Ladies and Gentleman I am back with my pop culture Top 10 lists and wanted to dive into the best television characters of the Modern Era. I am going to personally define that as shows from the last 30 years. So if you don’t see Lucy, Archie Bunker, Sam Malone or JR Ewing then you know why. Initially, my plan was to break it down separately between TV Dramas and Sitcoms, but then decided to truly stack up the best, so I combined them into general TV. All of these characters were selected from some of my favorite shows over the past three decades and, for different reasons, all play intricate roles.
A great character to me is not only someone who is relatable, but also someone who represents a particular mindset at a specific point in time of American culture. That being said, lets dive right in:
10) Carlton Banks – “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”
I may need to research this further, but I’m fairly confident no other character on this list has as memorable of a dance as Carlton. The preppy, privileged and impressionable cousin to Will Smith on the Fresh Prince was an absolute gem of television in the 90’s. From the sweater vests to the inability to talk to women to his country club influenced rants about lifestyle, there were very few sitcoms who were able to capture so much irony and sarcasm into a character, successfully. Anyone who was born between 1986-1994 has shared memories with the Banks family and even though WIll Smith was the clear winner of this show, Carlton’s goofy ass smile and constant worrying about first world problems is the winner to me.
9) Jack Donaghy “30 Rock”
Arguably the most underrated character of the last 15 years. The brilliance of Alec Baldwin is absolutely slept on in this show and I encourage all of our readers to do their homework here. It is not a secret that outside of his profession Alec Baldwin is an outspoken activist. However, his ability to play essentially the polar opposite persona of Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock is truly special. This character is a powerful executive, who comes from wealth and has relationships with the most powerful people in the world. His life lessons to Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), where he makes offensively bad comparisons of what is going on in her life compared to his past experience are absolute gold. One must have a dry and sarcastic sense of humor to love this character as much as I do.
8) Andy Sipowicz “NYPD Blue”
Easily one of the most pissed off guys on television for over a decade. Generally this behavior was onset by alcohol dependency causing him to be a version of himself he hated. A common theme as we go through this list is the anti-hero, which, in many cases, basically spells “Sipowicz.” This is a trend that we saw heavily over the next 20 years and NYPD Blue was certainly revolutionary in doing so. In most crime drama shows the lead detective is one of high moral character, rational decision making and calculated moves, but Sipowicz was really none of those. He was just a damn good detective with a hell of a lot of issues. Unfortunately this is not a character who has aged well with some of the raw language from this show. However, I believe that a lot of brutal truths about the perception of people are articulated well in this show and you have to take it with a grain of salt. Short sleeve button-downs with a tie never got so much love!
7) Omar Little “The Wire”
This is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and progressive characters of the era. Never before had we seen a character who was essentially robbing drug dealers, while rocking his duster trench coat, holstering his notorious shotgun and also be gay. Not only was his homosexuality suprising given the character’s nature, but even more so for the time period in which it was released. Although The Wire is an epic drama, Omar delivers an unmatched level of comedic relief. The amount of fear derived from his scarred face while holding a crisp and haunting whistle was truly terrifying. What I loved most about this character was although he was robbing drug dealers left and right, he still had a strict moral compass and I genuinely looked at him as a “good guy”.
6) Larry David “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
The fact that someone can play themselves and be on this list is a completely insane fact, but it happened. Larry’s constant irritable, confrontational and inappropriate behavior is delightful and cringe worthy, all at the same time, which is a tough mix to master. . We are all guilty of being obsessed with something that shouldn’t warrant more than two seconds of thought and then going totally overboard with it. This generally leads to dysfunction and some sort of backlash. Larry does that and then some. I believe this a character/show that you either love or hate. I’ve adored both since its release in 2000. The fact that they can bring the show back after a 9 year hiatus speaks volumes about its cult following.
5) Walter White “Breaking Bad”
Let’s be honest with ourselves, the first time every 90’s baby saw this pilot, we were wondering what the fuck was going to happen to the dad from Malcom in the Middle.That being said the journey this man endures during the course of five seasons is an insane journey filled with violence, greed and a lack of giving a shit. Unlike the modern antihero who never realize their flaws, Walt is the opposite. Unfortunately, it’s a day late and a dollar (or a couple million) short.. The constant rationalization that he is cooking and selling meth for his family is a cynical, yet relatable mindset that Walt maintains throughout the show. No other character on this list, other than maybe number one, go through so much shit, both mentally and physically. In most cases when shows have these illustrious, drawn out, epic plots the lead character generally begins to have inconsistencies in the writing. This never happens in Breaking Bad and makes Walt an overall complete character, despite his flaws.
4) Michael Scott “The Office”
The most kind hearted, well intentioned, idiot on the planet. Every problem ever presented to him has such a simple solution in his mind and then plays out to an absolute dumpster fire and I love it. What I enjoy most about this character is when brought up, everyone has a dozen moments from the show they instantly can play back in their head and they’re usually all very different. Whether it is him doing chest compressions to the beat of “Staying Alive” on a CPR dummy or when he created an online dating profile with the username “LittleKidLover” this guy has implanted a terabyte of laugh out loud memories into my brain. In such a great show it can be difficult to choose only one character, but Michael is what made that engine go, he was the quarterback to that team’s success.
3) Don Draper “Mad Men”
The writers of Mad Men did a spectacular job in creating a masculine, narcissistic and charming protagonist to lead one of the best shows of the era. Every sip of rye whisky and cigarette smoked is timed with complete elegance. Each alluring word spoken by Don is dripping with wisdom and confidence. This show encompasses the behavior in the workplace during that 60’s maybe as well as any show, ever. That is not the case without Don being himself, the OG. Don, or Dick, depending on how specific we want to be, is a classic character that I believe will hold up maybe better than anyone else on this list. The progression of his personality throughout the show is quite a journey that ends with what seems to be himself at peace with his two personas who have morphed into one.
2) George Costanza “Seinfeld”
The picture above really says it all. There has never been a character on any show that has made me laugh as hard as George. His life consists of pessimism mixed with horrible luck that leads to poor decisions, repeatedly. The constant over reaction to situations and misunderstandings in public settings create a limitless amount of comedy. Something that I am guilty of myself, that I love in this character, is the over analysis of mundane day-to-day tasks/situations which perpetuate into hour long rants. Every aspect of this character’s life, including his hilarious parents, are done to absolute perfection. I think this character turned out better than the writers or anyone could have expected. If done over again Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would probably fall short. This is truly the ‘72 Dolphins of television characters.
1)Tony Soprano “The Sopranos”
This is a character that you love and hate, who you fear and respect, and who you root for and root against. Every time the late great James Gandolfini delicately lights a cigar in this show with a slight devilish grin, I can feel the tension building of another unpredictable mess he will somehow be left to rectify. Like any relationship there are peaks and valleys with Tony Soprano and that is part of what makes it feel so real. The audience is able to see him in all states of mind; vulnerable while at his psychiatrist’s office, patriarchal at his home and the fucking boss at work. How everyone remembers Tony can vary drastically from viewer to viewer. He can be perceived as a violent, gambling, cheating husband or an honorable father who takes care of everyone in his circle, no matter what. The roller coaster of emotions that you are taken on with Tony is quite unique. For what it’s worth I believe Tony is dead, because he is just THAT good.