Here in the world of television fandom, we rely on our main characters to keep us hooked on our favorites series year in and year out, and it’s inarguably a tough job, both for the actors and for the creative teams. Unlike a movie, in which we only get a limited amount of time to spend with the leads, TV shows last for as long as they need to, sometimes even longer. So it’s truly the cream of the crop that rises to the top of our collective conscious and memories.
For a survey put forth by Empire Magazine, they asked their movie and TV fans to offer up their favorite characters of all time, and the people predictably responded in droves, with around 10,000 of those polled choosing their favored icons. It’s a wonderfully mixed bag of characters that skew somewhat modern and somewhat classic, and though a few of them are actually nice people, many of them are quite deadly. We love our dark dramas! So without further ado, here are the 10 greatest TV characters of all time, according to the fans.
10. Frank Underwood (House of Cards)
The one U.S. President (at least in a fictional capacity) to make this list, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is good at nothing if not getting people on his side with a captivating approach to conversations – he talks directly to his audiences, no matter what side of the screen they sit or stand. Sure, he’s not always the most reputable husband or boss, but TV viewers are neither married to him nor employed by him. We just like seeing how he works, because it’s usually with an iron thumb and the oval office surrounding him. Heaven help us if someone like Frank Underwood ever actually makes it to the White House in real life.
9. Omar Little (The Wire)
Not many of the characters on this list get namechecked within a show’s most memorable catchphrase, but “Omar comin’!” didn’t take long to enter many a Wire fans’ lexicons. Even if a huge chunk of the dense and acclaimed drama’s fandom arrived at the scene after the show had already completed its run on HBO. Through Michael K. Williams’ hardcore performance, Omar Little became an anti-hero on the streets of Baltimore, appearing more comparable to a modern Robin Hood than to the rest of the criminals and drug dealers populating the streets. The guy wields a shotgun like no one else in fiction, and he has the most frightening whistle since Fritz Lang’s M.
8. Jack Bauer (24)
If Jack Bauer were to offer a thank you to voters for putting him in this list, you can be sure that he would do it by guttural yelling, probably while swinging a gun around. Through 8 seasons of 24, plus a miniseries, Kiefer Sutherland’s tough-as-nails anti-terrorist warrior saved not only the President and millions of others in the United States, but also people across the world. We can only assume that conversations were had about making him an astronaut and saving the galaxy for future seasons, because not even aliens with technology beyond our own can handle the combination of Jack and Chloe.
7. Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Sadly the only female on this list, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy Summers is a given, as she’s one of the most heroic ladies in TV’s history, in large part thanks to Joss Whedon’s writing. After all, not only did she become ten shades more enjoyable reputable than her big screen cheerleading counterpart, but she’s capable of taking down the most monstrous and lowly of enemies with both brains and brawn. (She’s also the only high school-turned-college student on this list, so she’s identifiable to people of all ages.) Created as a way to subvert the age-old female victim stereotype, Buffy could possibly destroy everyone else on this list in a one-on-one battle, no wooden stakes necessary.
6. Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)
Sherlock Holmes has existed in hundreds of forms over the years, on the page, screen, stage, and more. So it would take an extremely memorable portrayal to bring the age-old character back to the forefront of pop culture, and Benedict Cumberbatch delivers just such an unflappable performance as the brilliant titular detective for the acclaimed Sherlock, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Sure, the extended episodes almost feel like a series of richly produced films, giving Sherlock an advantage in sticking around people’s brains, but then he might deduce that it’s because of another reason entirely, simply because you’re holding your umbrella in your right hand. Elementary conclusions for Watson, but a most superior delivery by Sherlock himself.
5. Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
With a mouth filthier than the streets and sewers of New Jersey, Tony Soprano is one of television’s most ruthless and intimidating characters, sometimes more so because audiences are meant to side with him and understand him at times. Anchored by a dependably and intensely brilliant performance by James Gandolfini, Tony remains an influential monolith in a television landscape that has come to embrace fear-inducing kingpins, and one that is easily capable of giving audiences panic attacks while he’s in the middle of having one himself. His legacy remains strong, not only because he’s capable of choking out the competition, but because Sopranos creator David Chase famously left the show’s finale open-ended, allowing audiences to imagine his future however they liked.
4. The Doctor (Dr. Who)
Because one good turn of the sonic screwdriver deserves another, the great Doctor’s place on this list was secured by the combined accomplishments of twelve different actors who have informed the Doctor Who legacy for more than 50 years. The era-spanning Time Lord matches all of the requirements for a great TV character: funny, serious, heroic, and fallible (among other traits). Plus, you can pick your favorite, with the most current incarnation being played by Peter Capaldi. This is also the one character on this list whose different versions will sometimes meet up for certain episodes and specials, and the one who has his own super-famous vehicle: the TARDIS.
3. Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)
If only we could all become insanely beloved for drinking beer all the time, loving donuts and other foods, and making all of the worst mistakes in a professional, legal and marital setting. (Not to mention teaching a lesson to our misbehaving slacker children by harmlessly choking them.) Homer Simpson has been humorously terrorizing people’s lives, particularly Ned Flanders’, for all 26 years that The Simpsons has been on the air, and though the series as a whole has seen some dips and downfalls, the man himself has remained one of the most popular and quotable TV characters of our time. Mmm, magazine surveys.
2. Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones)
It’s almost surprising to see Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister on this list, but for no good reason, as this dwarf wordsmith is a definite standout amongst the plethora of characters in the Game of Thrones universe. A social and familial underdog, Tyrion has surpassed all odds and damning circumstances mostly by using his quick wit, talent for speeches, and by making friends with people whose loyalty stands firm. Of course, he can be extremely wicked and deadly when he wants and needs to be, and one only wishes that he got to spend time with every other character in Westeros for at least one conversation. Thankfully, we’ll still see him for at least one more season, though probably several past that as well.
1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Say. His. Name. Before 2008, no one expected a chemistry teacher who turned into a meth-cooking crime lord to become one of TV’s most engaging characters, much less arguably the greatest one of all time. Chalk that up to the stellar vision by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and actor Bryan Cranston, whose portrayal of Walter “Heisenberg” White was one of the most consistently powerful and complex performances in the medium’s long history. Almost everything he did was guided by illegal motivations, and yet his millions-strong fanbase only wanted to see him succeed. After all, he was doing it for his family, wasn’t he? Not exactly, and that shift towards personal supremacy just made him all the more fascinating.
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Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.
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