TV has been defined by characters since its inception. The strength of a TV show — more than a play, movie, or novel — hinges on the uniqueness and intrigue of its characters. They need to be people we want to spend an hour a week with for years. In TV's history, these are some of the most pivotal friends and enemies we've followed as they changed the landscape of entertainment forever.
We'd seen good guys do bad things in the early '90s on TV, but seeing bad guys try to do good things? Tony Soprano was the three-dimensional character that the movies had had for ages (Michael Corleone), but it wasn't until The Sopranos that we could get this type of complexity on the small screen. Walter White and Stringer Bell owe this guy a nod of thanks.
"Women aren't funny."
While we assume anyone who utters this sentiment in the present day is a bit of a neanderthal, even 60 years ago this argument never held water. Lucy blew away the chalk-lines of gender roles during the height of '50s conservatism. Compare the aspiring Lucy to Donna Reed or the other housewives of the day.
Fat, simple, lazy dads abound on TV, but when you think of any of them, there is one fat guy who lounges head and shoulders below them all. Homer Simpson brought an endearing quality to a guy that should be impossible to like, a guy no one should be rooting for. This is not only a guy we wanted to spend time with every week, he was a guy who inspired characters in dozens of other shows — who we still wanted to spend time with.
Good guys can be bad guys. Detective Sipowicz paved the way for entire casts of characters (The Wire, Luther) by being the worst kind of guy to do good things. He showed the dark side of good and TV has been addicted to it ever since.
Before there was Dwight Schrute, there was Cosmo Kramer. Zany was never quite enough to describe Kramer's well-timed intrusions into the world of the semi-sane. Having a credible character who was capable of doing anything (having Japanese businessmen sleep in his dresser) was a great way to throw a curveball at any story.
There have always been characters on TV whose anchoring quality has been their self-confidence. But when Tom Haverford first showed up on Parks and Rec, he also put the nail in the coffin of stereotypical casting. Tom's un-Indianness (and even un-South Carolinaness) gives him a unique underpinning while simultaneously teaching network execs that audiences don't want to see the same old stereotypes anymore.
Very rarely does a character come along so strong that it creates and closes down its own archetype. Tracy Jordan did just that. A character that is so unique with such a consistent specific voice that can never be repeated again. At least not without lots of blogs and tweets crying "ripoff!" Tracy Jordan became a character so specific, he was inimitable.