Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi)
Abed Nadir wasn’t just any member of the Greendale Community College study group; he was the key member. He may not always have had the best jokes, but he was the portal through which the entire series flowed.
It was Abed’s obsessive catalog of pop culture knowledge which served as the catalyst for the genre parody episodes for which Community became famous. We first saw this in Season 1’s “Contemporary American Poultry” when the study group seizes control of the cafeteria’s chicken fingers supply in what swiftly becomes a parody of mafia films. In a harbinger of things to come, it was Abed’s narration that served as the episode’s driving force.
Abed also provided the ongoing meta-commentary about the group’s hijinks (“It’s a bottle episode!”), effectively becoming the viewer surrogate, the link between the show’s fans and the show itself. He was also at the center of some of Community’s other most famous and brilliant episodes: “Pillows and Blankets,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the extended My Dinner With Andre riff in “Critical Film Studies,” and, of course, the alternate (and evil) timelines spawned in “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Each of these episodes — and, really, the series as a whole — also followed his character’s emotional growth.
If the earnest Troy (Donald Glover) was Community’s heart, Abed was its soul. The brilliant first three seasons Community enjoyed — unparalleled in their creativity and joyous experimentation — could not have existed without him.
Most iconic line: “Cool. Cool cool cool.”
BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett)
BoJack Horseman (2014–2020)
Will Arnett’s BoJack is one of the most deeply realized portrayals of someone who deals with addiction and depression on television. As a character, he is hard to watch. He’s spent nearly six seasons now destroying relationships with everyone around him and leaving others, particularly women, to pay the price for his bad actions.
At its heart, BoJack Horseman is a show about actions and consequences. Every season BoJack tries to get better, and every season he fails. However much BoJack may try to improve, the show doesn’t shy away from showing him — and us — how his past behavior has torn apart other people’s lives, not just his own.
And so there’s something both shocking and almost inevitable that the show decided to make BoJack — its main character — a #MeToo offender before its conclusion. In Season 5, which was astonishingly in the works before the Harvey Weinstein stories broke, BoJack chokes and nearly kills his female costar, Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz). That BoJack was experiencing a psychotic break brought on by a painkiller addiction doesn’t make this any better.
The show’s writers have said they wanted to “get right up to that line” of irredeemability without crossing it. And whether that’s successful is a question BoJack asks himself all the time, most memorably when he begged his friend/ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), “Do you think it’s too late for me? … I need you tell me that I’m good.”
I won’t spoil things, but by the end of the first half of this season — the rest of it will air early next year — the worst things that BoJack has done seem to be about to come to light. And I somehow found myself torn between thinking “Finally consequences!” and hoping that after watching him go through rehab and build at least one legitimately good relationship (with his half-sister, Hollyhock), that it won’t completely destroy him.
Most iconic line: “Stupid piece of shit.”
Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes)
Sitting at the table, Chiron, aka Little, (Alex Hibbert) talks — something he does very rarely. “Am I a faggot?” he asks Juan (Mahershala Ali). It’s clear he’s heard that word from kids at school and is trying to understand why exactly he is different from his peers.
Chiron is a poor kid from Miami. His mother is addicted to drugs. And he is gay. These aspects of life follow him through adulthood (portrayed first by Hibbert, then as a teen by Ashton Sanders, and finally by Trevante Rhodes as an adult) because for him, and many of us, it’s a long journey to self-acceptance and understanding.
The character of Chiron was based on the life experiences of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the original play on which then film was based: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Men and boys like Chiron exist all over the world. He is the black boy from your neighborhood, the black boy at the bodega, the black boy learning to swim.
But the cultural importance of Chiron, and Moonlight overall, was finally showing this soft and vulnerable black boy to the world.
Most iconic line: “I'm me, man. I ain't trying to be nothing else.”
Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan)
Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
For me, the most memorable TV character of the 2010s is one of the most memorable characters from the 1990s, just made stupid.
The basic appeal of Twin Peaks: The Return was getting to see Kyle MacLachlan reappear as FBI agent Dale Cooper some 25 years after he was last seen squeezing a tube of toothpaste into a sink, smashing his face into a mirror, and repeatedly asking “How’s Annie?” while laughing, covered in blood. Would Cooper, a classic ‘90s TV hero, be possessed by evil in this new series? Was the real Cooper trapped in the limbo-like “red room,” and if he was, how would he escape? Would he still love coffee and pie?
With Twin Peaks: The Return, show creator and transcendental meditation enthusiast David Lynch basically said, “I’m David Lynch, remember me, I made Eraserhead and the whole second half of Mulholland Drive, expect nothing,” and gave us Dougie Jones. To briefly try to explain this character: MacLachlan’s Dougie Jones is what occurred when Cooper, in trying to flee the “red room,” is literally spit out of an electrical socket in Nevada into the life of another man (who happens to look exactly like Cooper), resulting in him having the mental faculties of a person who is coming out of a three-decade bender. Jones takes up hours of screentime shuffling about, mimicking pieces of what others around him say, slowly trying to rediscover his FBI agent self.
So why is this character worthwhile? A big part of it is MacLachlan, who in playing Jones and at least two other “characters” in the series, gives one of the decade’s best performances. But the character’s whole concept is just going to stick with me. With Jones, Lynch entirely subverted audience expectations. Twin Peaks: The Return was not another chance to spend time with old friends. Instead it would take the most memorable thing about the original — the joy and wonder of Dale Cooper, even when surrounded by horror — and trap it in a totally unrecognizable character incapable of dressing himself or properly following out his own plot.
And what is more 2010s than that: the reworking of something you remember into something unrecognizably twisted, weird, annoying, and at least just a little bit funny.
Most iconic line: “Helloooooooooooo.”
Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge)
There’s a reason Fleabag — a dark, weird British comedy in which only, like, two characters even have names (I’m speaking of course of Claire and Klare [Sian Clifford and Christian Hillborg]) — became a cultural force this decade. The specific details of Fleabag’s life are (hopefully) not relatable, but the feelings behind them are deeply, particularly for women in 2019.
On one level, sure, who didn’t resonate with Fleabag’s haircut speech (“Hair is everything!”)? Or the moment when she realizes she’s wearing the top she stole from her sister years ago? Or her desire to fuck the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott)?
But more than that, Fleabag, as portrayed by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is the embodiment of a particular feeling of hurt and anxiety, when you need to do something to fill the void or just to be an asshole — like, say, stealing a statue you don’t even want from a stepmother you don’t like very much or dropping glass after glass of champagne on the floor to watch them shatter. Even when her friends and family are trying to reach out to her, Fleabag can’t seem to help making a joke or instigating a fight.
Even through Fleabag’s grief and rage and throwing herself at anything that will make her feel good (sex, alcohol, aforementioned Hot Priest), part of her still can’t seem to believe that things aren’t getting better. It’s a familiar mix of emotions in the last part of this decade. (Not to get too heavy-handed, but Fleabag is literally caught masturbating to an Obama speech in the first five minutes of the show.) Some people just want to watch the world burn like Fleabag does, but there’s always just a hint of hope that something better will come from it.
Fleabag is a mess — but a different kind of mess than we’re used to seeing on TV. And her need to *stares directly at camera* just get through it all is the most relatable thing about her.
Most iconic line: “Either everyone feels like this a little bit and they're just not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone.”
Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham)
As a twentysomething woman named Hannah who lives in a big city and fancies herself a writer, maybe I’m biased. But I loved Hannah Horvath, despite all the accusations of unlikability and narcissism she fielded from viewers — and other Girls characters.
Hannah is funny and quick-witted. Her lack of self-awareness makes her bold and fun, without being annoyingly sure of herself. She’s exactly who I’d want to grab a beer with to bitch about an ex or a boss.
She’s also messy. I remember watching the series’ opening scene, confused about who the star of the show was, because I didn’t see anyone insanely beautiful onscreen. Next to the female protagonist my eye was trained to look for, Hannah says too much, weighs too much, has too much sex in too weird a way. Her clothes don’t fit right. She can be graceless and brash and impulsive and, yes, she sees life as a narrative in which she is the main character. And is it Hannah who is problematic or Lena Dunham?
Looking back now, Hannah’s self-absorption looks less like narcissism and more like an economic and social necessity. “I have work, and then I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am,” she tells her parents at the start of the series.
As she shifts from an unpaid internship to tenuous employment to grad school to freelancing and finally to motherhood, Hannah is constantly personal branding, even to herself. She has no money, no momentum, and no specific dreams of success, but her belief that she can make it keeps her going. She is always trying — to be a famous writer, to be a good friend and daughter — but sometimes she isn’t trying all that hard.
Fair enough; being a millennial is exhausting.
In 2019, partly thanks to Hannah Horvath, flawed women are all over the TV. But none have so perfectly represented the millennial condition, years before we ever collectively figured out what that was.
Most iconic line: “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice of a generation.”
Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
In Mad Max: Fury Road, creator and director George Miller revisits the story of Max Rockatansky (originally played by Mel Gibson, but in this film by Tom Hardy), a former officer who is just trying to survive in a postapocalyptic world after the murder of his wife and son. But the true hero of the fourth installment of the franchise is without a doubt Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).
Furiosa, a lieutenant who turns on cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) to free the women he has enslaved as his breeders, leads an army of war boys on a perilous high-speed chase through the desert in an 18-wheeler war rig. She is fierce, scary as hell, and absolutely ruthless as she drives the war party into a fiery tornado dust storm, beats up on Max before they team up to escape, and rips off Immortan Joe’s face.
In the middle of the movie, after learning that the place where she was stolen from as a child is gone, Furiosa removes her mechanical arm, drops to her knees, and screams into the wind. The image is heartbreaking and beautiful in how it portrays the vulnerability and suffering of a woman forced into a life she did not choose. Nevertheless, she persists.
As a liberator of sex slaves and the slayer of a man who treats women as his property, Furiosa is the feminist action hero we didn’t know we needed going into 2016 and the following year’s #MeToo movement.
Most iconic line: “Remember me.”
John Wick (Keanu Reeves)
John Wick series (2014–2019)
John Wick is a reminder that each of us — not just gorgeous, mythic assassins — exists in a society bound by rules and financial systems that we didn’t create, which often make no sense, and, in the worst cases, are designed to work against us — and at some point, you have to defend yourself. It’s a defining theme of the 2010s, as millions of Americans struggled to get out of debt that increasingly became the foundation upon which the modern middle class is built. These are systems built on our (mostly metaphoric) blood and sweat to benefit those in power.
For John Wick, debt, of course, means actual blood, and it’s represented by coin-like markers. After being dragged from retirement back into an underworld of impossibly sexy assassins, John’s outstanding debt comes flooding back: In the second film, Chapter 2, mob boss Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) asks John to honor his blood oath by killing Santino’s sister. John ends up killing Santino (who was an intolerable schmuck, by the way) and then in Chapter 3 — Parabellum John calls on all the debts owed to him in an attempt to escape a $15 million bounty put on his life for Santino’s murder by the High Table, a council of crime lords that oversees this underground universe. Desperate, John seeks relief from the High Table, but what they ask of him — to murder his friend Winston (Ian McShane) and recommit himself to the organization — ends up being too big a price. By the end of Parabellum, we see John ally with the Bowery King to prepare a war against the High Table, which I hope will be as epic as it sounds when the next film is released in 2021. The whole system is ready to be blown up.
That’s a lot of backstory, but the bottom line is that all systems are well-oiled machines; they aren’t built to give us what we want; and we shouldn’t take these structures for granted. On some level, John Wick was just another action franchise released amid a blizzard of other bigger action franchises in the 2010s. But the titular character is not only fueled by revenge and bloodlust — from the start John is painfully human: the world’s most feared assassin who finds salvation in love, only to have his peace ripped out like a knife in a wound when his wife dies, letting blood and sadness and spill out of him. All he really wants was a quiet life of dignity. It speaks so much to what all of us desire. And when his world decides to turn against him, he does what any person would do for self-preservation: He decides to fight.
Most iconic line:
Bowery King: Let me ask you, John. How do you feel? ’Cause I am really pissed off. You pissed, John? Hm? Are you?
John Wick: Yeah.
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher)
Eighth Grade (2018)
On the surface, Kayla Day and I don’t have much in common. Personally, I’ve never watched an Olivia Jade makeup tutorial, taken a silly selfie, and uploaded it to Snapchat with a “just woke up like this” caption, but, like, I’m here for it. Kayla represents someone I never thought I’d see depicted onscreen this decade: a child of the internet who wakes up every morning, faces an LED phone screen for hours, and isn’t sure why she’s anxious.
She has Pokémon cheat codes bookmarked on her browser; she takes BuzzFeed quizzes and scrolls through Harry Potter Tumblrs. She records advice vlogs — which she doesn’t realize are monologues of affirmation and motivation that she subconsciously wishes someone would tell her. She can clearly articulate her anxiety, like being nervous before a roller coaster and never getting the relief. She knows her goals and writes them out in a journal: more confidence, more friends, a best friend, a boyfriend. And she has an idea of how to get there: slouch less, make small talk, find someone, and be there for them NO MATTER WHAT.
But everyone in middle school is too in their heads to make new friends or associate with her. And it takes the absolute steamrolling of her self-esteem through cringey social functions to make the simple, kind words she receives later feel like cathartic triumphs. Her self-doubt and insecurity are met with uninhibited kindness and care from others, which is a nice lesson in a turbulent and Very Online decade. And it could only have come from a 13-year-old.
Most iconic line: “The really awesome thing about confidence is that you can just start acting like it, even if you feel like you don’t have any.”
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in)
We first meet Lee Jong-su carrying a load of clothes, holding the weight of the world on his back. In this smart neo-noir, he meets a woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) — he can’t recognize her from their childhood, she tells him, because she got plastic surgery — and Ben (Steven Yeun), a strapping man Hae-mi met on a vacation. The wealthy, confident, and handsome Ben drives a sleek black Porsche and supposedly gets away with inexplicable felonies on the regular; Jong-su is slouching, weary, and draws the attention of police simply by eating lunch in his rusty pickup truck. He is the face of millennial working-class fatigue and class inequality in a decade full of those stories. He longs for continuity and sense in this dubious world, where everything he learns is eventually contradicted by someone else. As he tries to unwrap the story’s mysteries, the movie becomes a parable about someone who’s been unfairly sidelined by society for who he is, where he lives, and how much money he has.
In one shot, he is standing on the street, eating plastic-wrapped junk food and looking up at a building, where Ben is running on a treadmill in a gym several floors up. Ben, and his unreadable grifter personality, is fascinating, but Jong-su is the avatar for the audience: He knows what it’s like to have a conversation with someone you haven’t seen in years, only to be interrupted when they receive a text and mentally check out.
He’s not a likable character, necessarily. He says mean, hateful things to Hae-mi and is ultimately unrecognizable when he takes justice into his hands. But he’s actively trying to understand the world he lives in — and in that sense, he’s not indefensible.
Most iconic line: “He’s the Great Gatsby. Mysterious people who are young and rich, but you don’t really know what they do.”
Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler)
Parks and Recreation (2009–2015)
Few characters really remind us what’s important in life like Leslie Knope: friends, waffles, and work. As Leslie goes from the deputy director of parks and recreation in the city of Pawnee, Indiana, to ultimately governor of the state (and then potentially president), we watch her grow into a compassionate and firm leader who fiercely loves her friends and her community.
When Parks and Recreation premiered in 2009, it felt like a spinoff of The Office but set in a government department instead of a paper company. In Season 1, Leslie is clueless, nerdy, and the butt of most of the jokes on the show. But as the series finds its voice, so does Leslie. She fights tirelessly to build a park on the empty pit where Andy (Chris Pratt) fell and broke both legs, falls in love with a man who supported her ambitions, and showers her friends with a series of increasingly poetic compliments. (“Ann, you poetic and noble land-mermaid.”)
Leslie Knope is earnest. In a sea of cynics, she works hard to make her city a better place. She often fails — she is recalled as city councilor and stymied in her efforts to keep two happily married gay penguins at the Pawnee Zoo — but she perseveres. In a decade in which politics could be disillusioning, even frightening, Leslie Knope demonstrated the importance of enthusiasm, kindness, and hard work.
Most iconic line: “We have to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, and work. Or waffles, friends, work. But work has to come third.”
Linda Belcher (John Roberts)
Bob’s Burgers (2011–present)
Linda is the heart of the unabashedly weird, close-knit Belcher family that owns the run-down Bob’s Burgers joint in an unnamed beach town on the Atlantic Coast. While the whole family shares in on the show’s zingers and episode jingles, Linda is the glue that connects plotlines in and outside the restaurant.
I discovered the show a few years after it launched when I was in my mid-twenties and learning to adult. I was immediately drawn to Linda. She is weird, funny, independent, weird, protective, accepting, confident, and weird. And while I initially thought I was like Linda — she makes up silly songs in her kitchen, proudly drinks wine, is an obsessive collector (in her case, with porcelain babies), and likes meeting new people — it soon became clear that actually Linda was more the person I strived to be.
In a decade where people have been obsessed with being or finding their authentic self, Linda did it effortlessly. Whether it’s supporting her daughter Tina’s (Dan Mintz) penchant for sexual writing (“Alright! Freaky friend fiction!”) or racing to help her sister Gayle (Megan Mullally) as she struggles on her first day as a security guard, or being there for her husband Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) when he opens up about his bad childhood, Linda is just being exactly who she always was: a warm and loving person — often armed with a glass of wine.
Most iconic line: “Mommy doesn't get drunk. She just has fun.”
Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling)
The Mindy Project (2012–2017)
With The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling became the first woman of color to create, write, and star in a primetime sitcom. That’s a huge accomplishment in and of itself — but with the show’s protagonist, Kaling was able to showcase a character, who despite her eccentricities, was oddly relatable.
The show, which ran for six seasons, centered around Mindy Lahiri — a young doctor with many, many flaws. Mindy is brash at times and usually pretty selfish. She is an attention-loving narcissist and is obsessed with finding a husband. But she is also a great doctor, a good mom, and, in Kaling’s own words, surprises “you all the time with her sense of morality when least expected.”
"You see a lot of leads that are often plucky, goody two-shoes, sweet, boring characters, and they are the leads because they have no flaws," Kaling told Glamour in 2017.
By showing a successful Manhattan doctor — with an enviable closet and a string of adorable (albeit unrealistic) meet-cutes with hot men — as a truly imperfect human, Kaling allowed her protagonist to be the source of the show’s comedy, a role often reserved for best friend sidekicks.
"I'm glad we didn't compromise on making her more traditionally palatable or boring or more familiar as a female trope that we've seen before,” Kaling told Glamour.
Kaling is a trailblazer and has paved the way for how women are depicted onscreen. While Mindy is extremely extra, she is also, as Kaling said in 2017, “ultimately a good person and that’s exactly like every woman I know.”
—Mary Ann Georgantopoulos
Most iconic line: “I just figured if I’m gonna be a mess, might as well be a hot mess, right?”
Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara)
Schitt’s Creek (2015–present)
Moira Rose, a faded soap opera star and the matriarch of a down-on-their-luck family of snobs, skulks through the blue-collar town of Schitt’s Creek in black-and-white designer gowns and six-inch heels. She goes to sleep in their dirty motel bedroom wearing silk pyjamas, a vest, and a brooch. She sports a different wig each day of the week, like some sort of couture chameleon. Quite simply, there is no better costumed character on television. She is a testament to the power of a wardrobe budget.
Inhabited by the veteran Canadian comedy icon Catherine O’Hara (doing her breathiest and most brilliant work), Moira is the most effete and over-the-top member of the Rose family — qualities that in any other person would be damning, but which are endlessly hilarious and endearing here. “What you did was impulsive, capricious, and melodramatic,” she tells her children in one episode, “but it was also wrong.”
While she does indeed mellow slightly across the series as she gradually finds a place in the community, Moira always chooses to remain at least partially ignorant to the reality around her. As O’Hara told BuzzFeed News, her insistent clothing and her attitude are a survival mechanism: “It says, ‘This is me. I am not changing. This is temporary. It has nothing to do with me, and this is who I am.’” In a decade dominated by political and economic uncertainty, what could honestly be more relatable — even admirable.
Most iconic line: “Baby (Bebe).”
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)
From the minute we first see Olivia Pope on screen, her energy is mesmerizing. She’s a badass DC lawyer and former White House staffer who has opened up a private practice to help people solve the biggest of problems.
Initially, Olivia is aspirational because she fixes other people’s lives while seemingly keeping her own together. But it soon becomes clear she has her fair share of issues. She has rocky relationships with her mother and father (both separately and together), and a very messy love life (which is apparently what happens when you try to maintain an affair with the president and his former best friend, who’s also in charge of the CIA).
But as a black woman leading character on one of primetime TV’s biggest shows, Olivia Pope was also revolutionary. Scandal, its creator Shonda Rhimes, and Olivia Pope's popularity dominated the past decade and not just with high ratings. Olivia Pope’s cultural impact can’t be overstated. Her onscreen abortion in Season 5 was also a groundbreaking moment on television. Even her iconic wardrobe even inspired a fashion line at the Limited back in 2014.
Olivia Pope is a woman who navigates power at the highest levels of government, friendships, romantic relationships, and sometimes even violence and trauma. Her character arc grows dark at times, but even when she is bad, she is badass.
—Krystie Lee Yandoli
Most iconic line: “It’s handled.”
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke)
First Reformed (2018)
Ernst Toller is having a spiritual crisis, a rather inconvenient thing for a pastor to have. He’s mourning the deaths of his son, who was killed in the Iraq War, and his marriage. His stomach pain won’t go away, no matter how much Pepto-Bismol he dumps into his whiskey. And almost nobody comes to his church, a former stop on the Underground Railroad, save the occasional tourist.
But Ernst’s crisis mushrooms when a couple, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger), seeks his help. Michael wants her to have an abortion, believing it’s immoral to bring a child into a world soon to be made uninhabitable by global warming. Mary worries that her husband is growing dangerously paranoid; he worries that no one is worried enough about the environmental destruction that humans are wreaking.
Their encounter leads Ernst to research climate change for himself. What he learns can’t be unlearned: ice caps are melting, forests are falling, wealthy corporations are polluting and profiting. One such factory even funds the evangelical megachurch nearby. This is God’s plan?
The hypocrisy and injustice become all-consuming, and our mild-mannered reverend turns into something between a hero and a zealot, a clergy robe–wearing Travis Bickle for our time (makes sense, since the writer and director here is Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader). As he fills his diary with bleak ramblings and drifts through snowy, isolated landscapes, he warns everyone in his path that the end times must be near. Those who ignore him will pay the price.
First Reformed is a meditative thriller that asks what moral obligation we have to save the world we’ve broken. With mounting, mesmerizing anguish, Ernst wrestles with that question all the way to the devastating finale. His transformation will only become more haunting to watch as the temperature continues to rise.
—Stephanie M. Lee
Most iconic line: “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?”
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis)
Phantom Thread (2017)
On his first date with Alma (Vicky Krieps), Reynolds Woodcock tells her that he keeps a lock of his mother’s hair sewn in the canvas of his suit jacket’s breast pocket “to keep her close to me always.” And the way he says it doesn’t come across as deranged or outright unreasonable. It’s sweet.
Reynolds — a dressmaker in London’s high-end fashion scene in the 1950s who designs garments for British royalty and other high-profile clientele — is one of the decade’s most iconic characters, and not just because it’s Day-Lewis’s last role ever. (His only other performance this decade was his Oscar-winning turn as the most revered US president, Abraham Lincoln.) The physical veil between character and actor is imperceptible here; we see the scabby, pinpricked nicks on Reynolds’ thumbs as he stitches a dress.
Reynolds is himself a celebrity. Fans come up to him while he’s having dinner to tell him they wish to be buried in a House of Woodcock dress. When they’re out of earshot, Reynolds mumbles to a friend, “You’d dig her up and sell the dress again.” The chamber drama has a decently warped sense of humor, which made it excellent meme fodder.
After getting sick, hallucinating seeing his mother, and having Alma care for him, he recognizes her maternal care and proposes marriage “to keep my sour heart from choking,” he tells her. The subtle changes of his expression, like his furrowed brow on his honeymoon when he realizes he’s married a cacophonously loud eater, are unexpectedly hilarious.
This is a guy who needs to take a full minute to spell out his breakfast order, outlining his literal and metaphorical appetite, and who turns a first date with Alma into a work-oriented fitting, and who treats every disruption of his regularly scheduled routines as an ambush. And in the 2010s, when late capitalism has seemingly optimized everyone’s morning routines, there’s something about watching Reynolds’ — shaving, brushing his hair, and donning his wine-colored socks — that looks like a life hack all its own.
Most iconic line: “Are you a special agent sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?”
Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley)
Orange Is the New Black (2013–2019)
Orange Is the New Black was itself a huge risk. A sprawling cast of nearly all women, starring in a prison comedy, with a level of diversity and representation that was nearly unseen on television at the time (or honestly since). It is by no means the perfect vehicle: The plot is uneven, it sometimes lacks racial sensitivity, and for much of the series the writers room was almost entirely white.
However, the show is funny and emotionally complex, the secondary characters are lovingly written, and the cast is filled with charming, versatile actors, many of whom, like Wiley and Washington, were relatively new to the screen at the start.
Thankfully, by the second season, the writers heard audience pleas to remove focus from protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and shift attention to other more compelling characters, like Taystee and Poussey.
The friends start off the series as the comic relief, often joking around and providing toilet hooch to their friends. But their arc ends up being the most complex and tragic of the series. They are separated and reunited; they struggle with Poussey’s sexuality and her unreciprocated feelings for Taystee. Poussey is exiled from their friend group and plunges into a depression. Just as the two are becoming friends again, and just after Poussey finally finds love in a similarly adorable (though more annoying) outcast named Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), one of the most tragic moments in television occurs: In a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement, Poussey is killed by a panicking prison guard in the midst of a peaceful demonstration.
Admittedly, at this point I sobbed and stopped watching the series, which is a decision that I do not defend but one that was commonly made. I just didn’t see a reason to continue without her, a struggle I have heard Taystee's character faces as well. Maybe I am too sensitive a soul, or maybe the series just went off the deep end, but that was it for me. RIP Poussey, forever in our hearts.
Most iconic line (Poussey): "My name is Poussey. Accent à droite, bitch."
Most iconic line (Taystee): “So there I am, topless, sitting on this bulldozer in a construction site, barbecue sauce on my titties, and I'm like, What the fuck? Again?”
Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, (2015–2019)
“There are three things Titus Andromedon does not do: apologies, drag, and calculus,” so declares the breakout character from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
While the show itself was hit-or-miss, with some weird racial shit that was never quite resolved, Titus, Kimmy’s roommate and an actor and singer always one step away from his big break, was always there with the pithy one liners, those wonderfully expressive eyes, that voice(!), and all the melodrama.
“I envy you,” he tells Kimmy at one point. “I’ve never been able to meet me.” Fortunately, the rest of us were able to.
Most iconic line: “Peeenoooooo Noir.” (Titus’s musical ode to black penis.)
Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan)
Friday Night Lights (2009–2011)
As Season 4 of Friday Night Lights approached its end, East Dillion’s star quarterback, Vince Howard, goes to his apartment, pulls a handgun out of a sock drawer, starts to head out on his way to knock off the man who killed his friend. But as he does so, his estranged love interest, Jess (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), tries to stop him at the door. “I know that good guy that’s inside of you,” she pleads with him.
“I am a monster. That’s what I am,” Vince yells as he pins her against a wall.
Except that nobody believes him. Not Jess. Not anyone who’s spent time watching what the Los Angeles Times billed in 2010 as the best television drama in history. And not even Vince himself.
In less capable hands, Vince would be every bad, stereotypical storyline of Black America in a blender. But Vince, portrayed perfectly by Jordan, gives us that downward glance, a slight slide of his jaw or shift in his posture, to elevate him from trope to triumph, to show vulnerability and emotional depth in a way that’s rarely been duplicated since onscreen.
With each episode, Vince takes us into emotional guts of what it’s like to frighten a world that sees his color, his stature, his social class when he’s the one who’s terrified. Jordan’s rendering of Vince’s pain, fear, and heart allow the QB to pull off the most stunning play of all: convincing viewers to follow him across town and allow him to remake the show’s fictional Dillion, Texas — a place they thought they knew so well.
In that Season 4 episode, Vince can’t go through with the murder. Vince puts his hands behind his head and lets out a scream we can’t hear. And a performance we won’t forget. Not this decade or the next.
Most iconic line: (The way Vince simply swallows hard in difficult circumstances and says nothing at all.)