My Top HBO Characters of All Time

Being 2 discs away from finishing 6 Feet Under via Netflix I was thinking of how amazing the roster of HBO shows has been.  This also happened because I was watching Lost last night and thought, “Wow, this is supposed to be one of the best shows on Network television and it is basically a big budget mediocrity.”  Other than The West Wing and Arrested Development I don’t think I have seen anything on Network television to compare with HBO’s level of quality (all due respect to the CSI fans who adore that crappy franchise).  AMC is doing some good things (the slightly overrated Mad men and the very under-praised Breaking Bad), but HBO really is the cream of the crop (even though True Blood and Big Love, the two flagships shows at this point, are not close to the incredible things HBO produced last decade).  And I know that some people out there love Showtime, but having watched several episodes of Showtime shows they feel like a good junior varsity team to HBO’s state title winning varsity. 

So without any more explanations or caveats here are my top 13 HBO characters of all time (apologies in advance to the Crypt Keeper, the cast of Not Necessarily The News, everybody from Dream On (terrible) and The Larry Sanders Show (never saw it, but heard it was good stuff back in the day):

13) (tie) Dennis Hof – Cathouse and Lafayette – True Blood.  This is the only reality character on the list, but how can a guy who looks like Rush Limbaugh and acts like pre-wheelchair Larry Flynt not be on the list.  the Cathouse series, which follows a real life Nevada brothel features many women have sex, which is a relief because at least when you turn it on ou know what you are getting, as opposed to the HBO Real Sex series which could just as soon ambush you with a segment on nursing home gang bangs as they could with attractive women.  Dennis is the supreme scumbag that makes the show go with his array of women from the daddy issue-riddled, to the tranny looking one to the midget.  One thing is obvious – he has had sex with all of them.

Don't be fooled by her smile - he's definitely fu-king her.

Speaking to HBO’s diversity, Lafayette, the drug dealing, sassy gay black short-order cook/male prostitute on True Blood is only the first of two gay black men on this short list.

Hooker please.

12) Murray – Flight of the Conchords – The show’s first season was very good.  The second season was incredibly mediocre.  With all due respect to Jemaine – Murray was the extremely poor man’s Ari Gold on this show, literally.  Sadly, the actor that plays Murray is intent on beating the dead horse in a series of new commercials for some product where he is basically playing the same character, but with far fewer laughs.

Murray? Present.

11) Ralphie – The Sopranos. Sadly Ralphie only got two seasons on The Sopranos (3 & 4), but he won an Emmy for the second one and created a character hated above all in his first season and then, once accepted, became the funniest character on the show.  For me, his signature line will be after being confronted by Tony Soprano after beating to death a stripper carrying his child he simply yelled, “First of all she was a whoooour!”

Bad temper, good sense of humor - it's me!

10) Samantha – Sex and the City.  It would be hard, even for a misogynist, to leave off all characters from HBO’s third most popular show of all time. So I picked Samantha, who turned man-like sexual cravings into “empowerment” for women ages 17-60.  My favorite scene of hers may have been when she was dating Smith, a model who would be more likely to visit Samantha in the course of volunteer work at a nursing home than to actually bed her, and she runs into her ex-boyfriend Richard at a party. In front of Smith she goes upstairs with Richard and gets railed from behind and then comes down crying to Smith, saying “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”  Message? Empowerment.

That's the number of sexual partners Sam Jones established as meaning "empowered."

9) Lester Freamon – The Wire. The first of three characters from The Wire.  Quiet, unassuming and the best detective on the show.  My favorite moment, after coming up with evidence off of a soda can to potentially catch a cop shooter he is asked what unit he’s from. He replies with a straight face: “pawn shop.”  You have to watch the show to get that, but it was great.

The smart side of police work.

8) Tony Soprano – The Sopranos.  Nothing much needs to be said, except for the fact that he is only the second best character on the show (and no, the Bada Bing club is not #1).

Mommy issues.

7) Kenny Powers – Eastbound and Down.  Racist, stupid and angry. If he had not been a baseball player, he might have been leading a Tea Party movement.  Who knows if the shows subsequent season(s) will match the perfection of the first, but it takes a special character to make the line “I love you April, and not just in a make me come kind of way,” mean something, especially when said at an 8th grade dance.

Author of "I'm fu-king in and you're fu-king out!"

6) Al Swearengen – Deadwood. In a word? Cu*t.

Tony Soprano, if Tony did not have so much respect for women.

5) Ari Gold – Entourage.  This show is like watching the Cleveland Cavaliers play basketball a few years ago. It was LeBron James doing amazing things and four guys around him barely keeping up.  I thought after the first season they should have spun the show off and made it about Ari. They didn’t and now it’s a mediocre show with one dominating star.  But he still makes the show worth tuning in to each week that it’s on.

90% of all positive things on Entourage are a result of Ari Gold.

4) Omar – The Wire.  People reading this may have expected Omar at #1, but that would be too easy. I figured I’d sneak up on you like Kenard and… well, I don’t want to give away anything to the people who are just getting over their fear of Negros and Negro-filled shows, but Omar was the most entertaining character on the best show ever for sure, but he’s only my #2 from it.  Indeed.

If you thought he'd be #1 you were wrong.

3) Nate Fisher – Six Feet Under.  I don’t think any character on any HBO show (or any show for that matter – though Walter White on Breaking Bad is doing a nice job) has taken as varied an emotional journey as Nate Fisher.  At times he is both the most identifiable and the most polarizing figure on this unbelievable great show (Seriously, the fact that at one point HBO had The Sopranos, 6 Feet Under, The Wire all at the same time is like an NBA team having LeBron, Kobe and Kevin Durant at the same time – I think The West Wing would be Dwayane Wade for this analogy). 

Women would learn more by watching him than by watching Sex and the City (caveat - you may or may not like what you learn).

2) Tony Soprano’s Mom – Perhaps you forgot about her because she only made it on to the first two seasons of the show, but it says something that the show went from an A+ to an A without her.  The idea that a woman could be evil or just experiencing dementia, or possibly both was brilliant and gave Tony the best conflict on the show until he and his wife hit the skids in season 4.  Tony’s Mom was an absolutely brilliant character and played brilliantly.  Menacing and funny all at once. 

It's been a while, but don't forget how great/terrible Tony's Mom was.

1) Stringer Bell – The Wire.  I had a friend once tell me that she was going to see the movie Obsessed with that handsome black guy and Beyonce.  I replied that’s Stringer Bell from the Wire. She replied, i don’t even remember him from the Wire.  There are only two possibilities here and I will just propose the second – she missed the first 3 seasons of the Wire.  Omar got all the hype, McNulty got all the posters, but I found the intelligent criminal Cain to Avon Barksdale’s Abel the best HBO character of all time.  Watching Stringer try, but fail, to bring the Barksdale drug business into the legitimate world of Real Estate showed that the “legit” world is just as corrupt as the drug trade (as my brother told me – what is so different than the operation of Starbucks and the corner boys in The Wire – you give money and order to one person, then walk around to another area to pick up the product – he was kidding.  The difference is obvious – if coffee were made illegal a lot more white people would be killing each other than black folks on The Wire). 

On a side note, I was told a couple of years ago that the actor that played Stringer was a doorman at Caroline’s at night while he auditioned during the day.  More evidence that everyone in the comedy business except comics can make money. Congratulations Stringer Bell – you are #1.

Former doorman at Caroline's makes good.
7 COMMENTS
  • michael cohen
    Reply

    #1 Hank Kingsley

  • Nick Cobb
    Reply

    Very impressive list, JL.

    Showtime continues to go for shows that center on one person (Dexter, Weeds, Nurse whatever) while HBO goes for the ensemble. This is why, when done well, HBO goes above and beyond.

    Question – did you consider “Band of Brothers” and “Curb”? I find it hard to believe that Larry David doesn’t deserve something here.

    1. J-L Cauvin
      Reply

      I actually considered Susie Essman from Curb, but in the end voted against it (1-0 vote in my head). Band of Brothers being a mini-series was not considered. In accordance with your comment Nick I am pitching a show to HBO called Bringers and a show to Showtime called Comedian Cobb.

  • Jeff
    Reply

    Love Stringer Bell, but Omar… man… I still get shivers when I hear Farmer in the Dell!

  • Aalap
    Reply

    After reading the Omar entry I knew you were putting Stringer first. He was my favorite character too. I so wanted to him to break out of the drug world and into “legit” business. But as Avon says “you just might not be smart enough for that game out there, and not hard enough for this right here” I apologize if the quote is off so i will throw you a link

  • Peter Moses
    Reply

    How can you forget Lucius Vorenus from “Rome”? He was an amazing character that really took some turns and became something new throughout the two seasons.

    And you have to remember his quote from Season 2, Episode 2:

    “I am the son of Hades! I fuck Concord in her ARSE!”

    He was a bad ass motherfucker that became even more of a bad ass motherfucker as the show progressed, even though he initally resisted.

    I think not having him (or another character from “Rome” – maybe Titus Pullo?) was a serious omission. Otherwise, solid list.

    1. J-L Cauvin
      Reply

      I like Rome (especially the last 17 episodes – I nearly gave up in Season 1 and was glad I did not). But Titus Pullo was the only character I considered (though I thought the red headed chick’s breasts could have been on the honorable mention list) and I opted not to. Sorry.

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