The 40 Best Character-Driven Shows to Watch Now

The 40 Best Character-Driven Shows to Watch Now

May 27, 2024

Share:

twitter
facebook
reddit
pinterest
link

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.

31. Baby Reindeer

best

8.5

Country

United Kingdom

Actors

Alexandria Riley, Amanda Root, Danny Kirrane, Hugh Coles

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Dark

Baby Reindeer is a tough watch, starting out with out of kilter comedy that eventually and unrelentingly reveals its darker and darker sides. But not only was this a hard show to watch, this story is genuinely difficult to tell, because of how entangled all the threads of Donny’s trauma gets– it’s not a straightforward story about going through one traumatic incident and then immediately moving to logical forms of healing. It’s about one traumatic incident keeping him stuck and leaving him and his loved ones vulnerable to even more abuse. It’s a terrifying situation. And it’s terribly, terribly honest.

32. 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. 

33. High Maintenance

best

8.4

Country

United States of America

Actors

Ben Sinclair

Moods

Character-driven, Grown-up Comedy, Original

One of the most original, underseen, and unexpectedly wholesome shows on HBO, High Maintenance spends each episode looking into the everyday lives of various New Yorkers, often with eccentric jobs or alternative lifestyles. The only thing that connects them is that they all happen to be clients of an unnamed weed dealer (played by Ben Sinclair), who becomes a witness to their ordinary joys and struggles. Barely any of the stories we get to see throughout the show’s four seasons have a traditional dramatic arc to them, but the series remains a one-of-a-kind comfort nonetheless—showing us just how colorful and interesting a mundane life can be when we have well-meaning people surrounding us. And it’s a prime example of how television should be allowed to tell stories in any form, making perfect use of the half-hour episodic format to capture these fleeting, beautiful snapshots.

34. The Diplomat

best

8.4

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Actors

Ali Ahn, Ato Essandoh, David Gyasi, Keri Russell

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Dramatic

It’s amazing how shows fueled only by fast talk can feel as gripping as any thriller out there. The Diplomat is cerebral and heavy on geopolitical jargon, but somehow, it manages to feel genuinely exciting, each new episode impossible to not play next. Thanks is due in large part to Keri Russell who, fresh out of her incredible stint in The Americans, returns here as messy and intense and endearing as ever. 

On the one hand, The Diplomat is about the delicacy of diplomacy, about how every decision made at this level has ripples of consequences throughout the globe. But it’s also, amusingly, a marriage story. Russell plays a woman who has long been defined by her more renowned if a bit egotistical husband, played perfectly by Rufus Sewell. They have a complex relationship that is as much of a career partnership as it is a romantic one, and part of the show’s charm is blending this story arc with the main one. 

Fans of West Wing, Veep, and Homeland will find much to like in this series, not least of all are the informative takes and worthwhile performances. 

35. This World Can’t Tear Me Down

best

8.4

Country

Italy

Actors

Valerio Mastandrea, Zerocalcare

Moods

Character-driven, Grown-up Comedy, Original

This World Can’t Tear Me Down is a timely release on friendship, punk, and anti-fascism. From the Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare, his second Netflix show shifts his musings over mental health to his experiences with regard to the country’s rising neo-Nazism. As xenophobia tears his friend group, it’s easy to feel the fear and self-doubt Zero’s cartoon counterpart feels. It’s easy as well to empathize with Sarah and Cesare, characters failed by the system around them. In many ways, they themselves feel like they haven’t met their potential. But the show suggests that perhaps status and achievement aren’t what being successful is all about– it’s about holding onto principles. Through punk soundtracks and shifts between stop motion and 90s cartoon style, This World Can’t Tear Me Down captures the millennial generation’s bewilderment, as well as their hope.

36. Carol & the End of the World

best

8.4

Country

Canada, United States of America

Actors

Beth Grant, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Lawrence Pressman, Martha Kelly

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

The end of the world isn’t the most optimistic thing to think about, but the scenario leads you to thinking about unrealized dreams, pleasures, and aspirations: the way you want your life to be, if things have gone the way they planned. Dan Guterman, from Community and Rick and Morty, reimagines this idea in Carol and the End of the World. Carol is that mundane, downright boring character that we wouldn’t take notice of in real life, only because she actively chooses the ordinary life, but this show is extraordinary, shifting perspectives and even genres between episodes, taking unexpected turns, and celebrating the day-to-day monotony of life.

37. Youth of May

best

8.4

Country

South Korea

Actors

Geum Sae-rok, Go Min-si, Lee Do-hyun, Lee Sang-yi

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

Youth of May is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a straightforward spring-set coming-of-age drama where young adults chase after their dreams, if they have any, and try to figure out what they want otherwise. Like plenty of other K-dramas, this usually involves a romance. But in between the ordinary romance, life strikes. Students fight for democracy, and at the time, the government cracked down on them brutally, but because the show spent time getting to know Myung-hee and Hui-tae, the consequences of these events make it all the more poignant. Youth of May reminds us of the humanity behind the brave students that fought for South Korea’s democracy, and the lives that have been tragically cut short for it.

38. The Good Bad Mother

best

8.3

Country

South Korea

Actors

Ahn Eun-jin, Choi Moo-sung, Lee Do-hyun, Ra Mi-ran

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

Life never goes the way we expect, especially for those who don’t have plenty of options. Because of this, parents strive to create a path for their kids to the best possible future they can manage, even if it causes some resentment. The Good Bad Mother portrays this, with some melodramatic flair, but the way the series tells its story is complex, layered, but totally compelling – as Jin Young-soon tries to reconnect with her son while also seeking justice for her husband, and Choi Kang-ho looks for family in any way he can. And it’s balanced with lighthearted humor and slice-of-life sequences that celebrate the lives of the ordinary people.

39. The Curse

best

8.3

Country

United States of America

Actors

Benny Safdie, Emma Stone, Nathan Fielder

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Character-driven

That The Curse is squirm-inducingly awkward won’t be news to anyone who’s watched a Nathan Fielder show before, but TV’s king of cringe digs his heels in on that approach here. The Curse chronicles the making of another show: HGTV’s inelegantly named “Flipanthropy,” which follows Fielder’s Asher and wife Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone) as they perform (the operative word) good deeds in a struggling New Mexico town. Flipanthropy is also a means through which the well-to-do white couple can shill the eco-friendly homes they’re gentrifying the town with — a galling conflict of interest that plays as a running satire of TV. 

The uneasy tension between what the Siegels say they want to do versus what they actually do is the heart of the show. In true Fielder fashion, their hypocrisy is revealed through excruciatingly awkward, tortuously long scenes takes, such as the one that gives the show its title (the socially inept Asher angers a little girl, who puts a curse on him). This scene is also an example of the insane left takes The Curse constantly takes, which speak to Fielder’s ability to make his shows feel like they’re falling apart all while building to towering complexity. Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else like this on TV.

40. Watchmen

best

8.3

Country

United States of America

Actors

Jeremy Irons, Regina King, Sara Vickers, Tom Mison

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Character-driven

If all live-action superhero media stopped here, it would’ve been a triumphant conclusion. Carving its own path from the subversive Alan Moore classic and still so much gutsier than most superhero films and TV shows, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen miniseries continues interrogating the idea of powerful masked vigilantes to explore institutionalized racism, America’s history of anti-Black violence, and even the phenomenon of white supremacy in “nerd culture” fandom. It’s an incendiary take on a genre that’s all-too-often reduced to mindless fantasy action, and it never tries to beat other properties at their own game—relying on constantly building intrigue and fantastic characters to tell its story.

But even if you’re not familiar with the original Watchmen story, the series should have enough style and intricate plotting for everybody. A pulsating musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; gritty (but not flavorless) art direction; and powerful performances from Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jean Smart, among others complete this vision of a nation plunged into chaos due to collective unresolved trauma. All this makes for viewing that’s never difficult, but demands trust and attention even as the story branches off to places that seem at odds with itself. How often can you say that about a superhero story these days?

Comments

Add a comment

Curated by humans, not algorithms.

agmtw

© 2024 A Good Movie to Watch. Altona Studio, LLC, all rights reserved.