Television, that blue-glowing glass box that sits like a silent visitor in all of our homes, has given us some unforgettable friends over the years, from talking cars to silent killers, from wacky neighbors to creepy stalkers. The medium of serial TV is a perfect one for characters to grow, with hour after hour of airtime allowing producers, writers and actors to lend nuance and variety to their parts.
Inspired by their efforts, I have used my massive wealth of TV knowledge to create Misplaced's list of the 20 Greatest TV Characters.
This hard-drinking robot (designation Bending Unit 22, full name Bender Bending Rodriguez) is quite possibly the best mechanical supporting player of all time. In Futurama, Matt Groening's sci-fi comedy series, Bender was hired by Professor Farnsworth to crew the Planet Express delivery ship, despite his drinking, smoking and gambling problems. Created for the singular task of bending steel girders to construct suicide booths, Bender rebelled against his programming to lead a life of relative freedom. Not much is known about Bender's past - especially since his repeated time travels have given him a lifespan of millions of years to deal with - but the one thing we know is that where Bender goes, disaster follows. He does have a softer side, however; when a magnet is placed against his head to short out his "inhibition unit," he has been known to pick up an acoustic guitar and express his inner feelings through the beautiful medium of folk music.
19. Benjamin Linus
The producers of Lost originally hired actor Michael Emerson to play "Henry Gale," a mysterious man identified as one of the Others on the island, for just three episodes. His amazing performance, however, convinced them to keep him around for a bit longer, and the character of Benjamin Linus - for that is his name - has developed into one of the most fascinating villains ever to hit the small screen. The son of a humble maintenance man, Ben was brought to the island at the age of ten, and grew to maturity in the Dharma Initiative compound. As an adult, Ben turned on Dharma and massacred every last one of them, joining the mysterious Others. With a host of plans and schemes feeding into some grand machination that only he knows about, Ben may be the only real key to the island's mysteries - or he may be just as in the dark as the rest of us, and just hides it better.
18. Fox Mulder
"I want to believe." Those words, spoken like a mantra by Fox Mulder on The X-Files, perfectly sum up this tormented FBI agent. Along with his partner Dana Scully, Mulder would investigate an army of bizarre cases all over America on his way to tracking down the source of a secret conspiracy that aimed to keep knowledge of extraterrestrial life out of the hands of the public. Mulder was born to do this work - his first word was "JFK" - and his obsessive devotion to unearthing the truth has cost him dearly. After being dosed with a psychoactive drug in 1989, Mulder's obsession with the paranormal led to the FBI's dumping him in a basement office to work on his bizarre cases without bothering the rest of the Bureau. However, when Fox got too close to the truth, the conspiracy arranged to have him abducted once more, and at the end of the series he and Scully have been driven into hiding, unable to effectively
fight back against the forces arrayed against them.
Yes, I know that a car doesn't exactly qualify as a "character," but when it's displaying more acting talent than anybody else on the show, we'll make an exception. Michael Knight's sweet ride was a self-aware Trans Am with a Cylon light in the hood, voiced with delectable smugness by veteran actor William Daniels. The car came equipped with a host of gimmicks and gadgets, from armor and turbo boosters to more esoteric stuff like an olfactory sensor, a rotating license plate and self-tinting windows. With Michael behind the wheel, perfectly coiffed hair blowing in the breeze, KITT busted spies, saboteurs and other crooks in four seasons of hard-driving action. The 2008 reimagining of the show has a much more advanced automobile, voiced by Val Kilmer, but for my money the original is still the hottest thing on wheels.
16. Cobra Commander
Whether we're talking about the expressionless silver-masked Commander or the more traditional "blue curtain over the face" Commander, there's no denying that the leader of COBRA is one of the best animated foes of all time. Voiced by Chris Latta, the raspy Commander showed no mercy to his horde of loyal underlings, often leading them into battle against hopeless odds only to turn tail and run when things started to go south. Although he was the Supreme Leader of the COBRA troops, he was often disrespected by his subordinates, especially that punk Destro, for his oft-ludicrous schemes - one occasion, where he carved his face on the moon with a giant laser for no real reason, was a huge waste of time and money. But no matter how ludicrous the Commander's plans got, he never once faltered in his drive to conquer the Earth, despite being relegated to lackey of Serpentor and eventually devolving into a snake in the G.I. Joe animated movie, hissing "I was once a man - a maaaaaan."
15. Dr. Gregory House
The acerbic Dr. House, played with aplomb by British thespian Hugh Laurie, shatters our preconceptions of how a doctor should act. Where in the past, TV doctors have been kind, comforting and patient, House is a caustic, nervous wreck, following inexplicable hunches to get to the bottom of the oft-bizarre conditions he and his staff are presented with. As a young man, House was expelled from Johns Hopkins for copying answers on a test, going on to get his degree from the University of Michigan. After suffering an infarction in his leg, he underwent a potentially dangerous surgery to repair it, leaving him with a limp and constant pain, which he manages with pills. After taking a job at the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, where he is supervised by former one-night stand Lisa Cuddy, House assembles a crack team of doctors to help him treat a medical mystery each and every week. House has no patience for his patients, if you'll excuse the pun, and his mantra for dealing with them is "Everybody lies." After surviving a malpractice trial, a bus accident, and most of his staff quitting, House is ready for a new season and new diseases - possibly lupus!
14. Eric Cartman
It's hard out here for a kid. The little ones today have to deal with things that we could never have dreamed of. And, as such, the modern world sees fit to turn them into obese, spoiled, obnoxious monsters. Take Eric Cartman, one of the quintet of kids on South Park. The foul-mouthed Cartman is everything wrong with America today: rude, ignorant, and intolerant of anything that doesn't fall within his tightly proscribed worldview. Born the son of a massively promiscuous ex-crack whore and star of German scat films, Eric has always been spoiled by his single mother. Starting out as a simple caricature, Cartman has developed into a full-blown sociopath, with the episode Scott Tenorman Must Die recognized as the tipping point. Since then, young Eric has resorted to crueler and crueler means to get his way. Recent episodes have also implied that Cartman may be a latent homosexual, but since he's only nine years old that character path hasn't been truly explored.
The greatest TV detective of all time, Det. Lennie Brisco anchored twelve seasons of Law & Order with his no-nonsense approach to crimebusting. Briscoe, played by late, lamented actor Jerry Orbach, was a continual fixture on Law & Order, his craggy face and dry wit making the cases he worked that much more bearable. Divorced twice (or, as he put it, "single three times",) Briscoe worked hard to be a good parent to his two daughters, only to be shattered when one of his daughters is murdered by a drug dealer after she testifies against him. Struggling with an addiction to alcohol all his life, Briscoe's arc followed him from his early days in Homicide to become one of the department's most venerable men, working with multiple partners and solving hundreds of cases over his storied career. When Orbach died in 2004, Briscoe was written off the series, but his partners and friends still speak fondly of him.
12. GOB Bluth
It's short for George Oscar Bluth, if you must know - the eldest of the Bluth siblings on Arrested Development, played by the catastrophically funny Will Arnett, made riding a Segway fun again throughout the prematurely cancelled show's three seasons. A part-time magician by trade, Gob is easily the biggest failure among the three Bluth boys, and yet remains his father's favorite (which isn't saying much), often serving as an unwitting catspaw in his schemes to undermine Michael. Known not only for his arsenal of catchphrases and insulting chicken dance (that doesn't actually resemble any movements performed by an actual chicken), but also for his misadventures with the ladies (his pathological inability to ever deny having sex with anyone leading him into more than a few sticky situations), Gob is the ultimate smug, annoying a-hole, and we love him for it.
11. Veronica Mars
The titular character of the sadly cancelled WB detective drama was something more than your average child prodigy - as played by rising star Kristen Bell, she was an amazingly complex, well-rounded character with good points and bad. Daughter of detective Keith Mars, Veronica used her intuition, deduction, and network of helpers to solve cases for fellow students at Neptune High. However, in Veronica's never-ending search for justice (primarily in her efforts to uncover the murderer of her best friend Lily Kane), she proceeds to alienate and push away nearly everybody who cares for her. Veronica isn't a squeaky-clean heroine; she often uses bad methods to get good results, and her relationship with Logan Echolls saw her making moral compromises left and right. Alas, the fourth season of the show, which would have seen an adult Mars working for FBI, never made it to air.
And a child shall lead them, they say, and we can believe it. The youngest member of the Griffin clan on FOX's Family Guyis also far and away the smartest, with many of the show's early episodes revolving around young Stewie's attempts to murder his unsuspecting mother with a variety of insane devices. As the show continued, however, Stewie's homicidal impulses seem to have been slightly curbed, replaced by an even weirder array of character traits. Most prominent is his sexual ambiguity - although the show's creators never come out and say it, the bitter one-year-old may indeed be a shining example of homosexuality as a
genetic trait. Mostly, however, the little man just wants to kill his mother and take over the world - and is that really so wrong?
9. Vic Mackey
In FX's breakout drama The Shield, a world of constant moral compromise enfolds the officers working out of the fictional Farmington district of Los Angeles, and at the center of those compromises is Vic Mackey. Leader of the "Strike Team," an independent unit that was chartered to deal with gang-related problems, Mackey has never shirked from working both sides of the law, from pocketing seized cash to using criminals as informants in exchange for police protection. When Mackey and crew rob an Armenian money train, the take would be enough for them to all retire, but the loss of the money drives them even further into a spiral of paranoia and violence. What makes Vic such a great character is his conflicting motives; he steals to make a better life for his family and his kids, but his criminal activities threaten to destroy everything he's worked hard for.
Misplaced could have filled up this entire list with twenty characters from HBO's astounding Baltimore drama The Wire, but you probably could just watch the show in the time it took you to read it. So we're going to have to reach into the bag and pick just one, and that one is Omar Little. First seen as the scourge of the street dealers in Season 1, Omar's presence is like a modern-day Robin Hood, stealing from the thugs to give to... well, himself, really. Omar's trademark whistling and keen aim with a shotgun may make him a formidable opponent, but even he can't stand forever against the grinding machinery of the corrupt Baltimore system. As his destiny becomes inexorably entwined with McNulty and the rest of the unit, Omar considers leaving the life of crime he's chosen, only to realize that a man can't dodge his true nature forever. Played by Michael K. Williams, who has become one of Hollywood's most in-demand character actors following his debut, Omar is just one thread in the rich tapestry that is The Wire, but without him the whole thing would unravel.
7. Homer Simpson
The patriarch of the longest-running family on prime-time TV has redefined what it means to be a father in America. Before Homer, fathers were usually seen as the rock of the family - a little dim-witted sometimes, but always there to help their kids out of a jam. On The Simpsons, though, the roles are reversed... most of the family's troubles are due to Homer and his gluttony, idiocy and laziness. Working at the Springfield Nuclear Plant for almost twenty years (although only a few have passed in the Simpsons universe) may have exposed him to enough radiation to explain his transformation from the everyday Dad with anger issues from the first few seasons to the indestructible pinball of plot advancement that he has become. Based (and named after) series creator Matt Groening's own father, and voiced by the indomitable Dan Castellaneta, Homer is one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time.
6. Emma Peel
The original femme fatale, Emma Peel was the female lead on The Avengers, the seminal British spy show that instilled a deep and abiding love of catsuits in many a young man. One of the first truly feminist heroines on TV, Peel eschewed the standard damsel in distress situations, instead choosing to become a master of multiple forms of combat as well as a skilled swordfighter. Her mind is as honed as her body, with mastery of chemistry and the physical sciences aiding her in her missions for an unnamed branch of British intelligence. Accompanied by her partner, the dapper John Steed, Ms. Peel dealt with carnivorous plants, invisible enemies and the legendary Cybernauts, all with a quick with and a sense of humor. Emma Peel was also a fashion icon, with the character's op-art dresses and mod catsuits becoming a staple of late 60s British fashion.
It's only logical that the science officer of the original Enterprise deserves a place on this list. In an era when sci-fi aliens were nearly always represented as babe-grabbing invaders in funny costumes, the emotionless Vulcan was just a normal dude with pointy ears and spectacular enunciation. Without Spock, there would have been no counterbalance to Kirk's rampaging Id. No wonder there's so much fan-fiction written about the pairing. Leonard Nimoy inhabited the role so thoroughly that it's virtually impossible to even conceive of somebody else playing the character, Zachary Quinto was disappointing in the recent movie. And let's not forget the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, practiced to little effect in schoolyards across the country.
4. Cosmo Kramer
New York City is full of kooks, but the absolute kookiest had to be Jerry's bizarre neighbor on the comedy classic Seinfeld. Played by Michael Richards (pre-racist meltdown), Kramer was a frizzy-haired bundle of nervous energy in the classic mode, constantly jumping between harebrained schemes like a coked-up grasshopper. Whether it be a coffee-table book about coffee tables (shaped like a coffee table), a beach-scented cologne, of the "bro" (aka the
"manziere"), a bra for dudes, Kramer's non-stop imagination gave the show some of its best moments. Independently wealthy, dressed like a throwback from the '50s, and inexplicably attractive to women, Kramer is one of the greatest sitcom neighbors of all time. Real-life New York comedian Kenny Kramer, one-time neighbor of Seinfeld creator Larry David, claims to be the inspiration for the TV Kramer, but in reality Michael Richards' creation is unique, sprung fully-formed from the dome of Zeus to slide across the living room floor for all eternity.
3. The Doctor
Which doctor? Doctor Who, that's who. The titular character of the long-running British sci-fi series has been portrayed by ten actors over his lifespan, a feat not performed by any other character on this list. The man is technically a Time Lord, an alien from the planet Gallifrey who wanders the reaches of time and space willy-nilly, encountering and solving various crises. His tendency to get involved in the activities of us mere mortals has led to him being labeled a renegade by the other Time Lords, who have, by the Doctor's ninth incarnation, all died out anyways. The explanation for the multiple actors is that, after a Time Lord suffers a mortal illness or injury, he can "regenerate," curing all damage at the cost of appearance and
personality. That multifaceted casting has allowed for Doctors to exhibit a wide range of character traits, trademark costumes, and even accents, with the current Doctor, played
by David Tennant, an excitable, manic counterpoint to some of the more sedate ones that have gone before.
2. B.A. Baracas
The strongman of the A-Team was just one of four colorful characters, but no disrespect to Mad Dog, Faceman or Hannibal, the man we're here to pay tribute to is Bosco "Bad Attitude"" Baracus. Portrayed by the immortal Mr. T, the milk-loving, plane-hating mechanic and strongman became an iconic figure during the 1980s, with his "I pity the fool"" catchphrase on the lips of fool-pitiers everywhere. Baracus had significantly more dimension than your average musclehead - in addition to his skills at hand-to-hand combat, he is also a mechanical genius, able to jerry-rig all sorts of devices to help the A-Team with their missions. B.A. also is the only man allowed behind the wheel of the team's awesome van.
1. Tony Soprano
Was there ever any doubt? The richest, most complex, and most believable character ever to hit the airwaves is the Mafia lieutenant played for eight years by James Gandolfini. Growing up in New Jersey connected to the DiMeo crime family, young Tony had a path laid out for him early. Committing his first murder at the age of 22, he was quickly a "made man" in the organization under his father's tutelage. When his father died, Tony took over his crew and brought the family to even greater success. But what made The Sopranos such a landmark drama was the contrast between his brutal occupation and his family life. Tony was also a devoted father to his two children, ad did his best to insulate them from the life he led. Add in his recurring appointments with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, and you had a Mafioso like no other: flawed, human, and empathetic. The show's shock ending, which left some viewers disappointed, served as a perfect coda to Soprano's life, in which nothing was ever truly certain but family.
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See you tomorrow.