Monday, January 13, 2014

Heroes, Villains and Anti-Heroes: My 50 Most Memorable Dramatic Leads on TV

That's not a typo. I'm super-sizing the final two TV lead character blogs. I'm assuming if you're here, you've read the previous two that focused on supporting players (though to date, the dramatic one was viewed by more than three times as many people as the comedy-based one). If you haven't checked them out yet, you should go take care of that now. No seriously, I'll wait. 

…whistling the theme to the old Bugs Bunny/Road Runner show…

Now that we're all on the same page (figuratively, literally, but not spiritually), I can say that due to the humongous nature of this undertaking, I'll keep the usual edicts and admonitions down to this: anyone you DON'T see on the list, it's most likely due to one of the following.

[a] I never watched the series, such as DOCTOR WHO, E.R. or NYPD BLUE. Can't rank what I haven't seen.

[b] Even with the expanded list, 20 names just didn't make the cut for the final fifty, covering characters as varied as Cullen Bohannon, Quincy, Jax Teller, Angel, Jessica Fletcher and fifteen other also-rans.

[c] I simply didn't think enough of either the show and/or the lead character. For example, Eric Northman from TRUE BLOOD made the supporting dramatic players list, but lead character Sookie Stackhouse might as well be Snooki Polizzi for all I care.

Now let's go from referencing the very worst that television has had to offer... fifty of the best reasons to have been a TV viewer over the past few decades! 


Why he made the list: Richard Matheson (my favorite writer of all time) wrote the teleplays for the two Kolchak TV movies that led to the continuing series, and David "THE SOPRANOS" Chase co-wrote several installments of the subsequent show. Carl Kolchak was the clear pre-cursor to THE X-FILES (and was given deserved homage in one of their episodes)…and most importantly, Carl Kolchak was a true original played by Darren McGavin with more relish and zest than a Nathan's hot dog with the works.



Why he made the list: With the first new Trek series in 20 years, the captain's chair was the riskiest one to fill, as Kirk cast a huge shadow across the bridge of any starship. Going cerebral instead of physical, thoughtful instead of instinctual and still maintaining the right balance of both humor and sobriety with his Shakespearean gravitas  -- Captain Jean-Luc Picard was the right man for the helm


Why he made the list: This may come as a surprise to those who have seen me state a preference for Jonny Lee Miller's version of Holmes on ELEMENTARY. But it was Benedict Cumberbatch's version that was the first successful modern take on Holmes since the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940's. Also, Cumberbatch brings a cinematic leading man's weight to the immensely popular BBC series, and thus merits a place here as well. Simplicity itself.


Why he made the list: Horace Rumpole was essentially the UK's answer to PERRY MASON, only a much more vibrant and just plain fun character. A proud defender of all manner of thugs and thieves, Rumpole loved cheap wine, cheaper cigars and bad food even as he waxed as rhapsodic as any poet. Personally, I've always felt the cunning Rumpole (created by author John Mortimer) was inspired by Agatha Christie's WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION -- in particular the 1957 film starring the estimable Charles Laughton.

…several lawyers will appear later on this list, but few have the balls of this barrister.


Why he made the list: While I question Denis Leary's ability to write female characters (as almost all women on RESCUE ME are either bitches or crazy…usually crazy bitches), I won't deny that this series was the first to truly capture the  post 9-11 horrors as well as the ribald humor that exists in many New York City firehouses. Gavin may be a drunk and (as Leary sings about himself) an asshole, but he's the catalyst for so much comedy and tragedy that he had to make the list. 

…and then there was the invention of the word twunt


Why he made the list: I may have grown increasing dissatisfied with HOMELAND over the past two seasons, but there's no denying the seismic impact Damian Lewis's Brody had when this series premiered in 2011. The audience's loyalty is as torn as Brody's throughout Season 1, and his awkward adjustments to sharing a bed with his wife are just as unsettling as the fact this returning POW might be a terrorist.  


Why she made the list: Quirky and obsessive with a minor eating disorder, Kyra Sedgwick is a whirling dervish in this TNT police procedural. While there's excellent support from the likes of G.W. Bailey. Raymond Cruz and the always fantastic J.K. Simmons -- there's two things every viewer watches this series for: Brenda Leigh making her case in the interrogation room…and whenever she says "Thank you."


Why he made the list: Oh, how I was sorely tempted to leave this serial killer dead and buried. From the midpoint of the series on, DEXTER took a precipitous descent in quality until crash-landing into the last season of utter dreck, resulting in one of the least enjoyable series finales of all time. BUT…those early seasons (particularly the high point of S4), that's what secured a spot for this semi-sociopath. After his previous role, I never thought Michael C. Hall could play a part with such murderous menace. I was wrong.


Why he made the list: Jack wasn't the most charming or amusing castaway that washed up on that mysterious Island, but despite his own reluctance, he was the leader. This man of science may have been slow to find his faith, and our own faith and patience in him was certainly tested at times. But right up till The End, Jack Shephard was a hero.

…and, he also taught us the importance of counting to five.


Why he made the list: THE RICHES was an FX series that deserved a few more seasons than the two it eked out in 2007/2008. Sadly, it was one of the unfortunate victims of the Writers Strike. Eddie Izzard played Wayne Malloy, the patriarch of a family of con artists (the Irish Traveller sort) that lived in constant fear of being exposed. Much like a certain New Jersey Mob family or an LAPD Strike Force team, it's one of the few series where all the protagonists make their bones by breaking the law. And no one spun as many plates while juggling flaming chainsaws the way Izzard's Wayne did over those 20 episodes.


Why he made the list: NORTHERN EXPOSURE's town of Cicely, Alaska was a fusion of the quirky odd remote town of TWIN PEAKS and the genteel and humorous hamlet from NEWHART. Fleischman was a gefilte fish out of water in such a burg, and the first few seasons of the series were primarily about the culture shock to this New York City nebbish. As the show winded down, the focus shifted to the multitude of kooky Cicely residents, but for a solid chunk of time, Rob Morrow was the Woody Allen of network television.


Why he made the list: If you read up on the real Seth Bullock, you'll see he was one of the more intriguing figures of the Old West. This was a lawman who stared down Wyatt Earp and became best buddies with Teddy Roosevelt. In some ways, the role was a thankless one, as Bullock rarely got any humorous lines and spent an inordinate amount of time glaring, glowering and marching across planks and mud like the spirit of vengeance himself. But in the face of such outright villainy by the likes of Al Swearengen, Cy Tolliver, Francis Wolcott and George Hearst -- Bullock could be just as intimidating as any one of them.


Why he made the list: There may be a few shady politicians on this list, but only one can say he's gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Arnold Rothman, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. The 20's was a time period that sowed the seeds of corruption due to the odd confluence of both Prohibition and a loosening of the societal mores. And no one capitalized on that more than the powerful treasurer of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson. 

Compared to most gangster types of that era, Nucky was an honorable man in a dishonorable profession. Between the far more insidious competitors and the hypocritically righteous and tight-assed feds, it's usually easy to root for Nucky. But not always... 


Why they made the list: The first of two pairs to make the list (since I doubled 25 to 50, felt it was only fair to do likewise for the number of duos), Lindsay and Sam Weir were our windows to different stages of childhood, puberty and burgeoning adulthood. It may have been the early 80's, but switch out the pop culture references, and the trials and tribulations of these Freaky and Geeky siblings are just as valid today. 

The two young stars (Linda Cardelini and John Francis Daily) never felt inordinately precocious, precious or over-written. Their lives could've been ripped from any of our own high school yearbooks. The pain the Weir kids experienced and/or witnessed was as memorable as any hilarious gag on what many still believe to be the most unjustly cancelled one-season series of all time (yes, real-life geeks...even more than FIREFLY).


Why he made the list: When it comes to ensemble casts, THE WIRE probably had the greatest lineup of supporting players of all time. But in Season One there clearly was a lead character, and his name was Detective Jimmy McNulty. As clever and cocky as they came, McNulty was often undone by his own foibles. He didn't just burn bridges, he set entire towns ablaze with his flagrant disregard for both authority and his own colleagues as well. 

He also drank a wee bit too much -- I imagine a shared bender between RESCUE ME's Tommy Gavin and THE WIRE's Jimmy McNulty would leave many a pub both bone-dry and totally trashed. Glad to see there's no Irish stereotypes to be found on quality television. 

    …and although the word may be crude, you don't get better quality use of it than here.


Why he made the list: Michael C. Hall makes his second appearance on the list with the TV role that first brought him to national prominence. A lead character who was gay, had strong religious beliefs, was (mostly) in a committed relationship and eventually became a father? Fairly uncommon to see on TV today. Over a decade ago? A definite boundary buster. 

Flipping stereotypes on their head, the personalities of David and his brother Nate were dramatically different: David was the buttoned down conservative who kept his private life very private -- and Nate was anything but. Over the course of five seasons they each slowly but surely moved in the opposite direction -- even as they grew closer to one another.


Why he made the list: The first time I encountered Nathan Fillion, it was on Joss Whedon's signature series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. He appeared in a handful of episodes as Caleb, a serial-killing superhuman priest. When I caught up with the ill-fated sci-fi western a couple years later, I was shocked to see a face I had associated with unspeakable evil had become TV's Han Solo. 

Captain Mal Reynolds was a smuggler with a heart of gold who valued loyalty to his ship's crew more than the payments he rarely received. A true action hero who was as quick with a quip as he was with a gun, this Browncoat was no mere scruffy-looking nerf-herder.


Why she made the list: Four active members of the law profession appear in this blog. But if you want the most cutthroat, ruthless and razor-sharp attorney on your side -- you'll be making that check out to Patty Hewes. An unstoppable force of nature, when Hurricane Hewes exited a scene, all that was left was the utter desolation of all others. Patty walked a morally ambiguous tightrope, and when discussing the "rise of the anti-hero" over the past fifteen years, she has to be part of that conversation -- just as she had to be part of this list.


Why he made the list: MOONLIGHTING was as infamous for its production delays with scripts that were so dialogue-dense that the teleplays were typically twice as long as any TV series to date. David Addison was the ultimate smartass sleuth, channeling everyone from Bill Murray to Bob Hope to Cary Grant. The series may have been about the Blue Moon Detective Agency, but the cases were always secondary to the crackling banter between David and Maddie Hayes.

Unfortunately, the show is commonly used as the prime example of why the answer to  "Will they or won't they" should always be no (although the eventual ratings decline was more due to the fact the two stars had very little screen time together the following season). Even so, David and Maddie's relationship became the standard that influenced dozens of programs over the next 25 years (see: BONES, PSYCH and CASTLE).

…and David Addison did make a star out of that Willis guy.


Why he made the list: After playing the role of Dr. Frasier Crane for twenty years, seeing Kelsey Grammer as the monstrous mayor of Chicago was almost as shocking as seeing Woody Harrelson shift from Woody Boyd to a Natural Born Killer. But much like a politician who'll be showing up a little later, it's not a money thing -- it's all about the power. They say with great power comes great responsibility (at least Spidey fans say that).  With Tom Kane, it also gives great opportunities for cruel vindictiveness.

…seriously, you don't wanna cross him.


Why she made the list: You may think it was Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning role in THE QUEEN that elevated her to the stratospheric level of adoration she has both in the industry and around the world. You'd be wrong. Although this Grand Dame of thespians did any number of film and television roles for nearly 25 years beforehand (from BBC Shakespearean plays to the likes of CALIGULA and THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU), it was her role as Jane Tennison that catapulted her into major award winning status. 

Very much a woman in a man's world, Tennison dealt with the insubordination of her detectives, the disrespect of her superiors -- and catching whichever suspect she was pursuing. Her love affairs with the men in her life were often as ill-fated as her nights filled with alcohol and cigarettes -- except her vices were still there the next morning.


Why he made the list: Living in a post-apocalyptic world ain't easy, and few have had it harder than Rick Grimes. Making a marriage work and raising a kid is tough enough, but throw in a few thousand animated corpses trying to rip you apart and slurp down your entrails -- it's enough to develop a dead-eyed stare and show no remorse while you're blowing away zombie children. Despite any issues I sometimes have with TWD...

...when I watch a video like this, I know Rick deserves to be on this list.


Why he made the list: Although the colonists elected a President, the true leader of the remainder of the human race both against the Cylons and in their search for a home -- was Admiral William Adama. Gruff and unyielding, Adama stayed loyal to his crew regardless of any revelations that would have shaken a lesser man. Many warriors could be found on BSG: Lee Adama, Starbuck...even President Roslyn. But Adama was Hannibal, William Wallace and Patton wrapped into one craggy faced monolith, and this Easter Island statue in a Colonial Fleet uniform earns his place on the list with sheer grit and determination.


Why she made the list:From Clinton to Spitzer to Edwards to Sanford, we've seen several political wives (initially) standing by their adulterous hubbies. And when THE GOOD WIFE premiered, it was hard not to groan and say "Really? They're doing a series based on this tired crap?" But it became clear as that first season unfolded this wasn't simply a cheesy "ripped from the headlines" soaper, but a solid series that was equal parts procedural and serialized drama. It's one that I've come to refer to as the best drama on network television (which may not be saying much over the past few years).

And in the midst of all the scene stealing recurring characters and well-developed supporting players -- Alicia Florrick is the anchor. Over five seasons, she's evolved as a lawyer, a mother...and most of all, a person who has successfully emerged from her husband's shadow to be one of the strongest and most admirable heroines on television.


Why he made the list: Of all the lawyers that appear on this list, Alan Shore is the one that makes it all seems so effortless. Witty and political (David E. Kelley doesn't hide his views any more subtly than Aaron Sorkin), Shore would occasionally give an elbow nudge to the fourth wall with a quip indicating this was all just a TV show (as opposed to MOONLIGHTING's David Addison, who constantly shattered that wall years earlier). 

Spader's Shore was a joy to watch week after week. whether he was flirting with a co-worker, dueling with a prosecutor or sharing scotch and a cigar with Denny Crane. Even with a cast including luminaries such as Shatner, Candice Bergen, Rene Auberjonois and John Larroquete -- it was James Spader who was the "first chair" viewers filed into court to watch week after week. Fun trivia fact: John Mortimer, the writer/creator of the RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY stories (see #47) was actually a consultant on BOSTON LEGAL.


Why he made the list: Whether he's making acerbic asides to the camera (more dismantling of the fourth wall, confiding in the audience like an imaginary best friend), dressing down an adversary or placating a pawn in his overall game plan, Frank Underwood is such a massive mover and shaker it's surprising the Capitol Building is still standing. 

Frank Underwood is another in the increasingly long line of dark souls many find themselves rooting for despite the evil they do. The sly conceit of HOUSE OF CARDS is even as Frank is apt to give the viewers insights we might not know otherwise, he keeps the real secrets to himself so we can be as shocked as anybody else when his true cards are revealed.


Why he made the list: John Luther is a combustible mix of brains and brawn, as he can be as sharp and cunning as any killer he's tracking down, but he can also be the biggest blunt force instrument of justice at the disposal of the Serious and Serial Crime Unit. He also has his share of run-ins with authority and colleagues (he should have a cuppa tea with Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison and they can compare notes).

Luther's creator says he conceived of the series as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, but I think the casting of Idris Elba added an explosive quality to the character. Elba had previously impressed audiences with his role as Stringer Bell on THE WIRE, but Luther is as rough as Bell was smooth, from his talk to his walk. You wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of an argument with either one.


Why he made the list: WISEGUY was a pioneer over a decade before the renaissance of TV drama. Gritty and gripping story arcs that would last for several episodes with a stunning roster of guest stars (Ray Sharkey, Kevin Spacey, Jerry Lewis, Annette Bening, David Strathairn, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Chiklis, Tim Curry, Stanley Tucci amongst others), the series revolved around undercover agent Vinnie Terranova living a Donnie Brasco life. Even his own mother had no clue he was secretly working for the Organized Crime Bureau. 

Terranova was so committed to his assignment that he served an 18 month jail sentence to pad his crooked resume in order to infiltrate the mob. Living a lie, Vinnie was in constant jeopardy as well as being eternally frustrated that no one could know his true nature, even if it was fairly clear to everybody that he wasn't a mere thug.


Why she made the list: Sydney Bristow was a double agent working for the CIA who could speak at least 30 different languages and even more importantly -- kick serious ass. But pursuing enemy agents was far from the only obstacle for Sydney, as she dealt with a web of lies and deceit regarding her family, her employers and her friends. Conspiracies multiplied like bed-hopping bunnies all around her, resulting in what often felt like an endless string of plot twists and time jumps. Did I mention this was a J.J. Abrams series? 

But even when one grew weary with the complications and convolutions (particularly in the later seasons), the reason to stick with the show was always Sydney Bristow. As tough as any male action star, but with a dazzling smile none could match, she's one of the few heroes on this list that could also be a damn fine role model. And not just for girls.


Why he made the list: I'll be honest -- I considered pairing up the Coach and his wife Tami. But, there were simply too many times when I found Mrs. Taylor to be a total yenta (a word for the gentiles to look up). However, there was no character whose scenes I was more transfixed by than Kyle Chandler's Coach Taylor. It wasn't just the inspiring speeches; it was the realistic way he was involved in his players' lives (as opposed to an old series like THE WHITE SHADOW, which was entertaining but utterly contrived). 

Although Kyle Chandler's one Emmy win effectively robbed another more deserving actor (Season Four of MAD MEN still stands as Jon Hamm's greatest work on that show), thanks to Coach Taylor I was always rooting for Taylor's Panthers to win State...

…clear eyes, full hearts -- can't lose.


Why she made the list: Like many acclaimed single season series that were cancelled too soon (such as FREAKS AND GEEKS, FIREFLY and THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JUNIOR), MY SO-CALLED LIFE was a niche show that appealed to a very specific demographic. It was simply "too ahead" of its time to survive on network television. 

Whether she was suffering through the throes of her crush on Jordan Catalano or blithely unaware that true love might be living right next door, we all had an Angela Chase in our lives at one time or another. However, there is no truth to the rumor that Angela developed a bipolar disorder a few years later and went on to become a CIA operative.


Why he made the list: Skimming over this list, you'll find several officers of the law who know their way around an interrogation room, but no detective quite worked "the box" like Frank Pembleton. He trapped suspects the way a chess master divines strategies by foreseeing several moves ahead. But that's not the real reason why Pembleton lands so prominently on this list.

In late 1997, a HOMICIDE episode titled "Subway" aired. A man (played by Vincent D'onofrio) is pushed in front of a subway train, trapping him between the platform and the train. It quickly becomes clear that the subway car is the only thing holding his insides in place, and he has at most an hour to live -- and will die instantly once the train moves.

Frank Pembleton stays with him during the entire ordeal, developing a bond that is closer and more intimate than any relationship the typically standoffish Frank has with his colleagues. The knowledge of the victim's death sentence doesn't diffuse the shock and sorrow when he dies, and those feelings aren't just the detective's, they're ours. Without question, it is one of the finest hours of television ever produced. And for that reason alone, Frank Pembleton earns this lofty spot on my list.


Why he made the list: Timothy Olyphant previously established his gunslinging badasserry as Seth Bullock (see #39), but when he ambled over  from the territory of Deadwood to the wilds of Harlan County, he brought along a few things Bullock had little use for: charm and a sense of humor. Raylan falls into the classic "Men want to be him and women want to be with him" category, though he's inspired more than his share of adoration in terms of man-crushes from either side of the preference fence.

Originally a character created by Elmore Leonard (who knew a thing or two about clever and cool dudes who could take care of themselves), Raylan Givens is a 21st century cowboy, combining the wit of Bret Maverick with the never-wavering intensity of The Man with No Name. Speaking of Mister Eastwood

…here's a promo that ran during the 2011 Super Bowl 
that salutes another gun-toting Clint character.


Why he made the list: From classic tales such as THE WIZARD OF OZ and ALICE IN WONDERLAND -- to TV series like NORTHERN EXPOSURE and PICKET FENCES -- the "fish out of water" concept has often been pushed to the extreme by taking a completely normal (and thus relatable) protagonist and dropping that person in a quirky and downright bizarre community of strange oddities. 

But TWIN PEAKS went a step further, for Agent Cooper was just as weird as anyone he encountered. Well, almost as weird. He didn't talk to logs, only a tape recorder...

As likely to dream up a solution to a crime as deduce it, Cooper kept his mind keen with generous amounts of cherry pie and black coffee. When a main character has an abundance of quirks and other forms of "funny business", it can get old fast. But our patience with Agent Cooper was never tested, and when TWIN PEAKS ended, most were left wanting more. 

…even one more cup of coffee with Agent Cooper would have
been the greatest gift of all for Twin Peaks fans.


Why he made the list: If you're gonna have a list featuring both LOST and TWIN PEAKS, then you better jump in the Way-Back machine and give mega-props to the granddaddy of surreal mystery. The impact of THE PRISONER on pop culture as well as future sci-fi fantasy stories cannot be overstated, for even with far fewer episodes, its legacy is as far reaching as that of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or STAR TREK.

Patrick McGoohan is a former British secret agent (it is fun to think it was the same character he famously portrayed in SECRET AGENT/DANGER MAN, but according to McGoohan that was not so) who is gassed and snatched from his home. He awakens to find himself in a mysterious village where people have been assigned numbers instead of names. Much to his consternation, he is referred to as Number Six from that point on. While his captors try any number of increasingly trippy methods to get information from the ex-spy, Number Six endeavors to learn about the organization that has imprisoned him, defeat them and somehow escape the eerie hamlet of hallucinogenic horrors. 

Pardon me while I rock out for a couple minutes. Be seeing you...


Why she made the list:  Equal parts Nancy Drew and Buffy Summers, Veronica Mars was no mere "Encyclopedia Blond". She may have been a high school junior, but Veronica was as much a whip-smart wiseass as any hard boiled detective (including her dad).  Each season this delightfully cynical outcast had a major mystery to solve while navigating the pressures of high school and her own major trust issues. 

Kristen Bell endowed this precious pariah of a private eye with sparkling charm as well as an understandable sense of righteousness. The series was a cult hit that survived three seasons on two "weaker sister" networks (the now defunct UPN and the CW), and a Kickstarter campaign to fund a feature film last year was a major success. That movie will be arriving in theaters this March. Holy frak….

14. JACK BAUER (24)

Why he made the list: I wonder if any one TV character was directly responsible for as many deaths as the killing machine known as Jack Bauer. The term "badass" doesn't even begin to cut it here, as the name Jack Bauer quickly pushed aside "Chuck Norris" as the go-to joke for the ultimate badass in the history of the medium. A sample joke would be something like: "Jack Bauer sleeps with a night light because the dark is afraid of Jack Bauer." 

This hard-as-nails CTU agent has tangled with terrorists and battled bureaucracy even while saddled with an albatross of a daughter. Sure, his methods have been hailed by some and denounced by others (somehow this fictional character became the face of US approved torture around the world), but his tireless efforts to save the world without so much as a bathroom break have made him one of the most iconic TV heroes of the 21st century.

And then there's Jack's favorite phrase…line up your shots now!


Why they made the list: THE X-FILES was largely inspired by two older shows; it lifted the "monster of the week" concept from KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, and the continuing story line involving a secret alien conspiracy is a major nod to THE INVADERS. But the thing that made this series stand out was the combo of Agents Mulder and Scully, one of the best odd couples since the days of Felix and Oscar

Be it supernatural, a mythological creature or extra terrestrials, Mulder was the one who always wanted to believe. Scully, an actual doctor as well as an agent -- was the skeptic. Initially, her pairing with Agent Mulder often revolved around trying to debunk Mulder's work and prove there are rational scientific explanations for all the strange phenomena. But there were some things even she couldn't deny…much like the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson: undeniable. All the scripts and effects in the world couldn't replicate that.


Why he made the list: Back in the 80's, what guy didn't want to be Thomas Magnum? Get to live on a beautiful estate in Hawaii rent-free, have a best buddy who'd fly you around in a helicopter, and you could zoom around the island in a Ferrari solving crimes and breaking hearts. Looking like Tom Selleck in his prime wasn't a bad deal either. Sorry Burt Reynolds, but outside of Sam Elliott, this was the best mustache in show business over the past forty years. Check out one of my favorite t-shirts -->

Magnum did suffer from arrested development from time to time, but what many may forget was this was a show that often dealt with the aftereffects of the Vietnam war -- less than a decade after the war had ended. While there was a lot of humor and hijinks on MAGNUM P.I., there were also some shockingly serious moments as well… 

…and this might be one of the best moments of any TV drama in the 80's.


Why he made the list: Fans of both SHERLOCK and ELEMENTARY should realize there's already been a modern-day Holmes for most of the 21st century, and his name was Dr. Gregory House. His deductive reasoning and powers of observation, his drug addiction, his largely anti-social manner that left him with one sole friend and confidant (Dr. WIlson as opposed to Dr. Watson)…House's address in New Jersey was even identical to the famed London home of Sherlock Holmes: 221B Baker Street.

There was a clear TV trend of having brilliant but otherwise socially awkward protagonists over the past fifteen years. MONK, BONES, THE CLOSER, NUMB3RS, THE BRIDGE, PERCEPTION, HANNIBAL…the list's length would likely surpass any of these blogs. But no one was as equally likable and frustrating as Gregory House. Of course no hospital would ever keep such a loose cannon under their employ. Of course the show was essentially a medical procedural that followed a very familiar formula 95% of the time. But Hugh Laurie's performance as this caustic curmudgeon didn't just elevate the show from good to great, it raised his place here to just shy of the top ten.


Why he made the list: Simply put, President Josiah Bartlet wasn't simply the most believable Oval Office dweller ever seen on television, he's the one many would select as the "fake politician we most wish was real." Whether it was a challenge to his core values, issues of a brewing military conflict or sparring the Bartlet women, Jed was always a man of dedication and integrity. And having an actor like Martin Sheen speaking the words of Aaron Sorkin certainly never made him any less than one thing: presidential.

And don't you wish you could see a real politician make a point like this?


Why he made the list: All due respect to any TV version of Sherlock Holmes (man, does that Brit get name checked a lot or what), Thomas Magnum, Veronica Mars and the dozens of other detectives that have appeared on television over the past sixty years -- but Lt. Columbo is the greatest of them all. Hands down. Case closed. End of story. Period.

Just one more thing…or maybe two or three

But first, another one of my favorite t-shirts -->

Columbo is by far one of the most iconic TV characters of all time. His rumpled raincoat, his dingy and dinged French automobile (a Peugeot, if memory serves), his listless pet basset hound and his ever-present stub of a cigar were all as emblematic to the character as any superhero's cape or Starfleet officer's uniform. But beyond those surface props you had the man: his manner of speech, his expressions, and most fascinating of all -- the concealment of his considerable intellect. Imagine Holmes, House or almost any other sleuthing genius being quite as humble as the lieutenant. Even Jessica Fletcher had a more obvious ego!

Finally, it came down to the wonderful performance of Peter Falk. A series that enlisted the most colorful lineup of murderers for Columbo to cross swords with (Dick Van Dyke, Robert Culp, Patrick McGoohan, Johnny Cash, Louis Jordan, Donald Pleasance, Ruth Gordon and Janet Leigh among others) -- but no one ever really stole a scene from Peter Falk. While clearly a star, he was also someone we could instantly relate to -- an all too rare combination.


Why he made the list: Whether he was outmaneuvering a Klingon Bird of Prey, outfoxing a Romulan commander or out banging some green skinned geisha, Captain James Tiberius Kirk always took care of business with the same steely-eyed intensity. Of course, William Shatner in his prime would read the instructions on a prescription bottle with the same "compression of chaos" manner. And it wouldn't just be his eyes…or his voice…he'd throw his neck and shoulders into it…and let's not forget those hands. Shatner's Kirk might be the only character to appear to be strutting while still seated in the captain's chair.

It was that fiery determination that helped make Kirk such a heroic Starfleet captain, along with the conscientious and sometimes contentious balance of views offered by his best friends Spock and Bones. But it was Kirk's instincts that most often saved the day, and you can't teach that at Starfleet Academy. 

…and I'm not sure Julliard or the Actors Studio could teach a delivery like this.


Why he made the list: There may be more "anti-heroes" on this list than cops and lawyers combined, but no one better exemplifies the term more than Vic Mackey. The level of Mackey's corruption isn't teased and dribbled out over the course of seven seasons -- it smacks you upside your head in the very first episode, and everything you're going to see from that point on is going to be downright "Mackey-avellian".

Is Mackey a good guy who does bad things -- but for the right reasons? Or is he just a greedy crook with a badge? Where does he draw the line -- if there even is a line he wouldn't cross? It's questions like those that make Vic Mackey such a riveting character.  He's not truly a villain as he can mete out deserved justice like few others, but he's no hero either, even if he has deluded himself into thinking otherwise. More often than not, he's simply the lesser of two evils, making him the quintessential anti-hero.


Why he made the list: Earlier I used the phrase "Men want to be him and women want to be with him". I was using it to describe Raylan Givens, but I could have said that about a few other fellas on this list. But the most likely target of such a declaration -- proves to be false the deeper we peel back the facade of Don Draper. 

Oh, when we first meet "the Drape" he's all cool and class, with a sense of immaculate style and enough charm and looks to set any secretary or stewardess's heart aflutter. And even his initial indiscretions are almost instantly forgiven by the viewers. But unlike Vic Mackey, where his truly dark side is on full display after one episode, Don Draper is an enigma that we spend several seasons trying to figure out. As each piece of the Draper puzzle comes into focus, the less admirable the man becomes.

Make no mistake, Don Draper is absolutely not a good guy -- even if that realization sneaks up on you. But unlike some here, Draper may have feet of clay, but he hasn't lost his soul. Tragically flawed but not truly evil, there still may be redemptive hope for "the Drape" yet.

…there just has to be hope for a man who can do a sales pitch like this.


Why he made the list: I've covered several so-called anti-heroes on this list, and there's likely to be a couple more…but Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing is the original. No one before or since inspired such an immense "I Love to Hate Him" sentiment across the world as this double-dealing and dollar-loving oil baron.

There's no question J.R. was a true villain. Oh sure, he loved his family…when he wasn't having his wife Sue Ellen committed, conspiring against his brother Bobby or defying the lifelong wishes of his mama Miss Ellie. DALLAS fans could take an equal amount of joy in watching J.R. vanquish one of his many foes as see the dastardly tycoon get his just deserts. I take no shame in saying for a solid chunk of the 80's, he was my personal favorite TV character…which probably led to this. --->

Even a few years earlier than that photo, I recall making this observation: "J.R. is the Darth Vader of TV, except he's not gonna end up a big wuss like Darth did." Hey, I was one of the few kids who didn't love RETURN OF THE JEDI, what can I say? 

Since I included my yearbook quote from J.R. Ewing, here's 
ten more minutes of his words of wisdom. 


Why he made the list: Whether he was a gambler from the Old West or a scrounger in a WW2 POW camp, James Garner was always two degrees cooler than anyone else in the room. He was the guy you wanted to have a beer with, the guy who you'd wanna call at three in the morning to get you out of a jam -- and the guy you secretly wished would call you if he was in a bind. No character better utilized James Garner's innate world weary likability more than Jim Rockford.

Rockford was a role that was specifically written for Garner, as the creators envisioned the role as a modern day Bret Maverick. One clear difference was while Maverick was often flush from a successful card game, Rockford was barely making ends meet, rarely getting jobs and hardly ever getting paid. But even if he wasn't respected by either the cops or the seaside community where he parked his ramshackle mobile home, no other TV detective was as clear a descendant from the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as Jim Rockford. 

An exonerated ex-con, Rockford did his utmost to avoid fights, but he still took more punches than Jake LaMotta and Benjamin Linus combined. Fifteen minutes into any episode, it was a cinch that Rockford would be getting knocked around by some no-neck types. Jimbo was more apt to use his mouth as a weapon than his gun, which was frequently left home in a cookie jar. In the end, Rockford didn't always come out on top, but at least he was assured of spending one more day fishing with his dad.

And week after week, there were all those 
answering machine messages…here's a sample:


Why she made the list: It's hard being the new kid in town. High school can be horrendous enough, but being an instant social outcast doesn't make it any easier. Trying to make new friends, keep up with the classwork, deal with teenage hormones…those years are a petri dish of emotional pressure.

Buffy Summers had to balance all of that with something else. She was the Chosen One: The Slayer -- a teenager trained to fight demons, monsters and especially vampires. Try spending all night doing that and getting up the next morning for a trig test.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was an incredibly addictive series that put Joss Whedon's name on the pop culture map and also made Sarah Michelle Gellar every geek's fantasy femme. When devising the idea, Whedon decided to flip the trite horror trope of the hysterical blonde victim -- and have a young blond female be the most powerful person in the town built on a Hellmouth. Thus came Buffy...

As much a superhero as Wonder Woman or Supergirl but with the problems that naturally beleaguer girls of her age, Buffy had more luck staking vamps through their ribs than the affairs of her own heart. But from the unconsolable sadness of "The Body" to the humor and horror of "Hush", no hero (male or female) was as compelling to watch in action as Buffy Summers. Girl power indeed.


Why he made the list: Stop me if this sounds familiar: the story of a married man, but there's trouble in paradise, leading to an inescapable rift between husband and wife. But he's still a family man, because after all, isn't that the reason he does what he does? But don't ask him about his business, as no one ever really wants to see how the sausage gets made.

That bio could aptly describe several other men on this list, but even if J.R. Ewing was the original catalyst twenty years earlier, the character that had the most seismic impact -- whose influence has been directly attributed by several other creators, writers and actors from the best TV shows of the 21st century -- was Tony Soprano. 

Like I said, Ewing was "the original anti-hero" and Mackey was "the quintessential anti-hero". But far more than anyone else on this list, Tony Soprano was "the king" of anti-heroes. There was no trickery or subterfuge here. It didn't take an hour or a few years to realize the main character was "a bad guy" -- that's what lured us to watch it from the start. While this concept was the core element of a number of major motion pictures (from THE GODFATHER to GOODFELLAS), it wasn't something ever heavily explored on television, especially with the same cinematic power as those aforementioned films.

Tony Soprano could have easily fallen into the rut of cliche and caricature, but thanks to the mind of David Chase (not to mention a writing staff consisting of future series creators like Terrence "Boardwalk Empire" Winter and Matthew "Mad Men" Weiner) and the talent of James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano was never that predictable nor cartoonish. We accepted and even rooted for his murderous reign, because that was the business he was in. Even if it meant the demise of someone we had grown attached to, it wasn't as if Tony took pleasure in making that call, but some people just gotta go.

Tony had just as much agita dealing with his troublesome kids as he did his simple-minded soldiers, quarreling capos and all the rival mobster muscle in the tri-state area. Many of his most powerful and searing moments on the series weren't confrontations with other gangsters, but his equally strong and stubborn wife Carmela. Because you take away all the money and the gunplay, and the Sopranos were as relatable and real as any family you ever knew. You might not want Tony Soprano as a father, but you certainly understood him.

…and every once in a while, you might even learn a little something.


Why he made the list: Honestly, was there even a shred of doubt as to who was going to get the top spot on this list? Over the course of a lifetime of watching television, I don't think I've witnessed as richly complex a character as Walter White. Undeniably brilliant but fatally flawed, Walter White polarized the viewing audience with behavior that was alternately understandable or irredeemable. 

Some (well, ultimately very few) continued to empathize with the tragic tale of a terminally ill high school teacher that turned to meth manufacturing as a means to support his family. Many more found the arrogant actions of a man consumed by his own ego and need to prove his worth and rightful place in the world to be utterly repellant. But nothing was ever black and white, and there were as many facets to Walter White as in the picture of one of my favorite t-shirts. --->

Looking over this list, and specifically the top ten, it's clear there have been journeys taken with some captivating dramatic leads. But beyond the maturity of adolescence into adulthood or the natural evolution that comes with life experiences both tragic and rewarding, it's hard to say any of them genuinely changed (though it can certainly be debated). And that's one major difference between Walter White and the previous 49 entires on this list: he changed

It wasn't some 180 degree switch due to a life-altering event (like a cancer diagnosis). The change came organically, slowly but surely, chipping away the milquetoast persona of Walter White to uncover the repressed Heisenberg within. It wasn't as simple as putting on a (black) hat; it was the fruition of a weed that was planted many years before we first meet Walt. It took turning to a secret life of crime for Walt's dark side to surface like a mold eating away at the foundation of his soul. As we took this journey with Walter White, there were several stops along the way -- invitations (in the guise of reprehensible acts) to hop off his hellhound train. How a viewer would rationalize staying aboard the Heisenberg Express wasn't much different than how Walt would explain his own actions, although it was fairly clear Walt's delusions of grandeur had clouded his judgement for some time, and the core reasons why he originally "broke bad" had been forgotten like the distant memories of a fugue state.

Love him or hate him, he made us laugh and he made us seethe. Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston created an iconic and complicated character that will stand the test of time. Years from now, when King Lear, Hamlet, Odysseus and Holden Caulfield are being discussed in classrooms and auditoriums…the name Walter White will be mentioned with the same reverence and respect. Can't you just imagine it? "Class, we're going to be finishing up Homer's Odyssey this Friday. After the quiz next monday, we'll be tackling Gilligan's Breaking Bad." Now that's a class I'd never cut…

…although I imagine I might have played hooky a few times if I had taken this one.

*     *     *     *     *

As we leave the dark and dangerous world of drama, the final installment will lighten up once again, when I list My 50 Most Memorable Comedy Leads of All Time. Based on the amount of time these blogs take (and that pesky "real life" that tends to get in the way), I'll leave the target date open ended with a simple coming soon.

Till then, keep your feet on the couch -- and keep reaching for the remote!