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.

30. Sort Of

7.8

Country

Canada

Actors

Amanda Brugel, Grace Lynn Kung, Scott Thompson

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Easy

Sabi, a genderfluid millennial in their mid-20s, is in a bit of a quarter-life crisis. Between balancing odd jobs, leaving a clingy boyfriend, and coming out to their family, Sabi just doesn’t have enough time to think about their identity, whatever that may be. Sabi is accused of being guarded, and indeed, in the first couple of episodes only we the omnipresent audience are privy to Sabi’s crying spells and panic attacks. To everyone else, Sabi is the calm and collected friend who loves to help everyone but themself. 

Sort Of follows Sabi as they navigate adulthood, family, love, and self-expression in tender and funny ways. It has the slice-of-life vibe of shows like Better Things but with an even more low-key charm. Never in-your-face and always grounded and humane, Sort Of’s twenty-minute episodes make for a delightfully meaningful binge.

29. The English

7.8

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Actors

Chaske Spencer, Ciarán Hinds, Cristian Solimeno, Emily Blunt

Moods

A-list actors, Action-packed, Character-driven

There is no shortage of craft and ambition in The English, a miniseries that employs tropes of classic Westerns, like the soulful anti-hero and the loyal sidekick, but also twists them enough to make them feel fresh. For instance, instead of typical cowboys, we have as our leads Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), an aristocratic Englishwoman, and Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a native who also served in the US army. Both of them are terribly out of place in the Wild West, but they’re fueled with the kind of vengeful drive that leads to bloody outcomes, which are themselves staples of the genre. 

The English is sweeping, both in scope and scenery, and solemn. Fans will appreciate how seriously the show treats the genre, and they’ll take pleasure in its familiarity, from the twisty mysteries and brutal disputes to the gritty backdrops and arid vistas. In this instance, the show’s ambition perfectly fits the genre. 

28. Looking for Alaska

7.8

Country

United States of America

Actors

Abbie Gayle, Andrea Andrade, Charlie Plummer, Deneen Tyler

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Emotional

Unlike other adaptations of young adult novels that get caught up in overly romanticized teenage angst, the eight-episode Hulu version of John Green’s Looking for Alaska is far more self-aware about its own precocious characters. Because no matter how much earnest faux-wisdom they spout, all their intelligence still hits a brick wall when faced with unanswerable questions of grief, guilt, and what it means to truly love another person. It’s as funny as it is devastating, with genuinely moving emotional payoffs that are more than worth the wait, thanks to a uniformly brilliant cast that includes Charlie Plummer, Kristine Froseth, and Denny Love.

27. The Resort

7.8

Country

United States of America

Actors

Cristin Milioti, Gabriela Cartol, Luis Gerardo Méndez, Nick Offerman

Moods

Action-packed, Binge-Worthy, Challenging

The Resort may start off as a familiar murder mystery, but it quickly unfolds into a multi-genre feat re-filled with new characters and questions each episode. Set in the Yucatan forest and embarking on some mind-bending, time-hopping journeys, The Resort is lush and trippy at the onset, unafraid to take its viewers deep into its version of a rabbit hole. 

You wouldn’t expect less from the creators of Mr. Robot and Palm Springs, the latter of which also stars Cristin Milioti in a twisty vacation adventure. Milioti of course steals the show as a woman who would rather drown herself in a police-level investigation than deal with her own existential problems, but the show’s strong cast, which includes The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper and Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman solidifies The Resort as one of the most intriguing and exciting shows today. 

26. We Own This City

7.8

Country

United States, United States of America

Actors

Dagmara Domińczyk, Darrell Britt-Gibson, David Corenswet, Delaney Williams

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

We Own This City is a six-part miniseries following the ins and outs of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. Hailed by critics as the “spiritual successor to The Wire” (both shows were developed by David Simon), the gritty crime drama works as a smart and gripping exposé not just of the Baltimore police department, but of big and flawed institutions, in general, and the seeming inherence of corruption. The series is based on the book We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton.

25. My Mad Fat Diary

7.8

Country

UK, United Kingdom

Actors

Ciara Baxendale, Claire Rushbrook, Dan Cohen, Ian Hart

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Emotional

Sixteen-year-old Rae Earl struggles with many things, among them: severe mental illness, a distorted body image, and less-than-ideal home life. In an attempt to redefine herself and pursue the teenage dream she’s always wanted, she reconnects with her estranged friend Chloe and the cool new people she’s met in Rae’s absence. As Rae gets to know this group more, she embarks on a coming-of-age journey that is, at turns, hilarious, awkward, and painfully real.

Set in ‘90s-era UK and scored to the unbeatable, headbanging tunes of English rock, My Mad Fat Diary is also an effective throwback of a show. It’s sure to be nostalgic to those who grew up in that era, while also doubling as a finely-aged portrait of a simpler time to the rest of us. Elevated, too, by diary doodles come to life and Rae’s unflinching witticisms, the series is a gem for anyone who has struggled to come to terms with their teenage self. 

24. Patrick Melrose

7.8

Actors

Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Mini-series

A five-part mini-series where the camera rarely leaves Benedict Cumberbatch, enabling him to deliver possibly the best performance of his career. He plays Patrick Melrose, an autobiographical character from renown British writer Edward St Aubyn. A wealthy man who in the first scene of the show hears about his father’s death, Patrick tries to get his act together to go retrieve his father’s ashes. However, a nasty drug habit and a dark past stand in the way of sobriety. This is a fast-paced and impeccably-acted show with a solid supporting cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hugo Weaving.

23. In the Flesh

7.9

Country

United Kingdom

Actors

Emmett Scanlan, Harriet Cains, Luke Newberry, Wunmi Mosaku

Moods

Character-driven, Original, Thought-provoking

This short-lived BBC series is premised on a simple but ingenious idea: what if zombies could be treated and welcomed back into society? In the Flesh posits that the battle between humans and the undead would be more political and social, rather than just fatal. It sees a return to the use of zombies as a more direct representation of alienation and societal divide, instead of having them just be soulless creatures to be feared and killed. So if you ever wished you could view a less gory Walking Dead, then the haunting and profound In the Flesh is your best bet.

22. High School

7.9

Country

United States of America

Actors

Amanda Fix, Brianne Tju, Cobie Smulders, Esther McGregor

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

Based on a forthcoming memoir by queer music duo Tegan & Sara, High School follows the twin sisters in ’90s Canada as they figure out their place in school, in family, and ultimately in each other’s lives. Despite the well-worn premise and the throwback setting, High School feels fresh and honest in ways that are not always present in teen stories. It’s delicate and subdued while still being potent and edgy—a great alternative if Netflix’s brasher teen fare isn’t for you. High School has been likened to other great authentic coming-of-age shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life.

21. A Very English Scandal

best

8.0

Country

United Kingdom

Actors

Alex Jennings, Ben Whishaw, David Bamber, Hugh Grant

Moods

Character-driven, Funny, Mini-series

Led by fine-tuned performances from Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant at the top of their game, this three-episode series dives headfirst into the sex scandal between Norman Scott and former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe with devastating wit. Neither character is treated as morally superior over the other, as both become consumed by the media frenzy surrounding the English justice system’s thirst for controversy. And Russell T Davies’ writing and Stephen Frears’ direction allow the show’s tone to pivot from brilliantly timed notes of humor to profoundly sad stretches of tragedy and drama. Given its short length, A Very English Scandal seems to be designed for binge-watching, but it should still reward patient and attentive viewing.

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