The 40 Best Character-Driven Shows to Watch Now

The 40 Best Character-Driven Shows to Watch Now

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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.

40. Welcome to Chippendales

7.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Annaleigh Ashford, Dan Stevens, Juliette Lewis, Kumail Nanjiani

Moods

Character-driven, Grown-up Comedy, True-story-based

Welcome to Chippendales is the bizarrely real story of how the titular strip joint came to be (it involves a lot more murder than you’d think). Kumail Nanjiani plays Chippendales founder Steve Banerjee, an ambitious man who will do everything in his power to become a renowned businessman. The series starts off hopeful as we watch Steve rise to the top, but it quickly descends into darkness once it becomes clear just how much he’s willing to give up for his American Dream. Part origin story, part murder mystery, and part 1980s period piece, Welcome to Chippendales is a surprisingly engaging watch that will keep you hungry for the next episodes. 

39. Three Pines

7.5

Country

Canada, United Kingdom

Actors

Alfred Molina

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Depressing

Set in the seemingly idyllic town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, Three Pines the series follows Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (Alfred Molina) as he attempts to solve a string of murders and disappearances in the area. It’s a classic whodunnit that doesn’t try too hard to be twisty and complicated; instead, it lays out its clues neatly and cleverly without giving too much away, all while digging deep into local issues such as the institutional neglect of indigenous people.

There’s no shortage of mysteries and crime thrillers on TV at the moment, but what makes Three Pines stand out is its seemingly virtuous lead. “You look for good even in the worst of humanity, don’t you?” says one witness about Armand, but it will be interesting to find out just how far his well-meaning ways can go.

38. Mrs. America

7.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Ari Graynor, Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth Banks, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

Though it primarily revolves around the conservative, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly (portrayed as a fascinatingly contradictory character by Cate Blanchett), Mrs. America is a true ensemble drama. Each episode becomes a primer for a different significant figure in the movement for women’s rights in the 1970s, but it also emphasizes how difficult it was for this movement to cohere. As these wildly different perspectives clash, the need for a truly inclusive and intersectional coalition begins to arise. Blanchett is brilliant as always, but the miniseries also showcases stunning work from Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, and many more.

37. Mo

7.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Mo Amer, Teresa Ruiz

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Feel-Good

Mo is the semi-autobiographical tale of creator and star Mo Amer, whose tricky bouts with immigration, interfaith relationships, and growing up Arab-American all figure in the show. It’s a bittersweet series that brings the Palestinian and immigrant experience to the forefront—a tricky act that’s dealt with deft ease here. The series may be rife with social, cultural, and political issues, but there’s a big and heartfelt message at the center of it, and Amer tells it with genuine warmth and humor without ever being too self-serious and preachy, making Mo a breezy but meaningful watch.

36. Kleo

7.5

Country

Germany

Actors

Dimitrij Schaad, Jella Haase, Julius Feldmeier, Jürgen Heinrich

Moods

Action-packed, Binge-Worthy, Character-driven

Revenge stories are always fun, especially if you have someone like Jella Haase (who plays the titular spy Kleo) to helm them. Haase switches from scorned to spritely with such ease, making the otherwise formulaic plot of the show a breeze to watch. The disguises, the getaways, the killings, and the chase are all expected but nonetheless enjoyable in this show. 

If you’re looking for the next Killing Eve, this just might be it. Aside from the leads’ cheerfully deadly ways, the two shows also share the similarity of having enemies obsessing with each other, resulting in a cat-and-mouse chase that’s hard to peel your eyes off from. 

35. Somebody Somewhere

7.6

Country

United States of America

Actors

Bridget Everett, Danny McCarthy, Jeff Hiller, Mary Catherine Garrison

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Heart-warming

After having just lost her sister Holly, Sam (Bridget Everett) is in a bit of a midlife crisis. Work feels meaningless, singing doesn’t bring as much joy as it used to, and her family isn’t exactly the most supportive bunch out there. When a colleague introduces Sam to his friends (a lively, welcoming group of choir singers), she slowly regains hope and even confidence to start a new life in her 40s.  

Produced by the comedic Duplass brothers, Somebody Somewhere finds joy in everyday life. Office gossip provides respite at work, local talents transform into stars during choir practice, and drive-thrus for coffee become stalking escapades to find out if Sam’s brother-in-law is a drug dealer. This slice-of-life journey is at once funny and poignant, as well as incredibly perceptive about issues like grief and depression. Everett was most known for her stand-up and comedic sketches, but after her turn as Sam, she’ll no doubt make a name for herself as one of the most layered and nuanced actresses of her generation. 

34. Los Espookys

7.6

Country

Chile, United States of America

Actors

Ana Fabrega, Bernardo Velasco

Moods

Character-driven, Easy, Funny

Los Espookys is the name of a horror-loving group of friends, who, following their passion, provide gory services to those who seek them. Their clients range from fearmongering priests to greedy insurance claimants, all of whom demand the most bizarre out of the Los Espookys team. They’re a bit like the Scooby-Doo team in that sense, except instead of solving spooky crimes, they’re called in to initiate them. 

It’s an absurd yet surprisingly sweet show that asks you to leave any self-serious viewing lens you might have at the door. Anything goes in this hazy, unnamed part of South America, and you would do well to let its boundless imagination carry you wherever it may lead, and its dry humor ground you on your feet. 

33. Under the Banner of Heaven

7.6

Country

United States, United States of America

Actors

Adelaide Clemens, Andrew Garfield, Billy Howle, Chloe Pirrie

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Character-driven

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Andrew Garfield plays Detective Jeb Pyre, a devout Mormon whose faith is shaken when he takes up a violent case that involves his church. When he discovers the gruesome death of a fellow worshipper and her 15-month-old child, he is driven mad by the choices he needs to make about his faith, his family, and the threat of fundamentalism these two pillars present. Terrifying and compelling, Under the Banner of Heaven is not for the weak-hearted, but it is recommended to anyone up for a good, challenging watch. 

32. The Dropout

7.7

Country

United States, United States of America

Actors

Amanda Seyfried, Bill Irwin, Dylan Minnette, Elizabeth Marvel

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Dramatic

The Dropout is an eight-part series about disgraced biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, played here to eerie perfection by Amanda Seyfried. The show follows Holmes as she drops out of Stanford and pursues her dream to be rich and famous at any cost—even if it means swindling her way to the billion-dollar finish line.

With the facts of the case publicly available and a plethora of scammer shows already streaming on the internet, it’s a small miracle that The Dropout is still able to stand out as a compelling series. This is thanks in large part to Seyfried: she plays Holmes as a shaky, self-conscious, and hyper-ambitious magnate with little to no remorse, and it works. Even though Holmes is pretty much a cautionary household name at this point, The Dropout is still worth watching if only to see Seyfried’s thoughtful portrayal. 

31. Stonehouse

7.8

Country

United Kingdom

Actors

Dorothy Atkinson, Keeley Hawes, Kevin McNally, Matthew Macfadyen

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Funny

As the real-life British politician John Stonehouse who, among other things, served as a spy for Czechoslovakia and faked his own death, Matthew Macfadyen is incredibly funny. He owns the role of the bumbling fool, a master at inducing laughs and sympathy at the same time. And with Stonehouse, he has endless material. The man is narcissistic and power-hungry, but he also has a habit of biting off more than he can chew, so seeing him stumble in his lies is both funny and tragic to watch. If I can use another metaphor—watching Stonehouse is like watching a train power through despite falling off the rails. It’s a wreck to be sure, but one you can’t quite peel your eyes from.

Another great thing about Stonehouse? It only has three (concise but jam-packed) episodes. So if you’re looking for a one-day binge, this might just be it.

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