As the saying goes, it’s not television; it’s HBO. The prestigious cable network has been delivering quality content since their two breakout hits — The Sopranos and Sex and the City — cemented it as the home for critically acclaimed, boundary-pushing shows.
The 2010s were an all-time great decade for HBO, and the 2020s seem to be following suit. Indeed, the network has produced some of its all-time best projects these past thirteen years, introducing some of the best characters on television. From queens in the making to kickass superheroes, these characters revolutionized television and confirmed HBO as a titan in the television industry.
10 Arabella Essiedu — ‘I May Destroy You’ (2020)
Michaela Coel‘s masterpiece I May Destroy You remains a severely underrated, if acclaimed, project in HBO’s modern library. The miniseries stars Coel as Arabella, a woman reassessing her life after being sexually assaulted in a nightclub.
I May Destroy You isn’t always an easy watch — it’s a challenging and often discomforting exploration of trauma powered by a spectacular performance from Coel. Arabella is an intricate creation of numerous layers — anxiety, anger, frustration, pain, confusion. Coel brings these emotions to life with delicate precision, crafting a modern-day heroine for the #MeToo era.
9 Angela Abar/Sister Night — ‘Watchmen’ (2019)
Creating a suitable follow-up to Alan Moore‘s notoriously unyielding graphic novel Watchmen is no easy task. However, Damon Lindelof rose to the challenge and delivered a thoughtful, cohesive, and satisfying continuation: the 2019 miniseries Watchmen.
Lindelof’s Watchmen stars Oscar and Emmy winner Regina King as Angela Abar, a Tulsa police detective caught in the middle of a violent war with a white supremacist group. King is the ideal, stroke-of-genius choice for the role: stern but approachable, tough but vulnerable. The actress delivers a compelling, compassionate portrayal of vigilantism, supporting the show’s convoluted narrative on her capable shoulders. No wonder she won another Emmy for her work.
8 Kevin Garvey — ‘The Leftovers’ (2014-2017)
With so much content available, some shows are bound to slip through the cracks, including those that are certified works of art; Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta‘s drama The Leftovers is the perfect example. Justin Theroux stars as Kevin Garvey, a chief of police struggling to maintain order in a world where 2% of the population suddenly disappeared.
The Leftovers is somber and thorny; however, its thought-provoking, insightful, introspective narrative is undeniably rewarding. Theroux has no easy task with the character; Kevin is a walking jumble of contradictions, an elusive and often erratic figure perpetually hiding something from the audience. However, the actor deftly handles Kevin’s edges, crafting a fine portrayal of grief, dissociation, and even absurdism that ranks as one of the best performances in any modern HBO show.
7 Maeve Millay — ‘Westworld’ (2016-2022)
Westworld was never a consistent show. It went through high peaks and ridiculously low valleys, with fans never knowing what to expect. However, one aspect that was always reliable was Thandiwe Newton‘s portrayal of Maeve Millay. Initially acting as a madam in Sweetwater, Maeve gains awareness of her nature and becomes a key player in the hosts’ fight to leave Westworld.
Newton plays Maeve with chilly charm. Perceptive and manipulative, Maeve is one step ahead of everyone, unafraid to switch sides if necessary, and ready to do what’s necessary to triumph. Newton’s performance is brilliant, embodying Maeve’s increasing ruthlessness without letting go of the vulnerable aspects that made her compelling to begin with.
6 Tanya McQuoid -— ‘The White Lotus’ (2021-)
The iconic Jennifer Coolidge delivers the finest performance in her long career in Mike White‘s delicious satire The White Lotus. The veteran actress plays Tanya McQuoid, a bundle of insecurities and anxieties recovering from her mother’s death while falling prey to those who know how to manipulate her vulnerabilities.
In Coolidge’s hands, Tanya is a tragic accident, the heroine of a farcical opera singing to an empty theater. The actress plays Tanya with masterful confidence, walking a fine line between ridiculousness and genuine devastation. Hilarious but never a walking punchline, Tanya is The White Lotus‘ absurdity embodied, and Coolidge is in on the joke.
5 Joel & Ellie — ‘The Last of Us’ (2023-)
The Last of Us was a massive hit for HBO. Based on Naughty Dog’s eponymous video game, the plot centers around Joel, a hardened smuggler tasked with escorting Ellie, a young girl, across a dystopian United States decimated by a dangerous virus that turns people into mindless savages.
Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey portray the main characters, delivering two of the finest performances in modern television. Broken and jaded, Joel and Ellie find solace in each other, developing a unique bond that allows them to believe and love again. The Last of Us is among the best video game adaptations, largely thanks to Pascal and Ramsey’s outstanding work, which finds the lost humanity among the zombie carnage.
4 Barry Berkman — ‘Barry’ (2018-2023)
When Bill Hader left Saturday Night Live, many mourned his absence and the void he left behind. However, Hader made up for it by creating, writing, directing, and starring in the HBO dark comedy Barry, about a hitman who becomes an actor after traveling to Los Angeles for a job.
Expertly blending comedy, cruelty, vulnerability, and pathos, Hader created one of the best assassins in modern television. Barry Berkman is a clash of opposites: warm and approachable one moment, violent and unforgiving the next. Hader portrays the character’s nuances with eerie precision, finding the bleak and wicked humor in Barry’s darkest sides and delivering a tour de force performance in the process.
3 Rhaenyra Targaryen — ‘House of the Dragon’ (2022-)
Game of Thrones left a bitter taste in the audience’s mouth, with many believing the show’s sins were too great to forgive. However, House of the Dragon successfully wiped those ugly memories away with an excellent story that echoes back to the political mind games that first made GOT a smashing success.
At the center of the action is Rhaenyra Targaryen, played by Millie Alcock as a child and Emma D’Arcy as an adult. Unlike her book counterpart, the live-action Rhaenyra is clever and level-headed, selfish but never cruel, and self-serving without becoming unpleasant. Rhaenrya is a worthy heir to Daenerys’ legacy, a strong queen with layers that go beyond what meets the eye.
2 Logan Roy — ‘Succession’ (2018-2023)
Brian Cox delivers a scenery-chewing, profanity-fueled, utterly unhinged performance as Logan Roy in Jesse Armstrong’s drama Succession. As the title implies, the show focuses on the internal conflict among the Roy clan to decide who will control the family’s global media conglomerate amid the patriarch’s declining health.
However, said patriarch won’t go down without a fight. Mercurial, ruthless, and outright terrifying, Cox’s Logan Roy is a modern-day Goliath, a titan of his industry whose mere name can bring entire companies to their knees. Logan is corporate America brought to life: unreachable, unsympathetic, Machiavellian, and almost inhumane, a bold and brutal creation that only a veteran of Cox’s stature could’ve played.
1 Selina Meyer — ‘Veep’ (2012-2019)
The pantheon of great HBO antiheroes is already populated by some of television’s best characters — Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Cersei Lannister. However, one more name must be added to that infamous collection: Selina Meyer. Played by television legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Selina is the protagonist of Armand Iannucci‘s political satire Veep.
Selina is the most elusive kind of monster: too incompetent to take seriously at first and too erratic to stop once she’s been set loose. Selina is the product of Iannucci’s singularly sharp mind and Louis-Dreyfus’ unique gift for comedy. The result is a masterful creation, an ode to ego that’s almost too absurd to believe. Yet, Selina is always compelling, a character that will forever live in the annals of television infamy.
KEEP READING: The 10 Best HBO Miniseries, Ranked By Rotten Tomatoes