The characters are the backbone of a television series. Sure, the stories that are told and the setting of a series could be argued as the backbone of a series as well, but in all actuality, without good characters that the audience cares about and wants to see succeed, fail, live, die, love, hate, be a nice guy, or be a bastard, then the stories really won’t go anywhere. From that point, where the people are won’t make much of a difference. After all, a show like ‘M*A*S*H’ took place at a military camp during the Korean War. That’s not exactly a desirable place to tune in and watch every week. It was the characters, the jokes, and the stories that wove the two together that kept people coming back.
That leads me to this two-part miniseries column. In order to get the TV Pulse and my resurgence back into the TV writing off with a bang, I’m going to hit the viewing audience with a two part miniseries column that I had been thinking of doing for about a year now: Mr. Coogan’s Top 25 TV Characters of the last 25 years. This is especially true since I love watching television characters and the way they develop and change so much over the years of a program.
The gimmick is simple. I’ve combed the archives, both in various research sources and in my black hole of a brain, and pulled out my favorite 25 characters on television since the 1979. The year is only significant because it works with the title of the column. Anyway, here are the parameters I worked with when devising this all encompassing list:
** I’ve chosen to focus strictly on prime time television when making this list. This means no afternoon soap operas, no talk show hosts, no weekday afternoon or Saturday morning cartoons like Bugs, Daffy, Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Tom or Jerry.
** Taking that a step further, I’ve also decided to only focus on characters strictly made up by writers and producers. That means no reality or game show participants/contestants will be included in this list. Some smart asses could easily point out that the producers’ portrayals of people taking part in reality shows is grossly distorted for the purpose of telling a more interesting story and securing higher ratings. However, I still believe any person from ‘the Real World’ comes off a hell of a lot more ‘real’ than anyone on ‘The O.C.’ or ‘Friends.’
** Part of the title includes the phrase ‘of the last 25 years.’ To me, that means if the character in question was on prime-time television for any period after 1979, then it means they are fair game as part of this list. Even if the show debuted before 1979, if they were on in 1979, then they could easily be considered for this list. That won’t apply to very many of the characters, but the stipulation should be included to avoid confusion.
**Both cable and network television characters will be included in making this list. That means shows on HBO, FX, USA, and Showtime are fair game just as the ones on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox are.
**Recurring characters from variety/skit shows like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘In Living Color,’ and ‘MadTV’ are not eligible for this list. I say that in part because those characters have very little depth and are completely reliant on the jokes they tell and in part because I just don’t want to include them.
**Part I of this miniseries will run today and cover numbers 25-13. Part II will run in my normal Monday slot and cover numbers 12-1 with about a dozen ‘notable omissions’ following that. If I choose two characters from the same show to be on the list, I will group them together primarily because they play well off of each other and belong together.
And now for something completely different.
25. K.I.T.T. (Knight Industry’s Two Thousand)
(‘Knight Rider’ ‘ NBC ‘ 1982-86) ‘ Yes, I’m well aware that I’ve chosen a talking Pontiac Trans-Am as one of my top 25 TV characters of the last 25 years. However, despite the back story revolving around Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff), I always found him to be a dopey playboy and K.I.T.T. to be the more interesting character of the show. First, K.I.T.T. was essentially a superhero, being able to travel a high speeds, jump over impossible cliffs, and even absorb a hail of gunfire without ever getting dented or damaged in any way. That was cool enough as it was. Then, consider the fact that K.I.T.T. always had the sensibility of what to do and what not to do in a dangerous situation and was always the voice of reason when Michael Knight was about to do something completely stupid. The bottom line is even though I’m analyzing the performance of a car, I still found that car to be a lot more interesting than the guy driving it.
24. Judge Harold T. Stone
(‘Night Court’ ‘ NBC ‘ 1984-92) ‘ Some might consider Harry (Harry Anderson) to be too sweet and sappy for his own good. However, I always enjoyed two aspects of the character. First, he always acted as the childish practical joker that also tried to be happy, upbeat, and encourage that on the other people he worked with every night in court. That was pretty difficult considering the working conditions and the dredges of society they had to deal with, but Harry was always there smiling and trying to stay upbeat. Also, he always seemed to be the voice of reason in many cases. He softly and sweetly dispensed advice to the other characters on the show and always managed to make them feel better about one situation or another. He’s the kind of guy who we’d all love to have in our lives. Though, I’m not sure about that fascination with Mel Torme he had.
23. Parker Lewis
(‘Parker Lewis Can’t Lose’ ‘ Fox ‘ 1990-93) ‘ When I was a kid watching this show, I just thought Parker Lewis (Corin Nemec) was so damn cool … Modeled slightly after the John Hughes sensation Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
, it really turned into a model of that character and story, except on steroids. Everything was bigger, badder, and cooler than ‘Ferris Bueller’ was. Parker Lewis had cooler clothes (especially those shirts), two friends watching his back and not one, all the hottest girls wanting him like crazy on an obscenely regular basis. Hell, even his feud with the high school principal, Grace Musso (Melanie Chartoff) was cooler because she was the most gorgeous, yet the meanest, high school principal I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) from was mean, but also a bumbling idiot at the same time.
22. Dr. David Bruce Banner
(‘The Incredible Hulk ‘ CBS ‘ 1978-82) ‘ When I was a kid and this show was on, I was too scared to watch anything but the commercials. But as I got a little older, I realized the complexity of Dr. Banner (Bill Bixby) and his alter-ego, ‘The Incredible Hulk.’ Thanks to some good writing, it could be said that Dr. Banner was completely opposite from the beast he became when he got angry. He was kind, mild-mannered, and didn’t seek to harm mankind in the slightest with his work. Yet, despite his general demeanor, he wasn’t immune to losing his temper and getting mad despite not really having any desire to do so. I think the tagline we’re all familiar with sums up the character’s complexity pretty well: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”
21. Capt. Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce
(‘M*A*S*H’ ‘ CBS ‘ 1972-83) ‘ Here’s another example of a show that I never quite appreciated growing up and it took syndicated reruns for me to realize how great it really was. ‘M*A*S*H’ had a sterling ensemble cast that all played very well off of each other in their various roles, but I always liked ‘Hawkeye’ (Alan Alda) the best. Normally, I don’t like cocky guys, but that trait fit very well on Capt. Pierce. It allowed him to shine above the rest of the characters who seemed to be more mild-mannered in nature. He always had a comment, he always had a joke, and he always had a line showing how great he thought he was. For a military doctor performing surgeries during the Korean War, ‘Hawkeye’ was pretty cool. Yet, he wasn’t immune to an occasional mental or emotional lapse. It showed he wasn’t perfect and he knew he wasn’t perfect. That side of the character’s personality showed a real human element not often exhibited in other situation comedies. It certainly made the character (and the show) as interesting as it was funny.
(‘Law & Order’ ‘ NBC ‘ 1990-Present; “Law & Order: Trial by Jury – NBC -2005-) ‘ I readily acknowledge that including a character from a series like ‘Law & Order’ could be considered a questionable decision considering there is very little character development in the shows that focus on solving the crimes and ‘finding the guy that did it.’ While this may be true, I’ve still always enjoyed Jerry Orbach’s portrayal of Lennie Briscoe. The character is a no-nonsense, old school police detective that also takes that attitude and cracks one-liners with a mean, but witty and sarcastic delivery as well. Also, in a rare chance to see some character development, it was very interesting to see the character break down and weep when he discovered his daughter was murdered several seasons ago. Sadly, Orbach has taken the Briscoe character off ‘Law & Order’ making the show a little less fun for me to watch. Thankfully though, he’s not going too far. We’ll see Orbach reprise the character in NBC’s fourth ‘Law & Order’ installment ‘Trial by Jury,’ set to debut in midseason.
19. Tony Soprano
(‘The Sopranos’ ‘ HBO ‘ 1999-Present) ‘ This one is fairly obvious and probably on many people’s lists of top television characters. What I find most interesting about Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is the absolute hypocrisy he lives his life by. Most notably, Mr. Soprano follows in the long line of mob bosses who have many extra-curricular lovers outside of their existing ‘sacred’ marriage, yet when he became aware of Carmela’s (Edie Falco) affections for another man and the growing lack of affection for her husband, he became enraged and punched holes in the wall. It’s amazing that guys like this really expect to have the cozy family life while also banging other broads on the side. Also, I’ve always found it remarkable that guys like Tony use their ‘job’ (or life) as a mobster and provide a beautiful house, wonderful possessions, and an ivy-league education for their kids so they can get out of the life instead of recruiting them in. I guess it shouldn’t be that hard to believe since they don’t want their kids going to jail and throwing away their life. But how honest is it to use mob money to pay for your daughter to go to Columbia? The fact that Tony deals with these issues every day makes him all the more fascinating to me.
18. David Addison
(‘Moonlighting’ ‘ ABC ‘ 1985-89) ‘ This guy (Bruce Willis) was cool, calm, and collected; yet, he is a bit frazzled and crazy at the same time. He was a womanizer at times and in steady relationships at other times. He was remarkably endearing at times and at others just a pain in the ass to everyone. You just weren’t ever sure what you were going to get with this guy on a weekly basis. That’s what I found most intriguing about this character. He constantly kept all the other characters on the show and the viewing audience on their toes and interested with his unpredictability, yet also working some wonderfully reliable chemistry with ‘Maddie’ Hayes (Cybil Sheppard) always causing everyone to ask the question ‘ ‘Will they or won’t they get together?’
17. Det. Vic Mackey
(‘The Shield’ ‘ FX ‘ 2002-Present) ‘ The more I think about it, the more I realize Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and Tony Soprano are alike in many ways. Most notably, they play by their own rules and use their power in just about any way they like. They have some good in their hearts and greatly desire to take care of their families, yet don’t care who they hurt to make that happen. Mackey is on that growing list of characters that viewers don’t know if they will go good, bad, or somewhere in between and it makes for extremely compelling television. He seeks to get the bad guys but certainly doesn’t mind taking their money in the process. After all, it might help his family out. He’s not exactly the nicest guy in the world, but he’s certainly appealing to pay attention to. You don’t know what he’s going to do next.
16. Dorothy (Petrillo) Zbornak
(‘The Golden Girls’ ‘ NBC ‘ 1985-92) ‘ One of the few women who will make this list, Dorothy (Bea Arthur) was always there for a ridiculously random, yet funny, one-liner that still make me laugh out loud when I see the show in syndication today. She was very smart and sensible and didn’t mind showing the other ladies in the house that with witty commentary that left her victim staring blankly into thin air wondering what hit her. She wasn’t necessarily the prettiest or the sexiest, but I certainly liked her the most because she’s the one that made me laugh the most.
15. Eric Cartman
(‘South Park’ ‘ Comedy Central ‘ 1997-Present) ‘ I’m not sure if it’s great writing or really bad writing, but Cartman can either be by far the smartest character in a given episode or the dumbest who has no idea what the hell is going on. Again, the unpredictability of a character reigns supreme in securing my attention and interest. However, all the characters have a sense of unpredictability and that’s part of what makes the show so enjoyable (oh yeah, the jokes are usually funny too …). Cartman is the most brash and cocky of the four kids (if you include Kenny and discount secondary characters like Butters) and he doesn’t mind telling people to f*** off. Normally, that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to me. But considering he acts like an adult that (generally) doesn’t give a s*** about what others think of him (except about his weight) and is only nine-years-old, it never ceases to amaze me
14. Dr. Christian Troy
and 13. Dr. Sean McNamara
(‘Nip/Tuck’ ‘ FX ‘ 2003-Present) ‘ One is the womanizing playboy completely unable to love and trust any other people, related or not. The other tries desperately to find love with the opposite sex, love his children, and use their positions as plastic surgeons to do some good in the world. Remarkably, Dr. Troy (Julian McMahon) and Dr. McNamara (Dylan Walsh) have played both roles since ‘Nip/Tuck’s’ debut in the summer of 2003. It was evident in the first five minutes of the series premiere when Dr. Troy snorted cocaine off the small of a woman’s back while getting her from behind and Dr. McNamara struggled with another love making session with his wife (Joely Richardson) exactly who fit which role. However, at the end of last season and the first half of this season, the roles have completely switched after Dr. Troy discovered he was (supposedly) going to be a father with one of his many partners and when Dr. McNamara realized that his teenage son was not his, but the product of his wife’s affair with … Dr. Troy. Now, Dr. McNamara is starting risky relationships and Dr. Troy is the one looking for love. It’s quite a metamorphosis and I’m completely hooked. ‘Nip/Tuck’ relies on shock value when telling stories but that doesn’t mean the character development is poor. In fact, it’s quite good and that’s why they rank so high on this list.
Part II will be electronically published on Monday, 9/13.