Welcome to Damn Fine TV’s coverage of the best in TV from 2018. For the next three weeks, I’ll be sharing my favourite shows, episodes, and characters from this past year.
If you read last year’s lists, you’ll know I’ve been in the habit of tracking the shows I check out throughout the year since 2014. Eventually, they became more detailed; the shows I really enjoyed would receive a “*” or “**” rating, and I began highlighting my favourite episodes and characters, too. Lists, in general, feed the organizational side of my brain, but the creative side needed to put them to greater use. And, so, the (now second) annual Damn Fine TV: Best Of TV coverage was born.
Last year I discussed how vital characters are to a story. How “they help audiences form a connection with the narrative” and that, “truly great characters can save even the most poorly plotted shows from being complete failures. If there’s someone onscreen you can identify or empathize with or even one who you simply enjoy watching, you’re more likely to stay invested for longer.” I used Carol from The Walking Dead as an example of this last year, and, oddly enough (or, perhaps, perfectly in line with the trajectory of that show,) I found myself thinking the exact same thing as I watched the mid-year finale for its ninth season just last week. I rolled my eyes during so much of that episode, but Carol’s goodbye to Henry and heart-to-heart with Michonne continued to prove how essential the character, and Melissa McBride, are to that show.
All of what I said in my preamble for last year’s list still resonates with me today, but there is a marked difference between who I highlighted in 2017 and who I’ve chosen to focus on this year: women dominate. To be fair, there were more women than men on last year’s list, too, but the ratio was 5:4, this year it’s 8:1. Perhaps it was just a particularly good year for women on TV – this list proves we’re finally getting the opportunity to play a wider spectrum of people. We’re not just the good girl or the “strong female” anymore – or maybe I was just drawn to their characters more than their male counterparts. Whatever the reason, seeing so many women on the list brings a smile to my face and gets me excited about how much better 2019 could potentially be.
Alright, enough overture, let’s get to it: Damn Fine TV’s Best TV Characters of 2018.
*These characters are listed in no particular order. Be warned: from here on out there are SPOILERS for all of the shows these characters are from.
Camille Preaker – Sharp Objects
I’m all for the Strong Female archetype we’ve been seeing more and more of on television lately; we’ve been asking for it and we deserve it. The problem is, when all our efforts go towards ensuring we see depictions of a woman’s strength, we forget how important other aspects of our humanity are. Sometimes we wind up with characters whose only attribute is their resilience, resulting in one-dimensional depictions of women that are just as damaging as the Damsel (perpetually) in Distress. We forget that women can be messy, flawed, and insecure; full of emotional baggage and demons that haunt us, and yet, still get through each day. With Camille Preaker, we get closer to that nuanced representation of women; ones who live to fight another day, but are allowed to make mistakes and poor choices, and don’t have to be role models. Camille isn’t someone to idolize but that’s ok. There’s something so honest in her raw vulnerability, which feels nonetheless empowering.
In her own way, Camille is tough – to go through everything she has and still be breathing is a testament in itself. The way she bucked the oppressive systems at work in her hometown, refusing to follow the footsteps of Wind Gap’s shallow, cruel, and status-hungry women, was her own small rebellion. Regardless of her strengths or weaknesses, Camille is a character who earns both our empathy and our attention. Which, to be fair, is made that much easier thanks to a brilliant performance by Amy Adams. Adams gave such a precise life to the character, portrayed her with such a matter-of-fact quality in regards to her damage, making it seem as though she’d inhabited the role for several seasons worth of TV, not just 8 episodes. Camille felt like an old friend, one who’d grown slightly distant but who you nevertheless still cared for. It was easy to root for her, to will her to put down the bottle and stop letting her self-loathing get in the way. I’m glad there won’t be a second season of Sharp Objects – the story is over, to add more would only detract – but I do hope we see more women like Camille in the future.
Villanelle – Killing Eve, Season 1
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about sympathizing with the enemy, but Jodie Comer’s performance as the ruthless and fashionable contract killer, Villanelle, brought the concept to new heights. She made rooting for the wrong side more exciting, more delighting, and perhaps even more perplexing than ever before. Much of her complexity and charisma could be compared with the litany of male antiheroes we’ve seen in the past few decades, but where many of those men contained some level of empathy, and, therefore, a reason for us to find that sympathy, Villanelle isn’t burdened with any redeeming qualities. Killing Eve cleverly resists any temptation to send her down a redemptive path, too. Villanelle has no guiding principles or moral compass, just a genuine love for power and death. And it’s because of that, not in spite of, that she’s so damn captivating.
Villanelle is a truly singular character in our TV landscape. One that challenges our society’s gendered expectations of violence; who is capable of it, and where their motivations come from. If it weren’t for Eve, Villanelle likely would have gone undetected for quite some time, thanks to her outwardly feminine qualities – and the fact she’s so darn magnetic and bubbly. She hasn’t been driven to kill after suffering trauma, nor is she some vigilante doling out justice. To label her a sociopath wouldn’t be wrong, but it would also be too limiting. I can’t wait for season two to continue examining this fascinatingly unique woman.
Eve Polastri – Killing Eve, Season 1
As much as I love Villanelle, part of the reason her character – and the show – works so well is because of the vibrant dynamic between her and Eve, and their refreshing take on the classic cat-and-mouse thriller. Part of the fun in watching Villanelle’s actions, is wondering what Eve’s reactions will be. What’s more is that, for the most part, those reactions are unexpected, and delightfully so. Underneath Eve’s intelligence, self-assuredness, and steely resolve, there’s a distinctly obsessive quality. Her interest in Villanelle borders on the fanatical, lending a kind of curious intimacy to her pursuit of the killer. That quirk allows Eve to use her undeniable intuitiveness to guide much of what she does, and manages to always stay just a mere few steps behind Villanelle. Her methods may seem radical at times, but that’s the ideal response to a killer whose entire existence is seen as unconventional.
Eve is the perfect match for Villanelle. Despite the career confidence flowing in each of these women, they’re awkward and not especially socially-gifted; neither of them fit the mould of anything society has to offer. Though Eve has one foot in a world of relative normalcy – she’s got a 9-5, a flat, a few friends, and a husband – a part of her gravitates towards something more maniacal. She’s an extremely conflicted woman and were it not for her strong moral center, she might be more like Villanelle than even she’d be willing to admit. And just as Eve feels born for the role of catching killers, Sandra Oh, too, is the perfect choice for Eve. She lends the character just the right balance of silly and serious; shapes all of her contradictory feelings and beliefs into a more than convincing form. It’s no wonder Sandra snagged nominations for a lead actress Emmy or individual achievement in drama at the TCAs, or that sites like Vulture had already proclaimed her best actress of the year over 5 months ago.
Kim Wexler – Better Call Saul, Season 4
Though I’ve thought it for quite some time now, I’ve been hesitant to say it – for fear the fanboys (and girls) would come for me – but I truly believe Kim Wexler is the best character from the entire Breaking Bad/Saul universe. You can fight me if you dare, but after four seasons of consistently incredible work from Rhea Seehorn, and the kind of rich and thoughtful character development we’ve seen her undergo, it’s a rather undeniable fact at this point. Whether she’s delivering poignant monologues, going toe-to-toe with Jimmy, or simply using her classic mater-of-fact stare to convey more than words could, Seehorn has forced my jaw to drop on several occasions.
Throughout this list, you’ll see I have no problem rooting for morally ambiguous characters, but in this age of TV antiheroes, it can be quite freeing to cheer for someone like Kim, who comes with none of those trappings or baggage. She possesses so many qualities worth admiring, too; loyalty, intelligence, ambition, empathy, pragmatism, and a great sense of humour to name a few. She leaves her own mark on what it means to be a “strong female character.” And though I have my doubts that she’ll get one, Kim, more than any other major character in this shared universe, deserves a happy ending. And, let’s face it, no one rocks a ponytail with quite the same confidence as Kim.
Elizabeth Jennings – The Americans, Season 6
I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the fact Keri Russell never won an Emmy for her role as the icy yet disarming Elizabeth Jennings. For six years this woman delivered some of the most stunning work to ever be seen on television. If you’ve seen just one interview with Keri, you know how starkly different she is from Elizabeth, and her transformation into the KGB spy becomes even more breathtaking. Let me put my grievances with the inept voting academy aside, though, and direct my energy into gushing over Mrs. Jennings. Elizabeth captured my attention and adoration in the very first episode of The Americans; her complexities were apparent from the start.Perhaps the only good aspect of this show ending, is that I won’t have to suffer through the narrow-minded discussions of how robotic and unfeeling Elizabeth is – attributes we rarely sling at male antiheroes, for the record; they’d simply be labelled a badass.
Liz is tough as nails, she can be cynical and callous, and her unwavering loyalty to her country gives her a hardened edge. And if that was all there was to it, fine, she’d fit right in with the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of the TV world. The thing is, Liz has this internal struggle, a war between the rational and the emotional – she has the capacity for love and empathy, and she can be vulnerable – and watching her battle that war for six seasons is what made her truly compelling. And that war only raged harder as she suffered through physical and mental exhaustion, as the stakes of the Cold War grew higher than ever before, throughout the final 10 episodes. I could go on forever about Elizabeth and the unending layers of her character, but for now, I’ll direct you here and here,where I already have written extensively about my love for both Elizabeth and her marriage with Philip.
Angel Evangelista – Pose, Season 1
I’m drawn to Angel in a way that’s difficult to explain with words – though I’ll obviously try. She just has this hypnotic aura, a core that radiates with warmth and love; I feel a sense of serenity whenever she’s on screen. Angel has such an abundance of spirit. She’s a romantic, unafraid of her vulnerabilities or of opening herself up to love. Sure she’s still young, seeking the guidance of people like Blanca, but in no way is she naïve. Her life hasn’t been a picnic and she knows how truly malicious the world and its inhabitants can be; she isn’t without pain. Angel exhibits growth from all of her experiences, though, integrating each one into her identity. The result is a deeply nuanced character, who Indya Moore instills with a powerful sincerity. Indya’s portrayal is part of what anchors the more melodramatic leanings of Pose and grounds its narrative with a whole lot of heart.
Physical appearance is important to Angel, it’s part of how she expresses herself. What becomes clear over the course of the show’s first season, though, is that her inner identity is what’s most essential. And it tends to shine through when she’s not trying, or even aware. It’s present during her conversation with Stan’s wife, where she’s completely genuine and generous, while also refusing to sacrifice any part of who she is to make Patty feel better or more comfortable. Though it would have been satisfying to see Angel get the guy and have a happy romance, Stan made it evident he simply wasn’t worthy of her. He couldn’t fully comprehend Angel’s ease with embracing authenticity, or see the freedoms that can come along with it. Pose doesn’t shy away from depicting the pain in its characters’ lives, but it makes plenty of room for their pleasures and splendour, too; Angel’s journey through both sides was among the show’s most effective and endearing.
Pray Tell – Pose, Season 1
There’s a bevy of reasons Pray Tell is the sole male character on my list this year, but chief among is Billy Porter’s sparkling portrayal; he infused this man with an undeniably irresistible and unforgettable presence. Pray Tell boldly sashayed into and took hold of my consciousness during the very first episode of Pose, and has rarely left my thoughts ever since. The impact of his charisma just isn’t something that dissipates quickly. I am still in awe of his flair for words, an ease with entertainment, and limitless quick wit. He was made for the spotlight, infusing every moment behind the mic with a crackling electricity, yet remains humble and oh-so real. He has the wisdom and gravitas of someone far beyond his years, and he uses that maturity to lead by example as a Father figure within the Ball community.
Pray Tell lives in his truth, always; he’s full of compassion, but that doesn’t mean he’ll hold back his blunt honesty when you need to hear the hard truths. In that way, he makes such a generous friend, one who will listen and empathize, but never sugarcoats the advice. Life hasn’t always been kind to Pray Tell – and we witnessed a period of heartbreaking, raw grief for him during season one – but he chooses optimism, with a healthy dose of realism, and his resilience is damn inspiring. It probably goes without saying he’s got impeccable style, which is only bolstered by his innate elegance. There’s a rare harmonious vibe that emanates from Pray Tell, one that makes him simultaneously calming and invigorating to watch. I feel ashamed I didn’t know who Billy Porter was before this show, but he is now on my radar, forever.
Cordelia Goode – American Horror Story: Apocalypse
I recently wrote a piece for my Patreon highlighting Sarah Paulson, where I discussed her career and outlooks on life, and ranked all 10 of her major roles in American Horror Story. In the end, Cordelia reigned supreme. Though my favourite of her arcs came in the show’s third season, Coven, it was during Apocalypse that we saw Cordelia ascend to a new level of leadership; she fully embraced her power and place within the world. I admired her intellect and cunning in playing the Devil’s spawn for a fool, her bravery and resoluteness in the face of self-sacrifice. While some fans grew agitated with the season’s storyline – which, admittedly was more of a pre-apocalypse narrative than post – I was happy to simply bask in the glow of Cordelia’s presence.
A total badass with a heart of gold, Cordelia radiates virtue with just the right amount of audaciousness. She leads with grace and humility, and, Good Goddess, does she ever look stunning while doing so. All of Sarah’s AHS characters have had their own distinct brand of chic, but Cordelia has a singular flair; to me, she is a style icon. To be fair, Sarah could probably make a paper bag look phenomenal, but there’s a singular kind of spark to her wardrobe, a feminine and formidable flow that serves as an extension of her inner beauty. Sarah brings a particular warmth to Cordelia, such a lived-in vibe, it’s impossible not think of her like an older sister or best friend. It’s easy to root for her, easy to lose your mind when she says something like, “I’m the fucking Supreme!”
June Hoffman – Forever
I’m not exaggerating, not even a little when I say Maya Rudolph astounded me with her performance in Forever. It’s not that I didn’t believe she had the acting chops to pull off a more dramatic character, but having only seen her in comedies, I (wrongly) assumed whatever role she took on would inevitably lean more towards humorous than poignant. Not that humour can’t be moving, but you catch my drift. June Hoffman certainly didn’t lack wit and the show wasn’t without its amusing moments, but I found myself crying or reflecting deeply on the show’s messages far more often than laughing. June resonated with me in ways I found initially startling, but eventually warmed very intensely to.
Maya imbued June with a fascinating duality. She was simultaneously a mere vessel for us to project onto, though never just a void, while also being a completely rounded individual with very clear characteristics and motivations. Maya played the role with a lived-in confidence, but opened June up and made it feel natural to see shades of yourself within her. Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship could identify with June, but, really, anyone who’s ever thought about their lives and the bigger picture in any meaningful way could do the same. Her journey became our journey; at times it was upsetting, at others joyful, but most of all it was cathartic. This was a transcendent performance for Maya, and though the show wrapped in a fairly satisfying fashion, it would be a damn shame to never spend time with June Hoffman again.*
* I’m sure you noticed I was incredibly vague about June, but that was on purpose. Forever is the rare show where I truly believe you need to go in without any knowledge of what’s to come. Spoilers can’t ruin the show’s overall story, but it will likely lessen the delight of the surprise that’s in store for you.
What do you think of my list? Is there someone I missed? Let me know who your favourite characters of 2018 were, and stay tuned next week for Damn Fine TV’s Best Episodes of 2018!