Here, in no particular order, are the iconic characters and the stars who brought them so memorably to life.
First, the 10 most important female characters…
Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) ‘Seinfeld’
What made her sitcom character so memorable? Not only was she highly relatable and an Everywoman she also was “un-gettable.” She was out of all of our leagues, and we loved her even more for it. It’s an irresistible combination. Plus, she’s as cool and stylish as any of the “Sex in the City” women and as funny and approachable as Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’
Like Bob Newhart, Moore overlaps two iconic shows – her self-titled showcase and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” It’s almost as if the latter’s Laura Petrie divorced Rob, moved to the city and got a job in a newsroom. She’s brilliant, sweet, vulnerable and very funny.
Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) ‘I Love Lucy’
Part Ingénue, part Manic Pixie Dream Girl and all her own… Ball was funny, cunning, charming and full of adventure. We each have a favorite scene with her, and that’s saying something about her talent. Millions have different moments to remember.
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) ‘Game of Thrones’
It’s a reminder that we’d elect a black man or gay man before a woman and why we struggle with women in leadership roles. Clarke’s iconic performance sadly suggested female leaders are all crazy in the end. That may not be what “Game of Thrones” intended, but it was the unfortunate outcome of the final, disastrous season. Before then, everyone rooted for her to take the Iron Throne.
Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) ‘Veep’
I think Louis-Dreyfus is one of the funniest people to ever walk the earth, and this show is even better than when it originally aired. It captures the Biden-Harris White House perfectly.
Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) ‘The X-Files’
Hunter S. Thompson once famously said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro!” but not Dr. Dana Scully. She got more grounded, more real, and more caring as the seasons went on. She fought the law and the law won, but she never lost sight of who she was.
Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) ‘The Americans’
She’s the best spy in television history, period. She completed more missions, had more successful hits and did more damage to her adversary than anyone you care to mention, even Emma Peel. All the while she raised two children and ran a successful travel business. Of course it was for the Soviet Union, but why hold that against her? She was the perfect American in that regard – a tremendous success on the surface but underneath her life was complete chaos.
Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) ‘Twin Peaks’
She didn’t have as much screen time as the others on this list, but you have to admit this character caught everyone’s attention for years. Lee helped ask the central question of the 1990s – “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Her backstory, while tragic, fits the times all too well.
Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) ‘Parks and Recreation’
No other TV character captured what it’s like to be a working woman in the U.S. better than Leslie Knope. She’s successful, often despite her team and engenders confidence and loyalty in others but more often than not ends up holding the short end of the stick. We make fun of “Karens” now, but she was the best kind of Karen, the one who makes local governments work.
Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) ‘Better Call Saul’
History will prove me correct on this choice. Kim may be the most interesting character ever (man or woman) in television history. Why? Her story is our story. This choice we seemingly all have to make between the easy path (which often offers more fun and money) and the harder path of ethics and doing the right thing. “Better Call Saul” is in my Top Five TV shows of all time list, and her storyline is the main reason why. It’s heartbreaking to watch her realize what life is like once your dreams die. The pain etched across her face those last two seasons is palpable.
Now, the 10 most important male characters
Archie Bunker (Caroll O’Connor) ‘All in the Family’
He let us explore race relations but was frequently wrong along the way. And that was okay.
Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) ‘M*A*S*H’
The quintessential liberal to Archie’s quintessential conservative, Hawkeye was the best surgeon in his unit. The war slowly drove him mad. It’s possible dramas shows like “ER” and “West Wing” wouldn’t exist without him.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) ‘Mad Men’
Everything you love and hate about America in one well-dressed man.
Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) ‘The X-Files’
The Gen X gum shoe, trying to locate his missing sister, was up to his eyeballs in conspiracies. Duchovny’s character suffered an unrequited love with a redhead (Is there any other kind of love possible with a redhead?) who keeps calm and carries on.
Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) ‘The Cosby Show’
He was everyone’s dad … until he wasn’t.
Robert Hartley, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) ‘The Bob Newhart Show,’ ‘Newhart’
Psychologist, inn keeper, chronicler of the world’s ills.
Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) ‘The Simpsons’
The everyman for decades now…
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) ‘The Sopranos’
If Homer Simpson had an alter ego it would be Tony Soprano, the anti-Everyman and dark ID of the American ego.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) ‘Star Trek’
Pax Americana, American Exceptionalism… the best ideal of a leader we could come up with during the 1960s. Kirk was our own James Bond, but instead of saving the Kingdom he served the United Federation of Planets.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) ‘Breaking Bad’
What happens when a man’s American Dream dies? Well, he turns into “Heisenberg” and uses all his might to “protect” his family with a lot of collateral damage in the process.