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What Makes a Perfect TV Character?

There are seven traits that only the Walter Whites and Michael Scotts of the world possess

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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. To help the public make informed voting decisions, The Ringer has contacted some of the people who know these characters best: the actors who played them. Check back throughout the week for more interviews, and be sure to vote for The Best TV Characters of the Century here.

Were there a checklist of things needed to create a perfect TV character, it would be thus:

Firstly, the character has to, in one way or another, be funny. They can be funny in a clever way (like Selina Meyer on Veep). Or funny in a deadpan way (like Earn on Atlanta). Or funny in an obvious way (like Abbi on Broad City). Or funny in a reverse obvious way (like Captain Raymond Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Or funny in some other way that I haven’t listed yet that you’re probably thinking of right now. And, to be clear here, “funny” does not have to be a core component of their television existence, but it does have to be a skill that they can access whenever they need to (like Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul). The perfect TV character has to have that.

Secondly, the character has to seem like they would be a chore to hang out with but also like it might be the most fun imaginable. Nobody was better at making me feel this way than Don Draper on Mad Men. He seemed, at once, to be the worst and the best. I could feel myself hating him during episodes and also desperately wanting him to see something good in me; he turned me into an at-home Peggy Olson. Imagining myself in the same room as him felt similar to when I imagine myself in a cage surrounded by tiger sharks; there’s a fear there, yes, but it’s coated in exhilaration, and also I’m hoping I make it out of there without getting any of my limbs chewed off.

Thirdly, the character has to make you ask yourself some questions that maybe you’re not so interested in answering. Walter White is a very good example of this. Breaking Bad starts out and you’re like, “Yes, of course. The circumstances merit the deceit and the criminality. I hope this meek science teacher and his weak mustache are able to raise the money he needs for his family to be taken care of after he dies.” And then by the end of it you’re like, “Well, I mean, obviously I see all the horrible, horrible, horrible things Walter White is doing—letting Jane die in front of him; holding his wife hostage; hijacking Jesse Pinkman’s life and, in effect, selling him into slavery; poisoning a child. But … I don’t know. I can’t make myself not root for him. And I’m not so sure I’m interested in examining what that says about me, and the type of person I am, and maybe the type of person I’m subconsciously wishing I could be.”

(There are smaller examples of this, to be sure—times when you rewatch a show and realize how flawed or potentially problematic someone is—but it always ends the same way: with you avoiding the results of a conversation about what it might mean that you like that character in spite of their moral or enlightened shortcomings.)

Fourthly, and this is a silly one but also a very important one, but the character has to have a cool name. Imagine if Ron Swanson’s name was Rob Swanson. Or if Arya Stark’s name was Amanda Starp. Or if Tony Soprano’s name was Tony Poblano. Or if Dwight Schrute’s name was anything other than Dwight Schrute. Imagine if the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the Fresh Prince of Cloverdale, or if Liz Lemon was Liz Watermelon, or if Claire Underwood was Carla Underwood.

Fifthly—and this is the inverse of the funny thing from earlier—the character has to be able to access a level of emotional warfare that you weren’t expecting. My favorite example of someone who’s very good at this trick (and, I would argue, the very best at this trick) is J.D. from Scrubs, who is, for reasons that I will never understand, somehow absent from The Ringer’s bracket of the best TV characters of the century, despite the fact that he is so obviously one of the best TV characters of the century.

Scrubs is mostly a funny show, except for when it’s a heartbreaking show. And when it’s a heartbreaking show, it’s often J.D. who delivers whatever line it is that sends you into your feelings, like when he asked Dr. Cox where he thought he was or when he told everyone it was OK to cry when you’re sad. It’s a remarkable skill, really, to be able to sprint in the complete opposite direction that everyone is used to seeing you go, and a thing that only the very best TV characters can do. Like, do you remember when Michael Scott teared up at his desk after Jim Halpert sniffed out that it was his last day at Dunder Mifflin and confronted him about it? Or do you remember when Poussey got crushed to death in Orange Is the New Black and Taystee had a breakdown next to her body? Or do you remember when Omar Little, possibly the coolest and most unflappable character on a show full of impossibly cool and unflappable characters, sat on the bench and cried while Bunk Moreland gave him a lecture on criminal civility? Or do you remember when Monica and Chandler had to sit with the idea that they couldn’t have children and Monica asked Chandler to do away with the quips for a second? The character has to be able to go there.

Sixthly, the character has to be able to be completely comfortable no matter who they’re sharing a scene with. Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights was a delight in every scene he appeared in. You could put him with Tami or Julie or Matt Saracen or Tim Riggins or Jason Street or Smash or Buddy or Vince or Lyla, on and on, in perpetuity. Same with Olivia Pope in Scandal. Same with Kendall Roy in Succession. Same with Al Swearengen in Deadwood. Same with Charlie in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Same with Carrie in Sex and the City. Same with Kenny Powers in Eastbound and Down. Same with Chuck in Billions. Those certainly aren’t the only characters who can do that, but they’re definitely all characters who can. If you can’t, then you can’t be a perfect TV character.

Seventhly, and lastly, and the most vaguely, the character has to have that indescribable quality that makes you feel excited whenever they pop up on screen. When I was in college, there was this guy named Morris who lived in the same dorm as me. Morris was not taller than everyone, or more handsome than everyone, or richer than everyone, or cooler than everyone, or funnier than everyone, or more anything-at-all than everyone. He was, by every measurable statistic, completely and ordinarily plain. But it didn’t matter. Because Morris did not concern himself with measurable statistics. He was only concerned with immeasurables. He fucking led the league in immeasurables. Which, I suspect, is why everyone loved him so much.

It was weird at first, but definitely only at first. You’d hear about this guy—Morris this, Morris that, is Morris gonna be there, what’d Morris say, where’d Morris get those shoes, etc.—and then you’d finally see him and be like, “I don’t get it. What’s the big deal?” But then you’d talk to him for five minutes, or be around him for five minutes, and it was like, “Oh. Duh. Obviously. This guy is a gem, and I think I might love him, and I would absolutely give him all of my money if he asked me for it.”

Anyway, that’s what I’m talking about here. It’s the hardest level of TV Character-dom to achieve, but it’s also one that you absolutely have to be able to reach if you want to be considered a perfect TV character. And this one, plus the six things before it—that’s what The Ringer’s Best TV Character of the Century bracket was (either intentionally or unintentionally) designed to pin down. Every character who made it into, say, the Elite Eight, is a perfect character. All of the characters in the Final Four—Walter White, Arya Stark, Ron Swanson, and Michael Scott—are extremely perfect. The two characters in the championship round will be all-caps PERFECT. And the winner will be unquestionably perfect.

There are others who should have at least gotten the chance to participate—anyone from my beloved Scrubs, as mentioned; Tom from Succession; Bubbles from The Wire; Rainbow from Black-ish; Dinesh from Silicon Valley; Jessica from Fresh Off the Boat; and more. That seems inarguable. But so, too, is deeming the winner of the bracket to be an absolutely perfect TV character.