12. Skyler White – “Breaking Bad”
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.
11. Lorelai Gilmore – “Gilmore Girls”
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.
10. Charlie Kelly – “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
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).
9. Ryan Atwood – “The O.C.”
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.
8. Tami Taylor – “Friday Night Lights”
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.
7. Lucille Bluth – “Arrested Development”
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.