The Best One-Episode-Only Characters From TV
Keegan-Michael Key, Grant Anderson - It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been on the air for eleven years now. That makes it the longest-running live-action comedy series in cable history, and, along with My Three Sons, the second-longest running live-action comedy in television history. For a show about five of the worst people in the world yelling over each other, that’s insane. That is of course just the surface layer of things, as It’s Always Sunny has shown itself since the very beginning to be a well-crafted, deft construction — with, yes, five awful people yelling over and at each other at its core. One of the greatest treats of watching the show is observing what happens when people outside of the central gang of characters have the misfortune of interacting with them. Pulled into a maelstrom of narcissism, madness, and violence, they often leave irreversibly damaged and scarred by the whole ordeal. And so, when a season ten episode found the Paddy’s gang taking part in a game show, having Keegan-Michael Key play the slick host was a stroke of casting genius. Doing his absolute best to stay professional and keep things together as the trail of damage and insanity that follows the gang wherever they go invades his studio, he nevertheless starts to crack, and Key’s journey through confusion, disbelief, frustration, and rage — showing in every vocal and physical tic — is an absolute joy to behold. His incredulous delivery of, ‘Nightman! Don’t know what that is. Just dunno what it is!’ is one of my favourite line readings on any show, ever.
Richard Brooks, Jubal Early - Firefly
One of the most purely unsettling characters to ever make an appearance on any TV show, Richard Brooks’ Jubal Early is a cold-blooded, ruthless bounty hunter that boards the good ship Serenity in search of River Tam in Firefly’s final — and perhaps best — episode, ‘Objects in Space.’ Despite Early’s quick and easy dismantling of the crew of Serenity, it is not his physical actions — despicable threats to Kaylee aside — that make him such a unnerving presence; rather it is his frequent habit of calmly waxing philosophical about seemingly tangential mattersm, often fluctuating rapidly between a flippant tone and a sincere one. Joss Whedon has said that much of the ideas explored in ‘Objects in Space’ — existentialism; morality; imbuing physical objects with meaning or seeing them divorced from it — were inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre, specifically his ‘La Nausée’; with River and Jubal acting almost as thematic flip sides of Satre’s philosophy — the former ultimately choosing to allocate to an otherwise objectively purposeless life a self-created meaning among her surrogate family; and Early acting as an agent of one of Sartre’s core concepts, ‘bad faith,’ denying his own agency and responsibility:
River: ‘You hurt people.’
Early: ‘Only when the job requires it.’
River: ‘Wrong. You’re a bad liar. […] You like to hurt folk.’
Early: ‘It’s part of the job.’
River: ‘It’s why you took the job.’
Richard Brooks absolutely slays every single line, grimace, and snake-like movement as Jubal Early. Shivers fly up the spine every time he’s onscreen.
Also, this exchange?
Simon: Are you Alliance?
Early: Am I a lion?
Early: I don’t think of myself as a lion. You might as well though, I have a mighty roar.
Simon: I said “Alliance.”
Early: Oh, I thought…
Simon: No, I was… Jubal Early: That’s weird.
Pure, confusing terror.
Mindy Simmons (Michelle Pfeiffer)/Mr. Bergstrom (Dustin Hoffman), The Simpsons
The phrase ‘embarrassment of riches’ may as well have been first coined to describe the glut of great one-off characters that The Simpsons gave us in its golden years (seasons 3-8, best television ever made, bar none, since you asked). Frank Grimes, Hank Scorpio, Karl, Laura Powers, Molloy, Rex Banner, Jessica Lovejoy, The Space Coyote, Lyle Lanley — this list could have been made up purely of Simpsons folk. In exercising a bit of discipline, however, it seems the honour can only really go to two of them (getting it down to one would have required more discipline than there is in the known universe). Season four’s Mindy Simmons and season two’s Mr. Bergstrom make the cut above all others because they illustrate the side of The Simpsons that is sometimes forgotten: its heart. In its prime the show managed to miraculously create a fusion of the sharpest social satire around, the funniest sight gags known to man, and the most sincere, human moments that cut right to the core. Mindy Simmons and Mr. Bergstrom illustrate this latter element more than any other. They also respectively play to two of the most resonant themes of the show: Marge and Homer’s marriage, and the immense love the two have for each other despite occasionally travelling the roughest of roads together; and Lisa’s existential angst at sometimes feeling like the only rational, sensitive mind in a town full of base instinct and herd impulse.
Mindy, played to perfection by Michelle Pfeiffer, tests Homer’s fidelity to his wife, but the show handles her character sublimely by not relegating her to a misogynistic home-wrecker archetype. Mindy isn’t a predator. Rather it is circumstance, shared interests, and a mutual, caring attraction that brings the two together into each other’s orbit in the first place. Homer is as complicit, if not more, than Mindy in the near-rupturing of his marital vows before, at the 11th hour, pulling back from the precipice and doing right by his love. Marge is the only woman for him.
Rather than being a vision of another, idealised but ultimately fake life, Dustin Hoffman’s Mr. Bergstrom is a catalyst for hope and self-acceptance in Lisa’s life. When jaded and apathetic Ms. Hoover thinks she has Lyme’s Disease and has to miss work, Lisa’s class is assigned the teacher that everyone deserves, and one that Lisa at that point in her life desperately needs. Soulful and empathetic, Mr. Bergstrom gives Lisa a glimpse of another world, where people think and care at a level that she does. When he inevitably leaves it is heartbreaking, but the mark that he makes on her young mind will be one that she carries with her forever.
Talking of emotional cores…
Seymour Asses, Futurama
I know, I’m sorry. Go weep in the corner for as long as you need to. I did it after thinking of this entry.
Yes, technically, Seymour appears more than once, but I’m gonna go ahead and treat only his appearance in the season five episode, ‘Jurassic Park’, as canon, as the two others are either in spin-off feature length episodes (‘Bender’s Big Score’) or in a dream sequence (the tenth season episode, ‘The Game of Tones.’)
Seymour Asses, Fry’s perfectly loyal and loving, 20th century always-wet-dog-smelling mutt, was left behind when his human was displaced a thousand years ahead into the future. His petrified remains ultimately found in the 31st century, Professor Farnsworth offered Fry the option of cloning Seymour — effectively bringing him back to life with all his old memories. Briefly elated and considering the chance of a reunion with his beloved friend, Fry soon reasons that since the readings of the pup’s remains indicate that he had lived on another twelve years following Fry’s disappearance it would be unfair to yank him into the now-present, essentially nullifying the rich and Fry-less life that he must have lived. So Fry bids a final farewell to Seymour.
And then the most devastating flashback of them all shows us what really happened: Seymour never forgot Fry, and he never moved on. Instead he waited in front of Fry’s old employers, Panucci’s Pizza, every day for Fry to return. He waited through the seasons and the years, surviving on scraps, his love or loyalty never dimming for one second. Though his friend and master never showed, Seymour waited there, until even Panucci’s shut down; until he grew old and the neighbourhood changed; until the day he finally lay down and closed his eyes for good.
~ Petr Knava
Ray Liota, Charlie Metcalf - ER
ER had an impressively long run, and the vast majority of its episodes followed the formula of mixing ongoing soap drama with medical procedural episodic TV. Occasionally they’d do a special episode that featured someone like Noah Wylie’s Dr. Carter working with Doctors Without Borders, or Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Greene going off to Hawaii for his final days. But those were all based around stars of the show, members of the ensemble. The season eleven “Time of Death” instead focused on Liota’s Charlie, a man who showed up in the hospital with stomach issues, and over the next real-time 44 minutes, went through the process of being admitted as a patient, being seen by the doctors, and eventually learning he was going to die. The character, an ex-con, faced down the choices and mistakes he’d made with his life in excruciating close detail that earned Liota an Emmy award, and still stands out for me as one of the best episodes of the entire series.
And if it wasn’t for that damn finale bringing him back…