|Only in an alternate timeline, Jonathan|
Joss Whedon shows are known for their distinct characters and the way that they naturally progress over the course of many seasons. Not only do they grow and change throughout the years, the change comes slowly and subtly, almost always building logically. These characters are strong on their own, but they also work well as smaller parts of a larger ensemble. I could easily just have any character on this list (give or take a Riley), but I've managed to narrow it down to five. But first some honorable mentions...
Honorable mention: Buffy Summers (Buffy), Xander Harris (Buffy), Fred Burkle (Angel), Wash (Firefly), Adelle Dewitt (Dollhouse)
5. Kaylee Frye (Firefly)
4. Spike (Buffy, Angel)
Even though he might not be my personal #1 pick, Spike feels like the ultimate Whedon character. When he was introduced in season 2 of Buffy, he was a fantastic villain, but then the show pulled off its signature trick where the initial adversary isn't the true villain. This allowed him room to evolve as a character, as he went from pure villain, to complicating factor, to reluctant hero over his run on the show. And although his eventual pairing with Buffy ultimately goes to very ugly and unfortunate places, it starts out wonderfully, and is one of the most surprising things in the entire show. We could talk about how complex and nuanced he is, but I mostly just love how funny he can be. Spike is basically the kind of character that you throw into the mix to shake things up and provide a commentary on the action going on. "Fool for Love," where we get to learn a little about his dark past while also seeing his tender side, is his highlight episode.
3. Cordelia Chase (Buffy, Angel)
I remember the first time that I truly loved Cordy. It was in the season 1 episode, "Out of Mind, Out of Sight," where she gives that mini-monologue about how lonely she often feels. It's the moment where you realize that if they can give an inner life and provide so much nuance to a character who would usually just be "the mean, popular girl" on any other show, then you're in good hands. She slowly gets even more developed in the early years, joining the Scooby Gang in season 2, and encountering humbling money troubles in season 3. It's on Angel, though, where she truly shines as a character. Over the course of the first three seasons, she really blossoms, finding purpose in helping others. It's amazing to see somebody who used to be so selfish now feel so much of the world, and some of the show's best episodes are the ones that focus on her ("Expecting," "Birthday," etc.). Really, there's only one thing holding me back from putting her at #1: season 4. It's a season of television that I otherwise love, but what they do to Cordelia is a HUGE, almost unforgivable misfire. A part of me can't blame the writers, who were handcuffed by Charisma Carpenter's real-life pregnancy, but they just take her character to such dumb places that I can't help but be upset. She makes a return in one episode in the final season, but I'm not a huge fan of "You're Welcome," to the ultimate conclusion of her storyline just infuriated me even more. But even still, she's the kind of character that lights up any scene she's in -- capable of generating laughs with her insults, but also containing a softer side.
2. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Buffy, Angel)
I liked Wesley Wyndam-Pryce as the bumbling idiot in the ensemble-heavy third season of Buffy, but like Cordelia, I didn't love him until he moved on to Angel. The slow evolution from wimpy Watcher to the coolest dude on the planet is simply the greatest arc in Whedon history. Like Giles, Wesley is just one of those characters that almost everybody can agree on. I mean, there's a picture of him that I couldn't find where he has a beard and he's shooting two guns! You can't get tougher than that! I'm not sure if some of the decisions he made throughout the show were supposed to make us feel conflicted, but I always found myself agreeing with him, and there's something wonderful about watching such a pragmatic person work. He's well-served as a take-action guy (like the end of season 3), but his character/relationship-based material is just as strong. It's part of the reason why his season 5 material is such a success, and episodes like "Lineage" and "A Hole in the World" make his story all the more tragic.
1. Anya Jenkins (Buffy)
After Cordelia left Buffy at the end of season 3 to join Angel in Los Angeles, the show needed another character who was friends with the gang, but still said mean things to them. They found that and more in Anya, the former vengeance demon turned human. Those demon roots of hers lead to one of her signature qualities: her ability to say the most hilarious, irreverent things due to her lack of understanding of social mores. But her best moments come from when she is coming to grips with what it means to be human, seen most devastatingly in the flawless episode, "The Body." Her relationship with Xander was weirdly one of the most stable, enjoyable couplings that has ever appeared on a Joss Whedon show. Like Willow, her evil turn comes from such deep pain, and it's easy to see how rage and betrayal drives her to make the decisions she does late in the show's run, climaxing in "Selfless," her best focus episode. Plus, you can't beat that bunny costume.