Now that we’ve revealed our best shows and episodes of the year, it’s time to double down on the people who keep us coming back to series week after week. Television’s ability to pull off long-form character studies is one of its greatest strengths, and 2015 was no exception. From breakout performances in brand-new shows to figures who stood out from the ensemble a season or two into their story’s run, here are the 15 — give or take a few pairs — most compelling characters on television this year.
Sarah Pfefferman, Transparent
Of the three Pfefferman siblings, Sarah’s arc felt the least original in Season 1: suburban mom has midlife crisis/sexual reawakening, then ditches her husband for her college ex-girlfriend. In Season 2, though, Sarah grew to exemplify the monstrous selfishness and hilarious appeal of Transparent‘s central family like no other character on the show, ruining weddings, eyeshadow compacts, and booty calls alike, only to deliver blasé, barely genuine apologies episodes later, all in a quest for a “rapist who makes you cum.” Yet somehow, we’re still happy when she stumbles on what she’s looking for.
Jessica Huang, Fresh Off the Boat
Constance Wu’s breakout performance is the anchor of Fresh Off the Boat. Jessica Huang could easily be a disaster; she’s an immigrant whose cheapness and strict parenting are frequently the subject of subplots and one-liners alike. Yet her specificity, both on the page and as performed by Wu, is precisely what makes her character work, giving her the quirks essential to any sitcom heroine while steering clear of any Tiger Mom stereotypes.
Rebecca Bunch, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The title character of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a straight-up mess, the kind who decides to quit her life and move to California on the strength of a chance run-in with her ex-boyfriend and a strangely existential butter commercial. But she’s our mess, and creator/star Rachel Bloom never lets us forget it. The product of a Jewish mother to end all Jewish mothers and a lifetime of neuroses, Rebecca is self-destructive in a way that’s as heartbreaking as it is frighteningly realistic.
Cookie Lyon, Empire
Halfway through its second season, Empire has flown wayyyy off the tracks. But as long as Taraji P. Henson continues to dominate the screen, her show will continue to dominate the ratings. An ex-con and ace producer dedicated to taking her rightful place in the music industry at all costs, Cookie’s the woman who makes the Lyons roar. No character has been more synonymous with the success of their show in 2015, and no list of best characters would be complete without her.
Titus Andromedon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
It would have been devastatingly easy for Titus to slip into the tried, true, and tired role of Gay Black Best Friend on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In practice, he’s just as much a protagonist as the title character, adding a necessary dose of cynicism to her life while still chasing his dreams with soon-to-be-hit singles like “Pinot Noir, an ode to black penis” (thanks, Tituss Burgess’ Broadway cred!). A surprise finale reveal hinted at even juicier plot lines in Season 2, now mere months away.
Rachel Goldberg and Quinn King, UnREAL
The sadomasochistic dynamic between a sociopathic reality show producer and her equally twisted, if slightly more conflicted, protégé ultimately proved a truer romance than any of the pairings they were engineering onscreen. The masterminds behind a Bachelor-esque show within a show, Rachel and Quinn hate their jobs as much as they ace them — which is to say, more than anyone else on the planet. Brought to life by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, UnREAL‘s dynamic duo offers a novel twist on the classic antihero trope of the tortured, talented genius.
Elliott Alderson and Mr. Robot, Mr. Robot
If you’ve seen Fight Club, you knew exactly what was coming the second mentally ill hacker Elliott was drawn into global conspiracy by a strange man on the subway. That didn’t make Rami Malek’s intensity or Christian Slater’s insanity any less terrifying, nor the final proof of Elliott’s unreliability — to himself, to others, and to us — any less wrenching. Mr. Robot wears its ’90s influences on its screen, yet marries them with a uniquely 21st-century paranoia in the form of its obsessive protagonist(s).
Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, Saturday Night Live
Sometimes, a complicated, compelling, conflicted political figure gets the complicated, compelling, conflicted SNL impression she deserves. Such is McKinnon’s deconstruction of/homage to the onetime First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, a woman who sleeps in her pantsuits, tries and fails to hang with the kids, and really wants this election to be over with so she can be fucking POTUS already. Just try to watch the debates without hearing McKinnon’s “strong but feminine laughter.”
Rob Norris and Sharon Morris, Catastrophe
The central couple of Catastrophe, the British series that finally landed stateside this year on Amazon, simply feel real. Their chemistry is palpable, and so are their hangups; their fights are about things that actual couples fight about, not traditional rom-com heroes who somehow made it to adulthood with third-grade communications skills. Creators and co-stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan have imbued the series with both their considerable comic talents and their real-life experiences with marriage and children, and it shows.
Killgrave, Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones may suffer from clunky dialogue and several more episodes than its story deserves, but its trump card is Killgrave, a villain with the power to make anyone do anything he says. Unlike the Big Bads of the Marvel movies, Killgrave’s agenda isn’t anything so abstract, or boring, as ruling and/or destroying the world. It’s simply to control Jessica, and he’s all the scarier for it. Add the handy metaphor he provides for trauma (his victims form a support group) and emotional abuse (his victims want to do whatever he tells them when they’re under his control), and Marvel has its most contemporary monster in ages.
Meg Abbott, The Leftovers
Due respect — and boy, is she due a lot — to Regina King, but Liv Tyler’s Meg wins out over King’s Erika Murphy as The Leftovers’ latest breakout character by just a hair. Why? Because Laurie’s onetime student has become the fanatic teacher, masterminding a fringe element of The Guilty Remnant that ditches specifics like wearing white at all times or not speaking for the principle of reminding the rest of the world that life as they knew it is over at all costs. As of the finale, Meg is a rapist, a murderer, and an emotional terrorist, infecting the sanctuary that was Miracle National Park with the malignant cancer that is the Remnant. Welcome to the Killgrave Club of Supervillains We Wouldn’t Want to Mess With, Meg.
Peggy Blumquist, Fargo
One of the themes that runs through Fargo, both the film and the two seasons thus far of Noah Hawley’s FX adaptation, is that of an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances that bring out the worst in them. Peggy is the latest in a spiritual lineage that runs straight from Jerry to Lester to her, an aesthetician whose twisted mind lets her see a late-night hit-and-run as an opportunity to escape her suburban Minnesota life. Her delusions, and her nasty streak, gradually take over until she’s gleefully stabbing her prisoner/hallucinated life coach in a cabin, and Kirsten Dunst plays a trapped housewife gone demented to a tee.
Nick Wasicsko, Show Me a Hero
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” is both the Fitzgerald — F. Scott, not the local politician one character hilariously mistakes him for — quote that gave HBO’s spectacular miniseries its name and the de facto motto of co-writer David Simon. The unlikely hero in question is Wasicsko, the Polish ex-cop mayor of Yonkers who did the right thing and steered his city through its ’80s-era war over public housing before paying the political, and personal, price. Portrayed by Oscar “I Won 2015” Isaac, Wasicsko is heartbreaking proof that we don’t always do the right thing for the right reasons — and it’s a wonder we ever do the right thing at all.
Effie Brown, Project Greenlight
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that the fourth season of HBO’s Project Greenlight would inadvertently spotlight Hollywood’s gender and racial inequalities; after all, public scrutiny of them is one of the biggest things that’s changed in the decade since Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s reality series was last on the air. Thanks to her onscreen clashes with Damon and the season’s chosen director, plus her after-the-fact commentary, producer Effie Brown (who’s since moved on to working with Lee Daniels on Girl Group) became both the season’s voice of reason and its champion of principles that should be common sense in Hollywood, but, thanks to people like the series’ ostensible heroes, aren’t yet.
Master of None is a show that’s unashamedly theme- rather than plot- or character-driven. Its protagonist, Dev, played by co-creator Aziz Ansari, is essentially a fusion of Ansari’s persona and a comic Everyman for the audience to follow through the series’ collection of topic-of-the-week vignettes (feminism! long-term relationships! navigating Hollywood as an Indian American!). The exception is Dev’s father Ramesh, famously portrayed by Ansari’s own father, who took acting classes and vacation time from his IRL job as a doctor for the role. Beginning with “Parents” and throughout the ten-episode season, Ramesh stands out as a wryly funny counterpart to his son, embodying the almost effortlessly revolutionary potential of Netflix’s latest prestige comedy.