Lena Waithe (Photo: KC Bailey/Universal Television/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images), Kristofer Hivju (Screenshot: Game Of Thrones), and Lakeith Stanfield (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX). Graphic: Allison Corr.

To the protagonists go the TV spoils: The spotlight scenes, the attention of award-giving bodies, the premium paychecks. And while a well-realized main character might hook you in to a TV show, that show isn’t worth sticking with unless its world is also populated by equally well-realized characters who support, challenge, or complement the lead. These are the ancillary players who strengthen any scene they’re in, be they a lovable second banana, a feared adversary, or the anchor of sanity in an increasingly insane world—and it’s time they were recognized as such.


1-2. Senator Furlong and Will, Veep

As the aptly titled Minority Leader of Veep’s House of Representatives, Congressman Roger Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) provides a strong voice for all of television’s tertiary characters—a hectoring, disgusting, invective-filled voice that burns through every scene like a condom filled with fire ants, to quote just one of Furlong’s most memorable insults. Even on a show whose dialogue is 90 percent verbal abuse, Furlong distinguishes himself through sheer nastiness, most of it directed—and occasionally outsourced to—his hapless aide, Will (Nelson Franklin), who’s often forced to fill in the blanks of Furlong’s metaphorical barbs about his own appearance, his incompetence, and his zeal for sucking off truckers. Together they comprise a comedy duo of Rabelaisian grotesquery, popping by to deliver some of the series’ sharpest, sickest, sperm-and-abortion-filled stings in a splenetic venting of both Furlong’s career bitterness and, as season six’s “Qatar” revealed, all the profanity he’s forced to keep bottled in front of his Christian wife. Every time Furlong and Will drop by, Veep becomes its best worst self; the day we get bored of it is the day Will gets tired of glory holes. [Sean O’Neal]

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3. Arthur, Difficult People

The long-suffering straight-man role rarely gives its actor a chance to shine. What makes James Urbaniak’s version of the character type work is just how much he embraces his lot in life and rejects the idea that there’s anything wrong with being the put-upon doormat. The superhumanly patient boyfriend to Julie Klausner’s self-involved whirling dervish of drama, Arthur is a mild-mannered PBS employee who can think of nothing better than coming home from a long day of work and acceding to Julie’s every whim, no matter how outrageous. From enduring her demands for a three-way to putting her on the air during a pledge drive, Arthur’s steadfast good nature is played as a charismatic and funny twist on the usual mopey “yes, dear” beau. He doesn’t just put up with Julie’s madcap flights of fancy: He encourages them, and is there to pick up the pieces when they blow up in her face. Urbaniak brings immensely likable soul to this reserved little man. We should all be so lucky as to have an Arthur. [Alex McLevy]

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4. Artie Lange, Crashing

For years now, comedian Artie Lange has made his intensely personal struggles inextricable from his public persona, talking candidly about his drug addiction and his gruesome 2010 suicide attempt in his memoir, on his podcast, and in his act. Even still, it takes a lot of bravery to immortalize his problems the way he did on HBO’s Crashing, where Lange played himself—a troubled comic whose life is perpetually one temptation away from tailspin, which makes him an unusually sympathetic mentor to Pete Holmes’ struggling wannabe. In Lange’s scattered appearances throughout the first season, he’s funny, pitiable, and tragically human in a way that even his bluntest interviews haven’t always conveyed. And even if you weren’t particularly a fan of his stand-up or his stints on Howard Stern, it’s hard to come away from it without feeling like you finally understand him—or, at the very least, that you just want to see him get better. That’s even more true in the wake of Lange’s arrest earlier this year for narcotics possession, which could mean the end of Lange’s stint on the show (though he and producer Judd Apatow seem to disagree about that). Here’s hoping that’s not the case. [Sean O’Neal]

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5. Aunt Lydia, The Handmaid’s Tale

Aunt Lydia is one of the most fascinating characters of The Handmaid’s Tale: She really seems to care for the girls she zaps with an electric cattle prod. Tasked with training incoming handmaids at the Red Center, Aunt Lydia (played with equal amounts of compassion and menace by Ann Dowd), pummels these young women into obedience with both torture and fleeting tenderness. She seems to have the closest bond with the girl whose eye she ordered removed, Janine, giving the girl her sympathy when she’s turned away from a rare dinner party for the handmaids. Of all the characters, Aunt Lydia appears to be the most loyal to the Gilead society, fervently clinging to the patriarchal religious claptrap she’s spouting, even when it results in Janine’s almost-execution, stopped only by the rebellion of the handmaids, as they walk away from Lydia en masse at the end of season one. If any season-two episode includes a backstory for Aunt Lydia, it’s bound to be fascinating. [Gwen Ihnat]

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6. Claire Temple, Daredevil/Jessica Jones/Luke Cage/Iron Fist/The Defenders

Rosario Dawson first appeared on Daredevil treating Matt Murdock’s wounds after she found him beaten and bloodied in a dumpster outside her apartment building. She gets kidnapped by Russian mobsters as thanks for her efforts, but after Matt rescues her, they decide it’s a bit too dangerous for her to be involved in his world. Oops. Four series later, Claire Temple has become the Samuel L. Jackson of the Marvel Netflix universe, the suture point through which the heroes’ stories are threaded into one another’s lives. But it’s more than that: Dawson has increasingly played a larger role in these stories, injecting heart and humor (with a dose of headstrong badass) into Claire as she deals with these flawed but well-intentioned protagonists. By the time of Iron Fist, she’s kicking ass in her own right and lending a much-needed grounding to the supernatural goings-on. If The Defenders were serious about operating as a cohesive team, they might want to look to Claire, and not one of their own ranks, as the best option for a leader. [Alex McLevy]

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7. Darius, Atlanta

Here’s what we learn about Lakeith Stanfield’s Atlanta character within three minutes of his onscreen introduction: Greeting an unexpected knock at the door, Darius will grab butcher’s knife and don a bandana, but won’t unhand a plate of cookies. He doesn’t believe Malcolm X is dead, because nobody ever saw the body after the funeral. He hears an insensitive, offhand remark about homeless people using rats for phones, and envisions a future of affordable phones for all. (Because those phones would be rats.) He can’t have kids, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell a complete stranger why he can’t have kids. That stranger, Earn (Donald Glover), treats Darius’ flood of unsolicited input with a battery of skepticism, both spoken and unspoken—as to the final whereabouts of Malcolm X: “That’s how funerals work”—and the pair spark an immediate dynamic within Glover’s humid, surrealist vision of his hometown. Earn is our entrypoint into this world, and Darius is that world made manifest, the stoner philosopher with a great sense of style (that turtleneck in the Migos episode) and a head full of off-the-wall ideas. That head is in the clouds, but the subdued command of Stanfield’s performance keeps Darius’ feet on the ground. And for all his space-case pronouncements, the dude is full of sound advice: If you hide a gun in a box of cereal, like Darius does, it only makes sense to watch out for a bullet the next time you pour yourself a bowl. [Erik Adams]

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8. Denise, Master Of None

Master Of None, true to its name, often places Aziz Ansari’s Dev at the center of situations in which he’s out of his depth, broadcasting his ignorance on things like dating, monogamy, and feminism. In these moments of naïveté, Dev turns to his closest confidants, among whom Lena Waithe’s Denise shines brightest. Sure, Arnold is warm and cuddly while Brian brings a breezy, effortless cool to the table, but Denise’s blunt honesty and insightful wisdom are what Dev needs when he’s in over his head. She’s wry and matter-of-fact, but a good-natured, loyal friend; in short, the kind of person who will check you when you’re at your most foolish. But more than just a lovable sidekick, Denise is a character in her own right, with her own desires, and more importantly, her own story, one that is partially told in the stellar season-two episode “Thanksgiving.” Co-written by Waithe, the episode follows Denise over 22 years as she navigates her queer identity and her relationship with her mother. Throughout the series, and especially this episode, Waithe plays Denise with honesty and authenticity, giving her a dimensionality rarely reserved for queer black women on television. [Baraka Kaseko]

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9. Gina Linetti, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

It’s hard to play the most eccentric character on a show full of eccentric characters, but as Gina Linetti, Chelsea Peretti manages to pull it off. A dance enthusiast and cellphone aficionado who, like Parks And Rec’s April Ludgate, thrives on doing as little work as possible, Linetti is both sharply wry and fiercely loyal. She’ll lay into her step-cousin and co-worker Charles for being a total nerd, but when push comes to shove, she’s proud to be a Boyle—even if it means getting a thoroughly lame daily email about family business. (She’s so proud, in fact, that she’s even having a baby with a black-sheep Boyle cousin played by Ryan Phillippe.) Gina’s full of heart and zest, and though she’s most often seen behind her desk in the nine-nine’s bullpen, she still manages to swoop in from time to time and become a central—and perfect—part of the action. [Marah Eakin]

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10. Janet, The Good Place

D’Arcy Carden doesn’t steal scenes on The Good Place so much as she incrementally pockets laughs throughout her time on screen. The punchlines written for her character, Janet, come so frequently, precisely, and at such unorthodox angles that it isn’t apparent until afterward that she’s swept entire sequences out from under such heavyweights as Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. In that respect, Janet is similar to other second-string oddballs on other, deep-benched Michael Schur-affiliated comedies (see above: Linetti, Gina), with one key difference: Janet is a celestial artificial intelligence whose complete knowledge of the known universe helps her assist the residents of The Good Place’s eponymous hereafter. This Siri-for-the-afterlife is endowed with an amusing depth of curiosity and soul, which broadens over the course of a first season in which she becomes increasingly more human, in spite of her insistence that she’s not. As she “dies,” reboots, and falls in love, Janet serves as a vessel for The Good Place’s high-brow, existentialist themes; in every chipper, crisply enunciated line, Carden articulates the show’s leavening sense of high-concept goofiness. It’s okay to love Janet, because there is nothing in her protocol that will bar that from happening. [Erik Adams]

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11. Kevin Keller, Riverdale

The token gay character who’s anything but, Kevin Keller is Riverdale’s unheralded secret weapon. Wry and quick with a joke, Kevin might not be at the center of the show’s biggest plot lines, but he’s got dramatic B-stories all his own, from his relationship with Southside Serpent Joaquin to his other relationship with closeted jock Moose. As Kevin, Casey Cott is charming and kind, but not too sappy, making him the perfect foil to both Betty and Veronica. The only drawback is that Kevin was merely a guest character on a few eps of Riverdale season one; fortunately, Cott’s been made a recurring actor for season two. [Marah Eakin]

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12. Kyle, I’m Sorry

Despite rarely having more than one or two scenes per episode, Jason Mantzoukas’ Kyle brings a welcome energy to the TruTV comedy I’m Sorry that consistently elevates the series. Part of this is structural: Kyle is the writing partner of star Andrea Savage’s comedy scribe, meaning the two of them have a built-in rapport and ability to riff that places their exchanges in the top echelons of the show’s strengths. But also, Mantzoukas is just a damn appealing presence, maintaining the fiery and provocative persona he brings to lots of other series (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for one), but tempering it with a warmth and accessibility that often doesn’t come through elsewhere. And it’s what makes his Kyle such a superb addition to an already very funny show. [Alex McLevy]

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13. Mimi Kanasis, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

There’s no shortage of bizarre yet hilarious characters on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but none may be more endearing and engaging than Amy Sedaris’ Mimi Kanasis. Whether she’s afraid of ostriches, recovering from butt implants, or shoveling Mentos down her throat, Sedaris’ portrait of Mimi is always gleefully unhinged, ready to follow Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline into a closet or off of a cliff if the hijinks require it. Sedaris’ completely un-self-conscious refusal to adhere to any semblance of dignity makes her Mimi a brave exploration into madcappery, just like her previous goofball character Jerri Blank. In a landscape full of comic masterpieces like Titus Andromedon, it’s hard to stand out, but when Mimi’s on the screen, you can’t wait to hear what strange non sequitur she’ll spit out next in her elevated, nasal squeal. Our only complaint about UKS’ otherwise stellar season three was that Mimi only showed up in two episodes; hopefully we’ll see more of her in season four. [Gwen Ihnat]

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14. Oliver Bird, Legion

We hear a lot about Oliver Bird before he actually shows up on Legion: Raised to almost mythical status, he’s Melanie Bird’s long-lost husband, a brilliant scientist, and a powerful mutant. Legion has a multitude of trippy characters, but Oliver is one of the trippiest. When he first appears, in the luscious form of Jemaine Clement in a breathtaking leisure suit, it’s to tell a fourth-wall-breaking story about Frizzy-Top and the Ocean. He then introduces his astral-plane prison by way of alarming, discordant jazz and makeshift cocktails. Clement solidly personifies Bird’s stuck-in-the-retro-era self, an aging hipster who oozes cool as he orchestrates reality from his realm, manipulating letters to save his Summerland team. Though, given the way the first season ends, saving his fellow mutants might not be a top priority for him anymore—a development that will only add further dimensions to Clement’s freaky dream. [Gwen Ihnat]

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15. Peridot, Steven Universe

Peridot made an ominous first appearance in season one of Steven Universe, spouting technobabble and showing a surprising disregard for the machines she’s so proud of controlling, all while genuflecting to her Diamond. This formerly dismissive Gem could’ve ended up in a bubble (not quite a cell), but instead the Crystal Gems and Steven reasoned with her while trapped in a bathroom. She lost some of her stature when she scrapped her limb enhancers, but Peridot leaves a Jasper-sized hole whenever she disappears for a stretch. Her transition from sycophant to defender has been cathartic and hilarious. Now part of the Crystal Gems, her anthropological observations about their setup (including said bathroom) regularly provide some of the biggest laughs. And Peridot’s ongoing struggle with settling into her home away from Homeworld is poignant and relatable for viewers of any age. [Danette Chavez]

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16. Polly, Claws

TNT’s new drama proves that the family that scams together stays together, whether it’s money laundering or rubber-stamping painkiller prescriptions for the downtrodden citizenry of Palmetto, Florida. Niecy Nash is the fierce, fly matriarch—as Desna, she looks after her brother with autism, Dean (Harold Perrineau) and her manicurist employees, including Polly (Carrie Preston). At least that’s who Carrie Preston plays for the majority of her screen time, but she switches up Southern accents and backstories so frequently you can never be sure who you’re getting: a debutante, a divorcée, or a dealer. What is clear is that this pearl-wearing grifter is a clutch player—Polly readily adapts to just about any circumstance, taking on a new persona if needed. The character is much more than a collection of mannerisms, though; her heartbreaking first day of life after prison shows she can’t always retreat into her fantasies. Nash is magnetic as the head of this adopted crime family, but Preston gives her a run for her money as the identity thief who’s frequently in middle of an identity crisis. [Danette Chavez]

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17. Russ Hanneman, Silicon Valley

Where would the guys of Pied Piper be without Russ Hanneman, the man who put the radio on the internet? Probably roughly in the same place, since their arrangement broke down. Scratch that—Richard Hendricks and company would’ve won the bake-off if he hadn’t set that bottle of tequila on a MacBook in season two, thereby deleting a fuck-ton of the internet’s precious porn reserves. But all those ones and zeroes are nothing to this member of the Three Commas club. The designer-denim-clad embodiment of having more money than common sense, Russ has been swaggering in and out of Richard’s life for three seasons, offering up little of discernible value (if you don’t count revealing that Jared is the guy doing all the fucking in the house). But while we could certainly watch Chris Diamantopoulos slam car doors that open like this and not like this all day, Silicon Valley has added dimension to this walking Axe Body Spray ad. Russ is equal parts tech bro and tech ghost, a man riding high off a 20-year-old accomplishment, unable to innovate. We’d feel bad for him if he weren’t so inclined to blast Live and Crazy Town all over the Valley. [Danette Chavez]

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18. Teddy, Bob’s Burgers

Of all the outcasts and sad sacks bellying up to the counter at Bob’s Burgers, perpetually five-o’clock-shadow-ed handyman Teddy has the most cause to feel like a cast-out sack of sad: He hangs around the Belcher family eatery so frequently because the Belchers are the closest thing that he has to a family. It’d be gut-wrenchingly tragic if Bob’s Burgers wasn’t such a compassionate comedy, one in which Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene, and Louise accept Teddy as one of their own—even as (or especially because?) the show keeps uncovering fresh bummers from his past. That compassion is matched by Larry Murphy’s portrayal of Teddy, a bright, phlegmy performance that’s as endearing as Teddy’s anecdotes are meandering. His gleefully blithe nature feeds into some of the show’s funniest scenes, like the time he mistook the sign outside Bob’s Burgers for a name tag. He’s the jolly fool of the diner, but he’s allowed his moments of heroism every now and then: See “The Deepening,” in which Teddy makes good on a long-standing grudge and saves his second home from a rampaging, mechanical shark. [Erik Adams]

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19. Thirsty Rawlings, Empire

A fixer in a bad suit, Thirsty Rawlings, Esquire has been cleaning up the Lyon family’s messes since season two, beginning with springing patriarch Lucious from jail. The University Of Guam grad—hey, it’s the same curriculum as Harvard’s—has always shown a greater understanding of violating the law than adhering to it. But don’t let the cheap threads fool you; Thirsty moves effortlessly from the corporate world to the underworld, which again, makes him perfect company for Lucious. There are times when Thirsty’s habits are mined for cheap laughs, but in Andre Royo’s hands, he’s more than just a grasping hanger-on. He’s a self-made man, one who’s happy to let the glitterati make all kinds of assumptions about him while he digs up dirt or finds more proper channels to shut his enemies down. The fast-talking counselor fell out of Lucious’ favor last season, but Lee Daniels wisely didn’t dock him any screen time, instead pairing him up with Becky and even Cookie. Thirsty proves that cunning is more important than pedigree, so if he’s ever truly fired by Lucious, he’s bound to find a way back into the Lyons’ den. [Danette Chavez]

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20. Tormund Giantsbane, Game Of Thrones

Tormund Giantsbane was introduced as one of the Free Folk traveling with—but not bending the knee to—King-Beyond-The-Wall Mance Rayder in season three of Game Of Thrones, but in the four seasons of daring escapes and bloody battles that followed, he’s become one of the gang. As much as he ever will be, anyway: Having been born and bred on the frozen steppes beyond the Seven Kingdoms, Tormund will always view Westerosi politics and customs with a skeptical eye. He’s a true outsider, one that brings some much-needed comic relief when the rest of the characters get weighed down by their knightly codes of honor. That’s not to say that Tormund doesn’t have any values: He’s a brave fighter and a loyal friend. He just doesn’t see what all these kings and queens and fealty oaths are good for. Until recently, we didn’t know much about Tormund besides the fact that he’s very handy with an ax—or a sword, or a club, or whatever deadly weapon might be lying around—but then season six brought the lusty glance that sparked a thousand ’ships. Tormund’s endearing crush on Brienne of Tarth might be all in his head (for now), but in season seven’s “Beyond The Wall,” Tormund makes another fanfic-worthy statement: That beyond the wall, pansexual coupling is essential for survival. As his nickname “Husband to Bears” implies, even a she-bear will do for Westeros’ most sexually liberated ginger. [Katie Rife]

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21. White Josh, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

David Hull as White Josh (left), Pete Gardner as Darryl (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)

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It takes a lot to stand out on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but Josh Wilson—known to pretty much everyone in his life, including his loved ones, as White Josh (to distinguish himself from his buddy, Josh Chan)—is a lone voice of reason in a town that’s desperately lacking one. As played with a healthy heaping of snarky asides and eyerolls by David Hull, WhiJo is pretty much the only resident of West Covina, California who resists the life-consuming drama vortex that is Rebecca Bunch. Instead, he stands off to the side, offering consistently ignored advice to his buddies, commenting drily on the chaos Rebecca leaves in her wake, and openly wondering why literally every person he knows is obsessed with this woman who suddenly forced herself into their lives. Meanwhile, his burgeoning relationship with Rachel’s boss, kind-hearted weirdo Darryl Whitefeather, serves as a low-key, touching study in contrasts to all of Rebecca’s romantic scheming and self-destructive plots, a welcome reminder that not every romance has to involve lying, disguises, or elaborate evil plans. [William Hughes]


22. Whiterose (BD Wong), Mr. Robot

In the first season of Mr. Robot, the mysterious Whiterose, supposed leader of the hacking collective the Dark Army, appears in just one pivotal scene (not counting a season-ending reveal), but they became one of the more talked-about characters of the entire show. This was in large part thanks to BD Wong’s soulful portrayal, which humanized an enigmatic and elusive persona. In season two, the character began to be revealed, a deeply interconnected power broker who also happens to be a trans woman still forced to put on suits and pretend to be a man in certain circumstances. As Whiterose took on an increased role in the story, Wong’s performance added layers and nuanced shading to the ostensible villain, suggesting there may be further complications still to a fascinatingly complex role. [Alex McLevy]

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