best tv characters of the 21st century
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

The 100 Greatest TV Characters of the 21st Century

An epic ranking for the new epoch.

TV in 2020 is not what it was in 2000. When this century began, "streaming" was something that might refer to a river, not a way to watch TV shows and movies. The big four broadcast networks still reigned. People sat through commercials to get their nightly programming fix. Over the two decades that followed, the medium has gone through multiple Golden Ages, as Difficult Men dramas gave way to Complicated Women Sagas, and the rise of streaming services flooded our screens with Too Much TV.

It's with all of this in mind that we set about arguing out this list of the greatest television characters of the 21st century, an excruciating endeavor that will surely make some readers mad. And yet we went ahead with this fool's errand because TV has never been more vital. We've realized this while sitting at home for the past few months, holding our Netflix subscriptions close to our chests and bingeing all that we can to quiet the chaos of the world outside.

Looking at the characters we've chosen, you can get a good sense of how tastes and formats have changed over the past 20 years, and just how vast the landscape has become. We've tried to include a little bit of everything: animation, sketch comedy, prestige dramas, network sitcoms. The one area we didn't touch is reality TV; that's a whole other can of worms. More ground rules: We limited ourselves to only one character from each show (our discussion of Arrested Development got particularly heated), and we only considered shows that began on or after January 1, 2000 (so, no The Sopranos).

Got it? OK, then open a bottle of Cloudmir Vodka or start making one of Rust Cohle's beer-can men and get reading. Speaking of ol' Rust...

rust cohle true detective

100. Rust Cohle (True Detective)

Played by Matthew McConaughey
If time is a flat circle, then this list must be a flat circle, too. According to that airtight stoner logic, Rust Cohle, the biker-gang-infiltrating, beer-can-sculpting, Nietzsche-quoting protagonist of HBO's star-studded noir anthology series, is actually number 100 and number 1, the alpha and the omega. Played with macho gravitas and sly humor by Matthew McConaughey, then in the middle of the McConaissance, Cohle was the unpredictable wildcard to Woody Harrelson's more conventionally buttoned-up Marty Hart. Originally, creator Nic Pizzolatto wanted the two real-life buddies (and Surfer, Dude co-stars) playing the opposite roles, but the switcheroo, first suggested by McConaughey, allowed each actor to toy with their on-screen personas in revealing, menacing ways. While it's tempting to select Colin Farrell's morosely hard-boiled Ray Velcoro from the (underrated!) Season 2 as True Detective's definitive antihero, McConaughey's Cohle wins the distinction by the slim margin of one rapidly inhaled cigarette. -- Dan Jackson

dewey malcolm in the middle

99. Dewey Wilkerson (Malcolm in the Middle)

Played by Erik Per Sullivan
Nowadays, most of the online literature about Malcolm in the Middle -- the genuinely progressive FOX series about how the American Dream meritocracy is essentially a lie -- is littered with "where's the cast now?" chum, reducing the sweet boy Dewey to a line about how old Erik Per Sullivan is now. This paints over how perfect Dewey was as both the kid brother to his rowdy elder siblings, especially Malcolm and Jamie, who constantly made him the butt of their sometimes cruel pranks, and as the baby of the family to Lois and Hal. He was always armed with a spot-on innocently irreverent punchline, something sorely lacking in the primetime sitcom realm of the early 2000s. -- Leanne Butkovic

olive snook pushing daisies

98. Olive Snook (Pushing Daisies)

Played by Kristen Chenoweth
It takes a lot to top the #relationshipgoals of Ned the Piemaker (Lee Pace) and his gloriously revitalized crush Chuck (Anna Friel), but Olive Snook, played with the special sort of motor-mouthed zing that only Broadway legend Kristen Chenoweth could muster, was the not-so-secret heart of Bryan Fuller's cult show, breathing the sunny lemonade zip of life into a premise that turned even the concept of death aslant. Her moony, unrequited obsession with Ned and her endless supply of jealousy that fueled her compulsion to find out the truth about him and Chuck kept the other characters on their toes. She was the classic more-clever-than-she-lets-on blonde, and, in case Pushing Daisies didn't feel enough like a musical already, she belted plenty of songs that would annihilate the vocal cords of your average human. -- Emma Stefansky

the young pope

97. Pope Pius XIII (The Young Pope)

Played by Jude Law
More meme than man to many, Pope Pius XIII, the domineering religious leader previously known as Lenny Belardo, was often overshadowed by his most ridiculous virtues. Images of a smirking Jude Law, decked out in only a skimpy white Speedo, waltzing through a human corridor of bikini-clad women on a sandy beach, achieved viral immortality, but Paolo Sorrentino's papal drama remains more of a cult obsession, a surreal Catholic dreamscape scattered with puzzling kangaroos, scheming Cardinals, and basketball-loving nuns. For viewers who committed themselves to the show's divinely bizarre aesthetic, which grew even darker in its second season, Law's Pius XIII emerged as one of television's most compelling studies of political power, a potentially revolutionary figure with purposefully opaque desires and ambiguously supernatural gifts. And, yes, he looked great in sunglasses. -- DJ

penny happy endings

96. Penny Hartz (Happy Endings)

Played by Casey Wilson
A sitcom is only as good as its ensemble and Happy Endings' ensemble places it among the most beloved yet tragically canceled shows. But one character stood out in this group of Chicago pals: Casey Wilson's Penny Hartz. Penny was a familiar archetype: a career woman who was unlucky in love and just a tad desperate. But Wilson, a one-time Saturday Night Live cast member, have her an especially endearing mania. Half the fun of watching Penny is just wondering what words Wilson will emphasize in any given sentence. "Amazing" became "A-MAH-zing," an attempt at a catchphrase. Somehow she gave the phrase "Au Bon Pain" a strangely beautiful melody during a speech about a one-night stand after a misunderstanding when offered a "Whore's Bath." (A cocktail she rejected because she'd been on a cleanse.) Happy Endings was a strong successor to the Friends' hangout legacy, but Penny was an all-time example of an actor making a character sing, sometimes quite literally. -- Esther Zuckerman

tina belcher

95. Tina Belcher (Bob's Burgers)

Voiced by Dan Mintz
Tina Belcher was an instant phenomenon when Bob's Burgers came to FOX in 2011. Case in point: There have been plenty of Bob and Linda couple costumes during Halloweens since, a decent amount of Louises with her unmistakable pink bunny ear hat, but it's costumes of Tina, the eighth grade horse girl voiced by comedian Dan Mintz who writes erotic fiction and loves boys' butts, that feel most enduring. Not unlike other characters on this list, she transcends her show: She's a meme, a twerking reaction GIF, a long "uunnnggghhhh" noise, a relatable mood board. Even if you haven't seen the show, you almost certainly haven't escaped the reach of Tina Belcher's awkward and horny budding teenage mind. -- LB

maeve westworld
John P. Johnson/HBO

94. Maeve (Westworld)

Played by Thandie Newton
Look, Westworld is by no means a perfect show. HBO's big sci-fi swing is overstuffed, intentionally confusing, and often incredibly corny. But if there's one thing that keeps us coming back, it's Thandie Newton's inspired performance as Maeve. While the series may have made Evan Rachel Wood's host Dolores its prophet, it also made her dull, what with her serious platitudes about the end of the world. Newton allowed Maeve to actually have fun with her burgeoning consciousness, sometimes in spite of the script. She begins as a cheeky brothel owner, but morphs into a warrior with the ability to manipulate humans and hosts alike with her savvy and tuned-up source code. Even as she's delightfully bringing everyone around her to their knees, Newton still lets her tragic longing for her lost daughter seep through. While the writers keep failing Maeve as the series goes on, locking her in the same tired motivations, Newton always makes her worth watching. -- EZ

dylan american vandal
Tyler Golden/Netflix

93. Dylan Maxwell (American Vandal)

Played by Jimmy Tatro
It's a feat of brilliance how immediately charming the hapless, oafish Dylan Maxwell, classic high school dudebro, is from his very first appearance on the first season of Netflix's mockumentary series about a school beset by an investigation into who "did the dicks," drawing a phallus on every single car in the teachers' parking lot. Tatro, who had already carved out a Dylan Maxwell-y niche making comedy prank videos on YouTube with his boys before his big break, was by far the perfect choice for the character, lobbing half-baked conspiracy theories at fellow student and documentarian Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez). Initially the first and only suspect, Dylan was eventually revealed to be an unwitting scapegoat for a smarter, more dastardly perpetrator. But it's Dylan who provides some of the biggest laughs and most outrageous dialogue -- the padded toilet seat bit is too obscene for print but if you know, you know -- and it's Dylan who brings such bewildered pathos to the season's unexpectedly sobering finale. -- ES

jack bauer

92. Jack Bauer (24)

Played by Kiefer Sutherland
As the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit's busiest agent, Jack Bauer was in near-constant motion -- perpetually racing off to a new location to prevent an assassination, defuse a nuclear football, or kick a heroin addiction he developed while working undercover -- but Kiefer Sutherland brought a surprising stillness to the role that transformed his career. The show's pleasingly ludicrous pacing, frequently loathsome Bush-era politics, and absurdly tense cougar cameos were anchored by a gravelly voiced, fully committed lead performance that helped elevate the serialized tick-tock mayhem beyond mere Tom Clancy paranoia porn. While Dennis Haysbert's President David Palmer, Gregory Itzin's President Charles Logan, and Jean Smart's First Lady Martha Logan did admirable work selling the political backstabbing of their respective seasons, 24 was always the Bauer Hour, and, for better or worse, the character represents all the messy contradictions and violent impulses of the modern American action hero. -- DJ

valerie cherish

91. Valerie Cherish (The Comeback)

Played by Lisa Kudrow
Lisa Kudrow will probably always be best-known as Phoebe from Friends, but her greatest creation is Valerie Cherish, a brilliant work of meta comedy. Valerie, not unlike Lisa Kudrow herself, was a '90s sitcom star, but that's where the two diverge. The series, created by Kudrow and Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King, operates on the conceit that everything the audiences is seeing is the raw footage being shot by the team behind a reality show about Valerie's "comeback," a role on Room and Bored, a wannabe Friends-type sitcom. To watch The Comeback is to suffer along with Valerie as she endures humiliation after humiliation, but Kudrow's cheery mugging for the camera persists through gritted teeth. Valerie Cherish is an exercise in exquisite agony. -- EZ

dr. house

90. Dr. House (House)

Played by Hugh Laurie
Cantankerous, curmudgeon, another c-word that isn't fit to print: These things all describe Dr. Gregory House, the character English actor Hugh Laurie embodied over medical drama House's eight seasons, earning him six Emmy nods. But he was the Sherlock Holmes of the medical world, a sleuth-like, pill-popping genius picking up on details that others glossed over to arrive at a rare patient diagnosis to the ire of the doctors around them. For as gruff as he was (which was rich for spoofing), he also established the sort of dickhead doctor savant archetype that other shows might try to emulate, but take a swing and miss. Dr. House wasn't a good guy by any means, but he had depth. -- LB

hannah horvath

89. Hannah Horvath (Girls)

Played by Lena Dunham
On the first episode of Girls, Hannah Horvath declared she was the voice of her generation, "or at least, a voice of a generation," but as the Brooklyn transplant was forced to grow up, she proved, for better or worse, to be not entirely wrong. Critics and audiences perpetually confused Hannah with Dunham, making her a tricky character to figure out. Hannah was annoying as hell, super-messy, and made a lot of people yell, "Why the fuck would she do that?" But Dunham's portrayal of the utterly chaotic 20-something was also a painfully accurate, if complicated, representation of young adulthood for many Girls viewers, especially as her selfishness, which initially seemed like an immature blip, morphed into her main trait and isolated her from her friends Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna. Hannah's very personhood was an astute, albeit incredibly privileged observation on mid-2000s gentrified Brooklyn life, at least worthy of making her a voice of a generation of free-spirited, gig-economy millennials with means. -- Sadie Bell

noho hank
Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

88. Noho Hank (Barry)

Played by Anthony Carrigan
The initial concept for Noho Hank, one of the quasi-antagonists of Barry, is enough to elicit chuckles. As actor Anthony Carrigan explained in an interview with Thrillist: "Initially, it was like a Chechen mobster who is very polite and is very considerate. I was like, OK, cool, this is like a fantastic jumping off point." Gangsters are old hat at this point, but Carrigan and Barry creator and star Bill Hader managed to reinvent the archetype with Noho Hank. Pretty much every single part of Noho Hank is funny: His over-the-top personal style, his accent, his desire to make everyone feel comfortable. But he also can be truly terrifying at times, which fits right in the disturbing world of the series. Nearly every character in Barry is surprising: Hader's titular assassin-turned-actor does not have a heart of gold, while his eventual girlfriend Sarah adds new layers to the stereotypical neurotic actress. Still, it's Noho Hank who has our hearts as he offers us some babka while plotting our murder. -- EZ

adama battlestar galactica

87. Bill Adama (Battlestar Galactica)

Played by Edward James Olmos
Such an incredible cast of characters make up Syfy's reboot of the 1970s humans-vs-robots space opera that it was difficult to choose the best representative out of all of them. But Admiral Bill Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, tossed into a leadership role he'd never dreamed of accepting while shepherding the last of humanity through a hostile cosmos in search of a mythical planet, was the heart and soul of Battlestar Galactica. After four seasons, it was impossible to imagine the character, played in the original series by Lorne Greene, without Olmos' signature gravelly voice and pockmarked face. He served as the show's moral compass, and even in his darker episodes provided an aspirational beacon for the rest of the characters to follow, especially in his complex romance with his sometimes political adversary Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). When his friends abandoned him, you felt his pain, and when they returned, your heart soared. -- ES

castiel supernatural
The CW

86. Castiel (Supernatural)

Played by Misha Collins
Eternally rumpled and perpetually resurrected, the angel Castiel is one of those characters you're always stoked to see whenever he pops up in Supernatural, even when he's acting as a vessel for Satan or eating thousands of souls and proclaiming himself a new God. The relationship between demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester is one of the most compelling on TV, but it's when the show added Castiel to the mix that it became truly fun to watch -- and launched a formidable genre of fanfiction. As a seraph, Castiel is nearly hopeless at blending in with humanity, and his comic gaffes -- who could forget "assbutt"? -- and forever bewildered expressions make it all the more breathtaking when he spreads his shadowy wings and gives his righteous speeches to the armies fighting their celestial forever war. Those two brothers would be nowhere without their guardian angel. -- ES

santana lopez

85. Santana Lopez (Glee)

Played by Naya Rivera
Santana wasn't meant to be a leading character on Glee. At the start of the series, she was nothing more than smart-mouthed comic relief and the mean sidekick to mainstay Quinn Fabray (Diana Agron). But because the late Naya Rivera, who had too much talent to be bound to the role of a stereotypical, nasty high school cheerleader, Santana became so much more than the girl with flawless disses. She carved Santana into a brazen young woman, who was proud of her Latinx identity and sexuality, no matter how difficult it was to come out. As a relatable, perfectly imperfect example of LGBTQ representation, she's one of the reasons that a series about show choir became the phenomenon that it did in the 2010s. Many teenagers saw themselves in Santana, and anyone can recognize that she was always the real showstopper of New Directions. -- SB

fiona gallagher

84. Fiona Gallagher (Shameless)

Played by Emmy Rossum
Fiona Gallagher doesn't raise her five siblings living in poverty just because she's the first born; she does it because she's resilient as hell. Over the course of the long-running series, the 20-something reaches grave breaking points that are essentially inevitable when so much of her life is built on caring for others. Despite her poor choices, Fiona's strength is in her journey as a giver. Still, what's even stronger is how she grows into someone who learns how to put herself first when there is nothing left to give. -- SB

marceline adventure time
Cartoon Network

83. Marceline the Vampire Queen (Adventure Time)

Voiced by Olivia Olson
In the vast world(s) of Adventure Time's Land of Ooo, even the relatively inconsequential characters can make you giggle (any of the Candy People) or sob (Snow Golem and Fire Wolf pup). Truthfully, there's practically no wrong answer to "best character" here, but at Thrillist, we stand behind the thousand-year-old goth rock star Marceline the Vampire Queen as the real standout. Introduced early on with a smooth jazzy bass-strummed tune about her soul-sucking dad eating her fries, Marceline is a pariah in this mysterious post-apocalyptic world, and both as the series' 10 seasons wore on and in the first of the Adventure Time "miniseries" Stakes, we saw more and more of the devastating things that happened to her in the before-times that led to her vampirism, her entwined past with the Ice King, and her romantic entanglement with Princess Bubblegum. There are only a handful of characters here that can hold their own in a Finn and Jake adventure -- special shoutout to BMO -- but Marceline's presence floods the proverbial room. -- LB

titus unbreakable kimmy schmidt

82. Titus Andromedon (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)

Played by Tituss Burgess
In Season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Titus says he's "Lemonade-ing," and goes about recreating one of the iconic videos from Beyoncé's visual album in an absolutely absurd way. He wields a baseball bat and wears a yellow gown to shame his ex with a parody of "Hold Up" that's just a tad askew. Titus' over-the-top fabulousness is the reason he outshines his roommate, the titular former mole woman, to earn a spot on this list. At the start of the series, he's a struggling actor/Times Square superhero living in New York, almost always nearly one (or a few) steps away from his big Broadway break. (He did audition for The Lion King upwards of 20 times.) Tina Fey and Robert Carlock wrote the role specifically to showcase Tituss Burgess' talents, allowing him to exercise his incredible singing voice, all while embodying the kooky can-do optimism of the series. "Peeno Noir" remains a banger. Even when the writing didn't serve the character -- the less said about the Geisha episode the better -- Burgess' wildly theatrical, always on performance was undeniably hilarious. -- SB

fiona goode

81. Fiona Goode (American Horror Story: Coven)

Played by Jessica Lange
"Who's the baddest witch in town?" is a rhetorical question Fiona Goode poses on AHS: Coven. But all the other supernaturally gifted women on that installment of FX's franchise know the answer: There's no one as bad as Fiona. From its inception, Oscar-winning Jessica Lange gave Ryan Murphy's anthology both prestige and some of its most terrifying moments, but her performance in its campiest season as an all-powerful witch facing her own mortality was simply hexing. When we meet Fiona, her reign as her coven's Supreme is coming to an end, but Fiona is more than just a beautiful older woman scared of aging. She is a malicious villain who goes further than expected for the sake of vanity, all while being impossibly glamorous and spitting out pitch-black humor. She is wicked, but it is impossible not to fall under her spell watching her carry out her own selfish bidding as she murders her teenage followers. -- SB

rebecca bunch
The CW

80. Rebecca Bunch (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)

Played by Rachel Bloom
As pop culture has gotten exponentially more aware of how to portray and talk about mental illness in a constructive, empathetic way on screen, it was only a matter of time until a show nearly perfected it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by and starring Rachel Bloom as its overly romantic, slightly obsessive, often manic-depressive heroine Rebecca Bunch, disguised a thorough, unflinching examination of the mental issues people around us struggle with every day as a hysterical, brilliantly written, four-season-long musical. Rebecca Bunch goes from a mess who barely talks about her innermost traumas to a mess who can, and does so enthusiastically, with all the friends and romantic attachments she makes in her journey. When we talk about strong, yet flawed, yet compassionate heroes, Rebecca Bunch tops the list. -- ES

olivia dunham fringe

79. Olivia Dunham (Fringe)

Played by Anna Torv
It takes a lot to be a female FBI agent in a show about the government examining paranormal occurrences and not become a clone of the OG paranormal FBI agent Dana Scully, but Olivia Dunham, the complex and fascinating protagonist of the equally complex and fascinating Fringe, carved out a space for herself in the pantheon. Her arc on the show as she comes to terms with her inner trauma and her own identity -- especially when, spoiler alert, she meets an alternate version of herself in the later seasons -- is even more compelling than all the weird stuff encountered by the Fringe Division. Far from dismissing her past trauma or tacking it on as merely another character trait, the show allowed Olivia to process real-world fears within a sci-fi environment with determination and creativity, making her one of the coolest, and most intricate female figures in genre television. She also made a generation of girls only want to fill their closets with tailored suits and cool leather jackets. -- ES

rogelio jane the virgin
The Cw

78. Rogelio De La Vega (Jane the Virgin)

Played by Jaime Camil
It makes a certain amount of sense that the best character from Jane the Virgin, the CW show based on a telenovela that was also about telenovelas, would be, well, a telenovela star played by a former telenovela star. Our heroine Jane Villanueva, who was accidentally artificially inseminated, is also secretly the daughter of her favorite telenovela actor, Rogelio De La Vega, the vain lead on The Passion of Santos. When Jaime Camil was cast, he was a well-known quantity in the telenovela industry, but a virtual unknown to most US viewers. His take on Rogelio was one huge wink. Rogelio is devastatingly attractive and devastatingly into himself, which makes the news that he's a father all the harder to swallow. Over the course of the series, he never sheds that flair for the dramatic, but also opens up to the possibilities of romance that dug a little deeper than the hollow swooning of his day job. -- EZ

beth sanchez rick and morty
Adult Swim

77. Beth Sanchez (Rick and Morty)

Voiced by Sarah Chalke
Rick might be the main character of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon's series, but he's a total asshole. Morty is a child idiot; Jerry is an adult moron. Summer's cool but she's nowhere near as good a character, or as integral to how this show ticks, as her mom, Beth Sanchez. Beth, voiced by Sarah Chalke of Scrubs fame, often sounds like a broken record in constantly reassessing her troubled marriage, worrying about keeping her family together, repairing her relationship with her aloof drunk father, but that's why she's so great. She's the emotional motor and essential to the show's dance between zany sci-fi and bleak family drama. She could be off self-actualizing with the Meeseeks, getting absolutely sloshed on wine, forcing her family into therapy, or indulging her darkest sides, but typically a Beth-heavy episode will take a series mostly preoccupied with adventuring with the boys to a new level. The fact that she might be a clone makes it all the more interesting. -- LB

roman debeers party down

76. Roman DeBeers (Party Down)

Played by Martin Starr
Luckily, Freaks and Geeks started airing in 1999; otherwise we could have very well been considering three Martin Starr characters for this list. Starr, who also played the ornery Guilfoyle on Silicon Valley, is secretly one of the best comedic TV actors of his generation. The part that wins him a spot here beats out a whole cast of worthy contenders. Rob Thomas' Party Down is a comedy built on an amazing collection of weirdos, a crew of Hollywood wannabes working at a catering firm serving the richer and more successful. There's Adam Scott's depressed Henry Pollard, best known for one commercial catchphrase; Lizzy Caplan's sardonic comedian Casey Klein; Ken Marino's former addict Ron Donald; and Ryan Hansen's nincompoop Kyle Bradway. But our spot belongs to Starr's aspiring screenwriter Roman DeBeers. Roman is an all-too-recognizable creep, a bigheaded asshole who is way less impressive than he thinks he is, incessantly talking about his "hard sci-fi." Roman is the most detestable member of the Party Down team, but that's what makes him our favorite. -- EZ

cameron howe halt and catch fire

75. Cameron Howe (Halt and Catch Fire)

Played by Mackenzie Davis
The (too few) viewers of Halt and Catch Fire first meet Cameron Howe as a soda swilling, braless punk coder with the attitude of a surly teen. And while she maintains her distrust of authority figures throughout the series, we also watch as she shifts toward a tentative maturity while wrestling with the fear that growing up might mean selling out. Cameron, portrayed with incredible verve by Mackenzie Davis, is perhaps the purest distillation of Halt and Catch Fire's driving themes. She's creativity incarnate, whose success is hampered by her inability to compromise. Whereas another show might make that stubbornness a gift, Halt knows that sticking to your principles is often an Achilles' heel. About midway through the first season, the writers seemingly realized that the show's heart was not Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan, it was his underling: Cameron Howe. -- EZ 

zoe washburne firefly

74. Zoë Washburne (Firefly)

Played by Gina Torres
We've been through cycle upon cycle of the "what makes a strong female character strong" discussion, and the badass and compelling women on TV have evolved with the conversation -- but, oddly enough, a lady out of a sci-fi western from 2002, when people were only first starting to whisper about female characters not needing to be gung-ho warriors to be considered "strong," embodies exactly the nuanced kind of strength that audiences are now demanding to see. Gina Torres' Zoë Washburne, the tall leather-clad, pistol-wielding counterpart to Alan Tudyk's soft-spoken pilot Hoban Washburne, is at once an intimidating fighter and a tender, protective figure, stepping lightly across the spectrum of everything a "strong female character" can be. -- ES


73. Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal)

Played by Mads Mikkelsen
"A thankless task" is the only way to describe the prospect of playing one of horror cinema's (and literature's) most blood-curdling antagonists, especially one that has already been made iconic by the likes of Anthony Hopkins. But Mads Mikkelsen's portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic villain of Thomas Harris' terrifying series of crime novels, holds his own -- when he's not holding one of his victims' delicious roasted limbs. Mikkelsen's entirely unreadable face and soothing voice mask a horrific, bloodthirsty killer hiding just under the surface -- and, many times, right in plain sight -- as he runs circles around the FBI agents trying to stop him. The cat-and-mouse dance between Hannibal and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is such fun that it birthed its own rabid fanfiction community, and Hannibal's appetite for human flesh led to some particularly memorable grisly death scenes. (Anyone remember that Damien Hirst-inspired corpse cross-section?) Only a show whose baddie was this delightful could make murder look so tasty. -- ES

jared silicon valley

72. Jared Dunn (Silicon Valley)

Played by Zach Woods
Who knew that tech bros could actually be endearing? Silicon Valley is full of nastiness, but Jared Dunn, played by Zach Woods, is an absolute sweetheart of an exec. Jared transferred over to Pied Piper from its vicious rival Hooli in the first season, and worked hard to keep Pied Piper afloat among their many fuck-ups. But it always felt like it was less about the company for him and more about just wanting to be one of the guys. His devotion to Thomas Middleditch's Richard Hendricks was downright sycophantic, but their insane love story ended up being one of the purest parts of Mike Judge's deeply cynical series. Jared has a wild backstory, largely improvised by Woods, that is hard to piece together -- he was in and out of foster homes; his father is in a militia in the Ozarks -- and his odd quirks range from adorable to disturbing. For instance, he is an a capella aficionado and speaks German in his sleep. Still, it was hard not to want to give him, in all his awkwardness, a hug with at least half as much care he gave his makeshift Pied Piper family. Also, this guy fucks. -- SB

dougie jones twin peaks the return

71. Dougie Jones (Twin Peaks: The Return)

Played by Kyle MacLachlan
Amid the interdimensional backwards-speaking monsters and existential terror of David Lynch's return to his beloved mystery series Twin Peaks sits Dougie Jones in his oversized bright green jacket, perched slantwise on his breakfast room chair, repeating his favorite phrases (his name, his wife's name, "Mr. Jackpots," the chillingly monotone "call for help") to the consternation of his friends and family. One of three extraordinary turns from Kyle MacLachlan, Dougie was the best, most well-executed tease of the show, promising a final showdown between Dale Cooper and the demons of the Black Lodge. Even though it took a full season for that to even happen, we were all too enamored with this goofy incarnation of MacLachlan's lawman to care -- the pure adrenaline rush of hearing "damn good" referring to a cup of freshly brewed coffee was enough. Dougie and his family unit were the emotional anchor of the season, a reminder of David Lynch's capacity for sweetness even along the margins of a cosmic battle between good and evil. -- ES

april ludgate

70. April Ludgate (Parks and Recreation)

Played by Aubrey Plaza
There were a lot of characters that kept Pawnee, Indiana under control, but few thrived beyond their schtick quite like moody intern-turned-inspired team member April Ludgate. Both the poster child for college kids who'd rather be on their phone than interact with anybody else and an unlikely source of youthful frivolity, April poked fun at the stereotype while showing that her figure-it-out-later lifestyle of frisbees for dinner plates and adopting three-legged dogs could be plain fun. She may have exhibited a clear lack of work ethic, but everything she did was rooted in an odd form of care, especially if that meant refusing to take phone calls or schedule meetings for the ornery Ron Swanson. Love it or hate it, April's very unenthusiastic, weird girl personality basically catalyzed Aubrey Plaza's own sense of deadpan humor and quirkiness -- and in the sitcom it worked well. Her widow-with-a-secret-alter-ego Janet Snakehole would probably murder you if you disagreed. -- SB

wayne letterkenny

69. Wayne (Letterkenny)

Played by Jared Keeso
One only has to watch a few minutes of any Letterkenny episode (though we recommend the very first, masterful cold open) to get a handle on exactly what you're in for with the Canadian import's main character. Armed with a permanent nonplussed squint, an intimidating physique, and the kind of razor sharp, bullet-quick comic intellect one never expects from a dude in bootcut jeans and plaid from "hick" country, Wayne is an instantly lovable protagonist, even though his exploits and plans to jazz up life in his small Ontario town are, more often than not, doomed to fail. Through affable Wayne and his friends, Letterkenny, which was developed by both Keeso and Jacob Tierney, deftly and hilariously interrogates everyday stereotypes about masculinity, gender representation, racism, and whether or not one could have sexual relations with an ostrich (allegedly). -- ES

michael burnham star trek discovery
CBS All Access

68. Michael Burnham (Star Trek: Discovery)

Played by Sonequa Martin-Green
Spock, from the first iteration of Star Trek, was a Vulcan slowly discovering his human side. In its latest, Michael Burnham is a human raised by Vulcans, constantly at war with her emotional nature, forced to balance the analytical ways she's been taught to live with the pure instinct that's part of her biology. Every Star Trek show pits reason against emotion; Michael is a fusion of both, leading the crew of Discovery via her unique way of experiencing the universe. Sonequa Martin-Green is instantly compelling, her at first robotic portrayal of Michael giving way to a softer, kinder, stronger side as the show treads the cosmos with steadily more confidence -- especially in her friendships with her fellow officers, in particular with the timid yet imposing Kelpien Saru. In Michael, Star Trek: Discovery is able to deftly examine its own mythology, as time and again Michael herself proves that only a balance between logic and feeling has the power to save a universe. -- ES

richard harrow

67. Richard Harrow (Boardwalk Empire)

Played by Jack Huston
Boardwalk Empire was not an easy show to love. In its first season, it seemed like an old-timey rip-off of The Sopranos focused on a tiresome anti-hero, Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson, who just came off as a facsimile of other more successful heavies in TV history. But near the end of that initial run, Richard Harrow came along. Harrow is a deliberately odd character. He's a traumatized WWI veteran working as a hitman, who wears a Phantom of the Opera-esque mask across half his face to cover his injuries. Jack Huston made Harrow deeply sympathetic and scary at the same time -- not because of his looks but because of his mercilessness. In a series that often seemed like it was playing out the greatest hits of other, better works, Harrow was totally unique. -- EZ

seth cohen

66. Seth Cohen (The O.C.)

Played by Adam Brody
Is Seth Cohen the best character on The O.C. in terms of being the best person on the show? No, Seth sucks. Ryan Atwood is the sweetest boy to ever live, Summer Roberts is a genius, Julie Cooper is a legend, and Sandy Cohen is a mensch. These are all things you realize watching The O.C. as an adult and not a googly eyed teenager. From the very beginning, Seth uses his underdog status as a weapon, pitting two girls against one another for his affections. Seth makes everything about himself even when his friends are going through some real issues. So is Seth Cohen annoying? Yes. Is Seth Cohen also inherently watchable and worthy of all our girlhood obsessions? Also yes. While other characters on this list inspired other TV characters, Seth Cohen inspired an entire brand of human being (or maybe validated the existence of a brand of human being). Nerdy indie boys who loved Michael Chabon and Death Cab for Cutie were suddenly the objects of lust. Is Seth Cohen and his comic book obsession directly responsible for the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Honestly, I'd argue yes. But Seth also helped ground the series. As Ryan brooded, Seth was just being a normal, shitty teenager.  -- EZ

leon curb your enthusiasm

65. Leon Black (Curb Your Enthusiasm)

Played by J.B. Smoove
Leon didn't show up on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's semi-autobiographical follow-up to Seinfeld, until the show's sixth season in 2007. He arrived as a talkative houseguest, quickly distinguishing himself with lines like "cum is not cum, Larry," and never really left. Given how essential the character now feels to the foul-mouthed, free-wheeling improvisational sensibility of the show, the way he makes seemingly low-stakes bits of dialogue like "you can't pause toast" sing, it's hard to remember how exactly the show functioned without Smoove's outbursts and eye rolls. Has a better sidekick ever emerged on a sitcom so late in the game? There's an argument to be made that Larry himself is the best character -- after all, the entire show springs from his obsessions, grievances, and observations -- but, on a laugh-per-scene basis, Leon has his friend "Long Ball Larry" beat. -- DJ

shane the l word

64. Shane McCutcheon (The L Word)

Played by Katherine Moennig
"There was an L.A. club that screened new L Word episodes on Sundays and as the show became a phenomenon, everybody there had the Shane haircut, the fedora, the sleeveless vest. It was clear she was a style icon," L Word creator Ilene Chaiken recounted in Vogue's oral history about inventing the character that became Showtime's crust punk-y gay icon. "Straight women talked about Shane, fell in love with her, saw her as a 'gateway lesbian.'" Regardless of who you were, it was hard not to be infatuated by the mysterious allure of Shane McCutcheon, the show's resident "bad girl" with a legendary body count -- she's supposedly slept with 1,000+ women, which is a little embarrassing to gloat about in 2020, but when The L Word premiered in 2004, it was groundbreaking. Refreshingly androgynous, Shane was ahead of her time, swatting down biphobia and welcoming trans people in the LGTBQ community in less progressive times while dealing with her own addiction issues and troubled past. Whether you wanted to date her or be her, she was unforgettable. -- LB

angela abar
Mark Hill/HBO

63. Angela Abar (Watchmen)

Played by Regina King
You could say that Watchmen's big twist -- that the police force of an alternate universe Tulsa, Oklahoma had been infiltrated, for decades, by the KKK -- was oddly prophetic of a movement that ignited only months after its final episode aired, but the show, like the Alan Moore comic it's based on, merely acted as a genre-tinted indictment of the world we've been living in this whole time. Angela Abar, who works alongside the police force as a detective disguised as costumed hero Sister Night, sees her world turned inside out when she discovers that her law enforcement has been taken over by the white supremacist Seventh Kavalry, and finds out a world-shattering truth about her connections to the original masked hero team the Minutemen. Angela uses her strength and her secret identity to protect those she loves the most -- and, fortunately, one of those people turns out to be the most powerful person on Earth. In Angela, the show meticulously treads the web of contradictions around those who must hide their faces to fight injustice, and those who become powerful enough to face it head-on. -- ES

stefon snl

62. Stefon (Saturday Night Live)

Played by Bill Hader
Saturday Night Live's hottest character is Stefon. This NYC correspondent for Weekend Update has everything: the ugliest Ed Hardy tees, the asymmetrical bang-heavy haircut of an "I'd like to speak to the manager" suburban mom, and he lives "in a trash can outside the RadioShack at 23rd and 7th." Few SNL characters in recent memory are as beloved and utterly hysterical as this co-creation of former SNL writer John Mulaney and Hader, who brought the flamboyant unofficial promoter of the dingiest, edgiest clubs to life. Offering nightlife recommendations to then-Weekend Update host Seth Meyers of places that have anything from "screaming babies in Mozart wigs" to "coked-up frogs," he had the best one-liners of the broadcast, and Hader delivered them in a way that solidified his place as one of the all-time greats. What's maybe just as memorable as Stefon himself is the way that Hader couldn't even hold in his laughter. He broke during nearly every appearance because Mulaney would often change the script at the last minute. While he was giggling behind his hands, we were all at home cracking up at a rare, truly funny SNL skit. -- SB

samurai jack
Cartoon Network

61. "Jack" (Samurai Jack)

Voiced by Phil LaMarr 
The nameless hero warrior known throughout Earth's dystopian future as, simply, "Jack," clad in samurai robes and carrying a magic sword, is so cool. That was the whole ethos through which he was conceived by creator Genndy Tartakovsky (who is also responsible for Dexter's Laboratory, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and, more recently, Primal), who wanted to make a show based around his childhood fascination with samurai and bushido code, his love for David Carradine's martial arts western show Kung Fu, and a recurring dream in which he wielded a sword through a post-apocalyptic future fighting off monsters alongside his crush. Jack, who was zapped from feudal Japan into the far future by the evil demon Aku just before he could land the finishing blow, spends hardly any time worrying about his predicament, and almost immediately starts working on a plan to get back to his home in the past and defeat Aku for good. To do that, he has to make his way through a colorful retrofuturistic dystopia populated by aliens, mythic beasts, and plenty of gangsters either doing Aku's dark bidding or simply spoiling for a fight -- and Jack is more than happy to give it to them. -- ES

glenn the walking dead

60. Glenn Rhee (The Walking Dead)

Played by Steven Yeun
Thank The Walking Dead, one of the most-watched dramas in TV history, for bringing us Steven Yeun in the form of Glen, the sweetest good guy in the entire zombie apocalypse, even as the hellscape of eking out survival gave way to torture porn. Glen's devastating and brutal end -- bludgeoned to death by Negan's (who was NOT a good villain, let's get that straight) barbed-wire bat Lucille -- in the Season 7 premiere put a fine point on the latter: What was the point of a show like The Walking Dead if it was missing its heart? Early on in the series, while the Camp of Rick Grimes was too busy not getting along, Glen worked to patch up disagreements, provide everyone with supplies on dangerous missions for useful resources, and generally stuck his neck out for others because he believed in the goodness of people. His empathy, compassion, and breezy sense of humor, despite everything, made him an obvious fan favorite and one of the few gleaming bright spots in a world blanketed in despair. Even though Glen deserved so much better, his shocking demise reminded us of The Walking Dead's bleak worldview that even (especially?) the best boys can't be saved. -- LB


59. Luther (Luther)

Played by Idris Elba
Decked out in his long gray tweed coat, perfect outerwear for solving outlandish crimes on London's perpetually chilly streets, Detective Chief Inspector John Luther is hardly the first weary TV cop to bring his work home with him. The guy's got baggage -- and it's often inflicted by the scheming villains he faces off against, perhaps most memorably Ruth Wilson's menacing Alice Morgan in the early seasons. Originally conceived as a modern amalgamation of Sherlock Holmes and Columbo by series creator Neil Cross, Luther, one of many sharp yet repetitive BBC police dramas, doesn't exactly win points for originality. But Elba, coming off his star-making turn as the meticulous Stringer Bell in The Wire, turned the character into the reliable star of his own bleak mini-franchise, reshaping the hard-charging detective archetype with gruff charisma and subtle wit. -- DJ

kalinda sharma

58. Kalinda Sharma (The Good Wife)

Played by Archie Panjabi
Employed at Stern, Lockhart, Gardner as their in-house private investigator, Kalinda Sharma is more of a fixer throughout her reign on The Good Wife, hunting down all kinds of damning information on the firm's targets through means that were as effective as they weren't necessarily legal. Clad in a rotating array of knee-high heeled boots and sleek leather jackets, Kalinda is a stylish, complex, and intimidating character, holding her own against anyone who would dare talk back to or threaten her, and most episode would often end with her busting into the room at the 11th hour, turning in the final puzzle pieces to secure a victory in the courtroom for Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart, and Will Gardner. Her evolving and devolving friendship with Alicia in particular is a highlight of the show, the two of them growing close and then estranged and then close again, even as Kalinda's past starts to catch up with her. (And as behind-the-scenes drama reportedly pulled Panjabi and co-star Julianna Margulies apart.) Brilliant, cunning, and rarely surprised, Kalinda is the kind of friend we'd love to have on our side -- and a formidable enemy. -- ES

bernie mac

57. Bernie Mac (The Bernie Mac Show)

Played by Bernie Mac
Promising to "kill one of them kids" within the opening minutes of your family sitcom, smoking a giant cigar while detailing the way you'd snap their necks like chickens, is a surefire way to generate controversy. At the time of its release, The Bernie Mac Show, which arrived a year after the Chicago-born comedian stole the show from three better-known stand-ups in Spike Lee's raucous The Original Kings of Comedy concert film, inspired a fair amount of hand-wringing in the press over its depiction of parental tough love, with The Chicago Tribune noting that Mac's proudly old-fashioned patriarch fell somewhere between Cliff Huxtable and Homer Simpson on the TV dad spectrum. But in the current moment, the series, which was created by future The Nightly Show host and Insecure co-creator Larry Wilmore, is perhaps more notable for its nimble single-camera style and its formal innovations, like the way it broke the fourth wall and used scribbled text-on-screen to pack the screen with jokes. Loyal viewers, who Mac addressed with the same boisterous familiarity he perfected in his stand-up, quickly keyed into the warmth, kindness, and love beneath Bernie's confrontational demeanor. That ability to mix big laughs with moments of poignancy might be the show's true legacy. -- DJ

taystee orange is the new black

56. Taystee (Orange Is the New Black)

Played by Danielle Brooks
Danielle Brooks' Taystee gets the lion's share of comedic moments on Orange Is the New Black. She's the light of Litchfield Penitentiary, encouraging mock job fairs, becoming a GED tutor, and fostering a community. Even though "the outside" did nothing but fuck her over, inside she can find solace and purpose. Her arc is also one of the most harrowing on the series, as she moves through grief, anger, depression, and a series of injustices once her best friend Poussey is killed. OITNB didn't spare fans' feelings with this one either: Taystee's plot shows the harsh reality of being Black, low income, and failed by yet another flawed system. -- SB

jessica huang

55. Jessica Huang (Fresh Off the Boat)

Played by Constance Wu
It was no secret how Constance Wu felt about playing Jessica Huang toward the end of the ABC series' six-season run: She was over it, wanting bigger challenges. But maybe it's because of Wu's comfort, having been able to explore the nooks and crannies of her role as the Taiwanese-American family's matriarch -- "I know [Jessica] like the back of my hand," she said in late 2019 after firing off tweets expressing her disappointment about the sixth-season renewal -- that Jessica was as strong a character as she was. (Very) loosely based off of Eddie Huang's memoir and adapted for TV by Nahnatchka Khan, Fresh Off the Boat was the first American sitcom about an Asian family since Margaret Cho's short-lived All American Girl in the mid-'90s, and while there wasn't a weak link in the core cast -- Randall Park is a delight in anything he does, and we hold a special place in our hearts for Ian Chen as Evan, the baby of the family -- it was Jessica who made sure her sons appreciated where they came from when she wasn't with Louis feeding Floridians meat and potatoes at Cattleman's Ranch. Credit is also due to series writer Ali Wong, who imbued Jessica with Wong's rambunctious sense of humor. -- LB

captain holt

54. Captain Holt (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)

Played by Andre Braugher
Andre Braugher was already a television star before he was cast on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but the Juilliard graduate was known for serious parts in serious shows like Homicide: Life on the Streets and Thief. It's not that Captain Holt doesn't have all the gravitas of a traditional Braugher role; it's just that he brings that gravitas to a zany comedy. Holt is the no-nonsense boss of the 99, meant to be a foil to Andy Samberg's goofy Jake Peralta. It could be a boring dynamic, but creators Dan Goor and Mike Schur wrote Holt to defy expectations at every turn. He's a gay man who loves his corgi Cheddar, the music of John Philip Sousa, and puns delivered dryly with a straight face. Far from being just a series of discordant traits, Holt is a fully realized human whose life and career has defied the odds of prejudice and who delivers dialogue with a positively Shakespearean flair. Recent conversations about how Brooklyn Nine-Nine propagates "copaganda" are not to be discounted, and, in some ways, Holt is example of just how effective that is. Even though his existence is part of a problematic system, it's hard to deny Holt and Braugher's collective brilliance. -- EZ

jason mendoza

53. Jason Mendoza (The Good Place)

Played by Manny Jacinto
This entry could just read "BOOOOOORTLES!" Is any character more full of joy than Jacksonville dum-dum Jason Mendoza? Jason was first introduced as Jianyu, a monk who had taken a vow of silence. But in one of the first major series twists, it turns out that he's not a pious man at all, but instead sweet idiot Jason, who died trying to rob a restaurant while doing whip-its in a sealed safe. The Good Place was filled with pointedly flawed misfits, and Jason was representative of the series' ingenuity and its heart. He's an absolute dirtbag, but a truly caring one. Sure, he never really fully understood the deeper concepts about ethical living the show wanted to impart, but he tried his best anyway and ended up a better person for that. -- EZ 

tyrion lannister

52. Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones)

Played by Peter Dinklage
It takes a lot to stand out amid the dynamic and fascinating characters that a land of ice and fire calls for, but Tyrion Lannister, the son of a warlord and brother to a literal knight in shining armor and a queen as vicious as she is beautiful, is the best of the bunch, his wry quips and acidic nature hiding a vulnerable heart of gold way deep down in there somewhere. Manipulation and plotting come second nature to a character like Tyrion, who has spent his life learning how to prove his worth with his mind instead of his might, but still he never let it corrupt him quite as completely as the rest of his family. His doomed romance with the sharp-tongued prostitute Shae was as gripping and tragic as any medieval romance, and his friendship with the sellsword Bronn was one of the most consistent bright spots of the series. Tyrion was able to escape from the Lannister family a hero, more or less, and delivered some of the best lines of the entire show along the way, going from "I am the god of tits and wine" to "A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone" at the flip of one of his treasury's many gold coins. In a way, his oft-quoted statement in the very first episode -- "Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you." -- can be read as the thesis of the entire show. -- ES

abed community

51. Abed (Community)

Played by Danny Pudi
There are few characters on this list that are as much the soul of their show as Abed is the soul of Community. Abed is everything Dan Harmon's sitcom is: Pop culture-obsessed, prone to meta digressions, untouchably nerdy. When the series begins, it's Joel McHale's Jeff Winger that's at the center of the narrative. He's the one with the logline hook: "Disgraced lawyer has to return to community college." But it quickly becomes clear that Abed is the person that holds the whole thing together. It's through Abed that Community takes its most daring detours: An entire episode mimicking My Dinner with Andre; stop-motion animation; it goes on. Credit goes to Harmon, of course, but Pudi also takes a character who could easily be a bunch of annoying tics and makes those tics sweet and bizarrely sensitive. -- EZ

desmond lost

50. Desmond Hume (Lost)

Played by Henry Ian Cusick
Let's get this out of the way: Lost was on the air for a long time, a result of its huge commercial success at a time when network hits were expected to run until the wheels fell off, and many of its main characters, no matter how invested you were in their journeys, were also incredibly annoying. Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, and even Locke all got on your nerves at one point or another. You know who didn't? Desmond Hume, the mysterious long-haired man living in the hatch and punching the same set of commands into a computer every day. In addition to getting the best introductory scene on a show that fully understood the importance of first impressions, kicking off the second season after the first season's massive cliffhanger, he also got best episode, Season 4's stunning "The Constant," a tricky love-story time-travel riff that lingers in the mind long after all the polar bears and Smoke Monsters fade from memory. -- DJ

dowager countess

49. Dowager Countess (Downton Abbey)

Played by Maggie Smith
If you want to pinpoint one reason Downton Abbey became a phenomenon, you might just have to go with the Dowager Countess. The series could have easily disappeared into the recesses of the Masterpiece archive if not for Maggie Smith's icy-tongued elder, doling out barbs like, "What is a weekend?" Sure, some may have been drawn to Downton's soap-operatic scandals, but Smith as the Dowager Countess made it downright funny. Though she was arguably the stuffiest character on a relatively stuffy show, her sardonic nature cut through all the etiquette. As the series went, the Dowager Countess's cracks became a crutch for the writers, but the freshness of her initial appearances never left our minds. -- EZ

jeremy peep show
Channel 4

48. Jeremy Usborne (Peep Show)

Played by Robert Webb
We at Thrillist are (clearly, by the looks of this list) big fans of mega-dipshits, and perhaps the biggest unironic puka shell necklace-wearing disphit of them all is Jeremy "Jez" Usborne, played with ultimate manchild energy by series co-creator Robert Webb. While Peep Show is firmly in socially awkward and brutally insecure Mark Corrigan's (David Mitchell) first-person domain, aimless wannabe electronic musician Jez was the crucially unself-aware and ego-centric half of the roommates' unlikely friendship. At the same time, Jeremy was a sweetheart deep down, walking Mark back from many an edge when his obsession with on-and-off office romantic interest Sophie (Olivia Colman) when it counted most, yet naive enough to be regularly taken advantage of by the uber-dirtbag Super Hans (Matt King) and others. For a character that experienced approximately zero growth throughout the show's nine season, Jez's hilarious unfussy presence and inability to read a room (or lie) remained a constant high point, thanks to Webb's spot-on affect and future Succession creator Jesse Armstrong's sharp writing. -- LB

celery man
Adult Swim

47. Celery Man (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!)

Played by Paul Rudd
The actual "Celery Man" sketch starring Paul Rudd, which aired on Adult Swim in 2010 and found a second life on YouTube, is less than two minutes long. In that time, we meet "Paul," a coffee-sipping office drone reporting to work in a sterile CINCO chamber, "Celery Man," a modifiable dancing mirror-image of Paul in a silver suit, and "Tayne," a slightly menacing, sunglasses-wearing Lynchian double of the more innocent Celery Man. Like most great art of the digital era, Celery Man is about the slippery nature of identity, examining the interplay between the demands of capital and the pull of desire. You can also read it as a Freudian model of the psyche: "Paul" is the ego, "Celery Man" is the super-ego, and "Tayne" ("NUDE. TARYNE.") is the id. It's a rich text, one of the many vivid creations in the ever-expanding comedic universe of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Load up Celery Man for yourself and enjoy. -- DJ

boyd justified

46. Boyd Crowder (Justified)

Played by Walton Goggins
They dug coal together. Throughout Justified's six-season run on FX, Timothy Olyphant's trigger-happy US Marshall Raylan Givens, the creation of legendary crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard, insulted, pursued, and occasionally unloaded his weapon at Walton Goggins' hillbilly mastermind Boyd Crowder, but they also shared a mutual respect and a sense of local history. Occasionally, the two Harlan County, Kentucky boys would team up if there was a dangerous enemy to bring down, allowing Crowder to shed his Wile E. Coyote antics and walk on the righteous path. But he would always stray. With his portrayals of in-over-his-head corrupt cop Shane Vendrell on The Shield, manically petty school administrator Lee Russell on Vice Principals, and tragically spiteful preacher Uncle "Baby" Billy on The Righteous Gemstones, Goggins has emerged as TV's premiere chronicler of charismatic male shitheel-dom, always finding humor and pathos in bad behavior. It must be the twinkle in his eye. -- DJ

ugly betty

45. Betty Suarez (Ugly Betty)

Played by America Ferrera
Safe to say there would be no Ugly Betty if not for Betty Suarez, America Ferrara's brilliantly portrayed ambitious, budding career woman bearing a big, impenetrably optimistic toothy smile with braces (at first) and unmistakable red glasses. As the lone Mexican-American of her office, she's surrounded by an unholy tribunal of shallow, beauty-obsessed (mostly white) people that populate the office of Mode, the high-fashion magazine she's hired at as an unfashionable, clumsy boner killer for the problematic new editor-in-chief, but in spite of every effort made to undercut her, other her, or scheme her out of a job, Betty finds a way forward. On one hand, she's naturally suited and gifted for a publishing gig; on the other, she's more resilient than anyone. That potent combination as she discovers the strength of her own agency while code-switching between her fancy Manhattan office job and modest home in Queens she shares with her dad, older sister, and younger brother is all enough to have you rooting for Betty from the very beginning and feeling personally slighted when others treat her poorly. As a send-up of the unrealistic standards of the beauty industry, Ugly Betty works, but as a character-driven story of Betty's journey to be her truest self, it shines. -- LB

ilana wexler
Comedy Central

44. Ilana Wexler (Broad City)

Played by Ilana Glazer
The New York of Broad City was an exaggerated version of the universe occupied by its stars and IRL friends Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. To that point, Ilana Wexler had all of the hilarity of the comedian she was based on cranked way up to 100. She's the best friend you wish you had: She's own to do hallucinogens on her day off, completely unhinged in her romantic life, and will do literally anything to see that you're happy, whether that means babysitting you post-surgery or trying to steal an air conditioner out of a dorm room. Ilana occupied a strange space where she was both a critique and example of white feminism. She was extremely passionate about various causes, but at times culturally appropriative and insensitive. And while everyone could learn a thing or two from Ilana's no-fucks-given confidence and carefree attitude, she's primarily a paragon of good friendship. -- SB

issa dee

43. Issa Dee (Insecure)

Played by Issa Rae
Issa Dee is great for many, many reasons -- her impeccable sense of style, her dead-on mirror raps, her intensely relatable man problems, her magnetic some-fucks-given personality, etc. -- but most of all, it's her individuality (plus, Issae Rae's performance, twice nominated for both an Emmy and Golden Globe) that puts her in the upper echelon of 21st century TV characters. Adapted for HBO, with the help of Larry Wilmore, from Rae's hit web series "Awkward Black Girl," Insecure wrote a new playbook for a proudly Black LA-based sitcom that was unlike anything that came before it. The series doesn't shy away from important, current discussions about race -- Issa Dee knows she's the token Black girl at her educational nonprofit workplace -- nor is it joyless or self-serious. Issa is a weirdo through and through, a trait that Black women have not really been afforded on TV before Insecure, cracking goofy, awkward jokes with her (ex-?) BFF Molly (Yvonne Orji) or indulging the kids she works with as they brutally own her. When Issa Dee is unapologetically herself, in happiness or heartbreak, we love her most. -- LB

nathan for you
Comedy Central

42. Nathan Fielder (Nathan for You)

Played by Nathan Fielder
In the opening of each episode of Nathan for You, Comedy Central's high-wire act of a reality show, host Nathan Fielder strutted towards the camera in slow-motion and noted in voice-over that he "graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with really good grades," flashing a report card of mostly B's and C's. At first, that's all you needed to know to get the joke, which involved Fielder pitching ideas like a gas station rebate that's only retrievable by climbing a mountain and answering riddles. As the show evolved from a stunt-filled satire of absurd business advice to something slipperier, culminating in the unclassifiable feature-length finale "Finding Frances," Fielder's own hang-ups and neurosis increasingly took center stage. Where did the show's "Nathan Fielder" end and reality's "Nathan Fielder" begin? That became the unanswerable question that makes Nathan for You so enduringly rewatchable, a prank-show with a human puzzle at its center. -- DJ

cookie empire

41. Cookie Lyon (Empire)

Played by Taraji P. Henson
In the first episode of Lee Daniel's music biz drama Empire, Lucious (Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson's Hustle and Flow counterpart) introduces his ex-wife Loretha "Cookie" Lyons as the "heart and soul" of Empire Entertainment, the label she co-founded before getting shipped off to prison for 17 years after taking the fall for their mutual drug offenses so that he could build, well, a musical empire. It's completely fair to apply that phrase on a more meta level: Empire would not be Empire without Cookie's eagle-eyed view of the entire playing field, prodding and pulling wherever she could to get a leg up, and her sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartrending mutable personality. Cookie reentered the world with proverbial guns ablazing at the start of the series and never let up on her fiery ambition, passionately supporting her sons' careers (particularly Jamal, who she knew was gay before pretty much anyone else), commanding attention in each and every room she walked into and demanding viewers pay special attention to whatever unfettered insight she was about to say next. (Plus, Cookie wore some of the most fabulous coats from any TV series ever.) With three Emmy noms and a Golden Globe for Henson's portrayal, it's about time that we got that Cookie spinoff series-- LB

walter white

40. Walter White (Breaking Bad)

Played by Bryan Cranston
Before he became a pop-culture lightning rod, the ultimate symbol of Bad Fandom, and a face printed on Heisenberg t-shirts, Walter White was just a guy running around the desert in his underpants. While the "Mr. Chips to Scarface" transformation, outlined by series creator Vince Gilligan in interviews over the years, was planted early on, the show's initial appeal was deceptively simple: watch Bryan Cranston, an actor most viewers knew from his more comedic turn as the obnoxious dad on Malcolm in the Middle, squirm out of unbearably tense, impeccably plotted suspense scenarios week after week. More than the murderous "I am the one who knocks" meth kingpin of later seasons, the early cancer-stricken chemistry teacher version of Mr. White, as Aaron Paul's slacker-student Jesse Pinkman called him, was the key ingredient that made the show so addictive. As the debates around the finale fade and the hyperbole around the show grows less suffocating, Cranston's performance is easier to appreciate as a piece of tragicomic acting. Every strained grimace on his face drew you further into the unfolding nightmare. -- DJ

charlie it's always sunny

39. Charlie Kelly (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

Played by Charlie Day
Charlie Kelly's sanity hangs by a single thread from his single remaining brain cell from huffing all that paint, and it certainly doesn't help that he shares a pullout couch for a bed with Frank (Danny DeVito) in a dingy apartment, is relegated to doing gross "Charlie work" at Paddy's Pub, and harbors an unhealthy infatuation for the extremely disinterested Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Charlie Day's real-life wife). He's one of the most maniacally unpredictable characters on TV -- for 14, going on 15, seasons! -- and whether he's ranting about bird law, drinking 70 beers on a cross-country flight, or pulling a whole damn musical out of his ass, Charlie is never dull to watch, nor does he make you regret humanity's very existence in the way that the conglomerate of chaotic evils -- Dennis, Mac, and Sweet Dee -- tend to. He's the one true wildcard-- LB

blanca pose

38. Blanca (Pose)

Played by Mj Rodriguez
Of the cast members on Pose, FX's groundbreaking show about the 1980s and 1990s ball scene, Billy Porter has gotten the most plaudits for playing Pray Tell, the balls' boisterous emcee. But it also often seems like the television establishment offers him deserving praise at the expense of the trans members of the cast. While Pray Tell is a vital part of Pose's narrative, it's Mj Rodriguez's Blanca who makes the show as revolutionary as it is. In the first season, Blanca forms her own house, the House of Evangelista, becoming a mother to a group of young queer people. Blanca rebuts the idea that a cable TV protagonist has to be troubled and conflicted; she is one of the most genuinely kindhearted characters on television, always operating from a place of love. -- EZ

michael scott

37. Michael Scott (The Office)

Played by Steve Carell
It's tricky to parse out the precise moment that liking The Office went from totally normal to the definitive feature of people's entire personalities, but it's no question that meteoric rise can be attributed to the one and only Michael Scott, the US's bubbly answer to The Office UK's insufferably dickish David Brent. Nobody could have delivered the same doltish childlike buffoonery of being an indisputably terrible manager, prone to calling unnecessary conference room meetings and being casually racist, while, ultimately, being a decent enough boss who genuinely cares about his employees like Steve Carrell did, cementing not only his comedic legacy as one of the most memed and beloved small-screen characters around, but the entire show's fairytale white-collar office dynamic of a dysfunctionally obsolete paper company. In a way, Michael Scott is both one of the best TV characters of this century and also its most irritating: It was instantly apparent that the show wouldn't work without him around after Carrell left in the seventh season, but he left behind troves of material that all those Office megafans won't soon let you forget. -- LB

david brent

36. David Brent (The Office)

Played by Ricky Gervais
The difference between the UK version of The Office, which ran for only two seasons and a holiday special, and its sunnier American counterpart, which marched to syndication and streaming immortality with nine seasons, can be summed up with one word: misery. Where Steve Carell's Michael Scott was a buffoon, Gervais's David Brent, the type of boss who could turn any workplace interaction into a lesson in humiliation, was a terror. For some, that makes Brent hard to watch -- unbearable, even. The tics of Gervais's performance, particularly the way he'd just ramble on and dig himself into a verbal hole while searching for a laugh or an ending to an anecdote, don't make for relatable GIFs or wacky quotes, and the show's wildly influential mockumentary style often intentionally drained punchlines of their potency. (The Office was very funny, yes, but it was also proudly drab.) But Brent, as conceived by Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant, will always edge out Scott precisely because of that all-too-human desperation, the quality that causes Lucy Davis's Dawn to dub him a "wanker" and a "sad little man" in the first episode. The show was willing to look the bleakness of Brent's "investment in people" philosophy right in the eye. -- DJ

taylor mason

35. Taylor Mason (Billions)

Played by Asia Kate Dillon
You might argue that the wildcard Wags, shark-eyed Bobby Axelrod, or either Wendy or Chuck Rhodes are the best characters of this show, but that would be ignoring an essential truth: Billions didn't get into its full fighting form until the wunderkind Taylor Mason came around to shake things up at the poker table at the beginning of Season 2. As the first-ever nonbinary character in a major role on television, Taylor wasn't just an important inclusion for LGBTQ+ representation, they've become the fulcrum of the Axe-Chuck pendulum and the grounding moral compass the two men try to pull into their favor. But Taylor is a bonafide genius, and while they might have fallen into Axe's elaborate trap before, they don't make the same mistake twice. As Billions has progressed, Taylor has figured out how to step out of the line of fire and exploit what they can from Bobby and Chuck's seemingly inevitable crash-and-burn, perhaps making them the savviest mind in the biz. -- LB

meredith grey

34. Meredith Grey (Grey's Anatomy)

Played by Ellen Pompeo
Meredith Grey belongs on this list partly thanks to mere longevity. Ellen Pompeo has been the constant force behind Shonda Rhimes' series for 15 years now. She's gone from the ambitious but messy resident having an affair with her boss to the elder stateswoman of Seattle Grace Hospital. By now, Grey's Anatomy has survived through countless incarnations and any number of truly insane plotlines, but when all else fails, you know you can turn to Meredith for a sense of consistency. And, hey, when Taylor Swift names a cat after you, you know you've made it. -- EZ

sydney bristow

33. Sydney Bristow (Alias)

Played by Jennifer Garner
Punching, kicking, shooting, and espionage-ing her way through the criminal underworld, Alias's savvy double agent Sydney Bristow covertly infiltrated her way onto our television screens in 2001, right at the peak of a blooming interest in globetrotting spies with cool little gadgets and secret identities. Sydney is beautiful, smart, and deadly, like a female Ethan Hunt with a mean streak and significantly cooler hair. Her many colorful wigs she wore to disguise herself on various jobs became so iconic they nearly deserve a place of their own on this list. The character would be fun enough just as a high-kicking leather-clad covert operative, but Jennifer Garner imbued Sydney with a depth and fragility not usually afforded to action heroines with lots of guns and eyeliner. She weeps for lost loved ones, allows herself to get candid with the few real friends she makes, and fixes her steely glare on the agents of international organized crime syndicate SD-6, whom she pretends to work for while informing on their actions to the real CIA, standing on the edge of a knife, forever balanced between trust and betrayal. -- ES

lorelai gilmore
Warner Bros. Television

32. Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls)

Played by Lauren Graham
It's Lorelai Gilmore's unconventional life story that gives Gilmore Girls its hook. She's a daughter of a Daughter of the American Revolution who ran away from her ritzy upbringing once she got pregnant in high school to raise her daughter on her own in a cutesy Connecticut town with the almost ridiculous name of Stars Hollow. Watching Amy Sherman-Palladino's series, it's hard not to dream of being in the little club Lorelai and Rory have made for themselves, joining in on the reference-laden secret language they've crafted or stuffing their faces with coffee and junk food. Lorelai could seem so fun to be around that it's often a shock when you realize just how frustrating Sherman-Palladino wrote her to be. Lorelai is stubborn to a fault, which is never more evident than in her interactions with her stuck-up mother Emily. Those two are more alike than either would want you to believe, both prone to digging their heels in when challenged in any way. The thing is: For as fun as she is, Lorelai can also be an asshole, which is why she's so fascinating to watch. -- SB

nick miller

31. Nick Miller (New Girl)

Played by Jake Johnson
New Girl was sold as a series about an "adorkable" girl played by Zooey Deschanel, but it was actually more about the men she lives with and their inability to deal with emotions. That sounds like sort of a bad thing, but New Girl's focus on the male psyche is what made it sing. Chief among those men-children is Nick Miller, played by Jake Johnson. Johnson gives easily one of the savviest sitcom performances in recent memory, somehow swinging from smoldering love interest to pitiable alcoholic in each half hour. He's one of the most believable drunks on screen, turning moments like the time Nick tries to eat a grape while extremely wasted a masterpiece of physical comedy. Nick's life is an absolute mess: He's a bartender with lingering daddy issues and a paltry bank account who doesn't know that you have to wash a towel. ("Towel washes me.")  Still, it makes sense that there's a cultish affection for the dude: Nick is alternately charming and relatable in his slovenliness, but then turns on the sex appeal when wooing Deschanel's Jess Day. Their first kiss is so deeply felt, it makes viewers weak in the knees. -- EZ

eve polastri
BBC America

30. Eve Polastri (Killing Eve)

Played by Sandra Oh
A villain as terrifying and electric as the psychopathic killer-for-hire Villanelle needs an opponent equally as dynamic, and Killing Eve's Eve Polastri, the MI5 paper-pusher who, in a series of unlikely events, is tasked by British intelligence with hunting Villanelle down and exposing her crime syndicate, is such a character. Played with a few generous shakes of Sandra Oh's trademark acid humor (with an assist by co-creator and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Eve is as brilliant as she is obsessive, her best intentions to stay sensible clouded by the desire she feels to get deeper inside the psyche of her quarry. The perpetual tango between Eve and Villanelle is one of the most thrilling relationships on television, their constant slingshotting around each other even more delightful than a classic will-they-won't-they romance. What's great about Eve is that she's just as odd (if not quite as bloodthirsty) as her counterpart, able to stand her ground and trade barbs with Villanelle even as she's losing her absolute shit at being in the same room as an international assassin. -- ES

joan clayton girlfriends

29. Joan Clayton (Girlfriends)

Played by Tracee Ellis Ross
In a quick scan of this list (or considering the vast majority of TV, really), not many characters jump out as the "role model" type, but Joan Clayton fits the mold -- not that it's a prerequisite or even necessary to come off as lovable. But there is a dearth of "good people" on TV. In Tracee Ellis Ross's breakout role on the UPN/CW series Girlfriends, Joan ticks off a bunch of boxes: She's driven, compassionate, positive, adventurous, funny, and, perhaps most importantly, imperfect, full of neuroses and anxiety that made her beautifully human. She was the glue of her girl group. At first, it was a toss-up whether we should include Joan or Ross's character Dr. Rainbow Johnson from Black-ish, but in the end it was a no-brainer: Without the success of Girlfriends, Tracee Ellis Ross might not have gone on to be the endearing, bubbly star we know her as today. -- LB

selina meyer
Colleen Hayes/HBO

28. Selina Meyer (Veep)

Played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus
In the fourth season of Veep, Amy, an underling to then-President Selina Meyer, has a breakdown. She gets in her boss's face and says, "The fact that you are a woman means that we will have no more women presidents because we tried one and she fucking sucked." It would have been easy to throw one of Veep's many hilarious supporting players on this list. Amy is a good candidate. So is human punching bag Jonah Ryan, whose rise over the course of the series is as damning as any of its indictments of American politics. But in the end, it had to be Selina herself. Amy is right; Selina fucking sucks. She's a corrupt leader, a mean mother, and just an all-around asshole. Thanks to a masterclass by Queen of TV Comedy Julia Louis-Dreyfus, she turns insults into vulgar poetry. Selina is also depressing to watch, as she sheds more and more of her humanity in pursuit of power. But that was Veep's ultimate point: Politics is a game for schmucks who are so consumed by their own ambition that they stop caring about anyone or anything else. -- EZ  

prince chappelle show
Comedy Central

27. Prince (Chappelle's Show)

Played by Dave Chappelle
Given his current place in pop culture as the Mark Twain Prize-winning, Netflix-special-releasing stand-up elderstatement, it's easy to forget that Dave Chappelle is also a gifted sketch comedy performer. On Comedy Central's short-lived-yet-influential Chappelle's Show, he created a number of vivid, hilarious original characters (Tyrone Biggums, Clayton Bigsby, Chuck Taylor) and skillfully lampooned a number of celebrities (Lil' John, Samuel L. Jackson, P. Diddy), often with an archness that helped sell the premise of the sketch. In the "True Hollywood Stories" segments, which debuted with an often quotable Rick James adventure, writer Charlie Murphy would share personal tales of encounters with celebrities in the '80s, narrating with a winning dryness and vulnerability. The show's portrayal of Prince, filtered through Murphy's memories and performed by Chappelle, is both mystical and relatable: He floats after dunking during a late-night basketball game and gets really competitive when challenged. He'll embarrass you and then serve you pancakes. There are funnier and more satirically piercing Chappelle's Show sketches, but the show's joyfully strange (and reportedly true) version of Prince might be its greatest achievement. -- DJ

veronica mars

26. Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars)

Played by Kristen Bell
Rob Thomas' teen noir may have one of the most elegant pilots of all time, mainly because it presents such a fully formed picture of its heroine. Veronica Mars could have easily been reduced to her sassy quips, but Thomas and actor Kristen Bell were deeply invested in showing a young woman whose life is rich with trauma even as she reinvents herself into a hardboiled snoop. Veronica is more than just a teen detective: She's a grieving friend, who lost her closest ally in a grisly murder; she's a rape survivor, who is also determined to seek justice for herself; she's a loving daughter, whose relationship with her father is one of the most touching ever put on screen; she's an outcast, who refuses to let her peers' jeers hold her down. It's sort of stunning how complete Veronica is from episode one, and while the rest of the series may have been always trying to recapture the magic of the first season, it was consistently a pleasure to let Veronica and all her foibles and attraction to misery enter our lives. -- EZ

moira rose

25. Moira Rose (Schitt's Creek)

Played by Catherine O'Hara
Moira Rose, the former soap star forced to relocate to the small town of Schitt's Creek after going broke, has an untraceable transatlantic accent, the gaudiest sense of style, and a deep rotation of absurd wigs. If all of that wasn't reason enough to include her we don't know what you're thinking, bébé. She may have arrived in the run-down town with a superiority complex like she was ripped from reality TV, but under all that wig she worked to become the matriarch she never was, for both her family and community. We love all of the members of the Rose family -- David with his neuroses and sweaters; Alexis with her vocal fry and tales of outlandish escapades -- but Moira is proof of all that a comedic legend like Catherine O'Hara can do when flexing her funny bones. -- SB 

nora durst
Van Redin/HBO

24. Nora Durst (The Leftovers)

Played by Carrie Coon
If there is any one thing that The Leftovers is "about," it's faith -- the concept of faith, the power of faith, and whether or not this whole faith thing is actually worthwhile or just something we make up so we can feel better. Nora Durst is primed from the beginning for an unending conflict with faith: In the "Sudden Departure," every member of her immediate family were among the 2% of the world's population that were inexplicably blinked out of existence. When we meet Nora, she's an agent of a government department that investigates and debunks Departure fraudsters, disproving their claims of an afterlife or reasoning behind the cataclysmic event that took away everything she held dear, but over the course of the series we watch her reluctantly open up to the possibility that there are real, tangible ways to reach her loved ones again. In her final monologue in the series finale, one of the best scenes of the whole show, she tells her former lover Kevin Garvey about the alternate reality she was zapped into, where she did indeed find the other members of her first family living happy and healthy lives. The show offers no proof that what she's telling Kevin is the truth -- what matters is that Nora, at last, believes in what she's telling him. -- ES

malcolm tucker the thick of it

23. Malcolm Tucker (The Thick of It)

Played by Peter Capaldi
Quite possibly the most quotable character on this list (though about 99% of those quotes are decidedly not fit to print), Malcolm Tucker is the Prime Minister's chief enforcer overseeing the British government's perpetually warring parties in Armando Iannucci's political satire The Thick of It. To be verbally abused by him has become, amongst the characters of the show, a rite of passage, as he frequently eviscerates anyone who ever makes a mistake, says something stupid, or is generally a nuisance, and his quest to keep the members of Government and Opposition toeing their respective party lines is nothing less than Machiavellian. With zero social life and the constant looming threat of profane outbursts on the horizon, it would be easy for a character like Malcolm to be a villain in a lesser show, but his bouts of obscenities with which he keeps his people in line -- referred to, by him, as "Violent Sexual Imagery" -- are deployed only and always for the common good. His rants and insult monologues are so legendary that they have been compiled into endlessvideocompilations for those times when we ourselves need a bit of an adrenaline rush. -- ES

diane lockhart

22. Diane Lockhart (The Good Fight)

Played by Christine Baranski
It's not often that a character in a beloved primetime series almost immediately gets their own spinoff when that series ends, but the world just isn't right without Diane Lockhart, previously a secondary character on The Good Wife, utilizing her sharp wit and deep knowledge of the workings of the law to make the world a better place. Initially planning to retire when The Good Fight picks up a year after its parent show, she's forced to keep working as a lawyer -- this time at all-Black firm Reddick, Boseman & Kolstad -- when she loses all her money in a Ponzi scheme. Whereas before she reigned supreme as a long-running name partner of her previous firm, The Good Fight sees Diane start from basically the bottom once again, fighting to prove herself worthy of her new position and champion the women's causes for which she's passionate. This version of her has breakdowns, panic attacks, and frequent bouts of self-doubt, but she's never not the cool, formidable, flinty-eyed Diane we'd hate to stand opposite from in a courtroom. -- ES

tracy jordan

21. Tracy Jordan (30 Rock)

Played by Tracy Morgan
There are a couple of characters on this list that are exaggerated versions of the people that play them, but at the top of them sits Tracy Jordan, a work of absurdist genius born from the combination of Tracy Morgan's inexplicably brilliant comedy and Tina Fey's joke writing. Tracy Jordan, the star of 30 Rock's TGS, is like if someone turned up the volume on Tracy Morgan. Tracy Jordan is a proud idiot who loves exotic, aquatic animals and is a diva of the highest order. Liz Lemon could have obviously claimed the 30 Rock spot, and it would have been well deserved. But no one makes us laugh more than Tracy Jordan -- from his conversations with pigeons to his motion capture performance as Garfield. ("The G train, Nermal!") And even as 30 Rock's legacy when it comes to its treatment of race has been worthy of reexamination and criticism, Tracy Jordan always managed to call out Liz's biases and stupidity in his own strange way. -- EZ 

vic mackey the shield

20. Vic Mackey (The Shield)

Played by Michael Chiklis
As people report spending hours in quarantine working their way through now-canonical TV shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, the legacy of FX's perpetually underrated The Shield feels shaky. It's on Hulu, available to stream at any moment, but is it getting discovered and discussed? Given its aggro reputation and familiar subject matter -- yep, another cop show -- The Shield can be a hard sell if you're not inclined to watch an often excrutiatingly tense, aesthetically grimy series with this song for its opening theme music. Created by writer Shawn Ryan after years spent writing the Don Johnson network police drama Nash Bridges, The Shield doggedly pushed against conventions, casting Chiklis, known as the good-humored star of ABC's The Commish, as a morally bankrupt detective who kills another cop to save his own ass in the pilot. That's the original sin the show then spent seven seasons digging into, building to one of the most satisfying (and devastating) finales in television history. -- DJ

lucille bluth
20th Century Television

19. Lucille Bluth (Arrested Development)

Played by Jessica Walter
Lucille Bluth is the kind of character destined for meme-dom. The matriarch of the corrupt Bluth family is not the only or even the first wealthy, bigoted, functioning alcoholic of an older white woman in pop culture, but she's definitely the best-written of the kind. It's no wonder you can't scroll through a thread of Twitter replies without seeing at least one of her reaction GIFs, or why so many of those "Is this a quote from Lucille Bluth or Donald Trump?" posts exist. We debated for a while which Bluth to include here. Was it Michael, the only "normal" one? Poor, sad George Michael? Maeby with her harebrained schemes? Buster and his litany of issues? Magician Gob? But really, there was no one but Lucille, played to perfection by Jessica Walter. Not only is Lucille memeable, she's the embodiment of the Bluths' Bush-era ignorance, perfectly content in her bubble of wealth. ("It's one banana, Michael, how much could it cost? Ten dollars?") Pour a shot of Cloudmir Vodka out in her honor because, as the GIF you know and love says, "Good for her." -- SB

tom wambsgans
Zach Dilgard/HBO

18. Tom Wambsgans (Succession)

Played by Matthew Macfadyen
Look, our obsession with the members of the Roy family -- the nasty and often downright evil media moguls at the center of Succession -- is well documented. However, Succession's best character is an interloper. Yes, it's Tom Wambsgans, Shiv Roy's partner/lapdog, portrayed with his tail perpetually between his legs by Matthew Macfadyen. Tom, let's be frank, is a fucking weirdo. His voice sounds like an affectation of New England new money, even though there's a hint of a Midwestern lilt. He's a consummate striver and opportunist, prone to his own bouts of cruelty, but has no idea how to read a room. He's like the loser at the party trying to keep up with the cool kids. His desire to be connected to the Roys only leads to repeated humiliation. (See, for instance, the sexual act he performs at his bachelor party. Also, "boar on the floor.") In spite of this, you can't help but feel sort of sorry for Tom, especially in the second season as Shiv slowly crushes his spirit. Tom is the human embodiment of the Roy's selfishness as he becomes a shell of himself who uses human ottomans and won't let you forget that you need to break a few Greggs to make a Tomlette. -- EZ 

arabella i may destroy you
Natalie Seery/HBO

17. Arabella (I May Destroy You)

Played by Michaela Cole
Is it recency bias to put a character from a show that just ended its run this high up on the list? Probably, but also a series as jaw-dropping as I May Destroy You rarely crops up on screens. Coel, also known for her more straightforwardly comedic series Chewing Gum, created and plays Arabella, a writer on deadline for a novel. After arriving back from a sojourn in Italy, she blows off steam by going out with an old friend. At some point in the night, she is drugged and raped. It would be so easy for "victim" to be Arabella's sole trait, but that's not the kind of writer and performer Coel is. Instead, we watch Arabella navigate her trauma. She's someone who, until this point, let her life be ruled by her own impulses, and now is reconciling that with the pain of what she endured. Arabella is painted in little details like her drunken exuberance that a DJ might play Hamilton and her obsession with social media. She's easily identifiable and entirely herself. -- EZ 

lizzie mcguire
Disney Channel

16. Lizzie McGuire (Lizzie McGuire)

Played by Hilary Duff
Lizzie McGuire's significance cannot be overstated. For many tweens in the aughts, she was like a built-in how-to guide for surviving adolescence. Lizzie was nothing more than a "regular" middle schooler: insecure, bratty, and not really sure of who she really is. Few young adult series feature teenagers as authentic as Lizzie. There's something comforting about watching a Disney Channel star screaming at her mom at the mall how much she wants a bra or wearing the totally wrong outfit for picture day. Sure, she got her fair share of teen dream moments, like locking lips with guest star Aaron Carter, but she always remained relatable in a way that kids could actually project themselves onto. Keep your boy wizards and superpowered teens from dystopian societies, there's something special about seeing a kid who's actually not so special. -- SB

forrest macneil
Comedy Central

15. Forrest MacNeil (Review)

Played by Andy Daly
It would have been easy for Comedy Central to have a more gonzo, hyperactive type playing a man obsessed with reviewing every single thing in the world, but it's Andy Daly's general frumpiness, his monochrome outfits and his downtrodden high school history teacher persona that give Review it's particular irresistible tone. Watching someone eat a ton of pancakes, hate it, and then find out they have to do it AGAIN is the height of comedy, but the show never lets you forget that what you're really doing is watching a man torture himself, losing his family, friends, and coworkers in pursuit of something completely pointless. The world Forrest MacNeil has chosen to live in is, on its surface, hilarious -- a man forcing himself to endure whatever experiences the Internet cooks up for him is inherently funny -- but there is a darker, nastier edge that boils just below the surface of things, blurring the line between commitment and obsession until, in its fittingly heartrending finale, the line is no longer blurry. There all is aching. -- ES

saul goodman

14. Saul Goodman (Better Call Saul)

Played by Bob Odenkirk
Saul Goodman went from the scuzzy lawyer of Breaking Bad to one of the most fascinatingly complex characters on TV in Better Call Saul, the spinoff origin story of how con man-turned-public defender Jimmy McGill became the go-to lawyer for the disaffected and deep-pocketed criminals alike with a corny-ass office and known for putting up tacky billboards and donning even tackier suits. Of course it's fun to watch Jimmy/Saul meet guys like Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) for the first time, knowing how deeply in it they were with each other by the time Walter White and Jesse Pinkman rolled around, but the reason Better Call Saul has arguably surpassed its predecessor is thanks to Bob Odenkirk's dramatic performance, vacillating between unscrupulous sleazebag opportunist and pitiable down-and-out man who lives in the back of a nail salon, takes care of his troubled brother and respected attorney Chuck (a very good Michael McKean), and hustles to dig up opportunities for himself despite subsequently botching practically each and every one. -- LB

olivia pope

13. Olivia Pope (Scandal)

Played by Kerry Washington
Even more than Homeland and House of Cards, Scandal was the defining political drama of the Obama era, a soap that turned the buttoned-up world of DC into a hallucinatory zone of murder, sex, and mayhem. Delivering rapid-fire monologues, carrying on a secret affair with the President, and pouring enormous glasses of red wine, Olivia Pope handled every crisis that creator Shonda Rhimes tossed in her direction with style and rigor. Election riggings, hijackings, and assassination attempts -- all just another day at the office. The first Black woman star of a network drama since 1974's Get Christie Love!, Washington tore into an often demanding, perplexing role, locating emotional depth in the show's tricky central romance while also selling every relentless plot twist. Even within the show's fractured ethical landscape, where characters would don the white hat or the black hat as the moment demanded, Olivia Pope stood out by maintaining complexity amidst the chaos. -- DJ

the colbert report
Comedy Central

12. Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report)

Played by Stephen Colbert
When The Colbert Report premiered on Comedy Central in 2005, it looked like a high-concept lark, a witty but unsustainable spinoff of Jon Stewart's slightly weightier Daily Show, which had hit its post-Kilborn creative stride during George W. Bush's presidency. How long could a comedian lampoon a right-wing blowhard like Bill O'Reilly before the joke got tired? The initial flimsiness of the premise, along with The Daily Show's grip on the zeitgeist, ended up being a gift to Colbert, who quickly began to playfully push the boundaries of segments like "The Word" and find his footing with the quasi-educational bits like "Better Know a District." Over time, he built out the emotional and intellectual scaffolding of his bizarre creation, crafting a funhouse mirror inversion of the pundit-scape. By the time Colbert hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner in character in 2006, delivering punchlines like "reality has a well-known liberal bias" directly to President Bush and a largely hostile audience, he was in total control of the persona. Even as political comedy has ballooned in the last decade, there really hasn't ever been anything else like The Colbert Report. -- DJ

amy jellicoe

11. Amy Jellicoe (Enlightened)

Played by Laura Dern
The Dernaissance of the past couple of years really came to fruition with two TV roles: Renata Klein on Big Little Lies and Diane on Twin Peaks: The Return. But while Renata was great for memes and Diane brought to life a shadowy figure from Lynch lore, neither are Dern's greatest turn on the small screen. Her masterpiece is Amy Jellicoe from the short-lived, under-appreciated HBO series Enlightened. Created by Mike White, who also co-stars, Enlightened opens with Amy having a very public breakdown at the company where she works, mascara strewn down her face as she confronts the man with whom she had an affair. Quickly, Amy goes on a retreat and returns to office life having branded herself a new woman, one who is more spiritually whole. What Dern pulls off is a delicate balancing act between the serene person who Amy hopes to be and the ambitious, occasionally unhinged person she hasn't completely rid from her psyche. Amy's desire to make the world a better place stems from her own unhappiness, and her altruism comes from a place of egoism. It's a constant battle between her impulses and intentions that make her incredible to watch. -- EZ

kenny powers

10. Kenny Powers (Eastbound and Down)

Played by Danny McBride
An ex-athlete with a rotten attitude, a curly mullet, and "an arm like a fucking ­rocket," Kenny Powers personifies an ultra-specific strain of American male egotism. Refining the Southern jackass archetype he introduced in 2006's indie karate comedy The Foot Fist Way, McBride, along with his frequent collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, dove into a deeply funny swamp of wounded pride, vulgar put-downs, and jet ski sight gags with Eastbound and Down, a series that melded the cringe-comedy of British shows like The Office with the bleak poignancy of '70s cinema. That the character lends himself to grand political comparisons -- depending on your vantage point, he's a proto-Trump gasbag or a post-Bush burnout -- only speaks to the symbolic elasticity of McBride's performance and the surprising texture of the filmmaking. He's also the one character on this list who listens to his own audiobook, a memoir titled You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In, while drinking beer in his car, and that has to count for something. -- DJ

elizabeth jennings

9. Elizabeth Jennings (The Americans)

Played by Keri Russell
The Americans used a little-known chapter of the Cold War to spin captivating television: What if there were agents of the Soviet Union posing as a regular old suburban family in the 1980s? Over The Americans' six incredible seasons, Elizabeth Jennings rarely cracked. The Russian spy played by Keri Russell was a soldier through and through, a woman who combated the idea that a mother has to be the more nurturing parent. To her neighbors, she's a suburban mom, but in reality she's more demanding and critical of her children. From the outset, it's Elizabeth rather than Philip, her husband from an arranged marriage, who is more loyal to her country and more willing to commit horrible acts without hesitating or flinching in the name of duty. Russell's performance is a marvel not only because of the many roles she plays as Elizabeth -- disguise is obviously the nature of the game -- but because of the way she shades a killer who, in another person's hands, could seem robotic. So when Elizabeth does finally snap, it's astounding. -- EZ 

al swearengen

8. Al Swearengen (Deadwood)

Played by Ian McShane
It's fitting that the final image of Deadwood's third season, which served as its ending until a recent TV movie comeback tied up some loose ends, was of Al Swearengen kneeling on the floor of his upstairs office scrubbing away at a bloodstain. Even compared to HBO's other violent Difficult Men sagas The Sopranos and The Wire, David Milch's 1870s-set quasi-Shakespearean Western series Deadwood was a brutal and dense show, one that staged the mythical history of American expansion in throat-slittings, shoot-outs, and trips to Mr. Wu's corpse-depository pigpen. With each elegantly deployed "cocksucker," McShane's Swearengen oversaw all the action from his balcony, pulling strings, securing his share of the town's wealth, and belting out foul-mouthed orders. Originally presented as the show's antagonist, the villainous flipside to Timothy Olyphant's justice-seeking Sheriff, Swearengen was the pragmatic embodiment of Milch's startingly empathetic worldview. Even when describing life as "one vile fucking task after another," he was quick to warn against getting too aggravated. After all, that's how they get you. -- DJ

blair waldorf
The CW

7. Blair Waldorf (Gossip Girl)

Played by Leighton Meester
Teen TV isn't as respected as it should be, but we here are bowing down at the altar of Queen B. Yes, Blair Waldorf was a character in Cecily von Ziegesar's series of scandalous YA novels before she was brought to life in Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage's CW series, but she bloomed on screen thanks to some of the best insults out there and a ridiculously savvy performance from the underrated Leighton Meester. Gossip Girl uses a classic Betty and Veronica dichotomy for its two female leads: Serena is the nice blonde while Blair is the bitchy brunette. And while her nasty bon mots are one of her defining qualities, our love for her is far deeper than just her snotty remarks, and, of course, those legendary headbands. Meester always somehow made us pity Blair even when she was at her nastiest. Her self-serving striving almost always led to self-sabotage, and she far too often let jealousy rule her life. Her way with words was just an armor, a strong one, but an armor nonetheless. Gossip Girl may have overstayed its welcome, and, in doing so, taken Blair in some unfortunate directions, but that doesn't change how sneakily brilliant she always was. -- EZ 

paper boi

6. Paper Boi (Atlanta)

Played by Brian Tyree Henry
Ostensibly structured around Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles' rise to fame, Donald Glover's surreal comedy Atlanta, shrewdly pitched as "Twin Peaks with rappers" at the outset, takes a subversive look at the modern star machine of the music industry. Equipped with a dry weariness and a subtle warmth by Brian Tyree Henry, Paper Boi is often treated as a commodity by even the people who know him best, including his cousin Earn, the show's Ivy League drop-out protagonist played by Glover himself. Every mixtape, single, and Instagram video is a chance at Worldstar immortality, an opportunity to get ahead in a city filled with aspiring one hit wonders and calculating would-be sidekicks, but the show is smart enough to see past the lie of stardom and to dig deeper than simply skewering music biz hypocrisy. In episodes like the Season 2 stand-out "Woods," Paper Boi confronts the ghosts of his past and the limits of his own persona, pointing the series in yet another thrilling new direction. Even if he's all "all about that paper," as his most noteworthy hit suggests, Alfred embodies the searching quality of the show around him. All the invisible cars, public access parodies, and Teddy Perkins appearances in the world can't compete with a guy trying to figure out his life. -- DJ

Amazon Studios

5. Fleabag (Fleabag)

Played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Dry, deadpan, and hopelessly (and, at times, very relatably) addicted to sex, Fleabag, spawned from creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge's one-woman show, is in a class all of her own, absolutely magnetic and charming even when her frequent fumbles in her quest to become a better person often unveil her nastier side. Fleabag contends with a seemingly endless stream of halfhearted hookup partners interrupted by the occasional ecstatic agony of falling in love with exactly the wrong person (Hot Priest, anyone?), while also dealing with her insane and equally self-obsessed family members, often drawn into their own personal problems. Watching Fleabag confront and work to live with her guilt, fear of abandonment, manic-obsessive tendencies -- you name it, really -- is vindicating and enthralling. The series' comedic form makes a lot of the tough pills so easy to swallow you might not even notice them go down. The show is almost unbelievably funny, and yet at the same time able to pin you to the floor, sobbing with disbelief at life's cruelty. Fleabag navigates these many hurdles with fleeting fourth wall breaks so artfully deployed you almost can't wait to see when the next one will pop up, offering an intimate connection to a character you might otherwise write off as a doomed mess. Instead, you root for her, desperately, and though there are times it seems impossible, you love her too much to even consider the fact that she might not be just fine in the end. -- ES

huey freeman
Adult Swim

4. Huey Freeman (The Boondocks)

Voiced by Regina King
No other character on this list comes in with as hot a series introduction as 10-year-old Huey Freeman, brought to life with the voice of Regina King, taking the mic at a bougie garden party attended by a predominantly white, hoity-toity crowd and announcing plainly, "Jesus was Black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9/11," inciting a WWE-meets-anime style riot of shock and disbelief. It might have just been a dream he was shaken out of by his grandpa Robert ("Making the white people riot... you better learn to lie like me. I'm gonna find me a white man and lie to him right now."), but the entirety of The Boondocks' opening scene impeccably laid out the tone that we'd see in the rest of Aaron Macgruder's adaptation of his (sometimes controversy-sparking) race- and class-challenging newspaper-syndicated comic: frank, irreverent, radically leftist, and funny as hell. The series as a whole is easily one of the most capital-R Revolutionary shows, animated and otherwise, that has ever been allowed to air on TV, and that's thanks to Huey's unwavering mindset as our narrator and guide through the world to sniff out racist and false societal truths that plague the collective consciousness. Named after Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, the grade-school orator Huey Freeman, inspired by historical world revolutionaries, never sacrifices his hardline ideals, to both his younger brother Riley and grandpa's oft-dismay, in favor of disrupting systems that oppress Black people through his activism. (The same soapboxing as a dissident is also what gets him into absurd scenarios, such as founding 23 leftist organizations or being called a domestic terrorist during a news broadcast on national TV.) Huey tells it like it is; he's also insanely good at martial arts. We're very lucky to be getting more of him in the HBO Max reboot-- LB

tami taylor

3. Tami Taylor (Friday Night Lights)

Played by Connie Britton
In contemporary television, particularly the shows that get written up on websites and celebrated on lists, canny ruthlessness goes a long way. Besides its intimate camera work, naturalistic performances, and small-town West Texas setting, Friday Night Lights -- the adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's nonfiction bestseller, which was turned into a sturdy Peter Berg movie in 2004 -- distinguished itself from the tonally darker critical hits of the '00s by radiating compassion. Not in a cheesy, This Is Us way, either. The show's rugged earnestness was best personified by Connie Britton's Tami Tayor, a school administrator who served as a moral beacon to the searching, flailing fuck-ups of the community. Aspirational but never saintly, Taylor provided folksy advice and hard-earned wisdom, often with a friendly "Hey y'all," while also serving as the backbone to a loving, tender, and nuanced portrayal of a functioning marriage. In a TV landscape where seething resentment and bubbling hostility often gets mistaken for sophistication, Britton and Kyle Chandler, who played the show's hard-charging Coach Taylor, showed that emotional maturity and mutual respect don't automatically lead to dull, smarmy writing. If more dramas had a Tami Taylor, the world might be a better place. -- DJ

omar little

2. Omar Little (The Wire)

Played by Michael K. Williams
On a show that prized unglamorous authenticity and moral ambiguity over standard cop drama catharsis, Omar Little, the shotgun-wielding, drug-dealer-robbing stick-up artist in a duster, almost scans as a writerly flourish. Though the character -- like most of the cops, dealers, lawyers, dockworkers, politicians, school kids, and journalists in the show's fictional Baltimore -- was based on a real person that writers David Simon and Ed Burns knew from their previous lives as a reporter and homicide detective, he had a fable-like quality, which was enhanced by Michael K. Williams's carefully modulated performance. Maybe that's why he quickly picked up so many admirers, including then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama. A fearless gay Robin Hood figure with a personal code of honor, Omar was simultaneously in the mix of the show's grim critique of late capitalism and hovering above it all, picking his targets and making his moves. An ensemble series to its core, going so far to sideline its roguish star (Dominic West) in its best season (four, obviously), The Wire has a mind-bogglingly deep cast of beloved characters. (Stringer Bell! Kima! Bunk! Lester! Prez! Bubbles!) But there's a reason why Omar called himself the king. -- DJ

peggy olson

1. Peggy Olson (Mad Men)

Played by Elisabeth Moss
If TV at the end of the 20th century was defined by the male antihero, TV at the beginning of the 21st was defined by a rebuke to that. After the so-called Golden Age of prestige television faded away, a variety of characters (well-represented on this list) were able to take the floor away from the brooding white male that was the typical center before. Mad Men is ostensibly the story of one of those very guys: Don Draper, a genius alcoholic philanderer with a mysterious past. But Mad Men's best argument was that Don was always a dinosaur, and not necessarily one that should be preserved. And that's where Peggy Olson comes in, the best TV character of the 21st century. Peggy begins the series as Don's naive assistant with a squeaky voice and an unfortunate ponytail. She's seduced by office sleaze Pete Campbell, until she quickly realizes that he is threatened by her own ambition. It's that spark that slowly starts to guide Peggy's narrative. She's a naturally gifted copywriter, who is encouraged by Don to pursue a career that's not afforded to her contemporaries, but is constantly forced to navigate the cruel boys' club that surrounds her. Yes, the success of Peggy as a character is due to writer and creator Matthew Weiner, but perhaps even more credit goes to to Elisabeth Moss, whose ability to transform with her character is startling. But Peggy herself is not just a virtuous avatar for girl power. She's angry and demanding and critical of the people around her, especially other women. Her relationship with Joan, the only other woman with any sort of power at Sterling Cooper, is indicative of that. It is not a warm and fuzzy feminist collaboration. But it's also impossible not to root for Peggy's ascent, which is why the most indelible image of the series is of her, cigarette in mouth, walking into her new firm with Bert Cooper's octopus porn painting, facing outward, under her arm. -- EZ

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