12 of the Most Well-Acted Television Characters


We just watched the Emmys the other day where a bunch of current TV stars won awards for playing various memorable characters. But stacked up in the annals of television history (or at least the last ten years or so), how do they do? Some make the cut, but others are merely flukes, and their characters won’t leave a permanent mark.

These twelve actors go above and beyond what’s required of their character, and have made them some of the most dynamic ever seen in TV history. Well, at least since I’ve been watching TV. I’m sure you’ll disagree/tell me I forgot someone, so let me know in the comments as per usual.

1. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie – House)


He’s the only man that can make me actually consider watching a medical show. House is abrasive, toxic and somehow we love him for it. It’s not easy to make us a love a character we should clearly hate, but Hugh Laurie manages to do just that.

2. Stephen Colbert (Stephen Colbert – The Colbert Report)


It might not occur to you to put Stephen Colbert on this list, as he is using his own name and is rarely, rarely out of character. But that’s what he is, a character, and he’s done such a good job maintaining that facade over the years, that some conservatives can’t even tell that he’s joking.

3. Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards – Seinfeld)


The physicality that went into the role of Kramer is something that hadn’t really been seen on television before, and I can’t really say that it has since. Cosmo Kramer was a whirlwind of hair, gestures and nonsense, and Michael Richards played him to absolute perfection for the entire duration of the series.

4. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams – The Wire)


There are many powerful performances in The Wire, but Omar Little, the gay, scarred assassin takes the cake for complexity of character alone. He was perhaps the most brutal character on the show, but always maintained a Robin Hood-like air about him. He really deserved a better send-off than what he got.

5. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini – The Sopranos)


The Sopranos may be slowly fading from our collective memories now that HBO is all Entourage and vampire sex, but Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was truly a force of nature, and will never be forgotten in annals of television history.

6. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane – Deadwood)


Another HBO veteran, but in my opinion, one of the most powerful characters on this list. Al Swearengen WAS Deadwood, and everyone else on the show just kind of revolved around him. In fact, it may have been the show’s downfall that the rest of the cast just simply couldn’t keep up with him.

7. Data (Brent Spiner – Star Trek: The Next Generation)


I’m not a big Star Trek enthusiast, but even I’m aware of the vast emotional complexity that went into playing the android character. Data was funny, endearing and all around one of the most human, non-humans TV has ever seen.

8. Tobias Funke (David Cross – Arrested Development)


It goes without saying that everyone on Arrested Development nailed their roles to absolute perfection, but David Cross’ Tobias Funke stands above all else. He had oblivious down to a science, and in a cast of all-stars, somehow managed to steal the show each episode.

9. Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson – Lost)


It’s easy enough to play the strong male lead on a primetime show, but the creepy, puny, lurking bad guy? Linus has mastered the art of being unnerving, and my passionate hatred for his character speaks to just what a supurb acting job Michael Emerson is doing on the show.

10. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin – 30 Rock)


There’s a reason the man keeps winning Emmys for his role as NBC’s head of television programming and microwave ovens. He’s perhaps the greatest corporate sleaze to ever appear on television, but he does it with a sense of humor that’s both piercing and disarming.

11. Nyles Crane (David Hyde Pierce – Fraiser)


I never did place what accent Frasier and his brother Nyles had on the show. I’m going to go with “Academia.” Nyles was effeminate, hilarious and his love story with Daphne was more poignant than any Ross/Rachel, Jim/Pam pairing we’ve seen since.

12. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven – Entourage)


Love it or hate it, Entourage is a sucess because of one man, Jeremy Piven’s maniacal agent Ari Gold. He’s brought such an intensity to the role year after year, you have to wonder how he manages to keep doing it. The rumor? Because he’s just playing himself in real life.

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  1. Only two missing and I think they’re often overlooked. Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman on The West Wing and Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois on Malcolm in the Middle. Yes, they’re married, and yes, they’re a pretty unattractive couple. But I’ll be damned if Lois and Josh weren’t fantastic three dimensional characters.

    Also missing – ANY women at all. Allison Janney’s CJ Cregg and her 4 Emmy wins and 6 nominations!?

  2. Great list. Couldn’t agree more about Gandolfini’s Tony…classic, unforgettable character.

    I would have maybe included Hayden Panettiere for her portrayal of Claire on Heroes. Hahahaha, just joking.

  3. @Madison

    If her job is to play “girl I desperately want to punch in the face every time she talks” then she’s doing a bang-up job.

    @Comfortable Madness

    As much as I love Dexter (the show), I don’t think Hall’s Dexter deserves to be on this list. He does a good enough job, but I’m really sick of those voiceovers, we get it, you’re a serial killer, but also a decent guy.

    That whole dichotomy actually is one of the flaws of the show, as I really just don’t believe a character like that could actually exist, and Hall doesn’t really convince me.

  4. I believe a lot of Kramer/Michael Richard’s “physicality” and personality is inspired by Don Knott’s character, Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith” Show. I know “Andy Griffith” is old, but it’s kind of like watching art imitating art, if you watch them back to back.

  5. @ Crystal

    I can see that. I’d argue that Jason Alexander is a better actor than Michael Richards, anyway, and that George is a better character than Kramer because of that.

  6. Even though I think Nyles is a dubious choice and that I agree with several of your choices, it is interesting that this list doesn’t even have one female.

    Now, I have a few guesses as to why this is. You could, like most other guys, not be into shows centered towards women. Or women are put into less interesting roles. One could even say that women might be casted more according to looks than how well they act.

    Because, you know, it would be sexist to say that men are better actors.

  7. @ Korinthian

    That’s a a pretty good observation. But are there many prominent female TV actors? On shows that a lot of people watch? I am sure Glenn Close is great in whatever she’s in, but I couldn’t even tell you the first thing about that show.

    Anyway, I’d nominate Lena Headley for her role as Sarah Connor. Perfect mix of motherly, bad ass, and insane.

  8. Madison: I shamefully admit that I couldn’t really think of many good female tv actors. Except Elayne in Seinfeld (but as many of the examples above, I don’t really know if I like her because I just like who she is as a person or if she’s a remarkable actress).

  9. @Paul

    Well we will just have to agree to disagree on that one.

    However, overall it is a really good list. But, I do have another character I would have include on this list.

    Marc Antony (James Purefoy – Rome) Just an all-around badass.

    As for females I can’t think of any…..Maybe it’s like Korinthian said that because most shows with female leads are geared toward woman.

  10. Awesome list. Tobias is my favorite character. “Its seems I prematurely shot my wad on what was supposed to be a dry run. Now I have somewhat of a mess on my hands.” I die every time. He is so ridiculous it kills me.

    Couldn’t agree more about Piven. He’s a dick, but nails that character. And Alec Baldwin is the man.

  11. @everyone who addressed the lack of women

    I thought long and hard about women I could put on this list, but I didn’t want to do it based on affirmative action alone.

    I think there’s a problem with the way 90% of women are written on TV these days. Characters across popular “female-oriented” shows like Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy are all interchangeable with each other, and do a lot to reinforce negative stereotypes about female TV characters. The opposite is true with “tough” women like Glenn Close and Kyra Sedgewick and all that. None of these characters are particularly dimensional.

    So I’m not saying I think men are better actors than women, I just don’t think the parts women have been written lately have been deep enough for the actresses to earn a spot on this list, if that makes sense.

    That being said, the only woman who I would have added if I was extending this list far back enough would probably be Lucille Ball, truly not only one of the funniest female comedians ever, but one of the funniest comedians ever period.

  12. How about Neil Patrick Harris? Not from How I Met Your Mother but from Doogie – if you’re ever stuck trying to describe him to someone who doesn’t know him by his real name all you have to say is ‘Doogie’ and everyone knows!

    As for women…hmm…Roseanne? She played herself basically (unlike Stephen who plays a character)

  13. @ Paul Tassi

    I understand the instinct not to include women on this list as there are only a handful of fully realized 3 dimensional female characters around these days. However, this hamstrings the idea of any kind of comprehensive list without Kaczmarec and Janney at the very least.

    Going back further, Candace Bergen’s Murphy Brown (or more recently Shirley Schmidt – even better) are glaring omissions.

    I could also put Frances Conroy’s Ruth Fisher from Six Feet Under on the list as well.

    While Gandalfini was great as Tony – it was Edie Falco’s wonderful portrayal that made Tony whole as well.

    I would also agree on the “tough” factor of female roles (which does leave out Lena Heady), but it probably doesn’t exclude Anna Torv on Fringe – beautiful, human, tough, vulnerable, and VERY three dimensional.

    You’re not a sexist – you know what you’re talking about. But you should do another list for actresses. There are plenty who deserve it.

  14. Thanks for giving love to David Cross as Tobias. That show was incredible, and I would say that all of the actors played their parts to a T, so it is nice to see one of the supporting cast be appreciated.

    I would have also added any of the cast of Pushing Daisies to the list. Again, every one of them played their parts perfectly for the entire series. If I had to choose the best of them, I would go with Chi McBride’s Emerson Cod. Awesome and hilarious character.

  15. About the women. I think you are forgetting Buffy. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Allyson Hannigan did an amazing job on that show.
    Also Jon Hamm (Don Draper) from Mad Men he is just so cool.

  16. I agree with Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House, damn he’s good! Hugh Laurie = House. But I have to say im a little disappointed cause you left out william petersen as gil grissom in CSI, he played that part pretty well…

  17. Andrew – are you fucked in the head? Carrell is great, but you compare an AVERAGE sitcom to the Wire? Wire is literature, son. It’s beyond the mind of such as you – characters from it shouldn’t be on a list of amatuers like this. Fool, stick with Fox.

  18. Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) – The Office

    Kiefer Sutherland – Jack Bauer – 24

    Basically everyone from OZ
    Lee Tergesen as Tobias Beecher
    J.K. Simmons – Vern Schillinger
    Dean Winters – Ryan O’Riley
    Kirk Acevedo – Miguel Alvarez
    Christopher Meloni – Chris Keller

    Michael C. Hall – Dexter

    Edie Falco – Carmela Soprano

    Evangeline Lilly – Kate Austen

    … and I may lose all credibility for the next one but this is only because I read all the books and find her portrayl of teenage elite upper-east side bitch to be quite to a T

    Leighton Meester – Blair Waldorf (More of an honorary award than a top ten for playing a snobby insecure bitch so well)

  19. Niles and Frasier aren’t speaking with an accent, they’re speaking with an affectation, like Maude Lebowski in the Big Lebowski.

    Oh yeah, an affectation is “conspicuous artificiality of manner or appearance; effort to attract notice by pretense, assumption, or any assumed peculiarity”

  20. Michelle Forbes = Admiral Cain in Battlestar Galactica. Enough said.
    More Star Trek = Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart). Jeri Ryan = Seven of Nine ..a cyborg! (Voyager).
    Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm (don’t know his name)

  21. John Noble – Dr. Bishop (Fringe)
    Edwars James Olmos – Admiral Adama (Battlestar Galactica)
    Leonard Nimoy – Spock (Star Trek)
    Tony Shalhoub – Monk

    I also agree with the suggestions of Michael C. Hall and Patrick Stewart.

    Honourable mention:
    Kyle Chandler – Coach Taylor (Friday Night Lights)

  22. To leave out Adrian Paul’s Highlander character Duncan McCleod is an insult to television history. By far the best tv character ever!!!!!!!

  23. My suggestions are
    -David Tennant as the Doctor
    -Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
    and my personal favourite
    -Nathan Fillion as Captain Mal
    but otherwise i agree with your list

  24. I don’t think Niles should be on this list…for my money, Hey Now Hank Kingsley brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor should be top 5. Larry Sanders has all the elements. It was ground-breaking, influential and it withstands the test of time. Shows are still funnier than most things on TV today.

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