Murphy’s Law – The 25 Most Memorable TV Characters of the Decade

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

I have always been hesitant to do a list column.

Ultimately, no matter how much thought or effort you put into compiling a list, people will tear it apart and tell you just how wrong you are. At the end of the day, these types of lists are nothing more than one person’s opinion and, well, you know what they say about opinions …

Still, for some reason, I felt compelled to come up with a list of the 25 Most Memorable TV Characters of the Decade. The idea popped into my head and just wouldn’t go away. So I got some feedback from my friends and fellow pop culture junkies, then set about the difficult task of compiling a list.

While I did get feedback from others, ultimately these are just one man’s opinion and I know that in the end I left off some great characters. I’m really happy with how this turned out, but feel free to leave me a comment telling me just how wrong I actually am …

25. Kenny Powers, Eastbound and Down

“Instantly I regret saying that, that was a horrible thing to say. It’s just, I’m Kenny Powers, and I’m very upset right with how I’m acting right now! I just have a very hard time expressing my emotions, and I can’t stop from yelling! So I am very sorry, I don’t mean to offend you Wayne, you have fucking pissed me off, but I’m just very upset right now. So I’m gonna go ahead and go, but I’m not gonna stop yelling, because then that’ll mean I lost the fight!”

Calling Powers an anti-hero would be an understatement – he’s an abrasive, xenophobic, over-the-hill baseball player who spends his days permanently scarring America’s youth. There is nothing redeeming about Danny McBride’s John Rocker-esque character … and yet he’s still somehow charming and likeable.

24. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords

Bret: That’s definitely a bit gay.

Jemaine: What is?

Bret: Putting a wig on me while I’m asleep.

Jemaine: I think, sometimes you hear what you wanna hear. It wouldn’t be gay to put a wig on a man and pretend they’re a woman. How could that be gay if you’re pretending they’re a woman? Not that I did it.

Their HBO show was the perfect venue for this New Zealand folk comedy duo to showcase their unique brand of humor and it made them huge stars in America. And, let’s be honest, they are a package deal – which is why they share the number 24 spot.

23. Al Swearengen, Deadwood

“Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man … and give some back.”

Even if you have never seen an episode of Deadwood, when you picture the HBO series, chances are the first character that comes to mind is Al Swearengen. Running Deadwood from the comfort of The Gem Saloon, he was as integral to the show as the word “cocksucker”.

22. Tobias Fünke, Arrested Development

“Well, I’ve always wanted to remake Annie Hall. Except, I wouldn’t want to get in bed with a green producer like a Sofia Coppola though. Oh, but give me an old pro like a Robert Redford. Oh, I’d jump into bed with him in a second. And I wouldn’t just lie there, Michael Bluth, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Tobias Fünke – the most oblivious man on the planet. While any member of the brilliant Arrested Development ensemble cast could have made this list, Tobias gets the nod for giving us so many memorable moments – including his stint in prison, the time he blue himself and his memorable run as Mrs. Featherbottom.

21. Gil Grissom, CSI

“I tend not to believe people. People lie. The evidence doesn’t lie.”

Turning forensic science into a compelling primetime drama is no easy feat, but thanks largely to William Petersen’s performance, CSI became a hit that spawned two spin-offs. The show may live on without him, but let’s be honest – it will never be the same.

The Five Most Polarizing Characters

When coming up with the list of the best characters, the idea popped into my head to also include the five most polarizing characters. So what follows are five people that you either love or hate, but either way, chances are you have an opinion on them …

5. Vince McMahon, WWE Monday Night Raw

Say what you will about pro wrestling, but it remains one of the highest rated programs on cable week after week. And the main reason for that is Vince McMahon, the brainchild behind the WWE, who is so polarizing that even the most diehard fans go back and forth between cheering him and wishing harm upon him.

4. Dwight Schrute, The Office

Thanks to inconsistent writing, Dwight goes back and forth between being great comic relief and an over-the-top annoying cartoon character. Michael Scott could have easily made this list as well, but somehow Steve Carell manages to keep him mostly likeable in spite of the writers.

3. Kate Austen, Lost

If I had a nickel for every time Kate either got captured by The Others or flip flopped on whether she wanted Jack or Sawyer, I’d have enough change to create my own Scrooge McDuck money vault swimming pool.

2. Dr. Jack Shephard, Lost

Jack Shephard was supposed to die during the pilot of Lost, but his death was too upsetting for people to handle. Something tells me that after being overloaded with Jack episodes, many fans wouldn’t be too sad to see Dr. Shephard kick the bucket these days. Even though he remains an important part of Lost and a compelling character, the writers forcing us to watch an entire episode devoted to his tattoos in season three may have done irreversible damage.

1. Carmela Soprano, The Sopranos

At times, Carmela was a sympathetic character, but more often than not, her complaints about Tony’s chosen profession came off as hypocritical since she was always too attached to the money to ever truly take a stand against mob life.

20. River Tam, Firefly

“Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics – doesn’t make sense … So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden … Noah’s ark is a problem … We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of mammal on the same boat.”

Brilliant, indestructible and batshit crazy. River Tam was such a great character that after Firefly was canceled, Fox essentially tried to recreate her on The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

19. Jimmy McNulty, The Wire

“What the fuck did I do?”

Jimmy McNulty is a brilliant detective, but his alcoholism, womanizing and smug sense of superiority keep him from ever really getting ahead in life. He’s incredibly fun to watch, but the one thing keeping him from landing higher on the list is that in season four, the writers went out of their way to show that The Wire was just as compelling without him in it.

18. Nancy Botwin, Weeds

“I’m not a dealer; I’m a mother who happens to distribute illegal products through a sham bakery set up by my ethically questionable CPA and his crooked lawyer friend.”

A single mom turned drug dealer who living by her own warped code, who leaves a trail of destruction in her wake. What’s not to love?

17. Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly

“They tell you never hit a man with a closed fist, but it is on occasion hilarious.”

As the wise-cracking, selfish (but ultimately possessing a heart of gold) captain of Serenity and former soldier on the losing end of a galactic war, Malcolm Reynolds is a modern-day Han Solo. The show may have been short-lived, but much like his castmate Summer Glau, people liked Nathan Fillion’s performance so much that they took his personality and gave it to the title character on Castle.

16. Adrian Monk, Monk

“Snakes trump heights. It goes germs, needles, milk, death, snakes, mushrooms, heights, crowds, elevators …”

The defective detective. He’s cheap, curmudgeonly and has more phobias than your average shut-in, but he also has the most brilliant analytical mind since Sherlock Holmes (the original one, not the drunken, bad ass Robert Downey Jr. version). The show did a brilliant job mixing comedy, suspense and genuine heartache and it finally gave Tony Shalhoub a chance to show that he is capable of playing more than just a zany cab driver.

15. Chuck Bartowski, Chuck

“No shooting, no shooting! I’m susceptible to bullets!”

Unfortunately, once again Adam Baldwin gets shafted in favor of one of his castmates (he could have easily made this list for his portrayal of either Jayne Cobb or Colonel John Casey), but Chuck Bartowski is the title character and he is the glue that holds this highly enjoyable spy comedy together, so he gets the nod.

14. Shawn Spencer and Burton ‘Gus’ Guster, Psych

Burton ‘Gus’ Guster: What part of “stay put” is confusing to you?

Shawn Spencer: The “put” part. I wasn’t “put” in the first place, Gus. The whole expression is a complete disaster.

The two halves of the highly-respected sham psychic detective agency are, without a doubt, the best comedy duo on television today. They have perfected the art of witty banter to the point where watching them interact with each other is more compelling than the actual cases they are working on.

13. Dr. Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory

“That’s a false equivalency, more does not equal merry. If there were two thousand people in this apartment, would we be celebrating? No, we’d be suffocating.”

He’s egotistical. He’s stubborn. He lacks social skills. He’s quirky to the point of ridiculousness. But dammit, he’s funny.

12. Tommy Gavin, Rescue Me

“This is way, way more bad boy than you’ll ever be able to handle. So do yourself a favor. Go blow a drummer.”

There’s something about Gavin that makes it impossible for audiences to not love him. Even when he’s in full-on self-destruct mode and he’s drinking himself into a complete stupor, you can’t help but root for him. He’s your state-of-the-art, hockey-playing, blue-collar Irish Catholic firefighting smart ass who starts as many fires as he puts out. What more do you need to know?

11. David Palmer, 24

“Let’s skip the sound bytes and cut straight to the chase.”

After all, the man paved the way for Obama to get elected.

10. Dr. Gregory House, House

“I teach you to lie, cheat and steal, and as soon as my back’s turned you wait in line?”

House isn’t exactly a people person. He’s an addict who insults, uses and belittles those around him. He sees his medical patients as nothing more than puzzles needing to be solved. However, he is without a doubt the guy you want treating you if your life is in danger.

9. Don Draper, Mad Men

“The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”

Don Draper is truly a man of his time. He’s a womanizer who drinks and chain smokes his way through life as an ad man on Madison Avenue, living in a time when these traits were considered positive attributes. His entire life is a lie and he is constantly on the verge of tumbling over the edge, which is why you can’t stop watching him.

8. Gemma Teller-Morrow, Sons of Anarchy

“You think… you think God forgives you for doing bad things? I – I mean like really … bad shit.”

On a show full of bad ass bikers, you don’t expect the one who really calls the shots to be a sassy redhead best known for playing Peg Bundy. But Katey Sagal turns in a fantastic performance week after week as the matriarch and true powerhouse of the Sons of Anarchy. Sagal gets another shout out for also doing a phenomenal job playing the love interest of our next character …

7. John Locke, Lost

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

At the start of Lost, John Locke is broken in every sense of the word – his parents abandoned, then betrayed him, he lost his one true love and he was confined to a wheelchair after being brutally attacked. When he crash landed on the island, he became the quintessential man of faith. He’s had a few moments of doubt, but his faith in the island remains strong. We have one season left to find out if his trust was ultimately in vain, but either way, it’s been an incredibly entertaining ride.

6. Dexter Morgan, Dexter

“Harry and Dorris Morgan did a wonderful job raising me. But they’re both dead now. I didn’t kill them. Honest.”

Making your protagonist a cold, emotionless monster who kills for sport isn’t exactly an easy sell, but the creative forces behind Dexter have found a way to make you root for a serial killer. For that reason alone, he earns the number six spot.

5. Jack Bauer, 24

“I have killed two people since midnight. I haven’t slept in over 24 hours. So maybe you should be a little more afraid of me than you are now.”

If Bush and Cheney really wanted to convince the American public that torture was okay, they should have forced every man, woman and child to watch Jack Bauer in action. The man doesn’t eat, sleep or go to the bathroom – he simply spends 24 hours a day kicking terrorists asses … and we love him for it.

4. Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother

“You know who is confused? Bimbos. They’re easily confused. It’s one of the thousand little things I love about them. I love their vacant, trusting stares; their sluggish, unencumbered minds; their unresolved daddy issues. I love them Lily, and they love me. Bimbos have always been there for me, through thick and thin — mostly thin. B-man don’t do thick crust, what up!”

Long gone are the days when Neil Patrick Harris was known as “that guy who used to play Doogie Howser.” Harris has completely reinvented himself as Barney Stinson, the smooth ladies man who loves scoring with bimbos almost as much as he loves laser tag. His performance isn’t just enjoyable, it’s legen – wait for it – dary.

3. Ben Linus, Lost

“Of course, if I was one of them – these people that you seem to think are your enemies – what would I do? Well, there’d be no balloon, so I’d draw a map to a real secluded place like a cave or some underbrush – good place for a trap – an ambush. And when your friends got there a bunch of my people would be waiting for them. Then they’d use them to trade for me. I guess it’s a good thing I’m not one of them, huh? … You guys got any milk?”

Week after week, Michael Emerson puts on an acting clinic on Lost. It’s impossible to keep your eyes off of him. His slightest inflections and subtle gestures convey so much, adding a whole other dimension to the character. It also helps that the writers of Lost have given him so much to work with, making Ben such a rich and complex character.

2. Omar Little, The Wire

“Come at the king, you best not miss.”

Omar was an openly gay stick up artist who robbed drug dealers. He was typically seen chain smoking, carrying a shotgun and whistling “The Farmer and the Dell,” but deep down, he really wanted nothing more than to eat a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios on a quiet beach somewhere with Renaldo. Not only was the character a joy to watch, he also did a lot to help combat gay stereotype and some believe that he may have helped create more tolerance for homosexuals on the streets and in professional sports, which is no easy feat.

1. Tony Soprano, The Sopranos

“There’s nothing more useless than an unloaded gun.”

The Sopranos is unquestionably the show that made HBO what it is today and paved the way for the renaissance of quality programming on cable. Chances are, shows like Rescue Me and Mad Men never would have seen the light of day if not for the groundbreaking HBO show. The reason the show was so successful was because of Tony Soprano. Like Michael Emerson, James Gandolfini turned in an absolutely captivating performance week after week. While the ending of the show will forever live in infamy, the fact that people were so upset with how it wrapped up goes to show just how invested in the life of Tony Soprano we all were.

Honorable mentions - Sawyer (Lost), Stewie and Brian Griffin (Family Guy), Vic Mackey (The Shield)

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com.

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