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TV Untouchables, Sitcom Edition: The Lynchpins of Our Favorite Shows

May 29, 2012

The always-important “side character” of any great television show is the added bonus one gets while following the main storyline. Joey or Phoebe from Friends, for instance: neither was ever truly part of a major Friends storyline (oh, we could quibble about this all day, but let’s be honest with ourselves; neither had a Ross/Rachel or Chandler/Monica show-changing plot). But without those two, the show would have been drastically different, and likely one-third less funny — if we’re attributing Jennifer Aniston an equal share of the laughs, which is dicey math at best. Let’s today take at some current shows which would be dramatically affected by the loss of a character more pivotal than perhaps we might think on-surface:

How I Met Your Mother

Untouchable: Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris)

Why: Sure, the show’s focus is the romantic foibles of Josh Radnor’s Ted Mosby (a milquetoast of a character consistently gumming up the works with his romantic pining), but it’s Jason Segel and Harris’  show — their Marshall and Barney, respectively, bring the funny nearly every week. And while Segel comes very near Stins0n-esque status of untouchability, we could still get along with Barney and without Marshall, and I’m not sure the vice versa works. Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney is a classic horndog of a sitcom side-pot, and the show’s immensely better for it.

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The Big Bang Theory

Untouchable: Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons)

Why: Here’s a curveball — the main action of CBS’ Big Bang Theory, on paper, should focus on the will-they-or-won’t-they back and forth of Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco’s Leonard and Penny, but behind their backs Jim Parson snuck up and took over the entire show. While it may be tempted to think of the fussy Sheldon as the show’s star (nearly every episode these days puts him in the spotlight), structurally Sheldon is a side character who rose to the occasion and made himself the star. Hence the Emmys and the Golden Globes, and hence the reason why this show would sink like a rock without his buoyant nerdiness.

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Curb Your Enthusiasm

Character: Jeff Green (Jeff Garlin)

Why: Larry David’s sublime Curb Your Enthusiasm is all about Larry David, as it should be and is in its best of moments, but Garlin’s Jeff Green should be given some unsung credit as one of sitcom-dom’s greatest sidekicks. A closer look will reveal that in Larry David’s Los Angeles, no one exists on equal footing with the Seinfeld creator in terms of bluster and selfishness — but the closest to doing just that is his philandering agent. Jeff gives it right back to him, a trusted confidant and role no one else in the rotating cast can claim. While Curb could easily exist without Jeff Garlin, there would always be a hole where he once was.

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The Office

Character: Michael Scott (Steve Carell)

Why: I offer The Office as a cautionary tale, for The Office’s ensemble cast was to be led by funnyman Steve Carell before it was hijacked four seasons ago by the romance of Jim and Pam, effectively thrusting them into the drivers’ seat while Carell’s increasingly goofball and silly Scott became essentially a wacky side character. Carell’s power was revealed ultimately when he left the office — a point at which we realized Jim and Pam weren’t as interesting as we thought they were and at which we realized that no one could fill the clown shoes of the ex-Office boss. If The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons went from side character to star, Carell did just the opposite, and we finally saw how crucial he was once he left for good.

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Modern Family

Character: Anyone

Why: It’s been a long time since we saw an ensemble cast so balanced that any character leaving might kill the show, but Modern Family boasts a strong case. From control-freak Claire and eager Phil to pitch-perfect Cam and Mitchell and nailing-it Jay and Gloria, there’s hardly a chink in the armor of Modern Family as of yet. Of course, as the show goes on we’ll undoubtedly see those weaknesses slowly reveal themselves, because that’s just the nature of the beast, but as its third season closes Modern Family is sitting on top of the sitcom world, and it deserves to be there. An ensemble cast, in some ways, makes everyone a side character, and none of these “side characters” are sacrificable whatsoever.

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