Yes yes, I’m still not done. Traditionally Shades of Caruso feels obliged to praise showrunners for creating new characters that embody all that is great about a show, draw attention to aspects of the show that we hadn’t spotted before, or make us want to watch something that otherwise we wouldn’t be that bothered about. Previous years have seen us hurl garlands at Walter Bishop from Fringe and Dr. Amber Volakis from House like we were throwing love-frisbees. Who will win this year? Will it be Amy Pond? (Clue: no.) Will it be a sexy new vampire on True Blood? (Clue: No, because we haven’t watched it, despite all of the sexiness.) I’d like to think our choice is utterly uncontroversial. We’ll save the controversy for the following post, which will be about the worst new characters of the year. Rules apply: only characters introduced in seasons completed by the time the awards started are eligible, and only one character per show can be included, except for the two exceptions seen below, who made it onto the list because I think the relevant shows have two important, likeable characters that share a lot of traits and also show how issues of race can send two similar people down completely different roads.
10. Dan Stark – The Good Guys
Matt Nix’s endearing cop show sadly doesn’t have the consistency to become a regular watch, but whenever it comes on, your attention will inevitably be held by Bradley Whitford’s full-powered performance as retro-cop Dan Stark. He’s more than just a mustache-delivery system. Due to his time on Sorkin-Shows — where the amount of dialogue exceeds molecules in the universe — it’s forgivable to think that verbal humour is all Whitford can bring to a role, but much of the pleasure of his turn as the American Gene Hunt depends on his bizarre physical comedy. It’s worth tuning in each week to catch his weird stiff-armed high-kicking combat stance, let alone his clueless pronouncements and hysterical technophobia (as shown above). It’s a joke that’s been done elsewhere, but Whitford’s lively energy is infectious. Colin Hanks is a good foil, and RonReaco Lee is funny as a Huggy-Bear-esque snitch, but they don’t even need to be there for The Good Guys to work. It’s Whitford’s show: everyone else is just visiting.
9. Dr. Bennet Halverson – Dollhouse
Adding a character to this list of awesomeness should be a happy moment, but there is a twinge of sadness here. Though Dr. Bennett Halverson is introduced with a flourish and allowed at least one classic episode almost to herself, we don’t get a chance to see just how great this character could have been. The sense that there was a 500-page story-bible written about her various exploits is there in every scene. Halverson’s unpredictability, impishness and ruthlessness shine through Summer Glau’s most winning performance yet, so much so that we can go from being charmed by her to hating her guts in an instant. Other than Echo, she’s the most complicated character on the show, something made very clear even though her character is disposed of in a hurry, just like the show. You just know her final moment was meant to be a fourth season shocker, something that would have built to an amazing emotional crescendo. Unfortunately, we just a fraction of the ultimate plan. It’s enough to create a strong negative emotion, but still only a ghost of that all-too-familiar Whedon-pain.
8. Vince Howard / Luke Cafferty - Friday Night Lights
Sometimes all it takes for a character to win over an audience is just being a good guy. Not a Nice Guy, but someone who is shy and dopey and overly polite and too sincere for his own good. Luke Cafferty is a slave to his manners, his own worst enemy, a guy who makes a series of stupid mistakes and suffers terribly for them all while trying to do the right thing. Vince Howard is on the knife-edge of taking a wrong turn in his life that he can never return from, all the while knowing what the right choices are. Luckily for them, they’re in a show that has at its core a simple message: you can be better, and you can transcend this. Maybe I instantly loved both characters because they were just regular good guys who refuse to let misfortune grind them down, but I also wonder if I loved them because they enable Coach Taylor to do what he does best: change lives, save young men from the hell of their mistakes, and inspire them to be better people. After all, at its best Friday Night Lights is like uplift-porn.
7. Lucretia – Spartacus: Blood and Sand
In the new age of TV, we demand bad guys who are nuanced and not just evil. Spartacus starts off with a hissable villain in the form of Gaius Claudius Glaber, the legatus who ruins the life of “Spartacus” after our hero dares to question his orders. It’s telling that Glaber then disappears for the majority of the season, to be replaced with the glorious duo of Batiatus and his wife Lucretia. While SoC has long considered John Hannah to be a not-great actor, his work here has prompted a rethink. Nevertheless, as entertaining as the spluttering lanista was, he’s nothing without Lucretia. She works less as a Lady Macbeth and more as an equal, independently following her own plans to aid their political ambitions. What’s best about her — other than Lucy Lawless’ fine work — is that her plans don’t work out as well as she hoped: her “friend” Ilithyia eventually escapes her web of blackmail, and her inevitably doomed love of Gladiator Crixus proves to be just one part of her downfall. It’s that vulnerability and fallibility that makes Lucretia one of the most entertaining bad guys of the year.
6. Troy Barnes – Community
I agonised over which character on Best New Sitcom Community would make the grade here. Someone had to. Creator Dan Harmon did a fantastic job of populating the show with a central cast of memorable characters, and carried that good work through the season by altering relationships and focus to take advantage of growing chemistry and hidden acting strengths. All of the main characters (and secondary characters such as Star-Burns and Dean Pelton) are brilliantly realised, but the most consistently funny member of the core group has to be Troy Barnes, the dopey but good-natured former quarterback who loves Robin Williams, thrives on best friend Abed’s pop-culture savantism (even when he doesn’t quite understand it), has a notable way with words, and can harmonise even while scared of rats. Most importantly, Troy is a great showcase for the amazing Donald Glover, the Spider-Man who sadly never was. His ascent to immense super-stardom begins here.
5. Zoe Graystone – Caprica
Caveats naturally apply here, as of course the character of Zoe Graystone only exists in Caprica for a few minutes before being blasted into smithereens by crazed monotheist terrorists. The “Zoe Graystone” that captured my imagination is a computer extrapolation of metadata turned into a virtual avatar, hooked up to a robot, and then magically transformed into the first Cylon. Perhaps it’s this berserk origin story that makes her so fascinating, as she acts as a futuristic techno-Trinity of Mother, Daughter, and Holy Robot. Perhaps it’s seeing her grow — in the few episodes we got before Syfy maddeningly took the show from our screens — from a clueless, hostile teenager into a confident woman grieving for her own life and desperately trying to escape her physical prison. Mostly it’s because the most complex character in the Caprica-verse is played with such quirky energy by Alessandra Torresani, who drops into the nerd-culture consciousness with a splash and makes a meal of it. If she hadn’t been right for the part, the show would’ve been doomed. Thankfully, she’s perfect.
4. Davis McAlary / Antoine Batiste - Treme
Treme is about a number of things: it’s a critique of the Bush administration’s abandonment of a devastated city; a celebration of American culture and history; an organic musical that lacks the intentional artificiality of Glee; a thesis on the differences between commercial culture and “authentic” artistic endeavour. Most of all, it’s an attempt to document the “feel” of New Orleans, and though Albert Lambreaux’s furious Mardi Gras Indian chief might be the most detailed character in terms of introducing a slice of history that is unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, it’s lovable chancers Antoine and Davis that provide most of the laughs. Their lackadaisical personal lives are contrasted with their loyalty to local history, as Davis battles to preserve something of the town he loves and Antoine just gets on with being an essential part of Jazz culture. They’re also unreliable and shifty, with Antoine’s lovelife and Davis’ questionable appropriation of African-American language and culture being the salt in their sugary personas. They also serve as a subtle comment on race in America: while Antoine struggles, Davis coasts.
3. Raylan Givens – Justified
Shades of Caruso has many criteria for selecting the best and worst characters of the year, but there are some criteria we don’t often mention. One is Outrageous Hottness. I will admit to some weakness on occasion, but only one character made both myself and co-blogger Daisyhellcakes sit up in our chairs and say, “Hello!” Super-cool gunslinger Raylan Givens could turn even an unturnable head with his handsomeness, his pulse-quickening height, his lovely hair, his odd-but-sexy walk, and his excellent hat. Even better, the character is created by Elmore Leonard and is therefore rounded, funny, dark, and mysterious. Timothy Olyphant eschews the glumness of his previous TV character — Deadwood‘s terrifying Sheriff Seth Bullock — but keeps the Western elements. Raylan is a sharp-shooting, quick-witted, no-bullshit hero with terrible arch-enemies, compromised friends, a bad temper, a bit of a problem with drink, and two beautiful women who love him as much as he loves them. Basically, he is AWESOME and everyone who has yet to watch Justified needs to so they can contract Raylan Fever.
2. Lane Pryce – Mad Men
Ah Lane Pryce, let me count the ways that I love thee! SoC was already in the bag for Lane in the third season: his ups and downs in season four confirm the wisdom of our decision. In his first season as a secondary character, Lane is introduced as a stiff British dope who makes his American colleagues uncomfortable. As the season progresses, we see how he becomes won over by the American way of thinking, to the detriment of his marriage. It says a lot about Jared Harris’ wonderful performance that when it seemed he will be transferred from New York to India by his masters in London, we were mortified. Thankfully he is saved by THAT lawnmower, and stays long enough to see his exciting new life in New York jeopardised by PPL’s plans to sell off Sterling Cooper. There’s much to love in the stupendous season finale Sit Down And Have A Seat, but the greatest moment might be Lane turning on his bosses, saving the day and hanging up on them with a cheery “Very good. Happy Christmas!” like a puppet who just cut his strings. It’s an uplifting, delightful scene, and his emerging joie de vivre is infectious.
1. Sue Sylvester – Glee
It’s tempting to forgive all of Glee‘s flaws just because of Jane Lynch, though that would entail a boatload of forgiving. In a regular episode of Fox’s outrageously successful musical, there’s probably about five minutes of Sue Sylvester screentime, on average, and many weeks that five minutes can be enough to make watching the rest of the featherlight chaos worthwhile. Her florid dialogue, abuse of students, and quips about Will Schuester’s hair are comedy gold, but casting the magnificent Jane Lynch was the instant masterstroke. Party Down‘s loss is Ryan Murphy’s gain. Would Glee have any worth without her? She’s the only reason Shades of Caruso has not yet given up on it. That’s how good she is: she utterly counteracts the considerable suck of the rest of the show. She’s the funniest thing on TV that isn’t in an NBC sitcom, and a source of unending joy. Don’t thank Murphy for it, though. His decision to make her a secret softy — her sister has Downs syndrome, and her interactions with her display a lighter side that no one else ever sees — could have ruined her. The only reason it doesn’t is because Jane Lynch is a comedy master worth approximately 58 Lily Tomlins (I say this as a fan of Lily Tomlin). We’re lucky we get to see her at the top of her game.
Coming up: the worst new characters of the year.