The 40 Best Character-Driven Shows to Watch Now

The 40 Best Character-Driven Shows to Watch Now

May 27, 2024

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If great movies are usually attributed to directors and their eye for visual storytelling, great TV shows are usually credited to writers and their ability to craft compelling characters over multiple episodes or seasons. Whether they introduce us to an entire intertwining ensemble of fully fleshed-out people, or they allow us to observe incremental change within a select handful of heroes and villains, this is where TV often shines. So if you’re looking for great examples of series that know how to keep the focus centered on character—to help you write your own, or to get you hopelessly invested in the life of a fictional person—we’ve listed 40 of the best below that you can catch on various streaming sites or on demand.

1. Pachinko

best

9.3

Country

Japan, Korea, South Korea

Actors

Anna Sawai, Eun-chae Jung, Han Jun-woo, In-ji Jeong

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

Both poetic and epic in scale, Pachinko (adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name) tells the story of a family spanning four generations, three nations, and one dream: to ensure a better life for their children, and their children, and so on. Because the story is rooted both in the unique experience of immigrant life and in the universal values of family life, it can seem painfully striking and relatable all at once. 

Despite the many places and eras it traverses, Pachinko also feels less nostalgic and more real-time, deeply immersed in whatever setting it’s in, taking us breathlessly for the ride. 

Sensitively directed by Kogonada (Columbus, After Yang) and movingly acted by veteran Youn Yuh-jung and breakout star Minha Kim, Pachinko is certainly one for the books: an arresting adaptation through and through.

2. Beef

best

9.3

Country

United States of America

Actors

Ali Wong, David Choe, Joseph Lee, Patti Yasutake

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Dark

A parking lot run-in wouldn’t normally warrant anything more than an angry rebuke, but for Danny and Amy (Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, respectively), it’s the final straw that pushes them over the edge and into the domain of unfiltered rage. Years of forced optimism and unreciprocated niceness have led them to this unforgiving point, and instead of going back to how things were, they burry themselves deeper into the ground with each new act of revenge proving more sinister than the last.

Beef could’ve easily been a comical show anchored on silly hi-jinks. Instead, it’s a searing look at anger and repression in modern-day America. Danny and Amy are on opposite ends of the class spectrum, but both are riddled with unending malaise and self-hatred, parts of which are informed by their race, gender, and status as second-generation immigrants in the country. It’s their chase for the elusive American Dream, and not actually each other, that entangles them in a web of deceit and danger.

Juicy with a thrilling aftertaste, each episode of Beef will leave you enthralled, enraged, and ever-hungry for more.

3. Shōgun

best

9.2

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Actors

Anna Sawai, Cosmo Jarvis, Hiroyuki Sanada

Moods

Action-packed, Challenging, Character-driven

With plenty of classics being remade, many have cried about Hollywood playing it safe, not matching up to the source material, and at worst, being unoriginal. After 40 years, the groundbreaking 1980 Shogun miniseries now has a new adaptation, but unlike its fellow remakes, this new series goes beyond expectations to deliver a mesmerizing, epic political drama that we’ve been hoping for. The 2024 remake still maintains plenty of the jawdropping firsts that shocked America then, but it also decentralized its perspective, expanding past the English outsider Blackthorne, and prioritizing the perspective of its Japanese characters, particularly Lord Yoshii Toranaga and Lady Toda Mariko. Hulu’s Shogun may be another remake, but their takes provides something new, with its spectacular production and its epic storytelling.

4. Monster

best

9.2

Country

Japan, United States Germany

Actors

Hidenobu Kiuchi, Hideyuki Tanaka, Hisayoshi Suganuma, Ichirō Nagai

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Dark

At first glance, Monster doesn’t seem like the typical anime of the 2000s. With its muted colors, realistic action, and Eastern European setting, it seemed like a more subdued series compared to other thrillers. But because it feels so realistic, Monster is one of the most thrilling psychological series that happens to tackle the value of a human life, as the compassionate doctor Kenzo Tenma grapples with the weight of having saved a boy who grows up into a manipulative psychopath. Mangaka Naoki Urasawa and showrunner Masayuki Kojima directly challenges their respective philosophies through excellently paced investigations, well-developed characters, and the thorough examination of the different ways humanity has failed each other, and it’s downright beautiful to see how this anime adapts Urasawa’s complex, sophisticated story so faithfully.

5. Normal People

best

9.1

Country

Ireland

Actors

Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Depressing

The author of the much-loved New York Times bestseller, Sally Rooney, is among the writers of this TV dramatisation, directed by Irish compatriot and indie director Lenny Abrahamson. Abrahamson, who also gave us Frank and the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room, builds on Rooney’s fantastic source material and an evocative soundtrack to create an intense, atmospheric drama about the vitality and violence of young love.

Initially set in rural Ireland, Normal People follows Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) as they are figuring out themselves, their connection, and impending adulthood. And that is all I am going to say at this point, because I feel that it is best to know as little as possible going in.

Every detail of every scene feels studied, laying bare the raw emotion of the two main characters. The dialogue is sharp and funny. The acting is flawless. One thing is certain, if you like modern drama that is as much about how and what is said as about what is actually happening, you will have to watch Normal People!

6. Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

best

9.1

Country

United States of America

Moods

A-list actors, Binge-Worthy, Character-driven

Set in 1980s Hollywood, Winning Time doesn’t just borrow from the decade, it imbibes it in its very fiber. It’s dizzyingly fast-paced and dazzlingly glamorous, pulling out all the stops from the cinematography, which employs a hybrid of film and tube camera, to the all-star cast, which includes Sally Field, Adrien Brody, and Jason Segel. It’s a technical feat, but amazingly, it also excels as a character study for Lakers legends Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), as well as the team’s charismatic owner, Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly). The writers go in-depth into their histories and weave a story so gripping, you can’t help but binge all 10 episodes in one go (and research the truth right after). If you’re an NBA fan, you might be disappointed to know that a big chunk of the script doesn’t adhere to real events, but you will no doubt be delighted to watch basketball in the way it was intended to be watched: riveting and nail-biting, with a lot of drama and glamor to match. 

7. Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

best

9.1

Country

Japan

Actors

Atsumi Tanezaki, Chiaki Kobayashi, Hiroki Touchi, Kana Ichinose

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Heart-warming

In fantasy worlds, races with different lifespans are a given, but rarely does a work actually contemplate how these variations would affect relationships between them. Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End starts after a great war, at the moment of peace, and to the titular elf, her shared journey with the human Himmel and their party feels like a blip in her life, their ten years of friendship blurred amongst her thousand years… until Himmel dies, which shifts her perspective on mortality. Frieren won’t have that much extravaganza we’re used to in other fantasy shows, but the way Frieren tries to reconnect with her former comrades, and the way she remembers their memory through flashbacks, all become a gentle and moving meditation on purpose, meaning, and connection, all paired with outstanding art and some of the best worldbuilding we’ve seen in anime.

8. The Knick

best

9.0

Actors

Andre Holland, Cara Seymour, Chris Sullivan, Clive Owen

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Challenging, Character-driven

Though it takes place in New York at the turn of the 20th century, The Knick is not your typical historical drama. Set to a pulsating techno score and with a whizzing pace and kinetic camerawork, director-cinematographer-editor Steven Soderbergh injects the show with a potent sense of immediacy so that it never feels like a dusty history lesson. The two-season show is set in the titular Knickerbocker Hospital and tracks the intertwining personal and professional dramas of its benefactors and staff — led by Clive Owen’s arrogant Dr. John Thackeray, who works tirelessly at the bleeding edge of medicine, fuelled by his addiction to the then-medically-permissible cocaine.

Thack’s brilliant innovations and thorny personality take up a good deal of the show, but The Knick’s complex ensemble — from André Holland as the city’s first Black doctor to Cara Seymour as an Irish nun who secretly conducts out-of-hours abortions — are equally compelling. What’s more, the show is just as committed to lifting the events of its period out of the history books and into crackling life. With an unsparing eye, it weaves its way through modern medicine’s gory past and New York’s history with racism (both institutional and otherwise), corruption, immigration, and epidemics (such as that caused by “Typhoid Mary”). If you’re looking for a quaint, comfort period drama, The Knick isn’t it — but if you want to get your adrenaline pumping with a gripping, raw ride through history, your prescription is right here.

9. RIPLEY

best

9.0

Country

Switzerland, United States of America

Actors

Andrew Scott, Dakota Fanning, Johnny Flynn

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Mini-series

Ripley delivers an atmosphere-driven, intimately engaging suspense story fueled by money and deceit. The exposition moves slowly, albeit with gorgeous transitions and deliberate, cinematic shots to gush over. But the rich narrative possibilities open up by the second episode, where captivating acting and tense storylines anchor the show simultaneously. Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott), Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), and Marge Sherwood (Dakota Fanning) each contribute to an uncomfortable three-way dynamic that you can’t look away from, each a piece of an equation you inexplicably want to root for. This mini-series is a thoroughly compelling, quietly funny work of art already dressed for the awards shows.

10. Fruits Basket

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Actors

Ai Kakuma, Aki Toyosaki, Atsumi Tanezaki, Kazuyuki Okitsu

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Emotional

On-screen, we’ve seen downtrodden Cinderella-esque leads, we’ve seen humans transform into animals, and we’ve seen whole families cursed, but Fruits Basket takes all these plot devices and transforms them into something completely different. As Tohru Honda gets to learn about the mysterious Sohma family, and she and friends gets into fun and wacky hijinks with the curse, the series takes the legend of the Chinese zodiac as a unique and effortless means to discuss systemic, generational abuse and resulting trauma that can occur within a family. The classic shoujo manga was first adapted into anime in 2001, but we’re recommending the later 2019 adaptation, which goes more in depth and depicts the complete story.

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