It happens to everyone: You’ll be watching one of your favorite TV shows, seeing a great movie, or reading an excellent book, when suddenly a character shows up, and your only reaction is, “Wait—who is that again?” Some pop culture, no matter the quality, just has too many damn characters to keep track of. To celebrate HBO’s upcoming Night Of Too Many Stars comedy fundraising special, The A.V Club has put together a list of some of the most iconic and noteworthy entertainment that simply has too many characters to try and remember.
With his World War II epic Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan captured the confusion of warfare not only through his signature sound design of mutters and explosions, but by casting dozens of slender, hollow-eyed, mostly brunette young men to hide in drab beige uniforms. Keeping track of who’s who is next to impossible and, one surmises, largely the point, although it does make it slightly difficult to form any sort of emotional attachment to them—especially amid the constant guessing game of which one is Harry Styles. Ironically, the one character who does stick out is Tom Hardy, and he spends the entire movie inside a flight helmet.
Whether you’re reading one of George R.R. Martin’s brick-sized novels or tuning in for the HBO series, there’s approximately zero chance you’ll be able to keep track of every single recurring character in Game Of Thrones, and not just because half of them are one-letter-off equivalents like Dickon and Rickon. (And there’s more than one Rickon.) Every book and season seems to introduce dozens of new people, all of them with unusual names that you’ll forget shortly after they introduce themselves. It’s why “Hot Pie” is a good name—at least you’ll remember that.
There are enough truly great characters in The Stand—Stephen King’s best-selling attempt to merge modern biological paranoia, old-fashioned Americana, and a healthy blend of Tolkien-inspired fantasy wandering into one single, massive doorstopper of a tome—that you could subject the vast majority of them to deadly superflu Captain Trips without losing any of what made King’s book such an endlessly compelling, terrifying read. At a whopping 463 named characters—in the unedited, extended edition King eventually released after the book’s initial success, anyway—you could edit out literally hundreds of cast members, and still leave plenty of room for fan-favorites like Nick Andros, The Trashcan Man, and The Walkin’ Dude himself, recurring King bad guy Randall Flagg.
When Robert Kirkman began his zombie survival series, it was fundamentally about what happens after the credits roll—when the apocalypse ends, and life goes on for the survivors. Unfortunately, that also meant the longer it ran, the longer the laundry list of people who have come and gone, ripped apart by walkers or just done in by good old-fashioned human nature. From one-and-done nobodies to long-running characters, it’s hard to not eventually strain to recall just who the hell all those people were at the farmhouse in season two.
It’s hard enough to keep track of all the kung-fu fighting humans, aliens, demons, and robots that appeared throughout the various Dragon Ball series, but it becomes flat-out ridiculous when you pack them all into a single video game. Released in 2007, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 did exactly that, assembling pretty much every named character that had appeared in all three anime series and the many Dragon Ball movies into one of the largest rosters a fighting game has ever seen. Navigating that sea of saiyans and D-list movie villains to find the character you actually want (Yajirobe, of course) is a saga unto itself.
David Simon’s sprawling, multitiered crime drama dives headlong into the tangled world of Baltimore, from the street to the halls of power. Keeping tabs on who everyone is would be a full-time job—just ask one of the special task forces trying to untangle the knotty criminal organizations under investigation. Plus, each season focuses on an entirely different part of the city, meaning, “Wait, who is that again?” becomes a common refrain when watching.
Springfield’s residents may be one of the most beloved character ensembles in the history of television, but there’s also a hell of a lot of them. Sure, it’s easy to name regulars like Sideshow Bob, Carl, and Apu, but once you get past the Rods and Tods, things get a little blurrier—which is to be expected after 29 seasons. Not every one-off character can be as indelible as poor Frank Grimes.
Keeping track of actors in a war drama where young, clean-cut twentysomethings are clad in identical uniforms and covered dirt is already something of a losing game. HBO’s 2001 Band Of Brothers miniseries made things even harder by jumping back and forth between the actors and their real-life inspirations, following Easy Company as they ventured farther and farther behind enemy lines in WWII Europe. Over the course of the show’s 10 episodes, about 50 different actors-as-soldiers are featured, some in every episode, and some just a few times. Telling the difference between them isn’t made any easier by the fact that characters are interchangeably referred to by both nicknames—“Shifty,” “Bull,” “Skinny,” “Babe,” etc.—and proper names.
Grey’s Anatomy started out with a healthy cast of characters, its five interns under the supervision of a variety of accomplished (and sexy) surgeons. But as those interns became attendings, new crops of baby-faced novices arrived just about every year; now in its 14th season, the show’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital can barely keep track of its own rapidly revolving roster. Some culling would be very welcome—otherwise how are we supposed to know whose inappropriate work relationship we’re supposed to care about the most?
Keeping track of Tatiana Maslany’s multiplying clones is only half the battle in this breakneck sci-fi drama; each season also brings another party or few to the conspiracy against them, further obscuring who exactly has a stake in this grand experiment and why. The show also liked to bring back characters after long absences, forcing audiences to pore over old plots like Cosima sequencing that genome.