceptively slim frame of its leading actress, Krysten Ritter, who appears to have been born to cut people down with well-aimed sarcasm (which is helpful, mostly because Jessica’s most notable superpower is her talent for spitting acerbic put-downs). Through her work, Jessica becomes every bit the layered, struggling superheroine that showrunner Melissa Rosenberg pegs her as: she’s tough as nails and she can leap tall buildings as easily as she can huck a grown man across a bar, but she’s haunted by the abuses suffered in her past. Jessica’s complexity and her deep-rooted humanity make her compelling on a level that even Tony Stark simply isn’t.—Andy Crump

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2. Don Draper
Actor:   Jon Hamm  
Show: Mad Men

Just like people have spent years arguing whether Tony Soprano is dead or not at the end of The Sopranos, fans will likely argue for years to come over whether or not Don’s a permanently changed man. Does he return to New York to make amends with his loved ones and just happen to achieve his greatest success after straightening out his personal life, or is Coca-Cola just another sign that “what you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons,” that Don will always be who he is at his core—a slick ad man who knows how to manipulate people to get what he wants? Is he changed for good, or is Coke a band-aid slapped over a fatal wound? Me, I’m an optimist. I’d like to believe that Don has achieved the impossible and become one of TV’s first antiheroes to get a truly happy ending, just like I’d like to believe that Pete will never cheat on Trudy again, that Joan’s new production company will be an enormous success, that Peggy will marry Stan and become a creative director by 1980 just like Pete predicted. But we don’t know for sure, and in many ways, that’s the beauty of a show like Mad Men. It’s not all black and white; just like in real life, sometimes people change, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they try valiantly, but slip up and revert to their old ways. But either way, life, like Don Draper, keeps on moving.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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1. Mike Milligan
Actor: Bokeem Woodbine
Show: Fargo

What makes a great villain in the Golden Age? So far, it seems that we like a character who’s smart, off-brand funny and someone who has a way with words. When Bokeem Woodbine first showed up on Fargo, there was, immediately, something terrifying about the clarity with which he spoke. This ability to practically hypnotize people with his prose, coupled with his own, completely unique brand of humor made Mike Milligan stand out among the many other great characters season two offered up. Whether he was talking shoe size, or making excellent prog rock band references, or committing one of the cleanest kills of the season, he was, somehow, both captivating and fearsome. For those of us who’ve been praising Woodbine’s work since Jason’s Lyric and Dead Presidents, none of this was surprising. But it’s always exciting when a longtime, unsung favorite gets the chance to reach a whole new audience. At the end of the season, Milligan’s villainy sees some bizarre results, when he takes credit for the Sioux Falls massacre and is rewarded with a mid-level corporate job with the mob. It may not be the ending this character dreamed of, but Woodbine’s so amazing he could probably take Mike’s new hair, suits and golf game and make a highly entertaining spin-off.—Shannon M. Houston and Amy Amatangelo

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