Thursday, May 28, 2009

My 20 Favorite T.V. Characters

As much as I love a select number of television series, I spend a great deal more time with films. They're easier to digest, more thematically stable and the budgets tend to be much higher. Yet, when television is good, it's often better than all but the most masterful films. Why? We can spend more time with characters, writers can flesh out initial themes and introduce new ones. For example, The Wire started out as a standard if more realistic-than-usual police procedural and evolved into the greatest depiction of America's decline ever put on screen. Cinematic characters, well-written as they may be, work better as archetypes and icons even as the best characters subvert such images, but a well-written, well-acted character on television can become something more: a consummate hero, a comic genius, even a sort of friend. So, without further ado, here are some of the characters who continue to entertain me no matter how many times I sit down with them. Note: with a few exceptions, I chose no more than one character from a single series.

20. Bill McNeal (NewsRadio)

NewsRadio sadly slipped under the radar after its cancellation, to the point that, before I stumbled across the series last year, I'd honestly never heard of it. Not that I'm the arbiter of television knowledge, of course, but I can't understand how such a great series doesn't get more recognition. Of all the loopy characters populating WNYX, Bill McNeal was the loopiest. While he may not have been as eccentric and unpredictable as billionaire owner Jimmy James, McNeal more than made up for it in pure egoism. All he did was read news headlines out loud, but dammit nobody read things out loud like Bill McNeal, or so he thought. Phil Hartman played him with manic glee, and just enough childish charm to make him endearing despite his officiousness.

19. General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett (Blackadder Goes Forth)

World War I doesn't have quite the same impact on Americans as it does the rest of the world, by virtue of the simple fact of our brief involvement. We don't care about an 18-month tussle in a war started over some political nonsense involving a duke; nope, we'll stick to talking about fighting the most evil man in history, thanks very much. But World War I marks the great divide in the modern outlooks between us and the Europeans and, funnily enough, a sitcom managed to trace the famed British cynicism to its source and make it painfully clear why British comedy is so dark, all in 6 episodes. General Melchett, played with wonderful madness by Stephen Fry, parodies the incompetence of generals in the face of technological advances like machines guns and tanks, but more than that he sums up the insanity of the war, in which the landed gentry behaved as they always did and sent the working class to die in their millions.

Melchett, always courteous and dignified, was so evil in his obliviousness that the writers actually softened the title character, whose previous incarnations were power-hungry and egocentric. Nearly every battle plan consisted of throwing wave after wave of soldiers at the Germans until no one was left to continue, and for once Blackadder schemed not for gain, but for mere survival. That Fry buried so much darkness under the ridiculous mustache and a penchant for shouting "Baah!" at random is not what makes the character so great. No, it's far more impressive than he somehow made such a man absolutely hysterical.

18. Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)

O.K., I know I said I wasn't going to pick multiple characters from one show, and I assure you a characters from both Buffy and Angel will appear later, but I will make an exception for Spike. As with so many great characters from countless series, Spike should have been little more than a guest star; originally, Whedon meant for Spike to plug the gap between the beginning of the season and the emergence of Angelus. Yet James Marsters was so good and Spike so popular that the character stayed on, and wound up the most developed character of the show. Spike started as little more than a fun Johnny Rotten-wannabe of a villain, sporting a slick coat and a killer accent. Then someone put a chip in his head (I know, I know), a slowly he set off onto the path to redemption. The more we learned about Spike, the more unique he became; even without the chip, he always had a soft side. And his relationship with Buffy went from hilarious to tragic to horrific and ended up being one of the most noble acts to ever come from the mind of a man who sent a number of people to an honorable death. Oh, and then he came back. Joss isn't stupid, you know.

17. Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers)

Nobody teeters on the edge of murderous rage like John Cleese. Many of the best moments of the show centered on Cleese playing a straight man who eventually became so frustrated that he exploded, and the final series of Monty Python's Flying Circus suffered noticeably from his absence. After all the Python movies came and went, Cleese went on to write Fawlty Towers, ensuring that he spent all of eternity not only at the top of the sketch comedy heap but the sitcom as well. Cleese played hotel manager Basil Fawlty like all of his great sketch characters rolled into one: a writhing, condescending, caustic bag of nervosa who spent all of the time not occupied by genuflecting for anyone who might win his hotel some credence disparaging everyone he felt was beneath. And everyone was. Basil ignored customer requests, routinely assaulted his Spanish waiter Manuel, bungled each and every opportunity to get rich and waged the latest battle in the passive-aggressive war that was his marriage. Cleese had a Cambridge-instilled sense of acerbic humor, but he could also do physical comedy like a silent pro, and Basil Fawlty was the perfect blend of the two.

16. Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother)

The only truly great part of the Harold & Kumar series was Neil Patrick Harris' demented coke-and-hooker using self-parody, and somehow he managed to take that character, clean it up for primetime T.V., and turn him into the best sitcom character since Michael Scott. Barney grew up a virginal hippie with a gay black brother (I don't care what anyone says: I love Wayne Brady) until his true love broke his heart and the shock metamorphosed him into a sex-crazed yuppie Hitler. Barney has just enough of a heart to help his buddy Ted through his darkest moments, but the rest of the time he's considering the easiest way to have sex with someone without ever having to see her again. Even when he finds love, Barney is so adorably evil that I don't know whether to look forward to him failing or to hope he succeeds with his latest conquest.

15. Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce (M*A*S*H)

While the show may have devolved into bleeding heart mawkishness in the last few seasons as a direct result of Alan Alda's input, but that doesn't affect his performance as the loopy doctor that kept the show running nearly four times longer than the war in which it was set. Hawkeye was a ladies' man, a drunk, a raging liberal and a man-child, and he also just so happened to be "the best surgeon in whole darn shootin' match." He could spend an entire episode teetering on the edge of insanity, only to pull it together in the final moments and save dozens of lives. Pierce, like the rest of the series, often jumped too wildly between comedy and drama, but he's still the first character on an "adult" series to ever entertain me.

14. Archie Bunker (All in the Family)

Before Homer Simpson, Archie Bunker was the perfect T.V. dad. He was racist, sexist and just plain ignorant, but he also cared deeply for his family. His constant quarrels with his liberal son-in-law allowed his prejudices to ironically comment on what were still socially acceptable views, but they also belied the tragedy of the working class of the Greatest Generation: Archie resented Mike not only because of his ideology and for taking his little girl away but because the collegiate only reminded him of the opportunities he lost when he dropped out of high school to care for his family in the Great Depression. Spinoffs tarnished most of the characters, but nothing could keep Archie from being anything less than one of the all-time great television creations.

13. Willow Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

I love just about every major character on every single Whedon show (and that includes Dollhouse), but I can easily pick one character from each of them. Except Buffy. After juggling Buffy and Xander for a while, I finally went with Willow. Like Xander, she held the group together, serving at first to live in constant jeopardy to give Buffy someone to rescue but eventually becoming the backbone of the series. Xander may have been the one who saw everyone for who they really were and why they were really strong (which is why omitting him was especially hard), but Willow kept the group going when Buffy was overpowered.

Eventually, she grew into a wonderful foil for Buffy, using the power of Gaia, the goddess, to become far more powerful than Buffy, who fought in a more masculine manner (going so far to use phallic objects to dispatch her foes). So, not only was she the emotional backbone of the series, she became the ultimate embodiment of its feminist vision. Though the equation of her magic use to drug addiction was forced and heavy-handed, her arc in Season 6 was gloriously dark and threatened to rip apart the Scooby Gang forever, and indeed they never were quite the same. No one else could affect the group with such magnitude, and Hannigan's sense of comic timing and that natural ability to break hearts with a single lip quiver makes her every bit as important and iconic as the title character.

12. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Battlestar Galactica)

The original Starbuck was effete, fey and a man. But Ronald D. Moore decided to completely overhaul the character, and we wound up with the best badass female character since Buffy herself. And like Buffy, Starbuck had a hell of a lot of problems. But problems are what made these characters great: where Buffy was an adolescent who had the weight of the world unfairly thrust upon her, Kara dealt with an abusive childhood, a complex relationship with the brother of her dead fiancée (who died because she gave him undeserved pass marks on his flight exams) and a crippling alcohol addiction, all while taking it to the frakking Cylons at any opportunity. As the series wore on, her storyline became increasingly cryptic, which lead to a few weak moments (the incessant "I'm not a Cylon" screaming was a bit much) only to make these shifts work as more events unfolded. While she may not have gone out on the best note, Kara was the perfect mix of piss, vinegar and a dollop of sugar, and she could pound the old Starbuck's face in any day of the week.

11. The Tenth Doctor (Doctor Who)

I don't cop to being a big Doctor Who fan: apart from a few older episodes, my only exposure to the series has been with the rebooted version, and that's far from perfect. Yet, despite my lack of knowledge of the Doctor, I found David Tennant to be the perfect fit for the new Who. His ability to turn on a dime and his excellent gift for body language made him a wonderfully eccentric Doctor who also had a keen grip on the tragedy of the Doctor's existence. Tennant knew how to anchor the role with an emotional core while still living up to the camp that is Doctor Who, chewing some scenes with relish, only to switch into "proper" acting in a flash. Just try not to cry at the end of "Doomsday" when you see the Doctor visibly destroyed by tragedy.

10. Omar Little (The Wire)

The Wire is the only show I've seen that not only poses the first serious challenge to my love of both The Simpsons and Joss Whedon's programs but actually exceeds them. Each character, even the minor ones, brought something to the table, advancing the story as well as embodying some piece of the greater thematic puzzle. But the most intriguing of them all must surely have been Omar Little. A gay, witty stick-up man with a strict code of conduct, Omar made a living robbing drug dealers, and he certainly wasn't above killing someone, but he never swore and he mourned every fallen member of his crew like family. And for a robber, material wealth meant very little for him; instead, he stole drugs to stop dealers from bankrupting communities. Like Robin Hood, but with crack. But the linchpin of his character, and one of the best of the moments of plain-spoken honesty in the series, comes when Omar, who agrees to testify in a murder trial to ease the heat on him, compares his work to the Barksdales' lawyer's, noting that both are profiting from the work of criminals in their own ways. As funny as Omar was, he brought a much needed warmth to the series that spent so much time in rusted urban squalor.

9. Tobias Fünke (Arrested Development)

Limiting myself from choosing too many characters from the same show has plenty of drawbacks, especially since many of my favorite series are ensemble pieces. Picking just one character from the savagely brilliant Arrested Development was even tougher; after narrowing it down to either GOB or Tobias I finally went the latter. David Cross plays Tobias with the perfect mix of stupidity and even more stupidity, an actually gifted psychologist who gives up that profession to make it as an actor, despite a supreme lack of talent. His dwindling savings and tumultuous relationship with his wife are played for merciless laughs, and his perennially inability to recognize the slew of double entendres he makes are a delight. And, like Buffy's Andrew, he is hilariously unaware of his own sexuality.

8. Eric Cartman (South Park)

Lucifer in the body of a pudgy child. Cartman started off as the prick of the group, always stuffing his face dropping anti-Semitic remarks casually, but things really turned when a fed a teenage boy a chili made from the kid's own parents. From that moment, Cartman became the character who could get away with anything, an anarchic force of pure hate that would take it out on anyone within striking distance. I don't understand how some people seem proud of the fact that they identify with this beast.

7. Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly)

No show canceled before a full first season should be this fleshed out, but then Firefly made all of its characters interesting. But that does not take away from the impressive achievement that is Mal: with less than one season under his belt, he leaped into the upper echelon of Joss Whedon's finest characters, alongside Spike, Fred, Willow and Buffy. He's got enough demons to start a rival Hell, but he's funny and oddly charming despite his boorish ways. And no matter how many times he makes a good situation bad and a bad situation worse, he still proves himself a capable leader of a surprisingly adept crew. It also doesn't hurt that Nathan Fillion has cool to spare.

6. Agent Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks)

There's a certain cliché in crime films, in which the FBI descends on a small town caught in a terrible crime spree, only to assume authority immediately over the oafish locals. Imagine my surprise, then, when David Lynch -- who's made a career out of tearing apart the idyllic image of suburbia and "quaint" life -- crafted a character who arrives in town to investigate a grisly murder, only to fall in love with the place and to treat the local authorities and citizens with respect and admiration. Kyle MacLachlan plays Cooper with the perfect mix of charm and intelligence, outthinking everyone else on the case but never showing off when he does it. His trademark love of the town's coffee and doughnuts steered clear of lapsing into a cop stereotype because A) he never rested on his laurels and B) they indirectly won him a great many friends in the small town. It's nice to see Lynch can create such a nice character and not make that niceness a front for inner sadism.

5. Daisy Steiner (Spaced)

Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Jessica Hynes clearly liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- Pegg's character even erected a shrine to the character in his closet -- but the most fitting tribute-that-isn't-really-a-tribute at all was their creation of the greatest nerd chick ever put on screen. Daisy was every bit the slacker that the male characters were, and she knew all the pop culture references as well as the lads. But she was also slightly more mature than the rest, never getting worked up over the betrayal that was Episode I and occasionally becoming exasperated with her friends' childishness. Like Fred, Daisy never shouted her strength from the rooftops, and instead she casually walked into every geek's heart before melting it in a flash.

4. President Josiah Bartlet (The West Wing)

He may have been a Democrat, but Jed Bartlett would make a great president regardless of which aisle you rested in. He was liberal without being soft, religious without being judgmental, and diplomatic without ever hesitating to use necessary force. He also had all the natural charm so many politicians hire entire teams to help impersonate; in the era of "folksy" images, this upper crust Governor from New England could interact with "normal" people better than the most loyal Dixiecrat. Numerous challenges befell his administration, but Bartlett faced them all with resolve and an ability to achieve goals no matter what it cost him personally.

3. David Brent (The Office)

Everyone knows David Brent. Whether you work in a dead-end office job, retail, or even just pass through an office in your latest failed attempt to land gainful employment, you've met someone exactly like Brent. While he may be more incompetent than the U.S. business system would tolerate, he's still utterly relatable on both sides of the pond and elsewhere, as evidenced by the umpteen spinoffs of the original all over the world. He's annoying, stupid, (unintentionally) cruel, and he lacks even the faintest trace of a sense of humor, yet through all of it he desperately wants a friend. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant never shy away from the worst of David, but damned if you don't feel sorry for him from the start, and when he begs to keep his job at the end of the second series, it's hard not to root for the poor sod. As great as the U.S. Office and Steve Carell are, they never did capture the character as perfectly as Gervais.

2. Winifred "Fred" Burkle (Angel)

Joss Whedon created almost as many strong female characters on television as had existed in the 40 years of T.V. that predated him, but for my money, Fred was his best character. If you asked a nerd to describe his dream woman, he'd probably end up listing all of Fred's attributes, whether he'd ever seen Angel or not. She's adorable, sweet, brilliant and vulnerable, yet strong and pure enough to anchor a group of people who constantly struggle with their morality. She comes to view the Fang Gang as her new family, to the point that one of the few times she loses her cool is when she discovers that someone betrayed them. The other characters went out of their way to keep her innocence, particularly Gunn and Wesley, who both loved Fred because, hey, they're only human.

And as much as I loved characters like Buffy and Willow being endowed with strength and magic to serve as a metaphor for female power, Fred never needed to kill something with a phallic object or by aligning with Mother Earth to be a strong character, and that kind of resonated with me more. Combined with Amy Acker's subtle and imbibing acting -- go back and watch the series: she goes through about 4 transformations so subtle that you don't even pick up on it until the drastic change that comes with a tragedy in the final season -- Fred makes the case for Joss' writing brilliance without ever flaunting what makes her great.

1. Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)

A no-brainer, really. Homer Simpson took all the great sitcom dads from T.V. history and packed it into a single pudgy, yellow frame. Who else could routinely place his family in terrible jeopardy, nearly cause a nuclear meltdown on a daily basis, and throttle his pre-pubescent son for the slightest provocation and still be such a likable character? I mean, this is a man so dumb he once forgot to make his own heart beat. Yet, for the first 8 seasons at least, Homer could make an ass of himself for twenty minutes and melt your heart in the last two: he was even willing to give up his prized possession -- the T.V. -- to try to bring his family together. While The Simpsons may have drifted into a Family Guy-like version of The Simpsons -- and considering that FG is little more than a tawdry knockoff in the first place, that's saying something -- Homer still stands as the ultimate T.V. dad, and the most nuanced cartoon character ever made.


  1. Good list. Fred will always be one of my favorites (And I don't care HOW thin she is, those eyes alone make her one of the sexiest things alive), but I've never found the need to obsess too much about how good of a character she is, because unlike most good female characters, she's actually gotten a good amount of recognition. (Unlike say, Lindsay Weir and Lisa Simpson.)

    But if I had to choose a favorite Whedon chatacter, I'd probably have to go with Wesley, even if his transformations were more obvious. It just might be me, but if I were you, I would consider creating a top 20 favorite Whedon characters list, because there's just too many that deserve some more spotlight. (By the way, what's a "pri-or-it-y")

    And oh come on, you really couldn't leave room for one of the Freaks and Geeks characters?(Though I don't know when you first watched that show, so it may've been after you made this list.)

  2. I watched Freaks and Geeks just after making this list (I even made a reference, I believe, in that review about how I could have put every last one on this list had I seen it beforehand. If I made it now Nick Andopolis would definitely be in my top 10; all those characters contain a piece of me, but Nick just completely resonates with me. Plus I have a man crush on Jason Segel.

  3. Hey, I feel ya. I suffered a little more serious and longer-lasting one. There's more than one reason why I meintioned Lindsay.

  4. LMDAO! I like Barney Spencer duuuude. He's FTW!

  5. james marsters (spike) shuld of been a better number than wat he was listed as. he was really good as spike :P