What makes a television character great? Is it charisma, uniqueness or relatability? I believe it’s a combination of all those and some other factors including edginess, vulnerability and depth, to name a few. Very rarely has television offered characters that stay in your head; compelling you to constantly think about them as human beings you knew and not just as plot devices.
Before I delve into the business at hand, I must mention some characters I couldn’t include in the list, because the 10 listed are better indicators of my experience with television over the years and I completely understand how everyone would have a different take on this one. That just goes to show that we really do live in the “Golden Age” of television. Here is the list of top tv characters ever created in modern television.
10. Leslie Knope, ‘Parks And Recreation’
Leslie Knope is the good one. Television (in both its comedy and drama formats) is so full of dark, messed up characters that finding a constantly upbeat, joyful and intelligent one working in a government department is a rare feat. Making it funny and female is just simply groundbreaking. Leslie Knope can be a Congresswoman, (possibly) a President and still have the spark in her to be both utterly ridiculous and genuinely caring to keep every relationship in her life going. She’s also deliriously hilarious, with Poehler’s apt comedy timing and glorious command of the material (she even wrote some of the episodes) accentuating Knope’s stature as the heart of the show. She can be scathing and satirical but also adorably goofy. In a time when being dark and sad is the new sexy, Leslie Knope was a glorious ray of sunshine; a perfect sitcom character: one you can laugh at, but also look up to.
9. Jon Stewart, ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’
I haven’t the teensiest inkling as to how Jon Stewart is in real life. I only knew the fake news anchor who sat behind his fake news desk and every night brought to joy to millions for 16 years. I only knew him for 5. He was everything you wanted your source of information on all subjects and matters to be: resourceful, sharp and astonishingly witty. He talked about the world that surrounded him as if he could see its slow demise, and since he had no other gifts, he made fun of it and all the bullshit that was piling up in it. His joy at the scarce good news was infectious, as was as his phenomenally informative and game-changing humor. But that hint of sadness in his eyes as he joked about the buffoons in politics being bestowed with power or the senseless unhappiness in the world just crushed the viewer. He was a figure who wielded power, but also faith. Those who revered him were generously rewarded whenever his face lit up their screens. Of all the characters on this list, I miss him the most, because, truth be told, I needed him the most.
8. Nate Fisher, ‘Six Feet Under’
Nate Fisher was the stunning rendition of the feeling you have when look into a mirror. You find staring into someone else’s eyes. You don’t recognize the face and it’s somewhat implausible to reconcile the person in the mirror and the one standing in front of it. Nate Fisher was a disturbingly reflective portrait of the human condition. ‘Six Feet Under’ is one of the most gorgeously structured shows of all time but at its core was an unstructured, unconventional soul-searcher seeking redemption. Krause’s portrayal was unnervingly raw and unabashedly genuine. Unbelievably, he never won an Emmy for the role (although he was nominated 3 times). His Nate Fisher was devastating and comforting, a serene presence that was palpable and unforgettable. Fisher wouldn’t fit the definition of a conventional hero, but he was the relatable, human center of the show and the one I keep going back for.
7. Carrie Mathison, ‘Homeland’
Carrie Mathison is one of those unhappy, messed up, dark characters I was talking about. But she is one whose pain haunted me for a long while. ‘Homeland’ is a spy thriller with heightened situations aplenty, but Danes’s magnetic raw energy grounds it in gut-wrenching drama. There’s no effort in her performance; she’s not pretending to be Carrie, she’s being her. Mathison is a CIA agent who suffers from bipolar disorder. She has a ferocious confidence and breathtaking strength. But the job takes a heavier toll on her than the others. She has to maintain a strong façade but she’s constantly unraveling beneath it and Danes’s vulnerability is what keeps ‘Homeland’, a very uneven show, consistently compelling. Her messiness is deeply unsettling, her lack of joy devastating and her darkness poetically scary.
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6. Maura Pfefferman, ‘Transparent’
I’ve only known Maura for two years. ‘Transparent’ has already sky-rocketed into being one of my favorite TV shows of all time and thus, it’s only justice that its most pivotal and potent character be here as well. Maura is a 70 year-old transgender woman who is continually exploring her identity and making an effort to see the new world through her old eyes. ‘Transparent’ is not a show to shy away from its characters’ inherent messiness. It’s one that celebrates them. Tambor’s rendition of Maura is unlike any in the history of television. It’s eloquent and fearless, deeply rooted in not only the truth of his character, but also the world surrounding her. With a wit for comedic timing and an eye for visual mastery, Tambor and show-runner Jill Soloway have imbued Maura with a soulful, melodic energy that makes her transition all the more heart-rending and sublime.
5. Elaine Benes, ‘Seinfeld’
‘Seinfeld’ is the greatest television show of all time. It’s quite simple. It was dark, edgy, revolutionary and infinitely relatable. And while George, Jerry and Kramer are works of genius, Elaine Benes is the perfect encapsulation of what made ‘Seinfeld’ so damn brilliant. She was not the sweet, charming female friend that every sitcom protagonist had in the 90s. She was bold, eccentric, scathing, and unsympathetic – just like one of the guys. She was also independent, never had long-term relationships and probably didn’t give a damn about anyone. A fiery spirit, that all women should have the freedom to possess, was what defined Elaine. In the words of one of her interviewers, she lacked a “little bit of grace”. But she was hilarious, well-crafted, exquisitely performed by Louis-Dreyfus (who criminally won just one Emmy for the role), and just like the show itself, pretty much
4. Peggy Olson, ‘Mad Men’
I know, most would expect Don Draper here instead of Peggy. But if one character from Matthew Weiner’s impeccable ‘Mad Men’ would stay with me longer than the iconic ad executive, it would be his protege – the initially simplistic, constantly trying to fit in, Peggy Olson. The magnitude of arcs Peggy goes through, without being the focus of the show, is staggering in itself. Her path through her choices in career, friendships and love, reflect a journey so deeply human and understated that it’s impossible not to see all of us in her. Her relationship with Don is one of the most sublime instances of TV friendships. It was both fragile and meaningful. In the end, Peggy walked out of our lives, with an unmistakable air of confidence and ambition, never to be forgotten by those of us she touched with such gravitas and style, thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s vastly underrated rendition of her.
3. Liz Lemon, ’30 Rock’
If there’s one person who perfectly encapsulates what it means to be deeply flawed, messy, semi-successful and utterly human in a world getting crazier by the minute, it’s Liz Lemon. There’s no topic conceivable on which she doesn’t have a take. Whether it be bridesmaids at her boss/dad/friend/mentor’s wedding, or the many comforts of lying on your couch in a big blue blanket, savoring your night cheese, Liz Lemon always has the most unbelievably hysterical and relatable response. I’ve never laughed more at a character and never had the feeling of recognition of all my vulnerabilities in one. She’s the epitome of our silliness as a species and worthy of a spot in the museum of modern imperfection.
2. Tony Soprano, ‘The Sopranos’
TV’s equivalent of ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Sopranos’ was so inventive, visionary and groundbreaking, that it is frequently credited to have initiated the Golden Age of television. Stemming from that extraordinary vision, is the iconic Tony Soprano, whose many layers are uncovered just by a single look in James Gandolfini’s eyes. Filled with world-weariness, they define the character’s ignorance and poignancy in equal measure. Tony was not a man of just style and charisma; getting into his head gave us the opportunity to examine a truly troubled mind, irreparable, but also understandable. The honesty Gandolfini was able to put forth crafted a storytelling technique unseen in television before ‘The Sopranos’. It was, in every way, the stuff of legends.
1. Walter White, ‘Breaking Bad’
No one touches Heisenberg when it comes to the status of a TV icon. A generation would continue to be defined by the cultural phenomenon he proved to be in the Vince Gilligan masterpiece. Every moment Cranston’s gorgeously textured face was on our screens, he created TV history. It told so much of the character’s brain, perennially at work, with a conflicted sense of morality and towering agony, with usually having to say very little, if anything at all. It made every traditional hero and villain look dull in comparison, and made the idea of an anti-hero an essential requirement for almost every TV show that came after it. From the smallest revelations to the biggest blasts, Walter White was riveting, humane and seductively intriguing. Any television character is going to find it improbable to top that.
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