Brow Beat

The Best Pop Culture Characters of 2016

Laura Benanti’s Melania impression on The Late Show; Juan in Moonlight; Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters; Ryan Lochte.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via CBS, A24, Sony, and by Harry How/Getty Images.

Finn, Everybody Wants Some!!

The most indelible character of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused was David Wooderson. We recall him for his comic philosophizing about time being a flat circle (in which he ages and high school girls do not). But Wooderson is in fact a tragic figure: a young man whose best moon tower kegger is surely behind him. The most indelible character of Everybody Wants Some!! is Finn, who might be Wooderson’s brighter cousin. He shares his cousin’s magnetism and his interests—having fun, having sex—but whereas Wooderson’s powers were on the wane, Finn’s are at their peak. He’s a jock with a nimble mind and a hilariously hifalutin vocabulary. (When we meet him, he is decrying a teammate’s purchase of a waterbed as an “ill-advised and ill-fated adventure in midcollapse.”) Though he possesses the preternatural confidence of the ballplayer, he prefers the pose of a poet. He likes to sit on the ratty team coach, brandishing a pipe and a copy of a deep cut by Kerouac (Desolation Angels). His teammates find his pretensions irritating but irresistible; women do too. It’s as if Linklater asked himself what it would be like if Wooderson had a brain and realized he’d be a lot cooler if he did. —deputy editor John Swansburg

Laura Benanti’s Melania impression, The Late Show

The stiffly pursed lips. The feline squint. The telemprompted monologuing interspersed with model poses. There was one silver lining to Melania Trump’s plagiarized Republican National Convention speech, and it was the impression that Laura Benanti debuted shortly thereafter on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. Even more than Cecily Strong’s surrealist SNL portrayal, which depicted Melania as a melancholic kept woman trapped in her own life, Benanti’s impersonation was at once remarkably accurate and a new creation altogether. Whether displaying her cheekbones for the camera or defending Trump’s “boy talk” under duress, her Melania was a sneaky diva, preposterously out of her element but possessed of a certain languid confidence nonetheless. —culture editor Laura Bennett

Victor, Underground Airlines

Victor, the U.S. marshal whose investigation of a fugitive serves as the engine driving Ben H. Winters’ propulsive novel Underground Airlines, is in many ways a typical detective at the center of a typical detective story. He’s resourceful and observant; he’s a hard-bitten loner; he’s quick with a quip but knows how to be quiet. What sets him apart is not only the setting in which he works—an alternate version of the modern-day U.S. in which the Civil War was never fought and slavery is still legal in four states—but the terrible guilt he carries with him. Victor is black, an escaped slave. The fugitives he captures are also escaped slaves. So even as Underground Airlines solves one puzzle—the origin and implications of the runaway Jackdaw—it also unravels its own fascinating, troubling hero, one repressed memory at a time. —staff writer and editor Dan Kois

Huma Abedin, Weiner

Anthony Weiner, that insatiable Portnoy of New York politics, is the protagonist of the documentary that bears his name, but he doesn’t cut it as a tragic hero: His flaws swallowed him whole long before the cameras started rolling. Rather, the moral fulcrum of Weiner is Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife and consigliere (and deputy chief of staff to then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). It’s impossible not to look at Abedin when she’s on screen—to marvel at her beauty, to wonder at her decision to stay in her marriage, and to track the collapse of her hope as her husband’s misbehavior engulfs his mayoral campaign and his family’s life. In a series of long, excruciating, mostly silent shots we watch her face as she reckons with the catastrophe of her marriage, and Weiner becomes one of those documentaries that shows us a human being at the limits of the endurable. If Abedin had decided to leave Weiner earlier, incidentally, it’s possible that her emails wouldn’t have been on her husband’s laptop when it was seized by the FBI after yet another sexting scandal, this one involving an underage girl. In which case FBI director James Comey wouldn’t have had anything to write to Congress about in late October of this year, and Abedin might now be running Hillary Clinton’s transition team. The tragedy of Huma Abedin turns out to be a tragedy for all of us. —senior editor Gabriel Roth

The Octopus, The Handmaiden

Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden is one of the best movies I saw this year, a masterpiece of thorny plotting, black humor, and dazzling visual style. Park’s film tells the story of a fiendishly deceptive love triangle in 1930s Korea, a story in which absolutely nothing is what it seems, save for one thing: an enormous octopus that nearly steals the film in one of its most crucial scenes. Plucked from obscurity, this cephalopod Olivier turns in a riveting and undeniable performance, turning in 2016’s most astonishing animal debut and joining the hallowed annals of whispered names like Babe, Flipper, and Air Bud in just a few short minutes of screen time. —pop critic Jack Hamilton

Ines, Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade’s Cannes award winner Toni Erdmann focuses on Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), a driven German business consultant at a firm in Bucharest, Romania. At first it’s impossible to comprehend how straitlaced Ines came from her ramshackle, impulsive father, who blows up Ines’ spot by visiting her without warning at work. The more we see of this successful career woman, however, the less we understand about her. By the end of this scabrous, bananas comedy, she’s demanded a colleague masturbate into a pastry, hosted a cocktail party completely nude, and belted a Whitney Houston ballad to a houseful of strangers. I still didn’t get Ines by the time I finished Toni Erdmann, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her since. —staff writer and editor Dan Kois

“Boehner,” Owen Ellickson’s Twitter feed

Over the course of a deeply unfunny election, comedy writer Owen Ellickson’s Twitter feed was an oasis of funny, scalding satire. In tiny slices of fake dialogue, he imagined the conversations unfolding inside the different campaign bunkers. His Trump was a creepy loose cannon with the attention span of a fly. His Paul Ryan was the dorky stooge who pretended to be morally upright while still allowing Trump to use him. And his John Boehner was perhaps the best character of all: the party’s often-drunk voice of reason, calling bullshit on all the feckless GOPers. (Also, he was obsessed with Jane the Virgin.) In Ellickson’s comic universe, Boehner was the player who understood the stakes of the game and was willing to go HAM on anyone who thought they could manage Trump. In 2017, DGAF Boehner, I will miss you most of all. —culture editor Laura Bennett

Ryan Lochte

Now that Donald Trump is our president-elect, it’s only natural to long for the halcyon days of August, when Ryan Lochte was the person who was doing the most to embarrass our country on the international stage. He shot off his mouth about being robbed at gunpoint while in Brazil for the Olympics and fled the country before the truth came out: that he and his teammates had clashed with police after drunkenly damaging a gas station bathroom. The crazy part is that before this whole thing happened, Lochte was already inching toward self-caricature. For all the razzing he got for his ditziness, his commitment to sticking to the ugly-privileged-American script throughout l’affair Rio and its fallout was remarkable in a different way. “Action!” an unseen director called. “Do exactly the things everyone will expect you to do. Lie. Have stupid hair. Implicate Billy Bush. Blame your mom. Date a Playmate. Attempt to dance the scandal away on network TV.” As we look toward a presidential administration where nothing is certain, Lochte’s utter, puppylike predictability starts to seem like something we’ll be sorely missing these next four years. —copy editor Heather Schwedel

The Ensemble, People v. OJ. Simpson

It was a given that some character from FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, would wind up on this list. There was David Schwimmer’s “Juice”-spurting Robert Kardashian, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s incredulous O.J., John Travolta’s campy Robert Shapiro, Courtney Vance’s stagey Johnnie Cochran, Sterling K. Brown’s empathetic Chris Darden, and bringing it home, Sarah Paulson’s reputation-transforming Marcia Clark. But above all, this was a true ensemble—in which the sum is much bigger than the parts and a bunch of weird, seemingly mismatched performances somehow merge into an irresistible whole. How to keep Schwimmer from looking like stunt-casting that overshadows all his scenes? Put him in a room with Gooding Jr. What’s the only way to ensure someone like Paulson doesn’t steal the show? Put her up against Vance and Travolta. Who was the best character in People v. OJ? All of them.  —copy editor Heather Schwedel

Jillian Holtzmann, Ghostbusters

Lingering on the outskirts of the Ghostbusters’ lab, tinkering with a laser or Faraday cage or proton pack, Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann lived in her own little mad-scientist world, popping out occasionally to delight us with a well-timed wink or an exuberant dance routine. The best parts of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot came when Holtzmann—the engineer who makes all of the team’s ghost-hunting equipment—was allowed to let loose her off-kilter, manic charisma. She’s an eccentric female technician who is unapologetically obsessed with her craft and really, really good at what she does and also exudes infectious joy while she does it. Holtzmann had all the best, most GIF-able moments, was a style icon in jumpsuits, boots, and overalls, and spawned some great Halloween costumes, too. —staff writer Rebecca Onion

Juan, Moonlight

For years, The Wire has gotten tons of credit for humanizing and fleshing out the black drug dealer archetype, through characters like Omar, Stringer, and Bodie. Now it’ll have to share that accolade with Moonlight, because Mahershela Ali’s Juan—who takes soft-spoken, bullied Little under his wing—is a quiet highlight of the film. Juan is a shrewd businessman, to be sure, but he’s also caring and deeply perceptive of others’ needs, with a keen ability to break through to the shy young kid and put him at ease. Ali can say so much with his eyes, whether he’s sizing up Little the first time they meet, or explaining to him, painfully, the definition of a faggot. He doesn’t get much screen time in Barry Jenkins’ powerful, soul-stirring three-act masterpiece, and yet his presence and influence linger all the way through. —staff writer Aisha Harris

Lady Lyanna Mormont, Game of Thrones

She may not be in line to rule the seven kingdoms, but Game of Thrones’ pint-sized badass has one up on most of Westeros’ potential sovereigns: She’s a meme, a “boss-ass bitch,” to quote one popular iteration, whose icy scowl became a universal symbol of giving precisely zero fucks. Sure, Jorah Mormont’s niece is barely a tween and her Bear Island army amounts to only a handful of fighters, but even on a show stuffed with forbidding figures, her stoic resolve puts the ostensible adults around her to shame. She may not have swelled the ranks of Jon Snow’s army much, but her public declaration of loyalty to Jon Snow forced the Starks’ wishy-washy allies to fall in line. The North remembers. —senior editor Sam Adams

Bill, Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl

Lab Girl.


Bill, a soil scientist, has been biologist Hope Jahren’s lab partner for over 20 years, a sidekick and collaborator of the wisecracking variety. In their shoestring-budget early years he slept in a van and under his desk, lived off of frozen McDonald’s cheeseburgers bought in bulk during a campus sale, and debated with her over whether each incoming grad student was smarter than her Chesapeake Bay retriever. Bill followed Jahren from California to Atlanta to Hawaii, their bond, as deep as that between siblings, rooted in profound, patient curiosity about nature and a nonchalant acceptance of the often miserable conditions under which that curiosity can be satisfied. “I want you to know I feel better,” Bill tells Jahrens when she takes him moss-hunting in Ireland to assuage the grief of his father’s death, “which is surprising considering the large number of open sores on my scalp.” —books and culture columnist Laura Miller

Master P, Solange’s “A Seat at the Table”

If you had told me before this year began that some of the most profound insights on blackness in America would come from Master P—the rap mogul behind such shout-tastic late-’90s anthems as “Make ’Em Say Uhh!” and charmingly terrible hoodsploitation movies like Hot Boyz—I would have called you crazy. And yet here we are: Woven throughout Solange’s beautifully crafted album-length ode to self-care is the sage wisdom of Master P, who tells the story of his rise from New Orleans housing projects to multimillionaire. It is a narrative that is at once very specific to the No Limit star and very relatable to many, as he talks about selling CDs out of the trunk of his car and the lack of institutional support for mental health within the black community. The album skit/interlude has been rightly derided as a mostly stupid and irritating artistic device, but here, it’s elevated to new emotional heights. —staff writer Aisha Harris

Samantha, Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice

In the gallery of improv team types portrayed in Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice—the Careerist, the Sad Lifer, the Rich Kid—the one that rang most true to me was the True Believer. Every improv team has one person who only really cares about the unreplicable magic a great group makes onstage; the more true believers a team has, the better the team is likely to be. In Don’t Think Twice, the truest of believers is Samantha, played with total commitment by Gillian Jacobs. Of all the members of the Commune, the imploding all-star team at the center of Don’t Think Twice, only Samantha just wants things to stay the same forever, wants to perform with her friends in front of tiny crowds in a basement forever. And it’s Samantha who bails on her big audition for the popular live comedy TV show to which every other Commune member—including her boyfriend—aspires. Don’t Think Twice strives to ferret out truth in comedy; it’s Samantha who comes the closest to finding it in her own life. —staff writer and editor Dan Kois

Angela, American Housewife

Lesbians have made the best sidekicks in American culture ever since Marcie met Peppermint Patty or Velma fell in with the rest of the Scooby-Doo gang. In recent years, though, TV writers have doubled down on this trend, creating an army of lesbian sidekicks of color. Think Annalise on Grandfathered, Kay on Marry Me, Denise on Master of None, or Pippy on Rosewood. These characters are around enough that we know their names and who they’re dating, but they rarely get their own storylines. For the most part, they’re there to support the straight lead. The fall TV season minted a new favorite: Angela (Carly Hughes), a divorced lesbian mom and one of Katie Otto’s two snark-slinging pals of color on ABC’s oddly charming sitcom American Housewife. Things didn’t start well—in the pilot, Angela, who is black, was called upon to make out with Katie to discourage a racist homophobe from moving into the house opposite Katie’s. This was sidekick exploitation of the worst kind. Since then, though, Angela has been given an actual personality and even signs of agency. She has a family of her own! We still haven’t seen that family—and if a show has only one lesbian character who merely talks about being a lesbian, she’s not much of a lesbian. Angela seems like the sort of audience-pleasing figure who could be fleshed out in later episodes. When she gets a girlfriend, a Subaru, and a pair of oversized dogs, she’ll be an actual character—like Luisa on Jane the Virgin or M-Chuck on Survivor’s Remorse—and not just a sidekick. I’m optimistic. —culture critic and Outward editor June Thomas

Black Phillip, The Witch

Black Phillip taught us all that we’d like to live deliciously. In Robert Eggers’ magically grim The Witch, a Puritan family in rural 17th-century New England faces its own personal occult panic—except in this case, it might be based in reality. Black Phillip, an enormous billy goat on the family farm, at first seems like a pawn in the domestic hysteria, but before long, we begin to wonder if he has own agenda. Played by a single goat named Charlie and (ahem) voiced by the model Wahab Chaudhry, the character blesses The Witch with one of the most memorable horror finales in years, and his placid stare alone will give a shiver to anyone who sees it. He also has 10,000 followers on Twitter. —associate editor and video producer Jeffrey Bloomer

Paper Boi, Atlanta

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight tweaked audience expectations with Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of a nurturing middle-aged man who also happens to deal crack. But when it comes to subverting stereotypes, nothing did it better this year than Donald Glover’s FX show, Atlanta. By the end of the show’s first episode, Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi is established as a drug dealer and aspiring rapper with an itchy trigger finger—a walking, talking gangsta-rap trope. But no sooner has the show established that stereotype than it blows it up, and the explosions keep coming. Glover allegedly picked Henry for his combination of laconic timing and physically intimidating size; Paper Boi—or should we say Alfred?—knows that some people will be frightened of him on sight, so he uses it to his advantage when he needs to and cannily undercuts it when he wants to watch them squirm. (Watch the way he toys with a white liberal academic’s preconceptions in Atlanta’s “transracial” episode.) He’s a man who never wants to be penned in by what people expect of him, and the show, and Henry’s mercurial performance, always keeps us guessing. —senior editor Sam Adams

Sir James Martin, Love and Friendship

Whit Stillman’s summer art-house hit Love and Friendship introduces its characters via helpful little subtitles upon their first appearances, and one of the first we meet is Sir James Martin: “Wealthy young suitor of Frederica Vernon & Maria Manwaring,” his title reads. “A bit of a ‘Rattle.’ ” What this means, it turns out, is that Sir James is one of the most sublime buffoons ever to grace a movie screen, a complete idiot who can’t identify peas and believes there to be 12 commandments. Relentlessly cheerful, blithely confident despite his admission that he’s wrong “quite a lot,” Sir James floats through life cushioned by a system that ensures a man as rich as he is need never worry. Tom Bennett’s performance is so bizarrely, delightfully out of sync with every other actor’s that he appears to have dropped in not just from another movie but from Mars. It’s a performance that bears all the hallmarks of having surprised everyone—his co-stars, Stillman, the ghost of Jane Austen herself. —staff writer and editor Dan Kois

Lee Russell, Vice Principals

Walton Goggins’ Lee Russell is a character who holds his grudges close to his vest, meticulously plotting against his enemies before executing elaborately violent revenge plots. And his brand of bitterness feels topical: He’s fueled by the belief that he’s been unfairly passed over in life by those less worthy than he is; in the show’s telling and somewhat controversial example, it’s a black woman hired as his superior. He’s emasculated on a daily basis by his demanding mother-in-law and sucks up to colleagues who treat him as more of a prop than a human. This isn’t a guy who is content to yell obscenities out his car window when he’s mad. He’s thinking far darker thoughts, all while shaking your hand with a wicked, toothy smile. —culture intern David Canfield

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

In left-wing fantasies about perfect politicians, Justin Trudeau makes Jed Bartlet look like Chuck Schumer. Since Trudeau’s election, he has set liberal loins aflame with plainspoken decency (“Because it’s 2015”) and princely, Putinesque acts of heroism. But the people have been too easy on Trudeau. He says that Muslims are people or that genocide was bad, and bam! He’s anointed as woke Moses. I don’t doubt Trudeau’s liberal bona fides—he has real policy accomplishments, and his openness to women and minorities feels urgent—but his peacocking is hardly pure. It’s calculated and cynical, like most political messaging. April’s “quantum physics” incident is instructive. The viral stunt first played online as Trudeau “schooling” a snooty reporter who dared question his scientific acumen, only to be revealed as all but staged; the prime minister himself suggested the exchange to the assembled reporters. Like Trudeau’s shirtless photobombs, this moment picked low-hanging fruit (science makes you sound smart!) and blended it into a progressive smoothie for the hungry web. Trudeau is a gifted, intelligent communicator, and #trudeaueulogies notwithstanding, he understands internet culture perhaps better than any global head of state. Given the much rottener low-hanging fruit from which Trump has harvested the American presidency, maybe we’ve been right to swoon at a politician who isn’t racist and can speak like an adult. —nights and weekends homepage editor Seth Maxon

Manny, Swiss Army Man

Daniel Radcliffe’s breakthrough post–Harry Potter role is not as a horse-blinding malcontent or a beatnik poet but as a cheerful, sexually confused cadaver named Manny. And, yes, he is the infamous “farting corpse,” a source of both jokes and magical power in this delirious feature debut by two young writer-directors who go by the Daniels. Manny becomes the last hope for Hank (Paul Dano) when he washes ashore on an apparent desert island, and the two launch into a sweet, happily deranged partnership together in the woods. His manner appropriately stiff, his face misshapen with ashen skin, Manny may be a cipher for another man’s inner turmoil, but we soon learn this dead guy has more dimensions than most living characters. Credit Radcliffe for his grimly funny, physical performance, and also the movie’s practical effects team for finding the most visually inventive uses of flatulence we’ve ever seen. —associate editor and video producer Jeffrey Bloomer

Fleabag, Fleabag

Fleabag (source of name: unknown) is a London café owner with a penchant for caustic wit. She editorializes her seemingly ordinary life story through brief asides to the audience—addressing us while having sex, which is often, and providing quick introductions to everyone from her tightly wound sister to her cruel stepmother to her latest fuck buddy. Her humor is infectious. Every time she breaks the fourth wall with a wink or a smirk, she furthers the intimacy developing between her and her viewer, her observer. It’s misleading, however—even manipulative. Fleabag, which premiered on the U.K.’s BBC Three and now streams on Amazon, gets darker, stranger, and deeper as it goes on, and as the painful reality of its protagonist’s story drifts further from the sunny one she’s trying to sell. Her intentional misdirects don’t just make for a fun, twisty watch; they’re a deeply felt reflection of her emotional trauma and of her tendency to repress tragedy in favor of a quick fix or a dirty laugh. —culture intern David Canfield

Ricky Baker, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Who is Ricky Baker? He’s a foster kid from the big city lost in the New Zealand bush. He’s a bit of a handful, a real bad egg, guilty of disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, defacing stuff, burning stuff, loitering, and graffiti. He writes haiku and names his dog Tupac. He’s a big fella—who ate the guy who ate all the pies, eh? He grows to love his weird Auntie Bella and, grudgingly, his mean Uncle Hec. As played by the sui generis child actor Julian Dennison in Taika Waititi’s terrific adventure story Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he’s a moving, unique young man, a bad kid who, thank god, doesn’t stop being kind of bad just because he learns that someone loves him. —staff writer and editor Dan Kois

Kayleigh McEnany, CNN

An official Trumpkin from the first primary, CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany was the perfect proxy villain for the horror story of the 2016 election. She was the bleached-blond twentysomething with the crucifix around her neck, calmly defending the indefensible from behind a smile so self-satisfied it just about winked. Alicia Machado, the Miss Universe contestant Donald Trump humiliated for gaining weight? She was a potential terrorist. Hillary Clinton’s speech against the white nationalism of the alt-right? That was “divisive,” and even Martin Luther King Jr. would agree. McEnany’s Trump apologism defied both the bounds of sanity and the expectations conferred by her degrees from Georgetown and Harvard Law, making her easy and fun for viewers to hate on, to the extent that pounding forehead veins are “fun.” Like so many characters from 2016’s political theater, McEnany’s rah-rah shtick eventually listed into farce. It seemed that any moment, her spit-shined façade might crack open to reveal that it was all a joke, that of course no highly educated millennial career woman could convince herself that a con artist with a fragile ego should be president of anything. The joke, of course, was that this outlandish parody of a right-wing pundit became one of the biggest breakout stars of 2016 election coverage. This character was genetically engineered for cable news. —staff writer Christina Cauterucci