Warning! Spoilers to follow
In every TV show there is a main character, a front man or leading lady who takes the focus of whatever story we become entangled in at least once a week and with any luck will win numerous accolades for their efforts. This blog post is not about those characters. This post is about the others, the ones who usually play second fiddle to the main protagonist and often see their contributions overlooked as a result. This is not to say that the actors on this list haven’t received acclaim for their performances, but even with the seal of approval from their most respected peers and through little fault of their own they haven’t bridged the gap between the small screen and our hearts. So in no particular order, TV’s underrated characters are:
Ned Flanders- The Simpsons, voiced by Harry Shearer
First up is Springfield’s favourite bible-bashing bodybuilder, Ned Flanders. Any television series that’s been running for as long as The Simpsons is bound to be littered with a few on-screen gems to the point where one could easily compile this list out of the staff and students of Springfield Elementary alone; of all the zany personalities this town has to offer however, I have a soft spot for good ol’ Ned. We’ve all come across people like Flanders at some point, the insufferable do-gooder with their own brand of right wing religious zealotry that is usually met with rolled eyes and the odd sarcastic remark or twelve. It’s this very experience that has us in stitches whenever we see Homer mock his prudishness or Rev. Lovejoy’s increasing annoyance at Flanders’ persistent calls for spiritual guidance on the most miniscule matters. Ned might be guilty of inflicting a kind of overbearing puritanism on his neighbours but he has a heart of gold and would give up his time, money, even his vital organs to help his fellow man. As well as we know those devout religious types, we also know those who are consistently jolly-come-rain-or-shine and never have a bad word to say about anyone. To see those people finally snap after being dealt one of life’s cruel blows, as Ned was when his home and livelihood got destroyed by hurricane Barbara (Season eight, ‘Hurricane Neddy’) is truly one of the most heart-breaking moments in The Simpsons’ long history. Like it or not, Ned Flanders is a pillar of Springfield’s rich community whose kindness is routinely abused but when push comes to shove, he is a valued member of their society who they could scarcely do without.
Skyler White- Breaking Bad, played by Anna Gunn
Next we have Skyler White: wife, mother, book keeper, money launderer. Anna Gunn answers the call for the annoying bitch character with Skyler, a role that appears to be a requirement in tv dramas nowadays and it is one she plays to absolute perfection. If her single-minded, punitive attitude wasn’t enough rub viewers up the wrong way then her estrangement from Walter in season 3, refusal to allow him access to his children and bedroom shenanigans with the slimy Ted Beneke definitely made her all too easy to hate. Type her name into any reputable search engine and you’ll find scores of ‘I Hate Skyler White’ groups floating around the internet, a testament of the vitriol she almost single-handedly mustered in itself- but if were to be so bold as to put her actions into perspective we might just call off the witch-hunt. Here we have a woman who, after taking on a job in her heavily pregnant state to support her disabled son, impending new born offspring and her husband’s cancer treatment discovers that said husband is dealing in activities that could jeopardise the entire family’s safety, not to mention land both of them in prison for the rest of their natural born lives. Although her responses are arguably drastic, she for the most part acts out of a desire to protect her children from Walt’s malfeasance and receives nothing but scorn where the murderous, drug peddling Walter White has been revered as a cultural icon. We like to think we hate Skyler for being a relentless ball-buster but I think we secretly resent her for not being the docile Lois Lane type, the perpetual damsel-in-distress who hangs off the every word of her man and is, to quote the words of super-villain Tempus- galactically stupid (because changing your clothes and combing your hair dramatically alters the way your face looks doesn’t it, Lois?). It’s a tough job to have but someone needs to be the yin to Walt’s arrogant and impulsive yang and it isn’t a role Skyler will receive thanks for anytime soon.
Alex Dunphy- Modern Family, played by Ariel Winter
Now Alex isn’t my favourite character in Modern Family, that title will forevermore be held by one Manuel Delgado. If they were to include a category for ‘Best Dunphy’ at this year’s Emmys however, she should claim a landslide victory. Alex suffers from a classic case of middle child syndrome, she has bags of charisma with razor-sharp wit to match but is constantly overshadowed by her two very tiresome siblings. ABC are really missing a trick by under-using Alex, who is frequently relegated to the position of acting as a mere foil for the attractive but woefully dull Haley when she has the right blend of intelligence and insecurity to make her identifiable with younger audiences. As much as Phil and Claire would deny it, Alex is the least loved member of the Dunphy clan. They both take pleasure in parading her achievements in front of the extended family, but as soon as it comes to anything else she’s forced back in her box for her fantastic one-liners to go almost completed unnoticed. I had hoped Alex might be given some room to grow once Haley left for college in season four and she did indeed make the most her airtime of it whilst she had it until of course, Haley’s expulsion regrettably put her back into the main cast and left Alex’s character still woefully under-developed.
Tom Barrow- Downton Abbey, played by Rob James-Collier
From the past-paced suburban setting of Modern Family we now turn back the clock to pre-war England, home to Downton Abbey’s resident baddie Tom Barrow. When it comes to villains I often find myself in a bit of a paradox. On the one hand he, much like Skyler (though for more legitimate reasons) is one of those characters we all love to hate and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing them get their just desserts, as we did when Tom finally got the punch we all wish we could throw at him towards the end of season one. At the same time, it is his very actions: the lying, stealing and plotting round the cauldron with the ever charmless O’Brien that makes Downton so eminently watchable in the first place. As much as I loathe Tom, I can see how important he and other characters of his ilk are to their respective stories. Without his attempts to besmirch Bates’ honourable name and steal his job from under him, Bates might never have gotten the chance to overcome adversity, win the heart of his darling Anna and get a whole nation to root for him in quite the same way. Of course isn’t as easy to distinguish between good and bad in real life as it is on Downton Abbey but it adds to the sense of escapism we feel when we tune in every week and thanks to Tom, being bad never looked so good
DCI John Luther- Luther, played by Idris Elba
Last but by no means least is super sleuth Detective Chief Inspector John Luther. Luther’s addition to this list of underrated characters is anomaly for two reasons: the first is that he is the only one featured here to play the main character of the programme he stars in and the second is that Idris Elba (as far as wkikpedia tells me) is the only actor in this article to have won a major award for his performance. With these facts in mind, one might understandably question what business he has on a list like this. Being the title character of a programme inevitably means that the man and the show are inextricably linked and while Luther received critical acclaim, most of the attention its gained was from our American counterparts which perhaps explains why he won a Golden Globe rather than a BAFTA. It seems Elba’s reputation for playing hard, gritty characters preceded him since his work on HBO’s The Wire in the States, a reputation that didn’t translate so well to British audiences. Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent for example describes Luther as ‘more of a loose constellation of cop-show clichés than a fully formed character’. It’s true that he goes down the textbook brilliant-but-troubled-cop-who-occasionally-bends-the-rules-to-seek-justice route that we’ve seen on tv since the dawn of time, but Idris Elba really makes these clichés shine. Luther delivers the edge of the seat harrowing tension that’s been missing from my life since I had my falling out with Dexter and I couldn’t wait for him to return after the massive cliff-hanger that was the season one finale. But after what seemed like a hurriedly put together four episode run in season two , Luther vanished from our television screens never to be seen or heard of again.
So there we have it, a brief look at TV’s underrated characters in a list that by no means exhaustive. Everyone has their own secret diamonds from shows I’ve missed out or never watched who keeps us interested in the shows we get sucked into time and after time. They may never top the ‘Best TV Characters of All Time’ list but the world of television would be a much poorer place without them