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50 Best TV Characters

June 2nd, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

List fever continues, as I now try to sort through the best characters in television history. Inevitably, some make the cut because of superb writing, some need the actor to do all the work, while others find a more perfect union. The complete list after the fold, this time in reverse order, from 50 to 1.


Honorable Mentions
So many characters, only 50 spots. Some who didn’t quite make the cut:
Tobias Funke (Arrested Development), B.A. Baracus (The A-Team), Maxwell Smart (Get Smart), Sophia Petrillo (Golden Girls), Liz Lemon (30 Rock); Baldric (Black Adder), Horatio Caine (CSI: Miami) – so bad, he’s funny; The Chairman (Iron Chef America) – I just love how he announces the special ingredient, Dharma Finklestein Montgomery (Dharma and Greg), Reese (Malcolm in the Middle), Borat (The Ali G Show), Ralph Wiggum (The Simpsons), Xander Harris (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Walter Skinner (The X-Files), Digby (Pushing Daisies), and Snoop (The Wire).

And so, here we go:


50. Doctor Who (various), Doctor Who
Various iterations don’t belong on the list, some belong higher. Hard to rank a character whose whole deal is that he has various characters over time. But he needed inclusion on the list, so here he is.

Kenneth Parcell, 30 Rock

49. Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), 30 Rock
The sheer energy that both character and actor provide 30 Rock is one of its true highlights. His is a seemingly archetypal role (the naïve youth. Think Woody from Cheers), but McBrayer’s zealous earnestness is second to none, making the role his own.

48. John “J.D.” Dorian (Zach Braff), Scrubs
Braff’s excellent interplay between performance and voiceover is a rarity on television. He also mixes silliness, heart, and the surreal in interesting ways.

47. Denny Crane (William Shatner), Boston Legal
I’d heard the hype before watching the show, and never really liked Shatner, so I was a tough sell. But just as one can love a teacher simply because of his or her passion, Shatner and the writers just seem to be having so much fun with the role that it transfers to me as audience member.

46. Simon Cowell (Simon Cowell), American Idol
Okay, yes, he’s a real person, but surely we only know the character. And that character is the lifeblood of the reigning Nielsen champ. Cowell allows people to like what would otherwise be an endless stream of peppy drivel, or he at least lets some people stomach it.

45. Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia), Without a Trace
I rarely watch this show, but have always been really impressed with LaPaglia when tuning in. I think the actor is better than the character, but LaPaglia gives life to a tired genre and adds a serial element to a procedural.

44. Sarah Silverman (Sarah Silverman), The Sarah Silverman Program & elsewhere
She really makes me laugh. Thoroughly inappropriate, but gloriously so, and it’s refreshing to see a female comic nailing a type of humor that has often been for guys only. The mock earnestness of the character alone is superb.

43. Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel), Pushing Daisies
Okay, so I like Ned, too, and Olive, and definitely Digby, but Friel absolutely shines in Pushing Daisies, giving it (if you’ll pardon the obvious joke) significant life, and, I imagine, convincingly selling the romantic elements of the show to most straight guys in the audience.

42. Gob Bluth (Will Arnett), Arrested Development
Another show with a spectacular cast, all of whom I love. But Gob’s rabid energy and deeply twisted mind offered the perfect marriage of great comic writing and great comic acting.

41. Alex P. Keating (Michael J. Fox), Family Ties
Michael J. Fox joins Will Smith, Jimmy Stewart, and Tom Hanks as some of the more completely likeable guys in Hollywood history. Everyone else on the show was pretty drab, the writing was often poor (see the episode in which Alex has a 3 minute addiction to acid), its politics tepid, but Fox made it watchable, even enjoyable at times.

40. Mork (Robin Williams), Mork and Mindy
Robin Williams divides audiences in a big way, and I’d agree that some of his work pushes schmultz to a whole new dimension, but Mork was a lovely addition to television, and a real childhood favorite of mine.

hank kingsley

39. Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), The Larry Sanders Show
Very very funny.

38. Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), Dexter
The female characters/caricatures on this show often leave a lot to be desired (Exhibit A: Lila in Season 2), but Carpenter really reaches deep into her character, and pulls out something quirky, nuanced, and complex as a result.

37. Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr), Roseanne
Roseanne added something very new to television, laying waste to industry lore that suggests viewers only want to see skinny rich people cavorting around on beaches. She also does dry delivery better than most, thereby also showing that smart humor needn’t be reserved for highly educated, upper middle class characters alone.

36. Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner), The Simpsons
Usually relegated to the role of straight-(wo)man, but doing it so well. As much as I rate Lisa and Homer above her overall, she’s the most likeable family member, taking all the love and warmth of the traditional sitcom mother, while suggesting the depths of frustration that bubble beneath the surface of this character.

35. David Brent (Ricky Gervais), The Office (UK)
A total jerk, but a really good one.

34. Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), Pee Wee’s Playhouse
So completely off the wall, bizarre, and unlike anything else on television, Pee Wee and Herman deserve compliments for finding pure originality in a medium that often favors repetition and more of the same.

33. Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), The West Wing
Understated and often in the background, but frequently the show’s moral compass. Schiff does a wonderful job of showing the pure stress of working in the White House, yet also the deeply felt need and occasional exhilaration. Funny too.

32. Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), Fawlty Towers
I’m kind of tired of Cleese’s unchanging character, but he’s at the top of his game in Fawlty Towers. Given the order in which I’m listing these, I just realized that he’s like David Brent with Marge Simpson’s frustration.

Huff

31. Craig “Huff” Huffstodt (Hank Azaria), Huff
A tragically underwatched show, Huff offered such an interesting character at its center, written very well, and acted with real skill (and without any of his usual extravagance) by Azaria. Before there was Dexter, Showtime showed how good a dedicated character study could be.

30. Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball), I Love Lucy
Props to Ball for a wonderful sense of comic timing, and for being arguably television’s very best at doing physical comedy.

29. John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), Lost
He’s bugged me of late, thus dropping a bit on the list, but Locke is still an intriguing character, always reliable. As with Ben Linus, it’s sometimes unclear whether the writers simply put more time into writing Locke, or whether O’Quinn simply schools his fellow cast with an outstanding performance; either way, I’m impressed.

28. Duquan “Dukie” Weems (Jermaine Crawford), The Wire
From his early scenes in Season 4 of The Wire, Dukie was destined for one thing alone: to break my damn heart. And boy, did he. Crawford proved himself one of the best young actors in the business, letting the script do the work, never overacting. The sadness in his eyes is haunting even in a still.

27. Noah Bennet (Jack Coleman), Heroes
Even when the rest of the show struggles around him, Coleman’s Horn-Rimmed Glasses Man excels, the show’s most interesting character, Walter Skinner with more charisma, more secrets, and more nuance.

26. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), M*A*S*H
So thoroughly likeable. Funny, too, but mostly just really likeable, and identifiable.

25. Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer), The Office (US)
I’m totally cheating to put them both in one spot, but they’re such a unit, and charming for the same reasons. Both actors nail the close-ups, giving most of their performances in looks, not lines.

24. Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), Gilmore Girls
I quickly tired of the show, but kudos are forthcoming for a very different type of television mother, played with energy and care by Graham.

23. Gonzo (Dave Goelz), The Muppet Show
Television’s best outsider, a true romantic, and a fearless stuntman.

22. Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce), Frasier
Easily the best thing about Frasier, and a brilliant match, chemistry-wise, with Kelsey Grammar. Dithering, ineffectual, but thoroughly charming.

21. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), The Wire
If ever there was a television character I wouldn’t mess with, it’s Omar. A superb anti-hero, whose impact on the show far outweighs his screen time.

20. Randy Hickey (Ethan Suplee), My Name is Earl
The closest that live action television has come to Homer Simpson.

19. George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Seinfeld / Larry David (Larry David), Curb Your Enthusiasm
Unlike with 25., I don’t feel bad for letting these two share the spot, since they’re the same character. Both perfect the art of taking a characteristic, desire, or thought that is utterly common and identifiable, and driving it to embarrassing, uncommon, and shocking extremes.

18. Michael Scott (Steve Carell), The Office (US)
Yes, he’s above Brent, because Gervais never needed to pull as much out of the character as did Carell, and honestly, I’m not sure Gervais could’ve. Carell manages the character in pitch perfect manner, rendering him a tragic figure and a complete jerk at the same time.

17. Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby), The Cosby Show
I feel a little wrong rating him above some of the others, but the fact remains that Cosby’s unique brand of goofy, gentle humor commanded audiences, myself included, for many years.

16. Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen), The Eleven O’Clock Show & Da Ali G Show
Cohen moved media pranks into a new realm with this wonderful suburban wannabe-black flunky. Some of his British interviews remain some of television’s funnier moments, and so very smart for such a very stupid character.

willow

15. Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy was good, but Willow so often held the show’s heart, and along with Xander, was the character with whom all those who were never the cool kids that Buffy was/could’ve been could identify. The Willow-gone-bad season was a bit stupid, but her amassed time elsewhere made up for it.

14. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), The Sopranos
Some will no doubt feel he should be higher on the list, but I never watched more than the first two seasons regularly. That said, it’s a brilliant performance, and an interesting character who gouges at ideas of what the middle class American dad should look like.

13. Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba), The Wire
Most Wire fans’ favorite character, and with good reason, how can you find fault with the Adam Smith-reading, Roberts Rules-observing gangster, or with Elba’s riveting, phenomenal performance?

12. Stephen Colbert (Stephen Colbert), The Colbert Report & The Daily Show
A fantastic parodic-satiric character. I gave his show about 2 months tops when it began, feeling that there was no way he could sustain the joke, or find new places to go with it. Ali G, after all, worked because he came in small doses. But Colbert has, thankfully, proven me wrong.

11. Eric Cartman (Trey Parker), South Park
Respect his authority. That voice is brilliant. The idea to put that mouth and those dark, sadistic, worrying thoughts in a little fat kid was inspired. It’s Lord of the Flies with laughs, a great satiric character.

CJ Cregg

10. Claudia Jean “C.J.” Cregg (Allison Janney), The West Wing
Between them, Aaron Sorkin and Janney managed to create and develop one of television’s best female characters, when television (and Sorkin) doesn’t usually put much time or thought into such a thing. Janney did every emotion well, an outstanding actor who is as strong at comedy as at drama.

9. Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins (Andre Royo), The Wire
Some might regard McNulty as the character who strings The Wire together, and in plot terms, they’d be right; but in emotional terms, in terms of letting us know what’s at stake, and at giving us something small to hope for, Bubbles is the man. The Wire has so many characters in play that no one actor gets much time to make their mark, yet in writing and in acting, Bubbles etches himself into the very keystone of the show.

8. Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), 24
Let me be clear: I think the show has long since jumped the shark. But Sutherland and the writers did something quite unique: they created a bona fide television action hero (sorry, Fall Guy or Knight Rider fans, those are hardly competition). He occupies a huge amount of screen time, and despite crap writing, Sutherland has done very impressive things with Bauer, showing blockbuster film charisma on the little screen.

7. Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), The Muppet Show
Piggy’s strong, she’s irreverent, she has no body issues or hang-ups, she packs a mean karate chop, she’s a die-hard romantic, she’s funny, and when Oz’s voice cracks, she can grab viewer’s hearts with amazing skill.

6. Spike (James Marsters), Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The vampire who had to earn his soul, he gets to play the series’ best villain and its best hero. Oodles of charisma and cool, Omar Little with fangs. For a show that invited plenty of unpacking, discussion, and thought, Spike was often at the center of it all.

Ben Linus, Lost

5. Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), Lost
What an utterly fantastic villain. He’s written very well, yet so much of the character comes from a brilliant performance by Emerson, as he repeatedly steals episodes with a look, perfect timing, and/or a Machiavellian smile and plotting. Lost lore tells of how he was only meant to be on the show for a few episodes, but he’s now its star.

4. Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith), The Simpsons
Lisa’s the only one who gets what’s going on, bless her, and she’s the stand-in for the show’s audience and its writers. In the early years of the show, many critics focused on Bart as the keystone of the program’s challenge to traditional sitcom values, but it’s Lisa, as the girl who knows better than all the adults, who frequently offers the show its real political voice. And yet, through it all, she can also prove to be a wonderful depiction of an eight year-old girl.

3. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), Dexter
Hall and the writers have offered a riveting character, dark as can be, yet wonderfully realized. Hall’s performance is, as my ranking suggests, the best live action performance in television history. If only he and Benjamin Linus could team up!

2. Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson), The Muppet Show & Sesame Street
I once discussed with a friend in media studies that The Muppet Show and Sesame Street would be the two shows that we probably could never write about, simply because all we’d really want to say is that they’re great. So, too, then, with Kermit: he’s great. End of story. Jim Henson’s death marked a dark, dark day.

1. Homer J. Simpson (Dan Castellaneta), The Simpsons
You were expecting anyone else? The masterpiece at the center of one of television’s longest running and best shows, Homer is a step above the rest. Castellaneta’s vocal performance is wonderful, the writers’ sheer joy in playing with Homer’s stupidity similarly wonderful. All hail Homer!

homer in underwear

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  1. June 5th, 2008 at 18:58 | #1

    Ah, I’m a victim to list bait! I’m unconvinced about Homer, as he’s too often a one-note doofus. And in general, I find myself drawn to the marginal side-characters over leads. So for The Simpsons, my faves start with Lisa, but include Dr. Nick, Professor Frink, and Ralph – less fully-realized, but more generally pleasurable.

    Some other crucial omissions, some of which I know are gaps in your viewing: Frank Pembleton from Homicide; Logan Echols from Veronica Mars; Norm on Cheers; Arnie on Larry Sanders; Chris Elliot on David Letterman (again, not quite a character, but pure gold); Bert Campbell on Soap; Taxi’s trio of Latka, Louie, and Jim; Lenny & Squiggy from Laverne & Shirley (perhaps a childhood blindspot, but I remember the screen lighting up when they were on); Victor Erlich on St. Elsewhere; Janitor on Scrubs (again, the crazy side character is more compelling than the lead); Hal on Malcolm in the Middle; Ted Baxter on MTM; Gaius Baltar on BSG; Jack Bristow on Alias; Mal on Firefly; and my own personal fave, Lester on The Wire.

    Too much good TV, not enough time…

  2. June 9th, 2008 at 07:23 | #2

    Oh, Jason, I’m a bait for lists as well. I made a short-list off the top of my head to start with, so as not to be influenced. And we shared a few of them, Jon: Larry David, Stephen Colbert, Hawkeye Pierce, and Toby Ziegler, in particular.

    Jason brought up a couple more of them that I had jotted down, notably Jim Ignatowski and Ted Baxter. You all also pointed out a couple that would have been on my short-list had I thought about it longer, namely Noah Bennet and Jack Bristow.

    Some omissions I would love to see make the cut: Lou Grant from Mary Tyler Moore; Ed Norton from The Honeymooners; and Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. FNL is tough, as is any character-driven ensemble cast show, in that I could populate a list of my favorite characters as all being from the same few shows…but she stands out among stand-outs.

    Very few genres put more emphasis on character than soap operas, at least traditionally, so I’d love to see a John Dixon or Lucinda Walsh on a list like this (choosing from my own soap of choice, As the World Turns), and you have to know I was going to suggest Vince McMahon (again, real person, but Vince is about as un-real as a real person can get), and perhaps someone like Ric Flair from the WWE.

    For the more lowbrow side, I’ve also got a soft place in my heart for Granny Clampett and Thelma Harper…

  3. June 9th, 2008 at 07:25 | #3

    I almost forgot a couple: Columbo; and Miranda Hobbes from Sex and the City. Semi-colon so you don’t think I’m suggesting Columbo was from Sex, although the thought of Peter Falk on that show is worth pausing for…

  4. June 9th, 2008 at 11:35 | #4

    Seems I’ve got internet occasionally this week. cool. Thanks for playing, Jason and Sam

    Jason, you heretic, ;-) how dare you question the Ministry of Homer? One-note doofus at times, yes, but that sets up his smarter, more caring moments as all the better. I’m a sucker for the smaller characters, too, but I really can’t justify giving a top 50 spot to someone who only gets one line in every 4 o4 5 shows, even if it’s golden. Other suggestions are all good. I like Lester, but I feel I’ve seen him before more than Stringer or Bubbles, I had to get Omar on the list, and I sort of needed to institute a Wire cap, lest, as Sam suggests, the list filled up with people from one show (hence, no Snoop, not more West Wing characters, etc.)

    Sam, yes, Vince McMahon should be there. And if Tami Taylor is the mother on FNL, agreed, though Kyle Chandler very good too. And both their daughter and Matt Saracen. I forgot about FNL. No Sex and the City character is allowed on my list, though, I’m afraid: I still feel that show way too often sounds like a grade 8 script-writing assignment, in which the teacher is being “cool” by letting the kids talk about sex, so that’s all they do, in kind of kiddie terms. And the actresses are all erstwhile kids who people will be amazed at when they do the high school production of Grease, but that’s about it. How’s that for anti-fandom? ;-)

  5. June 9th, 2008 at 20:52 | #5

    I just have to say that Sam is the only person on earth who would follow up accolades for WWE and soaps with “For the more lowbrow side” to segue into two of the most long-running and popular programs in TV history! (Carol Burnett, not Mama’s Family). ;)

    And another thought – Twin Peaks needs some love. Dale Cooper’s the frontrunner, but the Log Lady warrants honorable mention!

  6. Damien
    December 28th, 2008 at 01:04 | #6

    Um…… Archie Bunker?

  7. Jay
    September 2nd, 2009 at 07:41 | #7

    I think you absolutely overemphasize The Wire. Way too many characters. It’s nice to pay homage to what is obviously your favorite show, but come on, you have minor Wire characters high on the list and make no mention of some absolutely classic modern characters at their expense. (i.e Peter Griffin (if Homer’s #1, griffin has to be on the list, because obviously you agree with that type of humor), Barney Stinson, Ari Gold, johnny Drama, Gregory house)

  8. Joe
    September 14th, 2009 at 19:37 | #8

    where the fuck is ari gold

  9. Jonathan Gray
    September 14th, 2009 at 22:49 | #9

    the list’s from a moment in time. As you can see, Entourage wasn’t in my thoughts at that time. But I agree that he’s an excellent character

  10. May 11th, 2010 at 20:48 | #10

    I absolutely, positively love this post. Great ordering. Only one I would change is Ms piggy to the Cookie Monster.

  11. Steve
    August 1st, 2010 at 18:42 | #11

    I think both Ari Gold and Hank Moody deserve to be on this list, along with Jack Donaghy.

  12. Scott
    September 4th, 2010 at 21:20 | #12

    I think homer and Kenneth Parcel should be swapped round

  13. Mike
    September 15th, 2010 at 13:52 | #13

    Where is Tobias from Arrested Development!? he is like the best for sure

  14. Fox
    September 25th, 2010 at 18:23 | #14

    Ummmm……. seriously? No Greg House?

  15. Star Trek
    October 1st, 2010 at 06:09 | #15

    Where is Mr. Spock?

  16. youtrt
    December 4th, 2010 at 03:41 | #16

    Mulder and Scully? Don Draper? Vic Mackey?!

  17. Pegasus
    February 8th, 2011 at 01:59 | #17

    William Adama and StarBuck? Mulder and Scully?

  18. Jonathan Gray
    February 11th, 2011 at 22:34 | #18

    Hadn’t seen BSG when I made the list. Mulder and Scully: meh.

  19. marcos south
    April 11th, 2011 at 05:18 | #19

    seriously you need at least one character from f.r.i.e.n.d.s

  20. a
    January 20th, 2013 at 09:09 | #20

    charlie harper is the best

  21. Tamara
    May 27th, 2013 at 16:44 | #21

    How come no one mentioned Sheldon Cooper yet? Oo

  22. Julian
    August 25th, 2013 at 16:17 | #22

    I think Allison Dilaurentis from Pretty Little Liars should be added to this. Her vindictive spirit really plays a crucial roal in the series’s drama. Plus, the writers add a twisted element into the show. They expertly leave the viewer hating Allison but at the same time yearning for more of her as though he/she might want Allison as a friend in real life. Allison Dilaurentis is truely a spectacle of a character!

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