One 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.