TV’s Top 5 Characters

By September 14th, 2010

There are entire shows I have been charmed by based on one character alone (see: Blair Waldorf and Gossip Girl below) and there are others with an entire group of well-developed, interesting, and watchable characters (see: The West Wing, The Office). So, it’s no small feat to pick the best tv characters to ever appear on the small screen (even if it’s just in my opinion!). It’s downright hard, in fact, but these are the things I do for my job: talk about tv. Life is tough.

In no particular order:

1) Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. It’s safe to say this show is the definition of a guilty pleasure, but there is actually one aspect I find award-winning and that’s Blair Waldorf, Upper East Side Queen Bee. She is unapologetically self-absorbed while showing real grace and vulnerability under pressure. It seems the rest of the cast just can’t keep up with her, and it’s why the best scenes of the show, hands down, have her in them.

(Confession: I actually think she and Dan have great on-screen chemistry. Maybe not romantic chemistry, but I often think  about the writers should pair them together for scenes more often.)

2) Emily Gilmore from Gilmore Girls. Oh, Emily Gilmore. The character we loved to hate and hated to love. Sometimes in the same episode. There were moments of pure surprise when Emily was on screen and then there were those zingers we came to expect (and appreciate) from her, such as my personal favorite: “Lorelai, when a woman has a crack baby, you do not buy her a puppy” (“Wedding Bell Blues,” 5-13).

When I re-watch this show–a series I’ve seen in its entirety more than once–Emily’s scenes still stand out as my favorites.

3. Nancy Botwin from Weeds. She’s a mess. She’s a horrible mother (and not in a self-deprecating, endearing way, but in a wow-you-are-not-fit-to-parent way). She’s frustrating, too, because her bad choices are bad in the moment, not just in hindsight. She knows they’re bad as she’s making them  and, yet, I root for her. I feel for her. I like her, even, on some level, and you just have to admire her ability to survive whatever catastrophe she’s plunged herself into.

At Comic-Con, Mary Louise Parker said that Nancy puts off feeling guilty about the things she does, and I thought that was such a fantastic way to sum up her flaws. It’s not that she’s unfeeling or stupid, she’s just a master avoider.

4. Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. Leah’s already mentioned that Friday Night Lights is my favorite show (inching slightly ahead of Veronica Mars after the last season), and if I’m choosing a favorite character, it’s Tami. She’s strong, she’s smart, she’s original. She feels like the rock of her family and the rock of her school. Her character is proof, to me, that you can write characters for television that are both entirely admirable and fascinating to watch.

5. Dexter Morgan from Dexter. I struggled with this last one because while Dexter is just pure brilliance, the character of Dexter is sort of … obviously fascinating. I mean, a serial killer whose side you’re usually on? That’s fascinating! Who can argue with that!

But what sealed the deal for me was listening to Michael C. Hall talk about the character and show at Comic-Con. This man is not Dexter (I mean in terms of physicality, as clearly Michael C. Hall isn’t a serial killer). His mannerisms are so subtly opposite you almost don’t realize how incredible his portrayal really is. Hall has a quiet confidence that Dexter doesn’t. Even his voice and tone are different. It makes you appreciate the character that much more when you realize it isn’t just about delivering lines well, it’s about physically becoming someone else that looks exactly the same as you.


My honorable mentions would be: Ari Gold, Leslie Knope, Pacey Witter, George Costanza, and, well, Veronica Mars, of course.

I know this list is missing a few of the more widely-accepted answers–Tony Soprano, Homer Simpson,  GOB Bluth–so feel free to argue your case in the comments.

Who’s your favorite tv character? Or give us your top 5!

In , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment


No Comments On "TV’s Top 5 Characters"

  1. whoorl

    Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock never fails to make me laugh hysterically.

    (I LOVE Tami Taylor too!)


  2. Marie Green

    My all-time favorites (in no particular order) are: Laura from LHOTP, Becca from “Life Goes On”, Julia from “Party of 5”, ALL of the Friends, and Kate from “LOST” (though I both loved and hated her character).

    I’m not very original, I know.


  3. Kerri Anne

    You have definitely inspired me to make my own list, though how I’m going to keep it to five, I have no idea.

    My number one?

    Probably Spike, from Buffy. Though, yeah, it could also definitely be Gob or Buster Bluth. Or, yeah. This is going to be really hard.

    (Also, I love! Nancy Botwin. She’s totally a hot mess, always, but a hilarious one.)


  4. Kerri Anne


    OK, I seriously can’t stop thinking about this.


  5. Dee

    Wesley Wyndham Pryce, Gaius Baltar, Logan Echolls, Emily Gilmore


  6. Leah

    This is long, so consider this official Smart Pop sanction for you all’s comments to get long, too. (And I was too wracked with indecision to even make it to 5!)

    1. Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    There were a lot of characters to love on Buffy, but for me, the title character was always the best. Every version of her was deeply compelling and painfully sympathetic– from stubbornly valley girl-esque high school slayer to destructive post-resurrection depressive, from her most charming and accessible to her least admirable, hardest, and most distant.

    2. Jack Bristow, Alias

    Jack may not have been the character I liked the most, or the one I was most enthusiastic about seeing when he came on screen, but he was always the most interesting. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more poignant backstory that was more exquisitely underplayed. And unlike other great Alias characters (Irina, I’m looking at you), the uneven final seasons never quite managed to erase or negate the razor’s-edge tension that made his character so great. Sloane was a greater tragic character, maybe, and a more fascinating psychological portrait. But Jack, despite not technically being a good *person*, was still somehow unarguably always a good guy. And I’ll take that kind of complexity over Sloane’s complicated villain any day.

    3. Lafayette Reynolds, True Blood

    Mostly, I just like the guy. Shrewd, unapologetic, fierce (not, in this instance, in the America’s Next Top Model way)– in a show where I’m fascinated, entertained, yet somewhat alienated by just about every other character, Lafayette is always a breath of fresh, straightforward air.

    4. Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars

    I’m a sucker for a good reinvention story. I love how prickly Veronica is, how smart and how focused, and how big her blind spots are. Season one of the show was far and away the best of the three, but I’m pretty sure I’d have happily watched Veronica snark through the phone book.

    Extra note: I feel like this list a) shows my age and b) says more than I would have expected about my personal television preferences.


  7. Kader

    In no particular order:

    Josh Lyman, The West Wing
    Special Agent Lundy, Dexter
    Keith Mars, Veronica Mars
    Hawkeye Pierce, MASH
    Oz, Buffy

    (I racked my brain to come up with a female character, but I couldn’t think of one who topped this list. Sad, eh?)


  8. Sarah in Ottawa

    Ooo – your list and those of the previous posters contain some of my favourites, including:

    1) Logan Echolls
    2) Veronica Mars herself
    3) Jack Bristow (spy daddy!)
    4) George Michael Bluth

    We’ve just started watching “The Wire” (so late to that party) and early in S2, I am LOVING Lester Freamon and Kima. I guess we’ll see how their characters pan out…


  9. Kevin Bachelder

    Trying to pick the top 5 of all time would be quite a task. Lots of room for debate there. :)

    If I narrow my focus to the past couple of years then one of my favorites is Walter Bishop from Fringe. John Noble has done a terrific job with that character. He’s given an Emmy caliber performance over the past two seasons. Fascinating stuff.


    • Leah

      You know, this makes me take my “no more poignant backstory” comment about Jack Bristow back– Walter definitely wins. And I agree, John Noble’s been pretty darn fantastic.


  10. Steph

    Oh, ok. This is going to get long.

    1. Fox Mulder, The X-Files

    Admittedly, this may be due to the special place The X-Files holds in my heart–it was the show than yanked me over the line from casual TV viewer to fangirl and I owe it that debt. But Mulder’s journey, at time heartbreaking, at times obsessively self-destructive, still resonates with me.

    2. Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    Unlike Leah (sorry, Leah!) I always found Willow far more fascinating from Buffy. Watching her transform from a shy, skittish outcast to her confident self was fascinating–and admittedly gave me, as a shy, skittish high schooler when the show started, a lot of hope.

    3. Toby Ziegler, The West Wing

    It would be easy here to say Josh, because who didn’t love him? But it was gruff, grumbling Toby that impressed me most as a character. And I love that they didn’t give into the temptation to soften him up in some sort of life-changing transformation.

    4. Kaylee Frye, Firefly

    What more can I say? She’s a perpetually cheery mechanic for a band of outlaws who still wants a layer cake of a dress. Even when hurt, she manages to keep her honest charm and cheer.

    5. Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica

    If you know me, this is pretty much a gimme. I love tough women who kick ass, but I especially have a soft spot for those where we also get a glimpse of what lies beneath the sharp exterior. Plus, come on. She flies Vipers in SPACE.


  11. Amy Berner

    This was tough! These are my five characters today, but tomorrow they could be totally different.

    In no particular order:

    Benjamin Linus
    Ben was such a brilliant enigma of a character. I hated him but couldn’t wait until the next time he would do something totally unexpected. I loved LOST from the pilot on, but Ben made it better. Just when you thought you knew where he stood, you found out that you actually didn’t have a clue. Any scene between Ben and Locke was pure gold.

    Willow Rosenberg
    Looking back on Buffy, I have to give Willow the gold star character-wise. Her transformation was slow and steady, and while I may have had trouble with the whole black-eyed badness storyline as a whole, she made as chilling of a villain as she did a charming BFF.

    Veronica Mars
    Gosh, I adored her. Smart, snarky, focused, resourceful, and one of the best heroines I’ve ever seen on television. Perfect? Heck no. But we wouldn’t care as much for her if she was.

    “Stephen Colbert”
    I love Colbert’s faux pundit. A lot. And what he gets away with as his alter-ego is amazing to me. Faux-Colbert is hysterical, but shines a mirror on the insanity that is cable pundit-dom, and I love watching him do it week after week.

    Fox Mulder
    The X-Files show was all about Mulder for me. Watching his obsession drive him and consume him was as fascinating as the aliens, government conspiracies and mutant chases.

    If I could increase to ten, I’d add Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Jack Bristow, Worf (especially in DS9), Bill Adama, and Hawkeye Pierce. I also considered Sue Sylvester and Donna Noble, but I went with characters that had more episode history.

    I also have a bit of a crush on Chuck Bartowski. But that’s an entirely different matter.


    • Leah

      Top 5 TV crushes: definitely a different list altogether.

      Jennifer, what do you think– next week?


  12. Diane

    Mine would be CJ Cregg, Veronica Mars, Lorelei Gilmore, George Costanza, and Brenda Leigh Johnson (of The Closer).

    Honourable mention: George Michael Bluth and shameful confession: I love Arrested development but I’m not a GOB fan. At all.


  13. Blythe

    -Andy Sipowicz, NYPD Blue
    -Angela Chase, My So-Called Life
    -Bill Haverchuk, Freaks & Geeks
    -Dana Whitaker, Sports Night
    -Sue Sylvester, Glee

    Can you tell I’m not watching much scripted television these days? And that I’m a sucker for snappy writing and misfits?

    I did not include characters that I still crush on so hard that I can’t really tell you if they are great characters, I just think they’re yummy. (See: Fox Mulder, Spike, Bobby Simone, Brian Krakow)


  14. orangehands

    1. Sam Winchester, Supernatural (special mention to Castiel)
    2. Dean Pelton, Community (special mention to Abed…and Jeff)
    3. Sheldon, Big Bang Theory
    4. Veronica, Better Off Ted
    5. Cameron, The Sarah Connor Chronicles


  15. orangehands

    Oh, and I totally adore the whole cast of West Wing, with special mention to CJ and Toby


  16. orangehands

    Oh, and Nancy Botwin. Best dysfunctional person on TV.

    I’ll stop now…


  17. orangehands

    Internet came back at home, making me want to add:

    – Brenda, from The Closer
    – Audrey from Haven (I can’t tell you how wonderful having a practical female lead is)
    – Yang, Grey’s Anatomy


  18. orangehands

    Oh yeah, and Alicia and Kalinda from The Good Wife


Stay Updated

on our daily essay, giveaways, and other special deals

Our Books

Subscribe via RSS