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Favorite television characters of all time

I love me some television characters, but who are my five most favorite of all time? Who are your five favorite characters of all time?


You guys know characters are my thing, so when I saw Jennifer Canzoneri over at Smart Pop Books had listed her five favorite television characters of all time, it got me thinking about mine. Keep in mind, though, that I’m still a relatively young guy, so my television history starts sometime in the early ER days. Also, I like what I like, so shut up about Mad Men. I’d like to say that my top five is listed in no particular order, but that would be a lie. There’s a number one, and then there are four other awesome characters.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel
I’ve talked about how much I like ole’ Wes before. The defining characteristic of a developed character are the distinguished, well-reasoned changes they experience. When you can chart the growth of a character over more than five seasons, you really have a chance to see a great deal of change (Or, not … Angel pretty much was the same vampire all eight or so seasons he was around). In Wes’s case, I think “mature” is a better word than “grow,” as he walked down a pretty dark path.

Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars
A long time ago, I used to be friends with Veronica Mars. I was actually a bit late to the Mars bandwagon, but hitching on was pretty much one of the best television decisions I’d ever made. Veronica was about as quick witted and sassy as they come. As much as people bash the second and (especially) the third seasons, I liked them still because the characters were the same, even if their lives weren’t.

John Carter, ER
The other classic (well, Ivey-classic) definition of watching a character change over the course of time is the venerable Dr. Carter of Cook County Hospital. I’ve actually argued before that when you look at the whole of ER, the defining story is watching Carter grow up from the child we met in the pilot to the man showing Rachel Green around the ER in “And in the End…” I’m not sure when I began to love the doc, but by the time the season four episode “Exodus” had aired, I knew he was the kind of guy I wanted to be.

Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Battlestar Galactica
Most of the characters on this list are broken in some way or the other, but none no more so than Starbuck. From moment one on Ronald D. Moore‘s re-imagination of the original series, we knew that Thrace was about as screwed up as one can be (though, to be honest, Tigh had it coming). During the course of the series, things only got worse, from living in captivity with Leoben to, you know, dying, and yet Starbuck endured.

Mr. Number One should be no surprise, considering the picture, but:

Josh Lyman, The West Wing
If I wanted to be John Carter when I was younger, I think I’ve become Josh Lyman. As viewers of The West Wing know, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Josh was incredibly brilliant, but stepped in it as much as he ever got things right. I love his passion, I love his determination. I’d like to say that Josh, too, grew over the seven seasons of The West Wing, but not as much as some of the other characters on this list. He just learned how not to let himself get the best of himself. Josh was awesome at his best, and at his worst.

If you’ve not checked out Smart Pop Books before, they’ve got some outstanding collections of essays about a variety of television, film, and comic properties. I definitely suggest Seven Seasons of Buffy, and the essay exploring who the most powerful character on the show was. It is not who you’d think.

Photo Credit: NBC

34 Responses to “Favorite television characters of all time”

September 15, 2010 at 2:29 PM

“As much as people bash the second and (especially) the third seasons, I liked them still because the characters were the same, even if their lives weren’t.”

And that’s why I HATE the third season, they were no longer the same characters! Veronica Mars went from being a smart and sassy and strong teen girl to this CW cliche of “dumb blond”. That’s why I hate the third season, Veronica Mars wasn’t Veronica Mars anymore. Plus the season really had no point other than killing off every secondary character they had around.

September 15, 2010 at 5:24 PM

Agree to disagree. Was S3 the quality of S1? No. Was it still better than most of was on tv? Yes.

September 15, 2010 at 2:29 PM

And people think my post on Best TV Duos is too broad! ;)

This will take me while… I can’t even narrow down my top 5 favorite Star Trek characters.

September 15, 2010 at 2:34 PM

Great list! Funny enough, when I re-watched the third season of Veronica Mars recently, I thought it was much better than I originally thought. Not sure why or how time affected things, but it was smarter and quicker than I remembered.

September 15, 2010 at 2:38 PM

Sydney Bristow – Alias. Hands down.

September 15, 2010 at 3:00 PM

She did wear a lot of disguises, so she counts as five. LOL

September 15, 2010 at 2:52 PM

I’m with you on Wesley from Buffy/Angel. I found Kara Thrace the most annoying part of BSG, though. And from West Wing, I’d probably pick Toby, Sam, C.J., Leo, and Bartlet before Josh.

Let me extend your list back a few more decades. Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels) from “St. Elsewhere” was a fascinating character, one whose personality got deeper over the course of the series. I’d also throw in another doctor, Dr. Jeffrey Geiger (Mandy Patinkin) from “Chicago Hope”. Not fully crazy, not completely sane, incredibly talented and devoted. Just two of my all-time favorites, off the top of my head.

September 15, 2010 at 2:55 PM

I think spots 1 through 3 would have to go to Al Swearengen, 4 to Dale Cooper, and I’m still undecided on spot number 5. Though Omar Little would be a serious contender.

September 15, 2010 at 4:12 PM

Dear God Ivey. I’ve been alive too long to make this meaningful. But, off the top of my head comes…(in no particular order)

Jaime Somers
Fox Mulder
Nate Fisher
Reva Shayne (Yes, I’m tossing in a Guiding Light soap character)
Buffy Summers/Veronica Mars in a tie

September 15, 2010 at 4:14 PM

This is just wrong. I would pick whole shows. I want to pick ensembles. Bob picked lone wolfs who have strong characters on their own without needing peole to play off of but I just don’t want to pick like that. I want to chose groups who are great because they have a group dynamic where the whole is bigger and better than the single character.

But since you made the rules:

1. Sisko
2. O’Neill
3. Spike
4. Pacey
5. Frasier

+ anyone from “Six Feet Under”

Like I said I’d pick shows.

September 15, 2010 at 4:45 PM

Spike and Pacey were right up there on my list. It was very difficult to leave them off.

September 15, 2010 at 4:54 PM

I had to leave Buffy off (and Willow – I would’ve picked her because I’m in love with Alyson Hannigan, especially because of how great she played relationships on the show – first with Xander and then with Tara and that reason is a little embarassing ;-) )

September 15, 2010 at 4:25 PM

Vic Mackey
Dean Winchester
Veronica Mars
Matt Saracen
Barney Stinson

Honorable mention to Zack Morris

September 15, 2010 at 5:35 PM

Wesley is my favorite character arc I’ve seen, but my all time favorite character has to be Dean Winchester. I can listen to his quips and watch his Blue Steel model face no matter what mood I’m in.

Also on my list are Veronica Mars and Chuck from Gossip Girl.

September 15, 2010 at 10:19 PM

You know, I didn’t even think of Chuck. He probably wouldn’t have made my top five, but he’d have to be in my top ten. Like I said, I need my characters to change, and I don’t think, at least not yet, Chuck has truly changed enough to throw him over the top.

September 15, 2010 at 6:08 PM

Ivey, I really envy you with the “relatively young” point in life here. While, I am not an old man (by baby boomer standards!), you can be sure that I was around to see countless shows come and go before you were born. My list:

Sharon (BSG)
Boomer (BSG)
Gil Favor (Rawhide)
James Kirk (Star Trek)
Luke McCain (The Rifleman)

Thank you Ivey, for such a fun post.

September 15, 2010 at 10:18 PM

Come on, Tim-1, I’m sure there was at least one more iteration of Boomer you could have fit on that list :)

September 15, 2010 at 7:26 PM

These is a hard, but here we go:
– Fox Mulder
– Sidney Bristow
– Dean Winchester
– Barney Stinson
– Max Guevara (Dark Angel)

September 15, 2010 at 10:22 PM

Folks, I loved Alias as much as the next guy, and am a huge Jennifer Garner fan, but I don’t have nearly as much love for Sydney as you guys do. I don’t even think she was in the top three of characters on her own show! Both Sloan and Jack I think were so much more interesting.

Sydney wasn’t nearly a complex character as a character living in a complex world.

September 16, 2010 at 8:00 AM

I still want to be Arvin Sloan when I grow up.

September 16, 2010 at 12:33 PM

But when I watch things like the “Nikita” pilot, I realize what a special find ABC had in Jennifer Garner. She really did kick some serious ass.

September 16, 2010 at 3:19 PM

I haven’t seen episode two yet, but why am afraid that Lyndsy Fonseca will, as you say, “carry the emotional weight” of the show. Nothing against Maggie Q, but I just don’t think she was the right choice there.

September 16, 2010 at 12:46 PM

There is no way Alias would have made it past the first few episodes without Jennifer Garner. No one else could have handled the emotional weight as well as she did. She made that show, and even though she never won, having been nominated for Best Actress in a Drama at the Emmys four years straight proves her peers thought so too.

I agree Jack and Sloane were both very strong characters, but only because of the insane chemistry they had with JG. Sydney Bristow is the ruler by which all butt-kicking-babes will be measured.

September 16, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Buffy could have kicked her ass. ;-)

September 16, 2010 at 2:38 PM

Note that the name of the post isn’t “My Five Favorite Actors” on television, but the characters themselves. As much as I love Garner, I’m sorry, Sydney was not a complex character.

There’s a distinction between a great performance and a great character.

September 16, 2010 at 2:47 PM

We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one. :-)

September 16, 2010 at 3:11 PM

Plus you didn’t say anything about complexity. You asked “Who are your five favorite characters of all time?” My top pick remains Sydney Bristow. :-P

WHoleheartedly agree with Veronica Mars making this list though.

September 16, 2010 at 3:17 PM

All I am asking is for a reason why Sydney is a great character that has nothing to do with how good Jennifer Garner is.

And yes, complexity is key. I don’t like simple characters. What’s the fun in that?

“The defining characteristic of a developed character are the distinguished, well-reasoned changes they experience.”

http://cliqueclack.com/tv/2009/05/28/hawkeye-pierce-dr-john-carter-joshua-lyman-its-the-characters-stupid/

September 16, 2010 at 3:52 PM

I must have misunderstood the question you posed when you asked who “my” favorite television character is. I’m not saying she has to be yours, so I’m a little perplexed at why I have to justify it. If you hadn’t asked for opinions, I wouldn’t have commented.

But if you just can’t stand it – Here’s a woman who’s mother supposedly died when she was very young, she’s estranged from her father, grew up practically alone without any real love in her life, yet still managed to make it all the way through graduate school, even while for seven years working as a covert operative, and managed to grow up a strong, emotional, relatively normal woman with a great sense of humor. She speaks 25 different languages, has a photographic memory, slips in and out of inumerable aliases of varying complexities with incredible ease, and has incomparable self-defense skills. When she found out she had been duped by SD-6, she put all her energies into the very dangerous decision to become a double agent hell-bent on taking them down. Her conception and birth were calculated and considered “collateral damage,” her father brainwashed her into a life of espionage, her mother was a Russian spy who tried on more than one occasion to kill her, as did both of her aunts; her fiance, best friend and sister were murdered by a man she once considered an uncle, she was kidnapped for two years, forced to be a mercenary, had her eggs stolen, was tortured, beaten, manipulated, used and betrayed on multiple occasions.

Through all the turmoil she encountered in her life, she remained a strong, powerful yet sensitive, optimistic, loving, caring, focused, moral individual. She always fought for what she believed was right, and made sacrifices for the greater good. She maintained belief in the power of family, and friendship, forgiving her father, her mother, her sister, her lover, her friends (and in some cases even her enemies), over and over again, even when they did not deserve her forgiveness. The idea of a stable home life never left her long distance sight. Eventually she was able to leave the spy game behind, for the most part, and settle down with her husband, Vaughn (Sydney and Jack faked his death, and hid him away to keep him safe) and their two children, Isabelle and Jack.

Complex situations, absolutely. But it takes an equally complex individual to compartmentalize that and still be able to get out of bed in the morning even somewhat functional.

Again – this is MY opinion. You don’t have to agree. :-)

September 16, 2010 at 10:41 AM

Tough call here. There have been so many great characters to whom I’ve become attached. Here are the 5 I can think of right now:

Charlie Pace, Lost – Charlie’s first episode, “The Moth”, particularly the flashbacks therein, was where I really got hooked on the show (and I’ve since decided it’s my favorite show ever). Since then, every Charlie episode ranked among my favorites, with the character’s crowning achievement being “Greatest Hits”. I loved the story of him and his brother, and sympathized with the way he constantly felt like he wasn’t good enough. I was devastated when they killed him off in Season 3, but it was one of those great television moments that have an emotional impact. Plus, it made it that much better when they brought him back in the final season. (While I’m on LOST, John Locke deserves an honorable mention as my second-favorite character from the show.)

William Adama, Battlestar Galactica (reimagined) – There are a lot of great characters on this show, and I’ve always said Karl Agathon (Helo) was my favorite, but after I finished watching the series for the second time, I recognize that while I admire Helo, he’s not a terribly complex character. Adama is something else. Always willing to make the tough call, be the leader and not the friend, and do what he believes is the right thing when he has to, Adama earned the respect of just about everybody in the fleet. But it takes its toll on him sometimes, and it’s in those moments of emotional breakdown, of turmoil with his son Lee and on-again, off-again adopted daughter Kara Thrace, that we see a character who’s very human and vulnerable. It’s the interesting three-dimensional nature of Adama that appeals to me and earns him a spot on my list.

Omar Little, The Wire – President Obama listed Omar as his favorite character on television, and I think he was onto something. Omar is one of the few people on the street with a moral code, and as a homosexual he stands out in more ways than one. He feels the pain of The Game, but recognizes there’s nothing he can do but try to carve out his own piece by robbing the dealers and protecting/avenging the people he cares about. I wish Omar could have had a happy ending on the show, but as in real life, that’s extremely rare for people in his line of work. (Honorable mention to Bubbles, who did get a happy ending after a lot of heartache along the way.)

Edward Jeremy Stevens, Ed – I loved this NBC series, and I couldn’t get enough of Tom Cavanagh in the title role. He simultaneously cracked me up (along with his friend Mike, constantly making absurd $10 dares that never failed to amuse) and inspired me by fighting for what was right in court and in life. His circle of friends on this show made it excellent, but it was Ed that made everything hit home. With all the absurdity of the side characters, the show always rang true because of him. I was really glad that he got his dream girl (Carol Vessey, played by Julie Bowen) in the end, and lived as happily ever after as real life allows.

Alan Shore, The Practice/Boston Legal – I couldn’t possibly leave the man I’ve referred to as my TV hero off the list. Alan Shore is not perfect – he’s an admitted womanizer with psychosexual issues, deep fears, and a tendency to be petty in going after his enemies. At the same time, he has an amazing friendship with Denny Crane, a compassionate spirit, an incredibly sharp intellect, and most importantly, a willingness to fight tooth and nail for justice (which he recognizes is not always in accordance with the law). I like Shore when he’s being good, and I like him when he’s being bad. I could watch James Spader in this role for decades.

MORE HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Logan Echolls, Veronica Mars
Angel, BtVS/Angel
Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, BtVS/Angel
Gregory House, House
Patrick Jane, The Mentalist
Charlie Kelly, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Special Agent Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks
Jonathan Levinson, BtVS
The Middleman, Middleman

As you can see, it was hard to limit myself. So many great characters over the years. I could easily come up with another 20 or more that I loved.

September 16, 2010 at 11:07 AM

Dr. Miguelito Loveless (The Wild, Wild West)
Buddy Sorrell (The Dick Van Dyke Show)
Lt. Columbo
Bret Maverick
Number Two – as played by Leo McKern (The Prisoner)

September 16, 2010 at 11:22 AM

I second The Middleman love. How did I forget him in my earlier post? I’ll add Jay from Wonderfalls and Olive from Pushing Daisies.

I need to stop loving canceled shows.

September 16, 2010 at 2:36 PM

1. Captain Mal “Tightpants” Reynolds – Firefly/Serenity
2. Dean Winchester – Supernatural
3. Spike – Buffy/Angel
4. Veronica Mars
5. Coach Eric Taylor – Friday Night Lights

September 16, 2010 at 3:21 PM

Taylor was a tough “leave-off” for my list, too. I’m a big #FNL fan. In the end, though, I think that Taylor, and #FNL in general, is a whole lot about the writing and the incredible performances than it is the characters in specific.

Man, though, I love that show :)

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