Friday, December 27, 2013

Not Just the Right-Hand Man or Woman: My 25 Most Memorable Dramatic Supporting Players on TV

Welcome to the first installment of my four-part series devoted to the most memorable characters in TV history. I'll be looking back over the past sixty years of television and selecting the heroes and villains, the gallant and the goofballs and all the others who left their mark not only on the pop culture landscape -- but on this most impressionable viewer as well.

A few things to mention before I begin:

#1. I lied. It's not going to be four top ten lists. It's going to be four top 25 lists. 
If it was good enough for BREAKING BAD, why not these four processionals of excellence? I'd rather give more candidates their just due than a paragraph's worth of honorable mentions. Although more than twice as much work, it seems to be a fairer way of going about things. Speaking of fair…

#2. Arbitrary rule time -- each TV series can only appear ONCE
That's right -- even if the series is a huge ensemble (and many great TV shows are just that) --  each series will only have ONE representative on each of these lists. Essentially, I steered closer to Senate rules instead of the House. So sue me if ya don't like it. And as far as such things are concerned…

#3. Opinions are like, oh, you know… 
You may agree with many of my choices or you may hate them. You may feel the order is all wrong, or that there's simply too many of your favorites missing. You may not like that I SAY a series can only have one representative, but it will soon be evident I'm guilty of breaking that very rule both on the list below as well as future ones.

That's all fine. It's expected. Hell, it's even desired. How many Best Of/Top 10/Top 100/All-Time lists do we comb through on the inter webs or in magazines that appear to have been compiled by chimpanzees armed with a fresh load of dung? Just to be sure, I ate half a bunch of bananas...

I can assure you that a few popular picks will not be here. In some instances, it's due to my lack of familiarity with the series (sorry DR. WHO fans). Other instances, I concluded that although I may like or even love a series, it doesn't mean it featured a character that cracked the list (deepest apologies to those who pine for TWIN PEAKS, soar with the crew of BSG or ride with the SONS OF ANARCHY).

With all that in mind, let's get on with it, shall we?

My 25 Most Memorable Dramatic Supporting Players on TV


Nate Fisher Senior dies at the very start of SIX FEET UNDER and proceeds to cast a shadow over his family until the very end, sporadically haunting each character. We eventually uncover secrets that didn't get buried along with this irascible son-of-a-bitch. But we see these skeletons unearthed by the people whose lives he touched. As a result, we learn even more about them


Gene Hunt is the anti-hero counterpoint to the tragically time displaced Sam Tyler and later Alex Drake. Boisterous and ribald, every scene with Hunt feels like a bull pawing the earth inside a china shop, and at any moment he could bring the house crashing down. We may have felt for the plight of Sam and Alex, but it's Gene that captured our attention and even our fancy in both series.


On this list you'll find heroes, anti-heroes and out-and-out villains. Angel Martin doesn't fall into any of those categories. He's a conniver, a liar, a con artist and something of a irredeemable scuzzball -- but he's not a villain. Angel's usually a hapless victim of his own selfish behavior, which has led to a number of guys in wide ties looking to break his scrawny little legs. It's almost inexplicable why Jim Rockford would continue to be friends with this man, but the bonds some men form in prison can last a lifetime.


Cold. Ruthless. Sinister. Obsessed. Horrible traits for an online dating profile, but perfect for a true villain, and there are few more so than Arvin Sloane. Instantly despicable and despised, we're later confronted with circumstances that actually make us feel sorry for this icy bastard. And then we go right back to hating him all over again…


I'll be the first to say that TRUE BLOOD is a guilty pleasure on its best day, and it's become a show that I have often found myself wishing for a "Moldavian Massacre" moment to clean house of all the Bon Temps residents I find either tiresome or downright annoying. But if there's one truly compelling character, it's this extra tall drink of Nordic blood. A flaxen haired male vamp who gets all the good lines, who starts out as a villain and becomes heroic if not an actual hero -- sounds eerily familiar. We'll see the fanger who I believe was an inspiration for this bloodsucker later on…


Any character that's hopped from series to series, network to network, genre to genre…how can I not put him on the list? Hell, he was also on Sesame Street and The Simpsons…he was even mentioned on the great BBC series LUTHER! Who would have thought a character that started out as little more than existential comic relief on HOMICIDE would end up with more TV degrees of connections than Kevin Bacon? Fun trivia fact for TV fans -- John Munch was actually inspired by real-life detective Jay Landsman -- who was also the inspiration for a character (by the same name) on THE WIRE, and in fact appeared himself in a small recurring role on that series.


There are some duos that I simply cannot break up. Peanut Butter and Jelly. Bert and Ernie. G'Kar and Londo. It's a credit to both actors that the some of the most emotionally wrenching moments were done under layers of both cumbersome costumes and latex makeup. Over the five years of B5, the yin-yang relationship between these two opposing forces was often orbiting around the heart of the show. But it became the centerpiece for the second half of the final season, rescuing what had been shaping up as a an abysmal way for a once-great Sci-Fi show to finish up its run.


Let's face it, LOST IN SPACE would have been completely forgettable if not for the gloriously goofy character of Doctor Zachary Smith. His turn from insidiously evil to hysterically craven coward helped fuel the Jupiter 2 for three seasons, even if much like the other castaways on the series, Harris' fellow cast mates were never thrilled that it soon became "all about Smith".


Here we have the first of several "Yeah, I like that one…but why didn't you pick--?" There were a other worthwhile candidates from THE WEST WING: C.J. Gregg, Sam Seaborn…even Josh Lyman. But I have to go with the character I had the most kinship with in that White House, and I don't mean the one I bore the most resemblance to, smart-asses. The bone dry sense of humor, the ever-present sadness that was instilled in this avid Yankee fan and reformed Jew from his turbulent childhood in Brooklyn. A hardcore cynic as well as an eternal idealist, Toby gets my vote.


It's wonderful that the character who injects the most life in what might otherwise be a stodgy and soapy update of UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS…is also the oldest. Imminently quotable, Violet may not always be right (despite what she says to the contrary), but you can count on the Countess to make the most cutting and uproarious comments in the room. Which brings me to...


Toughest choice so far. Up until five minutes ago, the name following number seventeen was Peggy Olson. But Peggy is more a lead than a supporting player, and while I was sorely tempted to then select Pete Campbell…I again chose the person who always get the best lines (as well as the best gifs). Don Draper may have mocked the book "Sterling's Gold", but Roger's hair and tongue are silver, dropping dialogue that's often comedic gold or at least sadly insightful. Wit and wisdom indeed…

    (THE SHIELD)                        (JUSTIFIED)

Instead of the eye-roll-inducing sub-channel FXX, FX should be developing a network based solely around Walton Goggins. The series-long arc for corrupt cop Shane Vendrell on THE SHIELD crackles with intensity. A journey that grew darker from season to season, and by the end, the saga of Shane Vendrell stayed with me for days, weeks, even years later...

…and despite all the scenery-chomping guest stars and bit players on JUSTIFIED, no one snatches a scene away from Boyd Crowder. Early on, I thought the writers were unsure where the character was heading, but that was simply Boyd seeking his chosen path. The leads may be the engines in these FX series, but it's Goggins who brings the high octane gas.


A man of few words and even less face, Richard Harrow quickly became a fan favorite. Harrow left his soul on the battlefield to return initially as hollow a shell as his mask. The fact that his deeply rooted sorrow is so clearly conveyed despite half his visage garishly covered as well as having to speak in a mechanical monotone -- one hopes the actor Jack Huston will get more work outside of those Guinness TV spots. He does have a nice little part in AMERICAN HUSTLE, which was fun to see. He's also the late great John Huston's grandson, so there's that


FRINGE was a mythology heavy, dark and twisted hodgepodge of science fiction and speculative science theories. The clear descendant of classic series like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE X-FILES, it dealt in conspiracy theories, alternate realities and dystopian futures. But there was one ingredient that made it palatable to its cult following: Dr. Walter Bishop. Few characters in the history of the television medium have been so comically tragic/tragically comic as this LSD loving mad scientist. Off screen, the real tragedy is John Noble never receiving a single Emmy nomination.


The Robert Kirkman comic book series has been one of the most popular TV adaptations of all time, but fans of the original four panel adventures have had a myriad of issues with the deviations from the source material. Not so much plot alterations (acceptable) as much as the weakening and watering down of characters (unacceptable -- look no further than Andrea). But all agree that the best TV decision was the creation of Daryl Dixon. How a squirrel-hunting redneck became the most beloved of all the survivors is almost entirely due to the soft-spoken charisma of Norman Reedus. I do wonder just how many arrows he has, since I don't see how he can possibly retrieve ALL of them...


I've mentioned heroes, anti-heroes and villains. Spike is one of the few who's gotten the chance to be all of them. When he wore the black hat (figuratively -- this isn't Heisenberg we're talking about here), he was probably the best liked villain of any Joss Whedon show (and tell me you don't see a smudge of Spike in THE AVENGERS version of Loki). With a sardonic sense of humor as lethal as his incisors, and just as susceptible to the tribulations of unrequited love as any sappy mortal…Spike is just cool as fuck. Hmm…sound familiar? (*cough* see number 21 *cough*)


Hurl a stone in any direction from any spot in Westeros, Winterfall or the Wall - and you're likely to pelt yet another colorful supporting player in the intricate tapestry of GAME OF THRONES. But the Half-Man is still twice the person as anyone else in this epic tale. Brilliant, calculating…but never plunging to the inhuman depths of the rest of his kin, Tyrion's easily the most likable of the Lannisters (though Jamie may have won a few fans during his arduous journey of the past season). Dinklage doesn't just make what could have been a preposterous character believable, he makes us care about him.


There has been a lot of terrible mothers on television over the years. Those that can be debated, like every mom on any AMC drama or Gemma from SONS OF ANARCHY. And there are those MINOs (mothers in name only) that are without question simply awful, such as Brenda's mom on SIX FEET UNDER, Namond's mama on THE WIRE and Gillian Darmody on BOARDWALK EMPIRE. But the true queen of maternal toxicity will always be Tony Soprano's mother, a martyr with murder in her heart. One need only think of the words "Poor you" to sum up their relationship. Knowing that creator David Chase based this character on his own mother -- jeez, what was that childhood like?


I preferred to pick a character that made it from the first season to the last, and since OZ racked up a death toll that would make George R. R. Martin blush, that eliminated many prisoners (not to mention employees, correctional officers and visitors). I also wanted it to be someone who inspired a strong reaction in the audience. And of all the characters on OZ, the one fans loved to hate more than any other was Vern Schillinger. The escalating violence between Schillinger and Tobias Beecher and their extended families was riveting and horrifying season after season. This white supremacist's evil may not have taken on global proportions, but for a while he had a strong claim on the worst villain in TV history. Until some kid in Westeros took the throne, that is.


By the third and maddeningly final season of DEADWOOD, Al Swearengen had travelled a fairly short distance from villain to…let's say frenemy. But was he a villain? He's a small businessman, running his own saloon and and offering companionship services. He's a concerned citizen, monitoring the comings and goings from his terrace. He's a community leader, heading up a council and distributing political power and responsibility to fellow Deadwood residents. Al Swearengen is all of those things. He also happens to be a scheming murderous control freak who uses the word "cocksucker" the way an obsessive-compulsive uses hand sanitizer -- liberally, frequently and downright excessively. Yeah, guess he was a bit villainous after all…plus a big ol' potty mouth.


With all this talk of tragedy, it was only a matter of time before Jesse turned up, as only a small handful of characters on TV have experienced the levels of physical and emotional torture that Mister Pinkman undergoes over the course of the two year time line that encapsulates BREAKING BAD. As it becomes more and more evident that Walter White has lost himself in his own ego-fueled quagmire of immorality, Jesse becomes the true heart of the story, despite the fact he is both a drug dealer and manufacturer who makes his own series of questionable choices leading to even worse behavior and consequences. But that's the life of being a playa, bitch.


Sure, I could have gone with one of the castaways on that mysterious Island like Sawyer, Locke, Hurley or even Desmond. But the most compelling person on that magical lump of land was also one of the more longtime residents. As machiavellian as they come, Benjamin Linus is the perpetrator of so much truly awful things, it's amazing one can feel a drop of sympathy when it later becomes evident that it was all for naught. But in the beautiful coalescence of excellent writing and sublime acting, by the time we reach the series finale, not only do we actually like Ben, we're actively rooting for him to complete his redemptive journey back to humanity.


Without a doubt, he's the most recognizable and downright iconic character on this list. The only question was whether Spock a supporting player or not. Thankfully, Leonard Nimoy was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Emmy all three years the original series ran on the air, which made this determination much easier for me. No offense to any incarnation of Superman or  any other Sci-Fi series, but Spock was the coolest alien ever on television. His impact has continued to reverberate through every subsequent Trek series, cartoon, book and film, and his catchphrases have been forever etched into the pop culture landscape. But it's the relationship between Spock, Kirk and Bones that was at the heart of that series, and that has not been replicated since. More than simply chemistry, the trio had a special indefinable something that just clicked when they were in a scene together. It may be highly illogical, but it's a fact.

I just realized that Nimoy made the list, but Shatner's Denny Crane didn't. Guess the Shat got the Shaft. And while we're on the topic of one bad motherfu--


No offense to fans of GAME OF THRONES, LOST or THE SOPRANOS, but above all other television series, THE WIRE features the ensemble to end all ensembles. And in the midst of several stunning and searing performances, no one stands out more than Michael K. Williams' Omar Little. Omar encompasses a huge range of emotions and shadings, from quietly powerful to explosively deadly. He's cautious and clever, funny and stone-cold serious, and he's about as hardcore bad-ass as they have ever come. Sure, he's a criminal, but he has a sense of nobility and righteousness that even many of the cops don't possess. 

After all, a man's got to have a code

*     *     *     *     * 

Based on how long this took to put together, and realizing I'm slated to do three more, I need to scale back my original plan of pumping these all out by the New Year. That's just crazy talk. I will try my best to get them done over the next week to ten days. All I can definitively promise is the next one will cover comedic supporting players, meaning the final two will be the lead performers in both genres.

Till next time, keep your feet on the couch -- and keep reaching for the remote...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for including Daryl Dixon and your reasons why because it is so dead (for lack of a better pun) ON as well as the reasons for it, "the soft-spoken charisma of Norman Reedus". I met him in August at a Comic-Con and he is so incredibly grateful to the fans, and is the nicest guy.