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.
20. Kalinda Sharma – “The Good Wife”
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.
19. Bernie Mac – “The Bernie Mac Show”
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.
18. Tyrone Biggums – “Chappelle’s Show”
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.
17. Desmond Hume – “Lost”
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.
16. Troy Barnes – “Community”
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.
15. Sterling Archer – “Archer”
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.
14. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace – “Battlestar Galactica”
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.
13. Barney – “How I Met Your Mother”
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.