50 Best TV Characters
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.
So many characters, only 50 spots. Some who didnâ€™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) â€“ so bad, heâ€™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.
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 naÃ¯ve youth. Think Woody from Cheers), but McBrayerâ€™s zealous earnestness is second to none, making the role his own.
48. John â€œJ.D.â€ Dorian (Zach Braff), Scrubs
Braffâ€™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
Iâ€™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, heâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€œChuckâ€ 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 youâ€™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 Gobâ€™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 Iâ€™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.
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 neednâ€™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, sheâ€™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 Weeâ€™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 showâ€™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
Iâ€™m kind of tired of Cleeseâ€™s unchanging character, but heâ€™s at the top of his game in Fawlty Towers. Given the order in which Iâ€™m listing these, I just realized that heâ€™s like David Brent with Marge Simpsonâ€™s frustration.
31. Craig â€œHuffâ€ 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 televisionâ€™s very best at doing physical comedy.
29. John Locke (Terry Oâ€™Quinn), Lost
Heâ€™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, itâ€™s sometimes unclear whether the writers simply put more time into writing Locke, or whether Oâ€™Quinn simply schools his fellow cast with an outstanding performance; either way, Iâ€™m impressed.
28. Duquan â€œDukieâ€ 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, Colemanâ€™s Horn-Rimmed Glasses Man excels, the showâ€™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)
Iâ€™m totally cheating to put them both in one spot, but theyâ€™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
Televisionâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t mess with, itâ€™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 donâ€™t feel bad for letting these two share the spot, since theyâ€™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, heâ€™s above Brent, because Gervais never needed to pull as much out of the character as did Carell, and honestly, Iâ€™m not sure Gervais couldâ€™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 Cosbyâ€™s unique brand of goofy, gentle humor commanded audiences, myself included, for many years.
16. Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen), The Eleven Oâ€™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 televisionâ€™s funnier moments, and so very smart for such a very stupid character.
15. Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy was good, but Willow so often held the showâ€™s heart, and along with Xander, was the character with whom all those who were never the cool kids that Buffy was/couldâ€™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, itâ€™s a brilliant performance, and an interesting character who gouges at ideas of what the middle class American dad should look like.
13. Russell â€œStringerâ€ Bell (Idris Elba), The Wire
Most Wire fansâ€™ favorite character, and with good reason, how can you find fault with the Adam Smith-reading, Roberts Rules-observing gangster, or with Elbaâ€™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. Itâ€™s Lord of the Flies with laughs, a great satiric character.
10. Claudia Jean â€œC.J.â€ Cregg (Allison Janney), The West Wing
Between them, Aaron Sorkin and Janney managed to create and develop one of televisionâ€™s best female characters, when television (and Sorkin) doesnâ€™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 â€œBubblesâ€ Cousins (Andre Royo), The Wire
Some might regard McNulty as the character who strings The Wire together, and in plot terms, theyâ€™d be right; but in emotional terms, in terms of letting us know whatâ€™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
Piggyâ€™s strong, sheâ€™s irreverent, she has no body issues or hang-ups, she packs a mean karate chop, sheâ€™s a die-hard romantic, sheâ€™s funny, and when Ozâ€™s voice cracks, she can grab viewerâ€™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 seriesâ€™ 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.
5. Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), Lost
What an utterly fantastic villain. Heâ€™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 heâ€™s now its star.
4. Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith), The Simpsons
Lisaâ€™s the only one who gets whatâ€™s going on, bless her, and sheâ€™s the stand-in for the showâ€™s audience and its writers. In the early years of the show, many critics focused on Bart as the keystone of the programâ€™s challenge to traditional sitcom values, but itâ€™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. Hallâ€™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 weâ€™d really want to say is that theyâ€™re great. So, too, then, with Kermit: heâ€™s great. End of story. Jim Hensonâ€™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 televisionâ€™s longest running and best shows, Homer is a step above the rest. Castellanetaâ€™s vocal performance is wonderful, the writersâ€™ sheer joy in playing with Homerâ€™s stupidity similarly wonderful. All hail Homer!