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1. Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother
In Broadway parlance, a “showstopper” refers to a musical number so dazzling that the audience literally stops the show with an ovation. On television, a “showblocker” stops the show too, but not in a good way. Showblockers are characters so grating—sometimes intentionally so—that even fans of the show heave a heavy sigh when they appear onscreen. Ordinarily, showblockers are minor characters, but that isn’t always the case. Consider Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor), the nominal “I” in How I Met Your Mother. Meant to embody all things douchey about New York twentysomethings, from his pretentious preoccupations to his self-aggrandizing romanticism, Ted is also supposed to be likeable enough that viewers will root for him to find true love. And he is that likeable… sometimes. Far too often, though, the HIMYM writers seem to go out of their way to make Ted a spoilsport, having him throw cold water on his friends’ plans, his own love affairs, and viewers’ interest in him as a leading man.
2. Kenneth Parcell, 30 Rock
Granted, nearly all the supporting characters on 30 Rock—even the oft-hilarious Tracy Jordan—have gone through stretches where they don’t appear to have much to offer. But Kenneth has been wrung especially dry in recent seasons, made into an ever-more-outsized caricature of sycophancy, fundamentalism, and hickdom. Worse, as the writers have played Kenneth up more and more as a rube, they’ve lost sight of who the character used to be: a super-competent optimist in love with television. (And they’ve been wasting Jack McBrayer, a character actor with crack comic timing.) It’s an all-too-common evolution for sitcom characters: from adorably quirky to ridiculously exaggerated to showblocker.
3. Rudy Huxtable, The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show’s success in its first couple of seasons derived largely from the producers’ bright idea to set Bill Cosby against characters of different ages and temperaments, and then just let him riff. Early on, some of the show’s funniest episodes had Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable entertaining his kindergarten-aged daughter Rudy and her easily delighted friends. But Rudy got older, and while Keshia Knight Pulliam was a charming, unforced child actress—Emmy-nominated, in fact—she became less natural and more steely as she aged into the storylines previously reserved for shrill pre-teen Vanessa. Meanwhile, the show transferred its cutesy stories to Olivia, a character added later in the series, leaving Rudy as an embittered afterthought be-souring any episode in which she appeared.
4. Sheila Keefe, Rescue Me
Rescue Me has always been a show where the female characters have been either underserved, or used primarily to massage Denis Leary’s ego as they squabble over who gets to sleep with his character, Tommy Gavin. But none has been treated worse than Sheila Keefe (played by Callie Thorne), the widow of Tommy’s cousin Jimmy, who died on 9/11. She began the series as Tommy’s mistress, but since the writers were never able to define a role for her outside of “woman who wants to sleep with Tommy,” whole episodes would be derailed by Sheila storming into the firehouse to argue with Tommy about how he should become her permanent love-slave. And while Thorne was always good at playing those moments, Sheila never became a full-fledged character—just an annoyance.
5. Lauren Reed, Alias
The second season of Alias ended one of TV’s greatest cliffhangers, as the show’s heroine, Sydney Bristow, woke up in Hong Kong with no memory of how she arrived. Enter her lover Michael Vaughn, to tell her she’d been missing for two years. And was that… a wedding ring he was wearing? Fan speculation was heated during the hiatus, but those fans cooled down considerably once they learned Vaughn had married a woman named Lauren, a charisma vacuum from which no storyline could escape. As played by Melissa George (also a showblocker on the first season of In Treatment), Lauren fumbled through her romantic storylines with Vaughn and the action storylines with Sydney, mainly because she was such an obvious contrivance, added to Alias to keep Vaughn and Sydney apart. Finally, the producers followed the obvious course and made Lauren evil, before writing her off the show.
6. Betty Draper, Mad Men
Betty isn’t a bad character; in many ways, her warring impulses of traditionalism and liberation make her potentially one of the most fascinating, potent participants in Mad Men’s history-play. It’s just that as the show moves away from its first- and second-season preoccupations with the mysterious Don Draper and his place in 1960s America, Betty Draper’s scenes increasingly seem dropped in from another series. Particularly in the early episodes of the show’s fourth season—after Don and Betty’s divorce—it seems like the writers are struggling to find a place for Betty, beyond renewing her position as the show’s resident shrewish ingrate. There’s still plenty of time for Matthew Weiner and company to pull Betty back in, but her current arc has all of the makings of a classic showblocker.
7. John Burns, Taxi
John Burns (played by Randall Carver) was intended in Taxi’s first season to represent the small-town boy overwhelmed by the big city. As an example of his bumpkinry, early in the show’s run, he married a woman he’d only known for one night. The story of John’s relationship suggested many potential directions, but Taxi’s writers could never figure out a way to make his character mesh with the rest of the ensemble, especially since John’s defining traits overlapped with Andy Kaufman as a childlike mechanic and Tony Danza as a dimwitted boxer. The few John-centric episodes tended to be laugh-free affairs, and the character was written out after one season. Taxi producers Glen and Les Charles later had much better luck with a John-type on Cheers, when they brought in Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd.
8. Dawson Leery, Dawson’s Creek
The two central hooks of Dawson’s Creek when the show began had to do with which girl Dawson (played by James Van Der Beek) would end up with, and whether he’d follow his dream and become a successful filmmaker. By the end of the show, most fans were actively rooting for the character to end up alone, since he’d become so insufferable and self-righteous. High-school soaps live and die by their iconic bad boys, but Dawson was a mealy-mouthed, hyper-earnest type who burst into tears over the most minor mishap. At the same time, his best pal Pacey was pretty much the ultimate example of unflappable cool. Is it any wonder that Pacey got the girl (and the actor, Joshua Jackson, got the career), while Dawson lives on primarily via an oft-posted screencap of his face twisted up in hilariously overwrought grief?
9. Dwight Shrute, The Office
This comes with the major caveat that Dwight—beet farmer, former volunteer reserve deputy sheriff, non-expert in the deadly arts, and assistant to the regional manager at Dunder Mifflin Scranton—hasn’t always been a drag on the American version of The Office. Quite the contrary: For many seasons, Dwight’s authoritarian, Mussolini-like vision for how the office should operate has bounced nicely off a cast of defeated cubicle drones, and made him the unwitting foil of many a classic Jim-and-Pam gag. But as the show has progressed, Dwight has seemed more and more like a leftover from the era of the traditional sitcom, where the gag machine is reset every week, and less like a human being capable of evolving and revealing new things about himself. One of the keys to The Office’s success has been its ability to balance wackiness with real depth of character—a balance Steve Carell’s Michael Scott embodies, albeit shakily at times, at the show’s center. Dwight falls so squarely on the wacky side of the equation that he’s become more one-note with each passing season, as predictable in his antics as the squeak of a desk chair.
10. Sonny, Treme
In Sonny (Michiel Huisman), the substance-abusing busker on Treme, co-creator David Simon wanted to create a character who aspires to make a go of it in New Orleans, but lacks the chops to pull it off. He’s also a drag on his partner Annie (Lucia Micarelli), who’s more talented as a musician and worthy of a more sensitive, faithful, and non-parasitic boyfriend. Just because Sonny is frustrating and unlikeable doesn’t necessarily make him a bad character; goodness knows, past Simon shows like The Wire and Generation Kill are full of irredeemable scoundrels who are as compelling as their flawed-but-noble heroes. What makes Sonny a bad character is that he’s so narrowly drawn: There’s little indication of the passion that initially drew him to New Orleans, much less to Annie, and his scenes tend to collapse into a black hole of narcissism and self-pity. At a certain point during the first season, it became clear that Sonny was not only holding Annie back, he was holding Treme back, too.
11. Dawn Summers, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
When you’re in the middle of an ongoing battle to keep the demon apocalypse at bay, there’s something unseemly about whining over it, even if you’re a teenage girl. Hence the resentment directed toward Michelle Trachtenberg’s Dawn when she joined the Scooby Gang as Buffy’s sister during the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Granted, any major character introduced that far into a show’s run is bound to face extra scrutiny, especially from Joss Whedon’s incomparably rabid fan base. But Dawn’s pouty third-wheelness often distracted from the entertaining and dramatically compelling business of squaring off against evil. What’s more, her petulance often actively endangered the other Scoobies, who were literally victimized by her moodiness. As “The Key” in season five, Dawn had a legitimate, poignant purpose that justified—or at least alleviated—her presence as a typical teenage fusspot. Later on, even the other characters could barely contain their irritation.
12. Jack Langrishe, Deadwood
Showblockers don’t have to be annoying. In the third and final season of the masterful HBO Western Deadwood, Jack Langrishe was introduced as an old friend of Al Swearengen’s, and became a recurring character, wonderfully portrayed by veteran character actor Brian Cox. His wise, playful demeanor and the hints of a dark history in association with Al made him plenty compelling; the problem was that Jack and the rest of the members of his traveling theater troupe ate up tons of screen time, and the show’s fans could never figure out why. Jack’s story went nowhere slowly. His attempts to set up a community theater had no impact on the plot, and his interactions with George Hearst (the season’s primary villain), didn’t accomplish anything that couldn’t have been prompted by another character. Jack just sort of showed up, said something flowery, then wandered off, leaving episodes no better or worse than he found them. He wasn’t bad, just pointless. And in retrospect, since Deadwood ended with season three, Langrishe seemed like even more of a waste. His scenes served to kill time in a show that had precious little to spare.
13. Romo Lampkin, Battlestar Galactica
One of the truest measures of a showblocker is when his very name becomes an angry epithet. Battlestar Galactica always had a problem making its civilian characters as interesting as their military counterparts, but the eccentric lawyer portrayed by Mark Sheppard was so irksome that every time he’d show up onscreen, fans would mutter “Lampkin!”, knowing they were doomed to another hour of bizarre, directionless characterization and goofy tics. Sheppard is a decent actor, but he played Lampkin as nothing more than a collection of broad eccentricities (kleptomania, sunglasses worn indoors under artificial light, a cane carried for bogus sympathy), and he was written with motivations so murky, he seemed underthought rather than mysterious. Worst of all, BSG’s writers and producers seemed to be in love with him (as is too often the case with showblockers), bringing him back time after time, long after the fans had had more than enough of him. Gaius Baltar was Galactica’s necessary evil, but Romo Lampkin was its annoying distraction.
14. Rita Bennett, Dexter
To be fair, almost everyone on Dexter who isn’t Dexter Morgan or one of his serial-murdering opponents drags the show down. Nobody watches Dexter for the straight characters. Dexter’s colleagues at the Miami PD—Angel Batista and Maria Laguerta—are dramatic dead weight, and even Doakes was hammy and undeveloped. Dexter’s sister Debra has more of an impact on the plot, but she’s typically underdrawn; her character often seems to keep running in place. But no Dexter supporting player has been as excruciating as Rita Bennett, Dexter’s girlfriend and eventual wife. Even if it’s just for social cover, couldn’t Dex have picked someone less dull and fussy? Played by Julie Benz, Rita is also the impetus for the majority of Dexter’s incredibly tedious “I do not feel emotions like the hu-man” voiceovers, though any attempt to deepen or darken her character falls flat. (It doesn’t say much when a character is less interesting than her own pre-adolescent children.) Existing solely as a plot complication for Dexter, Rita has just one mark in her favor: She’s slightly less annoying than his other love interest, the insufferable Lila.
15. Emma Pillsbury, Glee
In a similar vein, Will Schuester’s twitchy, OCD-stricken, virginal love interest Emma Pillsbury gets points simply for not being as intolerable as his awful wife Terri, whose fake pregnancy was the most ridiculous thing about a first season consciously full of ridiculous developments. But Terri was largely out of the picture for the second half of season one, freeing Will and Emma to cycle endlessly through the same off-again-on-again relationship spasms as their flighty, shallow teenage charges. Jayma Mays, who plays Emma, can be adorable and even hilarious with the right material, but her character seems designed as a classic showstopper, the love interest whose love must be prevented through increasingly ridiculous, over-the-top plot contrivances, like her decision to marry a repulsive man she can’t stand touching, let alone loving. All Glee’s characters are pathologically inconsistent and erratic, but at least most of them sing, dance, and pour on the charm and comedy. Emma, meanwhile, largely vacillates between being a cringing victim and a cruelly used device for a will-they-or-won’t-they plot that’s not only redundant with all the teen-romance shenanigans on Glee, but considerably less dumb fun than most of them.
16. Sgt. Hatred, The Venture Bros.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to push the boundaries of a joke; committing to a concept and refusing to let it go can lead to some amazingly great humor. But there’s a thin line between far enough and too far, and The Venture Bros.’ Sgt. Hatred doesn’t just cross it, he drives a tank over it. His character isn’t aided much by a performance (by Jackson Publick) that goes from shouting to bellowing with no in-between, but the worst thing about him is that he’s portrayed as a pedophile, albeit a reluctant one. And in a show where the main characters are underage boys, that’s automatically going to turn off a lot of viewers, no matter how much the creators try to finesse it. Publick and co-creator Doc Hammer have made it clear that they think it’s an exciting challenge to make a sympathetic, even admirable figure out of a child molester, but while setting up an extreme narrative challenge is a worthy goal, their instincts are way off. Knowing that Sgt. Hatred has molested the show’s title characters—and likely raped Billy Quizboy, who looks like a child even though he’s an adult—makes him impossible to truly like. Add to this the fact that Hatred gets tons of screen time in season four, which already bangs the pedophile drum uncomfortably hard in its Captain Sunshine episode, and it’s hard not to think “Okay, we get it, you guys think child molestation is funny. Can we move on to something else now?”
17. Tara Thornton, True Blood
In a show rife with stupid characters getting themselves into stupid situations, True Blood’s Tara Thornton (played by Rutina Wesley) ranks as the stupidest by far. Despite her self-appointed mantle as a bitch who doesn’t trust anyone, Tara has displayed a remarkable aptitude for getting into easily avoidable mortal peril. While that may count as a positive in a show as plot-driven as True Blood, the fact that Tara hasn’t made a single decision that isn’t selfish and/or hurtful to the people who care about her makes it difficult to care whether someone saves her from whatever orgiastic maenad or psychopathic vampire is holding her hostage this week. (She also sports the worst Southern accent in a show full of them.)
18. Kate Austen, Lost
Kate Austen (played by Evangeline Lilly) landed on The Island as a badass with a mysterious criminal past, but quickly devolved into a self-righteous party-pooper whose consistently inconsistent actions seemed motivated more by plot than character. (Her fickle romantic vacillations between Jack and Sawyer certainly didn’t help matters.) As such, viewers learned to expect that episodes focusing on her backstory would be wheel-spinners, throwing viewers go-nowhere tidbits that only served to further distort an already-muddled character. Remember when she was married to Nathan Fillion? Or how about when she just had to get that toy airplane back? Over the course of the series, what Kate did had less and less to do with Kate the person, and more and more to do with Kate the plot device, providing the necessary motivation for her to send the 815ers veering off on yet another tangent.
19. Mandy, The West Wing
White House media consultant Mandy Hampton (played by Moira Kelly) is a showblocker acknowledged by her creators. Aaron Sorkin has said in West Wing commentaries that the character wasn’t working, hence her unceremonious dismissal between seasons one and two, and the origin of the term “Mandyville” for the place the show’s secondary characters go after they disappear without explanation. Mandy was originally created as a foil to Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman: a spunky ex-girlfriend who questioned him at every turn, and provided the cynical PR counterpoint to the administration’s wide-eyed patriotism. But as The West Wing evolved and Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet became a larger presence—and as the Josh-Donna dynamic become more interesting than Mandy and Josh’s bickering—Mandy became a shrill distraction among a group of affable coworkers just trying to do right by their president.
20. Lucy Ewing, Dallas
Just about every non-J.R. character on Dallas was a showblocker, because the pioneering primetime soap was never much fun when focus shifted from that smirking, whiskey-sipping son of a bitch. But at least Patrick Duffy and Victoria Principal offered up some tantalizing eye candy as Bobby and Pamela Ewing; all J.R.’s perpetually victimized niece Lucy Ewing brought to the table was an irritating brattiness and a grossly overestimated opinion of her own cuteness. Perhaps that’s why Lucy (played by Charlene Tilton) was put in increasingly ridiculous situations to compensate, including sleeping with a cowhand who ended up being her uncle; having an on-again, off-again marriage with a resentful medical student; and getting involved with a crazy photographer, getting pregnant, and having an abortion. Even with all that melodrama, seeing Lucy onscreen made fans eager for J.R. to come back and blow up an oil well or something.
21. A.J. Soprano, The Sopranos
Was A.J. Soprano the most realistic depiction of a bored, petty, not-terribly bright teenager ever to appear on television? Or was Robert Iler merely a not terribly gifted actor whose limited range kept his character mired in a never-ending loop of inarticulate petulance? Either way, Tony Soprano’s son could be a painfully tiresome presence on The Sopranos, especially when he wound up at the center of several episodes that found him grappling with the profundities of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” while sporting Backstreet Boys-inspired facial hair. Again, on some level, A.J. was supposed to be annoying, as boys his age inevitably are. It still would’ve been nice to see Tony follow through on at least one of his threats to knock A.J.’s teeth out.
22. Corporal Max Klinger, M*A*S*H
There’s no cross-dressing Corporal Klinger in the book or film versions of M*A*S*H, but Jamie Farr’s overbearing wackmeister remains one of the most recognizable characters from the long-running television show, even after he put all the billowy gowns and floppy hats in the closet. Originally intended to be a one-off, one-joke character, Klinger proved so popular that the hairy-armed sight gag was trotted out in high heels again and again, until Jamie Farr became a permanent cast member. A sort-of proto-Urkel—who was similarly introduced as an eccentric outsider and became a dominant fixture—Klinger represented M*A*S*H at its broadest and most sitcom-y, which was far removed from the show at its best.