Chances are, if you love a show, the reason is that you love the characters. It frankly doesn't matter how genius the premise or how well executed the production—if you don't want to spend time with the human beings involved, then the show's headed for the elephant graveyard of dead series. Everybody knows that good lead characters are essential, but often it's the quality of the supporting cast that really elevates a show to greatness. Think about it: All our favorite shows have at least one character who regularly steals scenes from the leads, and those characters can sometimes be even more likeable than the leads (see first example below). So whether they're third-billed or simply running gags, the following characters are some of my favorite supporting players. Who are yours?
Caroline Forbes of The Vampire Diaries
Candice Accola's character began as a fairly run-of-the-mill, overachieving blonde goody-goody, which made her a suitable target for Damon's Season 1 lothario-villain ways. But it wasn't until a town-wide, anti-vampire silent alarm caused her future-werewolf boyfriend to crash their car (long story) and Caroline was turned into a vampire in her hospital bed by Elena's evil doppelganger Katherine (long story) that Caroline really came into her own. Ever since becoming a vampire, Caroline's been the heart of the show: vulnerable, sometimes confused, but brave and empathetic and endowed with super-powers that place her firmly in superhero territory. And she's hilarious! Definitely hilarious. Caroline's the best, basically.
Buddy Garrity of Friday Night Lights
While everybody was busy singing the praises of Coach and Tami's marriage or Taylor Kitsch's clingy western shirts, one essential and under-the-radar character became crucial to the show's success: Buddy Garrity. All the best supporting characters can be defined by their complexities, and Buddy was no exception: Frequently shady, corrupt, and scheming, he also had a human capacity for guilt, correcting his mistakes and eventually doing the right thing. Even after his daughter left Dillon for college, he remained crucial to Coach Taylor's journey, providing some truly heartwarming support for a rival high school during the particularly rough events of Season 4. Add to that Brad Leland's blustery, nuanced performance, and Buddy remains one of the most unique (and real) characters in TV history.
Caprica Six of Battlestar Galactica
Though Tricia Helfer's face was the unofficial logo of Battlestar Galactica, her talents were spread between so many different iterations of her Cylon model that none of them were really ever lead characters. The best Six character by far was the original: The woman who became known as Caprica Six began the miniseries as one of the most loathsome terrorists on television, snapping an infant's neck within the first ten minutes and personally initiating a nuclear holocaust. But after becoming a celebrity among her own people, this Cylon had a change of heart, which led to her becoming a savior of the human race and also a lynchpin in the series finale. I'm a sucker for villains who go good (and vice versa) and Caprica Six is a grade-A example. For an artificial life form, Caprica Six was one of the most human characters in that world.
Julie Cooper of The O.C.
For a brief, shining moment, The O.C. was one of the more incredible series on TV. Its breakneck storytelling made it basically the proto-Vampire Diaries, and its knack for comedy made it a weekly joy to behold. The character who most summed up its sensibility was Marissa's trampy mother Julie, played by future Vampire Diaries and Nikita star Melinda Clarke. Her tossed-off one-liners put Joan Collins to shame and her character was always up for some hilariously bad behavior (sleeping with her daughter's boyfriend! Sex tapes! Marrying millionaire jerks!). While future seasons fleshed out Julie's character (and made her suffer through indignity after indignity), her brash, trashy outlook on life never stopped being a scene-stealer.
Gus Fring of Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is the rare show where each successive season has improved on the last, culminating in a truly great Season 4. One big reason for Season 4's success was the front-and-center placement of the great Gus Fring, who until that point had been the little-seen catalyst for many of Walter White's fortunes and misfortunes. Common wisdom would have suggested that fleshing out Gus's background might detract from his mystery and power, but the opposite was true: The character continued growing richer and more sympathetic while never losing his terrifying presence. While he was simply well-written, a majority of the credit for Gus's awesomeness goes to Giancarlo Esposito, who, if there's any justice in the world, can now concentrate on racking up as many Oscars as possible.
Dr. Julianna Cox of Homicide: Life on the Street
For Homicide diehards, Michelle Forbes' mid-series addition as sexy medical examiner Julianna Cox was an example of crass NBC meddling, an attempt to lure a bigger viewership to its critically acclaimed but low-rated award-magnet of a series. But I'm gonna be controversial and say she was one of my favorite characters, and that she's probably what got me watching in the first place. So, good job, NBC! Maybe it's Forbes' sardonic line-readings or the fact that this interesting (and, come on, not that sexy) woman was just chillin' with corpses and having the occasional affair with troubled detectives, but I couldn't get enough of her. When the character unceremoniously quit, packed up her things, and disappeared, I couldn't believe it! Oh well, that's what DVD re-watches are for, I guess.
The Log Lady of Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks felt like a show made up ENTIRELY of supporting characters. Its male lead, Agent Cooper, was so weird as to be unknowable, and its female lead was a corpse. So there was quite a menagerie of supporting characters filling out the ranks. For sheer WTF-ery, Twin Peaks' most famous scene-stealer was probably the Log Lady, a local clairvoyant who had an intimate relationship with a chunk of wood. There's really nothing I can say that would cause this character to make anymore sense than that, and that's part of the reason why she was so amazing.
Mozzie of White Collar
Few things are known about the man known as White Collar's "Mozzie" (probably not his real name). But we do know his capacity for good is matched only by his capacity for bad, and his mere presence on the show functions as a bit of a thesis statement: Superheroes (like Neal Caffrey) are only ever one bad choice away from crossing over into the dark side, and Mozzie walks the line like no one else. As played by Willie Garson, he's also a bon vivant, someone who appreciates the finer things in life and heaps disdain upon square Agent Burke and anyone else unfortunate enough to lead a conventional life. What's so impressive about Mozzie as a character is that for someone who regularly delivers comic relief, he's not a joke. He's capable of some pretty huge things, both for better and for worse.
Constance Langdon of American Horror Story
Here's an example of a supporting character so good, she elevated an iffy show into something much better. I frankly can't even imagine an American Horror Story without Jessica Lange's showy entrances, florid speeches, and astoundingly un-PC one-liners. We're lucky the actress will be returning for the show's so-far-mysterious Season 2, but there's definitely cause for concern in that she won't be reprising the Constance character. Still though, if Lange brings half the charisma she brought to Season 1, we're probably in for another amazing character.
Rayanne Graff of My So-Called Life
This may be nostalgia talking, but the heyday of My So-Called Life coincided perfectly with my early high school years, therefore Angela's bad-news bestie Rayanne Graff was as appealing a high school student as I'd ever seen on TV. Hilarious and exciting and stylish and sad and troubled, A.J. Langer's character was just straight-up magnetic. So many appealing and nuanced performances on that show, but for my money Rayanne was the most compelling. And it bears complaining about every couple years, but seriously, ABC? 19 episodes? It would've KILLED you to produce those last three? To this day I wonder whether Rayanne and Angela ever became friends again after their epic falling-out, but that's probably by design. Rayanne (and the fate of the series) were about as messy as real life gets.
Hans Moleman of The Simpsons
I mean, come on:
Who are YOUR favorite supporting characters?