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"He's willing to be second best, the perfect lodger, the perfect guest..."
—Bob Seger, "Beautiful Loser"
They're usually competent, skilled, or (if it is romance we are talking about) relatively inoffensive at least. But they never quite succeed. There's usually some character (usually, but not always, the protagonist) who beats them. If it wasn't for That One Person they'd be number one, but they aren't.
Compare Can't Catch Up. The Worf Barrage. Romantic Runner-Up is a version of this character specific to romance stories. Poor Man's Substitute is the version where a character acts as a poor replacement. When it's more perceived than actual, it's Always Someone Better.
- Yuuya from Super Gals, nicknamed "Second Place", always playing second fiddle to everyone else. In a rather sweet note he ends up with The Rival and the last episode shows them running around town winning contests...
- To some degree Rock Lee from Naruto fits this trope: He is usually described as (and shown as) one of the strongest of the younger ninjas... But never actually wins (although he always gives a good account of himself)
- He curb-stomps both Naruto and Sasuke. He even went as far as to one-shot the main character, Naruto. Lee beat his double in Shippuden. I know what you're thinking: "How hard is it to beat yourself?" Well, think about it. This is Rock Lee we're talking about, one of the best taijutsu specialists in Konoha; when you take that into consideration, taking out his double is quite a feat.
- The reason why Sasuke betrayed Konoha in the first place. He was second best to Itachi and felt that he would become second best to Naruto.
- Vegeta of Dragonball Z. He's practically the poster boy for this trope.
- Mello from Death Note. He joins the mafia, kidnaps poor little Sayu, kills Souichiro, kidnaps Takada, and gets his best friend killed - all in the name of being better than Near at the "L's Successor" game.
- Meanwhile, Near feels the same way with L, only in the "Greatest-Detective" game
- Oh God the Deimon Devil Bats. In the earlier half of the series, they managed to beat weak teams like the Cupids or the Chameleons, but lost against strong teams like the White Knights, the Aliens, and at best tied with the Sphinx. (Technically winning because the Sphinx didn't want to fight the Aliens after such a hard battle anyway.) They got better as the series went on, but through out the entire series, you could never be so sure that they were going to win or not.
- Parodied with Saburo Mitsui, kicker for the Hakushu Dinosaurs who always tries to be third best at everything.
- Gaka Izumi from Flunk Punk Rumble. A formidable fighter/student on his own accord, but it's practically a running gag that he's only second to Hana and Chiba at strength and academics, respectively.
- Yzak Joule from Gundam Seed. He manages to be great at everything, but always ends up losing to Athrun Zala at all that at the same time. Guess what place he ranked among the Red Suits upon graduation.
- Kyo in Fruits Basket.
- Some think that this is Ryouga's fate in Ranma ½; no matter how much he tries he will always be the runner up to Ranma. Others note that by simply matter-of-fact comparing their track records and stats he has beaten Ranma twice as many times.
- This is the defining trope of Special A, with Hikari forever trying (and failing) to beat Kei at anything.
- Pokémon's Ash Ketchum has participated in 4 major league tournaments, and the best he has accomplished is to reach the semifinals.
- Except for the Orange Island Leagues (a filler arc), which he actually won. Though it doesn't seem to be anything special as it was never mentioned again, nor did the Orange Islands appear in any of the games. Gets really strange in the later seasons when his Pokemon should be the equivalent of level 100 by now.
- The Sun/Moon anime finally put an end to this by having Ash win the Alola League.
- Koujirou Hyuuga from Captain Tsubasa is a very good player, but not good enough to beat Tsubasa. This is played for drama towards the final episodes of the original series, during the third Championship final match, which is all about Hyuuga doing everything possible to at last defeat Tsubasa. In the end, the match ends on a draw and both teams are declared champions
- After knowing she was seconded to NAGO in school again, Yanagin in Daily Lives of High School Boys dared NAGO to beat her in karate and then ramen eating...in which Yanagin was decisively defeated in both. In a later skit she tried daring NAGO to beat her in tolerance in the sauna, and defeated again—not only to NAGO, but presumably her two other friends Habara and Ikushima.
- Flintheart Glomgold's main grievance with Scrooge Mc Duck is that Scrooge is the Richest Duck in the World, Flintheart the Second Richest Duck. A designation that he feels to be humiliating. Much of the humor in his first two appearances is that the characters have similar skill-sets and about equal fortunes. Scrooge gains the victory in their first story by having some more string than Flintheart, and wins the rematch by a rather small sum of coins. The problem is that they are both too competitive to accept anyone as an equal.
- The current Batgirl is Stephanie Brown, aka Spoiler, aka girl Robin, aka girl who screws up every major plan. Her predecessor, Cassandra Cain, was a much better fighter, with a far better track record and even a cooler tragic backstory. Key to this relationship, however, was that Stephanie showed no bitterness towards Cassandra for all of this—they were, in fact, good friends—and accepting it in good humour, attempting now and then to do the best with what she had rather than seethe about being in second place. This was also partly because there was one key area that Stephanie could trump Cassandra—social skills (Cassandra having such a maladjusted upbringing that she could barely read, write or speak coherently until being a teenager).
- Doctor Doom's boiling hatred of Reed Richards stems from the fact that Reed is the smartest man in the world—just the tiniest bit smarter than Doom is. He also came up second to Doctor Strange in a contest between the world's mages; though Doom being Doom, he managed to suppress his pride long enough to work the situation to his advantage.
- In Transformers: Galaxies, all of Cliffjumper's life has been spent living in Bumblebee's shadow. Most people don't know his name and simply mistake him for his more famous yellow twin.
- Salieri in Amadeus is presented as this trope.
- Bjorn Turoque in real life documentary Air Guitar Nation against C-Diddy. Widely Considered the Second Best AIR GUITARIST in the World. During the movie, he gets eliminated several times but always comes back and earns the respect of fellow air guitarists for his performances.
- The Cincinnati Kid with Lancey Howard's cracking line at the end; "You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around you're second best."
- Loki cites this as a reason he was Driven to Villainy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, noting that he was always stuck in Thor's shadow. Given that Loki has decided to become a Galactic Conqueror to work through this, Thor is unimpressed.
- Disney's Aladdin:
Aladdin: (to snake Jafar) The genie has more power than you'll ever have!
- In The Return of Jafar, the tables were turned. Jafar was delighted enough to make a whole song saying, "You're only #2!"
- Even before he got the genie, Jafar was Always Second Best in another way; by being beneath the Sultan, who he saw as immature and unfit to rule (and... he was kinda right). The reason he fell for Aladdin's goading so much toward the end might have been because he couldn't stand the thought of still being second-best after all he'd gained.
- Chick Hicks in Cars has spent his entire career coming in second place following The King. Just when he thought he could have his moment, Lightning McQueen rolled onto the scene.
- Demandred from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time is this trope. He is mentioned that "He would have been the greatest man of his age, had he not lived at the same time as Lews Therin Telamon." He was apparently born one day after Lews Therin, setting a trend of always being a step behind for their entire lives, the envy at this turning him from one of the most prominent good generals in the fight against evil into one of the most prominent evil generals. Where it should be noted he was and likely still is second best at most (though he's one of the Shadow's most potent servants, he's still stuck playing second fiddle to Ishamael). Really, it's small wonder the man is more than a little insane by now.
- The book The Shadow Club by Neal Shusterman is about a group of kids like this who band together. It does not end well.
- Illvin in the Chalion series to his brother Arhys. Unusually, he doesn't mind too much. ("If I ever run into the third best swordsman in Carabastos, he's going to be in very big trouble.")
- In Under the Volcano, Hugh Firmin (in spite of his excellent qualities) finds that his older brother Geoffrey keeps getting in ahead of him doing the things that Hugh aspires to, and, even worse, throwing those accomplishments away: Geoffrey was a decorated (then disgraced) hero in World War I, while Hugh has not managed to see action in the Spanish Civil War; Geoffrey married (and lost) the woman Hugh loves; etc.
- Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter series suffers from this throughout the first half of the series. To start off with, he's always in the shadows of his older brothers who were, in order: Head Boy, Captain of the Quiditch Team, a prefect, and Popular Pranksters. Add to the fact that his best friends were respectively The Chosen One, Harry, and top student of their year, Hermione, Ron suffers a massive inferiority complex for much of the series.
- Bury Him Among Kings is a World War One novel about the a Sibling Rivalry between two brothers, the younger of whom feels Always Second Best.
- Exaggerated in the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Wraith Squadron. One of the pilots, Falynn Sandskimmer, feels this way about herself. She's second-best in several areas (TIE pilot, security expert, scout), but doesn't see herself as number one at anything. She fails to see how her versatility makes her valuable (she's number two to several different people). At the end of the novel, she makes a desperate attempt to be "first" at something; she succeeds, but dies in the process.
- In the Halo novels, Fred is this to John (Master Chief), in every area. John is convinced he does this on purpose so he doesn't have to be in charge.
- Zhou Yu towards Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As a matter of fact, Zhou supposedly died out of despair out of this trope. This dynamic even caused this trope to be called the "Yu-Liang Complex" in China—although it was not historically true.
Zhou Yu: If [Heaven] have gave birth to Yu, why did [he] give birth to Liang?!
- Our Dumb World, brought to you by The Onion, says this about South Korea.
- In The Book of Joe, this is how Joe feels in comparison to his older brother Brad especially in their father's eyes- mostly thanks to Brad's sporting prowess. Touchingly subverted when Joe finds out how proud his father was of his literary career.
- The mysterious villain of the Anthony Horowitz book I Know What You Did Last Wednesday, Captain Randle/Johnny Nadler, came second in every subject and never really stood out of the group he was part of in school (which consisted of everybody who came first). He doesn't respond too well; he lures everybody who bested him to a secluded island and kills them with cruel and ironic death traps which somehow relate to the subject they beat him in.
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Dr. Julian Bashir graduated second in his class from Star Fleet Medical, and in other areas like sports, so as not to draw too much attention to himself.
- Amanda Kimmel and Russell Hantz both made it to the final Tribal Council on Survivor twice in a row. And both lost twice. In a row.
- Marcia Marcia Marcia!!!
- The writers of Merlin have set up an interesting dynamic between Arthur and Lancelot that seems to be based on this trope in which both of them are always second best to the other. Where Arthur is arrogant, Lancelot is humble, yet he has been the only male character thus far that has ever been able to best Arthur in combat. However, he declines membership into Arthur's knights as he considers himself unworthy. Later, on noticing that Arthur clearly has feelings for Guinevere, Lancelot bows out of the Love Triangle without a fight so as not to get in the way of Arthur's intentions - even though he obviously had the more advantageous suit. Basically, Lancelot is only second best to Arthur because he choses to be - and Arthur knows it.
- Conversely, Lancelot adores Merlin and Guinevere to the point of worship. He has stepped into the void for their sakes. However, their lives revolve completely around Arthur, and he's all they ever seem to talk about in Lancelot's presence.
- Part of the Sibling Rivalry between Niles and Frasier Crane stems from the fact that they both consider themselves this trope. Whether it be the success of their personal lives (for much of the show's run, Frasier was twice-divorced and once left at the altar, while Niles was mired in a miserable, abusive marriage), the prestigiousness of their professions (Frasier had fame from his radio show, while Niles's private practice was more dignified and lucrative), their parents' love (they both took after their dead mother, and barely resemble their father at all), or just about anything else under the sun, a staple of their dynamic was to declare they were better than the other, rub the other's face in it, and then privately worry that the other was better than them.
- There was a commercial in which the main character was a man who had a history of being second-best at everything he'd ever done, and had developed something of a complex about that fact. However, the fact that he has managed to get second place at everything should mean he's still ridiculously talented in a wide range of skills.
- Allison Harvard reached the final Runway of America's Next Top Model in Cycle 12 and 17. She finished 2nd both times.
- Saturday Night Live once did a commercial parody for "The People's Second Choice Awards". Hosted by Ed McMahon, celebrity presenters included Oates, Tom Wopat (referred to as "the dark haired guy from The Dukes of Hazzard"), etc.
- No matter what the Master does in Doctor Who, they'll never be be as good as the Doctor. Though the Doctor regards them as equals, everyone else, even their tutors, regards the Doctor as being just a bit more clever than the Master.
- Several episodes of Victorious have characters view Jade West as a silver medal when put next to Tori Vega, Jade outright being the backup choice if Tori is incapacitated in some way on more than one occasion. Though it sometimes varies if that's simply because Tori is that much better than Jade or that the two girls are just as talented but Tori simply isn't a diva.
- "Beautiful Loser" by Bob Seger (see the page quote) sums up someone who fits this trope nicely.
- In Tales of Legendia, Shirley is always getting overlooked by her big sister Stella, as well as both sisters' mutual love interest, Senel. Senel continues to choose Stella over Shirley even after Stella dies partway through the game.
- Juan Corrida to Matt Engarde in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All. Even in Jerkassery.
- Yellow, the professional Starcraft gamer, was titled king of second place for always getting oh so close to the gold, but never EVER winning a major title. Another gamer, Stork, had inherited his title until finally getting a gold in a relatively recent finals.
- Further, in Starcraft 2, Marine King Prime has been in more GSL finals than anyone else (3 out of 5 so far) and has come in 2nd every time.
- Dex from Mega Man Battle Network, he even has to lie to his little brother Chisao to hide this fact.
- The Rivals from the Pokémon games, especially Blue and Silver. They're all highly skilled trainers who manage to beat all eight Gym Leaders (and, in Blue's case, the Elite Four) yet always manage to lose to the player. The first two generations tied this into An Aesop about The Power of Love, but in the third and fourth generations, you're just better than them.
- Aperture Science to Black Mesa. In Portal 2, you come across several second-place trophies in the 1950s Aperture Science area; it is implied they lost every time to Black Mesa. Mind you, this is after they've been shown to go out of their way to engage in everything they do in the most ridiculous, inefficient, dangerous, and/or pointless manner possible, so what they succeed at must be rather phenomenal.
- On the other hand, there is a branch in which Aperture managed to trump Black Mesa: Potato Sciences.
- Luigi in the Super Mario series, every version, has had to feel this his entire life. Every time he wants to do something, Mario beats him to it or outperforms him when the brothers are both present. This has since become a defining character trait for Luigi from Luigi's Mansion and onward, with him nearly snapping in Mario and Luigi Partners In Time.
- Other instances, though, have Luigi as shy and not exactly eager for the spotlight. So it depends on the writer.
- Subverted in Touhou: Marisa's usually pretty exuberant about consistently taking second place to Reimu, and is generally portrayed as Reimu's Friendly Rival. Considering that Reimu has in-universe Plot Armor, and that Marisa is only second to her, after facing Reality Warpers, Physical Gods, and Flandre Scarlet, with no innate magical powers and only the magic and artifacts she's stolen or studied... it's pretty impressive that she's Always Second Best, actually.
- Dawson from Greek Ninja somewhat fits in this trope.
- "Lisa's Rival" in The Simpsons featured a new student, Allison Taylor, who was slightly better than Lisa at everything, mostly slightly more knowledgeable and better on the sax. She even has a dream where she performs in "Garfunkel, Messina, Oates, and Lisa", the second-most popular band in America, which is sponsored by Avis Rent-a-Car and has a #2 single called "Born To Runner-Up". She awakes wondering why people would come to the concert just to boo them.
- Lisa's voice actress Yeardley Smith even remarked about how often Lisa would enter a contest and end up in second place; two notable examples are "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington" and "Lisa the Beauty Queen". In "Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words", Lisa even lampshades this about herself, noting that she always manages to bungle it up right before the final round and always gets the silver trophy.
- Bart sometimes struggles with this attitude, feeling rather inadequate next to his overachieving straight-A student. Though a few episodes reverse the pattern showing that Bart can be an Instant Expert if given proper focus and motivation, making Lisa feel inadequate to him.
- In South Park this is apparently why Bono is quite an overachiever: To his father, he will always be a "Number Two."
- In ThunderCats (2011)
- This is present with young Prince Lion-O and his adoptive older brother Tygra, a beneficiary of Parental Favoritism who actively upstages Lion-O every chance he gets. Tygra makes an explicit point of successfully taunting Lion-O during some Gladiator Games, ensuring Lion-O loses his temper, and with it, the match.
Tygra: "When it comes to everything except the crown, you're always going to be second place."
- In fact, Tygra tries to be Always Someone Better because of a deep Inferiority Superiority Complex, and an abiding suspicion that as a mere Spare to the Throne, he will forever lose to Lion-O, a motivation underscored when Tygra bitterly rants about how Lion-O's taken away both his chance to wear the crown, and, he suspects, his chance to romance Cheetara, the Love Interest of their Sibling Triangle.
- Catra in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Growing up, virtually everyone told her that she was second rate compared to Adora. When Adora becomes She-Ra, most of Catra's arc is proving that she can hold her own against her ex-best friend.
- Lance struggled with this mindset in the first two seasons of Voltron: Legendary Defender, noting that he lagged behind everyone in most regards. He grows out of it by realizing that his moulded him into a Jack of All Stats.
- David Robinson was this to Hakeem Olajuwon.
- The Utah Jazz, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trailblazers, Phoenix Suns, Seattle Supersonics and Los Angeles Lakers all were this to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
- Jordan, himself, had his own personal Second Best in the form of Clyde Drexler, who was known in his prime as "the best player in the NBA not named 'Jordan.'"
- The Los Angeles Lakers used to be this, losing to the Boston Celtics six times in The Sixties. Los Angeles has won 11 titles since, Boston 6.
- The Dallas Cowboys in the late 1960s fit this trope, believe it or not. They couldn't quite win the NFL championship. Resulting in such infamous defeats as:
- the 1967 Ice Bowl to Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.
- the 1971 Super Bowl V loss to the then-Baltimore Colts.
- decided by a controversial call on the "double-touch" rule that has since been changed.
- the only time the Super Bowl MVP was selected from the losing team.
- There was even a book written at the time, sarcastically titled Next Year's Champions.
- They finally broke the jinx with a 24-3 victory over Don Shula's Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.
- The first time the losing team was held without a touchdown. This feat was not matched for decades.
- Susan Lucci, long time Soap Opera actress, was notorious for being nominated, but not winning, the daytime Emmy for "Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series". It was only after 19 nominations over 21 years that she finally won, in 1999. Perhaps not a perfect fit to the trope, but worth mentioning.
- The ancient Greek philosopher Eratosthenes was nicknamed "Beta" by one of his contemporaries, because he was supposedly "the second-best in the world at everything". This means this trope is one of the oldest ones in the book. Carl Sagan said in Cosmos, however, that Eratosthenes was clearly Alpha at many things, since among other achievements he was the first to scientifically and correctly measure the circumference of the Earth. Using nothing but sticks, shadows, and a bit of mathematics.
- The Buffalo Bills lost 4 Super Bowls in a row, to three different teams, making them by definition the second-best team in the NFL, 1991-1994.
- This trope is Tim Henman to a tee, it is.
- There's a reason why figure skater Sasha Cohen is called "The Silver Belle". Very rarely has she won a competition; she almost always makes one mistake and comes in second... usually to Michelle Kwan.
- A dreaded moniker in golf circles is "best player never to win a major." Phil Mickelson was stuck with this moniker until he won the Masters in 2004. The current holder of the moniker is probably Lee Westwood.
- Raymond Poulidor
- To the point it made it to a french expression, "X is the Poulidor of this game" meaning X allways comes second.
- This has been a commonly zig-zagging trend in Country Music. From 1984 to 1991, The Judds were so commercially successful that no other duo had a chance at getting any of the industry's Duo awards — for most of those years, the closest anyone ever came to their success was the Bellamy Brothers, who had constant showing on the charts but comparatively poor album sales. The Bellamys went indie in 1991, the same year that Brooks & Dunn debuted. From then until the late 2000s, it was a Foregone Conclusion that Brooks & Dunn would get the awards (except for a fluke year in 1999, where it somehow went to Montgomery Gentry although they were brand new at the time); their commercial success was near-untouchable, and many duos got lost in the Follow the Leader stampede of singer-songwriter duos. Come the late 2000s, the tide turned highly in favor of Sugarland; Montgomery Gentry appeared to be warming up considerably in 2008-2009, but only one year later their star power fell considerably.
- The Dutch football team is often regarded as the best team to have never won a World Cup, with three lost finals under their belt. Their most recent one defeated was to the other team that was until then regarded as the best to have never won a cup, Spain.
- German Football club Bayer Leverkusen deserves special mention as they are not just the only big-name, long-running club in the league never to win the championship, but in the 2002 season actually managed to come second in all three competitions they were in: National Championship, National Cup, AND the Champions League.
- It gets worse, five Bayer players went with the German Football Team to the World Cup in Japan and S Korea and......Germany would lose in the final.
- It gets even worse, the best of them, Michael Ballack, never won any international title despite taking part in another Champions League final with Chelsea and reaching the final with the German team in the 2008 European championship. He won quite a number of national titles (none with Leverkusen) though.
- The England Cricket team has been to three World Cup Finals, in 1979, 1987 and 1992 and has lost all three Finals.
- Ok in 1979 they were thumped by the West Indies
- 1987, the defeated hosts and defending Champions India and then lost to the unfancied Aussies, whom they had beaten badly earlier in the year in the Ashes.
- 1992, the best team by far, in the final against a mercurial, injury plagued and slow starting Pakistan a team which i) only qualified for the semi finals after a very unlikely series of results of other teams and ii) who had been demolished by England in the Group match. Guess who was holding up the trophy at the end of the night?
- Graham Gooch played in all three finals.
- Goran Ivanisevic was this in Wimbledon until 2001.
- Megadeth at the Grammys. Over a span of twenty years, they have been nominated nine times... and lost every single time. As if that weren't enough, there is only one category for metal, so they only have one chance per year.
- Andy Schleck seems to become this in Tour de France. Second in 2009, 2010 (to Contador) and 2011 (to Evans). Tour de France 2011 even had a perfect route for Andy Schleck, with four mountain finishes, only one individual time trial, a team time trial. Contador was tired after a hard Giro d'Italia, had a minor injury and a weak team. Andy still couldn't win. Joop Zoetemelk and Jan Ullrich also have quite a lot of second places (6 and 5), but also have one win each (1980 and 1997). It could also be noted that Ullrich lost TDF 2003 on good sportsmanship.
- Then again, Andy Schleck has been named the official winner of TDF 10, after Contador got a doping penalty for clenbuterol use. It only took 18 months to reach a verdict.
- One of the fastest thoroughbred horses ever was Sham. Sham had perhaps the fourth best time ever in the Kentucky Derby, but didn't win the Derby or either of the other two Triple Crown races. Sham had the bad luck to be racing in the same year as another notable thoroughbred by the name of Secretariat.
- Steph's father was the Cluemaster, a B-rate Riddler rip-off, Cassandra's father is David Cain, one of the best assassins in the world AND her mother is Lady Shiva, fellow elite assassin and canonically one of the DCU's top five martial artists