Ed. Note – This article was supposed to air before Sacred Walloween, but forces outside my control prevented it from premiering in time. I will be posting it today, and the first Sacred Walloween Listicle will be premiering imminently. Sorry for the inconvenience, and the spooks are on their way!
If there’s anyone close to a modern day Norman Lear, it’s Michael Schur. Originally a writer on the late-aughts hit The Office, Schur has created some of the most beloved shows of the past decade, including Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place, as well as produced and written for hit shows like Master of None, Saturday Night Live, and Black Mirror. Now, as The Good Place launches its fourth and final season, I thought we could take a brief moment to celebrate one of the greatest character minds of the 21st century, by counting down the Top Ten Michael Schur Characters.
The rules are, effectively, very simple. I’m ranking the Michael Schur characters that remain iconic thanks to fantastic one-liners, terrific performances, and (for the most part), a strong, emotional core. The only rule is the character has to have originated from Schur’s mind and/or a show of Schur’s creation. So sorry, Office fans! With one exception, the show is ineligible from this list. Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, and Kelly Kapoor will not be making an appearance. Now, thanks to Schur’s insanely brilliant mind, there are several characters considered for this list that must be delegated to Honorable Mentions. Parks and Recreation gifted us with Chris Traeger, Ben Wyatt, and Jerry/Larry/Gary. Brooklyn Nine-Nine gave us the insanity of Gina Linetti, the goodhearted earnestness of Amy Santiago, and the joy of an appearance from Doug Judy, The Pontiac Bandit. And The Good Place has provided us laughs from wild card Eleanor Shellstrop, nervous bookworm Chidi, and the hilariously blunt “Not A Robot” Janet. And with the Honorable Mentions out of the way, let’s check out this forking great, cool cool cool cool list of the Top Ten Michael Schur Characters!
10. Kevin Cozner – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
This spot could technically also go to Shawn The Head Demon, but unfortunately I could only choose one Marc Evan Jackson role, and I’m not allowed to just say “Marc Evan Jackson.” However, with that being said, it’s hard to pass up the charm of Jackson’s Kevin Cozner. Known for his sardonic, monotonous demeanor (he’s like a Ben Stein character who’s capable of being likable), Kevin is the husband of Brooklyn 99’s captain, Raymond Holt. Like Holt, Cozner has little change in his voice, rarely elicits emotion, and has a taste for the finer things (famously, the two engaged in an intense argument over the origin of a word). On paper, it is a boring, boring role – Kevin is a Classics professor at Columbia University, and he refers to the icy Holt as the “funny one” in the relationship. And yet, thanks to Jackson’s personality, the role emerges as one of the show’s most pleasant. He has a great rapport with Gina, he cares for Holt’s surrogate son Jake (although he tortures him by calling him “Peralta”), and his relationship with Raymond is one of the hearts of the show. Jackson is a gifted actor, and any character he touches in a Schur show is gold, but for my money, Kevin is his crowning achievement.
9. April Ludgate – Parks and Recreation
It’s hard to tell how much of April Ludgate is actually an example of fantastic writing and how much is Aubrey Plaza at her Aubrey Plaza-est. But any true fan of Parks and Recreation knows that April is one of the best aspects of an already-great show. When the first season began as sort of an Office-style knockoff, it would have been easy to pin April to a darker Jim type – she’s the one who looks at the camera the most and makes fun of everyone else’s shenanigans. But as the show progressed, and Aubrey and Schur found a clearer direction for her to take, April soon emerged as not only a new entity in and of herself, but a fan favorite because of it. Her style of humor became darker and funnier, and she begins to enjoy things that are clearly terrible (torture, Ron’s ex-wife Tammy, etc.). And yet, despite all this, her character manages to deepen, grow, and expand in ways that are not just surprising, but enjoyable. Her feelings for goofy dip Andy help bring her out of her shell, and their relationship helps show off her goofier, happier side. Meanwhile, her compassion breaks through the icy exterior in ways both expected and not, including public service for both humans and animals. It’s a role tailor-made for Plaza, and April remains one of Schur’s finest creations.
8. Rosa Diaz – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
In the same way Parks and Rec seemed to crib from The Office in its earlier seasons, it is easy to write off Brooklyn Nine-Nine as cribbing Parks and Rec’s April Ludgate. The toughest, quippiest member of the 99th Precinct, Stephanie Beatriz’s Rosa takes the steely template of April Ludgate and elevates her to new levels. Rosa is one of the toughest members of the precinct – she’s always seen with a scowl, and she was once kicked out of ballet school for “beating up all the ballerinas,” – and she’s perhaps the smartest member of the precinct outside of Amy Santiago. Her logical skills are second to none, and her emotionless, angry demeanor is one of the show’s best avenues for humor. However, instead of just using her icy toughness as a character trait, the show smartly portrays it as a wall – a way for her to hide her emotions, allow her logic to take control, and prevent herself and others from getting hurt in a dangerous career path. The moments where this wall comes down are some of the best, from her friendship with Jake to her similarities to Captain Holt to her relationships with Adrian and Jocelyn. It’s a hilarious blend of salty and sweet. Thanks to her depth, her brains, and the inimitable, snarky portrayal of Beatriz, Rosa Diaz is Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s secret weapon.
7. Vicky The Demon – The Good Place
I’m well aware of how controversial this pick may be, but I can’t help it: Vicky The Demon is one of the most underrated characters on The Good Place, a show jam-packed with underrated characters. Originally introduced as the “real” Eleanor Shellstrop, the person meant to get into The Good Place whom Kristen Bell accidentally booted, it seems as though the character fits right in with the gang as a new core member – she’s witty, she’s goodhearted, and she creates dynamic tension with Bell’s Eleanor and William Jackson Harper’s Chidi. However, it is once the show reaches its infamous twist that the character really gets to shine. Now revealed to be a demon working to torture our protagonists through psychological warfare, Vicky (her real name, played by the deliciously talented Tiya Sircar) emerges as the show’s secret weapon. A constant pain in the side of both Michael and the group of reformed souls, Vicky’s motivations slowly evolve, becoming less interested in actually torturing the protagonists and more about the art of performance. Her major critiques of Michael’s plan surround having characters with no motivation, a lack of lines, and a desire to give her characters “more personality.” She’s such a bizarre, petty character that somehow the show becomes instantly better whenever she makes an appearance – even more so than Derek or Shawn. And she more than deserves her place on this list.
6. Jason Mendoza – The Good Place
Michael Schur has a soft spot in his heart for the lovable idiot. We’ve seen it on Parks and Rec with Andy Dwyer, and while Brooklyn Nine-Nine tries to shy away from portraying any of its characters as stupid, there is a sense of naiveté in Charles’ portrayal. But in terms of the Fool archetype, no character has more encapsulated the trope than Jason Mendoza. Played with absolute affinity by Manny Jancinto, we first meet Jason as the silent monk Jianyu, supposedly the best of the bunch. By Episode 4, we learn his real identity, and that’s when the character goes from good to great. Jancinto milks every detail about his character’s past for all its worth: his Florida upbringing, the fact his high school was a junkyard that was actually a group of boats tied together, his obsession with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Blake Bortles, and his affinity for solving problems with Molotov Cocktails (“And then boom! I have a different problem”). Meanwhile, Jason has the intelligence and wonder of a three-year-old, tuning out a conversation because of a Pikachu balloon, and incapable of picking up on very obvious insults directed at him. But at his core, Jason is lovable – he truly cares about his friends, he loves Janet with complete earnestness, and his awfulness is almost forgiven by his stupidity (the rest through his desire to change). Jason is Schur’s greatest idiot, and he’s one of his greatest creations.
5. Mose Schrute – The Office
While I technically didn’t want to include any Office characters on this list, it is hard to overlook Schur’s influence on the character of Mose Schrute. It is clear from the get-go that Schur is the genius behind Mose’s insanity, not least of which because Schur himself plays the role. But considering Mose is introduced as an inside look at the private life of breakout character Dwight Schrute, and is expected to be crazier than his cousin, it immediately elevates this character to iconic status. Feeling less like a realistic Office character and more like a Tim and Eric character, Mose shows up sporadically to elicit laughs with his insane demeanor. He runs with his arms at his sides, he screams in terror over storms, throws manure, and barely understands that there is life beyond the Farm (he calls Dwight’s job “The Day Place). He lurks around corners like an inbred abomination against nature, earning equal amounts of laughs and terror from audiences – such as the moment he kidnaps Angela on her wedding night. And who can forget his one true love – a lady scarecrow? Considering his over-the-top personality and his comical portrayal of inbred country bumpkins, it could be a mean-spirited, absurdist character created by a lesser writer. But perhaps that’s why Schur plays the role himself – he instills Mose with a heart and soul, helping him fit into this universe and earning love and support as a weird, but endearing puppy dog.
4. Ron Swanson – Parks and Recreation
Far and away my favorite Schur creation, Ron Swanson is a perfect example of writing meeting acting. Played with a perfect amount of sardonic straightness by Nick Offerman, Ron is a mid-level local government figure who somehow ended up in the department despite his staunch libertarianism and hatred of government on any level. He peppers his dialogue with words of wisdom such as “the perfect government model should be Chuck E. Cheese, or “why does government matter? It doesn’t” (a line from a terrific episode where Ron gets to give a young girl a lecture on the benefits of libertarianism). But his humor emerges beyond his political ideology. Ron is yet another character in a long history of mysterious, hilariously-perfect characters in modern pop culture, like Barney Stinson and other lesser creations – he can drink heavily without a hangover, eats “all the bacon and eggs you have,” and has accrued so much gold (he doesn’t believe in paper money), he is vastly wealthy many times over. And yet, what makes the character great is both his growing heart and his friendship with Leslie. Despite considering her “further left than Karl Marx,” Ron respects Leslie’s passion, loving heart, and intelligence, and their friendship becomes a through-line on the show. Offerman relishes each line with emotionless genius, and helped elevate Ron to breakout status. Ron was, and remains, one of Schur’s finest creations.
3. Raymond Holt – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Another in the emotionless Ron Swanson-esque line of characters (Schur has archetypes, and he loves using them), what makes Captain Raymond Holt slightly more iconic than his predecessor is the complicated amalgamation of traits possessed by the 99th Precinct’s commander. Played by dramatic actor Andre Braugher in his first comedic role, Holt somehow emerges as one of the funniest, most confusing characters in modern television. At first, it appears that he’s supposed to simply be a foil to the shenanigans of Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta, Holt soon emerges as a character just as zany as his subordinates, albeit in a different way. A black, gay intellectual, Holt defies all attempts to categorize him as a human being. He is just as sarcastic as Rosa Diaz, just as excitable as Jake, and just as dry as Ron Swanson, or his own husband, Kevin. And yet, despite his joyless exterior, he proves time and time again that he is the perfect captain for the idiosyncratic precinct. He was thrown out of a performance of “Bach’s Sonata in G Minor” for gasping too loudly, he has meltdowns over the word “bone,” he has debates with his husband over math problems, and unlike Ron Swanson, he incorporates just enough emotional outbursts that when they appear, they are surprising and hilarious (“HOT DAMN!”). And his relationship with Jake, providing him the father figure he always wanted and makes him a better detective in the process. Ray Holt is beyond just a good Schur character: he is the Platonic Ideal.
2. Leslie Knope – Parks and Recreation
If you had told me in 2009, when Parks and Recreation premiered, that Leslie Knope would be on this list at all, let alone in the #2 spot, I wouldn’t have believed you. The Leslie Knope of Season 1 is a Michael Scott knockoff, designed to satirize ambitious low-level government figures and the small-town life as a whole. But upon seeing how the initial setup was failing, Schur (who took the reins from co-creator Greg Daniels at this point) changed directions in Season 2 – and changed the course of modern television history in the process. By the start of Season 2, Leslie had evolved and taken on an entire new persona. No longer was she a silly, idiotic butt of the joke. Instead, Leslie was the smartest person in the room, whose big heart led to most of her conflicts. She deeply cares about her town, and loves all her friends to an absurd degree (people are afraid to buy her gifts, because she will always outdo them), and joined government to legitimately make a difference. The problem is the people she adores and wants to serve dislike her passion, and despise her attempts to improve the town. And yet, no matter how many times the town turns on her, or betrays her, or crushes her dreams, she never questions her faith in humanity. She is a loving, compassionate person dedicated to helping others, remaining loyal to friends like Ron, Ann, and her eventual husband Ben, and thanks to Amy Poehler, becoming one of television’s funniest characters. She is a shining beacon to all Michael Schur characters.
1. Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa Saperstein – Parks and Recreation
When it comes to the #1 spot, I cannot break up this iconic duo. Jean-Ralphio and his hilarious sister Mona Lisa aren’t just two of the best side characters on a Michael Schur show – they are two of the greatest characters of all time. Portrayed by the inimitable Ben Schwartz, Jean-Ralphio is the perfect counterpart to Tom Haverford’s schemes. He is what happens when Tom’s douchebag streaks aren’t counteracted by his good heartedness or the advice of his friends. Jean-Ralphio is pure id – he obnoxiously sings the end of his sentences, he pops up only to annoy the other characters, he has a habit of rapping while failing to end on the rhyme, and he’s constantly hitting on women in the most overeager, obnoxious way possible. Even his hair and wardrobe scream “The Worst.” In fact, the only person who can match Jean-Ralphio in lovable awfulness is his sister, Mona Lisa. Played by the incredible Jenny Slate, Mona Lisa takes the role that Schwartz had turned up to 11 and dials it up to a 17. She possesses every terrible trait of her brother, and channels it through Slate’s SNL background. Whenever the two appear individually, it is a highlight of the show, but together…together it is the gold standard for television douchebags. Their sendoff in the finale, when they fake their own deaths for insurance and watch a dejected rabbi play their favorite song in the cemetery – “Bend Ova” by Lil Jon, featuring Tyga – is perhaps the greatest goodbye to a character ever put on television. Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa would be the greatest characters you love to hate if they were capable of eliciting hatred. But they’re just so damn likable you can’t bring yourself to do it. And that’s what makes Schur’s writing so great.
And that concludes our look at Michael Schur’s Greatest Characters! What should our takeaway be, looking at this list? Well, it confirms that Schur is a compassionate writer, who has a firm grasp of philosophy and psychology, and above all, is someone who deeply loves all of his creations. None of these characters, no matter how weird or how silly or how stupid, are treated as dumb jokes. They are fully-fleshed human beings, with hopes and dreams and quirks, and who are never mocked for being different – they are loved straight through to their core. He is one of our greatest writers, and we are lucky to have him serving as one of television’s most prolific working writers. But don’t let this list stop you – let me know in the comments who your favorites are! I’d love to hear it. I’ll see you all soon, as Sacred Walloween finally kicks off! See you soon.