Television’s frequently cited advantage over film is length. By nature, television shows are smaller stories that are woven into a larger narrative, which means there’s more time to develop plots or explore characters than there is in films. Viewers watch characters grow and change on TV in ways that they can’t in a two-hour film. However, this doesn’t mean that TV can’t do short and sweet either.
A character’s run on television might only last for a fraction of the series’ overall length – a series could run for seven seasons, but an important and memorable character is only in one of them. Despite this, their impact is so great that their presence, or lack of it, is felt across the rest of the series.
8 Richie Aprile – The Sopranos Season 2
David Chase was uncertain if The Sopranos would run more than a single season, but his doubts were quickly allayed. With Tony having emerged the solid victor over his Uncle Junior and disavowed his filicidal mother Livia, he needed a new antagonist. Richie Aprile (David Proval of Mean Streets) filled this role.
Having been in prison for 10 years, Richie was too ambitious and resentful for his own good, especially with Janice Soprano whispering in his ear. Ironically, she’s the one who proved his end, shooting him in anger after he struck her. Richie’s absence left a void that was filled by Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) in seasons 3 and 4.
7 Ned Stark – Game Of Thrones Season 1
When promoting season 1 of Game Of Thrones, author George R. R. Martin described Ned Stark as “the main character who [A Song Of Ice And Fire] revolves around.” Fans would soon learn at the end of season 1 what a lie that was. Too trusting of Cersei and betrayed by Littlefinger, Ned finds himself beheaded. His death kicks off events that shape the series until its end.
Though ASOIAF book readers knew what was coming, Game Of Thrones offset this by casting Sean Bean as Ned. He was one of the biggest names in the cast, but the series may have tipped its hand as Bean is famous for playing doomed characters. Ned’s fate showed viewers that no one was safe and was a prelude to many more deaths throughout Game Of Thrones.
6 Monica Rawling – The Shield Season 4
Airing on FX, The Shield proved that cable didn’t have to be the sole venue of prestige dramas. As the series went on, it attracted movie star level talent. One of The Shield’s most recognizable names was Glenn Close, who was part of the main cast during season 4. Close played Monica Rawling, the precinct’s new captain after David Aceveda resigns to sit on the city council.
Rawling makes an ally of Vic Mackey, but her tenure is controversial thanks to an asset forfeiture program she institutes and her enmity with drug kingpin Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson). Forced out by the end of the season, Rawling/Close paved the way for season 5’s antagonist, Internal Affairs Officer Jon Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker).
5 The Mayor – Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 3
Buffy The Vampire Slayer pioneered the seasonal Big Bad formula. The most impressive one is season 3’s Mayor Richard Wilkins III (Harry Groener). An immortal warlock who’s ruled Sunnydale for a century (Wilkins I and II were not his ancestors, but himself), Wilkins wishes to ascend to godhood.
Despite this, Wilkins is a genial man who forms a surrogate father-daughter bond with the rogue slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku), who ends up killing him. A cordial man who promotes family values yet is evil behind the scenes, Wilkins was a memorable Buffy character.
4 Doyle – Angel Season 1
The Buffy spin-off series, Angel, was no less shy about killing off characters. The show kills off one of its three main characters, the half-demon seer Doyle, in only episode 9. Doyle sacrifices his life to stop a demon cabal called the Scourge, and his death disrupts the cast’s dynamic.
Doyle passes on his visions to Cordelia, giving her new responsibility and furthering her growth. Luckily, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce arrives in LA and joins up to fill the void that Doyle left. There were plans to bring Doyle back, possibly as a villain, but actor Glenn Quinn’s tragic death ended those.
3 Francis Wolcott – Deadwood Season 2
Garrett Dillahunt plays three distinct characters in Deadwood. In season 1, he’s the coward Jack McCall, famous as the man who murdered famed gunslinger “Wild Bill” Hickok (Keith Carradine). In the belated movie, Dillahunt makes a cameo as an unnamed denizen of the town. His longest lasting role was Francis Wolcott, a geologist employed by mining magnate George Hearst. A smug sadist with a habit of murdering sex workers, Wolcott was a loathsome character.
Pondering himself, Wolcott delivers one of Deadwood’s best soliloquies: “Past hope. Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become.” Wolcott ends his own life by the season’s end, but his arrival forebodes that of Hearst himself.
2 Tasha Yar – Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1
Generally, Star Trek was not one for permanently killing off its characters (at least during the 20th century). The most famous one, Spock in The Wrath Of Khan, was reversed in the following movie. That made Tasha Yar’s death in The Next Generation’s first season stand out.
Denise Crosby was dissatisfied with the series and asked to leave; the series had one too many characters to begin with. However, The Next Generation gave her a send-off worthy of a red shirt in “Skin of Evil.” By season 3, TNG had seen a sharp turnaround. Crosby returned to play an alternate version of Yar in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and then her half-Romulan daughter Sela.
1 Todd Alquist – Breaking Bad Season 5
After Gus Fring’s death in Breaking Bad’s fourth season, it seemed doubtful that the series could create a comparable villain. Vince Gilligan and his writing team proved these expectations wrong. Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) initially seems unassuming, even affable for a criminal. Then, in “Dead Freight,” he shoots a child witness without missing a beat.
His uncle Jack also turns out to be a big shot in the Aryan Brotherhood and becomes a major villain for Breaking Bad’s last leg. When Jesse finally strangled Todd in “Felina,” audiences cheered. In a real life underdog story, Jesse Plemons has had one of the most prosperous careers of the show’s cast since the series ended.