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Television’s best characters

imageOne of the advantages that television has over movies is that the characters have more time to grow. Over the course of twenty-something episodes per season, the characters adapt. They grow stronger, break down and slowly reveal themselves to us.

Like with characters in novels, we can get to know them so well that they seem real. Because of that, television has always been a character-driven medium. Here are my picks for the best characters in the last 20 years.*

15. Michael Westen (Burn Notice)

Michael Westen, in many ways, is an American James Bond, only a better spy (don’t get me started on 007’s shortcomings). Michael is a burned spy, meaning he was fired and blacklisted, had all accounts frozen and is unable to leave Miami. He has spent most of his time trying to figure out who burned him while avoiding people who want him dead. Michael is an intricate planner, a man who loves creative cover IDs, and a lethal killing machine who still finds time for his mom.

14. Ron Swanson (Parks and Recreation)

Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks Department, sincerely thinks she can make the world a better place through her role in the local government. Her boss, Ron Swanson, is the anti-Knope. He is a libertarian who does as little work as possible in order to screw up as little as possible. He has a somewhat-important government job but is against government. He thinks all parks should be run like a Chuck E. Cheese; no tax money would be necessary because people would use tokens for rides on the merry go round. He is obsessed with steak, bacon, woodworking and individualism. He keeps a claymore and a shotgun on his desk and he instructs his assistant, April, to never deliver messages to him and, above all else, keep the public from bothering him in any way. And if you think you’ve got him figured out, you’re wrong. It turns out he is also secretly an accomplished jazz musician named Duke Silver.

13. Liz Lemon (30 Rock)

Liz’s job as head writer for a sketch comedy show, where she has to deal with prima donna actors and – worse yet – a writing staff may actually be the easy part of her life. Her relationships, with friends and with men, are what really try her patience. Liz wears her awkwardness and loneliness on her sleeve, but not necessarily on purpose. She is as good at work as she is bad at seemingly everything else, but her awareness of that fact only makes her more endearing.

12. Fox Mulder (The X-Files)

Agent Mulder was epitomized by the poster in his office: “I want to believe.” He was always searching for answers to the unexplained, to his sister’s disappearance, to government conspiracies and more. Though sometimes overzealous in his search for the truth, he was an influence for questioning scientists and/or paranoid people everywhere.  Thanks to Mulder and his quest, the ideas of questioning everything, “trust no one” and never giving up became burned in the American psyche.

11. Dana Scully (The X-Files)

In the beginning, Agent Scully was the antithesis of Mulder. She was assigned as his partner to debunk his work. However, over the course of the show, the skeptic came to believe in some of Mulder’s theories. Her skeptical view of the unexplained battled with her experiences with Mulder while her religious faith clashed with her scientific skepticism. Scully was conflicted on her beliefs on all angles and that conflict drove most of her character arcs.

10. Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly)

Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds was a soldier against the Alliance before the rebellion lost. As captain of a smuggling starship, he commanded a crew of misfits like a loving father – well, a sarcastic loving father. He was no saint, though. Anyone who crossed his crew did so at their peril. He had flexible morals, having no qualms with killing an unarmed man, taking a cheap shot or backing out of a deal if it suits him, but was fiercely protective of his crew. He was also an individualist, wanting to be as far from government and rules as possible so he can do his own thing. His main motivation was simply to be left alone. Fortunately for viewers, no one let that happen.

09. The Janitor (Scrubs)

It may have been a minor role (we never even learned his name), but the Janitor was one of the best sit-com characters ever. He randomly picked J.D. to torture throughout his tenure at the hospital and did so to hilarious effect. He was funny, oddly intelligent for a janitor, somewhat psychotic, and was obsessed both with Elliot and with taxidermied squirrels. He was also the only person in the world that Dr. Cox feared.

08. Jack Donaghy (30 Rock)

NBC executive Jack Donaghy is a rich and successful businessman but will never live up to the standards he has for himself. He is a mentor to Liz, but when it comes to his own relationships, he’s generally pretty clueless. His business smarts and power plays don’t work with women and Condoleezza Rice never forgave him for dumping her via text message. It’s hard to like an elitist network executive, but Jack somehow pulls it off.

07. George Oscar Bluth (Arrested Development)

In the Bluth family, it takes a lot to be the black sheep, but I think that’s what GOB was. He was both a smarmy yuppie and a terrible magician who did his routine to “The Final Countdown.” GOB was completely devoid of morals, having no problem using sex, theft or fraud to benefit his career. He cared only about himself and spent most of his time trying to convince other people that he’s better than them. As for his redeeming qualities…um…he was funny.

06. Sawyer (LOST)

Sawyer started out as a villain on the show, a conman who was always looking for the upper hand. Even then, he was likeable because of his sense of humor. With a nickname or reference to pop culture or literature for every situation, he always kept you on your toes. Over time, though, he came to be a selfless leader and a respectable island-dweller who simply wanted to be left out of the various conflicts. Unfortunately, conflicts always came to him, in the form of the love triangle with Kate and Jack, the death of a loved one, and more. Sawyer was a tortured man who had nothing and redeemed himself on the island only to have everything taken from him. He was a man you loved to hate and hated to love, but most of all, you were glad you weren’t him.

05. Roger Sterling (Mad Men)

A partner at ad agency Sterling Cooper, Roger is a womanizing alcoholic who has never felt appreciated because he inherited the business from his father. A constant joker, he never seems to take anything seriously, treating his job like one big cocktail party. Even having a heart attack while having sex with his mistress didn’t slow him down for long. Sterling has a one-liner for every situation and is the life of any party. If not for the sexism and the fact that you couldn’t trust him around your wife, he’s the kind of guy you’d love to have as a best friend.

04. Jack Bauer (24)

In a post-9/11 world, Jack Bauer was what the world needed. Before there was SEAL Team 6, Bauer was America’s fictional representative of our best chance to win the War on Terror. The CTU agent was demoted, arrested, and made a wanted man by the president because he was unwilling to back down, follow the rules, be politically correct and be constrained by red tape. Instead, he knew what needed to be done and did it, regardless of the backlash. He was a true patriot, willing to do anything for his country, but was not loyal to his agency or the government if they got in the way of what was best for the country. He was also a badass who always flew by the seat of his pants, making up plans as he went during life or death situations. If there’s anybody you want on the frontlines protecting America, it’s Jack Bauer.

03. Veronica Palmer (Better Off Ted)

Veronica was a heartless executive at heartless conglomerate Veridian Dynamics. She was hopelessly out of touch with the employees and with “common people” in general. She actually prided herself on how arrogant and self-centered she was, as well as on her ability to remain emotionally unattached from her employees and their needs. She saw workers as mindless drones, but occasionally went to Ted for advice on how to make the employees happier if she thought it would increase their productivity. Whenever she tried to offer a perk to the workers, it would be rigorously structured in such a way to suck any benefit from it, eventually causing it to backfire. In real life, Veronica would be someone you would want to run over with your car, but on TV, she was priceless.

02. Benjamin Linus (LOST)

Small and bug-eyed, Ben doesn’t look like much of a threat, but the leader of the Others made up for his appearance with his cold, calculating sadism. He was a psychopath who murdered countless people who got in his way, including the DHARMA Initiative by gassing the entire village. His intellect was his biggest weapon of all, though. A master manipulator, Ben was always three steps ahead of his enemies. Watching the survivors fall into his intricate traps was like watching an artist slowly unveil a masterpiece. Most of all, he got pleasure out of playing mind games with his enemies. The most fun was watching him work on John Locke. Ben manipulated Locke so well that Locke usually thought he was the one manipulating Ben! Evil, yes, but it was fun to watch.

01. Gregory House (House)

It’s hard to like a sarcastic, antisocial elitist, but when he’s this entertaining and this good at his job, it comes naturally. Dr. House is like a medical Sherlock Holmes, but with less people skills. He is rude and immature, but he is capable of diagnosing a waiting room full of patients on his way out the door. The only thing he loves in life is a challenge. He makes things interesting by placing bets, such as whether he can diagnose patients without touching them or proving wheelchair-bound people have it easier than people on crutches. His other great challenges, of course, are solving medical mysteries, and when it comes to that, he’s the best there is.

*Disclaimers: I went with the last 20 years because I haven’t been watching TV much longer than that. Also, I’ve never had premium channels, so I’ve never seen those supposedly great shows on HBO. This list, obviously, is skewed toward shows that I like.

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