Television history is littered with the bodies of ill-advised spin-offs. Their corpses, copies of reviews and overnights crumpled in their clawed little hands, defile the memories of the successful shows that spawned them and serve as cautionary tales for every writer tempted to go to the same well twice.
However, every once in a while, a spin-off is successful enough to Febreeze the funk out of the graveyard. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation was better than the original and few people even remember that The Simpsons began as a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show. Now there is Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel that debuted to gorilla-sized expectations and has, thus far, managed to meet them. By both embracing its association with Breaking Bad and establishing its own slower pace around the sad-sack charm of Bob Odenkirk, the show has slithered out of a seemingly no-win situation with a level of ingenuity and aplomb that would make its titular character proud.
So in honor of Saul Goodman, a character whose rise from the tedium of mediocrity has (temporarily) given spin-offs a good name, here are six dramatic TV supporting characters—and actors—who have the potential to stand on their own.
1. Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), The Walking Dead
Of all the characters who have run, fought, and screamed their way through the first five seasons of The Walking Dead, none have been more compelling than Carol Peletier. First introduced as a timid victim of domestic violence, with scant apparent skills to survive an apocalypse, Carol slowly morphed into a model specimen of natural selection. She hasn’t just adapted to the end of the world, she’s thrived in its harsh landscape. As someone whose pre-apocalyptic life never allowed her the luxury of believing the world revolved around her wants, comforts, or privileged sense of morality, she has approached difficult choices with a matter-of-fact solemnity and lethal efficiency. Look at the flowers? Damn, girl.
Remarkably, Melissa McBride’s revelatory performance makes Carol’s kill-or-be-killed badassery seem hauntingly compassionate and believable, instead of unhinged and dangerous. She’s not a killer; she’s a survivor. Because she isn’t a cold-blooded murderer, she quietly struggles with the body count her unexpected courage has left in its wake. McBride beautifully portrays the weight of that guilt, giving her accidental warrior a somber stillness that is captivating in its simplicity.
The Walking Dead is never better than when Carol is paired with fellow abuse survivor Daryl, who has formed a touching bond with her. Though a California-based spin-off is already in the works, a spin-off featuring Carol, perhaps alongside fellow show-don’t-tell minimalist Daryl, would be the perfect antidote for an action series often too wordy for its own good.
Orphan Black’s pilot episode started with a literal bang as series protagonist Sarah watched a doppelganger calmly commit suicide by walking in front of a speeding train. That startling opening offered a tantalizing glimpse of lead actress Tatiana Maslany’s jaw-dropping talent. However, this little Canadian show with no big names might have died as quickly as a suicidal clone if Maslany hadn’t been paired with a co-star gifted enough to buy time while she erected the scaffolding needed to pull off her death-defying performances in later episodes.
Enter Jordan Gavaris as Sarah’s foster brother, Felix Dawkins.
Witty, pretty, and a little bit gritty, Felix is a painter, gay hustler, and sometime drug dealer. He’s also Sarah’s rock, a loving uncle to Sarah’s daughter Kira, and a droll but reliable confidant to Sarah’s ever-growing pool of clone sisters. That he does all this while occasionally donning assless chaps is part of his great charm. And while Felix is at times flamboyant, his sexuality is never a joke. He is allowed to be a sexual adult without judgment, as are all the characters on Orphan Black.
Gavaris has phenomenal chemistry with all versions of Maslany and a very strong presence on his own, which was vitally important in the show’s earliest episodes. Maslany is so good that a weak co-star would have thrown the entire show into a fatal imbalance. But in the pilot, Felix’s delightfully horrified reaction to seeing “Sarah’s” body at the morgue let audiences know Orphan Black had more going for it than just a hooky premise and a talented lead.
Over the first two seasons, Felix has expressed a desire to be more than Sarah’s wingman. Let him. Bold, deeply loyal, and often up to something a little seedy, Felix is a fascinating character even without his “sestras.” Free Felix from his loft and see where he goes.
While Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant have spent most of Scandal’s first four seasons alternately exchanging soulful glances and finding creative new ways to defile Oval Office furniture, First Lady Mellie Grant has done the show’s emotional heavy lifting. Early in the series, she was seen as a calculating killjoy standing in the way of her husband’s happiness for her own political gain. However, it slowly became clear that years of trauma and unrequited sacrifice left all-educated-with-no-place-to-go Mellie little to do but sip from a flask of vitriol (and hard liquor).
As embodied by serial scene-stealer Bellamy Young, Mellie was powered by a white-hot, heavy metal core of pain, and the TV screen tilted under its weight every time she entered a scene. After losing her son in last season’s finale, Mellie completely imploded, first displaying raw grief, then slipping into a bathrobe-wearing, fried-chicken-eating funk before reassembling into a scar-fortified, extra-strength version of herself.
Having found a new peace with the Clinton-esque arrangement she has with her husband, Mellie recently declared to Fitz that she wants to run for president. Yes, please. A political campaign featuring Scandal‘s best character and best actor has spin-off written all over it.
Shameless is an overlooked show littered with overlooked dramatic performances, thanks in large part to wild storylines and flashy comedic flexing by the series’ biggest name, William H. Macy. While his portrayal of one-trick-many-variations asshole Frank is good, the work of Emmy Rossum as the game but self-destructive series protagonist Fiona is exceptional. Jeremy Allen White also does fantastic work as Lip, the street-smart brainiac caught between his opportunity to leave poverty behind and loyalty to his perennially struggling family.
However, further down in the credits is the show’s most stunning performance: Noel Fisher’s Mickey Milkovich. An edgy, deeply-closeted pimp who slowly and genuinely falls in love with Ian, Mickey is unlike any gay character ever portrayed on television. Aggressive and misogynistic, he brandishes his masculinity like the gun he frequently carries. But if Mickey isn’t a good man, his love for Ian is making him into an honest and committed one. When Ian threatened to leave him last season, Mickey finally came out, leading to an epic and bloody bar brawl with his rabidly homophobic father. Now that the couple is openly in a relationship, Mickey is standing by Ian as he deals with his debilitating bipolar disorder.
Noel Fisher has expertly portrayed Mickey’s journey from self-loathing prick to out-and-proud prick, remaining true to his character’s rough edges while allowing small flickers of tenderness to shine through. As Mickey learns how to be a good partner to the man he loves, he is also learning to be decent to the wife and child he never wanted. As much as he’s already been through, Mickey’s story feels like it’s just beginning, and Fisher is capable of making every chapter must-see TV.
While the action-packed lives of suburban Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings provide The Americans with irresistible drama each week, the quietly desperate plight of Soviet double agent Nina Sergeevna has been one of the show’s most riveting storylines. Forced to become an FBI informant by Agent Stan Beeman, Nina attempts to redeem herself by wooing Stan into bed and reporting his pillow talk back to her KGB bosses. But the stakes get raised when privileged Rezidentura officer Oleg also takes a professional and romantic interest in her. Caught between warring nations and men in season two, Nina faced more external pressure than a sinking Soviet submarine. And all she got for her trouble was a ticket to a Soviet prison.
Romantic double-crossing is nothing new in the spy genre, but Annet Mahendru makes Nina’s compromised allegiances feel heartbreakingly fresh. Playing a character who has to remain unreadable both for survival and for storyline conceit, Mahendru reduces Nina’s inner turmoil to a simmer, revealing only sporadic glimpses of her truth in the form of sideways glances and tight swallows.
Nina has spent much of The Americans’ third season in confinement, staring at her cell walls and ruminating over her miscalculations. Such scenes might sound like an unwelcome interruption of the show’s action, but the tension Mahendru places behind Nina’s seemingly stoic features suggests a season’s worth of plotting going on in her head. If Nina is this interesting in a prison cell, what could she do with an entire series?
6. Venus Van Dam (Walton Goggins), Sons of Anarchy
Walton Goggins has a history of making dispensable characters indispensable. His desperate, hotheaded character on The Shield, Shane Vendrell, was supposed to die an early death, but the show’s writers couldn’t bear to off him before the series finale. Likewise, Justified‘s colorful criminal Boyd Crowder was scheduled to meet an abrupt end courtesy of Raylan Givens’ gun in the pilot episode. But smart showrunners don’t kill amazing chemistry, so Boyd was allowed to rise from the dead and duel with Raylan for six gratifying seasons, arguably becoming the show’s co-protagonist.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Goggins’ funny, touching guest turn as transgender escort Venus Van Dam in the fifth season of Sons of Anarchy proved so popular that she was brought back for seasons six and seven. When uber-violent thug Tig flirted with Venus during her first appearance on the show, it had all the makings of a one-off joke or a percolating hate-crime. But to Kurt Sutter’s great credit, he wrote an achingly poignant and believable love story for the unlikely pair.
After they first made love in season seven, Venus told Tig that, while her identity may be complicated, her love for him was not. Goggins, sans Venus’ makeup and sweet lilt, delivered the confession with such throat-catching gentleness and raw sincerity that it instantly became a highlight of the entire series.
We last saw Venus wrapping herself around an emotionally exhausted Tig in the series finale. Following seven brutal seasons of Sons of Anarchy, the thought of spending more time in Venus’ loving, truthful embrace is as comforting as it is intoxicating. Vive Venus.