Kids. Nothing can bring a decent plotline to a screeching halt like an underdeveloped child character.

Compelling child characters are a rare breed in films, but perhaps a little less so in TV. In television, we are constantly checking back in with characters, allowing them to grow and endear us in a way that we cannot with film. Nonetheless, there has proven to be a paucity of children’s characters on TV, even with the torrent of family-friendly shows that have always existed.

Writing for kids is (I’m guessing) hard because no one knows how the hell they think. Rather than figure it out, many programs are content simply parade the adorable little moppets around for oohs and aahs, then get back to the adult talk. Essentially, this wastes at least 10% of the screen time the show is afforded.

But some shows got the extra mile and leverage child characters to add depth, perspective, absurdity, and comedy to shows that have strong casts to begin with. Here are some examples of such characters that are every bit as integral to their shows as their older counterparts.

George Michael – Arrested Development

While George Michael is the oldest entrant on this list (assuming you don’t count Lisa Simpson’s ageless presence), he is played with a gentleness that one would never expect from a teenager. While just as warped as the other characters on this show, he is at his best when he’s wearing that vacant look on his face, as if to say, “Why do I feel like I’m the only kid in America that has to deal with this type of thing?”

Sally – Mad Men

In the hands of a lesser actress, the character of Sally Draper would be a catastrophic disappointment, but Kiernan Shipka adds dimensions to Sally that endear us to her as perhaps the show's only completely likable character. We’re four seasons in and still digging away at what the hell is going on in that mind of hers. She seems to have a good heart, despite stealing and masturbating in class, but honestly, who of us can say that we didn’t steal stuff and masturbate in class when we were that age?

While the depth and production values of Mad Men are unparalleled, at the end of the day, it’s nice to have someone to root for. And Sally is just that character on the program, even if what we’re rooting for is to see how dark her character can get.

Michael – The Wire

In a show brimming with characters sending our moral compasses spinning, Michael stood out by showing exactly how a genuinely good person goes bad. We are dropped into the middle of this world for three seasons, and we see how hard it is to leave “the game” and how easy it is to fall back into it (Cutty). But we don’t see how it starts until the fourth season with Michael and the other schoolboys. He isn’t the best gangster of the bunch. He’s the best kid of the bunch. He’s smart and knows right from wrong. However, it quickly appears that there exists only one outlet for those assets, so we see him get scooped up like a #1 draft pick by the game, then watch with fascination where it takes him.

Malcolm – Malcolm in the Middle

Malcolm was never quite smart enough to elicit a cult-status, and wasn’t conventional enough to appeal to the masses, so it sort of lingered in Fox’s lineup, constantly reminding viewers that it was still on the air whenever a promo or bumper appeared during The Simpsons or football. However, Malcolm, both the character and the show, broke new ground on network television by not relegating itself to crudely drawn stereotypes of kids. The airhead, the jock, the nerd. Malcolm was trying to find his place in the family and in the world, and mostly that had to do with dealing with a lot of bullshit.

He contained the DNA of a Nickelodeon character like Pete, or Pete, or Clarissa, but with a bit more intelligence. He’s surrounded by morons that he loves, but he’s smart enough to realize that they are, in fact, morons.

Luke – Modern Family

While Manny is certainly a more beloved character, being all pudgy and romantic, Luke is certainly the more real character. Growing up, I didn’t know any poetic, romantic kids, but I sure did know a lot of kids like Luke. The kids like Luke were fun. And, just like in that one episode, kids like Luke get the girls while sensitive guys like Manny go write sonnets.

He likes to jump on a trampoline with a box on his head, which is something that sounds immensely appealing right now. He also referred to his grandfather’s wife as a “coal digger.” Hard not to like the kid.

Glen – Mad Men

In tandem with Sally (above, stop skipping around my articles and you’d know that), Glen demonstrates how troubled even the innocent can be. Further, Glen is pretty much the only character on the show that actually stands up for another person. He regularly eats shit due to his presumably innocent desire to be with Sally. They are kindred spirits, but Betty’s warped sense of the world keeps them apart. As Glen loses Sally to a move to a nearby city, fans of the show hold out hope that the two can reunite, and frequently, as Glen and Sally present a refreshin break from the whiskey and cigarette-laden world of every other character on the show.

If someone told me that the end of Mad Men would result in a Glen and Sally spinoff for their college years, I would be genuinely excited for the next three years.

Oh, screw it: Glen Bishop for president!

Lisa – The Simpsons

When a show runs for a quarter-century the way The Simpsons has, the characters will become robust and fleshed out regardless of the quality of the writing staff, so the excellent staff from The Simpsons, coupled with the sheer amount of time we’ve spent with these characters, gives us no shortage of compelling kids to choose from.

However, while Bart emerged in early seasons as a crude party-guy (Cowabunga, man!), Lisa maintained a pretty fun dichotomy as both an intelligent voice of reason on the show, and as a dumb, fun kid. And nothing is better on that show than watching those two factions wage war, such as in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” when she is constantly interrupted during spiel about the elitist nature of country clubs by galloping horses until she finally can’t take it anymore and runs after the horse.

Over time, Bart has developed more facets, but Lisa was robust from the beginning, being perhaps the only voice of reason on the show (aside from Superintendent Chalmers) that reminds us how dumb and funny this community can be.