Welcome to Damn Fine TV’s coverage of the best in TV from 2017. For the next two weeks I’ll be sharing my favourite shows and characters from this past year.
Back in 2014, I got into the habit of keeping tabs on the shows I watched throughout the year. More recently, I started adding the outstanding episodes, as well as the standout characters from each show to those lists. As a nerdy and highly organized individual, I take small pleasures in making lists such as these, but my creative side decided it was time to put them to further use. So, a few weeks ago I began the somewhat overwhelming (yet highly enjoyable) task of compiling three “Favourites Lists.” The second of which will highlight my picks for the top TV characters of 2017.
Characters are the most essential part to any story; they’re the ones who help audiences form a connection with the narrative. Often times, great characters can save even the most poorly plotted shows from being complete failures. If there’s someone on screen you can identify or empathize with, or even one who you simply enjoy watching, you’re more likely to stay invested for longer. I can think of at least five shows I watch, which I know aren’t very good, but continue to tune in to because they have characters I truly care about. Even the dumpster fire that is The Walking Dead has managed to keep my viewership, thanks to a very (VERY) small handful of characters – Carol in particular.
When characters are forced to perform ridiculous dialogue or take actions that make little sense, and yet we still love them, the actor portraying them is often to thank. Again, taking Carol for example, Melissa McBride does the absolute most she can with the subpar material she’s often given, so Carol remains interesting. The following list takes all of this into account, and the result is a mix of praise for both the characters themselves and the actors behind them.
So, let’s get to it, Damn Fine TV’s Top 9 TV Characters of 2017.
*These characters are listed in no particular order – picking 9 was hard enough! CAUTION: from here on out there are SPOILERS for all of the shows these characters are from. You’ve been warned!
Nora Durst – The Leftovers, Season 3
As I previously alluded to in the post for my Top 8 TV Episodes, Nora Durst has been a favourite character of mine for quite some time. In fact, my second ever post on this site (which had a different name back then) was a list of my favourite female characters from 2014, and Nora was featured there, too. Throughout every season of The Leftovers, Carrie Coon deftly managed to make the very specific grief Nora suffered, so universally relevant. There were countless moments when her character could have been too ridiculous or even overly dramatic, but Coon brought such heart to those moments that they always rang true. Nora could be petty, messy, and rough around the edges, but she was also tenacious, straightforward, and sometimes so softhearted it was almost childlike. Point being, she was one of the most well-rounded, thought-provoking characters; not just in 2017 but in all of TV history.
However, to focus us back on the year at hand, Nora’s arc in the final season of The Leftovers is what earned her a place on this list. She had too many great scenes to list individually, so I’ll highlight the two that will stay with me forever. First off, the final scene between Nora and Matt was heartwarming, yet darkly funny and heartbreaking, all at once. Though we’d always known they were brother and sister, there was something about their chemistry in the scene that made the relationship truly come alive. Their characters felt lived-in, the history between them felt extremely real, and the closure it allowed for their relationship was everything fans could have hoped for.
Future Nora’s final monologue is something that should be studied in acting classes. Whether you bought Nora’s story at face value, or chose to believe it was just her coping mechanism, the performance allowed fans on both sides of the fence to feel their own sense of vindication. What a bold, and fittingly ambiguous, way to end the series. It was impossible to look away while Coon delivered a story so perplexing yet poignant, so grand in scope yet intimate in meaning. Every word, every facial expression, every hesitation was simply breathtaking.
Diane Evans’ Tulpa – Twin Peaks: The Return
For longtime fans of Twin Peaks, Part 6 of The Return contained a particularly exciting moment when, the previously unseen and unheard, Diane Evans made her debut. From the minute she turned towards the camera – sleek hair, impeccable nails, and distinctive style on display – everything fell into place. It all just had a sense of being right; as though we’d always known this is what Diane looked like, as though we already knew her inside and out. Diane would quickly become a character filled with mystery, though. All we could truly be certain of was her love of smoking, that she’d somehow found a way to have the words “fuck you” roll off her tongue in the most satisfying way each and every time she said them, and that she held some deep-seated resentment towards the FBI – including Dale Cooper.
Diane’s “so over it” attitude was the source of much laughter throughout the season – “it’s a fucking morgue!” But Laura Dern imbued Diane with an unmistakable air of sorrow, which made for a very haunting character overall. Her most stunning moment comes in Part 16 when Diane is revealed to be a Tulpa; Dern leaves me with goose bumps every time I watch the sequence. However, the quieter moments, such as the literal quiet moment with Tammy and Gordon, shouldn’t be overlooked. In doing so, you’d miss a lot of the quirk and physicality that make Diane so unique. Though I’d love to get to know the Real Diane one day (please, Lynch & Frost, just give us a season 4!) I will miss her Tulpa dearly.
Tulip O’Hare – Preacher, Season 2
Though I enjoyed Preacher’s second season much less than its first, Tulip’s character arc was what kept me tuning in. While we knew bits and pieces of her backstory, it was often presented to us through the lens of Jesse’s history. This year, we learned more about Tulip’s life via her own storyline, as she visited a place from her somewhat recent past. Most intriguing, though, was watching her cope with the trauma she suffered from the Saint of Killers’ attack. It was difficult to see Tulip, the literal definition of a kickass woman, so shaken by the events. But the struggle felt entirely genuine and offered even more depth to her already nuanced character.
Despite the fact the relationship was doomed from the beginning, it was great to see Tulip interact with another woman for more than one episode, and I hope this is something the show can explore again. Of course, the future of Tulip’s character is very much up in the air at this point, thanks to the disappointing events in the finale. Let’s hope Preacher figures out a way to keep Tulip in the mix without completely ruining her character.
Darla – Queen Sugar, Season 2
Darla is a fantastic example of great character development. When Queen Sugar started she was mostly in the background, a secondary character at best. By the time the show wrapped its second season, Darla had become an integral part of the story. Her progression into that role wasn’t slow, but it was steady. The writers constantly laid more and more groundwork for us to understand, and eventually empathize with who she truly is. While we were often distracted with the latest crises in the Bordelon family, Darla was quietly being shaped into a wonderfully rounded, authentic character. And in a show already full of characters who feel incredibly real, she somehow rose to the top.
There have been plenty of narratives about substance abusers who also happen to be parents. However, I don’t remember one that didn’t solely rely on the character’s addiction to fuel its drama. Darla has never been reduced to her addiction, and she is always depicted as so much more than a woman who struggles with sobriety. The Queen Sugar writers took the more difficult narrative path here, but it’s paid off in spades when it comes to character investment. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to Bianca Lawson, who brings so much life to Darla; I feel each and every one of her triumphs and losses, as though they are my own.
The Leda Clones – Orphan Black, Season 5
Yes, technically there are nearly 300 Project Leda clones, and since Tatiana Maslany would portray each of them, there’s no doubt they’d all become fantastic characters in their own right. For the purposes of this entry, though, I’m focusing on the essential four: Sarah Manning, Cosima Niehaus, Alison Hendrix, and Helena. As much as I loved Krystal, MK, and even Rachel, the original four made the greatest impact on the final season of Orphan Black. There are plenty of aspects I could highlight; Sarah’s final showdown with “PT,” Cosima’s constant defiance towards and sabotaging of Neolution, Alison’s bold self-transformation, and Helena’s continued hardcore-ness despite being very, very pregnant. It was a season filled with character and series defining moments, but the most important one of all came towards the end of the very last episode.
Each of the clones has always felt like a distinct, three-dimensional person. Maslany and the writers paid such close attention to detail in their creation and existence, so it never felt as though we were just watching a bunch of Tatiana’s in different wigs. The rare scenes where more than 2 clones were featured truly emphasize that fact, by showcasing each of their personalities as they interact with one another. On top of being a sheer visual effects delight, the backyard scene with all four clones, was highly emotionally satisfying. Sarah’s breakdown was painful but necessary. Her honesty encouraged her sestras to open up, too, and their heart-to-heart (to-heart-to-heart) was enormously meaningful – both to them and to longtime fans.
Dougie Jones/Mr. C/Dale Cooper – Twin Peaks: The Return
It came as no surprise when, earlier this week, Kyle MacLachlan earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role(s) in Twin Peaks: The Return. He was nothing short of phenomenal, as each of the three (though arguably four) characters he portrayed. He reached Tatiana Maslany levels of excellence, allowing each of his roles to be so distinct you’d often forget there was only one man behind them all. It wasn’t just a matter of different hairstyles or clothing; the range in both physicality and overall tone for these characters is truly something to marvel. From the menace and violence intrinsic to Mr. C, to the goofy yet poignant “Dale” trapped in Dougie’s body, and the still heroic but slightly subdued Real Dale Cooper – each man left their own mark on The Return, in vastly different but equally significant ways.
Dougie was a constant source of laughter right from the very beginning, and though he never said much he sure was quotable – “Hellloooo!” But he wasn’t merely comic relief. Dougie represented Dale’s own Return, and those rare moments when Cooper was visible behind his host’s vacant stare, served as a reminder of how important this journey was. Mr. C was a most ominous presence, even when he seemed somewhat passive; he never needed anything, but rather, he wanted. His character seemed to become synonymous with dark and windy roads, and eventually the appearance of either would instantly construct a very sinister atmosphere. When Dale Cooper finally emerged from Dougie Jones’ body, it was as though he never left. He was instantly the man we all remembered from 25 years ago, even if he was older, wiser, and slightly more reserved.
Though the show completed its run back in early September, I still feel awestruck by the idea that I barely missed Real Coop for the 15 episodes he was absent. With Mr. C and Dougie running the show, there was far too much MacLachlan greatness already on display to even question if something was missing.
Titus Andromedon – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 3
Titus Andromedon deserves his own spinoff. It’s not that the other characters on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt aren’t interesting, I just often find myself wondering what Titus is up to when he’s not the one on screen. If you’ve seen even one episode of the show, you’ll know what I mean when I say his character has a presence that demands your attention. Look away for just a second, and no doubt you’ll have missed some of the subtleties in Tituss Burgess’ performance. His facial expressions are unparalleled; a simple pursing of the lips can tell you exactly what’s going through Titus’ head, but they also demonstrate the actor’s mastery of comedic timing. His dialogue is always the standout, and makes the show worthy of multiple watches just to catch the one-liners you may have missed the first time around, because you were already laughing too hard to hear them. Being hilarious isn’t the only thing Titus has going for him, though, even if making viewers actually LOL is the character’s primary strength.
Somehow, despite the fact Titus is not necessarily a good person (he’s a narcissist, unreliable, and typically only concerned with his own wellbeing,) we still root for his character’s success. This kind of “anti-hero” has been worn out in dramatic narratives, but Titus makes it feel almost innovative in a comedic setting. It certainly helps that we’re not meant to take Titus too seriously, but that doesn’t mean there’s no thoughtful consideration behind his character. Titus knows who he is, he’s never trying to be someone else or someone “better,” and there’s a kind of deceptive charm in that. And, let’s face it, if anyone was going to make their own version of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” I’m glad it was him.
Will Byers – Stranger Things 2
Will Byers was more of a presence than a character during the debut season of Stranger Things, so Noah Schnapp wasn’t tasked with a great deal of weight to carry apart from a few, albeit vital, scenes. Many fans and critics were curious, and somewhat concerned, with how Will might fit in, and how Schnapp might perform, when given more screen time in the show’s second outing. From early on it was clear Will still had his place in the Hawkins’ core four, and as the season progressed Schnapp proved he could battle demodogs with the best of them. In fact, Will turned out to be the MVP of the entire sequel.
As with much of the plot and themes in the Stranger Things world, Will’s character is reminiscent of something very familiar; in this case, it’s the possessed child. Despite having seen this character-type numerous times in horror, sci-fi, etc., Schnapp is so convincing in his portrayal that he manages to make it all feel completely fresh. It’s disturbing as hell but also incredibly sad, to watch Will’s mental state become fragmented between reality and the Upside Down. The entire performance is terrific, but the line – “No. He likes it cold.” – was particularly unnerving and will likely stay with me for some time to come.
I look forward to a time when Will Byers can be a regular kid – or, as regular as possible considering the circumstances – but there’s no denying Scnhapp has the chops to be whatever kind of Will Stranger Things need him to be.
Randall Pearson – This Is Us, Seasons 1 & 2
While the level of quality on This Is Us has begun to fluctuate in its second season, Randall Pearson (and, to some extent, his entire branch of the Pearson family) has been consistently enjoyable since the very beginning. Out of the “Big Three,” he is easily the most likable, and, more importantly, the most thoughtfully written and portrayed. At every age, Randall has the most noteworthy arcs. Sterling K. Brown deserves every Emmy and Golden Globe nomination (and win) that comes his way; his performance as Randall elevates both the material he’s given and the show overall. And he has somehow found a way to make every Bad Dad Joke more hilarious than it should be. Brown isn’t the only one responsible for bringing Randall to life, though, and each actor involved deserves credit for creating such a fantastic character.
Lonnie Chavis (9-year-old Randall) and Niles Fitch (15-year-old Randall) have both been extremely adept in connecting the dots between their versions of the character and Brown’s. They make the evolution of Randall clear and effortless; I’ve never once questioned the idea that all three of these actors are playing the same person. Chavis, in particular, has had plenty of heavy subject matter to navigate through, and he always finds a way to give it the depth and honesty it deserves. At every age – whether Randall was exploring the ups and downs of being a foster parent, finding community at a college where he wasn’t the only Black person, or learning how even Grandma could be a racist – his character has never failed to enhance and strengthen viewers’ emotional connection to the show.
What do you think of my Top 9? Is there someone I missed? Let me know who your favourite characters of 2017 were! And stay tuned next week for the final bit of 2017 coverage with Damn Fine TV’s Top 7 TV Shows of 2017.