Television has exploded since 2010 (“Peak TV”) and with that explosion, a whole new crowd of characters has blasted into our lives. This list of the 40 most memorable characters represents only an attempt to cite those figures who have changed both TV and the culture since the beginning of this decade (with some carry-over from the previous one). There are many, and here they are, ranked in ascending order, based on influence, importance and plain ol’ entertainment value.
1. WALTER WHITE (Bryan Cranston), “Breaking Bad” (AMC) Easily tops. The anti-hero of the decade who set the template for all who followed. Cranston’s performance remains among the finest in TV history.
2. MICHAEL SCOTT (Steve Carell), “The Office” (NBC) The bumbling boss from heck was perhaps the most beloved character of the entire decade. Imagine.
3. DON DRAPER (Jon Hamm), “Mad Men” (AMC) Don was the soulless soul on the most important drama of the golden age of television. He was also great.
4. SELINA MEYER (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), “Veep” (HBO) With all those Emmys (we’ve lost count), what more can be said? She is again one of the greatest characters in all of TV history, and she happened right now, on our watch.
5. JON SNOW (Kit Harington), “Game of Thrones” (HBO) We spent months wondering whether he was dead or alive, and ultimately found out he was both. Dead or alive, he is the champ of this great series.
6. CARRIE MATHISON (Claire Danes), “Homeland” (Showtime) Danes gave Carrie what we call “facets” in the TV trade — brains, brawn, passion and even manic depression.
7. SHELDON COOPER (Jim Parsons), “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS) Greatest theoretical physicist in TV history.
8. ELLEN GREY (Ellen Pompeo), “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC) Grey remains the central pillar in ABC’s long-running drama. No Pompeo, no “Grey’s.” She’s indispensable.
9. TYRION LANNISTER (Peter Dinklage), “Game of Thrones” (HBO) When we remember (fondly) “GOT” 10 years from now, our first memory will be of Tyrion.
10. COOPER/DIRTY COOPER (Kyle MacLachlan), “Twin Peaks: The Return” (Showtime) MacLachlan utterly reinvented the FBI agent/Eagle Scout from the first “Twin Peaks” into a pair of brand-new Coopers — one very good, and the other very bad.
11. CAST OF “MODERN FAMILY” (Sofia Vergara, Sarah Hyland, Ty Burrell, Ariel Winter, Julie Bowen, Ed O’Neill, Rico Rodriguez, Nolan Gould, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet) (ABC) How to separate any of them? Impossible. As a cast, they are one big, unforgettable character in their own right.
12. SAUL GOODMAN (Bob Odenkirk), “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” (AMC) One of the richest characters ever conceived on TV, who grew — literally — in reverse, from “Bad” to “Saul.”
13. HANNAH HORVATH (Lena Dunham), “Girls” (HBO) She was going to be the “voice of her generation” but had to settle for “voice.” But still, Hannah ruled.
14. ELEVEN (Millie Bobby Brown), “Stranger Things” (Netflix) She instantly captured fans’ imaginations with the silent treatment, and bloody noses, and talents beyond reckoning. This hit’s most indelible character.
15. LEROY JETHRO GIBBS (Mark Harmon) “NCIS” (CBS) Thanks to LJG, we can all go to sleep at night and know there’ll be a world to wake up to.
16. LIZ LEMON (Tina Fey), “30 Rock” (NBC) Wise Liz understood well the ways of TV, but could hardly circumvent the insanity of TV, making her the greatest TV character on a TV show ever.
17. DARYL DIXON (Norman Reedus), “The Walking Dead” (AMC) With those eyes and that hair and that crossbow, Daryl is every walker’s nightmare, and the one character “TWD” could never do without.
18. OFFRED (Elisabeth Moss), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu) Moss had two great characters in this decade, but only one would win an Emmy for best actress in a drama — as June, aka Offred, the imprisoned handmaid of Gilead, in Hulu’s “The Handmaids Tale.”
19. SHERLOCK HOLMES (Benedict Cumberbatch), “Sherlock” (PBS) Cumberbatch brilliantly re-imagined the most famous character in the history of detective fiction.
20. COOKIE LYON (Taraji P. Henson), “Empire” (Fox) Think Cookie and think, “Wow — did she really do that?” As memorable a character as ever there was — ever.
21. JESSE PINKMAN (Aaron Paul), “Breaking Bad.” (AMC) The other half of the greatest team in modern TV history.
22. ROGER STERLING (John Slattery), “Mad Men” (AMC) Smoothie who helped to make Don Draper even more depraved; plus, he got all the best lines. (“I shall be both dog and pony.”)
23. VIOLET CRAWLEY (Maggie Smith), “Downton Abbey.” (PBS) Easily Downton’s most effortless scene thief, who had all the best lines (“Edith, you are a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall”).
24. JACK PEARSON (Milo Ventimiglia, “This Is Us” (NBC) We spent months trying to figure out how he died. Now that’s called love.
25. CERSEI LANNISTER (Lena Headey), “Game of Thrones” (HBO) Greatest villain of “GOT” and one could make a case for greatest character, too.
26. THE SIMPSONS (Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer), “The Simpsons” (Fox) Sure they could go higher on this list, but their cultural impact — still great — has steadily diminished since the ‘90s.
27. HILLARY CLINTON AND JEFF SESSIONS (Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live”) Sea Cliff’s McKinnon was not confined to just one breakout character but two — then three (“Justin Bieber”) and four (Kellyanne Conway as “Chicago’s” Roxie Hart).
28. OLIVIA POPE (Kerry Washington), “Scandal” (ABC) Don’t ask what Olivia has done — ask what she has not done, and the answer is precious little. She’s basically the shadow president — often when she’s under the sheets with the real prez.
29. PEGGY OLSON (Elisabeth Moss), “Mad Men” (AMC) Was “Mad Men” about Don or Peggy? Opinions vary, but a strong case can be made for Peggy.
30. LESLIE KNOPE (Amy Poehler), “Parks and Recreation” (NBC) The chief of Pawnee’s P&R with outsized ambitions couldn’t get out of her own way, and thus created a character for the ages.
31. STEWIE GRIFFIN (Seth MacFarlane), “Family Guy” (Fox) Wiseass Stewie has been around so long that we almost don’t remember when he arrived, but he’s still here, and how.
32. DAENERYS TARGARYEN (Emilia Clarke), “Game of Thrones” (HBO) Dany has ambitions and dragons to back them up. She starred in all of “GoT’s” most memorable scenes, with the exception of the Red Wedding.
33. MAURA PFEFFERMAN (Jeffrey Tambor), “Transparent” (Amazon Prime) The most prominent trans character in TV history. Enough said.
34. BARNEY STINSON (Neil Patrick Harris), “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS) The quipster of “HIMYM” who had a quip for every situation, and we never had to … wait for it.
35. ARYA STARK (Maisie Williams), “Game of Thrones” (HBO) Third child of Lord Eddard and by far the most lethal.
36. RANDALL PEARSON (Sterling K. Brown), “This Is Us” (NBC) My own personal breakout on “This Is Us” — a lot of other fans’, too.
37. MIKE EHRMANTRAUT (Jonathan Banks), “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” (AMC) Mike was the glue that made one series stick and its prequel stick even better. Also a very scary guy.
38. LUTHER (Idris Elba), “Luther” (BBC America) Complicated cop John Luther became the most memorable TV cop of the decade.
39. LADY MARY CRAWLEY (Michelle Dockery), “Downton Abbey” (PBS) The heart of “Downton” who gave it class, style, poise and smarts.
40. SUZANNE “CRAZY EYES” WARREN (Uzo Aduba), “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix) The great standout in a cast full of standouts.