ENTERTAINMENT
06/06/2016 08:03 am ET

18 Wise TV Narrators, Ranked

We couldn't help but wonder, who is the best?
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In television, the narrator is our sensei. Like a heavenly guidepost, the voice emanating from a protagonist's head or an outsider's scrutiny shepherds the story across multiple seasons. Narrators often set the tone and provide insight, and in turn they become some of their shows' most beloved characters. 

In keeping, we decided to rank a handful of them. From Kevin Arnold to Gossip Girl, we selected narrators -- often omniscient, (almost) always poetic -- who have defined the past few decades of television. This is not a comprehensive list, so our apologies to Ted Mosby, whose "How I Met Your Mother" narration ultimately dampened the show's premise. Ditto the raconteurs of "Revenge," "Burn Notice," "Red Band Society" and any other series we omitted. Frankly, this list had to end somewhere. It also has to begin somewhere, and that is with a dead girl. 

  • 18 George Lass, "Dead Like Me"
    George Lass narrates from the afterlife, having become a grim reaper at the age of 18. Her droll observations give "Dead Like Me" much of its comedic bent, but it's George's all-business approach to the great philosophies of life that offer profundity. Death is inevitable, and in some ways beautiful, she reminds us. "Everyone always says the same shit at funerals," George states in the pilot. "They talk about how sweet, wonderful and oh-so-full-of-life you were, how it was your time and you can't question God's plan. They never say anything bad. You could be the biggest turd in the toilet bowl and you'd still come out smelling like a rose."
  • 17 Earl Hickey, "My Name Is Earl"
    Earl Hickey is a reformed country-bumpkin criminal, enacting a karmic mission to right his many wrongs. Across four seasons of NBC's successful comedy, his internal monologue tells us things like, "I knew something was wrong because no self-respecting man would ever turn down a talking monkey." Somehow, he always has a point.
  • 16 Anonymous recapper, "Wife Swap"
    There's a lot of backstory to cover on any given episode of "Wife Swap," the British import where families trade matriarchs for two weeks in hopes of ... well, who knows why they do it. The anonymous narrator treats the show as some sort of inter-class social experiment. Really, it's just an hour of drama that chugs along according to a motor-mouth dude who sets up scenes with bubbly commentary that carries a tinge of judgment.
  • 15 Veronica Mars, "Veronica Mars"
    When Veronica Mars called herself a "marshmallow," a legion of fans was born. "Mars" inhabitants began calling themselves the Marshmallows, which became a signature part of the campaign to make a movie after the show was canceled. It all stemmed from Veronica's internal monologue (and a little tip from her pal Wallace).
  • 14 Elliot Alderson, "Mr. Robot"
    Elliot's schizophrenia and unbridled discomfort in his own skin make him television's primo unreliable narrator. This is one complicated guy, undercutting his loneliness by hacking acquaintances' personal accounts. Through the intense first-person experience seen in the Fincher-esque "Mr. Robot," we learn that Elliot has constructed his own sense of right and wrong inside his thorny head. Elliot's instability makes the journey all the more thrilling.
  • 13 Meredith Grey, "Grey's Anatomy"
    Meredith Grey is a pop-psychology godsend. Your internal diary is jealous of her introspection, which underscores the themes of every "Grey's Anatomy" episode. She speaks of love's boundaries and setting secrets free and "forever stumbling, forever wondering, forever young." For someone so indecisive, no one reflects on her relationships or a day at work as eloquently as Meredith Grey.
  • 12 J.D., "Scrubs"
    Dr. John Michael Dorian is in constant dialogue with himself. J.D. isn't exactly omniscient -- he is often clueless about what is entering others people's brains. But he is sure is plugged into his own goofy ineptitude, like in Season 4, when he tells a girlfriend he likes politics and then says in voice-over, "What are you doing? You don't know anything about politics! You're screwed unless she asks about Bush or the bald assistant president who has all those heart attacks."
  • 11 Dexter Morgan, "Dexter"
    Dexter Morgan only knows what's floating through his own mind, but it layers the dark Showtime drama with a reflective take on sociopathy. He often responds to others in his head before uttering anything aloud. He can also be heard debating his murder skills and willing himself into (non-)action with thoughts like, "I will not kill my sister, I will not kill my sister, I will not kill my sister." This peek into Dexter's intellect fosters a deep connection with the audience. Unlike other characters on the show, we share a deadly secret with the sympathetic serial killer.
  • 10 Gossip Girl, "Gossip Girl"
    Spotted for six seasons of the popular CW drama: Gossip Girl dripping with antipathy. Though unidentified until the series finale, Gossip Girl -- via the preppy sounds of Kristen Bell -- reports on the happenings of the Upper East Side's bourgeois prep-school social scene. Many of her rumors teeter somewhere between speculative and vicious, but that's what makes it all so delicious. XOXO.
  • 9 Older Chris, "Everybody Hates Chris"
    Chris Rock once received a pitch from a Fox exec that went something like this: your childhood in TV-show form, narrated by present-day you, "Wonder Years" style. It took some convincing, but Rock agreed, and for four seasons, he lent sarcastic narrations to the semi-autobiographical "Everybody Hates Chris." Ambitious but luckless, Chris navigates lower-middle-class life as the only black kid at school. But adult Chris makes no bones about being the butt of everyone's jokes, and the series is stronger for it. We know he'll be okay. Adolescence isn't so bad -- once it's over.
  • 8 Amy Jellicoe, "Enlightened"
    Ah, the dulcet tones of Laura Dern's spiritually awakened narrations on "Enlightened." The short-lived HBO dramedy wouldn't be as poignant without them. Her character, Amy Jellicoe, is anything but omniscient, unable to overcome the self-absorption that led to her downfall in the first place. But don't tell Amy that. Contradicting many of her actions, Amy's musings are rich with New Age personal-growth postulations. They're also what make you feel for her in spite of her haplessness. Like all of us, Amy is just trying to find herself. Her meditations may, in fact, break your heart, like this one from Season 1: "You can try to escape the story of your life. But you can't. It happened. The baby died. The dog died. The heart broke. I knew you when you were young. I know your heart broke, too. I will know you when we are both old. And maybe wise. I hope wise. I know you now. Your story. Mine isn't the one I would have chosen in the beginning. But I'll take it. It is my story. It's only mine. And it's not over. There's time. There is time. There's so much time."
  • 7 Narrator, "Arrested Development"
    Ron Howard is practically a member of the Bluth family, even though his identity as a narrator is never explained on "Arrested Development." With jaunty nonchalance, he shepherds us from one mishap to the next, revealing subtle twists, zany motivations and anecdotes like Gob's dead childhood parakeet. No one can zing a Bluth like Howard's deadpan narration can. Barring the iffy Netflix revival, this show famously didn't survive three seasons of murky ratings, partly because its format was novel when "Development" premiered in 2003. Howard's narration was among that originality, considering it was rare for sitcoms to use callbacks and in-jokes to extend the story.
  • 6 Mary Alice Young, "Desperate Housewives"
    Every episode of "Desperate Housewives" begins with the polished Mary Alice Young recounting the events of Wisteria Lane. Even if the series doesn't maintain the momentum of its tremendous first season, "Housewives" banked a killer premise: Mary Alice mysteriously commits suicide and then narrates her friends' grapevine from beyond the grave, like a suburban "Tales From the Crypt." In flashbacks, Brenda Strong's angelic voice appears in three-dimensional form, giving Mary Alice added gravitas. She is sympathetic toward each housewife, acting as the audience's lantern amid all the dalliances, backstabbing and breakdowns.
  • 5 Latin Lover, "Jane the Virgin"
    Latin Lover turns "Jane the Virgin" into a telenova-style soap opera, unveiling twists and poking fun at the show's drama. His cheeky narration makes him a character of his own, partly because he speaks for the audience as much as he does the characters he channels. Anthony Mendez, who plays the Latin Lover, garnered the first season's sole Emmy nomination.
  • 4 Angela Chase, "My So-Called Life"
    No teen character on TV is as reliable as Angela Chase, mostly because Angela Chase tells us exactly what she is feeling. And everything Angela Chase feels is real: her crush on Jordan Catalano, her tension with her longtime friend Sharon, the prosaic pressures of high school. Claire Danes' voice-overs are like diary entries that you might have actually written at the ripe age of 15, anxious and semi-hopeful without becoming maudlin. In Angela, we are reminded that teen confusion, for all its imperfections, is perfect.
  • 3 British narrator, "Pushing Daisies"
    In world where "quirky" is tossed about far too liberally, "Pushing Daisies" earns the adjective. Jim Dale's silvery English lilt carries us through the candy-coated ABC dramedy, which was canceled after two brief but wonderful seasons. This omniscient narrator's matter-of-fact observations supply many of the comedic effects, heightening the adult fairy tale about a pie-maker who can revive the dead. "Sometimes a crime of passion is not realizing the passion in time," the narrator tells us in Season 1. "While other times the crime is not seeing the world as it is. But most crimes of passion are actually a crime." This show is anything but.
  • 2 Carrie Bradshaw, "Sex and the City"
    Meanwhile, is there a more envied TV narrator than Carrie Bradshaw? Think of all the things she "wondered": whether sex can exist without politics, whether you can ever escape your past, whether we are 34 going on 13, whether men are just women with balls. She is the modern urban professional's pope, holding it together on the outside (mostly) while falling down flaky, analytical rabbit holes on the inside -- and threading the show's plots by writing her titular column in voice-over form. Carrie Bradshaw, so confident and yet so unsettled. Just what we need.
  • 1 Kevin Arnold in his mid-30s, "The Wonder Years"
    Before anyone laid eyes on 12-year-old Kevin Arnold, we were greeted with the sound of his wise voice. "There's no pretty way to put this: I grew up in the suburbs," mid-30s Kevin announces at the start of the "Wonder Years" pilot, which aired in 1988. Over the course of six seasons, Kevin becomes a proxy for every American teen boy, or anyone who'd ever been a teen boy, or anyone who'd ever known a teen boy. (Shout-out to Winnie Cooper!) Voiced by Daniel Stern, older Kevin teaches us that we may not grasp our teenage confusions until much later -- and that's okay.

    With the Vietnam War in the background and Kevin's maturity evolving in real time, "The Wonder Years" popularized the almighty future-self narrator in prime-time. Without him, the show wouldn't have been the same. "Growing up happens in a heartbeat," Kevin sagely told us in the series' final moments. "One day, you're in diapers; next day, you're gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place ... a town ... a house ... like a lot of other houses -- a yard like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back with wonder." We do too.
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