Lead characters are generally quite overrated. It’s the supporting cast that gets all the love. Lead characters are expected to carry the whole show. There’s a lot of pressure on them. They’re the head of the family or the voice of reason or the guy telling his kids how he met their mother or the guy leading the group of survivors through zombie-infested America. Lead characters have to play it straight. The supporting characters are just along for the ride. They’re there to be wacky and outlandish and steal scenes. Lead characters don’t steal scenes because they are the scenes. You can’t steal scenes from yourself. But if you’re Barney Stinson, you can steal scenes from Ted Mosby, and if you’re Eric Cartman, you can steal scenes from Stan Marsh. There’s a long, rich history of supporting characters upstaging the lead in TV shows. They are often called the “breakout character” of the show. This term partly comes from the fact that no one expected them to be so popular – like Seth MacFarlane with Stewie Griffin, for example – so it’s a surprise that they ‘break out,’ so to speak. Here are the 15 greatest supporting characters from TV shows who went on to become everybody’s favorite.
15. Ben Linus
Ben Linus is sort of like the Negan of Lost. He’s the bad guy who came into the show by doing some terrible things to some protagonists that we really liked, and yet we couldn’t resist his charms and he became one of our favorite characters. TV Guide put him on their list of the 25 Greatest TV Characters of All Time, while he topped Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 40 Greatest TV Villains of All Time. That’s some high praise for the guy who was only intended for a short run on the series – he ended up lasting until the much-anticipated series finale! Michael Emerson played the role brilliantly by leaning into his devilish nature, his penchant for slyly manipulating people, and his eerie style of communication, and he was duly rewarded with critical praise and showered with awards.
New Girl was never supposed to focus too heavily on Schmidt. New Girl was supposed to be a show about Jessica Day. She is the new girl in the apartment, after all. Well, she was the new girl seven years ago, but she’s not so new anymore. The Schmidt character was merely one of the three dudes she was living with, and his character began primarily as a douche. The character was only there so that every word out of his mouth could make the other characters’ eyes roll. But soon enough, Max Greenfield’s charm had won the audiences over, and he became the general favorite character of the show’s fans. He’s a kimono-wearing, money-splurging, Ford Flex-driving, hard-partying, womanizing, feral cat-fearing germophobe, and we can’t get enough of him.
Henry Winkler’s cool cat character Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli on Happy Days began life on the show as a fringe character, featured on the sidelines, never really getting any storylines. But he very rapidly became the most popular character, and subsequently the central focus of the show. Winkler’s name was quickly moved up the ranks to second billing. The network executives wanted to bill his name first, but he refused to be named above Ron Howard, the show’s true star (in the more traditional sense). At one point, those same executives wanted to rename the entire show to call it Fonzie’s Happy Days in an attempt to drum up even more popularity – that’s how huge this character was. He carried the whole show on his shoulders.
Urkel was only supposed to appear on Family Matters once, in its first season. That was it. He was supposed to be a one-off, and then he would’ve disappeared into the aether forever. But he proved to be so popular that he was promoted to series regular by season 2, and went on to become the main character of the show. Now, you can’t think about Family Matters without thinking about Urkel. “Did I do that?” is one of the most iconic sitcom catchphrases of all time. Urkel is a classic geek, what with the huge, thick-rimmed glasses, the suspenders, the flood pants, the cardigan sweaters, and he’s desperately in love with a girl who doesn’t love him back. We can all relate to Urkel’s plight in some way or another.
11. Dwight Schrute
Much of the success of the American version of The Office rests on the shoulders of Michael Scott. Steve Carell’s performance as the sweet and lovable, yet painfully awkward regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in Scranton is what made the show great and a must-see. But it was Rainn Wilson as the oddball salesman Dwight Schrute, the farmer who’s obsessed with bears, beets, and Battlestar Galactica, that really shined through and became everybody’s favorite character. When Carell left the show and there was no more Michael Scott, The Office was still worth tuning in for every week, because Dwight was still sitting there next to Jim, getting pranked and starting fire drills and using his survival instincts to get through the working day.
10. Ron Swanson
Played by Nick Offerman, Ron Swanson is the curmudgeonly government worker who does not believe in the system of a government. When the creators of Parks and Recreation were conducting their research for the writing of their series, they found that a lot of local government workers share the attitude of Ron Swanson. This is where truly great comedy characters come from, when they’re rooted in a real life person or group of people. John Cleese based Basil Fawlty on the owner of a hotel he once stayed in. Ricky Gervais based David Brent on his old boss. But it doesn’t end there. Ron would be nothing without the hilarious deadpan performance given by the great mustachioed Nick Offerman. All of this combines to give us the show’s breakout character.
9. Sheldon Cooper
I know what you must be thinking. Sheldon Cooper?! Supporting character?! But he’s the lead! Well, that’s what you think now, because he has since been given center stage and become the star of the show. But it wasn’t always like that. If you go back to season 1, The Big Bang Theory was never really about Sheldon. It was the story of the awkward nerd Leonard as he attempted to woo his new next door neighbor Penny, and his roommate Sheldon was merely there to provide the occasional bit of comic relief. But Sheldon resonated with audiences more, so Leonard was sidelined and Sheldon was made the lead of the show. Now, according to IGN, the show wouldn’t be the same without him: “It’s hard to imagine what The Big Bang Theory would be if it weren’t for Jim Parsons’ great portrayal of Sheldon Cooper.”
8. Tyrion Lannister
There was never supposed to be a clear leading character in Game of Thrones. That’s the nature of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series it’s adapted from – the story is a big, vast, sprawling fantasy epic that spans many years, many lands, and many different characters. It was supposed to be an ensemble. However, after the first season, it became abundantly clear that Peter Dinklage’s downtrodden, heavily mocked, cynical, sarcastic, sharp-witted, wine-swilling character Tyrion Lannister was everybody’s favorite character by a wide margin. So, going forward, the writers tailored the show toward this and began to slowly turn the show from an ensemble to a Dinklage-led series with a huge cast of supporting characters. It’s fair to say that no one regrets this decision.
7. Roger the Alien
Objectively, on paper, Roger the Alien is a monstrous character – a truly horrifying specimen. He kills people and doesn’t care about it. He screws over and manipulates the people closest to him for his own personal gain. We also know that Roger is a sexual pervert from all the inappropriate touching, the comments he makes about people’s bodies, the flirting he does with young boys, the cameras he’s set up in the Smiths’ bathroom, and the heavy implications that he’s a rapist. So, trust Seth MacFarlane to make this character the most lovable and popular on a show. The odd combination of Roger’s camp nature, his creepy nature, his wimpiness, his alcoholism, and the fact he’s an alien mean that he’s always a joy to watch.
6. Captain Raymond Holt
It’s truly great comedy writing (and acting by Andre Braugher) when the funniest character on the show is the one who goes out of his way to be boring and unfunny. Captain Raymond Holt of the 99th Precinct of the NYPD comes in as the straight-laced polar opposite of the jokey, fun-loving Detective Jake Peralta. But audiences very quickly realized that there was a lot of fun to be found in the character of Holt, whose straight-faced, deadpan delivery of every line, total lack of expression, and penchant for all things boring make him by far the best character on the show. Also, extra points go to whenever Holt lets loose and surprises the audience by breaking character with an outcry of “Hot damn!” or a codename like Velvet Thunder. He was almost fired from the precinct and removed from the show at the end of season 2, but the writers wouldn’t be that dumb – he was back in the Nine-Nine in no time. And as if the character of Holt wasn’t great enough, he also empowers gay and black people by being both without any of the stereotypes of either, and by being smart, strong, and commanding.
5. Chloe O’Brian
24 was a monster hit TV show throughout the noughties for one simple reason: it was a show about American spies kicking terrorist ass that premiered about five minutes after the September 11 attacks. America was paranoid and needed a hero to look up to, to make them feel safe, and Jack Bauer was that hero. Kiefer Sutherland’s Bauer was in every single episode of the series across eight seasons and many supporting characters came and went, but none resonated more with audiences than the snarky Chloe O’Brian, played by standup comic Mary Lynn Rajskub. Chloe’s wise-cracking nature and extreme likability made the show a joy to watch, and that’s why she stuck around for more episodes that any other character (besides Bauer, of course). Chloe was introduced in season 3 and instantly solidified her status as a fan favorite that would continue for years to come. She was included on AOL’s list of the 100 Most Memorable Female TV Characters. In fact, a surveillance technology development program set up by Homeland Security was even named Project CHLOE after her.
4. Daryl Dixon
Daryl Dixon wasn’t even in The Walking Dead comics. The producers created a better-natured, more sympathetic brother for Merle after Norman Reedus auditioned for the role and he was just too damn likable. So, they personified that in a character and he went on to become almost the entire reason for the phenomenal success of The Walking Dead. He’s the reason it became the highest rated show on television. People go around with t-shirts that read, “If Daryl dies, we riot,” because they don’t want to lose the only reason they tune in every week. He’s a chopper-riding, crossbow-wielding, leather-clad redneck with a heart of gold. What’s not to love? TV Guide named him the best character on the show, highlighting his transformation from “selfish loner to an integral member of the survivors.”
3. Stewie Griffin
Everyone loves the sexually ambiguous talking baby on Family Guy. Can the family understand him? Can people outside the family understand him? Can neither? Is it only Brian? It doesn’t matter! What matters is that he’s everybody’s favorite character. When asked if he expected the enthusiastic response to Stewie’s character, his creator and voice actor Seth MacFarlane said, “No, no. I was very surprised. I thought that maybe Peter would be the character people would respond to—and they have—but really, Stewie and Brian have been the ones that have tested the highest. Stewie was a surprise, because I thought that maybe a small group of people would be amused by him, but he’s such a bizarre character, that if they weren’t, then it’s all right, because he wasn’t going to be a major character. But when he emerged as the breakout character, then there became the task of figuring out different types of stories to do with this baby.”
2. Eric Cartman
Who knew that an eight-year-old Archie Bunker would become such a beloved and popular character? Stan and Kyle actually learn lessons through episodes of South Park and grow as people, but audiences still love Cartman more than anyone else on the show. The combination of his constant racism, sexism, antisemitism, and other bigotries and his childlike innocence make one heck of a comedy cocktail, and we’ve been ordering doubles of it for more than twenty years. Here’s to twenty years more! Cartman was always a jerk, but the defining evolution of his character was in the episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” in which he solidified his position as the most evil, most diabolic, most unsettling human being on planet Earth, which is solid comedy gold.
1. Barney Stinson
Neil Patrick Harris made his name as a child star playing the young doctor Doogie Howser, and as with all child stars, it didn’t seem like he had much of a future as an adult. But that all changed when he played himself as a sleazy sex addict in Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies and scored himself the role of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, which had originally been earmarked for a John Belushi-type guy. Nine seasons of suiting up, video resumes, announcements made in the third person, attempted perfect weeks, sexual wordplay, bro code violations, and plays from the playbook were just what the doctor ordered. Barney was by far the show’s most popular character and the reason it was so successful. The character of Barney Stinson is, quite simply, legen – wait for it – dary.