13 Greatest Modern TV Characters

Over the last decade or so, the quality of TV programming has really come into its own as a serious form of entertainment. Big name Hollywood movie stars such as Steve Buscemi and Kevin Bacon taking the leap onto the small screen really serves as a testament to the fact that television is now on par with movies in terms of narrative reputability. For the longest time, even the most popular series’ were low-budget affairs which, despite quality storytelling, simply never felt polished in terms of production. But far more so than films, TV shows are in it for the long hall in terms of character development. In movies the death of a main character often marks the climax to which the story resolves, however as TV crafts a much longer narrative, its necessary to envision ways to keep the story interesting through the characters that have stuck around. And that is what I love about TV. Just as in life, things continue after major events, and the characters have to deal with their actions or inactions for many seasons to come.

This is my vision of the greatest television characters of the modern era. Certainly greatness is in the eye of the beholder, but regardless of if you agree with specific listings or characters – rest assured these are some great characters from great shows who can all be adored in their own unique way.

13. Zapp Brannigan – Billy West – Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-2013)

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“I don’t care if your skins red or tan or Chinese, you’re all going to have to learn to die together.”

Easily one of the most stupidly funny characters ever to appear on a TV screen, Zapp Branigan is the epitome of egotistical self-inflation. Sleazy, grotesque and one of Earth’s greatest heroes, Branigan’s pseudo-charismatic quips and incessant stalkerish wooing of Leela is never far from Kiff’s sighs of defeat, who’s become far too apathetic to even argue. Hiding behind all this perpetual narcissism is a weak, slob of a man far too under qualified to serve whatever high ranking command position he’s most recently been entrusted too, and all this culminates into a character who’s disgusting and hilarious in equal measure.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aIBF9hSI-I

12. Hershel Greene – Scott Wilson – The Walking Dead (2010-)

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“I can’t profess to understand God’s plan, Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.”

Loosing no points for being fresh in my memory after his stellar character development in last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, Hershel Greene is a man who fully accepts the reality of the zombie apocalypse, whilst remaining untainted by the inhumanity that surrounds him. He is a doctor (well, veterinarian really) who fully understands the nature of death, but refuses to allow it to corrupt him or others – going so far as to slowly lure walkers away to avoid having to put them down in front of children, as if it were a rapid dog at his old vet practice. Above all he’s a man truly devoted to God and protecting his family, even if that means placing their safety in the hands of someone younger and more capable.

11. Dr. House – Hugh Laurie – House, M.D. (2004 – 2012)

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“Sometimes the best gift is the gift of never seeing you again.”

Gregory House is the Sherlock Holmes of medicine. He is cynical and deeply misanthropic, but his genius is simply undeniable. Able to read people like a book, but never capable of truly understanding them, House actively rejects the normality of everyday life, a trait reflected by his inherent expectation to diagnose patients with rare aliments. Thanks largely to the longevity of this series and its tendency to favour developing him to a far greater extent than the supporting characters, Dr. House has become one of TV’s most prominent icons throughout the previous decade as a man as sophisticated as he is crude. However he has shown glimpses of an extremely poignant desire for companionship that overshadows even his need to solve medical puzzles, but constantly strains the loyalty of those who would become close to him. It is a bittersweet mirror of the urge to push people away before they become close enough to do real damage.

10. Don Draper – Jon Hamm – Mad Men (2007-)

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“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

Donald Draper has the best character name in television. Cynical, demands chivalry in his subordinates – but rarely in himself. Don Draper has become iconic as the perfect man. He’s smart, successful and very good-looking. There’s never been a more perfect representation of “men want to be him, women want to be with him.” If you’re not watched Mad Men, go watch Mad Men. But slowly this man and his life unfolded into a rich tapestry of trauma’s and infidelity. It was all only perfect on the surface, however the irony is that his troubling back story is only revealed through flashbacks; to all the other characters Draper remains steadfast. We feel as we know him far more personally than any person in his own word, serving as a perfect example of the report audience’s develop for characters, seemingly pulling them out of fantasy and allowing them to take a place in our pantheon of closest friends.

9. Eric Cartman – Trey Parker – South Park (1997-)

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“Dude, I’ll make you eat your parents.”

This 10 year old boy is every kind of evil all rolled up in one spoiled, big-boned, KFC obsessed child. Both passive-aggressive and psychopathic, bitter and feeble, Cartman has been shown to an be extremely manipulative, amoral and totally remorseless. When a therapist attempted to analyze him, Cartman sat quietly, pulled out his phone, and with the push of a few buttons caused this doctor’s wife to phone the office and kill herself. He’ll spend entire weeks bullying Butters, display an anti-Semitism that would see Adolf Hitler shed a tear in respect, and he pretty much dominates his enabling mother in every aspect of her life. In fact, Liana Cartman is possibly the only person who sees any shred of good in Eric, never missing a chance to spoil him rotten – and yet Cartman has consistently remained the most popular character in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s landmark series. Even when doing something decent, like trying to force Family Guy off the air (truly gods work), it always ends up being for selfish reasons. In fact, this contrast between the grandeur of his actions and the pettiness of his desires has become the force behind many an episode. Eric Cartman is unlikeable in all the most likeable ways. He’s George Castanza stepped into overdrive, who’ll indirectly step on almost every person in his life for absolutely no reason at all.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dz_AvzelK4k

8. Malcolm Tucker – Peter Capaldi – The Thick of It (2005-2012)

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“A political class which has given up on morality, and simply pursuits popularity at all costs.”

I always hoped there was some profound message behind the hilarious, bumbling realism of The Thick of It, and in the last few sentences of the final episode it all came together. Who better to deliver this message than its star, the one and only Malcolm Tucker? Incredibly foul-mouthed and intimidating, Malcolm Tucker is the bogey man of the British political system, based partly on Tony Blaire’s former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell. As the Director of Communications, Tucker is charged with the systematic bollocking of any minister or government official who shows him or herself to be incompetent in the public eye. But for everything this man appears to be (brash, profane… obnoxious) Malcolm has proven himself as a complex personality. All his scheming and antagonism is often (paradoxically) for the purpose of upholding the common good whilst swimming in an ocean of incompetent ministers trying to appear adequate. Also, it’s worth noting that his use of swearwords is the greatest in human history.

7. Gustavo Fring – Giancarlo Esposito – Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

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“And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”

The sly, patient sophistication of Gus Fring – owner of the Los Pollos Hermanos fried chicken franchise and meth distributor – served as the perfect counterpoint for Walter White’s ruthless ambition. He is the master of hiding in plain sight, building his meth empire slowly over years and even aiding the DEA’s efforts for drug control. Perhaps what made the battle between Walt and Gus so intensely riveting is the sheer intelligence these two men possess, and the discretion necessary for both of them to keep their true business a secret. Initially Walt very much admired Gus’ professionalism, and perhaps still did even after he proved himself ruthless and Machiavellian in his management of his multimillion-dollar drug ring. In classic Mexican cartel fashion, Fring’s story is one of revenge and he would stop at nothing to achieve it – not even the murder of children. Gustavo’s subtleness was matched completely by his unpredictability, crafting one of the most fearsome villains in years.

6. Randy Marsh – Trey Parker – South Park (1997-)

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“OH I’M SORRY I THOUGHT THIS WAS AMERICA!”

There are two breeds of South Park fans, Team Cartman and Team Randy – I’m on the latter, and here’s why. Randy is neither stupid nor arrogant, he’s simply extremely over-the-top in everything that he does, but remains the man every middle-class dad thinks of himself. Slowly but surely he became the best character on this show – the typical unsatisfied American male, who will give himself cancer just to get in on medicinal marijuana one day, then challenge drunk fathers in the stands at little-league games just to prove himself a man the next. He doesn’t strive to battle great social injustices; Randy’s struggle is an internal one. He is a man unable to accept his ever-increasing age in a world obsessed with youth, resulting in his need to live through his 10-year-old son, Stan. Always well meaning, even when severing the hand of Stan’s ‘future-self’ in order to keep his son away from drugs, Randy has proven himself just purely likable in every way.

5. George Castanza – Jason Alexander – Seinfeld (1989-1998)

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“I have a bad feeling that whenever a lesbian looks at me they think, “That’s why I’m not a heterosexual”.

This short, meek, shallow man is a picture of the worst behavior in which human beings are legally capable (barring sociopathic tendencies); many consider George to be the greatest sitcom character of all time. He is stingy, dishonest, selfish, insecure, neurotic, and dominated by his parents, often manufacturing elaborate deceptions to gain some sort of imagined social advantage in order to overcome his awkwardness. George’s actions could easily be mistaken for sociopathy if not for the crippling self-loathing he so obviously imposes on everyone around him. As Kramer has described “You’re weak, spineless. A man of temptation.” However through the genius of Larry David and Jerry Seineld, a man so despicably superficial became likeable through his hilarity. In a way, I’m sure there’s a little bit of George in everyone – conniving and contemptuous, but far too unconfident to do anything about it.

4. Homer Simpson – Dan Castellaneta – The Simpsons (1989-)

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“Operator! Give me the number for 911!”

Homer Simpson may not be the original oathish cartoon dad, but he is without question the most famous and popular. EVERYONE knows who he is – everyone. Spawning many pretenders from shows such as Family Guy and American Dad, none have ever lived up to Homer’s idiotic charm, though it often leads to his downfall. After tireless stalking to become a member of the elite Stonecutter’s Society, he throws it all away by using their sacred parchment as a rip bip – destroying the place where he truly belonged. For a man whose selfishness defies belief, Homer always manages to do the right thing …eventually. Homer really needs no explanation, for if you don’t like The Simpsons, I don’t like you (nah, you’re alright), and though every member of the family can be considered a protagonist, if one was forced to choose a main character of The Simpsons, the patriarch would be king.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwc1Wi-mlCI

3. Tyrion Lannister – Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones (2011-)

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“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”

Just as every Game of Thrones lover hates Joeffry, they love Tyrion. It’s a fact, it just is. Perhaps created as a reflection of the people who read fantasy novels, Tryion’s intelligence and wit greatly outmatch’s his physical limitations as a dwarf. Born of the wealthy, scheming (and seemingly loveless) Lannister family of Casterly Rock, Tryion has proven himself an honorable man among dishonorable men. He frequently condemns the vile actions of his nephew, and has a soft spot for misfits such as himself. However through this shrewd exterior is a man crushed by decades of life with his disapproving father Tywin, who despises his son for killing his beloved wife in childbirth, but despite (or due to) his constaints, Tyrion Lannister has become deeply likeable through GoM’s 3 seasons, and I for one cannot wait to see his journey progress as we anticipate the arrival of season 4. And if Arya would just go to Braavos and join the Faceless Men, that would be great.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwS_QAtyf7M

2. Jesse Pinkman – Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

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“We’re all on the same page. The one that says if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.”

Jesse is my favourite character in Breaking Bad. He is the picture of a young man compulsively struggling to prove himself in a world in which he just doesn’t belong. Despite debuting as somewhat of an annoying airhead, Jesse’s character development (aided by Aaron Paul’s incredible performance) captures a truly human decency as he descends further and further into a dark place in which he may never escape. Jesse constantly faces guilt and horror concerning his actions in the drug trade, but is unable to abandon his life of crime as he always returns to his methamphetamine vice. Despite the horrific nature of his work Jesse is compassionate, especially towards children, and does what is right no matter the consequences. Tormented by his actions, he changes as a character in a far less subtle way than his companion Walter White, but above all he’s simply smarter-than-he looks. In the immortal words of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan: “Jesse is a leader who thinks he’s a follower.” His journey is a tragic, but a spectacular one.

Acting 101 with Aaron Paul

1. Walter White – Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

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“I did it for me. I liked it, I was good at it.

I was really…………….alive.”

Yes, there it is, what you were all expecting. Three cheers for me for providing the obvious answer. No matter how much I wanted to place Jesse as no. 1, Walter White is just an unbelievably sophisticated character of beyond-Shakespearean proportions. It’s no accident that three characters from the same TV series have appeared on this list; it’s a testament to the sheer undeniable quality of Breaking Bad as a story. Watching Walt gradually transform over this series from a simple (and rather dull) middle-aged chemistry teacher to a sociopathic drug-lord is as haunting as it is staggeringly realistic. Bathing in bitter irony is that Walter’s terminal cancer diagnosis is what finally brought him to life after years of unfulfilled ambition, but by the end of the series his very presence in a room was enough to invoke terror. That was not because he was some psychopathic killer, or megalomaniac dictator – Walter was a genius capable of awful things, and he outsmarted everybody. The chess-game between Walt and Gustavo in season 4 created what was perhaps the best season of television of all time. The cunningness of this man’s manipulation tears his family apart in a deeply vivid and personal manner, as if it were a documentary about the destruction of their lives, and yet he clings onto the self-deception that its all for their sake.

The consequences of actions is the driving theme in Breaking Bad, and it is explored through Walter White in a fashion that is both tense and terrifying. A dark shadow of the common every man, yet Walt does nothing that anyone isn’t capable of, all that is necessary is the will to do so. He said it himself: “Technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.” And boy, did he change.

If movies are like listening to an album, TV has become like reading a long, complex novel. The length of an ongoing television series grants it the ability to craft far more sophisticated characters and narratives than is possible in a mere 2 hour long film, and as such some of the most daring works of fiction of late have resided on the small screen – a medium which traditionally discourages controversy in favour of guaranteed popularity. The depth of Walter White’s manipulation, Malcolm Tucker’s political mastery, Zapp Brannigan’s sleaziness, none of it would be fully realised without the ability to fall in love with characters over months and years of loyal viewing. TV star is the new movie star, and with many promising upcoming series to come, its safe to say the respectability of television will only continue to grow.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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41 Comments

  1. Why no Caroline from Last Tango in Halifax?! There need to be more people that watch this show. One of myfavorite characters.

  2. benjamin
    0

    James Spader’s character is damn cool

  3. Tony Soprano & Omar little not being on this list makes it completely invalid!

  4. While I did find this article entertaining, I can’t understand why you did not include any female characters. I mean. Not a single one!

  5. Claudia Morris
    0

    A little absurd you didn’t include James Gandolfini aka Tony Soprano on this list. Or even Carmela Soprano.

  6. I only came here to check if Walter White is at top. I’m pleased lol

    Great list of amazing characters.

  7. BGarrett
    0

    My picks:

    Chandler Bing

    Nathan Fillion (his char in firefly)

    Niles Crane

    Vic Mackey

  8. Williamz
    0

    I’d add No Rube Sofer or Delores Herbig (Dead Like Me) and Emerson Cod (Pushing Daisies).

  9. Kevin Licht

    The list definitely has some great characters in it but this may be one of those lists that is too broad for my taste. I also second the idea of including some females in this. There are plenty of influential female characters out there (Liz Lemon, Buffy, Sydney Bristow, Kima from The Wire).

    I also would have liked to see a little less of doubling up on characters from shows to allow for inclusion of others. I feel like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey, two characters who are pretty much the reason we have a character like Walter White, are missing here.

    In addition, one could probably argue that one of these characters (Costanza) is no longer modern, as most networks have moved to the single-cam style for comedies. Don’t get me wrong, he’s certainly a great character, but narrowing down the definition of “modern” could have helped the list.

  10. Kate Lovatt

    With this kind of topic you’re never going to be able to cater for everybody – individual tastes differ too much, but you’ve covered a wide variety of genres which is good. My only problem is: where are all the female characters? There are certainly plenty of starring and supporting roles to choose from in the likes of Game of Thrones, and I feel this list would definitely benefit from a more equal balance of male and female.

  11. Jennifer Carr

    Good list. If I was going to add anything, I’d say The Doctor from “Doctor Who” would probably end up on my list. And Donna Noble too. Great summaries of the Breaking Bad characters – perfectly summed up why I love/loathe them.

  12. Siobhan Calafiore

    Definitely agree with Dr. House and Malcolm Tucker! Still haven’t watched Breaking Bad yet – might need a bit of a marathon over the summer!

  13. Any list like this is going to be missing characters depending on your tastes, but all here are inarguably great one way or another.

  14. As it has been already pointed out, the completely lack of female characters does not help -everything seems to be too biased and just rely on personal taste rather than an actual analysis-.

  15. Dennis Fulton

    You’re quite the Breaking Bad fan, huh? I’d expect nothing less from a civilized citizen with access to cable. Personally, Gus Fring was my favorite character by a long shot.

    I’d also would’ve put Cartmen in front of Randy, but whose list is this? Yours. So I should just stop typing.

  16. Kevin Fischer

    Other comments have already pointed this out, but I still shocked. Not a single female character? Maybe the title of the should be changed to something like “13 Greatest Modern Male Characters”.

  17. I can’t say I agree with this list in anyway shape or form, but I appreciate your opinions and arguments.

  18. Matthew Sims

    My picks – Brenda Chenowith from Six Feet Under

    Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks

    Bernard Black from Black Books

    Nathaniel Fisher Jr. from Six Feet Under

    Ron Donald from Party Down

    Still, great list, even though I think that putting two Breaking Bad characters, while I agree with both of them being on there, although I prefer Skyler over Jesse, is a bit unfair.

  19. Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock would have had the first place on my list ! 🙂 But i do agree with Dr House.

  20. Being someone who has never seen Breaking Bad, I’m left to believe it is made solely of incredible characters.
    Shouldn’t there be more variation? There are hundreds of TV shows with hundreds of incredible characters. The greatest ones of modern TV can’t mainly just be from one show!

  21. JohnBasak

    Eric Cartman!

  22. Such a shame no female characters were mentioned but your justification for your choices was great – so much love for House. Some of the best writing/acting there’s been on TV in recent years.

  23. Guess I’d better got watch Breaking Bad. Goodbye all free time.

  24. Nicola Kahler

    Jesse and Walt were going to be the top two, no doubt… so damn amazing…
    Great list, definitely agree with most of them. I would’ve added Joe Carroll from The Following and Hannibal Lecter from Hannibal, but I guess those shows aren’t AS popular 🙂

  25. Brendan Johnson

    Although they are both brilliant characters, I found Jesse even more compelling than Walt. I think he was the heart of the show in a way. Amid the chaos of the finale all I really wanted was Jesse to survive, and I’m glad he did!

  26. Too few British characters on this list. Where’s Sherlock or even the Doctor? What about Inspector Reed? Caroline from LTIH? The list goes on…

  27. Mothwings

    I love the list, especially the inclusion of Hamm!

  28. I love your variety of choices! I must say when I say that Hershel was so close to Zapp Brannigan I did wonder what the hell your criteria was! I agreed generally with all your choices though. I am very glad to see Tyrion Lannister on the list, because let’s be honest, if you hadn’t how could one really trust anything you said? He is an internet sensation and the big favourite of the show and books for his unfathomably high level of sassiness! Really great choices, though, I could see you really just chose your top 13 without discrimination with such an arsenal as Cartman and Homer with Walter White! Nothing more to say, you clearly have great taste in television shows!

  29. Cait Woodcock

    Great article. More reasons for me to get around to watching Breaking Bad immediately, rather than ‘when I have time.’ I couldn’t help but notice, however, that every single one of these were male characters. I blame this mainly on the dismal selection of complex female characters that television and film provide us. When reading your descriptions the thought that ‘this could just have easily been a woman’ once again made me want to get my shit together and start writing fabulous female characters… But there has been some headway recently and it would be a shame to overlook that. Maybe some of those developing lady characters will make the list eventually.

  30. Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

    Good list! Love House and Homer J. S 😀
    I would definitely add Chandler Bing, Barry Stinson and Sheldon Cooper though

  31. Spot on analysis of Randy Marsh. I absolutely agree with the fact that Randall is struggling with “his ever-increasing age in a world obsessed with youth,” which totally explains why Randy must live through his son; no matter how hilarious the results may be. The idea of the adults being just as silly and immature as their kids is, in my mind, the central theme of South Park.

  32. MattMueller

    This was a pretty spectacular list. I felt that each choice was carefully deliberated on and you made good cases for each one. My only gripe with it is the three Breaking Bad characters. While it’s great to note the nuances of them, in a short list like this, I can’t help but think that you may be a little bias to that show.

  33. How are there no women on this list? And while I love Breaking Bad, three characters on here is a bit much -I’d agree with Jesse and Walt but not Gus.
    My current favorites are probably Tina from Bob’s Burgers, Olivia Pope, Harvey Specter and Tyrion!

  34. Liz Watkins

    I am excited to see Hershel on here. The show allowed him so much more character development then he got in the graphic novels. He is one of my favorite characters of the show.

    What about The Doctor of Doctor Who? David Tennant and Matt Smith brought an amazing youthfulness to the modern Doctor.

  35. Danny Cox

    Gustavo Fring… probably one of the most cunning, complex, and developed characters ever. I feel confident that his death was also in the top five deaths of all television. Cool article by the way!

  36. Tigey

    There’s no way to be too biased towards Breaking Bad. It’s ruined all other TV for me.

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