Observant readers (Mohammad McGillucuddy of Umpqua, Oregon) might recall that last week I provided readers with a list of my top ten favorite sit com characters. The post was met with such widespread joy, acclaim, and praise that I am here providing a list of my top ten characters from dramas. You’re welcome.
Unlike our friends in sit-coms we have more complicated relationships with our favorite drama characters. Some for example, are murderers and in the case of my list, eight of ten are criminals. In some cases we don’t so much “like” them as find them compelling. I note that the characters below all have or had a strong sense of humanity and may have felt a degree of remorse. They are fully three-dimensional characters (in some cases four!) and not cardboard cut-out “bad guys.” Their stories are unique. Their actions often regrettable but occasionally understandable. They often shock us. Their relationships with others are invariably fraught. A ripping good biography could be written about each were they real people. These characters all benefit from great writing and appear on well-directed shows with strong supporting casts.
1. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) Breaking Bad. He was an easy choice for me to top the list. Walter White’s story is one of the best (maybe THE best) ever told on television. The transition from family man and high school chemistry teacher to murderous drug kingpin is an amazing journey and Bryan Cranston gave the performance of a lifetime in realizing this singular character.
2. Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) Barry. Technically Barry the show is a comedy. I’ll tell you what you can do with your technically. Yes there were a few chuckles in the show but less as it progressed. There was nothing particularly funny about Barry (the character’s) story arc. From hit man to actor to — say what the hell was he at the end? Total loon? was fascinating to watch unfold. Hader had already established himself as a comic mastermind and now has demonstrated he was a terrific show runner, writer, director and dramatic actor.
3. Kim Wexler (Rhea Shorn) Better Call Saul. At the show’s outset she seemed to simply be “the girlfriend.” But she developed into so much more. Utterly unpredictable yet true to her complex character. Obsessive personalities always make for good theater as do intelligent ones and she was very much both. Imagine someone stealing scenes from Bob Odenkirk’s well-established Saul Goodman. But she was that good.
4. Kendall Roy (Jeremey Strong) Succession. Oh my. Strong’s acting alone, his total embodiment of KRoy, his commitment to his craft made Succession a must watch. Kendall was all over the map but all within his weird and wonderful personality.
5. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) The Wire. Not a surprise choice I’m sure because Omar was universally popular. But why? He was a brutal stick-up man who usually robbed drug dealers. He carried a shotgun under his duster and wore a bulletproof vest. But he also whistled “Farmer in the Dell” while about to strike and of all things he was gay. The late Michael K. Williams made something very special out of character who could have been just another thug. Masterful.
6. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Across two shows Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman has become a part of high quality TV culture. The ultimate con man. The fast-talker. The winner (usually). He was the ultimate streetwise ambulance chaser but one who made it good. No morals. No compunctions. He put his overwhelming sense of self to the aid of his clients and to win. The chip on his shoulder was massive but what a job he did to chip away at it.
7. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) Ozark. He never blinked. No matter if there were guns in his face, if his wife was embodying Lady McBeth, if his son was trying to leave the family, if he was dealing with a dangerously deranged brother-in-law, Marty Byrne was unflappable. In rarely giving in to emotion Jason Bateman put on bravura acting performance as TV’s greatest money launder. Laconic has never been so interesting.
8. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) Orange is the New Black. I imagine this to be a controversial choice given how many really interesting characters lived in the OITNB world. After all Piper was just the privileged white girl, very much the fish out of water. But she was also the show’s glue, its original reason for being and her struggles to simultaneously be accepted in this strange new world and plant her own flag made for great theater.
9. Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) The Bear. The glue that holds together a great cast. Carmen is in the center of a mad whirlpool of events surrounding a Chicago restaurant. The premise of The Bear never intrigued me but once I started watching the show I couldn’t look away and the show’s lead was a principal reason. He was driven, he was tortured, he was passionate. Mostly he was easy to root for and I think this stems from the utter realness of White’s portrayal.
10. Paul "Paulie Walnuts" Gualtieri (Tony Sirico) The Sopranos. The ever reliable sidekick. He would do anything for his boss Tony Soprano and he did with an old school flair. Paulie was the ultimate friend, the consummate mob soldier and because of Sirocco’s past as a gangster, a link between the real world and the fantasy that was the Sopranos.
A few worthy runners up: Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) The Wire, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) The Americans, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) Breaking Bad, Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) Succession, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) Barry and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) Ozark.
Best ensembles: Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Succession, The Wire, Orange is the New Black, The Bear.