By: James Smith
For fans of television, there’s never been a better time to be alive. While the movies are flailing in the new world of digital distribution, TV shows are experiencing a golden age. It’s one of the rare instances where it’s entirely valid to look at the past and present of a medium and say definitively that, on the whole, right now is when the quality of the product is higher than it’s ever been. Knowing that, we got to thinking about how many great characters there are out there. Here are the best of the best:
Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones
There’s a lot to love about Game of Thrones: its lavish sets and costumes, its epic plotline, and its willingness to offer as much nudity as possible have all combined to make it one of the most popular series on television. The cynical, sharp-tongued soul of the series, however, is Tyrion Lannister, brilliantly portrayed by Peter Dinklage, an acerbic dwarf who has long since learned that the most important thing is to watch out for himself. He isn’t noble or brave or even particularly ambitious, but he knows how to survive -- and he’s the only character in the series with the self-awareness to realize how small their struggles are.
Walter White, Breaking Bad
Making Breaking Bad, a show about a high school science teacher who turns to cooking meth when he discovers that he has cancer, function required someone who could make its central character both interesting and convincing. Bryan Cranston has taken that challenge and gone beyond it, crafting one of the most complex and tragic figures in the history of television. The journey of Walter White, from sympathetic, mild-mannered good guy who’s just trying to help out his family to power-addicted killer, has been mesmerizing almost from the first moment.
Don Draper, Mad Men
If not for Cranston blocking his way, Jon Hamm might have four Emmys to go along with his Golden Globe, but the lack of awards does nothing to change the fact that, in terms of pure charisma, no one on television beats Don Draper. Draper, the enigmatic executive with a dark past who stands at the heart of Mad Men’s deconstruction of the 1960's advertising world, has come a long way from the smooth-talking adulterer that he appeared to be, but the constant has been the darkness lying under his increasingly-cracked suave exterior. His best days may be behind him, but it’s possible that no character in the history of television has so perfectly exemplified all the aspiration of the American dream -- while exposing its dark side so brilliantly.
Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon, 30 Rock
Dramatic characters don’t have a monopoly on all the greatness going on in television, of course. It feels a little cheap to include a duo on the list, but neither of these characters makes sense without the other: Alec Baldwin’s Donaghy, the suave, successful arch-conservative businessman with a taste for Scotch and Reaganomics, finds his perfect foil in Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, the schlubby, nerdy TV writer that he tries to take under his wing. The pair’s best days may be behind them at this point, but they’ve been the brightest light of television comedy for years now -- and their unlikely friendship has proved fodder for what feels like thousands of brilliant one-liners.
Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation
Somehow one of the most endearing and frustrating characters on television, Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, is the Deputy Director of Pawnee, Indiana’s Parks and Recreation Department, but has her high on a much higher calling: President of the United States. Until she gets there, though, she staunchly pursues the well-being of the residents of Pawnee, and her enthusiasm for her management job at the Parks and Rec department is simultaneously her best characteristic and a patent absurdity. Like Michael Scott before her, she’s the rare character that can find hilarity among the boring in-and-out of daily life -- and she does it all the time.