1. Frank Grimes, The Simpsons
TV fans who watch a series week to week will inevitably start to think of the characters in that series in somewhat intimate terms—as people they might be friends with if those people existed in real life. Yet most TV characters are extremely heightened versions of real-life types, and usually, they’re heightened in ways that would be incredibly irritating to encounter in real life. Enter the hapless guest star, forced to contend with the series regular, whose buffoonery becomes especially outsized for that episode. See: Frank “Grimey” Grimes, a work-a-day schlub who’s forced to share workspace with Homer Simpson in the classic Simpsons episode “Homer’s Enemy.” Homer’s lackadaisical approach to life and his extreme string of good luck drive ol’ Grimey off the deep end, with tragic results. It’s as if a realistically drawn character with constantly defeated hopes and dreams wandered into a cartoon universe and was punished for doing so, through absolutely no fault of his own. Episodes like this skew toward the dark, but “Homer’s Enemy” is one of the darkest.
2. Lyle Korman, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Many of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s one-shot and recurring characters have a Frank Grimes feel to them, simply because the central fivesome is so bizarre and loathsome that almost anyone seems rational compared to them. Critic Lyle Korman (Fisher Stevens) pans Paddy’s Pub in the episode “Paddy’s Pub: The Worst Bar In Philadelphia,” and the gang kidnaps him to try and coerce him into writing a better review. Throughout, they try to convince him they’re not the white-trash scum he’s taken them for, but with each minute, things get weirder and weirder: He’s taped to a chair, Mac and Charlie have to manually help him pee, and Dennis and Dee kidnap his neighbor because he asked “too many questions.” It’s not hard to tell what’s wrong with the characters of It’s Always Sunny, but watching others realize it is one of the show’s greatest pleasures.
3. Multiple passers-through, The Andy Griffith Show
Mayberry was never as nutsy a society as Hooterville or Springfield or any of the other TV burgs where the eccentrics run the show, but more than once on The Andy Griffith Show, outsiders found themselves baffled by this sleepy North Carolina town, with its relaxed pace and gunless sheriff. Whether it’s the state official who threatens to get Andy and Barney fired for their slackness in “The Inspector,” the big-city dame who decides to make a fool of the sheriff in “Andy And The Woman Speeder,” or the businessman annoyed that he has to wait so long to get his car repaired in “Man In A Hurry,” non-Mayberrians are often at a loss with how the world works so far removed the hustle and bustle of the big towns—you know, like Mount Pilot.
4. Angie, Cougar Town
Cougar Town’s cul-de-sac crew has its patterns down pat. The members hang around Jules’ house, play some Penny Can, and pound lots of grape. But there’s a hugely twisted, borderline incestuous aspect to this as well, and when Bobby Cobb starts dating Travis’ teacher Angie (played by Scrubs alum Sarah Chalke) in the third season, the oddness starts to present itself through Angie’s observations. In order to help Bobby overcome his initial shyness, Jules employs the group to construct the perfect date for the guy. Instead, their constant intervention shows how co-dependent the crew appears from the outside. It doesn’t help that Jules, Bobby’s ex, is the mastermind of the plan. Nor does it help when Angie realizes Jules’ newest fiancé is good friends with her old one. “Things… sound strange when you say them out loud,” Grayson notes at one point during the awkward double date. Maybe that’s why the crew so often forgoes talking in favor of drinking.
5. Victor Shapone, Cheers
Sometimes, it’s just one character who raises the ire of a guest star, rather than a whole universe of characters. Witness poor Victor Shapone, who has the misfortune to wander into Cheers and sit across from Cliff Clavin in the second-season episode “Cliff’s Rocky Moment.” Victor, tired of hearing Cliff’s answer to every single question, finally blows up at the know-it-all mailman, then challenges him to a fight. The rest of the episode involves Cliff’s schemes to get out of that fight, for the most part, but the early going provides just a hint of why Victor flew off the handle at the seemingly harmless Cliff. For every question, Cliff has an answer (often a wrong one), and he’s not afraid to interject it. It seems lovable to viewers who visit Cheers every week, but to someone not indoctrinated in the bar’s ways, it seems nuts. (Another “normal” person forced to put up with Cliff’s bluster? Alex Trebek, who manages to endure Clavin’s stint on Jeopardy! without challenging him to a brawl.)
6. Harry Hamilton, Fawlty Towers
John Cleese’s masterpiece Fawlty Towers is easy to mistake for a one-joke show. In fact, it’s a two-joke show. The primary joke is that Basil Fawlty, the egocentric, abusively hot-tempered hotel manager, is the worst possible person for his job, but it’s complemented by the joke that the polite, mild-mannered Brits who are his usual customers will tolerate almost any amount of incompetence and rudeness, rather than risk making a scene. In the episode “Waldorf Salad,” Basil meets his match in Harry Hamilton, a brash, straight-shooting American who doesn’t stand for shoddy service and threatens to “bust the ass” of anyone who gets in between him and such exotic delights as the titular salad and a screwdriver (which, Basil is dumbfounded to learn, is some kind of drink). When Hamilton calls Basil on his shit in front of the other guests, they become infected with his insurrectionary spirit and start speaking up, too. It’s like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in reverse, with a laugh track.
7. The employees of Dunder Mifflin Stamford, The Office (U.S.)
When events in The Office’s second season conspire to send Jim Halpert to his employer’s Stamford, Connecticut, branch, the move is portrayed as an escape—from unrequited love, from a stifling work environment, and from an incompetent (if well-meaning) manager. Jim’s work life in the Constitution State is downright idyllic compared to the corporate drudgery he knew in Pennsylvania; selling paper ain’t so bad with a harbor view and a romantic interest played by Rashida Jones. Unsurprisingly, when the branches merge near the midpoint of the show’s third season, the Stamford transfers take to Scranton like a poorly matched donor kidney (or an ex-con forced to sit through a visit from Michael Scott’s ne’er-do-well alter ego, Prison Mike). Most leave within a matter of episodes; today, only loose-cannon salesman Andy Bernard remains—and he’s the manager. He was always more Scranton than Stamford, though.
8. Takayuki, The Middle
Watching the Hecks every week is a blast, but living with them? That’s a whole different story, as Matthew Moy’s taciturn Japanese foreign-exchange student Takayuki discovers in the second-season episode “Foreign Exchange.” Fresh off the plane, he looks tired and shy, but as the days go on, it’s clear Takayuki just doesn’t fit in. The toaster breakfasts, fast-food TV dinners, and nonstop gab that are a way of life for the Heck kids clearly put off their guest. More than that, though, Takayuki is responding to the casual selfishness that defines the lovable, stressful Heck family: Axl uses him as bait for hot girls at school, Brick uses him as an encyclopedia of Japanese culture, and matriarch Frankie signed up for the program in the first place simply to teach her kids a lesson. But the real lesson is that the Hecks would drive anyone crazy. In the end, however, Takayuki brings some of their behaviors back home. It’s Sitcom 101, but it’s also a wink to the audience that sees the charm underneath the frazzled routines of the Heck lifestyle.
9. The companions’ boyfriends, Doctor Who
The modern-era Doctor Who has been filled with several classic iterations of The Doctor and an equal number of compelling companions. But it’s also featured a third element: a string of befuddled boyfriends. When Rose takes off with the Ninth Doctor, she leaves behind Mickey Smith, with whom The Doctor is unimpressed. (Mickey returns the sentiment.) A few years later, Amy Pond joins the 11th Doctor on the night before her wedding to Rory Williams. Both Doctors pose both logistical and romantic obstacles for Mickey and Rory, who rejoin their lost loves after several adventures with The Doctor. And both boyfriends offer a window into the craziness of traveling with The Doctor from someone who otherwise has his feet firmly on terra firma. Interestingly, while both men initially complain about the horrifically dangerous life that comes from travelling with a Time Lord, both soon find heroic resources within themselves. Rather than looking on in shock while their girlfriends swoop into danger, both soon take a proactive stance in not only saving the day, but all of time.
10. Bob Hartley, Newhart
Bob Newhart’s second long-running sitcom, in which he played an innkeeper named Dick Loudon, was a ratings hit as soon as it premièred. But it didn’t begin to turn into a vehicle worthy of its star until late in its second season, after a cast shake-up that helped the show get in touch with its inner Green Acres. The characters and events surrounding the deadpan Newhart became ever stranger and more surreal, until the legendary conclusion of the series finale, when it was revealed that the entire series was a dream experienced by the hero of Newhart’s first long-running sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. “I was an innkeeper in this crazy little town in Vermont,” Newhart babbles to his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette). “Nothing made sense in this place!” But it does make perfect sense that buttoned-down psychiatrist Bob Hartley should have the last word on Dick Loudon’s world, because if it hadn’t been for the success of the earlier show, Newhart itself probably wouldn’t have been given the time it needed to find its daffy soul.
11. Jessie Bowers, Arrested Development
Throughout its three-season run, Arrested Development was dogged by criticisms that its central characters, the members of the Bluth family, weren’t “relatable.” Of course, that was part of the point: Arrested Development is a farce, and the Bluths are intended as caricatures of the rich and entitled at their very worst. The family’s petty, envious, and/or selfish behavior was a weekly punchline, but it required a one-off guest player to tell the Bluths they were terrible people to their faces: Jessie Bowers (played by Jill Ritchie), a publicist and temporary love interest for golden boy Michael. In the episode “Public Relations,” Jessie attempts to rehabilitate the family’s public perception through a series of news stories and appearances—though overly mothered odd duck Buster is ordered to stay out of sight. In traditional Arrested Development fashion, however, Jessie’s actions only serve to embellish the family’s misbehavior. To paraphrase Bluth matriarch Lucille, they’re allowed to be horrible to one another: After all, they’re family.
12. Todd, Community
The study group at the center of Community might seem wacky, warm, and wonderful to viewers who follow its adventures every week, but to an outsider forced to work with its members, the whole situation might seem just a little co-dependent. That’s what happens to Todd (David Neher), a Greendale Community College student forced to work with the group when the seven members need an eighth to pair off for a biology project in the third-season episode “Competitive Ecology.” Todd starts out with the best of intentions, and he seems like a stand-up guy—what with being a war veteran and a new father. Yet as the night wears on and nothing gets done, Todd grows more and more despondent at the weirdoes he’s had to hang out with. They’re awful people, he exclaims, but they don’t care what he has to say. Him or his dumb baby.
13. Real Families TV crew, WKRP In Cincinnati
WKRP In Cincinnati’s prescient satire of what would come to be called “reality TV” features Herb Tarlek, WKRP’s vulgar, sexist oaf of a sales manager, who is meant to be a consummate asshole but, in classic sitcom tradition, also sort of lovable. Tarlek and his wife and kids are featured on the hit TV series Real Families (a fantasy mash-up of An American Family and Real People), and, having rehearsed their self-images and coached Herb’s co-workers, they do their damndest to come across as wonderfully average Americans. But the show is after something “real,” so the crew members systematically tear down the web of illusions and denial that makes Herb’s life endurable, exposing him as an unlovable jerk with a lousy job and a dysfunctional home. Broken and humiliated, Herb’s only way of asserting some small degree of control over his life is to tell off the film crew and throw them out of his house. But at the end, he and his family, wreathed in phony smiles, are in the studio, talking about what a thrill it was to be part of the show. Whatever you have to do to be on TV, it’s worth it.
14. Latka’s version of Alex Rieger, Taxi
Taxi is famed for being one of the darkest sitcoms to ever make it on network TV. Set in the grimy New York of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the series is all about a bunch of cabbies with big dreams that will never come true. The only cabbie content to just be a cabbie is Alex Rieger, the show’s central character, who wants nothing more than to take fares for the rest of his life. In season four’s “Mr. Personalities,” however, the garage’s mechanic, Latka, an immigrant afflicted with multiple-personality disorder, begins showing off a new personality he’s developed: that of Alex himself. Latka’s version of Alex seems designed solely to point out how worthless Alex would be in real life. His friends always take advantage of him, and the advice he gives—right down to the advice he just gave to fellow cabbie Tony at the episode’s onset—is often incredibly poor. In fact, Latka-Alex is better at living Alex’s life than the actual Alex. Alex’s place as the show’s center is re-established by episode’s end, but no one really refutes Latka-Alex’s criticisms of the man. Sometimes, being the nice guy everybody turns to is its own kind of curse.
15. Reed, Happy Endings
Penny Hartz, played by Casey Wilson, quickly became the first breakout character of Happy Endings, thanks in part to her detailed, animated style. Her affectations became shibboleths for Happy Endings fans, from the vaguely defined “Year Of Penny” to the vaguely European “amah-zing.” But every joke has its limits, and the Happy Endings gang was already pushing it with their fast-talking banter. Fearing burnout, season two pointedly scaled Penny back, with Penny’s friends making fun of her self-styled catchphrase and the writers chaining her to a boring old “amazing,” but the point was subtle. Enter Mo Mandel’s Reed. Penny tries to break up with him due to an annoying habit of his, but he beats her to the punch, because he just can’t stand her speaking style, giving voice to those fans who think she would be obnoxious in real life. Reed is audience surrogacy at its finest, a fair, funny auto-critique that has its cake—delivering, “abbreves,” “full hysterecto,” and “amah-zing” in quick succession—and devours it, too.
16. Fred Beamer, The Rockford Files
Most of the series that use this Inventory’s trope are sitcoms, but a handful of dramas have used it as well. The Rockford Files, starring James Garner as a laid-back, conflict-averse detective who lives in a trailer on the beach, embraces the storytelling virtues of the classic West Coast-noir of Chandler and Hammett while openly ridiculing the tired clichés of the genre. But what would someone who still believes in those clichés, and doesn’t understand why anyone who doesn’t believe in them would want to be a detective, make of Rockford’s life? Enter Fred Beamer (played by the great, potato-faced character actor James Whitmore, Jr.), a pitiful, mouth-breathing car mechanic who adopts Rockford’s identity while the P.I. is out of town and proceeds to get both of them involved in a dangerous case. When Rockford tries to talk to Beamer man-to-man, all he gets are lectures about how he ought to be more glamorous and macho and romantic. Rockford finally can’t take it anymore and explodes, yelling at his police-sergeant pal: “He reads that stuff, Dennis. He is 100 percent chucklehead!” He really sounds fed up, as if he, too, has read that stuff, maybe in notes full of helpful suggestions from network executives.
17. Eddie Van Blundht, The X-Files
It would make sense for someone who looks like David Duchovny to use that fact to his every advantage. Why, then, does Fox Mulder live a life that seems so, well, loser-y? The X-Files both points out how monastic and depressing Mulder’s life is and makes fun of that very fact in the darkly comedic fourth-season episode “Small Potatoes,” in which shape-shifting janitor Eddie Van Blundht locks Mulder in a room and takes over his life, wandering around his apartment in confusion at how bland it is, realizing Mulder has no friends, and hilariously whipping out Mulder’s badge to say, “Eff. Bee. Eye.” The pinnacle, though, is the moment when Blundht-as-Mulder goes over to the apartment of Dana Scully to get drunk and shoot the shit. Scully’s a bit amazed her partner—normally taciturn about all things non-alien-related—wants to listen to her stories about the prom. When he goes in for a kiss, however, the door bursts open, revealing the real Mulder. The smooth man who cared about her thoughts? That was just an illusion. Here’s the real buzzkill in the flesh.
18. Hardware store employee, The Wire
It’s easy to root for Felicia “Snoop” Pearson throughout her first season on The Wire. Even while dropping Barksdale soldiers, Snoop’s so unusual for a gang enforcer, and so good at taking everything in stride, that she quickly became a fan favorite. But the opening scene of season four subverts that cool by reminding the audience what it would be like to deal with Snoop in real life. She walks into a hardware store with a used nail-gun and sets it on a shelf just in time for an employee to ask if she needs any help. The audience catches on to Snoop’s meaning before the employee—she mentions having five “jobs” last month—but gradually, it dawns on him that he’s not dealing with a construction worker. The look on his face as Snoop casually describes the efficacy of a low-caliber gun stands in for the audience. This isn’t just a fun, exciting character; in the world of The Wire, Snoop is a murderer. She gives the employee a hefty tip for his time and walks out the door, but that uncomfortable expression lingers through the credits.
19. Oliver Quayle, Murder She Wrote
It’s the oldest joke in the book when it comes to TV detectives: Why does death seem to follow them around like a supporting cast member in their own show? It’s easy enough to suspend disbelief each week, but give it some serious thought and it seems more and more unlikely that a middle-aged mystery author would constantly be forced to solve murders no one else could crack. Attorney Oliver Quayle (a very funny Patrick McGoohan) attempts to turn that idea back on Jessica Fletcher in “Witness For The Defense,” a fourth-season episode of Murder She Wrote. On the stand to testify in support of a friend accused of killing his wife, Jessica falls under a barrage of questions from Quayle designed to cast doubt on her testimony. Even better, all of the questions refer to previous events in the show. Just why was she committed to a mental hospital? And why have so many of her family members been convicted for murder? Is her family tree simply littered with “homicidal maniacs”? The moment’s preposterous, but McGoohan wrings every laugh out of the situation—and out of the audience’s desire to ask Jessica those questions.
20. The mobsters, Party Down
For every TV trope, there’s an inverted version, and the “Frank Grimes” trope is no different. The classic Party Down episode “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” is the finest example of that inversion. The series takes pains to make the lives of its aspiring Hollywood cater-waiters as depressing as possible: They’re mostly treated like garbage by their clients, if not ignored outright. But for one beautiful night, everyone is celebrated as the star they dream to be, even if it is by a bunch of deranged Armenian mobsters. People in the show regularly recognize Henry (Adam Scott) from an advertising campaign, but in “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh,” Casey (Lizzy Caplan) gets props for her standup showcase, Kyle (Ryan Hansen) for his guest spot on Greek, and Constance (Jane Lynch) for her alluring performance in the Porky’s rip-off Dingleberries. Even though there’s a strong hint of menace to the whole episode, the gang can’t help but revel in the attention just for one party. For once, the guest stars are the ones deluded about the awesomeness of the regular characters. The series’ stars—and the audience at home—know the truth, at least deep down.