NEW YORK — Critics say we’re in an era called Peak TV, with hundreds of original scripted streaming, cable and broadcast series competing for eyeballs.
But even in a peak era, some peak characters emerge.
These are some of the fictional folk we’ll look back respectfully on when we think of the 2010s.
Only a month after “The Sopranos” ended, AMC took a chance by debuting a ’60s period piece set in a New York ad agency filled with guys who took three-martini lunches and had trysts with secretaries. It was “Mad Men” and its anti-hero was the manly, forever mysterious Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. The show was an indictment of the soul-crushing nature of commercialization set in the Eisenhower years, before the counterculture and the sexual revolution. Soon after it debuted, men across the country aped Draper by wearing slim suits with skinny ties and knocking back whiskeys. Watching the world change around Draper was one of TV’s pleasures of the decade.
Six months after Don Draper showed up, AMC took another risk with Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who transformed over five seasons from a decent guy in a desperate situation into a cold, vengeful, murderous drug lord who said things like: “I am the danger. I am the one who knocks.” The show won 16 Emmys, including multiple acting wins for Cranston. Even more than Draper, White took the baton of the anti-hero lead actor from “The Sopranos” and ran with it, becoming a monster and sprinting into an era of Prestige TV.
Another noted TV Lothario lit up the screen for nine seasons aboard CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother.” That would be Barney Stinson, the high-fiving seducer of women fond of saying “Challenge accepted!” The role reinvented Neil Patrick Harris, who made the transition in the nation’s psyche from child star Doogie Howser to someone who looks up to the sky and says: “God, it’s me, Barney. What up? I know we don’t talk much, but I know a lot of girls call out your name because of me.” The Barney Stinson Effect also was born — it claims men are more attractive in suits — but he’d be held up as an example of toxic masculinity by the end of the decade.
Sorry, her full name is Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons. In the hands of Emilia Clarke, Dany went from a young girl sold into marriage into a fierce, stately queen. She ruled multiple cities, freed thousands of slaves, built powerful armies and, finally, sat on the Iron Throne, if only briefly. Dany stunned when she hatched three dragons and saved Jon Snow from the Night King’s army, prompting many Halloween costumes. But good and evil were often blurred as this fearsome woman went on the march.
THE DOWAGER COUNTESS
Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet Crawley may not have been central to every twist at “Downton Abbey,” but she pretty much hijacked every scene she was in. The countess was witty, sarcastic and dryly resigned over all six of the show’s seasons. She made chilly and imperious somehow hysterical. “Don’t be defeatist dear,” she once counseled. “It’s very middle class.” Ethically, the countess was a tad dangerous: “Principles are like prayers: Noble of course, but awkward at a party.” She helped PBS reach some of the largest audiences in its history and won three Emmys in the role.
HBO turned to politics in 2012 with “Seinfeld” alumnus Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing vulgar Vice President Selina Meyer on “Veep.” She was a narcissist and bungled one thing after another, from data leaks to campaigning. Somehow, we always ended up rooting for her. (Her sharp lines didn’t hurt. Here’s one: “If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”) The first few seasons explored public missteps and filthy political dealings. But as President Donald Trump emerged, the show’s writers had to rethink what was absurd when it came to politicians. Louis-Dreyfus became the first actress to win the comedy Emmy acting award six times in a row for the same role.
DR. MEREDITH GREY
“Grey’s Anatomy” has become TV’s longest-running medical drama and that’s largely thanks to Ellen Pompeo, who started on the ABC show in 2005 and doesn’t seem to be leaving anytime soon. Pompeo is the show’s heart and soul. Over the seasons, she’s donated part of her liver to her estranged father, adopted a child and had her own, she endured the death of her husband, helped remove a bomb implanted in a man’s torso and ended up in jail. The show kept entering popular culture, whether with nicknames — McDreamy and McSteamy, among them — or by tackling issues like white privilege, a broken insurance system and fair pay. It’s created spin-offs and made stars of Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl and Kate Walsh, to name a few. Behind it all was creator Shonda Rhimes, on her way to world domination.
The Oval Office was also the backdrop to another key character of the decade, Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope. Over seven seasons, the juicy drama “Scandal” shifted from a scandal-of-the-week format to a dark examination at the widespread corruption that underlies the government. Pope was a rare female antihero in a Tom Ford power suit. She fixed a presidential election, she bludgeoned a paraplegic to death with a metal chair and blew up a plane full of innocent people in order to kill the president of a fictional Middle Eastern country. Washington proved a woman of color could lead a mainstream TV show and Rhimes, the show’s creator, proved unstoppable.
The White House was also the setting for another ethically challenged female leader in her own dark political drama: “House of Cards.” Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood was always the show’s most enigmatic character and when she became president at the end of season five, she said “My turn” directly to the camera. Season six was hers after accusations of sexual misconduct against its star Kevin Spacey got him kicked off the show. Claire ends the show pregnant, enduring a nuclear crisis and fights off an assault with a letter opener by her husband’s fixer. Murder is the final act.
“The Good Wife” started in 2009 with a slap. In a hallway away from cameras, Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick smacked her philandering politician husband. For the next several seasons we watched her pull out from the shadow of her husband and forge a new identity. She became a junior lawyer, left the safety of her law firm to strike out on her own and then became a political player herself by running for state’s attorney. Each week, the legal procedural/domestic drama showed how Florrick negotiated her competing needs and desires all while raising two children. Her reward was often a nice big glass of wine.
The moment we first saw her — with that shaved head, tattered hospital gown and affinity for french fries — we wanted to protect Eleven. Millie Bobby Brown’s character on “Stranger Things” had been kidnapped and raised in a lab where her inherited psychokinetic abilities were exploited. After escaping, she was saved by a trio of pals and nicknamed Eleven (El for short) after the number tattooed on her arm. She can move objects with her mind (and get nosebleeds as a result). She can fight Demogorgons in the Upside Down. She can fall in love with a boy and get hurt by that same boy. She is the most human character on a show about the supernatural.
A TV show set in a fundamentalist theocracy where women and minorities are stripped of all rights and children are ripped from their mothers’ arms doesn’t seem like a natural hit. But Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” — led by the ferocious Elisabeth Moss — arrived during the first anxious months of Trump’s presidency. Adopted by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the plight of Offred became a symbol of resistance, with the handmaids’ uniform co-opted by protesters at courthouses, on marches and in Hollywood itself.
We know, we know: How can anyone highlight just one character from the fabulous ensemble of “This Is Us”? But, after much debate, the show’s warm and gooey center has to be the responsible, overthinking and slightly neurotic Randall, thanks to the nuanced brilliance of Sterling K. Brown. The adopted son of white parents, Randall brings real feeling to the show’s discussions about anxiety disorders, child welfare, racial politics and interracial adoption. Basically, if Randall’s OK, we’re OK. As he once said: “We are perfect together. We are perfectly imperfect.”