Ah, the 2000s — an indefinable decade of war, social progression, and an explosion of prestige TV. With so much great television came many, many great television characters. The best shows were built on battles of quality characters: Is Don Draper better than Peggy Olson? Lorelai Gilmore or Rory? Walter White or Jesse Pinkman? Or is there a third, less-referenced character who’s the secret star?
These aren’t problems by any stretch of the imagination: Great characters lead to better episodes, seasons, and series, so having too many is hardly a handicap in a medium with so much time. But before standalone episodes started trending, these were the best characters during the onset of TV’s new golden age.
A few rules, to keep things sane: Characters had to be created between 2000 and 2009. So even if the show was created before we knew Y2K wasn’t worth the worry, a character from that show could still be eligible. Also, as much as we’d like to feature the entire cast of “The Wire,” we kept it to one character per show. Let the debates rage on, even if the shows ended way back before our first black president.
Played by: Archie Panjabi
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on September 22, 2009
Boots. Of. Justice. There’s no denying that Kalinda Sharma has an intimidating amount of style. Choosing knee-high boots over pumps and a never-ending array of leather jackets over sensible blazers, this private investigator didn’t keep a low profile and that’s no accident. Standing out from the stuffed shirts she works for at the law firm, Kalinda exercises a similar toughness and style on the job. Inscrutable, private, and often violent, Kalinda doesn’t make friends lightly, but when she does, she’ll be fiercely protective while knocking back some tequila. This character added sex, danger and most of all fun to the series in a way that upended all expectations of what an Indian woman should play.
Played by: Bernie Mac
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Mr. Bernie Mac, The River Jordan, Uncle Daddy” on November 14, 2001
America, let us tell you something. When you have a man like Bernie Mac, a famous and successful comic, who was willing to take in his sister’s three kids out of the goodness of his heart, you listen to him. Loosely based on the real comedian, Bernie was never shy about his impatience with his nieces’ and nephew’s bullshit, even threatening at times to “bust the [children’s] heads ’til the white meat shows.” The tough guy act would often give way to behind-closed-doors teary affection though, which he’d share with “America” through confessionals. Conceived and produced by Larry Wilmore, “Bernie Mac” presented a new sitcom dad who wasn’t afraid to keep it 100.
Played by: Dave Chappelle
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 2, “Episode #1.2” on January 29, 2003
An exaggeration of a racial stereotype, Tyrone Biggums pushed the boundaries of believability in hysterically satirical fashion. Chappelle got the most out of Tyrone, too. Eating peanut butter and crack sandwiches while sipping an energy drink laced with cocaine, he spanned both seasons and popped up in a number of sketches outside “Chappelle’s Show,” all to serve as a two-fold reminder: for literalists, how drugs can ravage the mind, and, for deep thinkers, the ignorance of a society who sees sin as a one-way ticket to inconceivable depravity. Chappelle conceived it and made Tyrone funny as hell. Parts of his speeches are laced with truth, others are extreme comedic bits, but it’s up to the audience to come to terms with their initial and predominant takeaways.
Played by: Henry Ian Cusack
First Appearance: Season 2, Episode 1, “Man of Science, Man of Faith” on September 21, 2005
Desmond is one of the most popular “Lost” characters, even inspiring a Reddit post devoted to discussing how anyone can’t not like Desmond. Sure he’s rakishly good-looking and has a killer Scottish accent, but his appeal goes beyond the physical. On a show where everyone’s flashback started to feel far too similar, Desmond was an outlier. For one, he wasn’t part of the flight that crashed on the island but had been shipwrecked. His freshness without baggage tied to the other survivors continued throughout his seasons, precisely because of his separate history. But the best, most tragic part of Desmond was his absolute devotion to the love of his life Penny (Sonya Walger). It’s their romance that gives “The Constant” — arguably one of the best episodes of the series — its emotional heft and tether. This man found himself unstuck from time, but in the end it was Penny, his “constant,” that grounded him.
Played by: Donald Glover
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on September 17, 2009
In Greendale Community College’s oddball study group, Troy was the stealth member; a high school star athlete who was primed to earn our hatred for being so normal and popular. But soon bits of his armor fell off revealing that he had sabotaged his own scholarship and that with newfound BFF Abed (Danny Pudi) he could let his freaky nerd flag fly. Whether it was creating their own low-budget sci-fi flicks, pranking Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), hosting their own morning talk show, or freestyle rapping their homework assignments, Troy and Abed became one of TV’s best on-screen duos. Meeting Abed has had the most profound effect on Troy, unleashing his creativity, and introducing viewers to the comedic genius of Donald Glover.
Played by: H. Jon Benjamin
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Archersaurus”
Sterling Archer: the only character on TV whose mortality is questioned as unpredictably and as often as, say, Kevin Garvey on “The Leftovers.” Since the 2014 series is ineligible for this list, let’s take a moment to ponder the existence of an animated character. Sterling stares death in the face with reckless abandon, but it’s not that he’s unafraid. Sure, his cocky demeanor carries him into and through a lot of perilous situations, but his eyes widen when staring down the barrel of a gun just like the rest of us. Can Adam Reed’s greatest creation actually die? They’ve been toying with the possibility for more than three years. As Archer became a father, a monogamous partner, and a gun for hire, he realizes what’s important to him. What makes all of us look toward the end has edged Archer to do the same, and the series has never been better than when Sterling leads us out of our comfort zone, into the unexpected. The journey is what matters, but we’ll be fascinated to land at the destination.
Played by: Katee Sackoff
First appearance: Miniseries “Part 1” on December 8, 2003
When a character is able to turn a rabid fanbase in her favor, that’s power. Followers of the original 1978 series were supremely and loudly unhappy about the casting of a woman in the popular role that Dirk Benedict had first portrayed. In fact, at a Comic-Con panel before the backdoor pilot miniseries even aired, Sackhoff was booed. But oh, everything changed when the brash, cigar-smoking pilot blasted across the screen. The gender-bending Starbuck had lost none of the skill of the original character but added a lot more swagger. She was a messy, thoroughly flawed character who had anger issues, commitment issues and a devil-may-care attitude that was destined to get her killed except she continued to thrive and grow and learn. The revamped “Battlestar” is already a classic, and it’s Starbuck who stands out as one of its most compelling characters. So say we all.
Played by: Neil Patrick Harris
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on September 19, 2005
While “How I Met Your Mother” will go down as the most delightful show that turned its fans against it with its series finale, Barney Stinson was a beacon of bro-ness that cannot be dimmed. Suited up and cocksure, Barney lacked the shame gene that holds us poor schmucks back. And for that, we’re eternally grateful because this was a man who lived by his word at all costs; who could not, would not turn down a challenge to his detriment. And his womanizing ways just can’t be taken seriously. Can they? Barney Stinson redefined the modern bro as one who took pride in his appearance and his loyalty to his friends, a trait that all of us can admire. Favorite characters of the 2000s? Challenge accepted.
Continue reading for four moms not defined by their motherhood.
Played by: Anna Gunn
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on January 20, 2008
“Breaking Bad” was a great series because it made us identify so strongly with its antagonist, but the only true protagonist sitting down to dinner at the White household was Skyler. Kept in the dark too long to save Walt from himself, Skyler was an audience proxy the audience rejected. From the safety of our own homes, we wanted to see how deep Walt would go down the rabbit hole, but Skyler was worried about her family; her life; her family’s lives. That Skyler was never reduced to a dimwitted fool is an accomplishment on its own, but “Breaking Bad’s” emotional through-line was built around Mrs. White noticing the little things gone awry in her marriage. She tried to save a life any healthy human would be happy with; that Jesse Pinkman would’ve loved to have with Jane, and that Saul (Jimmy) would love to have post-Cinnabon. She surprised us, but she never broke character. Skyler was one of the greats.
Played by: Lauren Graham
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on October 5, 2000
Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino may have dreamed up Lauren Graham to live out all of her fast-talking, pop culture-spewing, ultimate mom fantasies, but in the process, she struck a nerve with women everywhere. Lorelai tackled teenage motherhood alone with such gusto, it’s almost as if she had planned this path out for herself and her mini-me daughter and fellow high-brow quipster Rory. But Lorelai was a woman of excess — whether it came to her sixth cup of coffee, junk food mixed with more junk food, or her loving heart — and that meant being very wrong sometimes, especially to flout her controlling parents. That Lorelai was given a second life in the form of a revival series is a testament to her charismatic but also her power to tug at the heartstrings. And in the process, she also inspired a generation to follow where she led.
Played by: Charlie Day
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “The Gang Gets Racist” on August 4, 2005
A character of such complexity we may never fully understand his background, Charlie Kelly loves milk steak. He loves magnets — just magnets. He wants to attract intelligent women. He likes funny little green ghouls and dislikes people’s knees. He loves the waitress (or, maybe, he did). And that’s just what we learned from his dating profile, let alone 12 seasons of his wild card antics on “It’s Always Sunny.” Yet what makes him great isn’t his mere unpredictability — anyone can be unpredictable. It’s that his choices make sense in that Charlie logic sort of way that can only be defined by spending so much time with the man himself. Kelly holds him together, allowing fans to delight in his charms without questioning his authenticity. We may never meet a real Charlie, but we’ll always believe he’s out there (probably huffing paint).
Played by: Ben McKenzie
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on August 5, 2003
What makes Ryan Atwood a landmark television character aren’t his fists of fury or his many intense romantic moments. It’s that he’s not a soap opera character, he’s just in a nighttime soap. Illustrated by Ryan’s transplant to a foreign land, from Chino to Newport Beach, the young troublemaker didn’t understand how to deal with all the drama stirring up around him. He’d sit and brood in silence until societal pressures or his moral convictions broke his desire to behave and out came Kid Chino. Ryan was at once the grounding point of a great drama and the romantic spark that lit the romance afire. All the while, he was our window into an unknown world — for those of us who grew up on the numbered streets and those of us who don’t buy into all that silly drama.
Played by: Connie Britton
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on October 3, 2006
We’re not trying to be ornery or argumentative here: Tami Taylor is the driving force of “Friday Night Lights.” The school counselor who became principal; the politicized principal whose morals led her to the Ivy League (well, like an Ivy, but not an Ivy); Tami is far more than Mrs. Coach, even if that endearing nickname sure did stick. She was the stronger of the two Taylors, keeping Eric in line when his priorities strayed from family, all without sacrificing her own goals and values while being engulfed in Texas football culture. Tami, with her big glass of white wine and sweet gaze, imparted as much intimidation as she did warmth. She was the parent all parents want to be, the mom we all love, and the wife we all can only hope to deserve. But above all else, she’s a woman who gets shit done — and always for the better.
Played by: Jessica Walter
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1 on October 17, 2005
Always accessorized impeccably with a martini, the Bluth family matriarch is more likely to nurse her drink (ha!) than nurture her children. Lucille’s penchant for self-indulgence is only bested by her ability to utter a devastating put-down with utter condescension, which she’s perfected on her various adult children. But beneath the boozehound bravado and smart Chanel suits is nevertheless a woman who can unite her family, if only in antipathy to her emotional abuse. She’s already faced enough drama to make her into the embittered souse that she is today, but her biggest challenges are yet to come, with or without her kids. She could be seen as a cautionary tale, but frankly, she is all of our secret selves writ large. We’ll drink to that.
Continue reading for the best six characters of the era.
Played by: Steve Carell
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on March 24, 2005
Michael Scott, as portrayed by Steve Carell, is an enticing conundrum. You love him, you hate him. You sympathize with him, and he almost immediately betrays that sympathy. Over the brief first season of the Americanized “Office,” Michael was too ignorant and too cruel to be endearing, but he was also too antagonistic to last. Fans were already growing tired of Scott’s nearly bald look and baldly bad attitude. Luckily, Greg Daniels and Carell turned him around quickly and smoothly, as Scott became the lovable loser who just happened to hold too much power. By his final season, we were rooting for Michael’s love life harder than anyone could have predicted in Season 1. That’s great development. That’s a great character.
Played by: Stephen Colbert
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1 on October 17, 2005
If you wanted to see an example of a model citizen, an upstanding conservative and America’s most famous Catholic, Stephen Colbert was the right-wing pundit who could boil down the day’s news to its ultimate truthiness. The faux conservative peddled in faux news before it became de rigeur for among the outraged set, and he was essential for learning what to eschew thanks to his “On Notice” board. Though the character was a spoof of conservatives like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and went to ridiculous lengths for a joke, he never felt too cynical, probably owing to the fact that Stephen Colbert was so damned happy and nerdy, even when he was ranting. He forever made his mark on making news and politics not just funny, but essential viewing. We should all feel proud to have been part of, ever so briefly, the Colbert Nation.
Played by: Tina Fey
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on October 10, 2006
Nerdy, feminist, neurotic, awkward, and yet thoroughly enchanting, Liz Lemon was the booksmart friend who was simultaneously nervous about and yet eventually unapologetic of her uncoolness. Over the years, she inspired her writers and stars — all misfits in their own ways — to not steal her food or be like her. She would often and inevitably be proven wrong, hurt someone’s feelings or flat-out fail, but it wasn’t for lack of trying or ignoring her true nature. And this is her ultimate charm: Liz Lemon unfiltered and wearing a Princess Leia costume is a role model for anyone who feels clueless or like an outcast. We want to go to there.
Played by: Michael Kenneth Williams
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 3, “The Buys” on June 16, 2002
The references are never ending — we hope. “Omar’s coming!” has been shouted, typed, tossed in, and referred to on so many occasions, it’s hard to keep track of everyone who’s trying to pay homage to one of the greatest TV characters ever put to screen. Through the man named Little, Williams’ bucked stereotypes at every turn to become President Obama’s favorite from “The Wire,” and who are we to disagree with the most influential fan of all time?
Played by: Jon Hamm
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on July 19, 2007
Not all shows are defined by their leads — especially top-to-bottom outstanding ensembles like “Mad Men” — but where Don went so went the series. Whether he was drifting aimlessly down the coast of California or going for a drunken drive in upstate New York, Don Draper clarified your love of and frustration with Matthew Weiner’s classic summer series. We deny any negatives, especially the redundancy claims affixed to Mr. Draper’s journey for self-fulfillment (who doesn’t fall back on bad habits during their quest for happiness?) but that the central journey and main appeal of the character was an ongoing existential crisis speaks to the layered work building the world’s best ad man. The clothes were fun, the pitches exciting, but it was Don’s dare to dream that kept “Mad Men” moving forward.
Played by: Amy Poehler
First Appearance: Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot” on April 9, 2009
One would be hard-pressed to find a more admirable, inspirational, and relatable politician than Leslie Knope — on TV or off. Even Aaron Sorkin’s mightiest prose couldn’t match the boundary-breaking affirmations of a woman who never met a challenge she couldn’t overcome with a big ‘ol binder and an even bigger smile. Knope lived her life as though she needed to dispel the presumed pronunciation of her name, putting out positive vibes that resulted in hilarity and helpfulness. Poehler formed a beacon for people young and old to aspire to, and she’ll stand the test of time among equally enticing cohorts.
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