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.

20. Little America

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

Based on Epic magazine’s column of the same name, Little America is an anthology series based on real-life immigrant stories. The episodes vary in plot, topic, and even era—they’re as diverse as the characters themselves—but they are all connected by one thing: the hope of achieving the American Dream. In one episode, an Iranian father sets out to build his family’s dream home in a bid to prevent his son from moving out. In another, a second-generation Korean-American struggles to find his calling, much to the dismay of his war-survivor parents (“What do you know about suffering?” the mother, played by Parasite’s Lee Jung-eun asks when her son complains about med school).

Co-created by Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani, and Emily Gordon (The Big Sick) and directed by Sian Heder (CODA), Little America is a heartwarming collection of stories, as moving as it is urgent. It’s easy to miss this over splashier shows on TV, but trust that this one’s worth tuning into.

19. On My Block

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Actors

Brett Gray, Danny Ramirez, Diego Tinoco, Jason Genao

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Funny

TV has never been as diverse as it’s been today, but despite the multitude of perspectives, nailing an authentic and enjoyable story that’s outside the realm of the classic white experience continues to be tricky. How do you relay very real dangers like gang violence and poverty without undermining universal teenage concerns like heartbreak and rejection? 

Enter On My Block, a series that manages to stuff many things on its small plate without compromise. It’s funny and charming, but also smart and serious when it needs to be. Unlike a number of teen sitcoms before it, On My Block is in touch with the real world, and it’s unafraid to shove its characters into difficult situations at every and any moment—not just during special episodes. This authentic setup coupled with its very likable and well-drawn leads is sure to draw in viewers of all leanings.

18. The Act

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Actors

AnnaSophia Robb, Calum Worthy, Chloe Sevigny, Joey King

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Dark

Based on true events, the series follows the lives of Gypsy Rose Blanchard her mother Dee Dee, whose relationship is pushed to the brink when it’s discovered that Dee Dee has been faking Gypsy’s illnesses. The strange case that gained publicity following a viral 2016 BuzzFeed story and a 2017 HBO documentary works well as an absorbing, well-paced drama. Each episode is visually interesting, offering compelling imagery with a palpable tension. Haunting and spectacularly acted by both Patricia Arquette and Joey King, The Act is a highly-recommended television series, perfect for drama and true crime fans.

17. Better Things

best

8.0

Country

United States, United States of America

Actors

Celia Imrie, Hannah Alligood, Hannah Riley, Mikey Madison

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Funny

This bittersweet comedy centers on Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon), a single mother and working actress doing her best to get by in LA. In between juggling the pressures of both parenthood and Hollywood, Sam lets loose in brave and funny ways. Things often get the better of her and her three young daughters, but her bold, funny, and always loving approach to life is what makes Sam—and indeed the show—a true knockout.

Better Things is a semi-autobiographical story, with Adlon also having daughters of her own, so it’s no surprise that many things ring true in this big-hearted show about single motherhood.

16. Move to Heaven

8.0

Country

South Korea

Actors

Hong Seung-hee, Im Won-hee, Jeong Seok-yong, Ji Jin-hee

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

In Move to Heaven, a man and his son clean up after the dead—specifically, the dead who have no one else to look out for them. Believing that no one should be robbed of a respectable farewell, they piece together the deceased’s possessions and celebrate them postmortem. It’s a noble job, but its existence is threatened when the father passes away. It’s now up to the ruffian uncle with a heart of gold to continue the business and bond with his nephew, who himself struggles with Asperger’s. 

It’s easy for Move to Heaven to feel weighed down by all the important stories it tries to tackle; represented here are disabled people, depressed people, queer people, overworked people. But it breathes so much life into these stories that they hardly feel like the drag other shows and movies make them out to be. Tragedy here is expertly blended with humanity, and the result is a moving and compassionate series that stands out even in the saturated content space that is Netflix. 

15. Work in Progress

best

8.1

Country

United States, United States of America

Actors

Abby McEnany, Celeste Pechous, Julia Sweeney, Karin Anglin

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Funny

This underrated, semi-autobiographical series follows Abby (Abby McEnany), a queer person struggling with OCD and depression. She navigates life’s ups and downs with humor that is both offbeat and sympathetic, but things quickly take a turn for the romantic when Abby’s sister sets her up with Chris, a trans man 20 years her junior. 

Relatable, hilarious, and frank, the miniseries is a tender gem of a show. It’s also effortlessly relevant, which checks out: creator and star Abby McEnany mines inspiration from her own experience as a queer artist, while executive producer Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix) reportedly made a big push for authentic trans representation.

14. The Staircase

best

8.2

Country

United States of America

Actors

Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Juliette Binoche, Michael Stuhlbarg

Moods

A-list actors, Binge-Worthy, Challenging

The bizarre case of Kathleen Peterson’s death, which has yet to be fully resolved to this day, has been the subject of many a media article. The press covered it relentlessly when it all started in 2001, then a critically-acclaimed documentary was released in 2004. This was followed up with a sequel in 2018, and now more than 20 years after the deed, a dramatization has come out in the form of a miniseries. You’d be forgiven for thinking the latter couldn’t possibly have anything new to offer, but you would also be wrong. In fact, the series is a masterclass in storytelling. Led by an a-list cast (of which Colin Firth is the absolute standout) and told with such layered depth, The Staircase is a must-watch not just for true crime but for film and TV fans everywhere. 

Utilizing time jumps and crafty transitions, The Staircase isn’t set at one particular time, which is fitting considering the trial lasted for 16 years. It also isn’t centered on just the mystery or the family, but instead is just as interested in the making of the 2004 documentary that introduced (and humanized) the case to an even wider sect of people. If you’re looking for a neat ending or some form of satisfying retribution, you won’t find it here. But you will be getting an engrossing meditation on truth and its elusiveness

13. Dickinson

best

8.3

Country

United States of America

Actors

Adrian Enscoe, Amanda Warren, Anna Baryshnikov, Chinaza Uche

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Easy

Dickinson takes more than a few creative liberties in telling the story of one of America’s greatest poets, Emily Dickinson (played here by the effervescent Hailee Steinfeld). As soon as the first pop song blasts in the background, followed by more than a few expletives blurted by the characters, it becomes clear that the series is more interested in making Emily’s life story not just understandable to a new generation, but timeless and universal too; it’s a tale about freeing oneself from the constraints of gender and society, and how regardless of whether you succeed or not, it’s the attempts that keep us human. 

The series is funny and tender and vivacious, kept afloat by its modern sensibility and desire to showcase a whole new side of Emily. Here, she’s a fighter, a (queer) lover, and an intellectual. But she’s also spoiled, narrowminded, and selfish—she is after all, still a growing girl. Dickinson succeeds on two counts: as an enlightening biopic, artistic license notwithstanding, and as an energizing coming-of-age series, complete with awkward epiphanies and inspiring character developments. 

12. Industry

best

8.4

Country

United Kingdom

Actors

Adam Levy, Alex Alomar Akpobome, Conor MacNeill, Harry Lawtey

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Challenging, Character-driven

Industry has all the markings of an HBO show: an abundance of sex, drugs, alcohol, and sure enough, an inextinguishable affinity for the F word. Like Succession, The Sopranos, and even Euphoria before it, it revels in its freedom to explore the nitty-grittiest parts of its subject matter and put its gruesome findings on full display. But instead of capitalism, organized crime, or teenhood, Industry incisively takes on hustle culture. 

Through the eyes of four new hires at a premier investment bank in London, we see the dangerous means people put themselves through in order to achieve some semblance of respect, recognition, or at the very least stability. Bullying is rampant, hazing is normalized, competition is encouraged, and blind loyalty is rewarded. The characters are so flawed and damaged, you’ll often find yourself rooting for their demise. But you’ll also be glued to their arcs and storylines. Will they break the cycle of abuse or continue it? Can they actually change the system from within or does that remain a utopian dream? These questions are hardly charming, but Industry has a way of making them engaging, exciting even. It fully inhabits the meanness you can and should only enjoy behind the safety of a TV screen. 

11. Sweet Tooth

best

8.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Adeel Akhtar, Aliza Vellani, Christian Convery, Dania Ramirez

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Emotional

Sweet Tooth is set in a post-apocalyptic America, where the population has been ravaged by a mysterious virus and the new generation of humans has evolved into animal hybrids. The circumstances are bleak and the things people do to survive even more so. Driven by fear and grief, they both isolate and attack in moves that are eerily reminiscent of the early days of our own pandemic. Sweet Tooth is a robust adventure story then, gritty and reflective and tragic, but it’s also incredibly sweet.

We’re introduced to a myriad of characters, each of them with their own arc, but we mostly follow Gus (Christian Convery), a nine-year-old human-deer hybrid who has yet to be disillusioned by the human race. Gus grounds the story’s many flights of fancy, and along with the other main characters, he gives us timely reminders of the importance of kindness and humaneness without ever being too corny. And to the show’s serious credit, no one plot line overpowers the other; instead, all feel just as vital to the larger story of survival that’s being told. 

The blend of these tales is lovely, the world-building is imaginative, and the technical aspects of it—the color, the costuming, and the cinematography—are all beautiful. Ultimately, Sweet Tooth is a packed a show wrapped in gorgeous layers, sure to delight even the most casual of viewers. 

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