One Short of the Alphabet's Collection

Over at Twenty-Sided, Shamus is following a meme which requests a listing of one’s top twenty-five television characters. Since memes depend on us for survival, I thought I’d give it a go as well. One of the things you’re supposed to do is exclude cartoon characters, but Shamus didn’t do that (as he explained) and I’m not going to either. I probably watch more animation nowadays than live-action anyway, so my list will reflect that.

Normally, “giving this some thought” is pretty low on my reasons for posting anything, and is fairly rarely found round these parts. But while thinking about my choices below, I was struck by how many of these characters were folks whose fates I invested emotional stock in; they weren't just attractive people with cool powers. Put perhaps more grammatically, I cared about these people as people, not simply as moving figures on a screen, or dolls performing their role in order to move a scenario forward. That, to me, is the mark of excellent writing, when a character takes on a life independent of what happens on the program that features them. I guess that’s a good case of empathy, when I can see myself sharing the character’s goals. That’s probably the beginning of the urge to write fanfic, I suppose.

That’s not the case with all these people, of course. I mean, damn, who could watch “Lost in Space” and not think, “Just put Dr. Smith in the airlock, please, and be done with him!” Similarly, someone who cares about the success of Cartman’s schemes is probably more than a little disturbed. These characters, and those like them, are here because they make an indelible impression once you see them. (There are some here like that who aren’t evil, like Ed Grimley.) One big criteria is, could I stand watching them, by themselves, for a long time, or would I be incredibly bored? Those who bore me aren’t found below.

Anyway, enough of the endless stream of blather, and on with the show. Except for number one, these folks are in order of when I thought of them. (And I guess number one falls into that category as well.)

1. Spock (Star Trek). My first hero. I always wanted to be Spock, and as an adolescent, I probably was—all awkward around everyone, not sure how to fit in, and mocked because I, thus, did not fit in. Yet feeling that the various cliques and “popular” types were somehow composed of lesser beings. The fact that they couldn’t appreciate me was proof enough.

2. Misaki Kurea (Divergence Eve-Misaki Chronicles). In a way, almost a female Spock, though much more emotional (and clumsier).

3. Lyar Von Ertiana (Divergence Eve-Misaki Chronicles). Definitely a female Spock, though with hidden depths. “Hidden depths” can be a trap; if they’re too far hidden, they don’t enhance the character at all for the viewer. But Lyar has the right level of appeal.

4. AstroBoy (Astroboy, the way back in the sixties version.) I don’t remember much about AstroBoy, except that he could fly and when he walked, his feet made suction-cup sounds. But as a tot growing up, I thought he was the coolest thing ever.

5. Doctor Zachary Smith (Lost in Space). Always imitated (usually by me) and rarely equaled. Pomposity perpetually personified, you bubble-headed booby. I think you have to have reached a certain age to appreciate Dr. Smith—before that, he’s just annoying. Well, he’s annoying still, but in an entertaining way.

6. Eric Cartman (South Park). Evil to a profound degree, but funnier than evil could ever be on its own. His schemes frequently are far too baroque to ever work, but you have to admire his imagination and work-ethic. Probably the most evil person on this list.

7. Mireille Bouquet (Noir). On the surface, she appears to be Alfred Hitchcock’s ideal icy blonde. And she maintains that persona until the final episodes of Noir, when she reveals the depth of feeling of which she is capable. As much as Noir is Kirika’s search for her past, it’s also the story of Mireille coming to terms with her own history.

8. Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers). Imagine him on a desert island with Dr. Smith. The really fascinating thing about Basil is how, when he puts his foot wrong, he not only fails to withdraw it, but drives it in even harder while insisting it was exactly what he planned to do, and blaming everyone else for resultant problems.

9. Guy Caballero (SCTV). SCTV was filled with wonderful characters, and after winnowing them down, I’ve decided to list only three. Guy could read the phone book and it would sound like a devious scheme. Imagine Dr. Smith, Basil Fawlty and Guy stranded on that same island. Wow.

10. Dr. Tongue (SCTV). John Candy’s take on Vincent Price, especially funny when he gets arguing with Woody Tobias Jr. It quickly descends to pre-school level. Would you like to go on to…number 11? (Wee-OO Wee-OO Wee-OO)

11. Ed Grimley (SCTV, Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley). Oh, who couldn’t see that coming, I must say. It’s like, “No way!” and then you do, which is why it’s so important. The only character who’s appeared in two shows.

12. Turanga Leela (Futurama). Also like Spock in that she is (self) defined by her difference from everyone else. A number of Futurama folks could have made the list, but she’s the most memorable for me.

13. Leela (Doctor Who). Among the various Doctors, companions and allies, there are a lot who could be here. Leela was the perfect yin to the Doctor’s yang, and her departure felt like a kick in the gut. No fair! I remember thinking.

14. Davros (Doctor Who). Siminarly, Doctor Who teems with memorable villains. I chose Davros not only for his memorable character, but also because if I did not, my suffering would have been legendary.

15. The Cigarette-Smoking Man (The X-Files). In the first couple of episodes of Lost in Space, Dr. Smith was a pretty evil guy. If he hadn’t become the happy camper we all remember, he’d probably end up becoming CSM. That island’s getting pretty crowded now.

16. Almost everyone (Martian Successor Nadesico). A couple of the bad guys on this show are despicable, but other than them, this show has the most likable cast I’ve ever encountered. Yurika and Akito are the most appealing, but everyone made good company. Even that admiral guy with the Moe Howard haircut was likeable, in a kind of Dr. Smith way.

17. Misato Katsuragi (Neon Genesis Evangelion). The Angels are cool, but they’re more a force of nature than characters. As for the people, they fall into two camps: I hate them (Asuka and Shinji) or I’m indifferent to them (Rei, Ritsuki, most everyone else). The exception is Misato. As I said elsewhere some weeks back, you gotta love a woman whose refrigerator is full of beer and nothing but.

18. Pee-Wee Herman (Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). Okay, I’m starting to reach, here, but he can still be pretty entertaining to watch. It’s also fun to imagine how much he’d irritate the others on my list. Imagine Basil Fawlty confronted by Mr. Herman.

19. Ren Hoek (Ren and Stimpy). It’s hard to choose between him and Stimpson J. Cat, but Ren’s sheer rage pushes him into the lead.

20. Jayne Cobb (Firefly). Easily my favorite character from the show, it distressed me to watch the program begin to neuter him in the latter episodes. Which is one of the reasons I think it was good that it ended when it did. It would have turned into Star Trek: The Next Generation, with every character the exact same character.

21. Beavis and Butt-Head (Beavis and Butt-Head). Included together because they’re almost as smart as half a person, if taken together. I know I shouldn’t like them but they make me laugh. Critic James Bowman has said that they raise stupidity to a zen-like level, and I’m not going to argue. Of all the stupid characters on television, these two have the purest level.

22. David Attenborough (various documentaries). Okay, technically not a character, but he shows up on my TV rather a lot. And he’s always fun to watch. It was either him or Rod Serling. I’m starting to run out of shows.

23. Barney Collier (Mission: Impossible). Barney was the “real-life” person I most wanted to be. It’s been years since I’ve seen the show, but I recall he was the electronics whiz who could make gadgets out of anything. He was way cool.

24. Master Shake (Aqua Teen Hunger Force). Here’s another guy you really can’t like, but he’s the funniest of the Aqua Teens. That makes him mega-funny. Imagine him on that island as well. I’m sure they’d have all killed each other in minutes.

25. Carl Kolchak (Kolchak: The Night Stalker). He’s a real pain-in-the-ass, a description with which he would readily agree, I’m sure. He’s also nosy and confrontational, and seems to have no respect for anyone. Everyone in his world is just a source of information. So he’s perfect as a reporter. His boss (played by Simon Oakland) was also a fun character to watch.

After say, number 10 or so, I really started to run short on characters. I guess that means I don’t watch enough television. And yes, if I’d eliminated animation, I’d still be trying to think of characters and really scratching my head. “How about Star Trek’s Mr. Leslie? Eddie Paskey was pretty cool. There’s also Monk, from that show. Oh, hey, maybe the Chromoite from The Outer Limits. I can probably list some more SCTV or Doctor Who characters. I haven’t listed anyone from Twin Peaks.” And on like that.

As it is, a lot of the folks listed got their places because I just happened to think of them first when I was actively searching for characters. Only a handful of the above people leapt immediately to mind; getting the rest was like a trip back to elementary school, trying to fill the slots on the kickball team. “Oh...all right…I guess we’ll take the fat kid, but you have to have the kid with the glasses.”

I don’t watch a lot of television. There are a lot of highly successful shows that I have never Dallas. Moonlighting. NYPD Blue. The West Wing. All the dozens of cop, lawyer, doctor and hospital shows. If you name a popular, successful television program of the last couple of decades, changes are good I’ve never seen it. I’m not a snob or anything, I’d just rather spend my time doing other things. Like trying to think of twenty-five memorable television characters.

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