While film is considered a director’s medium, television has and always will belong to the writers. Every show you’ve ever loved was concocted by a roomful of creatives bouncing ideas off each other. Every plot, every character arc, and every twist was at one point put down on paper by a talented writer.
One of the flashiest ways a writer can demonstrate their prowess is with a monologue. The monologue can lay bare the motivations of the character, can strengthen a relationship, and sometimes, it can cement the theme of the entire series.
We’ve put together a list honoring the best speeches and monologues in the history of television. As you can imagine, it was hard to narrow it down to just 15. Oftentimes, if a show had one great monologue, then it probably had several great monologues. We limited ourselves to just one monologue per show, because we didn’t want half of the entries to be from The West Wing.
Here are the 15 Greatest Monologues in TV History.
15. “America is Not the Greatest Country” – The Newsroom
Say what you will about the later seasons of The Newsroom, but the show begins masterfully. Aaron Sorkin (who, rest assured, will make more than one appearance on this list) may draw criticisms for injecting too many of his own beliefs into his writing and veering into preachy-ness at times. While this monologue from the pilot certainly had the potential to lean that way, the writing is so sharp and the performance by Jeff Daniels is so impassioned, it’s impossible to not be swept up in it.
Spurred on by the bickering of his fellow political panelists, and hallucinations of a woman from his past, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) lets his frustration get the better of him and delivers a scathing response to a student’s question of why America is the greatest country on earth. “It’s not. It’s not the greatest country on earth,” Will says to the stunned crowd. He then goes on to deliver a blistering, rapid fire takedown of the student’s question, firing off statistics and insults without pausing to breathe. Midway through his cruel, pessimistic speech, he leans into the past, and waxes nostalgic for the America he remembers. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the character’s politics or not. This monologue arrests the audience’s attention and doesn’t let go. It lays out a sprawling, angry mission statement for the controversial, messy, and ambitious show to come.
14. Alicia Breaks Down – The Good Wife
Sometimes the most shocking monologues in film and television can just come from speaking completely and totally honestly. In day to day life, we spend so much time sidestepping the truth, either to avoid confrontation or judgement or embarrassing ourselves. So to hear a character in a television show say exactly how she is feeling, with an unrelenting, unpleasant, devastating honesty, it reads to us as shocking.
This is the philosophy behind this brutal monologue in The Good Wife. Lucca (Cush Jumbo) approaches Alicia (Juliana Margulies) and invites her to open up about her grief. Once she does, everything pours out of the series’ heroine. She describes the death of her husband. She admits she may not even like her kids. She confesses she’s tired of it all, the laundry, the house, the everything. The writing is focused and deeply personal, but also universal. Simple statements like “I’m not built to be an unhappy person” resonate with everyone who has experienced grief. The acting by Margulies is striking and feels deeply authentic.
13. “Bros Before Hoes” – The Office
There is a plethora of great monologues to choose from in the American version of The Office (as well as the original, British version, for that matter). Pam’s assertion of confidence at the end of “Beach Games” is inspiring. Michael’s musings at the end of Women’s Appreciation Day are hilarious. In the end, we chose to go with a short, simple, to-the-camera monologue delivered by Michael Scott. We’re talking about the classic “Bros before hoes” speech.
“Bros before hoes” exemplifies everything that was wonderful about the character of Michael Scott. After getting dumped, an emotional Scott addresses the camera, explaining the philosophy behind the phrase “bros before hoes”. The direct camera interviews are always a great opportunity for Michael to spout what he sees as wise, philosophical thoughts. As often happens though, Michael gets caught up in his initial phrasing, and proceeds to label his former lovers as “hoes” throughout his passionate speech, building to the final, hilarious line, “suddenly, she’s not your hoe no mo.” Steve Carrell is wonderful as always, playing up the emotional truth of the ridiculous monologue. We sympathize with Michael even as we laugh at his misguided attempts at deep relationship advice.
12. Ophelia Brushes Annalise’s Hair – How to Get Away With Murder
This chilling, nuanced, and devastating monologue from How to Get Away with Murder just about guaranteed Cicely Tyson an Emmy nomination that year. In the episode, Annalise (Viola Davis) is visited by her mother, Ophelia. Old memories and tensions resurface, specifically the fact that Ophelia’s brother raped Annalise as a child, and she’s held a simmering resentment for her mother ever since. This dam of tensions breaks in this jaw-dropping scene, when Ophelia goes to brush her daughter’s hair and tell a story about their old house.
The staging of this monologue is brilliant. Annalise slumps to the floor, taking on a very childlike, vulnerable position as her mother begins to brush her hair. As Ophelia weaves her gripping, awful story, Annalise begins to realize the sacrifice her mother made for her, and the horrible things she did to seek justice for her family. Tyson’s voice quivers with emotion and simmering anger, and the always incredible Viola Davis registers the shock and emotions completely truthfully. The scene gives us chills every time we watch it.
11. “Clear Eyes, Full Heart” – Friday Night Lights
There was no shortage of inspirational Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) speeches to pick from in Friday Night Lights. Really, it came down to a toss-up between this speech, and the “We will all fall” speech from the pilot episode. In the end, we went for this uplifting locker room speech, but both are certainly worth your time, as is the rest of this wonderful show.
The locker room speech has become almost cliche in modern pop culture, but when written specifically and delivered appropriately, it still has the ability to inspire and uplift audiences. This is exactly what Coach Taylor’s “clear eyes, full heart” speech does. In this scene, Taylor instills in his players the value of perseverance, even when it seems as if everyone has given up on you. This battle is not over, he promises the young athletes. Chandler’s comforting, paternal voice guides us through this powerfully written speech, and inspires us as much as it does the football players in that locker room.
10. “Risk” – Star Trek
Though people love to poke fun and parody William Shatner’s performance as Captain Kirk in Star Trek, we can’t overlook how memorable and iconic he made that character. Throughout the seasons, Shatner revealed a Star Captain who was bold, brash, adventurous and compassionate. Kirk set a new standard for TV protagonists. We loved to join him and the entire Enterprise crew on their voyages to the outer reaches of space.
In this rousing monologue, Kirk lays out one of his underlying philosophies. He extols the benefits of risk. He praises the innovations that have led them to where they are now, and pleads with his crew to continue pushing the boundaries of science and exploration. This monologue encapsulates everything that we love about Kirk as a character. His curiosity and thirst for adventure knows no bounds. He cares about his crew, but he also cares deeply about the human race, and knows that to survive, you have to keep moving forward. Those who let fear of the unknown stop them from exploring grow to be stagnant. That’s a mantra we can get behind!
9. “Maternity Care” – House of Cards
House of Cards provides us with another goldmine of fantastic television monologues. The story of Frank Underwood and his wife ascending to power has captured the attention of millions of Netflix subscribers. There’s a perverse joy in seeing two unscrupulous people connive, manipulate, and cheat their way to the top of the political food chain. Frank has some deliciously villainous speeches, but we wanted to dig a little deeper for this one.
Claire Underwood may not be the face on the Netflix icon for House of Cards, but Robin Wright’s portrayal of the character has made her one of the most compelling parts of this series. This monologue finds her in full on villain mode, with her twisting a metaphorical knife in the back of a former employee. Underwood almost seems to take glee in manipulating the woman and hoisting herself up another rank on the power ladder. The writing, as always, is horrifyingly cruel. Wright has won a Golden Globe and been nominated for several Emmys for her performance, and from this clip alone, it’s easy to see why.
8. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” – Scandal
Kerry Washington gets to deliver some of the most intense burns in television history as Olivia Pope on Scandal. Her character is fiery, independent, and ambitious. In one of the most famous speeches on the show, she fires off a numerical takedown of her former lover, Edison Davis (Norm Lewis) after he accuses her of something very serious.
In this scene, Pope returns home to find a very grave Davis in her apartment. She dodges his questions at first, but then he hits her with a whopper of an accusation: she was the President’s mistress. Something snaps in Pope, and she spits back a smoldering retort that would most people a blubbering mess. The writers came up with a particularly juicy format for this monologue, giving her five points to count backwards from. Monologues like this are why Scandal has become one of the most popular television shows of the new millennium.
7. “We Were So Beautiful” – Misfits
Shouting from a rooftop to a group of his peers, waving a gun around, Nathan (Robert Sheehan) makes a passionate ode to youth. “We’re supposed to drink too much! We’re supposed to have bad attitudes!” he screams to the crowd of onlookers. This funny, and also somehow poignant speech, represents a high point in the British series Misfits.
What’s so wonderful about this monologue is the exasperated earnestness that Sheehan delivers it with. He’s not winking at the adults in the audience at all. Not unlike Michael Scott in an earlier entry, he truly believes he’s expounding a deep, universal truth. He’s just doing it using a fairly silly rhetoric. “It breaks my heart; you’re wearing cardigans!” he cries to the teenagers below him. As audience members, we laugh, but we also see ourselves in Nathan. This wiry kid, clawing and screaming and crying for his lost youth is somehow inspiring. And it all culminates with that wonderful line: “WE WERE SO BEAUTIFUL!”
6. The Shepherd’s Speech – A Charlie Brown Christmas
The majority of monologues on this list are angry, vicious, and cruel. And that’s okay! We go to television for drama, and anger is dramatic. But there’s another note that great television monologues can hit: hope. Linus’ “shepard’s” speech from A Charlie Brown Christmas represents the peak of sincerity for this list. It’s wholesome, heartwarming, and just plain endearing. There’s a reason this fifty year old cartoon is still shown on television every Christmas. It’s message is completely sincere, and entirely universal. And it is all laid out by Linus in this lovely little speech.
After being laughed at and called a failure by every kid in town, and even his dog, Charlie Brown cries out “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” He is fed up and frustrated with the commercial aspect of Christmas (a topic that is still as hot today as it was in 1965). Linus, the source of parental wisdom in the show, replies simply, “well, sure Charlie Brown.” He then takes the stage and tells the Bible story of the shepherds, ending with the line “goodwill toward Man.” He walks off the stage and quietly says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Not such a bad message for a children’s cartoon.
5. Bible Lesson – The West Wing
To be honest, we probably could have created an entire list just featuring President Bartlet monologues. One of the most brilliant and memorable characters created by Aaron Sorkin, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was warm, practical, and compassionate. And most importantly, he always stood up for what he believed was right. There are plenty of speeches throughout The West Wing that prove this, but our particular favorite is the one we’ve shared above.
In this exhilarating and satisfying monologue, President Bartlet takes a religious pundit to task for her stance on homosexuality. Using specific other examples from the Bible, Barlet makes an informed, educated takedown of her argument, citing specific chapters and verses that are no longer considered relevant in our culture. The pundit sits stone faced as Bartlet absolutely decimates her argument. As a final cherry on top, he reprimands her for remaining seated when the President enters the room. Has there been a cooler TV President? That’s a question for another article (but the answer is definitely no).
4. Tyrion’s Big Moment – Game of Thrones
One of several rallying cries to make this list, Tyrion delivers an exceptionally exciting one during the battle of Blackwater Bay in season two of Game of Thrones. With Stannis’ army pounding at their doors, the mood among the soldiers is understandably bleak. Tyrion, displaying a previously unseen heroism, rallies them by cutting to the truth of the matter.
Don’t fight for your king, he calls. Don’t fight for your kingdom. Fight for your home. The men begin to murmur in agreement. Tyrion, who appears to psych himself up as much as he is psyching up his soldiers, grows louder and more impassioned as the drumming on their door booms louder. “Those are some brave men knocking at our door,” he shouts. “Let’s go kill them.”
Game of Thrones is at it’s best when it is defying expectations and subverting tropes. By undercutting a potentially cliche rallying scene with this blunt, simple, funny coda, this speech provides a brilliant microcosm for the entire show.
3. Chosen – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Leave it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to show you how to deliver an inspirational speech. Speaking to a roomful of disillusioned, defeated women, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) calls them to arms. She asks that they put aside their differences and stand together against a unique threat. She entreats them to not waste time wishing that things were different, but rather spend time choosing the way in which to handle problems. This ability to choose is what gives them power, she argues.
Buffy goes on to stand up for girls all over the world. In a montage, we see girls everywhere making their choices and choosing to stand up. “Make your choice,” Buffy calls out to all the potential slayers out there. “Are you ready to be strong?” It maybe wouldn’t be a bad idea to listen to this speech on Youtube next time you have a big presentation in school, or a project due at work.
2. “Nostalgia” – Mad Men
At the center of Mad Men lies the enigma of Don Draper. The mystery surrounding Draper’s past informs much of the show. Early on, we’re only given glimpses of the former life this brilliant ad man used to lead. In his pitch for a new Kodak camera, Draper gives us a telling glimpse at his philosophy regarding the past.
In his pitch, Draper begins by arguing that “new” isn’t necessarily the biggest selling point for a new product. “Nostalgia” he asserts, can be just as powerful, if not moreso. The word “nostalgia”, in Greek, literally translates to “the pain from an old wound” he tells the hushed room of investors. As he speaks, he flashes old photographs of him with his family on the screen. Draper suggests this product isn’t a wheel — it’s a carousel. Hamm’s delivery is measured and professional, but we can tell that just below, the surface, pain and emotions are churning like an ocean surf. As the music swells, and the images flash on the screen, it’s hard not to get chills.
1. “I Am the One Who Knocks” – Breaking Bad
Topping our list of greatest TV monologues is this instantly iconic diatribe delivered by Chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). If you’ve seen Breaking Bad, you know what monologue this is. Even if you haven’t seen the show, you probably know what monologue this is. The piece was so well written and so well acted, it immediately entered the cultural lexicon as a reference point for television badassery.
Late in season four, Walter is in a fight with his wife, Skyler. She begs him to quit making meth, to turn himself into the police before he gets killed. Skyler doesn’t realize until it’s too late that she has bruised a dangerous man’s sense of self worth. Walt launches into a Shakespearean tirade of a monologue, aggrandizing himself and grooming his ego. If he quits, he says, an entire company goes belly-up overnight. She’s worried about him getting killed? He doesn’t get killed. He is the danger. He is the one who knocks.
What truly propels this speech into television glory is Cranston’s flicker of regret and shame at the end of the monologue. It only lasts for a moment, but we see actual fear cross his face as he realizes what he’s become. That’s some damn good television.
Do you have any beloved TV monologues that didn’t make our list? Let us know in the comments!