The 10 Greatest HBO Characters of All Time

With True Detective ending and Game of Thrones just starting back up, we got into an interesting discussion around the Cool Material office: Who is the greatest HBO character of all time? This turned into a passionate debate. Hell, the network has been putting tremendously complex characters on the screen for decades. We decided to try and come together and attempt to create a top 10 list based on all our opinions. This is what we’ve got:

10. Nelson Van Alden

Boardwalk Empire
Michael Shannon is one of those guys you know but you don’t know (at least until Man of Steel came out). He also happens to be the most intriguing character from Boardwalk Empire. Think Walter White with a creepier stare.

9. Carmela Soprano

The Sopranos
Behind every great man there’s a great woman. Edie Falco snagged numerous awards for her performance as Carmela, tapping into an array of fears and aggravations that would come with being married to a mafia kingpin. In fact, the show often revolved around her quest for happiness and her struggles with inner demons.

8. Al Swearengen

One of the best examples of an HBO character who was far from two-dimensional, Al Swearengen was a complex monster. Ian McShane’s performance nabbed him a Golden Globe back in 2005.

7. Jimmy McNulty

The Wire
The Wire is arguably the greatest television show of all time, and if you had to pick a central character (difficult), you’d probably have to go with Jimmy McNulty. He’s the quintessential antihero who plays by his own rules between hangovers. He also happens to possess a certain cool factor that makes him the perfect cop to mix it up with the characters on the streets of Baltimore.

6. Kenny Powers

Eastbound & Down
There were a few comedic characters considered for this list – Ali G, Larry David (is he a character?) – but when it came to one that was truly rounded, we had to go with Kenny Powers. The mullet-rocking pitcher is so wonderfully full of himself and so oblivious to his harshness that he’s like a walking punchline.

5. Rust Cohle

True Detective
If there were to be more episodes of True Detective with Rust in them, he would no-doubt inch up higher on this list. The philosophical quote machine with a penchant for Lone Star Beer and cartons of cigarettes became a sensation in just eight episodes of the show.

4. Ari Gold

When plotlines are as loose and slow-moving as they were in Entourage, you need some strong characters to carry the load (also lots of partying and hot girls). Jeremy Piven was tremendous as the brash agent for Vincent Chase, constantly pulling strings and dealing with the inexperience of Vince’s crew. 

3. Tony Soprano

The Sopranos
The hardest part of making this list was deciding the second and third spots. James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano was so amazing, so all-encompassing, that it was hard to see the late actor in any other role after the show ended. Tony was no 2D mobster that was often depicted in cinema, he struggled with his feelings, raising a family, and his own desires in life. He had his family at home and his family at “work,” and often the two presented dilemmas that would define him as a deeply complex character.

2. Tyrion Lannister

Game of Thrones
Peter Dinklage is so mind-blowingly brilliant as the whore and wine-obsessed member of the Lannisters that, in a show with about a zillion characters, he’s the one everyone cheers for. His wit makes him a formidable foe no matter his size or strength.

1. Omar Little

The Wire

Never has a character made whistling sound so ominous. Omar is such a unique character, one that could never be replicated, that he had to snag the number one spot on this list. He’s a criminal with his own set of morals, not unlike a street version of Robin Hood (kind of). The fact that he was homosexual, didn’t curse, and floated somewhere between good and evil made him 100% original. We’re not sure how many more shows HBO will have, but it will be very hard for any of them to feature a character that will knock Omar from this spot.


  • Jonny Bernstein

    Tony Soprano is 1, no one should debate it, Rust Cohle is 2, Swearengen is 3, Tyrion is 4, Arya Stark should be in there somewhere, don’t confuse the awesomeness of the characters with the quality of the show.

  • CC

    Carmela Soprano out – Titus Pollo in.

  • Tyler James Israel

    Johnny Drama #1

  • CC

    Great character for sure, but compared to all the other shows, you can’t justify more than one character from entourage. And if you have to take one, how are you not going to pick Ari Gold?

  • Mickey

    The list could have been nothing but characters from the Wire the best show ever made.

  • Tyler James Israel

    Because its Johnny “Drama” Chase

  • Jt

    Simon Adebisi

  • MotelHuell

    Are you fucking mental?

  • branimal

    Murray Hewitt

  • RB

    Dom from Entourage is easily #1.

  • Jim Miller

    I am unsure if Rust Cohle is #2. Not to Swearengen and Tyrion…That is really controversial…Though I do think you are spot on with Tony Soprano…

  • Trent Warner

    No jimmy darmody..?!

  • Jay

    Blasphemy. TS should be at #1.

  • Kyle Duffy

    have you seen the wire?

  • Jonny Bernstein

    Yes, like I said, the awesomeness of the show isn’t the same as the awesomeness of the characters. The Wire was awesome, Deadwood was pretty cool, but the Deadwood characters were the shit, and Rust Cohle had some lines that will never be topped, such as “Most of the time I was convinced I’d lost it. There were other times I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.”

  • Kyle Duffy

    maybe I was to quick to jump to conclusions, my only disagreement with you was Tony. He’s a top 3 regardless. HIGHLY agree with you on Arya Stark, it is way to tough to put ten characters together and say its a top ten. Perhaps a field of 64 characters (ok maybe not that many) but a tournament style bracket would be great to see. Many of HBO’s shows had great characters, OZ had a unique list of characters, Generation Kill had several. Luck could have produced a few, if it could have gotten out of the gates safely. Bored to Death–not the same standard as many of these shows but, Ted Danson, he was a riot!

  • Mac Faulkner

    Not one from OZ ??? Horrible list !!

  • Maria

    Chalky White

  • Peterl

    Ari is way outta his league on this list. E.B. Farnum, Stringer Bell, Cy Tolliver…I can think of a dozen right off the top of my head that should be there before him.

  • Peterl

    …or Richard Harrow.

  • Bill

    Omar is a great character, but given the fact that we see him so little, and get very little access to the internal Omar, he cannot come close to competing with the depth of Tony Soprano. Really we just know of him, rather than seeing the whole Omar. I love The Wire, but in terms of character, Tony and Tyrion offer more than Omar.

  • tommy g

    Carmela Soprano should be MUCH higher… and where the hell is “Six Feet Under”‘s Brenda?!?

  • dirk

    Gloria Trillo from season 3 of “The Sopranos”… smart, sexy, crazy

  • dirk

    where are the Fisher brothers from SIX FEET UNDER?!?

  • Jonny Bernstein

    Ha, I like that idea