Monday, March 19, 2012

The best television characters

Whee! Fun with lists! I probably shouldn't say the best, I should probably say 37 of the most memorable characters of the last 25 years. But that would tone down the hyperbole of this blog.

Anyways, I got to thinking about stand-out characters during Vulture's Drama Derby. I mean, the president is weighing in...

Some characters never got enough show to develop and/or turn into all time stand-outs (see: Mal from Firefly, The Piemaker on Pushing Daisies, Harriet Hayes on Studio 60, Ben Hawkins and Justin Crowe on Carnivale, the Flight of the Conchords, Jaye from Wonderfalls, Veronica on Better Off Ted, Alpha on Dollhouse - he could have been such an awesome recurring villain!). Length of time is also why I'm not including miniseries in this list. Some characters were on shows that lost their way (Niles Crane on Frasier, Sylar on Heroes). And some are really very good, and given another season or two might crack the list (Sherlock, Fiona and Lip on Shameless).

And there are those I have yet to see: Starbuck, Tyrion Lannister, the Gilmore girls, Kalinda Sharma, Patty Hewes, Buffy, Carrie Mathison, Angela Chase, Coach and Mrs. Taylor, Don Draper, Eddy and Patsy, CJ Cregg, the Sopranos, Vic Mackey, Malcolm Tucker, John Luther, Bernard Black, Roy and Moss. [Blog quiz! How many of those tv shows can you name?] Maybe the guy with the mask on Boardwalk Empire. Or someone from Freaks and Geeks. Or Weeds. Parenthood, Happy Endings, Raising Hope, or Cougar Town. Or Spaced (I tried! I didn't get into it.) And I have to finish Six Feet Under and Farscape before I feel qualified to pick anyone from those shows (though I'd lean towards Claire and Aeryn or Chiana thus far). And I've actually never seen all of The Prisoner, either. But Number 6 should probably be included under protagonists.

The honorable mentions: Lafayette from True Blood (his ghost storyline from last season was terrible for poor Lafayette. That said, we'll always have the AIDS burger. (Bonus points for Jason's giggle at the end.)) Burt Hummel on Glee. Burt and Kurt are responsible for most of Glee's better moments (Santana and Lea Michele ballads are the rest). Nathan from Misfits. A slew of SNL recurring characters. Ron Swanson (See also: this). Jack Donaghy. Boyd Crowder (a character so beloved by the end of the pilot that they brought him back from the dead). Maxwell Smart. Chris Keller on Oz. Benjamin Linus, John Locke and Desmond Hume from LOST. But without further ado, my list:

The rich, complex protagonist:
Scully - The X-Files. I loved Scully. She was a scientist who had adventures. She was the sceptic who held things together and took care of her (somewhat) crazy partner.

Leslie Knope - Parks and Rec. I really expected not to like Leslie. For one, she is very blond. And she seemed like she might be intolerably perky. What she is, though, is loyal, funny, kind, quirky (but not in a twee way), and, above all, dedicated to making the world a better place. Her unflagging optimism in others and the world around her is incredibly heart-warming, and not something that gets depicted on tv very often. 

Raylan Givens- Justified. Put Timothy Olyphant in a hat and I'll be happy. Put him in a western and I'll be happy. Put him in a drama about conflicted cops and possibly redeemed bad guys, blood ties and blood feuds, and the communities of Appalachia and I'm completely sold. Raylan is a US Marshall who errs towards shooting first and who can't escape his past in Harlan County, KY.

Liz Lemon - 30 Rock.  She's taken a few detours into infantile behavior, but for the most part she strives to put on her show, keep her team functional, and keep her life from falling apart. She often doesn't succeed. At least she is hilarious.

Gil Grissom - CSI. One of the best geeks on tv. He was fascinated by everything, smart and thoughtful. He was a great team leader. He had a complex off screen life. He was self-assured. He was the kind of person I would want to get to know in real life.

Picard - Star Trek Next Generation. Here, this person has expressed it better than I can.

The Doctor - Doctor Who. Several characters rolled into one. But all with a love of travel and a mania for helping out.

Veronica Mars. She was whip-smart, brave, but vulnerable, and her long, complex relationships with her friends, father (and boyfriends) always rang true. 

Kermit - The Muppet Show. The straight man frog, who tried to keep things together in the midst of utter chaos (I'm sensing a theme in protagonists). It's not easy being green. 

The... other kind of protagonist:

Jerri Blank - Strangers with Candy. "Hello, I'm Jerri Blank and I'm a 46-year-old high school freshman. For 32 years I was a teenage runaway. I was a boozer, a user, and a loser. My friends were dealers, cons, and 18 karat pimps. But now I'm out of jail, picking up my life exactly where I left off. I'm back in high school, living at home, and discovering all sorts of things about my body. I'm finding out that though the faces have changed, the hassles are just the same."

Stephen Colbert - The Colbert Report. It is kind of astounding to me how well this has held up. Also how effective it is. I have actually met people who believe he's for real. It's a high-wire balancing act of theater and yet consistently funny and smart.

Dale Cooper - Twin Peaks. “Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it, just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair or two cups of good hot black coffee.”

Archer. James Bond's id run amok.With more neuroses.

Blackadder. Okay so there are several Blackadders. Much like the Doctor, you can pick your favorite, although here they are all played by Rowan Atkinson. One thing is always certain, though. Blackadder is always smarter than those around him (okay - not the first. But the others. He is always a conniving opportunist.) Much good it does him.

The off-the-wall sidekick:
Sheldon Cooper - Big Bang Theory. Pretty much the reason it is the most watched show on tv. Ignore the punctuation and enjoy.

Chandler Bing - Friends. Consistently the funniest in the ensemble, as well as often the most grounded (will anyone ever forget Chandler in the box? Or how he and Monica worked out?)

Charlie Kelly - It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This will always be one of my favorite things ever. He's the idiot savant of the gang, which makes his culpability in their insanity somewhat more endearing.

Barney Stinson - How I Met Your Mother. Another clip reel: enjoy.

Abed Nadir - Community. A walking TV tropes dictionary, with an uncanny ability to act out other characters. Hey - the second reference to the Breakfast Club in links this post.

Cartman - South Park. Were he more effective, he could join the villain pile. He is whiny, selfish, foul-mouthed, manipulative.. actually Archer is basically the same character in a super-spy body. 

Karen Walker - Will & Grace. True, she occasionally got some emotional moments over the series' run. But for the most part, she was insane. And easily the funniest part of the show.

Gob - Arrested Development. It's an illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money. Or candy!
Dr. Perry Cox - Scrubs. For those rants.

Cassie - Skins. She usually didn't seem to be quite all there. But she cared for her friends dearly, and her hangups could be heartbreaking.

The category by herself:
Constance Langdon - American Horror Story. Tate Langdon came ever so close. Those two were the real breakouts from last season. The ones that inspired the most water-cooler talk and the most edge-of-your-seat viewing. In the end, though, Constance got a little more time, a little more scenery to chew, the best lines, and a SAG and Golden Globe to show for it.

The villain:
Russell Edgington - True Blood. On a show that aims for off-the-wall, WTF moments, Russell has them all beat. His reappearance gives me hope for next season.

Moriarty - Sherlock. I know. I'm not including Sherlock until he gets some more episodes. But villains don't always have to be quite as complex. They simply have to make a statement. And Moriarty does just that. 

Gus - Breaking Bad. The only thing I can say about Gus is that he is mesmerizing.

The morally grey:

So, first off. If the president says so, it must be true, right? Omar Little - The Wire. He'd only steal from those dealing drugs and was so feared that his whistle (the farmer in the dell) would send everyone running. He was a gay gangster with a code. The joke (?) analysis of the Wire as a Dickensian piece of literature actually nails Little's mythic status thus; "The reason that Little so closely resembles a Brontë hero is of course that the estimable sisters were often not writing in the Victorian paradigm at all, but rather in the Gothic.  Their heroes were Byronic, and Lord Byron himself took his cue from the ancient tradition of Romance, culminating in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but originating even further back.  Little would not be out of place in Faerie Queene, and even less so in Don Quixote: an errant knight wielding a sword, facing dragons, no man his master.  The character builds on the tradition of the quintessential Robin Hood and borrows qualities from many of the great chivalric romances of previous centuries.  Meanwhile there is an element of the fey, mirroring Robin Hood’s own predecessor—Goodfellow or Puck—and prefiguring later dashing, mysterious heroes who also play the part of the fop, as in The Scarlet Pimpernel."

Brian Kinney - Queer as Folk. I am tempted to start watching a show about teenage witches, just because Gale Harold plays the villain. That's how compelling his Brian Kinney was. Queer as Folk was often all over the map in terms of the writing, but Brian always stood out as a character in his dedication to his ideals. Or lack thereof. A complete hedonist, he could also be counted on to help his friends, even if it meant telling them the truths they didn't want to hear. (Possibly especially when...) He was always out and proud, even when his family was homophobic (link NSFW. Its QaF. Duh.). There is a reason when Michael and Justin created a gay superhero, they based it on Brian.

Cameron - Sarah Connor. One of the delights of the Sarah Connor Chronicles was trying to figure out at any given time whether Cameron was trying to save John or kill him. Her robotic delivery made it difficult to discern her true intentions and the trust that built up between her and John was always uneasy at best. Summer Glau got the opportunity here to branch out more fully than she ever did on Firefly.

Al Swearengen - Deadwood. Few characters have ever used profanity to such effect on television. He tried to rule Deadwood as it shifted uneasily from lawlessness into civilization.

House. Sherlock for a medical procedural. Addicted, sarcastic, mean, brilliant.

Topher Brink- Dollhouse. On a show all about moral ambiguity, Topher was the embodiment of that concept. He got many of the fun, sidekick-type lines, but he was the architect behind many of the cruel practices in the house. Where he stood on any given situation was hard to predict. As Adelle said, "You, Topher, were chosen because you have no morals. You have always thought of people as playthings. This is not a judgment. You always take very good care of your toys." And did I mention he got most of the fun lines?

Dexter. The most sympathetic serial killer since Hannibal Lecter. The writers have a shameful deficit of character development for anyone but Dexter and Deborah. However, all that extra care and attention means that Dexter is a complex, layered, endlessly interesting portrait. Much like Omar, Dexter lives by a code - in this case to only kill murderers. The balancing act Dexter plays - between his home life, his work, and his hobby - keeps the stakes high and lets Michael C. Hall work some of the best scenes in the business.

Ryan O'Reily - Oz. The Machiavelli or Iago of the Oswald State Penitentiary. Crafty, ruthless, charming, and completely crazy when he was in love.

Sawyer - LOST. In an ensemble with a lot of fan favorites, Sawyer led the pack as the con man who always had a quip or a nickname at the ready. He was usually in on the action (or causing it), which meant he got his fair share of drama and comedic moments. He also got the most satisfying character arc on the show.

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