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.

10. The Serpent Queen

best

8.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Amrita Acharia, Barry Atsma, Beth Goddard, Enzo Cilenti

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Dark

Despite being released amid a deluge of period dramas and biopics, Starz’s  The Serpent Queen, which follows Catherine de’ Medici’s rise from Italian servant to Queen of France, is a strong standout in today’s streaming fare. 

By balancing modern storytelling (expect poppy needle drops and fourth-wall breaks a la Fleabag) and historical realism (the costume and production design are as accurate and detailed as any thoughtful production), The Serpent Queen manages to have a genuinely fresh take on the historical drama. It’s also refreshing in its refusal to sugarcoat history’s crude ways, so despite its modern feel, don’t be too surprised to see 13-year-olds bedded and bodies graphically pulled apart by horses.

9. Five Days at Memorial

best

8.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Adepero Oduye, Cherry Jones, Cornelius Smith, Cornelius Smith, Jr.

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Five Days at Memorial recalls the real and horrifying events that went on at a New Orleans hospital during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of five days, the caregivers in charge try their best to evacuate thousands of people from the building, but heavy floods, power outages, intense heat, and a sorry lack of planning result in some heartbreaking decisions about the fate of their patients.

The ongoing series is a gut-wrenching and at times excruciating watch, adeptly directed by John Ridley (American Crime) and absorbingly moored by a cast that includes Vera Farmiga (Conjuring)—by now an expert at exhibiting pure horror—and Cherry Jones (Succession).

8. The Good Lord Bird

best

8.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Beau Knapp, Daveed Diggs, Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke

Moods

A-list actors, Action-packed, Challenging

It’s often said that history is told by the victors. Thankfully, this isn’t the case in The Good Lord Bird, which tracks the tumultuous events preceding the Civil War, as led by real-life abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke). 

Some viewers might already be familiar with the story of how Brown “saved” slaves, but with Black teenager Henry (Joshua Caleb Johnson) as the narrator, history is repositioned and recounted through a fresh new lens. Nuanced questions about slavery, abolition, and even the revered Brown himself are brought up by Henry and his kin, such as: how much of the movement is driven by justice and how much of it by guilt? Should the white savior be absolved or are his intentions inevitably marred by ego?

Accompanying this thought-provoking tale are richly detailed costumes and backdrops, impressive cameos by historical and celebrity figures, and of course, career-defining performances by Hawke and newcomer Johnson. 

7. Borgen: Power & Glory

best

8.5

Country

Denmark

Actors

Benedikte Hansen, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Emil Poulsen, Freja Riemann

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Challenging, Character-driven

Netflix’s resurrection of the hit Danish drama Borgen comes in the form of Borgen: Power & Glory, a miniseries that sees Birgitte Nyborg (played by powerhouse Sidse Babett Knudsen) step down as prime minister and take over the foreign minister position while wrangling over power, principle, and family. In this particular revival, Birgitte butts head with the new prime minister, who is all for drilling oil in the autonomous region of Greenland despite Birgitte’s firm stance against climate change. The event turns into a geopolitical crisis that tests Birgitte’s values.

The series is as whipsmart, relevant, and funny as ever, although if you haven’t seen previous seasons of the show yet, don’t fret. Borgen: Power & Glory efficiently catches you up on all you need to know in the first few minutes. It’s a standalone, engaging drama that’s a breeze to go through at just eight episodes.

6. Fleishman Is in Trouble

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Actors

Adam Brody, Claire Danes, Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan

Moods

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

Plenty of things go on between love and separation, marriage and divorce. There is the pleasant high of intimacy, the devastating low of heartbreak, the frustration of misunderstanding, and the bliss of friendship. Fleishman is in Trouble explores all this from the point of view of recent divorcees Toby and Rachel Fleishman, but interestingly, this POV is narrated by their friend, Libby. The result is a multifaceted take on love, entertaining and enlightening in its nuance. Based on the bestselling book by essayist Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the series is also strikingly written. Whether it’s Libby’s storytelling you’re hearing, Toby’s witticisms, or Rachel’s dagger-sharp remarks, prepare to cry and laugh in equal measure.  

In a case of perfect casting, Jesse Eisenberg plays the neurotic Toby, Claire Danes his unhappy wife, and Lizzy Caplan their quick-witted friend. Other sitcom greats make appearances too, like Adam Brody and Josh Radnor, making Fleishman Is in Trouble highly watchable on all fronts. 

5. Pantheon

best

8.7

Country

United States of America

Actors

Aaron Eckhart, Chris Diamantopoulos, Daniel Dae Kim, Katie Chang

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Challenging, Character-driven

Sci-fi is already a pretty wild genre. Anything can happen in this fantasy world, so it takes a special kind of skill to make a new entry seem original once more. But Pantheon throughout its eight-episode run manages to be just that thanks to its resonant storytelling, inventive editing, and brilliant, heartfelt premise. 

The scope of the story is as wide as it is wild: it’s about the unregulated rise of “uploaded intelligence,” after all, where human minds are fully uploaded and digitized for corporate use. Global tech companies are in an arms race to transform this discovery into weaponry, as they are wont to do, without giving mind to the human and environmental costs. Challenging them is the unlikely duo of Maddy and Caspian (Katie Chang and Paul Dano, respectively) who, as direct victims of this greed, have more than a few grievances to express. 

It’s exciting to see how far the dystopia of Pantheon goes, but anytime it flies too high, it’s always grounded by the fleshed-out humanity of Maddy and Caspian. The series runs on their self-discovery and existential crises as much as it does on extraordinary circumstances. Expect to shed a tear or two while watching this series. 

4. Black Bird

best

8.8

Country

United States of America

Actors

Greg Kinnear, Paul Walter Hauser, Ray Liotta, Robert Wisdom

Moods

A-list actors, Binge-Worthy, Challenging

Based on true events, Black Bird follows James Keene (Taron Egerton), a narcotics dealer sentenced to ten years in jail. He makes a deal with the authorities to reduce his sentence, but in return, James has to befriend their deadliest convict—a child murderer played by the excellently terrifying Paul Walter Hauser—and extract a confession out of him before it’s too late.

If you’re a fan of gripping crime thrillers, anti-heroes, star-studded shows, and watching British actors do a perfect American accent, then Black Bird is right up your alley. The miniseries is also an excellent showcase of topnotch performances; Egerton and Hauser bring the house down in their excellently staged two-handers, Greg Kinnear is reliably sturdy as the determined detective, and Ray Liotta in one of his final roles is devastating as an ailing father. 

3. Halt and Catch Fire

best

8.9

Country

Canada, United States of America

Actors

Kerry Bishé, Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Dramatic

Led by visionary salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), skilled engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and punk prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), Halt and Catch Fire trails the risky dawn of the tech revolution—beginning with the invention of the personal computer in the 80s and winding through the dark corners of the primitive internet in the 90s. 

Its exciting premise is anchored by top-notch performances, but despite having all the makings of a prestige show, it never took off in the same way Mad Men, Silicon Valley, or even Succession did.  

Hailed as “the best show that nobody watched,” critical darling Halt and Catch Fire struggled to secure wide viewership throughout its four-season run. But what it lacked in ratings it certainly made up for in storytelling. The series continued to one-up itself each season as it centered on its characters and their believably bumpy journeys to self-discovery, all while consistently scoring where it mattered most: quality and ingenuity. 

2. 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!

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.

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