I grew up thinking that Han Solo was probably the best character ever created. Sure I loved the entire Star Wars universe, but there was something appealing about the reluctant hero that always got to me. He was quick with a quip and had a veneer of self interest, but when it came down to it, he would rise to the occasion in extraordinary fashion. He also won the love of a princess with a combination of his charm (which was exasperating often) and his hidden heroism. Maybe it was because I planned on being exasperating as young man and into adulthood that I was far more attracted to his persona than the purer Luke Skywalker. I think it was just that characters who are far less than perfect just make more sense. While I consider myself a decent human being, I’ve committed plenty of regrettable transgressions over my life, so I relate to others that do as well. I’m very interested by all the characters listed below for similar reasons. Due to their lack of perfection, they’ve gone on great journey’s as characters. Starting at perfection doesn’t leave for a whole lot of change. Starting with issues, leads to an opportunity for great growth. Just like the Han Solo we meet in Mos Eisley, it is way more fun to watch someone discover the hero within (possibly with a few mistakes along the way) then it is to watch a flawless hero simply go about his business. Since it was recently announced that their will be a Han Solo prequel movie, this seems like a good time to look at some TV character that embody the same spirit. Hopefully whoever is in charge of that film watches a few of these characters for inspiration. (Note: Due to my modeling this list after Han Solo there aren’t any lady characters on the list, but I will follow sometime in the near future with a list dedicated to some of the better female characters out in TV land.)
10. Perry Cox – John C. McGinley – Scrubs
I truly feel like the great Dr. Cox could take many of these much tougher guys that are ahead of him on the list, but because he is primarily a healer I’m arbitrarily bumping him down. Cox starts out on Scrubs as a reluctant mentor to the main character JD. His tough guy, alpha male attitude was something that appealed and clashed with the more sensitive star of the show. As years progressed it was interesting to see how Cox turned into so much more than the hot headed mentor. This almost certainly has to do with McGinley’s scene stealing performance that could at times be silly as he spouted off rants, but could equally be heartbreaking as his behavior often veered towards the self destructive. Hard drinking and isolated, Cox eventually found a measure of redemption after starting a family with his ex-wife. Possibly one of the most heart wrenching story arcs on a sitcom that I can think of shows Cox trying to save the life of transplant recipients who were dying due to undetected rabies on the organs. After the last one died, Cox was nearly comatose because he cared so much. In one sense he was the most admirable of all the doctors on the show because of how much he cared. He was also a son of a b___, who bullied and pushed away those closest to him. Thanks to McGinley’s outstanding performance Cox was a truly complex character that was likeable even when he was being awful.
9. Seth Bullock – Timothy Olyphant – Deadwood
The spitting image of a old west lawman, Bullock was reluctant to embrace the role of hero in lawless Deadwood. Just wanting to be a businessman, he attempted to avoid the pull to do what was honorable and right. Bullock may be one of the few people on this list with consistent virtuous intentions though, and it wasn’t long until he was pulled back in to the role of sheriff. Despite virtuous intentions, Bullock’s methods were rarely defined and often brutal. The first scene of the series shows him hanging a man to carry out the death sentence before a mob of angry citizens carry out that sentence unlawfully. That scene sets up the character perfectly. He adheres to a particular code, but whether or not that code is one that makes a whole lot of sense to anybody but Bullock is hard to say. He would often produce such paradoxes. Whether it be doing the noble thing and marrying a deceased brother’s widow and raising his son as his on, but having an affair with the widow Garrett or beating to near death a man for taking advantage of that same widow, Bull0ck acted out of passion and his own sense of right and wrong. Sometimes he was all about the ends justifying the means, and other times he felt that process mattered more than outcome. Whatever he was, he was a character that was able to maintain some heroic quality, despite living in a cruel environment.
8. Damon Salvatore – Ian Somerhalder – The Vampire Diaries
It is always gratifying to see a character go through tremendous personal growth and TV affords those arcs to occur over a longer span of time than movies. Thus, it feels more earned, since the stages aren’t skipped when it is done well. In the case of Damon, he began as the villain on The Vampire Diaries. He was the one that was placing all the protagonists in jeopardy and terrorizing Mystic Falls. As things moved forward and his initial plans became unimportant to him, he found himself as an unlikely ally of the forces of good. That transitioned into him being the goodish guy who isn’t above doing immoral things to get things done. The character has gone closer to being mostly good now, and it is about time for things to swing back the other direction a little bit. There is a sweet spot with Damon, where he charm and humor stem from him being a bit of a cad. He doesn’t have to be the villain, he can work with the other good guys, but he needs to never be completely one of them. Not only is he more fun when he’s pissing off the other characters, but his random decisions to kill people are always surprising and fun. Despite doing it regularly in the series, somehow his decisions to rip out a heart here or snap a neck there, are always catching me off guard.
7. Tim Riggins – Taylor Kitsch – Friday Night Lights
The heroism of Tim isn’t traditional in the sense that he isn’t fighting off bad guys. He plays football with a lot of heart, but in the latter seasons of the show his heroics have mostly to do with a sense of integrity that has grown. When we meet Tim, he is a destructive force to himself and others. He treats one girlfriend poorly, followed by him hooking up with his paralyzed best friend’s girlfriend a few weeks later. He was often drunk, and sabotaged every chance that his football ability has given him to further his education. Despite all this, Tim remained mostly loveable. Particularly after the sabotage became more focused on him hurting himself and less on him hurting others. If he had kept on doing horrible things to other people, it would have been difficult to look past it, so he focused on ruining his own life. The thing that made him likeable is that he seemed like a genuinely decent person, that was just damaged enough from his upbringing to be incapable of getting his life on the right track. Many times when he was faced with difficult choices, he moved towards great acts of decency and away from doing awful things. It was touch and go there for a bit, when he was living on the property of a single mom and her daughter who was still in high school. It is hard to argue that Tim wasn’t a little bit enticed by this girl who worshiped him. He ended up doing the right thing and being more of a surrogate father to the girl, (probably more accurate to call him a well intentioned, but drunk uncle) and guided her through some very difficult times. In the end his heroism lies by being better than many of the loser dudes who peaked in high school, have alcohol problems, and no hope of a better future.
6. Raylan Givens – Timothy Olyphant – Justified
Mr. Olyphant makes a second appearance. Even though the character of Raylan Givens (despite being an Elmore Leonard creation) is essentially Bullock, but set in present day Kentucky, I still give Givens the edge. This is mostly because Givens seems to be more self destructive and rough around the edges than Bullock, and he doesn’t live in the wild west. Somehow Givens is consistently finding a way to gun down criminals, except he lives in the modern age which is generally less violent than the Civil War era in the Dakotas. There is a little more back story here as well. Givens’ father, played by the great Raymond Berry is a sleazy crook that hates his son. Raylan also grew up in an economically depressed region of Kentucky (Harlan County) where most of those that he grew up with are either coal miners or involved in the drug trade. So his brand of law, is just a little bit more coloring outside the law than your normal Marshall. He definitely finds his way into some results though, often in great heroic fashion, and often with a fair amount of smoke drifting away from the end of his gun.
5. Wesley Wyndhym Price – Alexis Denisof – Angel/Buffy
This character is an interesting one for this list, mostly because Wesley started out as comic relief. He was a fop, that served to make stuffy Giles the librarian look cool and competent. When he was on Buffy he pretty much screwed up everything he touched and was more than a little bit cowardly. When his character showed up on the spinoff Angel, he seemed to have been brought in as the smart guy to round out the team. Simply by being rebranded as one of the guys on the hero team, his character was put in situations that relied on him to be heroic. Eventually Wesley ended up going to the dark place, that many of these other character began their journey from. The trigger was his decision to believe a prophecy and take Angel’s son away from him, so the he would survive. This didn’t work out so hot, as the prophecy was untrue, Wesley nearly died after getting his throat slit, and the son (Connor) was abducted to a hell dimension. Angel nearly killed Wesley from from his hospital bed and he was exiled from the group. Something about that tragedy hardened up the former Watcher, and his treading on the dark side made him a fearsome opponent. After an affair with an evil lawyer, Wesley rejoined the group with a new (badass) attitude and a lack of desire to shave. He was transformed from the fop, to someone who was kicking butt and stepping over moral lines with increasing regularity. Between his relationship with his father and lost loved ones, things do not improve for Wesley. Perhaps my favorite part of the series is his tortured relationship with the ex-Goddess Illyria. She didn’t understand humanity, and he barely had a shred of his left. The descent of Wesley was sad, but it was heroic how he fought to the very end.
4. Spike – James Marsters – Buffy/Angel
You have to give Marsters all the credit in the world for making the most of an opportunity. He initially went out for the role of Angel and missed on it, but impressed the producers enough that they brought him back to be a villain in season 2. The concept was to have to bad vampires come to Sunnydale who were modeled after Sid and Nancy, although Spike was more of a Billy Idol ringer. Their punk rock flair was supposed to last half the season, before Buffy would be victorious and dust them. Spike was such a hit with audiences that they brought him back for the second half of the season, where he was even better. There was such demand for more Spike that he returned for an episode in the season 3, in which he really brought the comedy as an emotional vampire who had been recently dumped. From the 4th season on he was a regular cast member, which looked to be difficult to integrate him at first. Buffy wasn’t going to be sharing scenes week to week with the same villain, it would have gotten stale. They came up with a silly plot device in which Spike’s vampire self was neutered by a government microchip placed in his brain. This didn’t just lead to puns of the “Chips Ahoy” variety that were amusing, but it allowed him to exist alongside Buffy. By season 5 it was revealed that Spike was actually in love with Buffy, and that’s where things got interesting. Despite having no soul, his love for Buffy made him into a more selfless vampire. I say more selfless because you have to grade on a curve with the soulless. He still was looking to satisfy his basic needs, but could place others (Buffy and her family) above survival instincts on occasion. Those were some remarkable scenes, that were full of great emotion. He was still a vampire, and after an attempted rape of Buffy, Spike did the unthinkable and fought to have his soul restored. Unlike Angel who had his soul return thanks to a gypsy curse, Spike actually sought his. He was always presented as a more emotional vampire, and that set up this whole storyline, but his journey towards redemption is as epic as any I can think of.
3. Sawyer – Josh Holloway – Lost
The beauty of Lost was that it presented the audience with a pilot that set up several stereotypical characters, but showed a real depth to those characters as the series went on. Probably the best character of the bunch was Sawyer, who was initially presented as a crook and a semi-racist hayseed. We learned through his actions on the island and flashbacks that while Sawyer was definitely mixed up in some dirty business, he was an incredibly complex character whose actions were motivated by lots of emotional damage. His name isn’t Sawyer, that’s just the name of the con man who stole all his parents money, and created a situation in which his mother was killed. That’s kind of the big one, but Sawyer had plenty of trauma on his way to the island. Once on the island he set himself as an outsider and a pain in everyone’s collective neck. By the end of the series he was undeniably a good man, who was arguably a much better leader for the group than Jack or Locke. I think I have him this high on the list because of Holloway’s performance. Holloway was a complete unknown when getting cast, but he nailed that role like few have in their first (and apparently only) real opportunity to shine. When he needed to be vulnerable the audience felt that, when he needed to be hated it came easy, and when he needed to be the heroic leader that made sense as well. There’s a word for that type of ability. Range.
2. Jimmy McNulty – Dominic West – The Wire
I like McNulty this high on the list, because (other than Tim Riggins) he is the most realistic character or at least has the most realistic set of circumstances. Gunning down polar bears in the tropic certainly is not a normal situation, but sadly violence in urban areas due to the drug is. Cop shows are mostly a predictable genre. The good guys are good, with few shades of grey, and the bad guys appear from week to week and get caught. Not to say that The Wire was the first to flip those cliches on their heads, but it certainly went the farthest. Look no forward than the supposed hero, McNulty. He was completely insufferable that by the end of the series he had few friends left on the force. He consistently ruined his family life. Oh yeah, he also did a number of things that completely blew away the line of what a detective should do, more than he crossed that line. His actions were to the point that it was difficult to root for him. Your Jack Bauer’s of the world are presented as heroic when they are torturing information out of people illegally (hardly just that character). The audience is supposed to root for the guy who will do anything to stop the bad men. The Wire wasn’t designed that way. Sometimes you root for McNulty. Sometimes you laugh at him, because he’s funny when he’s drunk or being a jerk to his superiors. Sometimes he doesn’t seem all that heroic at all as he does horrible things to good people, simply because he can’t stop himself. What a great character in a genre devoid of complexity. He still had enough hero in him to make this list. His inability to stop himself was the catalyst to a lot of good police work that shocked an ineffective bureaucracy and put some bad people behind bars. Hero? Maybe not the in the traditional sense. Absolutely and anti-hero.
1. Malcolm Reynolds – Nathan Fillion – Firefly
How can I have Reynolds here after writing a lengthy open about Han Solo. Reynolds is Han Solo for all intents and purposes and Serenity might as well be the Millennium Falcon. Just like Solo, Reynolds is forced out into the fringes of society by circumstance and forced to be a little shady. The situation never changed who Reynolds was at his core, and in a galaxy that was a very tough place he did what he had to do, but never what he was absolutely unwilling to do. In Star Wars, it doesn’t take all that long for the rougher edges of Han Solo to be buffed out. In the matter of half the film he went from mercenary/drug smuggler for hire to selfless hero of the rebellion. With Reynolds, the series ended long before his edges were smoothed out, and if the film (Serenity) that took place after the show is any indication, it was never intended for him to ever be a model citizen. This is partially because Solo moved toward the rebellion, but that was where Reynolds came from. In the opening sequence of the pilot (the real, two part pilot) his heart is metaphorically ripped out as his heroism in battle is for naught when reinforcements never arrive. Reynolds was never going to put his faith in any sort of institution again. He was going to just rely on himself and his crew, which were his family. I loved that Whedon wanted to give his character a lot of darkness. It sold the rest of the show’s premise, that these were hard times. Despite the hardness there is more than enough amusing banter, romantic entanglements, and heroic space/gun battles so that this would never be confused with a Ingmar Bergman film. Inara puts it best when she wonders why Mal would so often take glee in calling her a whore (technically true, but he was being judgy about it), yet be willing to fight to the death to defend her honor when another insinuates it. That’s just the type of guy that my #1 anti-hero was.