It might seem odd to specify top female characters, but there’s still an awful lot of bad ones out there, so here’s where TV shows get it right…
1 – Brenda Chenowith
The most complex character on this list and one of the most interesting of any gender. Brenda goes through some real highs and lows on Six Feet Under, whether because of her childhood pyschological probing by her parents, her brother’s schizophrenia, her sex addiction or her turbulent on-off relationship with Nate. In a show that represents human relationships in the most honest and unsentimental way, Brenda’s ability to sabotage her own happiness at every turn puts her right at its heart. Brilliantly played by Rachel Griffiths, she is never less than enthralling throughout.
2 – Peggy Olson
As much as Mad Men is about Don Draper, it’s about Peggy. She starts the show as a new secretary at Sterling Cooper, subject to all of the worst of the sexism of the day, but as it goes on, she is never beaten by it and eventually rises above her supposed station by proving that she can do the ‘real’ work as well as the boys. It’s still a work in progress and there have been many sacrifices and heartbreaks along the way, but Peggy is both a symbol of the changing times of the 60s and a fully-fleshed out and well-drawn character. Her two-hander with Don in recent episode The Suitcase showed how far she’s come.
3 – Carmela Soprano
In a show so dominated by men and the wicked things they do, Edie Falco was regularly given awards for her performances and rightly so. Carmela is a woman who sells her soul every day to live the life she wants to lead and to give her children the life she wants for them. She knows her husband cheats, lies and kills, but (mostly) deals with it by flirting with Catholic priests or Tony’s underlings. The scenes where she finally snaps and confronts Tony are some of the best in any TV show or film.
4 – Ruth Fisher
There are three female characters from Six Feet Under in my list, more than any other show, which is hardly surprising as it’s not only a great TV show but is also written as well for its females characters as their male counterparts. Ruth is the matriarch of the Fisher family, widowed in the first episode and regularly taken for granted by her troublesome offspring, but the journey she goes along towards finding peace and happiness in herself (rather than looking for it in the company of men) is one of the most moving and heartwarming of any TV character.
5 – CJ Cregg
Edie Falco’s main rival for awards in the early years of the 21st Century was Allison Janney, whose role as White House Press Secretary (and latterly Chief Of Staff) in The West Wing was another gutsy performance and another strong female character. CJ had her share of blunders in the press room, but held a tight rein on the largely male press corps as well as earning the respect of her colleagues and President, while not being afraid to speak out when actions being taken went against her principles and ethics.
6 – Audrey Horne
The populace of Twin Peaks were such a varied and engaging bunch that it’s hard to pick out favourites, but from the moment Sherilyn Fenn shimmied her way onto the screen in the pilot. After that, her adorable attempts to seduce her ‘Special Agent’ are entertaining and endearing, while her ability to do things to cherry stems allow her to go undercover at a brothel to help Cooper, leading to one of the show’s funniest scenes, as she tries to evade the attentions (while wearing a mask) of her own father. A mixture of sweet innocence and wickedness, Audrey sums up the mood of Twin Peaks perfectly.
7 – Claire Fisher
The third of the Six Feet Under female leads to get into my Top Ten, Claire has the biggest ‘journey’ of all, taking her from getting high on crystal meth second before discovering that her father has died (in the Pilot) to that famous drive across the country to her new life in New York in the series finale. Along the way she hides a foot in a school locker, becomes a lesbian, has an abortion, goes to art school and falls in love with a Republican (!). Living to the age of 101 and becoming a famous photographer, Claire certainly had a memorable life and was a great character.
8 – Adriana La Cerva
One of the most tragic characters in The Sopranos, Adriana starts off as your typical gangsters’ moll, pretty, fun and easily bought with expensive gifts. However, as her relationship with Christopher developed, Adriana’s character was shown to have much more depth, putting up with all of his many flaws and standing by him. However, things took a turn for the worse when she was forced to become an FBI mole and her end came in a heartbreaking manner when she confided in her fiance only for him to turn her in and have her executed for her ‘betrayal’. Her death scene is one of the most harrowing and sad of the whole show.
9 – Sally Draper
The youngest character of the whole bunch, Sally Draper is Don’s daughter with now ex-wife Betty, and she came into her own in the brilliant third series of Mad Men. Played with remarkable maturity and depth by Kiernan Shipka, she grew close to her grandfather until his death and then became terrified that her new-born baby brother (named after her grandfather) was his ghost back to haunt her. Her parents’ divorce and the onset of her teenage years means that there’s plenty more drama for Sally yet to come, and she’s already seeing a shrink after some ‘inappropriate’ behaviour at a friend’s house…
10 – Chloe O’Brian
You wouldn’t necessarily think of 24 as being the kind of show to feature strong female characters, but Chloe’s arrival in the third series changed all that. She began as a comedic character, a techie with no social skills and an attitude problem, but you don’t get to be a colleague and friend of Jack Bauer for as long as she has (she finished the series having appeared in more episodes than anyone other than Jack) without being a hero and Chloe certainly became that. Happily, she retained her ability to scowl and glower at people while being heroic. That’s multitasking that is.