Gangsters, Doctors, crazy scientists, and Cartman: the Fellowship reassembles to share their favorite characters from television past and present.
Tyrion Lannister — Game of Thrones (2011-Present)
There’s a political theme to my selections, and though Tyrion Lannister may have no experience with democracy, he’s the canniest operator on this page. Sure, he’s the obvious choice from Game of Thrones’s sprawling ensemble, equally legendary for his wit and his vices, but he’s everyone’s favorite half-man for a reason: cursed by the gods, hated by his family, respected by few, Tyrion’s book-loving adolescence has nevertheless equipped him to spin rotten situations into gold through clever planning and accomplished diplomacy, steadily building up his armor against every injustice thrown his way. Tyrion doesn’t have the hero’s arc of Jon Snow (not dead) or the fire of Daenerys, but let’s be honest — he’d be the best ruler, full stop. Hail Tyrion, and hail Peter Dinklage.
C.J. Cregg — The West Wing (1996-2006)
I want to be Sam Seaborn; I fancy myself a Josh Lyman; most of the time, I’m actually a Toby Ziegler. But when in a crisis, there was no one you wanted in your corner more than the fabulous Claudia Jean “C.J.” Cregg. She rose from Press Secretary to Chief of Staff in the span of five seasons, winning hearts and massaging reporter egos along the way. (One she even married, after the purest, sweetest on-again off-again romance in West Wing canon — sorry Donna fans.) And as Allison Janney went on to win the Emmy for the role four different times, you never begrudged her, because C.J. is the best. She is the Jackal.
“Stephen Colbert” — The Colbert Report (2005-2014)
As our Chase Branch wrote at the end of The Colbert Report, the character created by the man and his writers is one of the great high-wire acts in television history. Originally designed as a satire of right-wing blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, somewhere along the show’s ten-year run “Colbert” — and Colbert — stopped simply delivering the news and actually became the news. Whether skewering congressmen on both sides of the aisle through his “Better Know a District” series, educating his audience about the lunacy of Super PAC law, or delivering a withering Correspondent’s Dinner address with President Bush sitting just feet away, Colbert consistently delivered four nights a week the very best kind of satire, and that’s not “truthiness” — that’s the truth.
Omar Little — The Wire (2002-2008)
Omar Comin! There’s something endlessly fascinating about The Wire’s greatest character. An openly gay man who’s also the most notorious stickup artist in Baltimore, Omar brilliantly defies traditional stereotypes of criminals and masculinity. This is the type of complex figure you’d find in the real world, and he’s a shining example of the characterization that makes The Wire so fascinating. Never has someone whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” been so intimidating, but fear not! Despite a lengthy rap sheet, Omar never pulls his sawed-off shotgun on an innocent citizen. After all, a man — even one of Omar’s notorious caliber — “has gotta have a code.”
Eric Cartman — South Park (1997-Present)
Bring me any villain you want from modern television. Walter White? The Governor? Joffrey Baratheon? Eric Cartman beats them all. This obese, sexist, anti-Semitic, self-aggrandizing fourth-grader is television’s greatest incarnation of evil. From faking his way into the Special Olympics to emulating Hitler to tricking another child into eating his own parents, Cartman’s “greatest hits” is a lesson in hilarious madness. None of this would work if Cartman’s naïveté and overconfidence didn’t frequently make him the butt of the joke, but Cartman is an exaggerated reminder that children often aren’t the innocent angels we pretend they are.
Dana Scully — The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016)
A strong, capable FBI agent at a time when women were frequently relegated to romantic leads or supporting roles, Dana Scully is the spiritual mother to a whole generation of kick-ass female characters. Ever the skeptic to Fox Mulder’s true believer, Scully is the audience surrogate that makes The X-Files work, and the contrast of her supernatural disbelief with her devout Catholicism is a goldmine that the writers worked for years. While Mulder is content to chase every fantastical lead in sight, Scully’s eternal skepticism imbues her paranormal encounters with a sense of wonder. Never forget: The X-Files went 2 full seasons without Mulder, but only 4 assorted episodes without Scully.
Al Swearengen — Deadwood (2004-2006)
The first three episodes of Deadwood’s unassailably perfect 2nd season feature Dan, Trixie, Johnny and Doc Cochran forcing their mortal enemy, Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen, to pass a kidney stone. At the end of the process, Cochran exclaims to Al, “thank you for saving me.” Al Swearengen was frequently a bastard (he’d use a term that rhymes with flock-ducker), and carried an Indian’s severed head around with him to monologue to, but Al was a marker of the eternal human condition of surviving through endless battalions of sorrows. He was what it means to be the modern man; idealistic and strong, yet ultimately kind, understanding, and vulnerable. Al Swearengen was Ron Swanson before Ron Swanson, and all in iambic pentameter.
Data — Star Trek: The Next Generation (1989-1994)
[Disregards TNG’s poor first two seasons.]
Data was human. At least, if the qualifications for personhood consisted of a boundless curiosity for the magic of life, a ceaseless adherence to honesty and truth and an eternal struggle to be what ostensibly one cannot be. Data could’ve run the entire U.S.S. Enterprise-D from his COMM station; at least he could’ve been a captain. But instead, the smartest person in the room was deferential, helpful and charming, all without emoting or using contractions. His influence would get crippled in the movies, but Data’s great moments (his daughter!) from the series stand as Star Trek at it’s most beautiful, blissful and human.
Summer Roberts – The O.C. (2003-2007)
Summer Roberts typifies the axiom “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Originally introduced to provide chaotic evil to the long, tragic catastrophe of Marissa Cooper’s high school career, Summer quickly became the bright spot as the actors playing Ryan Atwood, Seth Cohen and Cooper struggled to acclimate. She was a steadying force, wise beyond her years and the better half of one of the great mid-aughts tv relationships. By the end of The O.C.’s middle-grade fourth season, Summer had emerged from the coked-up wild child the pilot envisioned for her to become an impassioned environmental activist, independent of the overrated Cohen. Summer was The O.C.’s bellwether, and when she was on, The O.C. was unbeatable.
Buffy Summers — Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
What could have been a one-note, carbon axiom of a cheerleader-turned-savior became an icon in the capable hands of creator Joss Whedon and actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. Buffy defined a generation of girls who refused to be labeled, and single-handedly proved that even the pretty girls have problems — albeit, probably not problems of the my-boyfriend-is-a-vampire variety. In every generation, there is a chosen one, and in 1997 that was Buffy Summers. Tasked with the protecting the masses from demons, vampires, and spider-eating mayors, Buffy forged strong friendships, was inclusive even when it wasn’t cool, and made everyone fall in love with her. And she saved the world…a lot.
Leslie Knope — Parks and Recreation (2009-2015)
Parks and Recreation brought us Ron Swanson, Andy Dwyer, and a host of multi-faceted characters that often zigged when most thought they would zag. Leslie Knope is the kind of politician we wish existed: she takes civic responsibility to heart and cares so much for her fellow man, she slept less than a freshman at MIT just to make sure the job was done right. A champion for breakfast food and the sweet smell of a freshly-bound binder, Knope signified a kind of hero so needed in the world — one based in reality. No, no one really loves like Leslie Knope, but I defy you to find fault in any of her dreams and not to crack a smile when she waxes philosophical on U.S. History. It’s impossible.
The Doctor — Doctor Who (1963-Present)
There is no “which Doctor is your favorite” because the truth is, he’s all the same
guy er…. person…being. Imagine being able to travel throughout time and space with very few limitations — and even those you can fudge now and again for the right reasons. Armed with only an alien multi-tool, varying levels of witty banter and brooding, and his very singular mind, the Doctor is rarely violent, never cruel, and ultimately a child lost in a world of wonder. His weary loneliness is as captivating as his thirst for knowledge; the Doctor is far more complex than the one-off episodes might portray. To live in his world is to define bravery in ourselves, see the universe without boundaries, and believe that there is always a right answer.
Walter Bishop — Fringe (2008-2013)
Fringe was, in almost every respect, a bizarre show. On its face, it seemed the same as every other FOX procedural. Under the surface, it was playful, morose, even downright elegiac. John Noble’s Walter Bishop sat at the center of all of that. Equal parts cooky mad scientist, remorseful father and tortured victim, his triumphs and his mistakes lie at the core of what made Fringe work for as long as it did, and when it stopped working, his personality is what kept it going, all the way through to the show’s final image.
Rick Sanchez — Rick and Morty (2013-Present)
Speaking of insane scientists whose reckless experiments endanger the lives of their younger male relatives, here’s the Rick in Rick and Morty, pictured in his typical drunken glory. He’s vulgar, mean, even downright murderous at times, and while he has the proverbial heart of gold (when he wants to), he’s also usually just a dick. What makes Rick Rick is how self-aware he is of this, and how much that awareness leads to a frankly extreme amount of self-loathing, which is what gives Rick and Morty that extra pathos that elevates it above the mean comedy it is most of the time and into something genuinely sad.
Desmond Hume — LOST (2004-2010)
I didn’t go into this planning to choose three white men whose lives were destroyed by science. But where our first two gentlemen are solely responsible for their fates, Desmond is, if not quite a victim, definitely a byproduct of someone else’s mad science. Stranded on the Island a boat crash, Desmond is caught up in the great lie of the Dharma Initiative, and finds himself in a bunker pushing a button every 108 minutes “to save the world.” When the LOSTies first meet him, Desmond is a paranoid, often drunken mess of a Scotsman, rambling about destiny and coincidence. His character arc takes him from morose loser to quantum prophet (yes, I made that up), but it’s his episodes’ focus on his convoluted relationship with his beloved Penelope that gives them their heart. Of the characters I chose, Desmond’s the only one who ever gets anything really resembling a happy ending. He’s also the only one who deserved one.
George Costanza — Seinfeld (1989-1998)
While Jerry Seinfeld became the star of his own sitcom, his writing partner Larry David manifested in the sniveling desperation of George Costanza. Costanza’s pettiness and paranoia were the traits of a monster, but Jason Alexander transformed the grotesque into the pitiable by fixating on ways to heighten Costanza’s patheticness. It wasn’t just that he bombed spectacularly, it was the way he flailed on the way down (figuratively and often physically), the basement-level failures coming so suddenly after his near successes. Costanza’s dark, repellant selfishness – always funny, never apologetic – proved to be a great partner, and occasional foil, for the magnetic persona of an equally selfish, but mostly charming, Seinfeld. (So, yeah. Costanza was definitely Seinfeld’s Lennon.)
Eric Taylor — Friday Night Lights (2006-2010)
Friday Night Lights was about football, but only in the abstract, less about the what of football and more about the why. Ambitious, bold, determined, loyal — Eric Taylor wasn’t just what you wanted in a coach, he was what many of his players wanted in a father. And as Taylor led his makeshift second family, Kyle Chandler’s portrayal grounded the character, drawing sympathy from how he wrestled with issues big (weighing a move and a job change) and small (responding calmly to a rebellious daughter). The show built to Taylor’s biggest test, and the ending, joyful but never preachy, confirmed everything you loved about the character (and by extension, the show).
Raylan Givens — Justified (2010-2015)
From my eulogy for Justified: Raylan Givens belongs in the hallowed halls of television’s greatest characters, and Timothy Olyphant’s portrayal is nothing short of brilliant: a pitch-perfect blend of humor, vanity, and wit, all working together to mask a rebellious rage boiling underneath. His gait somehow captures both the silky bravado of a pimp’s strut and the hunched shoulders of a beaten man. He’s a wholly unique take on the complexities of justice, a walking, jawing embodiment of the pulp heroism of Elmore Leonard’s greatest works. Olyphant dons Givens’s boots with glee and abandon, delivering the show’s best lines — of which there are, honestly, just too many to count — with the confidence to convince you he wrote them himself.
Dr. Gregory House — House M.D. (2004 – 2012)
Yes. He’s the Sherlock Holmes of medicine, a tortured genius with a rapier wit routinely used to belittle those around him. For eight downward-rolling seasons Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of the bitter, misanthropic medical professional turned a hospital procedural into a cultural phenomenon. And while House’s bleak, pragmatic outlook (and by my count the first mainstream atheist protagonist on network TV) was the cornerstone of his character, there’s a decent person peeking through the cracks in his persona that, for his own emotional safety, House actively hides. It’s this hidden humanity that takes House from an entertaining character to a deeply relatable one. After all, it’s not House’s intellect that I envy, but that he gets to use it to build a huge wall between himself and the rest of the world.
Cpl. Josh Ray Person — Generation Kill (2008)
Keeping with misanthropes, the HBO miniseries Generation Kill does a fine job depicting the elite men of the USMC First Reconnaissance Battalion as incredible soldiers that, for one reason or another, just don’t fit in “normal” society; among those rocky, battle-hardened men, Ray Person is a refreshing voice of constant inappropriate levity. Throughout this violent, gritty romp through the abject horror and utter stupidity of the opening days of 2003’s Iraq War, Ray takes “gallows humor” to a whole other, stimulant-fueled, a capella-singing level. To actor James Ransone’s credit, once Ray makes it through the chaos and carnage of the show’s first seven episodes he has some of the most human, revealing moments in the finale. He may have spent most of the war laughing, but he clearly isn’t going to do much of that when he talks about it later.
Shuzo Matsutani — Now and Then, Here and There (1999-2000)
Somewhere far, FAR on the other end of the spectrum is Shuzo “Shu” Matsutani, a impossibly positive Japanese high school student who is mysteriously transported (a tried and true anime trope) into the bleakest dystopian world I’ve ever seen in the anime miniseries Now and Then, Here and There. Shu is the living antithesis of the world he finds himself in, even as he witnesses darker and darker horrors and is subjected to progressively violent torture, it never breaks his spirit; he remains resolute in his hope. In fact, despite being the protagonist, Shu is the only character in the show that doesn’t have a character arc — Shu never really changes, but Shu’s indomitable spirit changes everyone around him. He is the walking embodiment of “being the change you want to see in the world”. Frankly, TV could use a few more characters like Shu — quintessential “good guys”.
Mickey Dobbs – Love (2016-Present)
While maybe not Netflix’s most popular show, Love is a funny, realistic look at modern dating. The brainchild of Judd Apatow, it stars Gillian Jacobs as the female lead, Mickey Dobbs. As a fan of Community, I can’t help but notice how similar Britta from Community and Mickey from Love are: both stubbornly and loudly stick to their beliefs, even though they are wrong most of the time. Both have trouble in relationships, waffling with wanting to find love while at the same time not wanting to get close with anybody. Both have substance abuse issues. It’s almost like Mickey is an older version of Britta, after she graduates from Greendale and gets a job at a radio show in California. Or maybe it’s just good casting.
Mike Ehrmantraut – Better Call Saul (2015-Present)
I list him as Better Call Saul, but you of course may know him from Breaking Bad. As played by Jonathan Banks, Mike is a quiet, tough, no-nonsense enforcer that has the capability of getting out of any situation. But beneath his taciturn exterior is a hint of sensitivity, as he does these terrible things in order to make enough money to ensure his granddaughter has a good life. As much as I love Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman (or Jimmy McGill), it’s always Mike’s side-story in the episode that I am most drawn to — he doesn’t want to be a “bad man,” but he’s realized that’s the only thing he’s good at. Saul’s name is in the title but it’s Mike’s show, as far as I’m concerned.
Larry Sanders – The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
This was a sentimental pick with the recent passing of Gary Shandling. For years, people thought he would be the next late night star, but his show never materialized, Shandling did the next best thing: created a satirical sitcom about what happens behind the scenes of a late night show, starring himself as its exasperated host.The Larry Sanders Show ushered in our modern era of single-camera television comedy, and Shandling himself served as an inspiration to a generation of young comedians. He will be missed, but his impression on the comedy world will be felt for a long time.
Tony Soprano — The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Tony Soprano is the original television anti-hero — without him the likes of Walter White and Don Draper simply wouldn’t exist in the TV landscape. And he is still, by far, the most complex of the bunch. The man was a monster and a murderer, but he was also a father and a husband who would do anything for his family. That dynamic made Tony Soprano into a towering icon. But without James Gandolfini’s remarkable gifts as an actor, that creation could have easily been detestable. Gandolfini brought warmth and pathos to a man who probably didn’t deserve any. The Sopranos never let its audience off the hook and its characters are now ingrained in pop culture, right next to the Corleones.
Selina Meyer — Veep (2012-Present)
The longer Veep goes on, the less it looks like satire, and the more it begins to mirror our political reality. Selina Meyer is the perfect symbol for a corrupt and out of touch political establishment. Her barbed tongue cracks like a whip and her meltdowns are the stuff of comedy legend; as played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Meyer has the ambition of a Clinton, the looks of a Kennedy, and the charm of a snake oil salesman. Her chemistry with her beaten-down staff only highlights the absurdity and her venom should make her all but completely unlikeable, but the truth is we see so much of our own leaders in her (and ourselves) that we can’t help but laugh at it all. Dreyfus has won a whopping 4 consecutive wins for her portrayal. Here’s hoping for a fifth. Selina Meyer 2016.
Tywin Lannister — Game of Thrones (2011-2014)
Tyrion may be the fan favorite, but it’s Tywin who commands our respect and attention. He may be cruel, but he is the only one with the political savvy, military muster, and bold grasp of strategy fit to rule the Seven Kingdoms. It’s a shame then that he met his end sitting on the toilet with an arrow to the heart delivered by his own son during the Season 4 finale, and we’ve seen how it’s all gone to hell since then. But while Tywin was around he was a force to be reckoned with, and gifted thespian Charles Dance played him with just enough swagger and authority to make him irresistible in even the worst of circumstances — many of his interactions with castmates were the highlights of the season. His absence is sorely felt, and whoever does end up sitting on that Iron Throne by series end is going to have a lot to live up to.