Frank Underwood, House of Cards
A snake in the grass. A true patriot. The Devil himself. Whatever you call Kevin Spacey’s cunning South Carolinian—who managed to scheme his way from the House of Representatives to the Oval Office in two seasons flat— one thing’s for certain: He’s also magnetic. And you can tell that straight to the camera.
Best Moment: More like ”Holy S—, Did That Just Happen?!” Moment. Frank gives poor Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) a first-class ticket to that big blogroll in the sky. —Hillary Busis
Selina Meyer, Veep
All Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ accidental President wants is a little respect, or at least a place to curse in peace. But it’s a lot funnier to watch the bumbling, frustrated politico fail than succeed—and fail she does, spectacularly and often. Yet all the same, things have a way of ultimately working out in Selina’s favor; did we mention she’s the President now?
Best Moment: A newly shorn Selina tries to smile away her twitching eye while preparing for her primary debate. —Hillary Busis
Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock
There have been more screen versions of Sherlock Holmes than of Hamlet and Superman combined. But Benedict Cumberbatch’s mesmerizing, asexual, manic, quasi-sociopathic crime solver sets a new standard for the master detective. This season, the series shifted gears from meta-dramedy to rom-com to terrorist thriller across its trio of episodes, giving fans the chance to witness new facets of the deerstalker-capped Tumblr icon.
Best Moment: Sherlock’s wedding-party speech as Watson’s best man has more emotional twists than an entire season of most crime shows. —James Hibberd
Alison Hendrix, Orphan Black
An uptight suburbanite with a love of firearms, glue guns, booze, and watching her best friend get choked to death by a garbage disposal, Alison (Tatiana Maslany) is our favorite Orphan Black clone thanks to her actual genetic makeup being equal parts prissy and pissed off.
Best Moment: Alison’s drunken face-plant off the stage on opening night of her community musical certainly steals the show. —Dalton Ross
Arya Stark, Game of Thrones
Arya’s (Maisie Williams) ordeals should make her Westeros’ most unfortunate victim. Yet that word would never apply to her. Her fearless drive and dry wit keep us cheering as she clings to her vengeful plan.
Best Moment: Arya says farewell to her mentor, the Hound, and her home, Westeros—she’s learned all she can from both. —James Hibberd
Mindy Lahiri, The Mindy Project
The main difference between Mindy Kaling’s bubbly OB/GYN and the romantic comedy heroines she idolizes? Mindy’s only starring in a rom-com in her own mind—leading to plenty of rude awakenings when things don’t turn out the way she’d planned. Yet the good doc remains undaunted, which may be why we’ve fallen for her just as hard as Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) did.
Best Moment: Mindy staggers up 104 flights of stairs to meet Danny at the top of the Empire State Building. Ah, l’amour! —Hillary Busis
Ichabod Crane, Sleepy Hollow
As played by the ruggedly dreamy Tom Mison, the time-traveling protagonist of Sleepy Hollow combines the deductive brilliance of Sherlock with the out-of-this-world humanism of Doctor Who‘s Time Lord. What’s not to nerd-love?
Best Moment: Ichabod’s heartfelt confessional about his interdimensionally trapped wife, Katrina, brings an OnStar operator to tears. —Kyle Anderson
Mellie Grant, Scandal
Everyone in this West Wing has an agenda, but Mellie’s (Bellamy Young) may be the most intriguing: She hungers for power and love (from the nation or her husband, interchangeably) and is willing to go to extreme lengths—even by Scandal standards—for both.
Best Moment: Two words: drunk Mellie. —Marc Snetiker
Diane Lockhart, The Good Wife
This season alone, Lockhart’s (Christine Baranski) best friend and partner was murdered—R.I.P. Will Gardner (Josh Charles)—followed by a Game of Thrones-worthy power struggle at her firm. But Diane has proved she has reserves of flintiness still to plumb.
Best Moment: After Will’s funeral, Diane and Alicia (Julianna Margulies) drink martinis and plot to combine firms. —Sara Vilkomerson
Sophia Burset, Orange Is the New Black
Litchfield’s magnetic stylist (Laverne Cox) took a backseat to the action this year, but in a season of dangerous power shifts, Sophia’s virtuosic wisdom and familiar wit were a genuine comfort, as if we knew we were safe whenever we were in the hairdresser’s hands. It’s hard to take your eyes off her—and the couture prison sandals have nothing to do with it.
Best Moment: Sophia re-earns the affection of her visiting son (who turned her in) over a game of cards. —Marc Snetiker
Roger Sterling, Mad Men
Mad Men has more great characters than a premium typeface. Still, Sterling (John Slattery) stood out this season as his runaway daughter and lost partner forced him to pivot from hippie hedonism to personal responsibility.
Best Moment: Staring at the stars with his daughter, Sterling manages a genuine moment of connection and wonder. No hallucinogens needed! —Keith Staskiewicz
Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation
Yes, fatherhood has made Parks and Rec‘s resident curmudgeon (Nick Offerman) slightly more patient and empathetic. But it hasn’t softened his edge. He’s still the gruffest, most no-nonsense libertarian on TV, and his unique worldview has us in stitches at least once an episode.
Best Moment: Ron discovers Yelp. ”Dear frozen yogurt: You are the celery of desserts. Be ice cream, or be nothing.” —Chancellor Agard
Adam Sackler, Girls
This season, Hannah’s fairy-tale prince pulled a reverse Peter Pan, turning into a worshipful boyfriend (Adam Driver) with a real acting career—one that showed a new, ambitious side of his personality. The show is called Girls, but the most three-dimensional, relatable, lovable character is a guy.
Best Moment: There’s nothing more heartbreaking in season 3 than the pain on Adam’s face in the alley after his Broadway debut—what should have been his greatest moment—when he asks Hannah, ”Can’t one thing ever be easy with you?” —Danielle Nussbaum
Tina Belcher, Bob's Burgers
All the good laugh lines go to Gene the hedonist and Louise the Machiavellian manipulator, but eldest Belcher kid Tina (Dan Mintz) is still the butt-obsessed heart of the show. And she doesn’t even need dialogue to do it: Somehow Mintz has spun Tina’s signature awkward-teen moan into a reliable catchphrase.
Best Moment: Tina’s make-out fantasy sequence on Quippiquisset Island, which she interprets as ”Quickie Kissit Island.” —Kyle Anderson
Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report
Colbert’s onscreen persona started out as a fairly straightforward Bill O’Reilly parody. Ten seasons later, he’s become something looser, goofier, and even more idiotically charismatic. In short, the character’s as brilliant as the man who plays him—and he’ll be sorely missed when the real Colbert takes over for David Letterman in 2015.
Best Moment: Stopping by The Daily Show to announce that he’s leaving the Colbert Report?and that he’s heard Letterman is being replaced by ”some fat guy.” —Hillary Busis
Ilana Wexler, Broad City
Choosing between ebullient Ilana (Ilana Glazer) and her slightly more mature partner in crime, Abbi (Abbi Jacobson), is harder than doing your own taxes. But we’ve gotta go with Glazer’s goofy stoner, who can make the most mundane lines hilarious (”You have been busting my balls all day over a sahhaaandwich shaaahop?!”).
Best Moment: Explaining why she stores her weed the way she does (”The vah-heen-yah is nature’s pocket. It’s natural, and responsible”). —Hillary Busis
Captain Ray Holt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
TV’s gay stereotypes were flipped on their head when Andre Braugher’s by-the-book, stone-faced, hula-hooping police captain arrived on the scene. All season long, he brought Brooklyn‘s hardest laughs, often without saying anything at all.
Best Moment: Young Captain Holt shows a badass side (and ‘fro) in a ’70s flashback. —Marc Snetiker
Sterling Archer, Archer
The funniest egomaniac on television is a renegade superspy (H. Jon Benjamin) with sharp repartee and enough mommy issues to fill a Psycho prequel.
Best Moment: Archer saves Kenny Loggins’ life. Admittedly, this is after he indirectly almost causes Loggins’ death, but still. —Darren Franich
Boyd Crowder, Justified
An eloquent, three-dimensional criminal, Crowder (Walton Goggins) is a buttoned-up badass with a mind as quick as his trigger finger. He came fascinatingly undone this season pining for his jailed love, Ava (Joelle Carter)—not suspecting that she’d later agree to rat on him to his ol’ pal Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) to get out.
Best Moment: Boyd tosses Picker (John Kapelos) a pack of smokes that goes kaboom—reminding us just how clever and dangerous he is when he’s cornered. —Mandi Bierly
Phil Dunphy, Modern Family
The exuberant malapropist (Ty Burrell) pairs perfectly with every other character on the show, whether he’s on a freaky-deaky date with his wife or clumsily trying to be the world’s coolest dad for his kids. But his inappropriate affection for his mother-in-law Gloria (Sofia Vergara) brings out some of his silliest, Phil-iest behavior.
Best Moment: Real-estate agent extraordinaire, Phil finds himself in a tight spot when all the needy divorcées he’s juggling as clients corner him in the supermarket. —Jeff Labrecque
Louie C.K., Louie
Louis C.K. may be the world’s most respected comedian, but he doesn’t want you to respect him too much. He’s very conscious of the privilege he enjoys as a famous white guy—he’s done stand-up about it—and he keeps it in check by humiliating his onscreen alter ego every chance he gets. Funny thing, though: The more humbled this schlub becomes, the easier it is to love him.
Best Moment: Louie does one wrong thing after another at a tony Hamptons charity event, finally flaming out horrifically onstage (in front of his pal Jerry Seinfeld). —Melissa Maerz
Sue Heck, The Middle
Everyone knows a Sue —in fact, you might have been her at one time. Kooky and friendless but ever so hopeful, Sue (Eden Sher) has unending enthusiasm and a gleaming smile (thanks to those braces) that make for comic gold on the under-the-radar comedy The Middle.
Best Moment: A determined Sue braves the elements in an endurance contest to win a car. —Marc Snetiker
Philip Jennings, The Americans
It’s tough to pick between the Jennings parents, but Matthew Rhys’ Philip has the edge over Keri Russell’s Elizabeth by a (wig) hair. Like his wife, Philip contains murderous multitudes: He’s a walking, running, snarling one-man show with its own dense cast of characters. But what’s made him especially compelling this season is the suspicion that he isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but the other way around.
Best Moment: Philip unleashes his inner demons on daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) as he forcefully rips the pages out of her Bible. —Ray Rahman
Norma Bates, Bates Motel
To say that Norma (Vera Farmiga) takes a hands-on approach to parenting Norman is an understatement; for her, it’s a full-body contact sport. She’s unstable, deceptive, manipulative, creepily affectionate. But Farmiga also infuses Norma with just enough heart and pathos to make this mother’s love-gone-wrong feel so right.
Best Moment: After talking/tackling Norman (Freddie Highmore) out of killing himself, she kissed him for a second—or three—too long. —Dan Snierson
Erlich Bachman, Silicon Valley
T.J. Miller’s brogrammer turned wannabe tech guru ping-pongs between being a total blowhard and having surprising flashes of insight (Pied Piper does need a better logo!)—but either way, he steals scenes even more efficiently than Valley guys steal each others’ ideas.
Best Moment: Erlich gives a crass motivational speech before the team’s big presentation—which inspires what may be the most intricate dick joke in television history.—Hillary Busis