March is a month for brackets, so this week on The Ringer, we’re hosting The Best TV Characters of the Century—an expansive, obsessive, and unexpectedly fraught competition to determine the best fictional TV personality of the past 20 years. This being the era of Peak TV, however, there wasn’t enough room in the round of 64 for all of the staff’s favorites. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best that didn’t didn’t make the cut, from the most renowned fictional doctors to the comic-relief mob muscle to the entire cast of one the most celebrated dramas of our time.
Jenna Maroney, 30 Rock
With apologies to the other entrants on this list, every member of the official bracket, and every other person, real or fictional, to have ever walked the earth, there has never been a character as singular as 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney. There has never been anyone quite like the diva, played by Jane Krakowski, who commands your attention in such a straightforward way. No, really. She once demanded focus by yelling, “Listen up, 5s, a 10 is speaking.”
She gets jealous of babies for how soft their skin is and how much attention they get. She learned how to play dead when she watched her entire church group get eaten by a bear. Her first breakout song was titled “Muffin Top.” She has a personal website called Jenna’s-Side dot com (say it out loud). She tried to petition the Tonys to include a category for Living Theatrically in Normal Life. Her whole life is thunder.
Praise Kabbalah monster for bringing Jenna to us. —Shaker Samman
Brooke Davis, One Tree Hill
One of the first things I remember learning about in elementary school English class was the difference between static and dynamic characters. A static character is one that remains unchanged, keeping his or her core characteristics throughout the duration of a story, often being used as a barometer for the main characters’ growth. A dynamic character, though, gets the benefit of an arc. Which characters are written as dynamic can tell you a lot about a show. It tells you whose story the creators are most interested in exploring to their fullest.
All this was a long preamble so that I could say that Brooke Davis is the most effectively executed dynamic character in the history of teen drama television. Brooke starts out as the cliché vapid cheerleader who is interested in gossip and boys, exacting petty revenge on friends who’ve wronged her and social climbers she doesn’t think are worthy.
But when she embarks on the trite arc of self-realization that usually makes characters preachy and fictional, Brooke Davis takes on a level of maturity and pathos that few shows ever achieve in a single character—ultimately ending as one of the most well-adjusted, real-but-inimitable female characters ever put on screen. Dare I say she seems like … a real person … that you would … trust … as your best friend? In a show full of fratricide, blackmail, and characters as intolerable as Lucas Scott and Peyton Sawyer, that’s incredibly high praise. And while we’re here, it’s an utter crime that One Tree Hill isn’t represented in this bracket. —Bobby Wagner
Violet Crawley, Downton Abbey
Based on series creator Julian Fellowes’s great-aunt and played to perfection by Maggie Smith, the judgmental matriarch of the Crawley family is Downton’s most memorable, quotable character. Perpetually looking down her nose at perceived social inferiors and turning her nose up at any hint of change, the dowager countess is locked in a lifelong rearguard action against the erosion of the aristocracy. Intensely loyal to the Crawley clan and determined to preserve the upstairs-downstairs divide, she initially bristles at incursions by Branson, Cora, and Cousin Isobel. But once she welcomes them into the family, she’s as devoted to them as she is to her direct relatives. As a mentor to Mary, her similarly standoffish granddaughter, the countess can be caring and worldly wise: She wasn’t always wealthy, and she’s experienced the pain of lost love.
But the countess’s occasional kindness isn’t what makes her a GIF factory. Her superpowers are her withering wit and caustic commentary, delivered drily and with one eyebrow arched. In the 2019 Downton Abbey film, the 85-year-old dowager reveals that she’s received a poor prognosis and may not have long to live, but the movie spares us a dowager death scene. “If the character actually died, that would’ve just been very, very sad and not really very Downton,” said producer Gareth Neame. With a sequel in the works, the countess’s future is in doubt, but it’s not out of the question that Smith could reprise the role once more. If the dowager doesn’t return, we’ll cherish the YouTube montages of her savage putdowns while marking her Season 1 words: “One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a constant state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.” —Ben Lindbergh
The Entire Cast of Scrubs
Why does it always come to this? What is this strange anti-Scrubs bias that The Ringer has? How is it that you can put together an entire bracket of excellent TV characters and not one single person from the greatest medical TV show of all time makes the cut? The show is stuffed full of perfect TV creations.
Consider Dr. Cox: He is brilliant, funny, complicated, and able to pivot around the tightest corners of the emotional spectrum without even so much as considering the idea of tapping the brakes. Or consider John Dorian: He has a singular ability to, without fail, consistently nail down all the biggest emotional moments of whatever scene it is you need him to deliver in. You have Cartman in the bracket. CARTMAN. Not the guy who gave us the single greatest closing four minutes of any sitcom finale ever; not the guy who gave us an all-time great line reading; not the guy who somehow turned the Sesame Street theme song into a treatise on the human condition. You went with Cartman.
What about Carla Espinosa, a nurse who becomes friends with four doctors and has to balance herself on the razor-sharp edge of that personal/professional relationship without ever compromising any of herself? Or what about Turk, one of the line-for-line funniest ever people who have ever been on TV? What about Elliot? What about Kelso? What about Jordan? What about Ted? You put Baby Yoda in the bracket but none of them?
There’s a great scene in the first season of The Wire where a charming drug addict named Bubbs (who also is not in the bracket, FYI) is riding around in a car with a police officer (Detective Kima Greggs). He’s walking her through the reps of different players in the local drug game and mentions a neighborhood-famous guy named No Heart Anthony. Kima says that she doesn’t know who he is, to which Bubbs, completely flabbergasted, responds, “Right now, I am personally ashamed to be your snitch.” Looking over this bracket and not seeing any names of characters from Scrubs, I know exactly that feeling he’s talking about it. —Shea Serrano
The Guy, High Maintenance
Before the start of Season 4 of HBO’s High Maintenance in February, series creator Ben Sinclair described his leading role in the show. “I would say ‘man explores’ is the headline of that character,” Sinclair told Gothamist. “He’s just ‘man explores.’” This spare description was particularly fitting for Sinclair’s character, a roving New York City cannabis dealer credited simply as “The Guy.” Biking around the streets of the city, he has seen it all, and still, as he steps through each client’s doorway, his eyes take it all in anew.
Man explores! From the faded Oriental rugs on the floor to the tension in the air, The Guy processes the cinema verité before him, with the practiced efficiency of a spy casing a cocktail party and also the forgiving generosity of your favorite camp counselor, the one who never raised his voice and was patient enough to make perfect s’mores. (You need to be patient to tolerate this line of work; NPR host Ira Glass, who turned up on this season of the show, recalled the slog of putting together a druggy This American Life episode. “We turned to people to tell us their drug stories, and hundreds of people called into a phone line and none of them were interesting,” Glass said. “It’s not an interesting genre of story in most peoples’ hands. Which I have to say is a credit to the people who do High Maintenance.”)
Whenever I see the name The Guy, I immediately hear it too: sung in the full register of voices that ring through walkup stairwells and railroad apartments and marble lobbies. We should call the guy tonight. Is the guy coming? The guy just texted that we’re his next stop. Do you have an extra 20 so I can tip the guy? What was it the guy said? Indica, in the couch? The beauty of High Maintenance is how it holds every one of these notes, lingering its attention on horny boomers one minute and a lovelorn canine the next. And the strength of the series is the way it always returns to the chorus, sung all together now: Not only does he have plenty of kind bud available, he also is one. —Katie Baker
Titus Andromedon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
When I saw that Titus—a.k.a. Ronald Effin Wilkerson, a.k.a. Cork Rockingham, a.k.a. Flouncy Magoo, a.k.a. Jack Straightman—didn’t make the initial bracket, please believe me when I tell you that I went on a bit of a silent face journey.
It’s overly simplistic to say that Titus (played by Broadway veteran Tituss Burgess) is supposed to be our grounding, centering character when he’s introduced in Kimmy Schmidt’s pilot; he is, after all, called Titus Andromedon, and makes money by wearing a robot costume and passing out flyers in Times Square. (Also, when Kimmy shows up looking to be his roommate, he asks her to produce “two recent pay stumps.”) But, initially at least, he’s presented as a transplant from a small town in Mississippi who came to New York to pursue Broadway dreams that never came true—a stable-ish counterpoint to Kimmy’s boundless optimism who calls out and highlights her weird energy (“What white nonsense is this?”).
And then he just keeps getting weirder, and weirder, and weirder, and weirder.
Suddenly, Titus is Beyoncé in “Lemonade,” and singing like a straight man about the quality of boobs in California, and appearing in the second-worst reimagining of Cats we’ve seen in the past two years. It just kind of keeps going on like that, for four seasons, to the point where you forget that this was supposed to be the vantage point from which to view and process Kimmy’s just-got-done-being-a-mole-woman situation. Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and the Kimmy Schmidt writers’ room gave Burgess so many unbelievable lines, and he absolutely annihilated every one of them, while never fully obscuring the inherent sweetness that led Titus to return Kimmy’s remaining rent money all the way back in the show’s first episode. More than a flat and rote “gay/black best friend” character, Titus gets opportunities over Kimmy Schmidt’s run to grow, evolve, surprise, and delight. He does more than just deliver. He DiGiornos. —Dan Devine
Tina Belcher, Bob’s Burgers
[Tina Belcher voice.] Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Tina Belcher, the oldest daughter of Bob, is a gift. A picture of teenage adolescence and all the awkwardness and hormones that come with it, Tina is who all of us unfortunately were at some point. She loves horses, she loves Boyz 4 Now, and she loves butts. But what makes her truly special is how she captures that weird, magical moment in between childhood and young adulthood, that fleeting moment in time in which you’re ready to grow up yet you still really only want to hang out with your parents. And what’s more, Tina never rejects this fact: She proudly goes to bat for her family with the same gusto with which she thirsts over Jimmy Jr. Tina contains multitudes, and would’ve fit beautifully in this bracket of all-time characters. —Andrew Gruttadaro
Dennis Reynolds, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
To select one member of the central quintet of It’s Always Sunny’s cast over another is a near-impossible task. Each character over the course of the show’s 14 seasons has had iconic moments of depravity, idiocy, grotesqueness, and sometimes stunning beauty (?). Charlie, Mac, Frank, Dennis, the bird—all their different shades of stupidity create the beautiful, dumb quilt of the best sitcom of the century. And while I am happy to see that Charlie Kelly has made the cut for the bracket, I will be pressing charges for the crime that is the omission of Dennis Reynolds.
While It’s Always Sunny is impressively egalitarian with the focus on its ensemble, Dennis is the heart of the show. He most often is the engine that keeps the show moving; his schemes and plans and secrets drive the gang to ridiculous places. Sure, Charlie is the King of Rats, but Dennis is a bastard man. Dennis’s vainglorious escapades have created more entries into the popular lexicon than almost any other TV character this century. Ever heard of car cereal? What about the D.E.N.N.I.S. system? The “implication”?
Dennis explaining the “implication” might just be the funniest TV scene of the century. It’s certainly among the most twisted. In these two minutes, as Dennis lays out his foolproof, legitimately evil plan to not manipulate women he takes out on the gang’s boat to sleep with him, he begins to convince you. The plan is thought out, reasoned, and realistic. Dennis intimately understands the situation’s creating the idea of danger being just as effective—for his purposes—as any real action. His deranged, fucked-up logic in this scene, on top of Glenn Howerton’s Hannibal Lecter–level good portrayal of Dennis as a total psychopath, shows you everything you need to know about Dennis.
His omission from this bracket is basically sacrilegious in the church of the Golden God. Who knows? Maybe the bracket makers would feel a little differently about putting him on if they were out at sea. Because, you know, of the implication. —Mose Bergmann
Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri, The Sopranos
There’s no more deeply comedic—and deeply tragic—Sopranos role player than Paulie Walnuts, the white-shoes-rocking, silver-streak-haired master of the malaprop. By his own admission, he escaped the gang wars of the ’70s by the skin of his balls, and he appears to be the only major mob character that survived the events of the show (depending on which side of the great “Did Tony Die?” debate you land on). He didn’t do so by being smarter or braver than anyone else in North Jersey; rather, he was basically a cockroach in a tracksuit, doing whatever it took to survive (and pick up a few Excellence in Recycling awards along the way). Sometimes, that meant cozying up to New York by relaying a tasteless joke about Johnny Sack’s wife. Others, it meant a borderline unhealthy worship of T. Through it all, he was stubbornly himself, and it was rarely pretty: From provoking the Russian to suffocating his mom’s friend so he could steal a few bucks to bullying Christopher off the wagon, Paulie was as mean as they come, even as he made us laugh with his Godfather car horn or rants about shoelaces. Even his long-awaited trip to Italy couldn’t change him. But why should we have expected him to? He laid it all out for us toward the beginning of the series, when Christopher’s trying to figure his arc. “You ever feel like nothing good’s ever going to happen to you?” Chris asks, dejectedly. “Yeah, and nothing did,” Paulie responds. “So what?” —Justin Sayles
Tom Wambsgans, Succession
With all due respect to Kendall Roy, we know exactly why and how he’s trapped in the toxic dynastic nexus of HBO’s Succession: He was born into it, and therefore doesn’t know better. What the presence of Tom Wambsgans, the gormless fool played by onetime Mr. Darcy Matthew Macfadyen, asks is: What would it take for someone to want to be a part of the Roy family’s small-scale abuse and large-scale malfeasance? The answer, of course, is a moron—a sociopathic, self-abnegating, compulsively watchable moron.
At the start of Succession, Tom has hitched his wagon to the Roys’ black hole, both professionally and personally, and there’s nothing that can shake him off. Not being drawn into a horrific sexual harassment coverup; not an unfortunate incident involving a “closed loop” of his own ejaculate at his bachelor party; not even his now-wife, Siobhan, asking to open up their relationship on their wedding night. Like many powerless people, Tom takes out his frustrations on the only member of the Roy circle with slightly less standing than him. But even that backfires, as Cousin Greg learns by osmosis to play the power game better than his tormentor. Not that that’s hard.
Tom is such a delight because there’s no sympathy to blunt our sadism. The Roys, Logan excepted, are but a product of their surroundings. Tom, a Midwesterner who probably went to—horror of horrors—a state school, chose this, and therefore whatever he suffers as a result. Shiv has lived her whole life in a bubble; Tom has created his by focusing so intently on personal gain he’s incapable of seeing anything else, to the point where a gig as the new Roger Ailes looks to him like an exciting opportunity. By the end of Season 2, Tom seems to have grown a tiny bit of a spine. It’s too bad; he’s the best punching bag we’ve got. —Alison Herman
Ashley Schaeffer, Eastbound & Down
Slimily effete car dealer Ashley Schaeffer is the rare TV character who’s as funny to his show’s cast as he is to its audience. Danny McBride and Craig Robinson are hilarious in their own right. They’ve been around plenty of other comic geniuses. But even they can’t help break when Will Ferrell, in a platinum blond wig and aviators, is a foot away, saying that he feels the tension in the room “all the way down in my plums.” Hell, Ferrell can barely handle it.
Much of this sequence, which my brothers and I have quoted to the point where everyone we know probably knows it word for word, was cut. I assume that’s because all of the actors spend it on the verge of cracking up. At one point, when Schaeffer is talking about “making intense, painful love” with his wife Beverly (whose name he later changes to Donna), McBride mutters to Robinson, “Motherfucker, don’t laugh!” The directive doesn’t work.
Schaeffer is far from the only memorable character in Eastbound & Down, but he steals every scene he’s in. Ferrell’s hammy Southern accent may seemingly change every time his character appears, but don’t blame him: That’s just the Fanta talking. —Alan Siegel
Prince Zuko, Avatar: The Last Airbender
You thought you’d have a Best TV Characters Brackets and just leave out Prince Zuko? That’s rough, buddy.
For those uninitiated with the greatest Western animated television series of all time: After being banished by the Fire Lord, Zuko seeks to regain his honor by finding and killing the Avatar, the only threat in their way of world domination. For years, the Prince’s sole focus is just that. However, after some time, words of advice from his Uncle Iroh and some soul-searching within himself, something interesting eventually happens: Zuko and the Avatar become friends and help save the world together.
Over 61 episodes, characters and fans alike went from loathing Zuko to caring deeply for him. Have any of the characters in the bracket shown more growth, maturity, and change from the premiere to the finale? Zuko’s journey teaches us lessons both big and small, the small being that tea is really just hot leaf juice, and the big being that your biggest mistakes aren’t what define you, it’s the decisions you make every day that determine who you become. Seeing his change manifest through the years gives amazing perspective, and for that reason Prince Zuko absolutely deserves a spot as one of TV’s Best Characters. —Jomi Adeniran
Captain Raymond Holt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
It would be perfectly natural to assume that Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s utilization of Captain Raymond Holt of the 99th precinct—a black, gay police officer who fought his way up through bigotry and discrimination in the NYPD for 30-plus years—would revolve around the fact that he is a black, gay police officer who fought his way up through bigotry and discrimination in the NYPD. But the genius of the show is that those aspects of him are largely overshadowed by the fact that he is an aggressively bland (his favorite color is tan!), seemingly emotionless (he has the same facial expression for every emotion!) robot with absurdly highbrow standards (his idea of dance music is late Romantic era composer John Philip Sousa!).
Portrayed by Andre Braugher, whose résumé prior to Nine-Nine almost exclusively consists of dramatic roles, Holt opens up quite a bit over the course of the show’s seven seasons. Behind his comically austere mien is a man who is passionate about law enforcement, has a loving relationship with his husband, deeply cares for his squad, and actually knows how to have fun. Crucially, he develops a father-son bond with the talented but childish Detective Jake Peralta (played by Andy Samberg), a relationship that drives the show and also something the duo regularly refer to by literally saying “dad” and “son” to each other. The captain’s exclusion from the TV character bracket is a grave indictment of my colleagues’ overall discernment and taste, and I hope my tribute provides some form of VIN-DI-CA-TION for him. —Isaac Lee
Philip Jennings, The Americans
While I take some comfort in Elizabeth Jennings making it on our bracket—it remains a travesty Keri Russell never got an Emmy for her incredible performance in The Americans—her inclusion doesn’t feel complete without the character’s husband and partner-in-spying, Philip. (The actor who played Philip, Matthew Rhys, also happens to be Russell’s IRL partner; they’re a lot more adorable and probably don’t stuff bodies in suitcases in their free time.) The Jenningses might be miserable and psychologically strained by their morally compromising work for Mother Russia, but they’re still a team.
What I’ve always admired about the Elizabeth-Philip dynamic is how they responded differently to the burdens of the profession. Whereas Elizabeth was, for the most part, disturbingly good at compartmentalizing all the trauma and murder—I just described the character to a coworker as the Terminator in the body of a runway model—Philip let the pain linger on his unbelievably sad face. Rhys made Philip one of the saddest characters on television this century, someone whose baseline mopeyness would even make Succession’s Kendall Roy think, “Damn, this guy is really fucked up.” Philip Jennings should’ve been in this bracket alongside Elizabeth, but if it’s any consolation, I think Matthew Rhys will settle for his well-deserved Emmy. —Miles Surrey
The Cast of The West Wing
Far be it from me to appeal to the questionable authority of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, but as Jed Bartlet would say, if I want to convince you of something, I’d better show you numbers. So here’s a number: In the Emmys drama categories since 2000, five actors have won at least three awards for their portrayal of a single character. Here’s where they appear in this bracket:
- Peter Dinklage for Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones (four Emmy wins): no. 1 seed
- James Gandolfini for Tony Soprano, The Sopranos (three): no. 1 seed
- Bryan Cranston for Walter White, Breaking Bad (four): no. 2 seed
- Aaron Paul for Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad (three): no. 3 seed
- Allison Janney for C.J. Cregg, The West Wing (four): not in the bracket at all
One of those things is not like the others!
Here’s another number: The West Wing won nine total acting Emmys, tied with Breaking Bad for the most for any drama since 2000. But like Janney’s C.J., Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler isn’t in the bracket, nor John Spencer’s Leo McGarry, nor Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman—nor, for that matter, Martin Sheen’s Bartlet, who never won an Emmy but was nominated six times.
And here’s one final number: The West Wing won four Outstanding Drama Series awards, tied with Mad Men and Game of Thrones for the most this century. Mad Men has three characters in this bracket. Thrones has three as well. That’s the most for any show—while The West Wing, again, has none. So I ask, dear makers of this bracket, what kind of schmuck-ass system can this possibly be? What is this, a joke? What possible good can come from doing things like this? Can we HAVE a civilization? —Zach Kram