The 20 Best TV Characters of 2012

TV Lists
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.

Nothing makes for better television than an original, deeply developed character, and TV is full of them right now. Limiting ourselves to two per show (and being judicious even when adding that second character), we’ve rounded up our favorites. Here are the 20 Best TV Characters of 2012.

20. Kenny Powers (Danny McBride)


Eastbound & Down, HBO
Kenny Powers is an unrepentant sexist, racist, and drug-addicted asshole whose every action and utterance should make any right-thinking individual cringe, but Eastbound isn’t a complete moral vacuum like the equally dark It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Kenny’s codependence on people like his worshipful assistant Stevie and his off-again, on-again high-school love April (Katy Mixon) is the only thing that ever humanizes him. Reconnecting with his dad (Don Johnson) had a similar effect in season two, and Kenny’s relationship with his son Toby promises more of the same. These glimpses of the insecure person within Kenny’s cartoonishly outsized persona add a bit of much-needed depth. They make us care about Kenny beyond the laughs, but also make that comedy even darker.—Garrett Martin

19. Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet)


Modern Family, ABC
It’s safe to say that Cam is the first TV character to be both a starting collegiate football player and a classically trained Auguste clown. But Fizbo is only one of the many lovable quirks of the larger-than-life stay-at-home dad, whose talents also include drumming and Japanese flower arrangement. His love for the dramatic was apparent in the pilot episode when he introduced his and Mitchell’s adopted daughter Lilly to the rest of the family to the theme from The Lion King, and it hasn’t waned since.—Josh Jackson

18. Bel Rowley (Romola Garai)


The Hour, BBC
What if Peggy was the boss on Mad Men? We may get a taste of that next season now that she’s moving onto bigger and better things, but she’s had to spend years working her way up from scared secretary to strong career woman. Not so with The Hour’s Bel Rowley (Romola Garai). From the series’ very first episode, she’s served as executive producer of the titular BBC news program—and not once has she seemed in over her head. She’s smart, stylish and confident; it seems like, so far at least, her only flaw is her failure to realize that she and her best friend/right-hand man Freddie are perfect for each other. Their flirtation is one of the best aspects of the show, and it’s adorable when Freddie playfully calls her “Moneypenny,” but as viewers, we all know the truth—Bel’s the Bond.—Bonnie Stiernberg

17. Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon)


Boardwalk Empire, HBO
Michael Shannon’s disgraced Prohi almost got lost amid Boardwalk’s oversized cast, but his continued and reluctant fall from Prohibition Agent to mob muscle (lovingly encouraged by his almost stranger of a wife) reinforces the show’s central theme of corruption. Plus Van Alden’s season-long slow burn over one indignity after another finally erupted into a cathartic moment that was frightening, darkly hilarious and one of the season’s best. I could watch an entire show that’s nothing but Shannon visibly struggling to contain his bug-eyed rage.—Garrett Martin

16. Tessa Altman (Jane Levy)


Suburgatory, ABC
Welcome to the 21st Century’s newest sweetheart. She’s smart, independent and would rather spoon her IPad than the captain of the football team. Actress Jane Levy grounds the chaotic antics of Suburgatory through Tessa Altman, a teenage Manhattanite hijacked by her single father to the stucco oasis of Chatswin. Acting alongside small-screen veterans like Alan Tudyk, Cheryl Hines, Chris Parnell and Ana Gasteyer, Levy brings her caustic A-Game to temper the McMansion delusions of her titular ‘burb. Despite all of the sarcastic bite, Tessa still earns Disney points as a caring daughter with a strong moral core. (This is an ABC show after all). A relatable female lead in a post-Gossip Girl world, Tessa hands Tinay Fey’s feminist baton to Generation Y with style and substance. Deadpan has never looked so good.—Sean Edgar

15. Liz (Parker Posey)


Louie, FX
In just two episodes, Louie shows the dark reality of the manic pixie dream girl delusion. Played with neurotic complexity by Parker Posey, bookseller Liz is uninhibited, spontaneous, and beautiful. Such a creature is too good to be true in the cynical universe of Louie CK. And she is. The first warning sign comes when she agrees to go out on a date with Louie. The second when her bartender utters the words “honey, I’m not gonna serve you two Jagers. Not after the last time you were here.” We’re never exposed to the damage behind the girl, but that’s the magic behind Louie’s show-don’t-tell brilliance. Louie waits another eight episodes till he sees Liz again in the season finale, but her presence haunts the entire season, both for its promise to end Louie’s misery and its time-bomb potential. The latter eventually detonates in a moment of devastation and shock, a perfect climax to one of the most unpredictable shows on television.—Sean Edgar

14. Rayna James (Connie Britton)


Nashville, ABC
Britton’s Southern-accented Rayna Jaymes is the best thing about ABC’s freshman show. While boasting Hayden Panettiere as a co-lead, Nashville will only work as far as Britton carries it. And carry it she will. Rayna isn’t just a fading superstar who wants to hold onto fame; she’s the artist who wants to continue to make good music. Her personal life gets in the way, and she struggles to find a balance between resurrecting her career and running her family, but nothing is very clear cut. Her relationship with Deacon (Charles Esten), a former lover/co-songwriter and current band member, continues to cause fiery passion to spark up. Their relationship is a great way to introduce the roundness of Rayna’s character in the pilot, and by the season finale, we’ve seen Rayna range from a confident women to an industry vet re-learning to “play the game” to, well, a desperate housewife just trying to make sure her man isn’t a cheater. In every situation, she’s a powerhouse.—Adam Vitcavage

13. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)


Boardwalk Empire, HBO
Mask-sporting World War I vet Richard Harrow is pretty much the only acceptable answer to “who’s your favorite Boardwalk Empire character” (sorry, Eddie.) Jack Huston is a fantastically subtle actor, displaying a full range of emotion with one eye, half a mouth and a halting monotone. Between his relationship with Jimmy and Angela Darmody’s orphaned son and his romance with a fellow veteran’s daughter, Harrow is the emotional heart of Boardwalk Empire. That he’s also its most talented and prolific killer tells you what kind of show this is.—Garrett Martin

12. The Governor (David Morrissey)


The Walking Dead, AMC
I’m pretty sure he’s the only entry on this list who keeps fish-tanks full of zombie heads. The Governor is pure villain in the comic books but a more complex kind of crazy on the TV version. Charming the citizens of Woodbury one moment and brushing the hair of his undead daughter in the next, his calmness is hard for those around him to read. The smooth-talking psychopathic murderer has built an oasis in zombieland, but he’s eight kinds of crazy and as frightening as the monsters who just want to eat your flesh.—Josh Jackson

11. Don Draper


Mad Men, AMC
Don Draper is no longer the ace ad man on the rise but the grown up in a rapidly changing world surrounded by younger colleagues, a much younger wife and social shifts he doesn’t always grasp. But he’s alternately energized and exhausted by that wife, inspired and threatened by those co-workers and mostly ambivalent to the cultural avalanche of the ‘60s. In other words, he’s a fascinating lens through which to view one of the most important eras of American history.—Josh Jackson

Nothing makes for better television than an original, deeply developed character, and TV is full of them right now. Limiting ourselves to two per show (and being judicious even when adding that second character), we’ve rounded up our favorites. Here are the 20 Best TV Characters of 2012.

10. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)


Sherlock, PBS
Benedict Cumberbatch dumps the tweed jacket and academic monologues for his enigmatic take on the modern Sherlock Holmes. A cerebral adrenaline junky who cares more about filling the void with mysteries then helping their entwined victims, Sherlock is the most likable sociopath on television. The second season even debated whether Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) was a valued partner or an oblivious pawn under Sherlock’s suspected subterfuge. In a series filled with underground military hallucinogens and information-trading dominatrices, Sherlock still remains the greatest mystery of all. And don’t even get him started on that deerstalker hat.—Sean Edgar

9. Schmidt (Max Greenfield)


New Girl, Fox
On New Girl, no one has garnered more laughs than Schmidt. He’s a cocky, organized, control freak who is prone to making himself more so with every episode and unusual Schmidt witticism. Out of all the characters, including Jess, Schmidt has probably become the most complex and fleshed-out—something that seemed entirely unlikely after watching him put money in the “deuche jar” when he was first introduced. We now know more about his past, his job, why he is who he is and his romantic life than any of the other characters. It almost seems like Schmidt is becoming the lead, and we’re okay with that.—Ross Bonaime

8. Peggy Olson


Mad Men, AMC
Peggy Olson has come a long way since that awkward first day as a secretary at Sterling Cooper—too long, in fact, to remain shackled in an office where she never gets the credit. But it’s impossible to imagine Mad Men without its best character, an icon of feminism in a show filled with chauvinism. Please, Matthew Weiner, more Peggy.—Josh Jackson

7. Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari)


Parks & Recreation, NBC
Parks & Recreation, the sitcom with the deepest, most consistent cast this side of Modern Family, is breaking the Seinfeld rule: Characters are growing. They are learning. Aziz Ansari’s starry-eyed Tom Haverford joins Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson this season in showing a nearly shocking new maturity. Where Swanson is tolerating children to get the girl, Haverford’s new let’s-do-this-right approach to life and business is more comprehensive. Ansari, transcending his typical Haverford puppy dog demeanor with some real soul, is adding surprising range to a character we thought we had pegged.—Nick Purdy

6. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)


Game of Thrones, HBO
Tyrion has always been the most accessible entry into the epic world of Game of Thrones, and while we enjoyed watching him own his nickname (The Imp) causing trouble wherever he went, he became even more interesting as he decided to both use his cunning to rise in power and use his that power to bring some much-needed mercy and justice to the realm. What he lacks in size he makes up for in intelligence, but he’s as surprised as anyone to learn that he’s a natural leader. It was Tyrion who found the courage of the lions on his family’s crest after a season of self-discovery.—Josh Jackson

5. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman)


Parks and Recreation, NBC
Already a favorite, the meat-loving, wood-working, government-loathing, friend-tolerating mustache that is Ron Swanson grew a little in complexity this past season by falling for a single mom. While his idea for a fresh-pork barbecue to thank city park employees might not have been without its drawbacks, the solid rock of Pawnee allowed himself to be the slightest bit vulnerable, even letting his new girlfriend in on the secret of Duke Silver. Ron Swanson is on our Pyramid of Greatness.—Josh Jackson

4. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith)


Downton Abbey, PBS
It’s often hard to pin down the best character in shows featuring massive ensembles. Not so with Downton Abbey. As Britain’s upper-class faces the shifting sands of societal change spurred on by a World War, Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess serves as a reminder of the rigidness that came even earlier. But those times when her saucy air of unapproachable superiority cracks to show the humanity beneath are just as much a joy to watch as when she casually delivers her trademark piercing barbs.—Josh Jackson

3. Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi)


Community, NBC
We didn’t get to see enough of Abed in 2012, but he made his appearances count. It would have been easy for creator Dan Harmon to make the socially awkward Middle Eastern guy the target of his easiest jokes, but Abed is the emotional center of Community. His undiagnosed Asperger’s is a real challenge for him, and Season 3 explored the darker side of his issues. But much of what’s great about the show stems from his uniqueness—there’s no one else remotely like him on television. His pop culture obsessions, his friendship with Troy and his dry wit are now so well established that I have hope the show can excel even without Harmon at the helm.—Josh Jackson

2. Walter White (Bryan Cranston)


Breaking Bad, AMC
From the very beginning, Breaking Bad has been about one man, slowly losing his soul. When we first met Walter White, he was the underdog anti-hero, a chemistry teacher beaten down by life, trying to find a way to end his life with a win by providing for his family. Halfway through the final season, motives have changed, and the journey from anti-hero to the show’s villain near complete. Leaving nothing but destruction in his wake, the only thing with a victory is hubris.—Josh Jackson

1. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey)


30 Rock, NBC
At this point, we don’t need to tell you why Liz Lemon is great. Over the course of seven seasons, she’s become one of the most beloved TV characters of all time—the kind who will live on forever in syndication and inspire a new generation of hilarious, smart female voices. It’s sad to think we’ll have to say goodbye for good to 30 Rock in just over a month, but part of Tina Fey’s genius lies in knowing the perfect time to wrap up her character’s story. Liz tied the knot this year, and it could have been hokey or, worse, a step backward, but she stayed true to herself and did it her way—Princess Leia costume and all.—Bonnie Stiernberg