A quick explanation of what’s going on here. This is, as the title says, a list of what I feel are the best new characters introduced in the same time period as the first two lists, though I suspect number 9 is ineligible due to Leverage starting just outside the capture period. Well, tough, because I’ve written all that and I’m not changing it now. These are the characters that have entertained me the most, have served their show best, and have been created and manifested with the most care. The number one slot will come as no surprise to regular readers, and I must say I’m pleased to be publishing this post just a few hours before his triumphant (I hope) return to our TVs.
10. Nina – Reaper
It’s tempting to think of Reaper‘s resident hott demon as little more than a riff on Buffy‘s Anya, being a love interest who just happens to be a servant of a dark force, but while Anya was given a rich inner life — not to mention a tragic end: never forget! — Nina is perfectly designed to fit into the jollier — and simpler — milieu offered by CW’s comedy. For a show that has been so bad at creating compelling female characters (remember Josie?), it was especially pleasing to see Nina fit in so well, but then the second season was much looser than the first, allowing for much broader comic characters and sillier plots. Sadly for the fans, the show’s annoying cancellation by the misguided CW means we’ll never get to see how Nina’s relationship with Ben plays out. We’ll also miss out on Jenny Wade’s crackerjack comic timing. Someone snap her up, quick. The Dollhouse team could surely put her to some good use, especially with its new links to Reaper.
Best Moment: Spending an entire episode flirting with Sam’s douchey half-brother Morgan, just to lure him into a trap set by the Path of Steve. Then she eviscerates him. She’s, like, the perfect woman or something.
9. Eliot Spencer – Leverage
Leverage expends a lot of energy mimicking the air of casual smartassery Soderbergh mastered with the Ocean’s Numeral films, and then splicing it with the snarkiness of vintage A-Team. It’s not a knock, as Leverage does it well enough on a low budget, and entertains much more than most higher-profile network shows. Nevertheless, both Soderbergh’s con-movies and The A-Team are not known for their multi-dimensional characters, and ciphers will not work in a long-running series anymore. Plus, as with the increasingly tiresome Ocean’s films, without a heart at the center of it Leverage would pall quickly. Thankfully, the team’s bruiser — a long-haired, white B.A. Baracus played with dopey charm by Angel‘s Christian Kane — works as the show’s conscience as well as the guy who hits people in the head. Just as with the show’s hybrid nature, it’s a winning combination.
Best Moment: In the pilot, Spencer — who has, to this point, been portrayed as little more than a cool-as-a-cucumber hardass — begins to enquire into Nathan Ford’s past, and his obvious depression. His interest, and vow to look after his new boss, was the unexpected emotional hook that kept me watching.
8. Veronica Palmer – Better Off Ted
Better Off Ted pulls off a tonal miracle by lampooning sickening corporate thoughtlessness while still being a goofy, benign sitcom about office politics. Hiding its thorns under lovely petals of silliness (metaphoraclypse – sorry), the show gets away with some edgy material by playing up the wacky musical stings, and relying a lot on the charm of its lead, Jay Harrington. Nevertheless, the show wouldn’t work without its MVP, Portia de Rossi, who comes closer than the rest of the cast to playing a caricature. The hard-nosed, humourless, no-nonsense female boss is an overused archetype, but de Rossi plays Veronica Palmer to perfection, lacing her almost robotic personality with shades of doubt. Often as confused by the goings-on at the sinister/lovable corporate monolith Veridian Dynamics as everyone else, she maintains enough of an edge to keep her minions in check. What could have been a one-note cliche character is, in de Rossi capable hands, the number one reason for watching the show.
Best Moment: Nonchalantly squirting water into Phil’s mouth to stop him screaming following a cryogenic experiment gone wrong.
7. Patrick Jane – The Mentalist
Shows featuring anti-social know-it-alls flourished this year, taking their cue from the continued success of House, but the trick is hard to pull off a second time. Lie To Me‘s Dr. Cal Lightman, played by a hyper-aggressive Tim Roth, almost made it onto this list for his late run of excellent moments in the final few episodes of the season, but that character needed to be tinkered with as the show progressed. Patrick Jane, however, arrived fully formed. Surrounded by affable dopes who seem to dislike him half the time and then secretly delight in his antics when he’s not looking, Jane — as played by the extremely charming and dapper Simon Baker — is the mirror image of Lightman. While Roth’s character is a seething mass of hostility with a soft centre, Jane is a showman and charmer who hides a dark core, tortured by the murder of his family and desperate to catch their killer, Red John. The rest of the show is formulaic, but Baker’s brilliant work as a man trying to distract himself from misery with mischief and silliness is enough to keep us watching.
Best Moment: The season finale sees Jane closer to catching his nemesis than ever before, and his genial mask slips throughout. Brazenly promising to kill Red John as soon as he catches him, his colleagues are forced to question the wisdom of keeping a vengeful maverick on their team.
6. Dr. Claire Saunders – Dollhouse
It’s difficult to talk about Dr. Claire Saunders being a great character, as she is fictional even within the context of the fictional world she lives in. Formerly an Active, Whiskey is maimed by the insane SuperActive Alpha, rendering her useless as a puppet, and then made to take on the personality of a composite character, trapped within the building by fear, and judging the actions of her colleagues without realising she is one of their puppets too. The beautifully timed late season reveal of her origin made her even more tragic than she already was, and her final appearance in Epitaph One, haunting the Dollhouse like the ghost of someone who never existed, was heartbreaking. For those of us who have been adamant that Amy Acker is an immensely underrated actress, this first season was a powerful and undeniable vindication of our beliefs. Let’s hope Whedon finds a way to bring her back for the second season.
Best Moment: Every time she silently reacts to some amoral inanity from the loathsome Topher Frink with withering disdain, an angel gets its wings. (Edit: As pointed out in comments, it’s actually Topher Brink, not Frink. I guess my brain is slowly trying to erase itself so I never have to think about his annoying ass ever again.)
5. Constance Carmell – Party Down
Jane Lynch is like Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, and Joyce Grenfell rolled into one unstoppable comic behemoth-lady. Everything is better with her in it, and Party Down was lucky enough to have her for eight episodes before she disappeared to make Glee. Sad for the fans of the brilliant adult sitcom, but she left us with many joyous memories. Constance is a washed-up actress who doesn’t even realise she is washed up, hanging onto past glories and oblivious to the fact that these fleeting brushes with fame are the highlights of her career (such as playing a hooker in Baretta). While the show leads — Ken Marino, Adam Scott, and Lizzy Caplan — get the big emotional beats, Lynch takes Constance’s sad circumstance and explores all comedic and tragic aspects of it, sometimes all at the same time, without needing big plot developments to showcase her complexity. With just the slightest of plot-threads at her disposal, she makes Constance breathe, all while blowing every other performer on the show away. Considering the incredible cast (both regular and guest), that’s some achievement. I’m sure Glee is very good, but for taking Lynch away from Party Down, I shall hate it forever.
Best Moment: Almost too many to count, but the clueless liberal outrage that erupts while catering the California College Conservatives Union Caucus is priceless. Teaming her up with Ryan Hansen is a masterstroke.
4. King Silas Benjamin – Kings
To be perfectly honest, there are only two words needed to describe why King Silas Benjamin makes it into the top five of this list: Ian Mc-Fucking-Shane. His presence is enough to make Kings essential viewing for all fans of Deadwood who mourn the loss of Al Swearengen. He could have been playing a postal worker, with each episode showing him completing his route, and it would have been appointment television, but instead we’re lucky enough to see him as the monarch of the fictional country of Gilboa, a man tortured by the deals he has made to get where he is, and scared of the consequences of his actions. As his brother-in-law, Crossgen CEO William Cross, conspires against him and the attention of the nation turns to his potential successor, his faith in God and his love for his family are torn apart and rebuilt time and again. Watching Benjamin do terrible things to maintain his hold on power while being assailed by his enemies was one of the purest joys of the year. Sadly, that’s all she wrote. Yet another stupid decision from NBC.
Best Moment: During a power-cut orchestrated in a fit of spite by Cross, Benjamin is haunted by the Sabbath Queen, a manifestation of what seems to be the Devil, come to collect on a deal he made to keep his daughter alive many years before. The king’s sanity is tested to breaking point by the visions, and the intensity of the show jumped up about fifteen notches.
3. Mia – In Treatment
When compiling these lists — both this one and the subsequent Gupta list, it’s tempting to praise the nice characters and diss the out-and-out assholes. Nevertheless, the screenwriters of In Treatment managed to write a particularly frustrating character who does nothing but complain and belittle those who help her, lying to her loved ones and pushing them away, all the while oblivious to the negative consequences of her actions, and still manage to make her compelling, sympathetic and strangely lovable. At least, they did a lot of the work, but it’s Hope Davis’ masterful performance that really brings this contrary and annoying woman to life, making you care deeply for her even when she is doing and saying the most exasperating and needlessly confrontational things. Desperately unhappy with the way her life has turned out and eager to blame everyone for it except for the one person responsible for shaping her personality, Mia rails against therapist Paul for seven weeks, before finally reaching a point where she looks at herself from outside long enough to see that she can change, given time. There is no award prestigious enough for Davis. Her work as this character is utterly exemplary.
Best Moment: Her final epiphany during her final session is a breathtaking moment of catharsis and revelation, perfectly performed and deeply moving.
2. Dr. Raymond Langston – CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
As with Ian Mc-Fucking-Shane, bringing Laurence Fishburne into your show is guaranteed to make me watch it. When it’s a show I already love, I’m even happier. When the man I reflexively refer to as Morpheus is given a role as entertaining, as well-developed, and as rich with potential as Dr. Raymond Langston, I’m beside myself. Early reports about Gil Grissom’s replacement hinted he would be half scientist, half serial killer, and the suspicion that the long-serving CSIs such as Catherine Willows would not be promoted due to the introduction of someone new gave cause for concern, but Langston never turned into Mr. Hyde, and Catherine became head CSI, proving that the showrunners really give a damn about the internal logic of their show. Such thoughtful fan service is rare these days, and much appreciated. This meant Langston starts at the bottom and works his way up: an odd state of affairs when that character is played by someone of Fishburne’s fame and talent. Thankfully, this move paid off beautifully. Langston’s enthusiasm, naiveté, and kindheatedness are a breath of fresh air after the turmoil of the last few seasons, though the final episode, with Langston forced to kill a man in self-defence, shows he’s not out of the woods yet.
Best Moment: Langston’s first day on the job goes horribly wrong (botched fingerprint dusting, getting muck all over his suit, etc.), but eventually equilibrium is reached. He even wins over audience-surrogate Hodges. Sadly, the shrunken ratings for the best procedural in town did not reflect this meta plot point.
1. Dr. Walter Bishop – Fringe
There was no competition. Even with the character of Dr. Raymond Langston showing so much care and attention from the writers’ room, nothing could compare to the joy I feel whenever John Noble ambles onto screen, chattering excitedly about some food stuff or other. I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about Dr. Walter Bishop, and I don’t want to go over the same ground again, other than to stress how important John Noble’s (and Kurtzman and Orci’s, and Abrams’) work has been to me. Fringe is a bit of fluff that could well go far. The best episodes of the first season were genuinely exciting and well-constructed hours of TV that easily ranked among the best of the year. The potential is there for some really thrilling developments and some bold storytelling. It was also, on occasion, horribly boring and stupid, poorly written, formulaic, and crazy, though sadly not the right kind of crazy. At times I half watched it while doing other things, which is something I would never think to do with Lost. However, even in the show’s darkest moments, I never, even for a second, considered not watching any further. From the moment in the pilot episode when Walter pointed out he had pissed himself (“Just a squirt.”), I was hooked for good.
I can’t think of any other character on TV, past or present, who manages to be pathetic, inspiring, commanding, comedic, tragic and lovable all at the same time. He’s a narrative miracle, able to alter the mood of every scene he is in without ever betraying what the character is at his core because he encompasses every possibility. Part of that is strong writing (even the worst writer must relish putting words into Walter’s mouth, giving them a chance to shine), but most of it is the inspired casting of Noble, which opens up innumerable opportunities for pathos, drama or humour. The only other character on TV that makes me this happy is Ben Linus, who was also a happy accident of casting that gave writers so much to play with. Emerson and Noble are proof that casting interesting and daring actors is more than half of the job of making dramatic gold. Let us hope they inspire other showrunners to take a chance on the weird.
Best Moment: Oh God, where to begin? “I just got an erection. Oh, fear not, it’s nothing to do with your state of undress. I think I simply need to urinate.” “Unless you have an IQ higher than mine, I am not interested in what you think.” “To understand what happened at the diner, we use Mr. Papaya. This is upsetting because he is the friendliest of fruits.” “The only thing better than a cow is a human! Unless you need milk. Then you really need a cow.” Then there’s the random moments, such as shuffling around a room long enough to generate a static shock to his son’s head, or his various explosions of temper at the generally useless Olivia or Peter. Basically, pick even a weak episode, and wait for Walter to show up. Invariably, something fun will happen. When he’s not having some awful and distressing breakdown.
Next up, worst new characters of the year, and then miscellaneous stuff about best pilots and worst direction and all that jazz.