The 20 Best TV Characters of 2011

TV Lists
The 20 Best TV Characters of 2011

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 20 best TV characters of 2011.

20. Cathy Jamison – The Big C
Actor: Laura Linney
Network: Showtime
Plenty of movie actors have made the jump to TV, but Laura Linney, as producer and star of Showtime’s The Big C, has made the small screen seem big, playing a high-school teacher and mom with terminal cancer. Staring down death, Cathy has realized what it is to live, a first step in bringing the fight.—Josh Jackson

19. Cameron Tucker – Modern Family
Actor: Eric Stonestreet
Network: ABC
It’s safe to say that Cam is the first TV character to be both a starting collegiate football player and a classically trained Auguste clown. But Fizbo is only one of the many lovable quirks of the larger-than-life stay-at-home dad, whose talents also include drumming and Japanese flower arrangement. His love for the dramatic was apparent in the pilot episode when he introduced his and Mitchell’s adopted daughter Lilly to the rest of the family to the theme from The Lion King, and it hasn’t waned since.—Josh Jackson

18. Bender – Futurama
Actor: John DiMaggio
Network: Fox
Made in Mexico, Bender is a sociopath of steel (er, well, iron, titanium, lead, zinc, dolomite and nickel), who has kidnapped Jay Leno’s head and sent his own son to robot hell. But he really just wants to be a folk-singer.—Josh Jackson

17. Sue Sylvester – Glee
Actor: Jane Lynch
Network: Fox
She’s crass, rude, the biggest bully on campus and the worst educator of all time. So why do we all love her? Because she’s larger than life. Even though sometimes she makes cringe-worthy decisions, it’s the soft side of Sue that makes this character one of the most developed on the musical show. Her heartwarming scenes with her mentally-challenged sister showed the character’s range and makes her more human than we realized. Most people will claim her insults make her such a great character, but next time you’re watching Glee look for those rare warm fuzzies, and you’ll see her true greatness.—Adam Vitcavage

16. Sheldon Cooper – Big Bang Thoery
Actor: Jim Parsons
Network: CBS
Jim Parsons deserved his pair of Emmy Awards for best comedic actor the past two years. The early seasons of this nerd-friendly sitcom focused on Leonard and Penny’s relationship, but the recent shift in focus to Sheldon’s neurotic and obsessive-compulsive story lines brought a renewed life to Big Bang Theory. It’s still about nerds, but the new dynamic of watching Sheldon interact with Amy Farrah Fowler (Blossom’s Mayim Bialik) is now the biggest laugh provider. Maybe he’s pranking us all and really is a ladies man after all, just waiting to proclaim, “Bazinga!”—Adam Vitcavage

15. Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones
Actor: Peter Dinklage
Network: HBO
The most self-aware of the many characters in Game of Thrones, the Imp loves wine and women, but has a sense of compassion missing from many of the players in the ongoing chess match at King’s Landing. Tyrion is always the smartest man in the room, but is wise enough to know when to reveal it. He understands the injustice of the world but does his best to enjoy his blessings.—Josh Jackson

14. George Christopher – Bored to Death
Actor: Ted Danson
Network: HBO
In a show that includes another pair of brilliant characters in Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis) and the fictional Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), it’s Ted Danson’s eccentric magazine editor George Christopher who stands out. The self-absorbed, drug-fueled George makes for a very dubious mentor for Jonathan but makes Bored To Death addictive. —Josh Jackson

13. Gloria Pritchett – Modern Family
Actor: Sofia Vergara
Network: ABC
Hailing from the murder capital of Colombia, the beautiful Sofia is not someone to be crossed. Lovingly overprotective of her son, her gregarious ways are the perfect foil for the more conservative Jay. Along with Cam and Phil, she brings a zest for life into the more uptight Pritchett clan.—Josh Jackson

12. Sterling Archer – Archer
Actor: H. Jon Benjamin
Network: FX
Even as the James Bond reboot toned down the chauvinistic swagger, another fictional spy was dialing it up to ridiculous levels. Codename “Duchess,” Sterling Archer constantly proves his value as an international spy is more than nepotism and looking good—Burt Reynolds good—in a turtleneck. He’s as effective as 007, without the pesky morals and compassion. And way funnier.—Josh Jackson

11. Jack Donaghy – 30 Rock
Actor: Alec Baldwin
Network: NBC
30 Rock wouldn’t be the witty, quotable show it is without the by-now-classic banter between Lemon and her exacting boss Jack Donaghy. In the sitcom’s fifth season, Jack is as vital an element of the show as ever as he finds himself further uncomfortably entrenched in his new position as the Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for Kabletown, butting heads with the company’s CEO, as well as tying the knot with girlfriend Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks) and finally settling down happily—until a reporting assignment she takes on goes awry and causes him to become unhinged.—John Barrett

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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