Home Movies Movie Lists

The Best Characters on Television

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

tv best characters

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.

tv best characters

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.

tv best characters

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.

tv best characters

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.