10 greatest TV characters of all time

Thanks to Alisa, I am looooving Boxcutters, a weekly Australian podcast about TV. It is my new podcrush. I am particularly crushing on Nelly Thomas, but they’re all just plain adorable, smart and funny. They passed my own personal pop culture podcast test by recently discussing the Bechdel Test with intelligence and respect, plus they rave about things like Press Gang, Doctor Who and the latest HBO shows. Their unapologetic love of sublime AND ridiculous TV shows, and their sharp critical faculties are a pleasure to listen to, so thank GOODNESS I have something to make up for the fact that I have run out of Radio Free Skaro.

The recent eps have involved an ongoing project to assemble a list of the greatest TV characters of all time. They began by putting together a provisional list for discussion and are now asking listeners to send in their own top 10, and are discussing particular characters in each episode. I’ve particularly enjoyed recent discussions analysing the appeal of Daria Morgendorfer, Darlene from Roseanne, the Doctor, Hawkeye and Lynda Day.

One theme that has come up again and again is that when we choose “the greatest” it is actually an intensely personal choice, either because of how we relate to them now, or how we may have related to them in a nostalgic past.

So I thought I’d put a list together for myself, in lieu of doing the whole current 30 days of TV meme that is doing the rounds of LJ lately. I have been enjoying reading everyone’s posts but I kind of feel like I’ve missed the boat to do it myself.

So, Tansy’s Top 10 TV Characters (that I thought of in the last 24 hours)

10. Sarah Jane Smith
Still my favourite Doctor Who companion of all time (though Amy might give her a run for her money, we’ll see how year two turns out). I loved Sarah as a kid without being able to name any of the things that made me love her. Looking back now I can see why she stood out. She was a good and loyal friend, a brave adventurer, an outspoken feminist, and had a lovely line in sarcasm which certainly helped her survive her years with the Doctor. Also, cute outfits. She had a life of her own, and while I really enjoy the fact that she came back in School Reunion, I will always be a bit cross at the new series for suggesting that she spent decades pining for the Doctor. Planetary adventures, yes maybe, but HIM? Screw that, she had a life. I love that she got a spin off (well, two) and always delighted in the fact that she had her own K9. Now, 35 years after she first hopped on board the TARDIS, she is awesome in whole new ways, showing that a 60+ woman can lead a kids tv show.

9. Murphy Brown

I watched very little US TV growing up, because my mother had an aversion to it, but somehow I managed to watch Murphy Brown right from the beginning. I was very much not aware at the time of what I know now about the politics of the show and the effect it had on pop culture – especially later on when Vice President Dan Quayle famously condemned Murphy becoming a single mother – but I loved the dynamic of the show and the fact that it was about a smart, ambitious career woman beset on all sides by a world that wanted her to be something else. I think I’d be really keen to rewatch these with adult eyes. I liked Murphy’s independence, her sharp dialogue, and the fact that she spoke her mind. Hmm. There are going to be patterns here, aren’t there?

8. House
Looking at the longlist of characters I put together for this before whittling it down: I like my fictional women to be strong, smart and independent, and I like my fictional men bad, snarky and falling apart. House is a brilliant example of the latter. Hugh Laurie has transformed a poorly disguised modern version of Sherlock Holmes into a brilliantly broken genius doctor who, quite frankly, gets it wrong more than he gets it right. He is unapologetically rude, selfish and self-obsessed and yet somehow likeable. I don’t know why. I suspect it says something appalling about my psyche that I love him so much, but at least I share whatever it is with several million other people…

7. Patsy Stone, Absolutely Fabulous
Casting the gorgeous, glamorous Joanna Lumley as a drunken, fashion victim wreck of a socialite was a genius move on Jennifer Saunders’ part, and Patsy Stone was an incredible act to watch. Like other trainwreck characters (House, Bender, Homer Simpson) such a character would be someone to be pitied in real life, but there’s some kind of dizzying television chemistry that makes these larger than life characters epic in their awfulness. Patsy is the queen of Unapologetic, and somehow the audience is on her side even as she spikes innocents with her savage putdowns and demands that the world revolve around her. Huh. Maybe it wasn’t Sherlock Holmes that House was based on after all…

6. Marge Simpson
Mothering is a theme that’s kind of important to me these days, and it’s amazing how often I reach for Marge Simpson as a lodestone – of what to do, of what not to do, and most definitely there are times I hear myself saying things that could have come straight out of her blue beehived head. It’s a little scary. But I love and loathe her, simultaneously. She is the mother who puts her family before all else… and she’s the mother who puts her family before all else. She’s also probably the most iconic TV mother that there is these days, and she reflects so many issues of guilt, work-life balance and trying to stay sane when the most important person in your life can’t talk yet. She may be a caricature, but it is a caricature that veers beyond the discomfort line into all manner of truths in between the slapstick and the jokes.

5. Kerr Avon, Blake’s 7
Here’s another of those mean, anti-heroic fictional men who are awesome at insulting others. Avon starts out in Blake’s 7 as a minor character (he’s not even in the first episode) but quickly became the best thing about the show. In a show about revolutionaries and beaten-down heroes fighting for justice, he was the voice of ‘wtf, heroics are stupid, I hate you all.’ He was so dynamic on screen that he not only made the eponymous hero Blake more interesting, but he ultimately replaced him as the lead character in the show. A biting grin, a penchant for weird leather outfits, and some of the best dialogue ever written for the BBC. Avon, you still rock.

4. Mrs Emma Peel, The Avengers
Yes, another one from my childhood. I quite simply never got over how relentlessly cool Mrs Peel was. She did martial arts, fought crimes, got up to all kinds of espionage hijinks, but she was also book-smart, with a taste for academia and had expertise in all kinds of mad areas. She also did the banter thing, wore amazing clothes, had a gorgeous London flat, and basically goddessed herself through life. The thing that got to me, though, was how cool she was under pressure. When scared or in a dangerous situation, she might at a pinch widen her eyes a little, but she was not a screamer or a panicker. She had a frosty stare she reserved purely for diabolical villains, and while she was often rescued by Steed, she did her share of rescuing him, and herself. It’s also worth mentioning that Steed – himself a pretty awesome and capable character – contributed to the awesomeness of Emma by showing the audience how much he respected her as an equal and in many specific circumstances, a better person for the job than he was. I often hear men being nostalgic about Emma Peel it’s about how hot she was, or what an awesome sexual fantasy she represented (especially in THAT episode with the S&M outfit, which I have to say is to me the least attractive outfit she ever wore), but it’s important to me to note what an important hero she was for women, and in my case, for girls.

3. Lynda Day, Press Gang
I have enjoyed hearing the Boxcutters crew talk about Lynda and what an important character she was, and how unusual it was to have an TV show for teenagers that allowed the main character to be a hard-nosed bitch. I loved this show and this character so hard that I still have an emotional reaction to the theme tune. Lynda was so capable and so unapologetic and so confident in who she was, and I desperately yearned to be like that (I think I didn’t reach anywhere near her levels of self-confidence until I was in my late 20’s and it still saddens me a little that I will never be quite as tough as her). I also really like that she is a teenage female character who is primarily defined by her work – this is signalled in the show as something she has to work on, but even when challenged to prioritise her relationships (romantic as well as friendships) she never lets the balance swing the other way. The reason that she and Spike are such an OTP even when they aren’t together is because he recognises how important her work is to her and never actually tries to supplant that – he works around that aspect of her and learns to be useful to her professionally first in attempts to impress her and later in order to preserve/save/reclaim/maintain the relationship in its various screwball forms. As a teenager, seeing how driven Lynda was and how committed she was to excellence had I think a profound effect on me.

2. The Doctor

Possibly the only fictional male I adore who isn’t mean, broken or actively evil. He’s just the Doctor. He saves the world by being clever and funny and let’s face it, by hoping for the best really hard. He’s a force of chaos, and his perspective on humanity and the world is always unpredictable. I don’t need to sell this one, do I? He’s the Doctor.

and finally, drum roll…

1. Xena
There hasn’t been another TV hero like her. Coming on stage a year or two before Buffy, Xena was a dark anti-hero, a warlord who had chosen to turn her back on war and violence, but somehow never managed to leave it more than five minutes behind her. She had baggage, a heavy past and a scorching war cry, plus a dry sense of humour and somehow, no matter what the production crew threw at her (up to and including the God of War), she was always the baddest warrior on screen. She remains to me one of the strongest and most powerful female characters of the fantasy genre, and a little part of me still swoons every time I see Lucy Lawless in her Xena rig. Unforgettable.

My honourable mentions include: veronica mars, willow, xander, cordelia, buffy, vila, servalan, miriya sterling, lisa hayes, bender, barney stinson, pacey witter, atia, livia from I Claudius, dirty den, edmund blackadder, bernard black, ares from xena, daria, the vicar of dibley, wednesday addams, mickey mcclintock, walter bishop and uran from astro boy.

12 replies on “10 greatest TV characters of all time”

  1. Nelly Thomas says:

    Tansy, how lovely! I was beginning to think the only people who blogged and posted were crazies who hated everything and everyone. Thanks for your kind comments above – you’ve put a smile on my dial today.

    And thanks for your amazing character analysis above. I love a committed Boxcutter. (Josh, settle down).

    Nelly Boxcutter

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Boxcutters Podcast and Tansy Rayner Roberts. Tansy Rayner Roberts said: in which I answer the Boxcutters call to write my 10 greatest tv characters of all time http://bit.ly/cOWPKL […]

  3. I agree with Nelly! (apart from that “bloggers are crazy” bit – that’s just nuts). An excellent list and great to see your reasons why! I had Emma Peel on my original list because she was – and continues – to be the person I wanted to be when I grew up…

  4. KMJvet says:

    I’m glad someone has a list with female characters represented….and goes back further than the last 20 years.

  5. Sophie says:

    House was on my list for a loong time, but eventually he was replaced by Number Six. An alarming amount of girls I know share our love for House, so whatever it is that is responsible for “He’s damaged, angry, narcisstic and an utter mess. I want to hug him!”, it seems quite calm.

  6. Motvind says:

    This is an awesome list! I agree with a lot, but especially XENA. I can’t even begin to explain how much the show and the character meant for me when I was younger.

    I might have to snag this idea and make a list of my own. 🙂

  7. Celia says:

    And thanks to you and Alisa, Boxcutters has become a new favourite of mine as well – particularly Nelly, who is awesome. I love how many fabulous Australian women I can find on podcasts, yourself included 🙂

  8. Millie says:

    You got me listening to Boxcutters. You win at life.

  9. tansyrr says:

    Hahahaha I SO win at life, Mils.

  10. […] 10 greatest TV characters of all time […]

  11. Nelly Thomas says:

    Oh John, you know bloggers are often a bit nutty!

    But seriously, despite my jibes at you and yours, I have found an awful lot of bile on the internet – especially comments boards.

    I think it’s quite particular to the medium and is encouraged/enabled/facilitated by the anonymity of the net. I doubt, for example, people would be so quick to use such extreme language in person – it’s much easier to say you “hate” someone or threaten them or that they’re “insert expletive here” when you don’t have to see the effect of your words on them.

    Critical feedback is fine and healthy; insensitive or hateful tirades serve no purpose as far as I can tell.

    In short, I reckon it’s nice to be nice too sometimes. More Tansy, oi, oi, oi. Nelly

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