1. WKRP In Cincinnati, Andy Travis
Building a television ensemble is a tricky proposition. There must be enough outsized characters to keep the laughs (or the drama) coming, but the show also has to stay grounded. To manage this balancing act, shows often end up building around a down-to-earth lead who acts as connective tissue between more colorful characters, but is not terribly interesting on his or her own merits. That was the dilemma faced by WKRP In Cincinnati, which built a terrifically memorable group of characters around a bland, easygoing nice guy, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy—for those too young to remember him, just picture Nathan Fillion’s hair with a Texas drawl). As the ostensible lead—the theme song is about him—Travis was set up as the classic “I’m surrounded by idiots” straight man forced to wrangle the burnout morning DJ, a paranoid reactionary newsman, a sleaze ball salesman, and a dimwitted boss. But Travis himself never had much more to do than react to the insanity around him, and he wound up as the least interesting character on the show. Later ensemble sitcoms (Arrested Development and 30 Rock come to mind) solved this problem by slowly revealing the “straight man” to be as crazy as the rest, but WKRP dealt with the issue by shuffling Travis into the ensemble, where he tended to be overshadowed by the rest of the cast.
2. Boardwalk Empire, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson
Boardwalk Empire has all of the elements of a top-tier pay-cable drama: a stellar cast, a compelling premise, a creator who worked on The Sopranos, gorgeous set design, and, of course, gratuitous nudity. The show even has a central mystery, so why isn’t it a better show? Part of the answer might be in its lead, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). As a glad-handing politician amid gangsters, showgirls, and overzealous prohibition agents, Nucky’s instinct is always to smooth over tension, while the hotheads around him tend to escalate it. That keeps the show from turning into a bloodbath, but it also sets Nucky up as a counterpoint to leads like Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, who exist mainly to stir the pot. Buscemi is a terrific actor, and he gives Nucky a wry sense of humor, flashes of menace, and a sense that he’s one step ahead of everyone else. But he also tends to be the calm center of the storm, and calm doesn’t always make for great drama or a compelling character.
3. The Office (post-Steve Carell), Andy Bernard
While Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was always the lead on The Office, the show could be seen as the story of any one of its primary characters. It could be the story of Jim leaving perpetual adolescence behind and embracing responsibility. It could be about Pam gaining the confidence to go after what she wants in life. It could be Dwight learning not to alienate everyone around him. But the show was decidedly not about tightly wound bro/milquetoast a cappella enthusiast Andy Bernard. After Carell’s departure, though, the powers-that-be decided to make Andy the boss, and the de facto center of the show. From a marketing standpoint, it made sense—fresh from The Hangover, Ed Helms was the show’s most bankable star. But as a story, it simply didn’t work. Andy vacillated between being overbearing and ineffectual, until he was finally written out for a stretch. His absence from the show didn’t change much. From the moment he moved to the boss’ desk, the character was a hole the rest of the ensemble spiraled around. The shame of it is putting Jim in the boss’ chair could have been a fantastic story arc; the goof-off who takes nothing seriously would have to manage the people who he’s always viewed as mere fodder for bemused glances at the camera.
4. Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, William “Buck” Rogers
The character Buck Rogers has been around since the late 1920s, part of a lineage of sci-fi action heroes that includes his predecessor from the early ’10s, John Carter of Mars, and his funny-pages rival from the ’30s, Flash Gordon. All three heroes are tough-minded, indomitable he-men, but they’re also ordinary earthlings, drawn by strange phenomena into outer-space adventures. Their blandness by comparison with their surroundings is by design: They’re all wish-fulfillment avatars for readers and viewers, who are invited to imagine what it would be like to be make their own way through such colorful, outsized worlds of robots, monsters, and especially beautiful alien princesses. But the ’70s version of the character, in the TV series Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, goes much too far in making Buck a blank on which viewers can superimpose their own faces. As played by Gil Gerard, he’s a non-emotive slab of beef, a charisma vortex in a world where everything but him is exotic and intense: His partner is a bird-man from a nearly extinct race. His greatest enemy is one of those predatory alien princesses. His love interest is the vivacious Erin Gray as a skilled, high-ranking military pilot (less than 15 years after Star Trek tried to be inclusive about all races and nationalities, but couldn’t give women stronger roles than space-secretary or space-nurse). And his constant companion is a smart-ass, Mel Blanc-voiced robot who frequently carries an effete artificial-intelligence diplomat around his neck. But Buck isn’t just a straight man to all these citizens of a weird new future; he’s practically a mannequin, given how rarely he changes facial expressions. Whether he’s fighting, being sold as a slave, muddling through a hallucinatory space-fever, or just listening to a long-awaited tearful confession, he’s always the same.
5. Jonny Quest, Jonny Quest
The first time Jonny Quest appears in the opening credits of Jonny Quest, he’s lying unconscious on the ground, waiting for his bodyguard David “Race” Bannon to rescue him. That image pretty much sums up the show: Jonny gets in trouble, and the more interesting characters around him get him out of it. Race is a crack shot and a master of hand-to-hand combat who looks like Steve McQueen, and Jonny’s father, Dr. Benton Quest, is a super-scientist. Jonny’s best friend, Hadji, is an Indian boy (rare in a ’60s cartoon) with magical powers. Even Jonny’s dog, Bandit, has more personality than his master. Jonny is also meant to serve as a stand-in for the viewer, but he’s so generic that he never comes across as anything more than a cipher that constantly needs saving from ghost pirates or dinosaurs. The only thing that distinguishes him from other “boy adventurers” is his awesome family. When Cartoon Network revamped the show in the late ’90s, Jonny was given more attitude to make up for his original, bland persona.
6. The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes
Sheriff Rick Grimes’ most important contribution to The Walking Dead comes in the pilot. After being shot in the line of duty, Rick falls into a coma and later wakes up (in a sequence that totally doesn’t reference 28 Days Later at all) after a zombie apocalypse laid waste to the civilized world. The coma allows the story to jump past the initial chaos, using Rick’s ignorance as a way to introduce the audience to a new and terrifying reality. But once Rick becomes just another survivor—and once he works through a few minor domestic issues with his wife, his wife’s psychotic lover, and his son—there’s nothing left to the character but a series of pained expressions. It’s never a good sign when a show’s ensemble is constantly talking about how important it is that the designated protagonist remain the one in charge; with every fervent assertion that “Rick is the only one who can lead us!” the former sheriff’s instability and ineffectualness becomes more apparent. And even if he is left in charge, there’s no reason for him to eat up so much screen time. Andrew Lincoln does what he can with the material, and the writers keep trying to generate interest in the guy, but on a show that has often struggled to define its ensemble, Rick remains the heart of a whole lot of nothing.
7. Rubicon, Will Travers
In the pilot of Rubicon as conceived by Jason Horwitch, Will Travers (James Badge Dale) is set up as the show’s central character, investigating the mysterious death of his mentor and the global conspiracy that he may have been tied up in. The problem was that after Henry Bromell took over showrunning duties from Horwitch, the conspiracy became less vital to the show’s weekly rhythms, with more emphasis placed on the toll intelligence work takes on those doing it. Will’s problems took a backseat to his team’s struggles—Miles’ increasing paranoia, Tanya’s drug abuse—and he gradually lost agency as the investigation becomes a chess match for his soul between his enigmatic mentors. Will certainly has some great moments—James Badge Dale being one of those actors where it’s compelling to just watch him stare and think—but he’s shackled to the show’s original conception and never quite breaks free. It’s a shame the show never made it to a second season, because this is a character that deserved a much better arc.
8. Better Off Ted, Ted Crisp
As the head of research and development for Veridian Dynamics, Jay Harrington’s Ted Crisp is portrayed as the “shiniest employee” the company had, possessed of a Don Draper-level confidence and charisma. However, as the show progressed, he was placed in a more reactionary role, turning into the everyman outraged at the company’s soulless nature. This placed him in opposition to the show’s funniest arcs—inadvertently racist sensors, obscene corporate jargon, beatifying an employee who worked himself to death—and turned him into a buzzkill. His single-father status and on-again/off-again relationship with a co-worker also wound up eclipsed by the constant office nuttiness: Portia De Rossi stole the spotlight as Ted’s cheerily amoral boss, and the majority of the show’s chemistry came (appropriately enough) from the scientist duo of Lem and Phil. The show wouldn’t have been better off without him, as Harrington was a likable and amiable presence (particularly when breaking the fourth wall to offer commentary on events), but he was a title character who rarely earned that title.
9. Babylon 5 (season one), Jeffrey Sinclair
In the pilot of Babylon 5, the ostensible hero, Jeffrey Sinclair, is told, “There is a hole in your mind.” It’s a phrase that’s supposed to indicate the main drama of the first season: Commander Sinclair’s search for his memories of what happened to him at the end of the recent war. Unfortunately, Sinclair could just as easily have been told, “There is a hole in your show,” because Michael O’Hare was simply not up for playing the protagonist of a series. His charisma-free performance, especially in the first half of the season, is just one of many reasons that the show’s debut season is so tough to get through. Even as he improves in the second half, with the grand monologues that Babylon 5 is known for, he still struggles with more intimate dialogue. O’Hare was replaced at the start of the second season (although he was able to come back later to finish his character’s story), and show creator J. Michael Straczynski recently revealed that the actor had been suffering from paranoia and couldn’t continue. The new hero, played by Bruce Boxleitner, added a level of dynamism that had been missing from the show, and Boxleitner was a major part of Babylon 5’s rise to excellence in its second season.
10. Entourage, Vincent Chase
The plodding plight of Vincent Chase can be somewhat interesting. The concept of a budding star on the rise navigating Hollywood with his friends—based loosely on Mark Wahlberg’s career—carried enough promise of viewer wish-fulfillment that it buoyed Entourage for eight seasons and just shy of 100 episodes. But compared to Jeremy Piven’s exuberant performance as super-agent Ari Gold and Kevin Dillon’s D-lister, Johnny “Drama” Chase, Adrian Grenier looks downright lethargic by comparison. Even the laconic Billy Walsh makes circling the drain in entertainment look more compelling than Vince’s perpetually laid-back approach to coasting through town like a terrible rehash of The Fonz. A spiral into drug addiction and a beef with Eminem that leads to a justified beatdown almost broke the show out of its path of doom, but the final season re-established the “it’s always going to work out” pattern.
11. The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, Dobie Gillis
The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis broke TV ground by focusing so intently on the lives and likes of high-school students, but it wasn’t the first series to treat its young characters as seriously as those of legal driving age. There were family comedies like Leave It To Beaver and The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet as well as adult-oriented fare that clumsily courted baby boomers with characters like the rock-’n’-rollin’ comic relief of 77 Sunset Strip’s Kookie, or Dwayne Hickman as Love That Bob’s cub photographer, Chuck. Hickman’s popularity in that role led directly to his big break: bringing the girl-crazy teen star of Max Shulman’s Dobie Gillis stories to the small screen. While Hickman’s every-guy charms remained central to the The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis throughout its four seasons, they also tended to get his character pinched out of the spotlight by the more colorful characters in his orbit—namely, the series’ breakout character and its claim to a legitimate TV first: pioneering beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, played to the moony hilt by Bob Denver. Maynard would be responsible for the show’s most memorable running gags (like his exasperated response to the word “work”) and as the series proceeded, his name—along with that of doting Dobie enthusiast Zelda Gilroy—was just as likely to appear in an episode’s logline as Dobie. A fine fate for a sitcom protagonist who never quite got what he wanted.
12. Lost, Jack Shephard
In the original script for Lost, Jack Shephard was supposed to die halfway through the first episode. The plan was changed, but the character never managed to escape the shadow of his almost-fate. Given the range of potential heroes on the show—the mysterious criminal (Kate), the hard-nosed survivalist (Locke), the drawling con man (Sawyer), the magical nice guy (Hurley)—it feels like Jack pulled the short straw for shouldering the bulk of Lost’s drama. The best series writers could come up with was “rich doctor with daddy issues and shitty tattoos.” Jack emerged as the de facto leader of the Oceanic survivors on Lost, but he always felt like the odd man out: a levelheaded normal guy in a cast of weirdos and outcasts. Luckily, the show’s ever-expanding ensemble proved more than capable in covering the gaping hole Jack created at the center of Lost.
13. Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey
She might be the title character, but Meredith Grey always has been and continues to be the least interesting character of an otherwise diverse and compelling cast. From season one, what makes Meredith the main character isn’t really what she does or who she chooses to be, but instead what happens to her (or who happens to be her mother). She’s a blank canvas for the viewers, and because she takes up so little emotional space, the far more interesting stories of her fellow doctors Cristina, George, Izzie, and Bailey have room to shine. Her milquetoast character is supposed to keep the show from careening into sensationalist melodrama, but it does that anyway. Meanwhile, viewers still have to listen to her terrible monologue voiceovers, cluttered with poor literary analogies, just so it seems she has something to say.
14. Barney Miller, Barney Miller
In the early episodes of the 1974-82 series, Barney Miller, captain of the NYPD’s 12th Precinct, is shown not only dealing with all the nutty criminals—and even nuttier detectives—at the ol’ one-two. Viewers also see what happens when “Barn” goes home: He has a wife who is supportive, but doesn’t quite grasp the craziness he has to deal with every day. But soon, Barney’s world at home fades away, and most of the series’ episodes take place in the district detectives’ room. Creator Danny Arnold knew pretty quickly what he had in the supporting cast, from the natty and OCD-ish Harris (Ron Glass) to the lovable lunk “Wojo” (Max Gail), to the goofily jaded Yemana (Jack Soo) to the ever-so-tired Fish (Abe Vigoda). And while Hal Linden did a fantastic job being the only sane man in a room full of insanity, at a certain point Barney Miller stopped being the focus of the show named for him and became the calm voice of wisdom on which all the detectives relied.
15. Happy Days, Richie Cunningham
Ron Howard’s character on the classic ’50s-set sitcom had two personality quirks that were played for laughs: He liked to sing “Blueberry Hill” when things got romantic, and he liked to call people “Bucko” when he got angry. Other than that, though, the every-boy Milwaukee high-school student was more or less written as an unfailingly nice, responsible young man, and his point of view was what Garry Marshall wanted to focus on when the show first started in 1974. But it quickly became apparent that Richie was kind of boring, and the folks around him, like his wiseass sister Joanie, and mischievous friends Ralph and Potsie, were much more interesting, as was a mostly quiet greaser with a motorcycle and (back then) poplin jacket. Before long, the Fonz ditched the poplin, donned the leather, and became the center of what turned out to be an 11-year run.
16. Under The Dome, Dale “Barbie” Barbara
Originally Barbie was supposed to be the deeply mysterious, but ultimately good yin to the comically evil yang of James “Big Jim” Rennie, and it’s hard to say why he was rendered into such a non-entity during the just-completed first season of Under The Dome. Is it because Mike Vogel just didn’t have the acting chops to go toe-to-toe with Dean Norris? Or did the writers, in a season full of head-scratching wrong turns, just not know what to do with him? Is he good? Is he bad? Is he the monarch? And if he is, why is he there? And why are his former colleagues in the Army so desperate to hear from him? Without any of those answers, Barbie was left to be a blank slate for Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre) to inexplicably fall in love with and Big Jim to spew his venom over. He’s the least interesting character on the show, which is saying a lot, given the one-note caricatures that populate Chester’s Mill.