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The Best Characters on Television

From ‘The Office’ to ‘The Walking Dead,’ this season’s most memorable scene-stealers

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Robert Trachtenberg for RollingStone.com

High up in his room at the Las Vegas Four Seasons, Ted Danson is looking out the window at the Nevada desert beyond all the bright lights, still buzzing about his success as wastrel magazine publisher George Christopher on HBO's Bored to Death. "George should be worn out and jaded from all of his life experiences," says Danson. "And yet he cannot wait to hang out with his young friends and experience something new. He desperately does not want to be left behind." For George, this mainly involves smoking a lot of pot with the show's two other leads, Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis. But he also has other things to worry about. George boozes too much. He's got a strange fondness for the female armpit. He's got herpes. And prostate cancer. In other words, he's one of the greatest total messes to ever hit prime time. 

Few TV actors have played a wider range of iconic characters than Ted Danson. After 11 years as Sam Malone on Cheers and six years as the misanthropic Dr. Becker, he's on an even bigger roll at age 63, playing a smug version of himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm and until recently the corrupt billionaire Arthur Frobisher on Damages. Then a couple weeks ago, as he was lazing about in Martha's Vineyard, a call came in. CBS wanted him to replace Laurence Fishburne on CSI, and they wanted him to do it now, like, today. So now Danson is in Las Vegas, clad in only a T-shirt and his customary "fetching sweatpant-pajama things," having risen at 4 a.m., about to start filming and still struggling to process what he saw the day before. "As research," he says, "I went to my first autopsy. I was holding body parts. It was the real deal. Four autopsies going at once. Talk about getting some perspective. It was one of the bigger days of my life."

By Erik Hedegaard

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.


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Liane Hentscher/FOX

Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham – ‘Fringe’

At first, when Fringe started playing all those lysergic time-travel tricks on our brains, Anna Torv looked like the normal one. As FBI agent Olivia Dunham, she was the voice of reason in the midst of all the X-Files weirdness, the skeptical Scully who kept her cool while everybody else was prancing around through alternate universes and fretting about an ominous-sounding conspiracy called the Pattern. But now that Olivia is battling it out with Fauxlivia, her evil twin from a parallel reality, she's become a full-fledged player in the Fringe mind games. In a sense, Torv is responsible for two of the best characters on TV – one rooted in our own universe, and one who inhabits a hostile parallel terrain next door. The two worlds are at war, which means the enemy is us. "Fringe is a sci-fi show," says Torv. "But once you go beyond the genre, you're immersed in a profound reality."

Torv is so understated and poised, it's easy to overlook what she brings to Fringe – especially since she's caught between two flashier characters, mad-scientist Walter and charming con man Peter. But last season, thanks to all the loopy plot twists, Torv found herself forced to toggle furiously between Olivia's sweet and tentative uncertainty and Fauxlivia's ass-kicking aggressiveness. Now that a corridor between the parallel realities has brought her two characters face to face, it's about to get even more complicated for Torv. "Last season, the two characters just kind of flipped places in the two universes," she says. "But now that the Olivias will be playing opposite one another, it's going to be fun." 

By Julia Holmes

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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JUSTIN LAROSE/Turner

Charles Barkley as Himself – ‘Inside the NBA’

Sports programming is one of America’s great bastions of slavish conformity, ball-washing and non-thought, a place where a star athlete is commended for blindly following, in no particular order, his coach, his owner and the president of the United States. But into this world TNT thrust Charles Bark­ley, who spices up forgettable midseason games with politically incorrect gibes (“You still owe me 40 acres and a mule – I’ve been waiting on that a long damn time”) and self-deprecating gags (his halftime footrace against 67-year-old referee Dick Bavetta during the 2007 All-Star Game was one of the funniest sports highlights of the new century). Unlike every other sportscaster in the corporate-sponsored TV universe, Barkley doesn’t even pretend to care about most of the games, and sometimes he’ll even openly bash the product. (“We better not be doing the Bulls this year,” he once groused. “Man, they suck! Bunch of high school kids with $70 million contracts.”) In the history of gazillionaire athletes, Barkley is alone with Muhammad Ali in having both the gift of speaking his mind and the sense of humor to match. Owing to his Parkinson’s disease, we never got to experience the great second career in television commentary that should have belonged to Ali. But we did get Sir Charles, one of the few true things on the air today.

By Matt Taibbi

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Alison Brie as Annie Edison – ‘Community’

Like every student on Community, Annie is a little insane. She took the whole hard-studying geek thing too far in high school, and ended up in rehab. But now that she's at Greendale Community College, the uptight bookworm is suddenly discovering her inner babe. "Annie's got a thing for the fellas," says Alison Brie, who plays Annie with a bubbly overeagerness that borders on the demented. "People never saw her as attractive, because she was nerdy and hooked on Adderall. So now she's gone boy-crazy."

Brie also plays Trudy Campbell on Mad Men – a totally different breed of gal. "Trudy is behind the wheel, while Annie's out of control," Brie says. "Trudy's got her little Lady Macbeth thing going on." Given how Community revels in geek culture and ludicrously intricate in-jokes, it's no surprise the set is also more freewheeling. "It's stupid fun," Brie says. "It's loud like a playground. Especially compared to Mad Men, where you can hear a pin drop."

Will Annie find a steady boyfriend? "God, I hope so," Brie says. "She gets a little nuts when she's on her own. Which is always."

By Rob Sheffield

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Jeffrey Neira/CBS

Alan Cumming as Eli Gold – ‘The Good Wife’

Not since the end of the second Bartlet administration has television seen as ruthless a practitioner of politics as Eli Gold. But where the brass-knuckle politics of The West Wing always seemed to serve a higher purpose, Gold – a foulmouthed political consultant modeled on Rahm Emanuel – reflects a coarser political climate. As played by Alan Cumming, Gold outs an opponent's nanny as an illegal alien, jettisons a candidate's black spiritual adviser in an appeal to racist voters and pressures the girlfriend of his client's son to deny having had an abortion.

Cumming, a happily married gay activist who sports a thick Scottish brogue, almost passed on playing Gold. Still, he savors the way Eli "really lets it rip" – as when he pulls down his zipper and informs a rival, "I'm lowering my pants so you can kiss my ass."

Eli is named "Gold" in a nod to TV's other Emanuel-inspired character – Entourage's superagent Ari Gold, based on Rahm's brother Ari. This season will explore Gold's incongruous past as a concert pianist, a sly reference to Rahm's background as a ballet dancer. Asked how Eli would have handled the recent debt-ceiling crisis, Cumming replies, "He would have let things get to the very last minute, then laid on the table a packet of photographs of John Boehner shagging someone, and said, 'OK, are you going to raise the taxes now?'" Cumming pauses for a moment before adding, "He would have called him John Boner as well."

By Tim Dickinson

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Scott Garfield/AMC

Andrew Lincoln as Sheriff Rick Grimes – ‘The Walking Dead’

As Rick Grimes, the stoic sheriff on AMC's zombie hit The Walking Dead, Andrew Lincoln doesn't look like a guy who should be ass-deep in rotting human flesh. In fact, the 38-year-old British actor looks like he should be a heartthrob doctor on a hospital drama, not a zombie killer with the fate of the human race resting on his gore-splattered shoulders. But that's why Lincoln is so brilliant as Grimes: This is a nice guy called on to do brutal things, and he loathes himself for getting so good at it. "Walking Dead raises an interesting moral issue," he says. "Whether or not it's worth surviving if it's necessary to lose your humanity in order to live."

Lincoln is a little wimpy on set in Atlanta: "There are helicopter-size bugs down here that scare the living daylights out of a British guy." So how would he handle a zombie invasion? "Two words: very badly. You ask my wife or my parents, and they would just go: useless." But what about his father-in-law, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull? How would he fare against the shambling hordes? "A lot better than me," Lincoln says. "At some point, Ian has probably considered a zombie apocalypse, so I'm sure he's got a contingency plan. It would probably involve a small Scottish island, a lot of guns and a helicopter."

By Sean Woods

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Christopher Polk/VH1

Eddie Trunk as Himself – ‘That Metal Show’

On VH1's paean to all things loud, host Eddie Trunk plays the world's most obsessive metalhead with an endearingly deadly earnestness. To Trunk, an interview with Dee Snider is as serious as 60 Minutes talking to Henry Kissinger. The show may consist of nothing beyond him sitting around shooting the shit with the gods of metal, but he sees himself as the spokesman for all the fans out there who have watched their favorite music mocked and ignored for decades. "As crazy as it sounds, they see me as their leader," Trunk says. "I have a very strong belief about how this music has been marginalized." And even though the ratings for TMS continue to grow after eight seasons, prompting its recent expansion to a full hour, Trunk is far from satisfied. "I want to be the Letterman of metal," he says. "I want five nights a week, Monday to Friday, 11 to 12, live. I always shoot for the moon."

By Andy Greene

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Randall Slavin for RollingStone.com

Maria Bello as Det. Jane Timoney – ‘Prime Suspect’

Out in Los Angeles, Maria Bello is tooling along in her black Prius, going to pick up her son at soccer, wearing jeans, a white tank top, no shoes ("Shoes? I don't like shoes!"), having finished another day filming her new NBC series, Prime Suspect, in which she plays a tough-broad NYPD detective named Jane Timoney. "She's a woman who is unapologetic and direct," says Bello, who started her career on ER before moving on to films like A History of Violence. "People describe her as a tornado. She's an individual, not just an idea of a woman being a detective. She's someone you've never seen before."

Which isn't exactly true, of course, if only because Prime Suspect is based on the British show of the same name, which starred Helen Mirren and featured lots of chain-smoking and booze-swilling, and very few laughs. Bello's version of the character is still strong, rude and has to deal with rampant sexism; but she's also sunnier, less burdened and more given to chewing gum and wearing a snazzy fedora. Also, Mirren didn't get knocked around. Whereas Bello, in the pilot, gets stomped by a bad guy, leaving her face battered and pulpy. "You never see women on TV getting beat up like that," says Bello. "My character is tough and smart, but she still can't take on a guy twice her size, and I like that."

By Erik Hedegaard

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Chris Haston/NBC

Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon – ‘The Office’

If nothing else of worth ever came out of the short-lived Michael Scott Paper Company, at least we got Erin. The receptionist might have joined The Office as a replacement for Pam, but she quickly turned into Dunder Mifflin's most awkward little moonbeam. As played by comedian Ellie Kemper, Erin is so up for anything and aware of nothing that she should be impossibly irritating. But with zero ability to edit herself, Erin just keeps tossing her endlessly squirm-worthy musings out there. (Explaining why she covered her face with her hair during a panic moment: "In the foster home, my hair was my room.") Erin still gets excited by staff meetings, is deeply impressed by Dwight's knowledge of The Lord of the Rings, and was too awed by Andy to realize he's madly in love with her. "She wants to see the best in everything, but, my gosh – I don't know how her mind works sometimes," says Kemper.

Kemper, 31, grew up in St. Louis and went to Princeton before heading to New York to try to make it as a comedian. Her dreams were crushed when she didn't get cast after auditioning for both Parks and Recreation and SNL. ("It was a blessing for the viewers," she says. "Impressions are not my forte.") On The Office, one of the things she likes most about Erin are the blank spots in her résumé. "There's a lot about Erin's past we don't know," she notes. "We shot a B plot once where we learn she has epilepsy, but it wound up being cut." 

By Andy Greene

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Ben Leuner/AMC

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring – ‘Breaking Bad’

It's not like Breaking Bad has any shortage of creepy villains – but once Giancarlo Esposito showed up as the homicidal meth lord Gus Fring, the show officially came into its own as the most stomach-wrenching crime drama of our time. Gus, an apex predator in a sweater vest, keeps his allies even more terrified than his enemies. His killings are all the more shocking for being completely emotionless business transactions: He kicked off the season by gouging his own henchman's throat with a box cutter, just to let Walter White, the high-school-chem-teacher-turned-meth-cook, know what it feels like to take a bath in a weaker man's blood. Esposito – best known for his work with Spike Lee – sees Fring as the ideal nemesis-mentor for Walter, who is still in the awkward-adolescent phase of becoming a drug kingpin. "Gus hides in plain sight," says Esposito. "He's an upstanding member of society. He really wants to nurture Walter – he's the matriarch of the family." But "a showdown between Walter and Gus is inevitable," adds Esposito, with a note of Gus-like disappointment in his voice. "There has to be a final reckoning."

By Julia Holmes

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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Prashant Gupta / FX

Ron Perlman as Clay Morrow – ‘Sons of Anarchy’

There have been biker outlaws on TV before, but none as cool or terrifying as Clay Morrow, the patriarch of Sons of Anarchy played with lethal charisma by Ron Perlman. As a grizzled Vietnam vet who leads his motorcycle gang ever deeper into violence, he will beat, shoot or stab anyone who gets in his way – all while complaining about his arthritis. To Perlman, Clay's ruthlessness stems from his roots as a warrior. "Most of the motorcycle clubs were the result of veterans coming back from war," he says. "They couldn't assimilate into the culture, so they decided to create a realm of their own, founded on loyalty, honor and family. And so, of course, they're outlaws."

In other words – as Bob Dylan used to sing – to live outside the law, you must be honest? "I quote that line every day," says Perlman, a hardcore Dylan fan. "To me, that's as potent a mirror as you could hold up to the better nature of man."

At 61, Perlman has played tough guys before, including the lead in Hellboy. But Clay is a special challenge. "He has no self-doubt," Perlman says. "Clay's right, and that's the way it is, man. Even when he's wrong."

By Rob Sheffield

Click to read the entire Best Characters on TV feature in Rolling Stone.

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