The 20 Best Television Characters of 2013

TV Lists

It’s difficult to describe what makes a television character “great,” and the problem is compounded by the fact that so many actors manage it in so many different ways. Loosely speaking, though, we can say that what captivates us are the characters who feel utterly believable while floating in the dramatic ether. We want them to be real, but we also want them to be gloriously untethered to reality. It’s not an easy feat, but the 20 actors below combined substance with drama to create memorable, exciting characters in 2013. These are the best of the best.

20. Francis Underwood
Actor: Kevin Spacey
Show: House of Cards (Netflix)

There were times when House of Cards was so sinister that it became melodramatic, and the season two trailer shows no signs that the Netflix drama will temper itself in 2014. But even as the ominous drums and screeching strings and murky sets drew us in to a macabre world, Kevin Spacey was the man who kept it fun. As Underwood, his insinuating southern accent weaved its sinuous way into our heads; he was the winking serpent who was born for the outlandish halls of power in this hyperbolic version of D.C., and it’s hard to imagine a more provocative tour guide. —Shane Ryan


19. Lucille Bluth
Actor: Jessica Walter
Show: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Normally, it would be almost impossible to pinpoint a “best” Arrested Development character—GOB and Tobias might be the laugh-out-loud funniest, but the subtleties in literally ever other major character make for legitimate comedic brilliance—but in Season Four, when the show at times felt more like an elaborate puzzle disguised as a comedy and less like the hilarious ancestor from its Fox days, the show needed characters who could be grounded and funny at the same time. Nobody pulled that off like Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth, the perfect rich, snobby matriarch whose selfish intentions guide the plot, and who is always just a little more clever and a little less drunk than everyone thinks. —SR


18. Archer
Actor: H. Jon Benjamin
Show: Archer (FX)

Don’t worry—he’s still a vain, drunk womanizer, and it’s still funny as hell. But it’s even funnier now that we’ve caught a glimpse of his exposed flank (part of which is probably autistic, too). —Scott Wold

By the end of 2013, Archer’s eponymous “deadliest secret agent” (whose initial main comedic function lay in constantly undercutting that “deadly” reputation through his relentless narcissism, boozing and whoring) has shown evidence that the repeated puncturing of his massive ego just may have left some scars. Mommy issues a given, Archer has survived cancer and a broken heart—this past year, he actually put another human being’s life ahead of his own.


17. Detective John Luther
Actor: Idris Elba
Show: Luther (BBC One, BBC America)

Damaged, brooding, and unconventional, Elba’s Luther is a classic of the detective genre. He nails all the main beats as the tempest-tossed cop burdened by layers of personal tragedy who nevertheless always gets his man, and he exceeds the trope by virtue of his alternating states of gentle grace and explosive rage. This is a character you trust, but who keeps you on edge anyway; the big man shambles along with an enigmatic essence, and you never know when he’ll unleash a brilliant insight to crack a case, or dangle a reluctant witness over a balcony for the same purpose. —SR


16. The Governor
Actor: David Morrissey
Show: The Walking Dead (AMC)

For all its popularity, it’s hard to point to a single character on The Walking Dead and say, “Here’s an example of true excellence.” Rick is monotonous, Michonne barely stops grimacing long enough to let us in, Hershel verges on parody as a good ol’ Southern doc, and Daryl is too much of a badass to ever let us see inside his soul. The exception, oddly enough, is the bad guy. David Morrissey was the post-apocalyptic embodiment of evil, and yet even when the writing was decidedly one-track, he managed to convey a bruised kind of humanity. In the first half of Season Four, he was single-handedly responsible for the show’s best episode of all time (read Josh Jackson and I raving about “Live Bait” here), and although the character couldn’t sustain the flash of goodness we saw as he returned from a state of near-death, Morrissey’s brief resurrection was the kind of insightful, layered performance you don’t usually see in a show where zombies rule. —SR


15. Ted Chaough and Bob Benson
Actors: Kevin Rahm and James Wolk
Show: Mad Men (AMC)

In Mad Men’s sixth season, Ted went from a minor character to a fully fleshed-out foil to Don. He’s a nice guy trying to do the right thing, but like all of us, he’s complex; Ted proved he’s got some Draper-like drive. His seduction of Peggy and subsequent decision to go to California were heartbreaking, but we can’t wait to see what the West Coast has in store for our favorite plane-flying ad man. —Bonnie Stiernberg

The genius of Bob Benson lies not in his brown-nosing abilities (although those are certainly excellent, whether he’s fetching coffee, buying toilet paper and hiring a nurse for Pete’s mother, or going to the beach with Joan and her son) but in the total mystery of his origins. For most of the season, fans swapped theories about what exactly this guy’s deal was, and although we got a few answers in the end, it still feels like we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. (Also, his actions are the direct cause of the best line of the year: “NOT GREAT, BOB.”) —BS


14. Ron Swanson
Actor: Nick Offerman
Show: Parks & Recreation (NBC)

There’s very little to add that hasn’t already been said about Ron Swanson, the gruff, meat-and-potatoes libertarian who somehow works for the government and makes a perfect foil for the eternally optimistic Leslie Knope. Nick Offerman was born for this role—if you took all our dads and molded them into a wry pessimist, but with a heart buried under a solid mid-section, you’d have Ron Swanson. —SR


13. Tyrion Lannister
Actor: Peter Dinklage
Show: Game of Thrones (HBO)

The most interesting characters on Game of Thrones are the ones endowed with complexity, rather than a rigid worldview. It’s why the Lannisters tend to be more fascinating than the Starks; they contain multitudes, good and bad, and aren’t confined to an unwavering moral code. Within this subset of fluid thinkers, Tyrion Lannister has to be the most diverse. The adjectives are endless; he’s brilliant, he’s bitter, he’s sad, he’s weak, he’s resilient, he’s hyper-sexual, he’s a drunk, he’s gentle, he’s angry, and he’s a secret optimist. It can’t be easy to embody all these emotions separately, much less simultaneously, but Peter Dinklage does everything he’s asked and more. And reading over that list, I see I’ve forgotten one of the most important: He’s hilarious. His character endures endless mockery for his diminutive height, but Dinklage has nevertheless managed to make Tyrion larger than life. —SR


12. Kenny Powers
Actor: Danny McBride
Show: Eastbound and Down(HBO)

Kenny Powers summarizes every horrible part of the South in a single body. He’s not unique to the South, though—arrogant, misguided, would-be alpha males darken every state. Kenny Powers isn’t that different from the Southie thugs of Good Will Hunting, although he’s from the South instead of South Boston. He is a specifically Southern variation of the stereotype, though, and Danny McBride has played him to perfection over the last four seasons. It’s easy to see Kenny in every role McBride has ever played, and tough to see how he’ll ever escape Kenny’s shadow. —Garrett Martin


11. The Dowager Countess of Grantham
Actor: Maggie Smith
Show: Downton Abbey (ITV/PBS)

The Dowager Countess of Grantham is one sassy, old bird. With a habit of spouting inappropriate one-liners, she brings comic relief to Downton Abbey’s drama-filled world. But it’s her rare moments of vulnerability, expertly acted by Dame Maggie Smith, that cement her as a character of depth. The Dowager Countess’ unfiltered dialogue made us adore her, but her courage made us love her. —Frannie Jackson


10. Charlie Kelly
Actor: Charlie Day
Show: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

This wasn’t the greatest season in It’s Always Sunny history—it was their ninth go-around, and the gang relied on retreads and gimmicks to make it through the 10-episode run—but it would be almost heretical to keep Charlie Kelly, one of the funniest comedic characters in history, out of the Top Ten. Even working with B- material, Day never lost his desperate, dirty, edge, and he still managed to give us a transcendent moment with his horrifying “theme song” for Paddy’s Pub. (Of which, sadly, YouTube only has the audio.) -SR


9. Hannah Horvath
Actor: Lena Dunham
Show: Girls (HBO)

Lena Dunham deserves credit, above all else, for her honesty. It would have been easy for Girls to become a show about four selfish, poor-but-safety-net-rich friends whining their way through New York, but Dunham’s guileless performance as Hannah elevates both the character and the show into something sympathetic. The portrayal is naked (sometimes literally) and raw (not usually literally?), and this season’s descent into a dark psychological space as Hannah battled her OCD was a strong evolution. Even the “happy ending” to Season Two had a very temporary vibe, eschewing the feel-good arc we normally associate with female-led dramedies. Some viewers hate Hannah because she’s a female with the gall to make them uncomfortable, but those people are missing the strength in Dunham’s choices; good, bad, or ugly, she’s never afraid to assert herself in the truest form. —SR


8. Jaime Lannister
Actor: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Show: Game of Thrones (HBO)
It’s one thing for George R.R. Martin to cultivate our continued fascination with Jaime Lannister in the Song of Ice and Fire books, despite the fact that one of his first acts is to push a small boy out of a high window. That was no mean feat on its own, but it was always going to be harder on television. The task of engaging our sympathy—or at least our interest—fell to the incredible Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whose portrayal of Lannister segues from pure evil to desperation to pain to humility, and finally, at the end of Season Three, into something like resilience. But the truth is, Waldau was so good that the “comeuppance,” when the kingslayer lost his hand, already felt tragic. And the bath scene with Brienne, when we learn the origin story of his derogatory nickname, was simply one of the most powerful moments of television this year. Game of Thrones is the rare show that dares to subvert easy allegiance, and Waldau was the ultimate realization of this gray-area approach to Westerosian morality. —SR


7. Piper Chapman
Actor: Taylor Schilling
Show: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

The truth is, this list could have been composed entirely of OITNB characters—an unbelievable ensemble with great writers at their backs, which is why it was my #1 show of 2013. Within that excellent cast, it’s a little crazy to me that Taylor Schilling sometimes gets overlooked as Piper Chapman. Schilling is the engine that drives the plot, and her paradoxical combination of natural serenity mixed with the increasing anger and desperation at the late turn her life has taken strikes the perfect tone for life inside the women’s prison. There’s more, though; I have not read the book, but a common criticism of those who have is that the author, Piper Chapman, comes off as a bit of a voyeur. She’s a rich person mining the lives of those less fortunate as she dips in and permanently out of their realm, and whether or not the critique is true, the same risk of feeling exploitative existed for Schilling’s character. But with her incredibly sympathetic portrayal and her gradual evolution inside the prison, her previous life of privilege never interferes with the suffering she endures behind bars. It can’t have been an easy balance to strike, and Schilling deserves endless credit for the heart that makes her far more than a rich girl taking a brief, titillating walk on the wrong side of the tracks. —SR


6. Selena Meyer
Actor: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Show: Veep (HBO)

What makes Armando Iannucci’s comedies so wonderful is that he refuses to let any of his characters hold on to nobility for very long. He works in the political arena because it’s the perfect venue to showcase the ego, self-interest and cunning of mankind, and to undercut any and all notions of lasting integrity. As Selena Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus is asked to hold our interest while constantly failing in new and interesting ways. Not only does she stumble incompetently as the Vice President; she’s required to sell her soul over and over, often for tiny gains that never even materialize. But she’s in the game to win, and she swims with the sharks because despite her moments of near-breakdown, she’s made of sterner stuff than your average middle-aged woman. So we root for her, all while Iannucci crafts the modern comedic embodiment of that old concept: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Louis-Dreyfus captures us, pushes us away, and fights like hell for nothing at all, and she’s charismatic and funny every step of the way. —SR


5. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman
Actor: Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul
Show: Breaking Bad (AMC)

There have always been elements of what I’ll call “stretched reality” within Breaking Bad, and the degree to which it violates our suspension of disbelief is a matter for debate. What’s not up for debate is that even those who complain, like myself, still love the show. Why else would critics like Emily Nussbaum or fans like Norm MacDonald posit that the finale was nothing but Walter White’s dream sequence? The machine gun popping out of the car felt too unreal to them, but they loved the show so much that they couldn’t believe Vince Gilligan had made a misstep. And still, they and I and everyone else had universal praise for the ending. And the reason why, to me, is the grounding performances of Cranston and Paul. The writing on the show has never been transcendent, but the performances by these two actors have, and that has made all the difference. If they weren’t the best characters of 2013, they were absolutely the most iconic. —SR


4. Daenerys Targaryen
Actor: Emilia Clarke
Show: Game of Thrones (HBO)

Emilia Clarke’s greatest coup as the mother of dragons is that she manages to showcase the raw inspiring power of Daenerys, complete with the self-realization that grows alongside her power, while preserving the little bit of sheer insanity that characterizes the entire Targaryen clan. She was wily enough to know she had to abandon her brother, and in Season Three, she makes all the right moves to escape Qarth, grow her army, and secure the loyalty of trusted advisors. But make no mistake—this is not a stable person. Her ambitions are wild, and the more she succeeds, the more you can see the fires within her stoked. The depravities of the mad king Aerys and the arrogant presumptions of her dead brother are all within her, and the sheer power of the combination made for a breathless spectacle as the slaves of Yunkai rushed to her side and called her mother. —SR


3. Don Draper
Actor: Jon Hamm
Show: Mad Men (AMC)

We’ve watched Don at work for six years now, so we know his moments of genius only come in between extended absences, heavy drinking and long lunchtime visits to the movies or various mistresses. This season especially, he’s done whatever he wanted to without any regard for the effects on the company or other partners. So when he demands a return date after finally being put on forced leave, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t get one, and as he heads to the elevator for the last sad ride of the season, he runs into Duck Philips (who is now a headhunter) and a rival, Lou Avery, on their way to meet with the partners. “Going down?” Lou asks. Oh boy. If he only knew. The thing is, honesty has been a long time coming for Don too. He hasn’t stopped cold; he’s teetered back and forth, tried and failed for six seasons now. He’s reverted back to his old ways on many an occasion, sure, but there have been tiny breakthroughs (telling Dr. Faye—and subsequently Megan—about his Dick Whitman identity, telling Sally about Anna) along the way. And during the final montage, after “Moon River” plays while Roger and Joan share Thanksgiving and Peggy sits in his office, we see Don with his kids on the holiday. He pulls over at an old, run-down house in a bad neighborhood and tells them, “This is where I grew up.” It’s poignant, but is it permanent? He sacrificed California for his family when he realized he still wanted to be wanted. Could it be that the loss of his career, going down that gloomy SC&P elevator, is what it took to launch Don up and out of his own personal inferno? We won’t know until next year, but hey, we can dream. —Bonnie Stiernberg


2. Sherlock Holmes
Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch
Show: Sherlock (BBC/PBS)

Let’s put it very simply: Nobody has ever done Sherlock Holmes remotely as well as Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s emerging as one of the great actors of his generation, and barring any misfortune will be a star for years to come, but Sherlock will always be the seminal point at which the journey started. Cumberbatch, pale of face and gaunt of limb, is a possessed by a crazed, frenetic genius that sees him marching through London, rattling off theories and facts in a machine-gun staccato, complete with incredible insights, witty asides and the occasional (and delightful) puzzlement at the behavior of ordinary humans. The phrase “lights up the screen” is a cliche, so let’s say that when the camera finds Cumberbatch, the screen explodes into supernova technicolor. He is absolutely captivating, entertaining and superlatively manic as Holmes, and you get the sense that nothing (even his own death) can keep him down. —SR


1. Boyd Crowder
Actor: Walton Goggins
Show: Justified (FX)

Walton Goggins is the greatest character actor of the 21st century.

Fine, that statement might not be true at the moment, but I think it could be. His big break came in The Shield, where he played cop-gone-really-really-bad Shane Vendrell, and his excellence there led to the role of Boyd Crowder on Justified. (He was also great as the sadistic slavemaster Billy Crash in Django Unchained, and provided a brief respite from an otherwise disappointing sixth season of Sons of Anarchy as a cross-dressing prostitute.) In Justified’s five seasons, Boyd Crowder has gone from white power terrorist (he was so good as a bit player in the first season that they brought him on board full time for the second) to saved preacher to Kentucky backwoods criminal overlord. At every step of the way, he’s maintained the fierce energy that characterizes all of his work; like Cumberbatch, this is an actor who can barely be contained by the screen. He’s bursting out of himself, but he does it in slow, measured ways; he can be darkly funny, threatening and charming in the same scene, and it never feels forced. There’s a fire in his eye, but there’s something deeper and more considered, too; an old man’s wisdom, packaged within a young man’s vitality. If you look at the trajectory of Boyd Crowder on paper, you might think the plot was a little hard to believe. But when you actually see him holding court in the hollow, Goggins-as-Boyd is nothing more or less than the perfect man for his world. As always. —SR

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