The 20 Best TV Characters of 2011

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Unlike the 120 minutes of a feature film, we get to watch our most beloved TV characters develop over the course of several seasons. The best of them become dear to us, even if they—like many on this list—would make terrible friends. Limiting ourselves to two per show (sorry Jesse Pinkman), here are the best TV characters of 2011.

10. Tom Haverford – Parks and Recreation
Actor:   Aziz Ansari  
Network: NBC
This has been Tom Haverford’s year to shine on Parks and Recreation. So far he and pal Jean-Ralphio have launched (and lost) their own super-dope entertainment company, Entertainment 720, and along the way Tom has developed a potential love interest in Lucy, reminded us all that sometimes it’s best to “Treat Yoself!” and inspired the Tom Haverfoods meme (“do-ri-ris,” anyone?).—Bonnie Stiernberg

9. Louie – Louie
Actor:   Louis C.K.  
Network: FX
In the second season of Louie, comedian Louis C.K. continues his portrayal of a fictionalized version of himself, leading the viewer through a wide variety of tribulations: raising two little girls, dealing with crazy relatives, struggling in the comedy business, going home with a swinger and getting repeatedly rejected by Pamela (Pamela Adlon). Though obviously a comedic show, Louie often addresses more serious issues with a high degree of warmth and honesty (such as the hourlong episode where Louie goes to the Middle East to entertain the troops). It hinges on C.K.’s unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a divorced man in his mid 40s and the world he finds himself in. —John Barrett

8. Charlie Kelly – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Actor: Charlie Day
Network: FX
In a cast full of douchebags, the childlike ball of energy played by Charlie Kelly comes off as more endearing than despicable. It’s easy to understand why some might not like most of the characters from It’s Always Sunny, but not Charlie. Even when he’s huffing spray paint or traversing the sewers, Charlie always brings the audience to his side. He’s the personification of what makes It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia such a great show: perverse, loud, crude and surprisingly likable.—Ross Bonaime

7. Walter White – Breaking Bad
Actor:   Bryan Cranston  
Network: AMC
Walter White has come a shockingly long way from being an innocent chemistry teacher to a selfish, murderous meth dealer with little he won’t do to get ahead. In the fourth season, White goes further down the rabbit hole—transforming from the series’ protagonist to one of its villains. Yet Bryan Cranston walks the line brilliantly between calculated psychopath and sympathetic family man. In a show that always leaves the viewer guessing what will come next, Walter White always assures that whatever it is will surely make his character darker and more despicable. —Ross Bonaime

6. Dexter Morgan – Dexter
Actor: Michael C. Hall
Network: Showtime
The character development of Dexter Morgan over six seasons has been fascinating to follow. If Season One saw us trying to come to terms with our empathy towards a serial killer, Season Six sees us cheering an old friend’s slow progression towards something akin to humanity. His moral code is still a world away from ours, but he often does a better job adhering to it than the rest of us.—Josh Jackson

5. Liz Lemon – 30 Rock
Actor:   Tina Fey  
Network: NBC
Arguably the most consistently funny female character on TV, Liz Lemon spent season five of 30 Rock searching for a missing Tracy Jordan, leading a mutiny against her pilot boyfriend Carol (Matt Damon) after their plane gets stuck on a runway, waging war against a plastic bag stuck in a tree and stripping down for a fake pregnant photo shoot—all the while spitting out the hilarious witticisms that have earned Fey more than a handful of major awards. Our only complaint is that Fey’s real-life pregnancy means we’ve got to wait until January for Season Six to premiere. Aww, nerds!—Bonnie Stiernberg

4. Barney Stinson – How I Met Your Mother
Actor:   Neil Patrick Harris  
Network: CBS
The word “awesome” was made to describe Barney Stinson. He suits up, proclaims the night will be legendary regardless of how disappointing it looks like it will be and he always, always accepts a challenge. He’s become more the main character than Ted, and we’re okay with that. He’s guided Ted through years of whining, provided Marshall with a job, Lily conceived her baby on his bathroom floor and we can’t forget his discovery of Robin’s pop-star past. Neil Patrick Harris has provided non-stop laughter as the ladies man that so many other shows have since tried, and failed, to replicate. NPH changed the archetype and set the bar high.—Adam Vitcavage

3. Gustavo Fring – Breaking Bad
Actor: Giancarlo Esposito
Network: AMC
We couldn’t take our eyes off TV’s most compelling villain since Stringer Bell for the same reason we couldn’t take them off Stringer—we didn’t know whether or not to pull for him amidst all the other morally ambiguous characters on the show. It was hard not to cheer on his revenge against the Mexican cartel. His meticulous dress, his unassuming charm as a restaurateur and the masterful game of chess he played with Walter all season made him a fan favorite. And he finished the season with a bang. —Josh Jackson

2. Ron Swanson – Parks and Recreation
Actor:   Nick Offerman  
Network: NBC
An idea that’s recently popped up on the Internet purports that Ernest Hemingway never actually died; he just became Ron Swanson. Swanson may not have written A Farewell to Arms but he did create the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. The mustachioed man’s man loves his meat, brunettes and breakfast, and his incredibly droll sensibility plays great off the always perky Leslie Knope. Swanson essentially plays father figure to the entire Pawnee Parks Department, giving words of wisdom to Leslie, being an unusual role model to April and a guiding force in Tom Haverford’s career. He likes eating turkey legs wrapped in bacon, playing saxophone under the code name Duke Silver and burying his gold around the town—or does he? In four seasons, Ron has become the standout in a cast of incredible characters, and already seems poised to join the elite list of TV’s greatest comedic characters. —Ross Bonaime

1. Abed Nadir – Community
Actor:   Danny Pudi  
Network: NBC
I can’t think of another character like Abed in TV history. Emotionally detached and good-hearted, Abed’s undiagnosed Asperger’s looked like it would make him the butt of jokes in early episodes—like he would be playing the Woody or Coach role of the gang. It quickly became apparent, though, that he was actually the show’s emotional center—that everyone around him was a little disturbed, and he would be the one holding it all together. And when he reached that point of emotional overload in Season Two, the result was “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” Community‘s best episode that didn’t involve paintball. His pop-culture obsessions and antics with his buddy Troy have made for some of the show’s finest moments, particularly the closing segments like the absurdist Troy and Abed in the Morning.—Josh Jackson

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