What makes a compelling TV character? It’s a much tougher question than it initially seems, as we discovered when we first attempted to write this list.
It helps if the source TV show is good, of course. Sure, mediocre TV shows can contain great characters, but they’re unlikely to stick around in the public consciousness once the final season wraps.
And that really gets to the heart of the matter here. A great TV character will affect the way future TV characters are written, or indeed the way TV is made. The very best might even work their way into the wider popular culture or the language we use.
In the interest of narrowing things down, each of these 25 characters has been drawn from the last 25 years of television. It’s no coincidence that this handily encompasses the so-called golden era of TV, when prestige shows started attracting Hollywood talent and the highest of critical plaudits around the turn of the millennium.
There’s no doubting that TV has gotten a whole lot better over the past quarter of a century. But which TV character is best? Be sure to vote below.
The 25 best TV characters of the last 25 years
1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)Stream on Netflix
Has any character arc in TV history been as pronounced as Breaking Bad’s Walter White? Starting out as a downtrodden and terminally ill chemistry teacher, by the time the show concludes five seasons later he’s an infamous drug kingpin with a codename that strikes fear into the criminal underworld.
It’s a highly unlikely “Mr. Chips to Scarface” journey, as creator Vince Gilligan likes to put it. Thankfully, Bryan Cranston is there to sell it, in a performance that ranges from slapstick farce to Shakespearean tragedy without once making you question its credibility.
2. Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)Stream on NOW
While it might be called The Sopranos, this most acclaimed and influential show of TV’s golden age rested on just one character: troubled patriarch and ruthless New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini.
The genius of Tony Soprano, as with several of the very best TV characters on this list, is that they come across as fully rounded human beings. Soprano is monstrous, yes, as well as unfaithful and wrathful. But he also struggles with panic attacks, goofs around, and loves his kids. Ultimately, you can’t help but root for him when things go sideways.
3. Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones)Stream on NOW
Tyrion Lannister is one of the most fascinating and ultimately sympathetic characters in George R. R. Martin’s epic (and ongoing) series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. It was Peter Dinklage’s task to embody this tricky yet foundational character in the ensuing TV series, Game of Thrones.
He pulls it off brilliantly, conveying the widely loathed yet misunderstood dwarf’s deeply concealed pain, not to mention his ribald wit and his tactical astuteness, with impeccable poise and craft.
4. Saul Goodman (Better Call Saul)Stream on Netflix
Saul Goodman was one of many idiosyncratic side characters to emerge from Breaking Bad, offering considerable comic relief to an increasingly dark and portentous show. While this tacky New Mexico lawyer was much loved, however, few would have pitched for a spin-off show.
The fact that Better Call Saul proved to be at least the match of Breaking Bad is of course a testament to creator Vince Gilligan’s genius. But it also speaks to the brilliance of Saul (played by Bob Odenkirk) himself, who revealed fascinating layers across the show’s six seasons. Comic relief? Yes, and so much more.
5. Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm)Stream on NOW
Without Larry David, we wouldn’t have Seinfeld’s George Costanza – another candidate for this list. The grouchy New York comedian essentially wrote himself into Jerry Seinfeld’s famous ’90s show in all but name.
Thankfully, David would get a second bite at the cherry at the turn of the millennium with Curb Your Enthusiasm, and this time there was no layer of artistic interpretation necessary. This character is the great curmudgeon himself, offering his hilariously skewed take on all things quotidian in a completely unfiltered way. Genius.
6. Rust Cohle (True Detective)Stream on NOW
The return to relevance of actor Matthew McConaughey, aka The McConnaisance, arguably peaked in 2014 with his triumphant appearance in the first season of True Detective. The character of Rust Cohle – a nihilistic, antisocial Louisiana State Police detective – was a world away from the himbos he had been typecast as.
But play that role he did, and with a level of brooding intensity that served to effectively seal his standing as an A-tier Hollywood player. Meanwhile, the character’s strained interplay with Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart made for one of the finest double acts in TV history.
7. Dr. Gregory House (House)Stream on Prime Video
Hugh Laurie made his name playing a range of plummy, dim, English eccentric roles in UK comedy during the ’80s and ’90s. That made his casting as Dr. Gregory House – an acerbic yet brilliant American surgeon – all the more remarkable.
House’s ability to save the day with an ingenious medical breakthrough (the show is pretty much a mystery whodunnit, but with diseases in place of murderers) is rivalled only by his shocking misanthropy, while there’s no sharper wit in all of medical TV entertainment.
8. Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)Stream on Disney Plus
It’s a pretty good sign of a fictional character’s cultural impact when their name becomes part of the cultural firmament. Everyone – and we do mean everyone – knows what it means to do or be a Homer. And they’ll know you’re not talking about the Greek guy.
Matt Groening’s most enduring creation was born as a send-up of complacent boomer consumerist culture. He’s dim-witted, greedy, gullible, and lazy. But he also has a soft centre and a warm heart, and he always lands on his feet. Somehow, against all logic, we’d all like to be a little more Homer.
9. Tom Wambsgans (Succession)Stream on NOW
Each of the despicable main characters in Succession could make a case for a spot on this list. It’s a testament to the writing and performances for what is arguably the best show of its era.
However, it’s Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans that claws his way to the top of this particular pile. It’s his shape-shifting character that vacillates wildly – but always believably – between domineering and simpering depending on the company he’s keeping. And it’s his character that provides both some of the heartiest laughs and the most heart-breaking scenes in the show.
10. Stringer Bell (The Wire)Stream on NOW
The Wire was such an influential TV show dealing with such major societal issues, that the discourse around the show can overlook its wonderful characters. Perhaps most notable was Stringer Bell, the likes of which we had never seen in a police procedural before.
Played with career-launching poise and cool focus by a young Idris Elba, Bell is a quietly charismatic drug kingpin who approaches his deadly trade with a rare and almost admirable sense of caution and calculation. It really is just business to Bell, and business is something to be studied for and diligently executed.
11. Selina Meyer (Veep)Stream on NOW
How do you get a mainstream American audience to click with a knotty, wordy show filled with fundamentally unlikeable characters like the UK’s The Thick of It? Simple – you rebuild it around a force of nature like Selina Meyer, played with imperious glee by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
At the start of the show, Meyer is a nakedly ambitious, unapologetically amoral career politician who would sell her mother to climb another rung on the political ladder. By the end of the show she is still all of those things, but we somehow love her a whole lot more.
12. Al Swearengen (Deadwood)Stream on Paramount Plus
Having built a solid TV career on this side of the pond, Ian McShane was a relatively unknown sexagenarian when he took the part of historical saloon owner Al Swearengen in HBO’s ambitious western series. His dynamite performance in Deadwood would effectively launch a late second phase to his career.
McShane’s Swearengen is an irresistible rogue, spouting some of the fruitiest language ever committed to the screen (big or small), and acting like the unscrupulous pimp he undoubtedly was. Through all the murders, racial epithets, and dastardly plots, however, Swearengen never devolves into an archetypal moustache-twirling villain.
13. Frasier Crane (Cheers/Frasier)Stream on Paramount Plus
Sitcom spin-offs rarely work, as Matt Le Blanc’s Joey went to show. Rewind a decade, however, and a previous hit sitcom character made the transition look easy. Kelsey Grammar’s Frasier was a mere supporting character in Cheers, playing a pompous foil to the denizens of a working class Boston bar.
The character unexpectedly blossomed, however, when he shouldered his own show across 11 seasons. Returning to his home town of Seattle and taking on a job as a radio psychiatrist, Crane’s preening and pretentious manner is brilliantly cast against his rough-and-ready father and the general indignities of life.
14. Ted Lasso (Ted Lasso)Stream on Apple TV Plus
Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso, an American football coach who swaps the US to manage a proper football team in London, is a character with boundless amounts of positivity. But beneath the usually polished exterior is a person with their own problems, all of which add to the complexity of the character. Take Ted at face value and what you have got is the personification of a motivational quote poster. Dig deeper and you see the cracks and the faults - and that’s what makes him one of the most human characters on TV right now.
15. Fleabag (Fleabag)Stream on Prime Video
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (both series and character) didn’t just launch her acting and writing career. It also set the terms for a certain brand of comedic TV writing for the next five years. It’s rude, crude, and breathtakingly honest in a way that television so rarely was before.
Fleabag the character is a riot of sarcastic quipping and cringe-inducing chaos. And by breaking the fourth wall so regularly to confide in you, the viewer, she makes you an unwitting accomplice to her many transgressions. Clever.
16. Lucille Bluth (Arrested Development)Stream on Disney Plus
We could have populated half of this list with each of Arrested Development’s main characters, plus a few of its minor roles. But that would have been boring for the many people who still haven’t seen this inspired cult comedy. Lucille Bluth deserves special mention, though.
Played by Jessica Walter in the present, and by Kristen Wiig and Cobie Smulders in flashback sequences, the matriarch of the chaotic Bluth family is a well-dressed bundle of withering put-downs and outrageously inappropriate decisions. She’s ostensibly the most reprehensible of all the Bluths, but her entertainment value is off the charts.
17. Alan Partridge (Various)Stream on NOW
Over in the US, Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is a cult comic character, scarcely known to mainstream audiences but hugely influential to fellow comedians and others in the industry. Here in the UK, he’s one of the most beloved characters on TV.
Partridge established a type of cringey professional blowhard that the likes of Ricky Gervais (and thus Steve Carrell) would subsequently riff off. By employing fresh writing talent to fill the character out over the years, Coogan’s Partridge has remained as fresh and relevant as he was when he burst on the scene in the early ’90s.
18. Peggy Olson (Mad Men)Stream on Prime Video
As the only actor with two entries on this list, it’s fair to say that Elizabeth Moss is something of a talent. She’s also fortunate to have been given two of the most iconic TV roles of the past quarter of a century.
In Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, that character arguably overshadowed the series lead, Don Draper, for its lasting impact. She certainly grew more, going from awkward and frequently belittled secretary to star advertising executive across the show’s eight-year run, with plenty of hard knocks along the way.
19. David Brent (The Office)Stream on Britbox
We can argue over whether The American Office’s Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) was better. His show was undoubtedly more popular, after all. But Scott simply wouldn’t exist without David Brent, with creator and star Ricky Gervais providing the raw material for both of these great comic characters.
Besides, Brent exhibits a very particular brand of brittle hubris, and a daring lack of likeability that precious few lead characters (especially on American TV) are ever permitted to show. He’s a jerk – a hilarious, pitiful, achingly true-to-life jerk – and that makes him special.
20. Buffy Anne Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)Stream on Disney Plus
Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy Anne Summers is one of the most iconic TV performances of the ’90s. As a teenage girl who also happens to be a super-powered vampire slayer, she perfectly nails the mixture of vulnerability and strength that the role requires.
She’s as convincing in the show’s many choreographed action scenes as she is delivering snarky one-liners with her high school buddies, or with the show’s more tender moments. Buffy is a character that’s as synonymous with the ’90s as the cast of Friends or Mulder and Scully.
21. June/Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale)Stream on Prime Video
While June/Offred is one of two roles on this list played by the wonderful Elizabeth Moss, much of the character’s iconic status was already there on the page. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on a famous novel by Margaret Atwood, in which a future US is ruled by a brutal theocratic regime.
Still, someone had to take the lead role of Offred, an oppressed woman looking to break free, and make it similarly impactful for the prestige TV show era. Moss does so impeccably, and even has room to fill the character out thanks to the show’s wider scope.
22. Ellie Williams (The Last of Us)Stream on NOW
The Last of Us is rather young to be making its way onto best of lists. However, both the 2023 series and the character of Ellie Williams specifically have their roots firmly planted in a landmark 2013 video game.
Young English actor Bella Ramsey does a spectacular job bringing Ellie to the small screen, managing to be faithful to the beloved source material whilst simultaneously working in her own nuances. At once abrasively headstrong and believably vulnerable, worldly wise and disarmingly naïve, you’ll want to protect this zombie apocalypse survivor just like Pedro Pascal’s brutal father figure Joel.
23. Eric Effiong (Sex Education)Stream on Netflix
After his portrayal of Eric in Sex Education, it’s no wonder that Ncuti Gatwa is next playing The Doctor. Gatwa is a powerful presence on screen and his character of Eric is beautifully realised, never relying on the stereotypical ‘gay best friend’ tropes. Instead we have a fully formed force of nature that goes on his own arc where he confronts his own race and identity and stands up for himself and what he believes in. Plus, he gets to roll off lines like: “You should wash your hands you dirty pig,” in pretty much every episode.
24. Chandler Bing (Friends)Stream on Netflix
The ’90s was the decade for heavyweight sitcoms, but it’s arguable that no character had as profound an influence on the culture of the time (with due deference to the Rachel haircut) as Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing. Or, to put it in Chandleresque terms, could there be a more important sitcom character?
Besides his unique intonation slipping into the everyday vernacular, Bing’s trademark quick wit, self loathing, and crippling doubt struck a chord with a whole generation. Perry really lived the part, too, helping to write and shape his character in a way that went beyond his famous colleagues.
25. Samantha Jones (Sex and the City)Stream on NOW
It’s all too easy to pooh-pooh the legacy of Sex and the City after two dodgy movies and some unseemly acrimony among the feuding cast. But let’s never forget that it was genuinely trailblazing stuff at the time, especially when you consider the figure of Kim Cattrall’s Samantha Jones.
Here was a middle-aged woman completely comfortable in her body and unapologetic about her voracious sexuality – something that is virtually a taboo subject in the TV and movie industries. Samantha Jones broke the mould.