In case you hadn’t noticed from my various rants about banks and politicians, I’m of the left, politically speaking. Like yer actual stereotype, I agonise about things I say on here, hoping that my fellow liberals don’t shun me for breaking one of the literally millions of rules we have to abide by (the handbook they give you when you join the left is hundreds of pages long, but then so is the handbook for the right). Just this morning I made a joke about that halfwit Gervais and his pathetic attempts to feel better about finding the word “mong” funny like the cruel little piece of shit he is, and I fear that a TV writer I respect – a man who would never be as brazenly cruel and stubbornly contemptuous as Gervais) — might think I was serious. This will keep me up for hours, I know it.
So you can imagine my horror when this year’s crop of TV shows included so few strong female roles, or strong characters for ethnic minorities. Strong male characters are everywhere, but women were sorely shortchanged, usually included only as eye fodder or as obstacles (also known as “wives” to bad TV writers). I considered gaming this list to get more women and minorities in; “Chalkie” White from Boardwalk Empire almost made it in but when it was apparent he was only going to be in the show for about fifteen minutes it didn’t seem worth it. As for female characters, barely any came to mind.
It’s genuinely shocking that it has come to this. In the last couple of years we got Lucretia and Illythia in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. We got Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart and Kalinda Fricking Sharma in The Good Wife. We got Annie Edison, Britta Perry and Shirley Bennett in Community, Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation, Sue Sylvester in Glee. This is only off the top of my head; give me more time and I’ll come up with a ton more. Ava Crowder and Winona Hawkins on Justified! Two more. But this year? Hardly any. It’s a pitiful state of affairs. It almost makes me wish David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman got picked up, even though it would have been dreadful and probably would have set feminism back fifty years. Anything just to break up this miserable sausage fest.
And so, my list has been unliberalified. It remains obsessed with testosterone, but only because you, the reader, deserve my honest opinion. Please don’t judge me; judge the sexist pigs who run TV. Bastards! Down with the patriarchy!
10. Mrs. Blankenship – Mad Men
Mad Men is a funnier show than its reputation suggests; even as far back as the first season there were wonderfully dry moments. As the show has progressed through the Sixties, the tone has become lighter to reflect the way society became looser and more manic; a change most noticeable in the more colourful environs of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as well as the fashions. Mrs. Blankenship – Don’s choice for secretary to prevent himself from foolishly sleeping with more staff – has attracted criticism for being too broadly drawn, but she’s in keeping with the change in tone. It also allowed us to see someone be treated like crap by the increasingly tetchy Don Draper but not let it bother them, much as Peggy eventually figured out how to repel his hostility. When Mrs. Blankenship died, the show suffered greatly, and not just because her death was a miserable return to season one’s clunky metaphors (this time about the death of the old America). It also meant we lost the most reliably funny character on the show. Let us bow our heads and remember Roger Sterling”s moving tribute: “She died like she lived — surrounded by the people she answered phones for.”
9. Alderman Ronin Gibbons – The Chicago Code
I’ll be honest. As much as I liked The Chicago Code I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. That’s partly because it was so obviously going to be cancelled it felt like a waste of time to get invested, but also because it was such a bizarre hodge-podge of cable-esque ambition and network compromise, rattling through so many plots and sub-plots that the only thing I felt by the end of each hour was numb exhaustion. It was up to main character Jarek Wysocki (supercharismatic Jason Clarke) to set the pace; he spent most of the series seemingly out of breath as he raced into shot and out spewing exposition like a broken fire hydrant. Hence SoC’s love of Alderman Ronin Gibbons; yet another villain in this great year for villainy. It’s not just his deviousness, and the oleaginous demeanour as he hides his corrupt ways from the police. It’s also not just the opportunity to get a hit of Delroy Lindo every week. We loved him because when he was onscreen, doing his calm evil thing, the show slowed down long enough for us to relish what showrunner Shawn Ryan was trying to do.
8. Gary Bell – Alphas
Oh how my heart sank when the pilot of Alphas introduced highly autistic Gary Bell, a “transducer” who can see and manipulate electromagnetic signals. There were tics everywhere, mostly in how Bell tweaks empty air and looks into streams of glowing data. It was all so gimmicky it became uncomfortable to watch. Autism is so often ill-used in drama (usually in some kind of awful savant genius plot) that its inclusion here seemed like an immediate mis-step. How wrong I was. Thanks to the work and research of British actor Ryan Cartwright, and a great writing team, Gary is sympathetically unsympathetic, a rounded character with goals and dreams of his own, instead of being a cypher. Yes he has powers, but it’s a show about superpowered individuals so it’s not based on the usual misunderstanding of what autism is. It wasn’t long before Gary became a fan favourite, providing most of the humour and heart to this entertaining show.
7. Agent Nelson Van Alden – Boardwalk Empire
This misfiring prestige drama needed a hook from the beginning that didn’t involve real-world articles about how expensive the show was, or how great it was to have Martin Scorsese on board, and erm… look at the sets! In order to give TV writers and critics something to sell to the audience it would have benefited a great central character, and instead we got tetchy Nucky; a good enough character, but no Tony Soprano. It needed menace and instead we got Nucky being a bit useless and Jimmy Darmody brooding in his Chicago hotel room. SoC loves Steve Buscemi, and likes Nucky Thompson a lot, but Boardwalk Empire suffered by not having someone larger than life in the central role. Luckily it had Nelson Van Alden in the background, and most of the first season’s best moments come from him. Personified by the amazing Michael Shannon as a repressed Hulk in a suit, this barely-sane monster went from awful righteousness to spiralling insanity as the season progressed. His religious epiphanies and sordid failings were electrifying. If you need a good reason to stick with Empire, he’s your man.
6. Louis Canning – The Good Wife
One of the many, many, many, many, many joys of this simply astounding CBS political drama is its large cast of recurring characters, often played by superb character actors such as Martha Plimpton, Joe Morton, Gary Cole, etc. etc. ad infinitum. It took approximately 30 seconds for Michael J. Fox to become our favourite antagonist yet; his first appearance, sneakily taking advantage of Alicia Florrick’s innate sense of decency, set up his character perfectly. Even better, the writers play clever games with our own sympathies. In every appearance so far, Canning’s motives are called into question; is he really as unscrupulous as he seems? Surely he can’t be. He’s played by Michael J. Fox! He’s suffering from a debilitating disease and so deserves our sympathy! And yet he remains a villain, but a villain with understandable and occasionally defensible motives. There’s a number of thin lines involved in constructing a character this odious and simultaneously delightful, and the writers — and of course, Mr. Fox – have done an incredible job in bringing him to life. Long may he haunt Lockhart-Gardner’s conscience.
5. Truxton Spangler – Rubicon
Why is American Policy Institute head Truxton Spangler on this list instead of suave, mysterious, deadly Kale Ingram? Mostly because Spangler – the man behind the mysterious plan that powers the entire series – is unlike any other villain around. He’s a bit absent-minded, eccentric (his love of cereal and insistence on eating it quickly so that it doesn’t get soggy), and lovable, so much so that when he realises he has been rumbled by Will Travers and must dispose of this complication, you end up feeling more sorry for him than you do for the show’s protagonist. Spangler’s a well-written character – just look at the tie speech in episode 4, which is probably the highpoint of the entire series – but he would be nothing without Michael Cristofer’s enigmatic and unpredictable performance. While the rest of the cast glowers or simpers, Spangler is vibrant even when sprawled in his chair, grinning with dastardly joy as his plan comes to fruition in the penultimate episode. Ingram can’t compete with that. And besides, he’s called Truxton Spangler, for crying out loud. Need there be any other reason?
4. Hank Dolworth – Terriers
It seems a bit unfair to include one half of the private investigator team from Terriers, when both Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) were such agreeable anti-heroes, but it’s obvious that Hank is the focus of the much-missed FX series. It’s his stubbornness, his vindictiveness and newly-awakened sense of civic duty that kickstarts the show, as he seeks to avenge the death of an old friend and uncover corruption that threatens his beloved Ocean Beach. He’s obnoxious and driven, unpredictable and often a bit callous. He also has his heart in the right place, and he’s loyal, and he’s brave. Logue is perfect as the rapscallion; his casting accounts for about 70% of Terriers‘ success (scientifically speaking). Shows with morally shady main characters are more common now (Dexter, The Shield, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, etc. etc.), but a show with a main character who’s a bit of an asshole? That, oddly enough, took more balls. In a perfect world, we could have spent more time with the lovable jerk.
3. Gatehouse – The Shadow Line
“You are the threads. I am the rope.” This line, delivered with a straight face, directly to camera by Stephen Rea, was the perfect capper to Hugo Blick’s bonkers thriller. As the final episode’s glurp of exposition revealed, the man who was running the conspiracy at the heart of the show was Gatehouse all along. This was not really news, especially to the audience. As great as the rest of the cast was (especially Chiwetel Ejiofor and a never better Christopher Eccleston), this was Rea’s show from the first moment he appeared onscreen. In any other context his stillness – punctuated by moments of creepily balletic violence – and his affected drawl, would tip over into mood-puncturing silliness, but Rea teeters just on the edge, a perfect visual accompaniment to Blick’s oppressive and mannered atmospherics, whether he’s hiding in the shadows, perched on a scaffold in the corner of a room, or skulking in an Irish clock-repair shop. By the end of the series we know almost nothing about Gatehouse, other than that he’s smarter than everyone, and more prepared. It’s as if he’s the God of the ShadowLine-niverse, and a twisted God at that. He’s an unforgettable creation; a bogeyman for adults.
2. Mags Bennett – Justified
In a list dominated by memorable villains, it’s dastardly redneck matriarch Mags Bennett who stands out the most. It’s not because she is quietly menacing and formidable, though she is. It’s not because she has a secret weapon – her poisonous “apple pie” – that generated more tension than any other plot device of the year, while also lending a fairy tale dimension to the otherwise grounded crime drama. It’s not even because she is eventually revealed to be even more callous and selfish than initially thought; midway through the season we discover that her plan is to betray the very people she professes to support, a move that sets her up as the enemy of those townsfolk, to her general indifference. No, the reason why Mags is the villain of the year is her mysterious sadness, her misguided motherly love that leads to her jeopardising her cause and alienating her sons as she desperately tries to keep hold of Loretta, the daughter of the man she kills in the first episode. This crazed desperation is hidden by her calm determination, leaking out at the wrong moments and ruining her plans. Thanks to the incredible Margo Martindale – in what is possibly the TV performance of the year – that contradiction is heartbreaking, while its unpredictability leads to some of this season’s most surprising and disturbing moments.
1. Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones had one of the hardest tasks of all the shows made this year. Adapting a series of books so beloved demanded great care so as not to anger the fanatical audience. Perhaps the realisation of Tyrion Lannister was the litmus test; get this right and the fans would relax – get it wrong and you might as well stay away from Comic-Con for the rest of your career. The fringe quibblers who still found something to carp about can go pound their indifferent, bile-spattered keyboards. The rest of us can rejoice at the magnificent incarnation of this much-loved character, brought to life with such life and soul that the show is poorer whenever he is absent. He also gave the show its first meme-able scene:
Peter Dinklage has rightly been lauded; this is the role of a lifetime. He embodies every contradictory nuance of the maltreated nobleman – Tyrion’s cruelty, compassion, sadness, joie de vivre, his tenacity, his cowardice and courage, his isolation and capacity for affection, and his deprecating sense of humour. The show might have been a hit without him, but he quickly becomes the focus of the audience’s attention, even more so than the “star” of the show, Sean Bean as deluded “hero” Ned Stark. What’s even better is that those of us who have read further know just what’s in store for him in season two; arguably his finest moment and his darkest moment, tragically intertwined. We can’t wait to see Dinklage bring those scenes to life, in all of their heart-stopping power.
Tomorrow, the worst new characters, with a number one choice as predictable as Tyrion.