20 Best TV Characters of the Past 20 Years

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20 Best TV Characters of the Past 20 Years

If we're honest with ourselves, we don't have favorite TV shows; just shows featuring our favorite TV characters. Networks have openly acknowledged this reality by creating spin-offs like Joey and Angel, based around characters from established hit shows. Can you imagine an episode of Seinfeld without Kramer bursting through the front door with a crackpot scheme in tow? Great TV characters shape the culture in which we live. They become a sort of adopted relative we all share—that crazy uncle or aunt whose exploits we laugh about and pick over with delight. Even when they're gone, they live on in re-runs like old family movies. If we consider our dogs and cats family, why rule out Homer Simpson? In that spirit, here are Paste's 20 favorite TV characters of the past 20 years (limiting ourselves to one character per show so as not to stack the deck with the entire cast of Arrested Development). Viva la Tivo!


20. Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce)
Frasier, NBC, 1993-2004

Of all the Crane family’s neuroses, peccadilloes and quirks, Niles’ were always the most ridiculous—and most endearing.

“I’m afraid of what the humidity might do to these loafers. Does calfskin pucker?”

19. Angela Chase (Claire Danes)
My So-Called Life, ABC, 1994-1995


Her nervous hair-flip, semi-requited love and existential confusion made the world less-lonely for the sort of artsy grunge-era high school kids who would go on to rule the world, or at least work at indie magazines.

“I’m in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. He was left back—twice. Once I almost touched his shoulder in the middle of a pop quiz. He’s always closing his eyes, like it hurts to look at things.”

18. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The WB/UPN, 1997-2003


In a series full of memorable characters--many of them admittedly more fun than its titular star--it was Buffy Summers that anchored them all and made the multiple layers and marked character arcs work.

"Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or... God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again."

17. Andy Botwin (Justin Kirk)
Weeds, Showtime, 2005-present

As the mischievous, hornball brother of lead character Nancy Botwin’s deceased husband, Judah, Andy is forced into the thankless male role model position for Nancy’s two sons, Silas and Shane. Turning an unfortunate situation into one rife with hilariousness, he gives the boys frank, real-world advice on a regular basis.

Andy Botwin: “If anything happens to you, I will raise Silas and Shane as my own.”
Nancy Botwin: “Okay, now I pledge never to die.”

16. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff)
Battlestar Galactica, SCI-FI, 2004-Present


Science fiction was already full of bad-ass heroines, but most were created in the two-dimensional image of sci-fi geeks’ dreams. Starbuck is a renegade fighter pilot who can’t be tied down, a flawed savior of the human race.
Apollo: “So what’s the charge this time?”
Starbuck [in the brig]: “Striking a superior asshole”

15. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie)
House, FOX, 2004-present


To quote his boss, House is “an egomaniacal, narcissistic pain in the ass.” But he can diagnose a waiting room full of patients in a minute on his way out the door, so, whatever.

“Slippery slope—today we withhold porn, tomorrow it’s clean bandages.”
14. Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco)
The Sopranos, HBO, 1999 - 2007


The straight man to her husband Tony, Carmela is the emotional rail the show rides on. Her joy, passion and anger serve as a mirror in which all the faults and all the virtues of Tony are reflected.

To Tony: “What's different between you and me is that you're going to hell when you die.”

13. Eric Cartman (Voiced by Trey Parker)
South Park, Comedy Central, 1997 - present


This selfish, foul-mouthed, hippie-hating, cartoon brat is the antithesis of political correctness; an Archie Bunker for a new generation. Over the last decade, he’s been the perfect vehicle for broaching taboos Americans are too terrified to engage in polite conversation.

“Think about it—it’s the easiest music in the world right? If we just sing about how much we love Jesus, all the Christians will buy our crap!”

12. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen)
The West Wing, NBC 1999-2006


If the United States government had a quarter for every time a West Wing fan sighed longingly at the television and asked why our real president couldn’t be more like this witty, wonky, soulful commander-in-chief, we could erase our $9.6 trillion national debt.

“While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight Ass club, in this building, when the president stands, nobody sits.”

11. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams)
The Wire, HBO, 2002 - 2008


The hardest television gangster in recent memory is a gay, shotgun-wielding outsider who was more principled than the entire Baltimore Police Department.

“I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?”

10. Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham)
Gilmore Girls, The WB, 2000-06, The CW 2006-07


For those of us who wish we could be chums with a parent—or, at the very least, carry on an amicable conversation regarding something more consequential than the humidity index—Lorelai is there to make us sigh for what could’ve been. And, maybe more importantly, laugh to forget what is.

“You’re 19 now, remember? You’re all grown up, and you can handle your own affairs. Sorry. That’s a bad choice of words. You can handle your own life events.”

9. Stewie Griffin (voiced by Seth MacFarlane)
Family Guy, Fox 1999-present (with two cancellations)


Griffin has stolen many a scene during Family Guy’s run. Whether he’s trying to kill his own mother, cracking wise on the lack of intellect around him or simply battling with his baby status and it limitations, Stewie is a joy to watch.

“Hey, Brian, remember me? I’m the guy you left standing at the counter at McDonald’s with a bag full of burgers. You know it’s funny, I tried to walk home and, um, a lot of hungry deer walking around at this hour of the night and, um, oh here’s where the story gets fun, uh, you may have noticed I’m missing an ear."

8. Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson)
Lost, FOX 2004-Present


A creepy ferret of a man who murdered his own abusive father and the rest of the DHARMA initiative, Ben is always three steps ahead of everyone—a villainous strategist on an island of confusion.
His daughter Alex: “You put my boyfriend in a cage and then you locked him in a room and tried to brainwash him!”
Ben: “I didn’t want him to get you pregnant. I suppose I may have overreacted…”

7. David Brent (Ricky Gervais)
The Office (U.K. version), BBC 2001-2003


There would be no American Office—no Dwight Schrute, no Michael Scott, no Jim & Pam—if Brent hadn’t set the uproarious prototype for arrogant workplace incompetence. 

“I’m an educator. I’m a motivator of people. I excite their imaginations. It’s like bloody Dead Poet’s Society sometimes out there. You know at the end, where they all stand on the tables?”

6. Karen Walker (Megan Mullally)
Will & Grace, NBC 1998-2006


The woman has a maid, a butler, a driver, a private detective, a pharmacist and a backup pharmacist. And she calls them all “honey.”

“You say potato, I say vodka.”

5. Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta)
The Simpsons, FOX 1989-Present


Springfield is packed with amazing characters from Mayor Quimbly to Duffman, but no one else has saved a space shuttle by eating potato chips in zero gravity or beat out Dexy’s Midnight Runners for a Grammy. Homer is so complex, he couldn’t even begin to understand himself.
“Lisa, if you don’t like your job, you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.”

4. Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards)
Seinfeld, NBC, 1989-1998


The quintessential wacky neighbor thrived so long on set-piece absurdism that he developed his own internal logic—after awhile his antics made a strange kind of sense, as though (to borrow a sentiment from Cher) the world was crazy and he was sane.

“After he heckled Toby, she got so upset she ran out of the building and a street sweeper ran over her foot and severed her pinkie toe. Yeah, then after the ambulance left I found the toe. So I put it in a Cracker Jack box, filled it with ice and took off for the hospital.”

3. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven)
Entourage, HBO 2004 - present


were as surprised as anyone when the most likeable character on HBO’s Entouragematerialistic, insult-spitting Hollywood agent. As the show wore on and you began to glimpse the fears and insecurities he’d spackled over with machismo, Ari went from mere laugh-drawing caricature to sympathetic anti-hero.

“You know what they feed people on an indie set, Vinnie? Nothing! They don’t give you a trailer. They tell you to go sit on an apple box. Ever try to bang an extra on an apple box?”

2. Dwight K. Schrute (Rainn Wilson)
The Office, NBC 2005 - present


The perfect mix of egomania, insecurity, eccentricity, arcane knowledge and gullibility, Wilson’s hilarious, socially inept paper salesman almost always steals the show—quite a feat with such a stacked ensemble cast.
“In the wild, there is no health care. In the wild, health care is, ‘Ow, I hurt my leg. I can’t run. A lion eats me. I’m dead.’ Well, I’m not dead. I’m the lion. You’re dead.”

1. George Oscar “GOB” Bluth II (Will Arnett)?
Arrested Development, FOX, 2003-2006


No character holds a candle (or, in this case, a chocolate-covered banana) to the eldest Bluth brother, whose belligerent cluelessness, magic tricks—err, illusions—and damned Segway scooter have unquestionably propelled him into T.V. legend. (Cue “The Final Countdown.”)

“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.”