Singling out the greatest Texas characters in TV history is tricky. You can’t have memorable characters without memorable—or in most cases, long-running—shows, which are pretty rare. For every Dallas there’s a Cutter to Houston or a Houston Knights or a Matt Houston . You could also fill a list entirely with Texas Rangers, especially if you include miniseries (e.g., Lonesome Dove and Texas). We stuck to episodic television, but still made room for three of the state’s talismanic law enforcement officers.
As the two best Texas shows to come along during the recent golden age, Friday Night Lights and King of the Hill could provide half a dozen entries just by themselves, but we decided to keep it to one entry per show. The best of these characters would be iconic no matter where they were from, but really, how could they be from anywhere but Texas? No state better lends itself to dreaming up larger-than-life figures.
1. Hank Hill
King of the Hill
Voiced by Mike Judge
Yup. He’s got the riding lawn mower, the dog named Ladybird, and the old high school football injury. Most days, he prefers to think inside the box. But Hank also married a Montana girl, found his way to yoga class, and put in his hours at the natural-foods co-op (to get himself some grass-fed beef). Created by Austin resident Mike Judge ( Beavis and Butt-Head , Office Space ) and TV pro Greg Daniels ( The Simpsons, The Office ), Hank is where the fifties Texas man transformed into the twenty-first-century American. He’s got a firm sense of right and wrong, a stubborn streak, and a truck. He’s a better father than his own father—it sure doesn’t come easy—not to mention fellow cartoon dad Homer Simpson. In fact, he’s more complex and three-dimensional than any TV dad since Bill Cosby. Hank was us, grappling with his family and a changing country just as surely as Duane from The Last Picture Show and Texasville. But sorry, Hank. Most Texans do prefer charcoal.
2. Tami Taylor
Friday Night Lights
Played by Connie Britton
The secret of Friday Night Lights : It’s actually a chick show. The secret of Texas: The women are in charge. Tami is both a small-town society wife (much as she strains against those obligations) and a no-nonsense Ann Richards stateswoman as high school principal. Sometimes she is a paragon of supportiveness and understanding; other times she’s easily frustrated by her teenage daughter and football-focused husband. Much like her laconic other half, she can be a woman of few words. She’s “Mrs. Coach” but not a booster—the one person in Dillon who doesn’t think football is the most important thing. Friday Night Lights is about a lot of things other than football, but the one subject that recurs throughout is parenthood. Tami is the mother to us all.
3. J. R. Ewing
Played by Larry Hagman
He’s one sorry human being: a vain, selfish workaholic who cheats on his wife repeatedly and widely; treats his family like crap; and thinks that he’s above the law. And yet you always secretly wanted him to get away with it all. In other words, he’s a lot like Tony Soprano or Don Draper. Though Dallas may not have the psychological complexity of today’s dark TV cable shows, you can’t say J. R. Ewing wasn’t ahead of his time. The ultimate villain was practically an accident—the show was originally meant to focus more on Pam and Bobby—and so was the ultimate TV cliff-hanger (the “Who Shot J.R.?” story was created in a rush, because the network wanted two more episodes that season and because Hagman was about to hold out for more money). Hagman’s deliciously evil, undeniably charming snake-oil salesman upped the ante on prime-time bad behavior. You’d like to think that if the show were on today, J.R. would own a Dallas sports team.
4. The Lone Ranger
The Lone Ranger
Played by Clayton Moore and John Hart
Most of the action in the great TV and movie westerns happened in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, or just the generic frontier, but The Lone Ranger was always ours, starting with the radio show in 1933: Texas Ranger captain Reid, the lone survivor of an ambush by the Cavendish gang, who killed five of his compadres, including his own brother (in the pilot, Tonto helps him make the mask out of his dead brother’s vest). He vows to clean up the Southwest Territory on his own, without shooting to kill. Six decades later, the show seems rudimentary and also rather campy, but high-minded frontier justice never goes out of style, and that mask is more recognizable than anybody’s cowboy hat.
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5. Jessica Simpson
Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica
“Played” by Jessica Simpson
When it comes to Texas blondes, truth has always been stranger (and funnier and sexier and sadder) than fiction, from Farrah to the Cowboys Cheerleaders to Anna Nicole Smith. No TV writer could have come up with a dad who brags to the media about his daughter’s “double Ds,” as Joe Simpson infamously did. Playing herself, Jessica was powerfully gorgeous, famously scatterbrained, and admirably incapable of hiding her thoughts, however spoiled or dumb (“Is this fish or chicken?” she once asked, while eating a bowl of tuna. “I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘Chicken By the Sea’”). She was a screwball heroine, with dim-bulb frat boy Nick as a fine foil, and the fact that their unequal, often dreary marriage didn’t take gives the show something like posthumous poignancy. Nobody much liked the “sequel” with Tony Romo, though.
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6. Cordell Walker
Walker, Texas Ranger
Played by Chuck Norris
Just knowing that he had a first name kind of ruins the badass factor, doesn’t it? This show was extremely popular, both with the older viewers, who once