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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Paging Dr. Melfi: 29 characters on serialized TV shows who outlived their usefulness

Illustration for article titled Paging Dr. Melfi: 29 characters on serialized TV shows who outlived their usefulness

1. Jennifer Melfi, The Sopranos
It happens on nearly every TV series with even the slightest nod toward serialization: Characters who were vastly important to the show in its first season gradually become less and less important, until they have no real reason to remain on the show. Occasionally, their function will be superseded by other characters. Yet the shows’ writers and producers can’t write those original characters out, so they stick around, continuing to receive occasional episodes focused on them as they play out the string. Take perhaps the most famous case of this, that of Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist. When The Sopranos began, it was sold as the story of a mobster having to visit a psychiatrist, but as the seasons rolled on and the series’ domestic and mob storylines became increasingly important, Melfi had fewer reasons to be on the show. Creator David Chase and his writers wrapped up her character arc—would she use her connections to Tony to seek vengeance for a wrong perpetrated on her?—in season three, and though Melfi had some compelling scenes in the show’s final three years, she was never again as prominent, or as integral to the series, before briefly rallying in strained fashion in the series’ penultimate episode.

2. Arvin Sloane, Alias
For Alias’ first two seasons, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) served as the story engine for J.J. Abrams’ spy-fi hybrid. Everything Sydney Bristow did was in the service of bringing him down, even as she was drawn deeper into his obsession with prophet Milo Rambaldi. And yet, just as Sloane appeared to understand his own place in Rambaldi’s grand plan, Alias lost its ability to understand Sloane’s place in its own story. The final three seasons of the show were an uneven mess, and Sloane’s ever-changing place within them has a lot to do with the series’ troubled homestretch. Was Sloane good? Bad? A clone? (Seriously: The show did a clone story.) By the final few episodes, Alias tried to tie all these disparate interpretations into a semi-coherent whole, but it was too little, too late. In some ways, the last image of Sloane in the series finale is one of the more harrowing visuals the show ever produced. Unfortunately, the man in that frame was far from the man fans once loved to loathe.

3. Cy Tolliver, Deadwood
Powers Boothe was originally picked to play Al Swearengen in David Milch’s revisionist Western, but he had to be replaced by Ian McShane after taking ill. As a consolation prize, Milch wrote Boothe the part of Cy Tolliver, owner of the Bella Union. In the first season, Tolliver served as the obvious antagonist to Swearengen (who was already pitched as the series’ villain), a man willing to execute young people in cold blood and stoke racial tensions for profit. However, as time went on, his antagonist role was supplanted by the likes of Francis Wolcott and George Hearst. Ricky Jay’s Eddie Sawyer left the show between the first and second season, depriving Tolliver of his lieutenant, and his object of affection, Joanie Stubbs, wound up spending more time with Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane. A stab wound at the end of the second season almost completely reduced Tolliver to making empty threats, and his final moments in the show saw him impotently pointing a gun at a departing carriage and one of his whores. Boothe had menace and charisma to burn, but the town—and the story—simply passed him by.

4-5. Tim Gutterson and Rachel Brooks, Justified
It’s not that Justified no longer has any idea what to do with Jacob Pitts’ Tim and Erica Tazel’s Rachel, Raylan Givens’ co-workers at the Lexington, Kentucky, U.S. Marshal’s office. It’s that the show has never really known what to do with these characters, and the problem has only gotten worse over time. Surely showrunner Graham Yost had bigger plans for them at some point, as both Pitts and Tazel have been regular cast members since the beginning. The straight-shooting Tim and Rachel do serve as perfunctory counterpoint to Raylan’s hair-trigger, off-the-books methods, but the show has never bothered to flesh them out beyond their obvious plot function. The third season grew so crowded with would-be supervillains that the two deputies’ already minimal screen time got squeezed even further, with both Tim and Rachel appearing in fewer than half the season’s episodes. Still, the Marshal Service needs Marshals, so they’ll probably be sticking around for the duration.

6. Weevil, Veronica Mars
One of the many reasons Veronica Mars transcended its hardboiled Nancy Drew logline was the way it dealt with class issues in the heroine’s hometown of Neptune, California. And like any good private dick, Veronica had links to the town’s seedy underbelly, hers courtesy of Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra), the head of the PCH bike gang. Weevil became integral to the show’s central mysteries, with his romantic relationship with the murdered Lilly Kane exposed in the first season and his awkward truce with upper-class kid Logan in the second. When Veronica and several other characters matriculated to Hearst College in the third season, however, Weevil became much less useful as the show cut back on exploring class issues. Veronica landed him a job as a janitor at the school, but his storylines proved thin. It’s doubtful that he would have made it to a proposed fourth season that skipped ahead to a future where Veronica was working for the FBI.

7. Major Don West, Lost In Space
When Lost In Space began, Mark Goddard’s Don West was conceived as the heroic figure who would get all the fan mail from kids. The spaceship pilot got to punch out bad guys and was going to develop a romance with the Robinson family’s teenage daughter. The traitorous foreign agent Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) was added to the show almost as an afterthought, and was supposed to be killed off after a few episodes. Harris had other ideas, though, and once it became clear that people were tuning in just to watch the florid ham actor mix it up with the robot and the little boy, he was made a regular (though his screen credit remained “Special Guest Star” to the end of the show’s run) and his part was beefed up. All this happened at the expense of Goddard, whose character suddenly seemed old-hat next to the campy Dr. Smith. The romance angle was phased out completely, and Major West spent most of his screen time reacting to Dr. Smith’s latest chicanery—though he did still get to punch out bad guys once in a while, an area where Jonathan Harris did not excel.


8. Thomas, Downton Abbey
Ah, Thomas. So very punchable—in a good way—in Downton Abbey’s first season. Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) served as a foil for fan favorite John Bates (Brendan Coyle), constantly looking for reasons to kick Bates out of the house, with help from Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran). Eventually, everyone in the downstairs world saw his machinations for what they were, diminishing his power plays and essentially neutralizing him as a threat. At the end of the first season, he signed up as a medic to avoid wartime duty, but instead found himself in the thick of battle, and consciously opened himself up to non-lethal injury in order to return home. Since his return, however, the show hasn’t had a clue what to do with him. A brief stint inside a medical facility offered a chance for redemption, but the show quickly discarded that for an ill-advised stint as a seller of black market goods. Eventually, he wormed his way back into Downton Abbey itself, where characters openly wondered what he was still doing there.

9. Daniel “Lifeguard” Burroughs, Wiseguy
In the rock-hard first season of Wiseguy, hero Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl), an FBI agent working deep undercover within an organized-crime family, checks in by phone every day with the “Lifeguard,” his emergency contact and only regular connection to the outside world. As played by legless actor Jim Byrnes, Lifeguard seemed to live in a room the size of a closet, sometimes hauling himself off a small cot to answer the phone. This baroque touch added some color to a role that was meant to function as a cog in a machine, and Byrnes gave it enough gruff warmth to keep it from seeming like a gimmick. But once the show began to wander away from its original premise and go soft on its characters, Lifeguard broke out of his closet and started hanging out with Vinnie and his FBI handler McPike (Jonathan Banks), even going on camping trips with them, undercutting their professional relationship and dispensing ever-sappier life advice. 

10. Sam Merlotte, True Blood
Since True Blood’s supporting characters tend to swing from integral to barely relevant from season to season, almost any one of them could qualify here, but Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) has fallen the furthest since his introduction. In season one, Sam was both viewers’ tie to Sookie’s everyday life in Bon Temps and the first known supernatural character who wasn’t a vampire. His unrequited crush on Sookie meant he clashed with Bill before clashing with someone over Sookie was cool, and his unlikely affair with Tara was a highlight, as the two bonded over their mutual self-loathing. When season two delved deeper into Sam’s shape-shifter abilities, the show layered it into the season-long conflict with Maryann the Maenad so well the audience didn’t know what was happening until the final, genuinely surprising twist. But that was the peak for Sam. Season three sent him off in pursuit of his biological family, which became one of the show’s clumsiest storylines. He’s been reduced to scurrying around the sidelines ever since. At this point, the bar Sam owns is more interesting than the man himself.

11. Kate Austen, Lost
In the original conception of Lost, Evangeline Lilly’s Kate Austen was to be the series’ lead, the character who took over after seeming lead Jack (Matthew Fox) died midway through the pilot. After ABC convinced the series’ creators that killing off the main character an hour into the show was a step too far, Kate stuck around, instantly retooled as a badass in the mold of J.J. Abrams’ previous female ass-kickers. And in the show’s pilot, Evangeline Lilly makes for a believable fugitive-turned-hero, helping Jack and taking charge when need be. Yet even within the first season, the character began to lose importance, going from the series’ second lead to the focal point in a love triangle. While the other characters got fascinating backstories, Kate… stole a toy airplane from a bank vault and got married to Nathan Fillion that one time? Though the series was able to redeem many of its most problematic characters by the end of its run, it never figured out how to make Kate vital again, and both the character and Lilly flailed, until the only important question for Kate in the final season was which guy she would choose.

12. Betty Draper, Mad Men
It’s regrettable that so many of the characters on serialized dramas who outlive their original intentions are women, yet the vast boom in such shows in the last decade has come primarily from series about antiheroic men, often with wives oblivious to their husbands’ double lives or actively working to prevent them from living them out (as one would likely do after finding out a spouse was unfaithful or engaging in criminal activities). As a case in point, consider Betty Draper (January Jones). When Mad Men began, she was her husband’s most important tether to his home life. When Betty found out about his indiscretions, she gradually grew apart from him (in one of the show’s most riveting story arcs), and the two were divorced at the end of season three. Yet Mad Men will always center on advertising, meaning Betty’s had less and less connection to the show ever since. In the fifth season, she appeared in just four episodes, and it’s difficult to see how the series will re-integrate her going forward.

13. Fay Furillo, Hill Street Blues
Just a few years before the seminal cop show Hill Street Blues debuted, the idea of a divorced lead character on TV was considered a taboo, but by the time it premièred, it was already becoming a cliché to give a central character an ex-spouse as a way to establish a troubled past. That was the function of Barbara Bosson’s Fay Furillo in the early days, when she was forever barging into the station house to interrupt some crisis to yell at lead character Frank (Daniel J. Travanti) because the alimony check was late or Frank, Jr., needed therapy. That got old pretty fast, and after Frank remarried, the show resorted to ever more contrived excuses—an affair with a judge, a “job” as a crime reporter—to explain her incessant presence in her ex-husband’s orbit. Bosson, who was then married to series creator Stephen Bochco, finally left the show before its final season, probably because she was tired of listening to charges of nepotism, the price of playing a character that had deteriorated into a joke.

14. Hiro Nakamura, Heroes
When Heroes debuted, Masi Oka’s Hiro Nakamura was one of its most popular characters. He was charismatic, loveable, and he could bend time and space to his will. In spite of Oka’s mastery of the role, creator Tim Kring was faced with a dilemma: Hiro’s power was so strong that, in theory, he could negate all the drama and suspense by simply traveling back in time to stop the bad thing from happening before a chain of events occurred, eliminating any dramatic stakes. Kring couldn’t kill off Hiro, who’d become a fan favorite, so over the course of a few seasons, Kring reduced Hiro from samurai sword-wielding badass to perpetual sideshow attraction. At the beginning of each season, Hiro would lose his powers, usually through ridiculous means. He’d have his own story that had nothing to do with the more pressing matters at hand, then swoop in as a marginalized deus ex machina, fixing one small thing and calling it a day. Heroes clearly hadn’t planned for Hiro’s theoretically unstoppable power to last more than a season, and once it was unable to remove him entirely, he became nothing more than a running joke.

15. Jimmy McNulty, The Wire 
Dominic West’s Detective Jimmy McNulty is an unexpected exception: a character who actually got back into the spotlight by the end of his show. He began the series as the ostensible hero, though this was always a bit misleading, thanks to the ensemble nature of The Wire. Still, McNulty was the character who pushed the hardest for an investigation into Stringer Bell’s drug ring, which instigated the events of the entire first season. After that, he was one of several police characters— important, sure, but not much more important than the others. The Wire seemed to acknowledge this. The climax of the third season was also the climax of McNulty’s character arc: He’d succeeded in his mission to beat the Barksdale gang and found happiness in his personal life, and he spent much of the fourth season on the sidelines as a new set of characters came to the fore. But The Wire wasn’t done with McNulty, and he was dragged back to his starring role with a serial-killer plot in the final season, a storyline that was either a fulfillment of television expectations or a satire of them.


16. David Aceveda, The Shield
In the first three seasons of The Shield, Benito Martinez’s David Aceveda served as the new precinct captain who had to figure out how to use the antiheroic Vic Mackey’s talents for law enforcement while simultaneously trying to find a way to expose his crimes. It was, in many ways, a thankless role, but somebody had to play it, and Martinez’s dead-eyed, shifty authority fit the part well. But the politically ambitious Aceveda vacated his post when he was elected to the city council, a logical next step for his character, but one that diminished him within the series’ world. The show made an attempt to weave Aceveda’s political career into the action, which probably seemed like a good way of enlarging the series’ canvas. But his scenes were mostly a distraction from the real story, and the fact that this supposedly slick operator couldn’t just kick the dirt that was Vic Mackey off his shoes and move on made him seem like a lightweight.

17. The entire teenage ensemble, Twin Peaks
No one disputes that Twin Peaks went off the rails in its second season, but few characters suffered as much as Laura Palmer’s high-school classmates. With the resolution of Laura’s murder, all of her peers—best friend Donna Hayward, rival Audrey Horne, boyfriend Bobby Briggs, and secret boyfriend James Hurley—lost the thread that connected them to the main story. Bobby pursued blackmail and joined forces with Civil War enthusiast Benjamin Horne, and Donna got involved in a question of paternity. Audrey switched her romantic interests from Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper to Billy Zane’s John Wheeler, a move that drained all interest from what was one of the show’s most fascinating characters. And then there was James Hurley’s ill-fated road trip, which for all intents and purposes marooned him on another show—a flat, uninteresting soap opera. Twin Peaks was still capable of highs all the way to the end, but these characters were at the center of its most spectacular lows.

18. The Juniper Creek Gang, Big Love
When Big Love began, viewers wanted to know how all-American suburban dad Bill Henrickson became a polygamist, so the visits to the cult camp where he grew up made sense. Plus, the question of who attempted to poison his father (Bruce Dern) served as the first season’s big mystery. In later seasons, though, the True Blood-like grotesqueries of Juniper Creek became too much in a show that was already getting overstuffed with plotlines. Toward the end of the series, the question of whether teenage Ben (Douglas Smith) would repeat the sins of his father became one of the few potentially compelling themes, but it was repeatedly crowded out by more sensationalistic plotlines. When Ben ended up in Mexico, kidnapped by whacko polygamist leader Hollis Green (Luke Askew), it was as if he was visiting Toontown from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The Big Love producers understandably wanted to keep using Dern, Grace Zabriskie, Mary Kay Place, and Harry Dean Stanton, but their Juniper Creek characters might have been more enjoyable if they were in a spin-off series. And had fangs.

19. Marie Schrader, Breaking Bad
When Breaking Bad began, it was a much smaller, quieter series than it became. Sure, it was occasionally punctuated by moments of over-the-top action, but it also always returned to the idea of a man riddled with cancer working to find a way to provide for his family. As such, Walter White’s family and domestic life were at the center of the series in its first season in a way they never really were again after. To that end, Walter’s sister-in-law, Marie (Betsy Brandt), was both an important part of the domestic storylines and another chance for the show to consider ethical implications. Marie was a compulsive shoplifter, and the series used her to examine the theme that everybody sins and makes justifications for it. This storyline, however, never really worked, perhaps because it just wasn’t that interesting and perhaps because it seemed like the show was quietly trying to let Walt off the hook. The show got more visceral and exciting once it zeroed in on the consequences of Walt’s choices, but Marie had less reason to stick around. She got an episode in season four that successfully re-integrated her character’s kleptomania, but since then, she’s mostly hung out in the background.

20. Benny Stulwitz, L.A. Law
Larry Drake won two Emmys for playing Benny, the developmentally challenged gofer at the law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, and Kuzak. This makes sense, since it’s the kind of role that exists to get people nominated for Emmys. Early on, it was possible to appreciate the confused sweetness that Drake brought to the role, but as Benny continued to hang around the show, there seemed to be something self-congratulatory and treacly about the way the slick yuppie heroes were always eager to drop whatever they were doing and help this poor schlub out of the latest jam. The show never addressed that aspect of the characters’ relationship, probably because it would have made viewers wonder if there wasn’t something self-congratulatory and treacly about their interest in watching him. But by the time Benny got married to Amanda Plummer, the jokes were writing themselves.

21. Xander Harris, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
By now, it should be an axiomatic rule of television writing that any time there’s a series featuring characters with supernatural abilities or superpowers, the character who has no such abilities will inevitably end up feeling like a third (or fifth) wheel by the show’s finale. In the first three seasons of Buffy, Nicholas Brendon’s Xander was a vital part of the show, serving as part of any number of love triangles and as one of the unpowered friends who kept Buffy Summers grounded. In season four, however, the other characters headed off to college, and Xander mostly farted around, doing nothing of consequence other than falling into a relationship with a former vengeance demon (whom he’d later almost marry). The series often made light of how Xander felt useless in its later seasons, but it never found a way to return him to the prominence of the first three years. There are great Xander moments and episodes in the show’s final years, but he mostly ended up on the sidelines, occasionally fucking everything up but mostly just interjecting a one-liner here and there.

22. Pete Hornberger, 30 Rock
It’s more rare for this sort of sidelining to happen to characters on comedies, but it does from time to time. When 30 Rock began, Scott Adsit’s Pete Hornberger had a clear role: He was Liz Lemon’s right-hand man and the sensible producer who would keep everybody from flying off too far into flights of fancy. (Liz spends much of the pilot trying to get his job back, so important is he to the operation she runs.) But as the show went on, it became increasingly clear that Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy filled that role just as well, if not better than Pete. So the series gradually reduced Pete’s importance, turning him into just as much of a wacky guy as his other co-workers. Pete’s had some good storylines over the years—including a genuinely sweet relationship with his wife—and his camaraderie with Liz is always solid when the show thinks to return to it, but he’s now mostly the guy who plays third banana to Tracy and Jenna or gets his hand stuck in vending machines.

23. Ryan Howard, The Office
At first, Ryan “The Temp” Howard (B.J. Novak) served as an audience surrogate, a normal person who lands in an office with a seemingly incompetent boss who seems unhealthily obsessed with his newest employee. Over the next four seasons, the character evolved faster than any other, moving up the corporate ladder to eventually leapfrog Michael and become a regional vice president. The transformation of Ryan from shy business student to douchebag wunderkind showed the series’ skill at long-term character development, and the character reached a logical endpoint when his quick ascent led to fraud charges and a serious drug problem. Then, instead of writing him off, the show hit the reset button, creating a quick and dirty justification for slotting him back into the office pool. It was an early sign that the show’s commitment to serialization could be threatened by an equal commitment to complacency, and the character would become the first of many to be transformed into glorified extras once their primary storylines ended.

24. Phoebe Buffay, Friends
The producers of Friends followed a brilliant strategy: Make a sitcom about six pals and refuse to make any of them the lead role. As a result, the show bought time to build, distracting viewers with a dodgeball attack of plots while the actors and writers worked to give some depth to the characters. But as the series became more focused, Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe, the kookiest character, became the hardest to fit in each week. In “The One With The Embryos,” an episode that shows up most often on “best-of-all-time” lists, Phoebe is off in her own story, agreeing to become a surrogate mother while the other five are in the show’s best-remembered scene (the trivia contest between the guys and girls for occupancy of Monica’s apartment). In “The One With The Kips,” Rachel fears getting frozen out of the group and says she thought the “one to go” would be Phoebe. (“Honey, come on! You live far away! You’re not related. You lift right out.”)

25. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, M*A*S*H
In the first three seasons of M*A*S*H, Loretta Swit’s Hot Lips served as the only intelligent foil to the anarchic Hawkeye and Trapper John. When she sputtered, “You’re ruining the war for everyone!” she was doing so as a rational person driven by frustration to say something stupid (in contrast to Larry Linville’s idiotic Frank Burns). But after her affair with Frank ended and Linville left the show, Houlihan dropped her nickname, kept her legs closed, got an anachronistic 1970s hair style, and became more sympathetic to Hawkeye’s anti-war point of view. Essentially, Swit stopped playing a character and simply appeared as herself (or, at least, the talk- and game-show version of herself). At this point, there was no one left to mount a spirited challenge to Alan Alda’s increasingly tiresome and self-righteous portrayal of Hawkeye, and M*A*S*H got more and more self-impressed and smug.

27. Doug Wilson, Weeds
At the beginning of Weeds, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) was a suburban pot dealer who struggled with making her business successful enough to support herself and her two sons. She was aided in part by Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon), a lovably loutish city councilman who bought pot from Nancy and eventually helped her set up a client base, develop a front, and launder money. Doug’s usefulness started to decline in season four, however, when Nancy fled Agrestic and began living life on the run. Earlier in the series, Doug was useful to Nancy as a business partner, but he eventually became a liability, as he proved inept at handling a medical marijuana dispensary, ended up kidnapped by Nancy’s rivals, and eventually followed the Botwins to Copenhagen and then to New York, even though none of the Botwins seemed to particularly want him around. Most recently, Doug has been fired from the firm partnering with Nancy’s business, making him less useful to the show and to Nancy herself, and his behavior, like groping Nancy’s breasts while she lies in a coma, has become unnecessarily, increasingly gross.

28. Will Schuester, Glee
Once upon a time, Glee was Will Schuester’s show. Matthew Morrison’s character served as the audience’s entry point into the world of McKinley High, and that vantage gave the show a sad, somber center amid the candy-coated musical numbers. But a Glee with Will at the center ultimately wasn’t the show Ryan Murphy and/or Fox wanted. So as the show shifted its focus away from the adults toward the kids, Will’s real purpose inside the show suffered. Episodes that now try to deal with his life (either battling his own teaching ineptitude or his horrible, ginger-supremacist soon-to-be in-laws) feel jarring, almost as if Will’s trying to regain the long-lost spotlight. He even had to have the glee-club kids propose marriage for him. This isn’t a slam against Morrison, who, like so many of the actors on this show, does the best with what he’s given. But if Glee’s fourth season featured Charlie Brown’s offscreen, unintelligible teacher running New Directions, would anyone really mind at this point?

29. Dawson Leery, Dawson’s Creek
Finally, there’s the exceedingly rare case of a series’ main character eventually becoming pointless. At first, the entire world of Dawson’s Creek revolved around James Van Der Beek’s titular character. His friendship with each member of the show’s central group was the only element threading the group together at all. But once the show’s original Dawson/Jen/Joey love triangle died out, the writers exiled him into a graveyard of dull storylines and unmemorable romances after the show’s second season. As the other characters built friendships and romances with each other, Dawson… painted houses that one time? At one point the writers were forced to kill off Dawson’s dad just to give the titular character a storyline. By the end of the show’s run, Dawson receded to the background as more of a supporting player, while Joey and Pacey took the bulk of the show’s major plotlines. By the show’s end, Dawson had become a Hollywood success, but an afterthought on his own show.