Having the richly multigenerational entertainment culture that we do, it’s hard to make an inclusive list of the most iconic TV bartenders of all time. Some lists already out there mention characters like Isaac Washington from “The Love Boat,” who somehow survives a protracted aquatic orgy (that’s what the show is, right?) while simultaneously overheating in a red blazer. On the other hand, most millenials are getting their TV fix in shows that don’t feature a bartender regular (unless there’s something we don’t know about “The Walking Dead” or “Supergirl”).
But there are enough iconic TV bartenders out there to pay respect. We don’t honor them just because they were our proxy best buds on a Friday night, when going to an actual bar seemed far too physically demanding. Or illegal. Together, they represent the multifaceted faces of bartenders — real bartenders, working their asses off to keep us happily forgetful of the terrible day we had. And they do it in a variety of ways represented by the bartenders on TV, from the angry lifer (Moe) to the fresh-faced ingénue (Woody) to the sociopathic schemer crew you’d still like to hang out with (everyone from It’s Always Sunny). So cheers to them, and cheers to the future generation of TV bartenders. Or hologram bartenders. However it works in the future.
Moe Syzlak from “The Simpsons” – The Bitter Has-Been
A man with a once-promising boxing career (remember “Kid Presentable”?) turned angry bartender turned—briefly—handsome actor turned angry bartender again. Moe is the archetypal surly bartender with a depressing dark side that his customers are either too drunk or too, yeah, mostly too drunk to take seriously. But like many surly bartenders, he’s got a secret heart of gold, as evidenced when he rescued Homer from what would’ve been a fatal boxing match. Doesn’t react well to prank calls.
Sam Malone from “Cheers” – The Has-Been Womanizer
Sam—sarcastic, sexy in that ‘80s way, the bottled-up bartender you’d secretly like to take home. And he’d be glad to come, as long as he’s gone by sunup. If we’re gonna get all college paper-y, you could say Malone is a bit of a metaphor for masculine aspirationalism: bruised from a fall from glory as a former baseball player, he finds refuge—and phone numbers—from relative “safety” behind the bar. Not a totally unrepentant womanizer, either: a later storyline has him admitting to sex addiction (though they keep it within the laughtrack realm of ‘80s sitcom depth). Sam’s the buddy who’ll make fun of you from across the bar, a bit hard to reach, like real-life bartenders protective of their true personalities in the reliably, or, in Cheers’ case, affably chaotic reality of a bar.
Woody from “Cheers” – The Loveable Goof
Woody is the anti-Sam Malone, but not in the sense that he’s there to vanquish Sam. Just the opposite: innocent, adorably clueless, overly trusting, blonde and so on. He’s the friendly, respectful bartender newbie who kind of never loses his first-day glow (doesn’t hurt that he’s played by no-doubt-awesome-in-real-life-Hemp-hero Woody Harrelson). In a way, Woody’s kind of our role model from across the bar: he’s got the kind of thoughtless but polite self-confidence most bar patrons lack (or just look for it at the bottom of a glass, and we’ll find it one day, by God). Bonus points: in later seasons Woody grew a great mullet. Only forgivable mullet we can think of.
Nick Miller from “New Girl” – The Sad Loveable Goof
Hmm. Maybe Nick Miller’s some kind of modern day Sam Malone. Or a Sam-Woody hybrid, which is meaningless to most Millenials but pretty sure Nick Miller would get the reference, and then talk about how he fears young people. Nick’s layered, attractively gruffy (seriously, never has “I’m halfway to giving up” looked so good), with a “what could have been” vibe wafting out of him, mostly when he’s drunk, which is often. And which is why the bartending gig (maybe a midway point, maybe an end point?) is both the best and worst job he could have. A lost soul, but a friend; kind of the exact person you want on the other side of the bar after any and every shitty day. He can relate, and then make you laugh, quite possibly by embarrassing himself on purpose.
Tara from “True Blood” – The No-Bullshit-or-Bust
Ah, Tara. The bartender, and human being, not to be f*cked with. We met her on the series as Sookie’s (reasonably) angry best friend. Eventually [spoiler alert] she becomes a vampire, but that was only in the final seasons when the show had kind of gone off the rocker (which is saying a lot for a show about vampires, werewolves, and horned goddesses hosting weird woodland orgies). We think her perfect place was behind the bar at Merlotte’s, where being pissed off, efficient (and efficiently pissed off) made her the archetype of the no-bullshit bartender who’s been through so much already, she’s got zero patience. And watch out when you say your drink is water.
Everyone from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – The “What’s Wrong With You” Crew
All but Charlie, that is, since Charlie is responsible for “Charlie Work.” As actual bartenders in real life, Dennis, Mac, and Dee would be absolutely the worst. Come to think of it, as actual people they’d be the worst, too. Sociopathic schemers, bored, deludedly overconfident, probably entirely unsanitary. They’re the guys you see having fun behind the bar who probably don’t care about getting you a drink.
Steve Brady from “Sex and the City” – The New York Classic
Steve is the classic New York bartender. He’s not as angry as Moe, he’s not as gullible as Woody, he’s not as deeply unprofessional as the “It’s Always Sunny” gang. Plus, he loves Miranda. And she’s just the best.