The 20 Best TV Characters of 2012

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Nothing makes for better television than an original, deeply developed character, and TV is full of them right now. Limiting ourselves to two per show (and being judicious even when adding that second character), we’ve rounded up our favorites. Here are the 20 Best TV Characters of 2012.

10. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Sherlock, PBS
Benedict Cumberbatch  dumps the tweed jacket and academic monologues for his enigmatic take on the modern Sherlock Holmes. A cerebral adrenaline junky who cares more about filling the void with mysteries then helping their entwined victims, Sherlock is the most likable sociopath on television. The second season even debated whether Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) was a valued partner or an oblivious pawn under Sherlock’s suspected subterfuge. In a series filled with underground military hallucinogens and information-trading dominatrices, Sherlock still remains the greatest mystery of all. And don’t even get him started on that deerstalker hat.—Sean Edgar

9. Schmidt (Max Greenfield)
New Girl, Fox
On New Girl, no one has garnered more laughs than Schmidt. He’s a cocky, organized, control freak who is prone to making himself more so with every episode and unusual Schmidt witticism. Out of all the characters, including Jess, Schmidt has probably become the most complex and fleshed-out—something that seemed entirely unlikely after watching him put money in the “deuche jar” when he was first introduced. We now know more about his past, his job, why he is who he is and his romantic life than any of the other characters. It almost seems like Schmidt is becoming the lead, and we’re okay with that.—Ross Bonaime

8. Peggy Olson
  Mad Men, AMC
Peggy Olson has come a long way since that awkward first day as a secretary at Sterling Cooper—too long, in fact, to remain shackled in an office where she never gets the credit. But it’s impossible to imagine Mad Men without its best character, an icon of feminism in a show filled with chauvinism. Please, Matthew Weiner, more Peggy.—Josh Jackson

7. Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari)
Parks & Recreation, NBC
Parks & Recreation, the sitcom with the deepest, most consistent cast this side of Modern Family, is breaking the Seinfeld rule: Characters are growing. They are learning. Aziz Ansari’s starry-eyed Tom Haverford joins Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson this season in showing a nearly shocking new maturity. Where Swanson is tolerating children to get the girl, Haverford’s new let’s-do-this-right approach to life and business is more comprehensive. Ansari, transcending his typical Haverford puppy dog demeanor with some real soul, is adding surprising range to a character we thought we had pegged.—Nick Purdy

6. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)
  Game of Thrones, HBO
Tyrion has always been the most accessible entry into the epic world of Game of Thrones, and while we enjoyed watching him own his nickname (The Imp) causing trouble wherever he went, he became even more interesting as he decided to both use his cunning to rise in power and use his that power to bring some much-needed mercy and justice to the realm. What he lacks in size he makes up for in intelligence, but he’s as surprised as anyone to learn that he’s a natural leader. It was Tyrion who found the courage of the lions on his family’s crest after a season of self-discovery.—Josh Jackson

5. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman)
  Parks and Recreation, NBC
Already a favorite, the meat-loving, wood-working, government-loathing, friend-tolerating mustache that is Ron Swanson grew a little in complexity this past season by falling for a single mom. While his idea for a fresh-pork barbecue to thank city park employees might not have been without its drawbacks, the solid rock of Pawnee allowed himself to be the slightest bit vulnerable, even letting his new girlfriend in on the secret of Duke Silver. Ron Swanson is on our Pyramid of Greatness.—Josh Jackson

4. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith)
Downton Abbey, PBS
It’s often hard to pin down the best character in shows featuring massive ensembles. Not so with Downton Abbey. As Britain’s upper-class faces the shifting sands of societal change spurred on by a World War, Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess serves as a reminder of the rigidness that came even earlier. But those times when her saucy air of unapproachable superiority cracks to show the humanity beneath are just as much a joy to watch as when she casually delivers her trademark piercing barbs.—Josh Jackson

3. Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi)
Community, NBC
We didn’t get to see enough of Abed in 2012, but he made his appearances count. It would have been easy for creator Dan Harmon to make the socially awkward Middle Eastern guy the target of his easiest jokes, but Abed is the emotional center of Community. His undiagnosed Asperger’s is a real challenge for him, and Season 3 explored the darker side of his issues. But much of what’s great about the show stems from his uniqueness—there’s no one else remotely like him on television. His pop culture obsessions, his friendship with Troy and his dry wit are now so well established that I have hope the show can excel even without Harmon at the helm.—Josh Jackson

2. Walter White (Bryan Cranston)
Breaking Bad, AMC
From the very beginning, Breaking Bad has been about one man, slowly losing his soul. When we first met Walter White, he was the underdog anti-hero, a chemistry teacher beaten down by life, trying to find a way to end his life with a win by providing for his family. Halfway through the final season, motives have changed, and the journey from anti-hero to the show’s villain near complete. Leaving nothing but destruction in his wake, the only thing with a victory is hubris.—Josh Jackson

1. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey)
  30 Rock, NBC
At this point, we don’t need to tell you why Liz Lemon is great. Over the course of seven seasons, she’s become one of the most beloved TV characters of all time—the kind who will live on forever in syndication and inspire a new generation of hilarious, smart female voices. It’s sad to think we’ll have to say goodbye for good to 30 Rock in just over a month, but part of Tina Fey’s genius lies in knowing the perfect time to wrap up her character’s story. Liz tied the knot this year, and it could have been hokey or, worse, a step backward, but she stayed true to herself and did it her way—Princess Leia costume and all.—Bonnie Stiernberg