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The best single-episode characters in TV history

They stole the show, if only briefly

The best single-episode characters in TV history
Tom Victor
16 January 2018

When we recall our favourite TV shows, there’s a tendency to hone in on the big name, face-on-a-T-shirt stars, and that’s completely logical.

You watch Breaking Bad for Walter White’s journey from hero to anti-hero and his interactions with the various Big Bads of its five seasons, while much of the appeal of The Sopranos surrounds patriarch Tony’s relationships with those both inside and outside his inner circle.

Similarly, the appeal of The Simpsons was lost to many when its lead characters began behaving inconsistently, and a desire not to succumb to this is what has allowed It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to remain popular throughout its 13-season run.

However, some of the best-written shows are those which can successfully drop a character into the mix for one episode and have them make an impact which is both significant and natural.

For shows with less progression from one episode to the next, it’s crucial for the character in question to be more than just a cameo from a celebrity: they need to add a certain quality and behaviour that couldn’t be provided by another character, even if they are never spoken of again after that one appearance.

When it comes to series with a greater continuity, however, the task is even more substantial: they need those qualities too, but their interaction with the show’s regular characters needs to both stand alone and move the plot forward. A fantastic performance can seem compelling, of course, but it loses some of its impact if it feels like it is there only to introduce some star power.

We’ve gone back through time and picked out some of the one-off characters who were not only the most memorable, but also among the most influential to the shows in which they appear.

To qualify for this list, a character must either:

- Appear in just one episode in a speaking or otherwise significant role, or

- Appear in two consecutive episodes as part of one uninterrupted storyline

That’s it. That’s the only qualifier. Some spoilers (of sorts) follow.

  1. 1.'Friends' – Tommy

    We could have taken our pick from countless Friends characters, and indeed countless love interests, but we’ve settled on Ben Stiller’s character Tommy from ‘The One With the Screamer’. While dating Rachel, he acts as a microscope for the on-off relationship between her and Ross, and his anger issues make him out to be much worse than David Schwimmer’s regular character… or do they? 

    While Ross has form for treating his partners (and ex-partners) pretty shabbily, Tommy is able to keep his screaming entirely ring-fenced from his relationship - it’s only when Rachel catches him in the act that she dumps him. While other love interests are far more throwaway, Tommy’s short stint has a genuine bearing on how we view the other characters in the show.

  2. 2.'Arrested Development' - Beth Baerly

    We don’t talk about Season 4 of Arrested Development. Or season three, really, except when we’re doing verbal gymnastics to claim there wasn’t actually that much of a drop-off. However, the first two seasons are among the best of any sitcom this century, and it’s all down to the exponential stupidity that arrives when any two members of the Bluth family are in the same room. Throw in a supplementary character and one of the messiest love triangles around and it’s even better, especially when said character is given some of the best lines and handed a bizarre and unexplained affinity for Saddam Hussein. George Michael’s ethics teacher Miss Baerly is that character, stealing the show in the episode ‘Shock and Aww’. And yes, she loves Saddam.

  3. 3.'The Sopranos' – Valery

    Yes, Valery (or just ‘The Russian’) technically appears in the previous episode, but he will forever be associated with iconic Sopranos episode ‘Pine Barrens’. It’s a bottle episode of sorts, sure, but that shouldn’t take away from the quality of the character, both in his own right and as a vessel to bring the best out of his co-stars. Sure, the writers could have stranded Chris and Paulie in the cold in pursuit of a more regular character, but Vitali Baganov’s one-off introduction adds an extra layer of absurdity which finds itself being channeled through the duo. 

  4. 4.'Peep Show' – Daryl

    Peep Show might have tailed off towards the end of its nine-season run, but the early years produced some of the best TV comedy of all time. With six-episode seasons, the pressure was there to make every character count and ensure no cameo was wasted, but that was never a worry with Daryl. Played by Steve Edge (who was behind a great turn as U2’s The Edge in Star Stories around the same time), Mark’s colleague breaks the fourth wall of adult friendships in a show for which that is an unspoken theme…well, until he’s revealed to be an actual neo-Nazi.

  5. 5.'Breaking Bad' - Drew Sharp

    Drew Sharp doesn’t have a single line in Breaking Bad. You might not even be able to place him based on his name alone. And yet his involvement has as big a part in the trajectory of Vince Gilligan’s creation as plenty of other characters with bigger parts. Drew is the kid who begins his day taking a dirtbike out into the desert to catch spiders, like any inquisitive youngster in New Mexico might. However he ends it dead, shot by Todd amid fears that he witnessed a train heist. From there on in, the show takes an altogether darker mood, just when you thought it had reached its lowest possible point.

  6. 6.'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' - Country Mac

    Let’s get one thing straight, if you go into It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia looking for traditionally sympathetic characters, you’re out of luck. You don’t tune in to see yourself in Charlie, Dee, Dennis, Frank and Mac – or at least we hope you don’t – but that doesn’t stop their relationships being eminently watchable in a ‘there but for the grace of god go we’ way. As such, the best one-off characters are those who bring the worst out of the regulars: Psycho Pete is a close second, but the winner is Country Mac, whose mere presence accelerates the inhumanity of the gang. Oh, and he can deliver the word ‘jabroni’ effortlessly in real life, not just in a daydream.

  7. 7.'I'm Alan Partridge' - Dan Moody

    A real life-ruiner for anyone who shares his first name, Dan Moody introduced the world to both the smarmy charm of Steven Mangan and the plural of Lexus (“Lexi”). Owner of the largest kitchen warehouse on the A416, proud wearer of Lynx Voodoo and sex person, he manages to steal scenes he isn’t even in, whether by failing to hear his name shouted at him 14 times or participating in the unseen side of some effortlessly natural-sounding phone bants (“Yes, I dress to the left, too!”). As recently as 2014, Mangan complained about not being able to go anywhere without having “Dan!” yelled at him, and the wrestler Triple H was once left dumbfounded by a group of British fans shouting it at him at a WWE Raw recording.

  8. 8.'The Simpsons' – Frank Grimes

    It’s almost impossible to settle on just one individual when it comes to The Simpsons, Lyle Lanley might have stood out in the show’s greatest episode, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the best character. Others in consideration are Albert Brooks’ evil genius Hank Scorpio and Harvey Fierstein’s enigmatic secretary Karl, but they’re just edged out by Grimey, as he liked to be known. Hank Azaria’s character, a self-made man who emerges as Homer’s colleague and enemy, forces us to consider whether we’ve really been rooting for the good guy this whole time, but also makes for a funny-as-hell episode.

  9. 9.'BoJack Horseman' - Eddie the Fly

    You can barely move for cameos on BoJack, but few stretch out as far - and have as meaningful an impact - as Colman Domingo’s Eddie. He appears in ‘The Old Sugarman Place’, one of the stand-out episodes of the show’s fourth season, and helps ensure the show becomes both more and less about its title character. BoJack’s issues in the earlier seasons came from an inability to take advice from those close to him - or, more accurately, to take on board this advice and acknowledge its importance, but without taking the next step of acting on it - using a stranger (who he isn’t that keen on) as a conduit for similar advice plays a big part in the trajectory of the season, in a way a similar input from a regular character never could.

  10. 10.'The Office' - The IT guy

    The Office is a flawless comedy - there is nothing wrong with it, it’s perfect, it will never be beaten. This is the reason why it contains perhaps the greatest one-episode character of all time - Simon, the IT guy. Appearing in a mere three scenes, his part is small but his impact is huge - his “I’m not a professional” spiel is a highlight of the entire show. We’ve all met obnoxious bullshitters with a hugely misplaced sense of confidence like this - big old nerds misusing their power over us because they possess a very specific area of knowledge, it’s why he works so well. Yes, he’s a dickhead - “Gone off Dawn now have you?” - but he’s such an exquisite one that you can’t help but genuinely be in love with him in every possible way.

  11. 11.'Futurama' – 80s Guy

    Sure, he might have had an actual name, but that’s not important here. What’s important is that he was an ‘80s guy, a guy from the ‘80s. Don’t you worry about his name, let me worry about blank.

(Main image: Rex/Wikia/Netflix)