Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Characters of the Decade: Part 1

I already have lists for my favorite things of the decade in each category archived on the site, but I decided to do something a bit different for a feature. The most important thing to a good story is interesting characters, and sometimes they're better realized than usual. Characters are often what we remember most about something, and I thought I'd recognize that with a list of the best. These aren't exactly my favorites in each case - I tried to stick with ones that stick out in some really important way even if they didn't totally resonate with me. Any number of things could have gotten a character here; being a great villain, a powerhouse lead performance, launching someone's career, or just making something worth watching. I narrowed it down to 60, which was made easier by trying to limit myself to one character per work where possible. The list is a bit TV heavy since they have more time to develop a personality, and it leans towards white males more than I would have liked, but I still think it's a good list of people (and some robots) that were fascinating to watch. It's ordered chronologically by first appearance, with characters that originated before the decade began placed at the first point they became relevant again.

Eric Cartman
Trey Parker - South Park

"Nananananana! I made you eat your parents!"

The moment above will forever live in infamy, but it's just one of many great ones in the life of Cartman, the world's worst child. He's one of those rare characters that's a completely irredeemable asshole that you still love because his schemes and insults are just so entertaining and unforgettable. And he gets his comeuppance often enough that he's allowed to keep being such a bigoted little jerk.

Tony Soprano
James Gandolfini - The Sopranos

"Anybody else would've had their fuckin' intervention right through the back of their head."

The star of one of television's most important shows, Gandolfini is notable for standing out despite the amazingly strong and deep supporting cast around him. He's part imperfect family man, part ruthless mob boss, and part just another troubled guy who isn't totally sure of himself. One of the most evil men to ever be rooted for, and that's mostly because his insecurities are presented just as effectively as his strengths and ill deeds.

John DiMaggio - Futurama

"Goodbye losers, whom I've always hated!"

I could have easily put Fry or Professor Farnsworth here, but Bender is the character that defines the whole show. He's the robot who drinks because alcohol fuels his system and smokes because it makes him look cool. Once in a while he gets a bit too lowest-common-denominator, but his narcissism is inspiring and he's the robot friend we all wish we had.

Tyrion Lannister
A Song of Ice and Fire

"Those are brave men. Let's go kill them."

It's almost insane how many characters George R. R. Martin has managed to develop into genuinely fascinating people, but if one sticks out it's the smallest of the bunch, the Lion of Lannister. The whole series thrives off making its central conflict more interesting by not allowing you to want any one side to totally win, and Tyrion was the first time we saw that. Watching the wheels turn in his head as he tries to do his best with the cards he's dealt is endlessly enjoyable, and hopefully Martin finishes up the fifth book first so we can see what he's up to.

Captain Hank Murphy
Harry Goz - Sealab 2021

"But the secret ingredient is love. Damn it."

Voice actor Harry Goz unfortunately passed away while Sealab was still airing, and while I was still able to enjoy it afterward, it was never quite the same, which speaks to how good he was. As the driving force behind most of the plots, his unique brand of insane leadership paved the way for many bizarre Adult Swim shows to come. Every character on the show had their time to shine, but none provided laughs more than Murphy.

Master Shake
Dana Snyder - Aqua Teen Hunger Force

"I mean, is he gonna be able to chase us? Cause if I woke up looking like that, I would just run towards the nearest living thing and kill it."

You know a character lives off the actor's performance when it's as hard as it was to find a good quote that stands without context even though he provides laughs constantly. Snyder is probably the best voice actor to work repeatedly with Adult Swim, and this is the role that gave him a chance to shine. There's just so much humor laced in every syllable that comes out of Shake's mouth, and even if that week's gimmick plot is lame it'll probably be worth watching just for his next zinger.

Rikki Simmons - Invader Zim

"It's me! I was the turkey all along!"

Possibly the only character that can get away with just saying random crap all day, thanks to Simmons' fine voice work and his unending supply of adorableness. GIR is one of those animated characters who's fun just to watch do anything, and he's at that right level of idiocy that you have to wonder if he's actually just messing with Zim and the audience some of the time.

Nate Fisher Jr.
Peter Krause - Six Feet Under

"Everything's bad for something."

Nate's as flawed a person as there will be on this list, and that's part of why he works. He's just a human being worried about his mortality and trying to figure out what he really wants to do with his life. His story is a tragic one, but watching it play out made for some of the decade's best personal drama. Plus, watching him yell at stupid people is funny.

Gareth Keenan
Mackenzie Crook - The Office (UK)

"I told him once that I don't like jelly. I don't trust the way it moves."

It's hard to pin down with is Gareth's most hilarious feature. I love his supposed hardened military background despite his ridiculous, gaunt physique. I love his very unfortunate combination of overconfidence and ineptitude with women. I love the overly serious way he deals with the politics of working at a small branch of a paper company. One of the few characters I prefer to the US version's equivalent, and that's despite that equivalent also being on this list.

Dr. Perry Cox
John C. McGinley - Scrubs

“Jordan…the boy already lip-syncs into your tampons, must we put a final nail in his tiny gay coffin?”

Despite this being the ninth year of Dr. Cox being on the air ranting and raving, I'm still not tired of it. McGinley never broke out beyond a few small film roles, but every week he's good for a few solid put downs and probably at least one epically vicious dissection of why whoever he's yelling at is a bad doctor. But there's enough variety, creativity, and humor there that you never feel he's being too mean. At his heart, he's a good doctor who's trying to make others around him better at their job, and that's why he gets away with it.

Jack Bauer
Kiefer Sutherland - 24

"I don't care how it's interpreted from the outside. I just gave you an order and I'd like you to follow it."

The only character I know of who deserves - nay, requires a website to keep track of all of his kills in the line of duty. However you feel about torture, it's hard to be upset with Jack for doing what he thinks he needs to do to save America because he puts up with so much crap and never asks for anything in return. Also, it's just a TV show. His actions definitely speak louder than his words, but he's had his share of resonant emotional moments too. He's why I keep coming back despite the series' declining quality.

Ian McKellen - The Lord of the Rings series

"A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to."

Maybe the greatest action hero who's also an old man in film history. Gandalf was always the most interesting character in the books, and that held true in the movies as well. It's actually sort of two roles, as the wise and resourceful but fallible Gandalf the Grey at first and later as the powerful but justifiably aloof Gandalf the White. Kind and caring, but terrifying when he needs to be. He's basically what you wish your grandfather was like.

Continued tomorrow.

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