This week’s question comes from reader James Cobb:
I’ve noticed that when someone lists their favorite character of an ensemble TV show, they usually pick a supporting character rather than the lead. I’m guilty of this, too: Kaylee is my favorite Firefly character. I think it’s because it seems kind of lame to pick the lead as your favorite. (Saying Thomas Magnum is your favorite Magnum P.I. character makes you sound like a tool.) But there are a few shows where I think that the main character is the best one on the show—my favorite character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is Captain Sisko. Who is your favorite character on a TV show who’s also the lead?
This one is easy: Leslie Knope is my favorite character on Parks And Recreation, despite one of the strongest supporting casts of ensemble TV. She’s the optimistic glue that holds together the rest of the characters, who get pulled into her magnetic orbit whether they want to or not. You could overlook Amy Poehler’s portrayal of Leslie in favor of Aubrey Plaza’s dryly sarcastic April, Aziz Ansari’s status-obsessed Tom, Chris Pratt’s dummy with a heart of gold, and even Jim O’Heir’s punching bag. But it’s Leslie’s fierceness and unending enthusiasm that keeps all these people in check and together, not to mention the entire Parks Department open.
I will add another NBC sitcom heroine to this list and speak up for my beloved Liz Lemon. I’ll also parrot Caity’s entry, and say that just as Leslie is the glue that holds all of Parks And Rec’s crazy characters together, Liz is the beating heart of 30 Rock’s weirdos. She’s the perfect embodiment of Tina Fey’s humor: razor sharp, and even viciously mean at times, but not above laughing at (or participating in) a dumb, physical joke. Liz is supportive, dedicated, neurotic, bitter, messy, and delightfully idiosyncratic. I adore her night cheese, her Star Wars fandom, and all her “blerghs.” I relish her bizarre idealism and concurrent misanthropy. She’s not admirable by any means, but somehow her disasters are lovable.
I have another sitcom straight-man (straight-person?) answer, although this one is of the animated variety. My favorite character on Bob’s Burgers is, by a long shot, Bob Belcher. He has a “let’s just get this over with” steadfastness to which I really relate. A lot of that comes down to H. Jon Benjamin’s ever-exasperated voice work, which perfectly portrays Bob as a lovable long-suffering father who just wants to do well by his family, no matter how hard those weirdos might make it for him. And although it takes a backseat to caring for his wife and kids, he has this charming struggling artist working in the low-art of burger-making story going on. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have the exact same unfortunate hairline as him at some point in my life, so that’s something we have in common.
As one of the main characters in the title, and really the focal point of the whole series, I maintain that Lorelai Gilmore was the most fascinating person in Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls. From day one, I found her hilarious, and hung on her every quick, pop-culture-laced Amy Sherman-Palladino-penned wisecrack. Mostly I was impressed with her tremendous self-worth, which she wore as a bright, impenetrable shield: Not her parents, not Rory’s father or any ex-paramour, and not even her constantly deprecating assistant Michel could dampen Lorelai’s inimitable spirit. Even when she was knocked flat with a Luke breakup, she’d bounce back by the end of the episode. And her fashion sense was unparalleled. I’m happy for Lauren Graham as she goes on to success in other shows like Parenthood, but she’ll always be Lorelai to me—one of my all-time favorite characters in TV or anywhere.
Main characters are usually a little bland by design, the better to act as the grounded eye of a swirling hurricane of louder, flashier types. But Review’s Forrest MacNeil is the natural disaster in his own life (and those of the people around him), systematically smashing every bond, every possession, and every person he has in service of reviewing “life itself.” Andy Daly’s best characters usually seduce you in with their thin veneer of white-bread normality, before letting the misanthropic madness lurking inside them out to play. Forrest is a slower burn, an accidental monster who can never admit that every bad thing “the show” does to him and those he loves is a self-inflicted wound, caused by his own desperate seeking of validation. Like Review itself, that deep-rooted denial is heart breaking and hilarious in roughly equal parts. Forrest MacNeil: Five stars.
As much as I love tribal-tattoo-covered Mystik Spiral frontman (and my one and only cartoon crush) Trent or maniacally upbeat, stressed to the max Morgendorffer patriarch Jake, my heart belongs to the MTV series’ lead and namesake Daria. The book-loving “Misery Chick” of Lawndale High is not just my favorite protagonist, but she also felt like a lifeline to me when the show first aired in 1997. As a reserved and sensitive high school student myself, I felt recognized by Daria’s smartass, dry-as-burnt-toast humor, her every insight revealing the contradictions of both high school and adult life. Rewatching the entire series last year, I was delighted though not surprised to see that the show and her character still hold up. For all her wisecracks and sarcastic asides to best friend Jane Lane, Daria was more than just a sardonic misfit. She was a complicated character who genuinely cared about her family (even superficial sister Quinn) and was willing to make herself vulnerable for what she cared about (or who: never forget the great belly button piercing of 1998).
There are plenty of great and richly realized characters on The Sopranos (in fact, I’d have difficulty naming one I didn’t like; yes, even Janice), but even with such a deep bench, none of them compare to James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Here is a man who lies to everyone, most of all himself, relentlessly pursues his own selfish interests with little regard for the cost to those around him, vacillates between arrogance and maudlin self-pity, and, lest we forget, has a tendency to kill people—even his loved ones. And yet, by dint of Gandolfini’s performance, with its frequent glimmers of the fun-loving boy buried beneath the weight of responsibility, we can’t help but empathize with him, a man raised as heir to an empire that’s crumbling just as he’s finally getting his shot, and a guy who, for all his gangster bluster, boozy nights with strippers, and his gumars, secretly longs for some kind of comfortable suburban life at home with his family, his bowl of ice cream, and his WWII documentaries, if only “this thing of ours” gave him a moment’s peace. Tony Soprano is no one I’d ever like to meet in real life, but over endless Sopranos rewatches, I’ve spent more time with him than some members of my own family. He’s entertained me, he’s made me laugh, he’s frustrated me, and—in his own brutish way—he’s taught me more about the human condition than any other fictional character.
We’ve assembled a top-flight list of top-liners here, some of whom make memorable entrances (Tony’s first appointment with Dr. Melfi and the “issue of an outstanding loan”), some of whom (sorry, first-season Leslie) needed some time to warm up. But the thing about FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is that Twin Peaks isn’t Twin Peaks until Coop is on the scene. The first 36 minutes of the show’s feature-length pilot contain memorable lines (“wrapped in plastic”), superb scene-setting (you really get a feel for all of the teenage characters in the first visit to Twin Peaks High), and Lynchian nightmare imagery (Ronette Pulaski’s long walk across the bridge), but it all snaps into place once Kyle MacLachlan’s Boy Scout in a black suit starts yammering about pine trees, diner food, and motels. The fact that Agent Cooper is our one fellow stranger among the strange, interconnected inhabitants of Twin Peaks colors the remainder of the show, and as we become more accustomed to the surroundings, he starts taking on the trappings of town and even considers setting down roots there. Cooper’s sunny disposition is a welcome contrast to the grim circumstances that bring him to Twin Peaks; without undermining the character’s sense of professionalism or his skill as an investigator, MacLachlan’s performance epitomizes Twin Peaks’ peculiar blend of film noir, murder mystery, soap-opera camp, and slapstick comedy. I can’t wait to catch up with him in a few weeks—I’ve been dying to hear about how Annie’s doing.
By the end of its run, the American version of The Office had evolved into a true ensemble series, providing subplots and ample screen time to nearly every member of the dysfunctional Dunder Mifflin family. But that equilibrium was more of a necessity than a choice. After all, there was no replacing Michael Scott, was there? Steve Carell spent the first shaky season of The Office trying (and failing) to out-mean Ricky Gervais, whose David Brent casts a long, cruel shadow over those early episodes. But Carell cracked the character in season two, mainly by recognizing the crippling insecurity that drives this petty, emotional man. The comedian turned Michael into a distinctly tragicomic boss from hell: an overgrown child, desperate for love and approval, who’s failed upward into a position of power he shouldn’t be holding. He was protagonist and antagonist rolled into one, and even when The Office was off, Michael Scott was on. So when Carell took his leave, the show found itself with a dramatic and comedic void at its center. And even combined, all the big, funny personalities of the rest of the cast couldn’t quite fill it.
Mad Men would still be a good show if it weren’t anchored by Don Draper, but not nearly as good. The secretive and absurdly good-looking ad man is compulsively engaging. After all, he’s handsome, well-dressed, the best in his field, and rich because of it. He’s brooding, intelligent, and deeply thoughtful. To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, he’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a perfectly fitted suit. He’s also a chronic liar, adulterer, and manipulator who’s fundamentally so broken inside that he can’t form a single functional relationship in his life without either sabotaging it or letting it die from neglect. But he doesn’t play by anybody’s rules but his own, I coo, biting my thumbnail. He just needs the right person to tame him! Don Draper would inarguably be a shit person to know in real life, but that’s just part of what makes watching him such great television.
Bart Simpson may have won America’s heart first, and introduced the Bartman—the definitive dance craze of his generation—but for my money, The Simpsons’ Homer Simpson, singer, astronaut, clown, bodyguard, and so, so much more, is the greatest main character on a TV show ever. True, The Simpsons benefits from the greatest supporting cast in television history. But Homer is its anchor, a quintessential everyman and underdog hero who has not let his alcoholism, terrible parenting, and consistently terrible judgment keep him from becoming one of the greatest fictional creations of all time. We are all Homer, and Homer is all of us. May God have money on our souls.