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The 15 Best TV Characters of 2021

From an anime villain to a mafioso to a pair of billionaires with outsize personalities, these characters were the most memorable — and most memed — of the year.
Best Tv Characters
By  · Published on January 8th, 2022

10. Vincenzo Cassano

Vincenzo Cassano

Show: Vincenzo
Performer: Song Joong-ki

The Taika Waititi school of thought — as expressed on the press tour for Thor: Ragnarok — states that a project’s titular character should also be its coolest. That is certainly the case in this highly popular Netflix K-drama about a Korean-Italian lawyer (Song Joong-ki) and former consigliere for the Italian mob who ends up entangled in a no-holds-barred fight with an amoral pharmaceutical company.

Vincenzo is a sleek revenge drama that would make an ideal next-watch for fans of Lupin. Like Lupin, the show hinges on the charms of its lead, and Song Joong-ki is as charming as he is deadly. He’s highly competent, always dressed in bespoke Italian suits, and has a flair for bold Machiavellian stratagems.

What makes this series so compelling is that Vincenzo is not one note. He’s what is known as a tsundere, someone who masks their warm-heartedness with an aloof exterior. He can turn from a cold-blooded mass killer to a warm-hearted guy who likes to feed — and name — the pigeons outside of his apartment at the drop of a dime.

9. Cal Bowman

Sex Education Cal Bowman

Show: Sex Education
Performer: Dua Saleh

In the third season of Netflix’s hit teen sex comedy, Sudanese-American musician Dua Saleh joins the cast as Cal, the show’s first nonbinary character. They are a transfer student at Moordale who finds themselves at loggerheads with a new neo-conservative headteacher trying to enforce traditional gender presentation on campus.

Cal has a mellow but confident demeanor that is IDGAF personified. Whether coolly skating past classmates, offering wise-beyond-their-years advice about mental health, or convincing people to see a wall of graffiti penises as a historical monument, Cal’s unique presence in Sex Education is unmistakable.

They’re also a grounding presence for the show’s perfectionist head boy, Jackson. The unlikely friendship between Cal and Jackson sees them brush off on each other and inspires Jackson to finally break free of the constricting rules he’s lived his life by. In a cast already teeming with talent and lovable characters, Cal was not only a welcome new addition, they were a breath of fresh air.

8. Tanya McQuoid

The White Lotus Tanya

Show: The White Lotus
Performer: Jennifer Coolidge

Everything Jennifer Coolidge does is worth meme-ing. This is especially true of her role as Tanya McQuoid, a wealthy woman in the throes of unprocessed grief, in HBO’s The White Lotus. Mike White’s satirical dramedy about guests on a luxury resort stay that’s gone awry was a surprise hit for the streamer this summer, and that’s in large part due to Coolidge’s performance.

At her core, Tanya is an emotionally needy time bomb. She’s on the trip to scatter her mother’s ashes, but she keeps stalling because she isn’t ready. Meanwhile, she has cringe-inducing interactions with fellow lodgers and hotel staff with who she tries to connect. From the way she pronounces ‘chaise’ to an unforgettable boat ride where she makes a drunken speech about how she misses her cruel nymphomaniac mother, she regularly became the focal point of each week’s episode.

Tanya made a strong case for herself as the main character on a show that was ostensibly an ensemble piece. Unsurprisingly, she was quickly confirmed to be returning in the show’s much-anticipated second season.

7. Deborah Vance

Hacks Deborah Vance

Show: Hacks
Performer: Jean Smart

This was a big year for Jean Smart thanks to roles in two buzzy HBO projects, Hacks and Mare of Easttown. It’s in the former that she truly shines, though. Hacks is a character study of a Joan Rivers-esque legendary standup comedian named Deborah Vance. She is a great white, an alpha predator always hungry and ready to rip into the people around her, like the hotel manager who wants to cut her lucrative Vegas residency and the green comedy writer who thinks she and her material are dated.

Deborah Vance has a short fuse and a lacerating wit. And Smart plays this all to a tee while still making sure to infuse her with enough humanity to feel like a real person instead of a character. The show is written as a two-hander for Deborah and newbie TV writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and although they have a playfully prickly, generation-bridging chemistry, Deborah can’t help but run circles around everyone. It is her show and everyone else is a supporting character.

6. The Reservation Dogs

Reservation Dogs Cast

Show: Reservation Dogs
Performer: D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Paulina Alexis, Lane Factor, Devery Jacobs

This seems like a cheat, but although the Reservation Dogs aren’t one person, they are one unit. In the series, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taiki Waititi and comprised of an all-Indigenous writers room, this group of Native teens — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Elora (Devery Jacobs) — pull small-time heists together on a reservation in rural Oklahoma (the show is shot in Muscogee Nation).

The close-knit friend group bonds over coming-of-age story staples like dealing with distant parents and general teen listlessness while pulling petty heists like stealing a chip van to earn enough money to fulfill a dream of leaving the reservation for California.

Although Reservation Dogs is tonally a comedy — Bear has surreal hallucinations of a foul-mouthed Native warrior who advises him, a rival gang of teens fires paintballs at them in a scene shot like a mafia shootout — the Reservation Dogs are also working to sew up a wound left by the death of a friend one dry joke at a time. The group of mostly new-to-TV actors turns in refreshingly natural performances with sly but assured depth.

Explore more of the best TV characters of 2021 on the next page…

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Naomi Elias is a contributor at Film School Rejects. Her work has also appeared on IGN, Pajiba, Nylon, and Syfy Wire. You can follow her on Twitter here: @naomi_elias (she/her)