TV shows are defined by their characters and while we give awards for writing, directing, and acting, we don’t give awards for character creation. Well, I’m here to remedy that! A great character can elevate a show, make episodes that are otherwise frustrating become interesting solely because we feel a connection with a specific character and enjoy watching them be themselves. Buffy had some weak episodes and seasons for sure but were we ever bored watching Spike? Wasn’t he always a bright spot? So, with that in mind, here are my picks for the best characters of the 2014 TV season so far. I’m focused solely on characters that were new to us this year so even though we all love Tyrion Lannister, he won’t be featured on this list. Why? BECAUSE RULES THAT I MADE UP. Here we go:
Oh uh, many spoilers below.
10 and 9.
Cleary and Harry (Chris Sullivan and Cara Seymour) The Knick
All right, so I’m cheating a little by combining two characters but my rules remember? If you haven’t watched The Knick, you’re missing some great TV. It’s basically Deadwood meets House and every episode is gorgeously directed by Steven Soderbergh. Just make sure you have a strong stomach. Clive Owen is excellent as the central character but it’s the supporting cast who has really made this show worth watching. Tom Cleary and Sister Harriet(Harry for short) are both fine characters on their own but together? They’re fucking dynamite. Cleary is an Irish ambulance driver who is first seen threatening the drivers of a rival ambulance with a baseball bat. He’s crass, frequently drunk, and primarily concerned with making a profit on the side. Sister Harriet is a Catholic nun who runs the children’s wing of the hospital. Both characters are initially hostile to each other (Clearly grew up in a Catholic orphanage and Harry doesn’t like the way he talks down to her) but they recently formed an uneasy partnership when Cleary discovered what Harry performs for downtrodden, pregnant women: abortions. He wants to help her for two reasons: (1) it’s an easy way to make extra money and (2) he remembers what it was like to be a poor, desperate immigrant in the ‘brave new world’ and is tired of watching so many young women die because they can’t affordor are prohibited from receiving proper medical care. Harry’s reasons are similar to his and they’ve slowlydeveloped a begrudging respect for each other. Their conversations about life and death, heaven and hell, right and wrong are fascinating and wonderfully played by both actors. For a character who was once seen betting in a rat stomping tournament (don’t ask), Cleary has a surprising amount of depth and hidden insights. He believes he’s going to Hell anyway so hefigures he may as well save a few people before he gets there. As for Harry, the fact that what she’s doing goes completely against everything the Church stands for is not lost on her and she is constantly wrestling with her own personal demons. In their own twisted way though, both of them are saviors (more so than many of the show’s hard working doctors) because of the way they don’t discriminate against any of their clients. I would watch an entire show about them and that’s the highest compliment you can give characters in a TV series.
Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) The Strain
I’ve already written about what a great character Setrakian is but he’s so awesome that I felt the need to bring him up again. The Strain is a fun vampire show, heavy on the atmosphere and action, creepy as hell, and highly entertaining. The writing isn’t the greatest in the world and some of the character choices are bone-headed, but the strongest and smartest character on the show, by far, is Professor Abraham Setrakian. He’s never made a stupid choice and the writing is strongest when it’s focused on him. Or perhaps it just seems that way because Bradley is such a terrific actor. Setrakian is the show’s richest character no matter what though. His backstory with the vampires dates back to when he was held prisoner in a Concentration Camp. There, he encountered the show’s most repulsive villain, Eichorst (another contender for this list) and narrowly escaped with his life. Ever since, he’s made it his lifelong mission to wipe out the creatures of the night. His methods? Oh you know, the usual: a nail gun that shoots silver nails and a wolf cane/sword he stole from the Nazis. I will never tire of watching this seventy year old man shoot the hell out of these monsters and then decapitate them, which he does at least two or three times an episode. He also won’t take any shit from the other characters and is constantly calling them idiots for not listening to every word he says. Add to that the guilt that he carries around over something he did in the war that has caused him to care less about his own life and more about the total annihilation of all vampires and you’ve got the biggest badass on TV.
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is a far from a great show. Glaciers move at a faster pace and the twists and turns are so obvious a blind deaf person could spot them. The show does have one great element though and that is Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives. Thankfully, much of the show is focused on her and she is frequently able to guide us through the boredom. As a psychic with a penchant for channeling evil spirits, Green is electrifying and bat-shit crazy. It’s her most ‘Eva Green-esque’ role yet to the point where I wondered if the writers were even giving her dialogue and not just filling their scripts with sentences like, “and now Eva Green does some crazy shit”. Aforementioned crazy shit includes having sex with an invisible devil, channeling four to five spirits at once in very distinct voices, and transforming into the most frightening possessed person since Linda Blair. And she does all of this with complete conviction, never once winking at the camera or sliding into camp. The fact that Green is also able to make Vanessa into the show’s most sympathetic and relatable character is an added bonus. When I first sat down to watch Penny Dreadful, I was looking forward to Dr. Frankenstein, The Creature, Dorian Gray, and Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray. Green wasn’t even on my radar but she wipes the floor with all of them. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t even consider watching the second season.
Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) Game of Thrones
The real reason I restricted this post to new characters is that if I didn’t, this entire list would be made up of Game of Thrones people. It’s just got so many, from Tyrion to Cersei to Tywin to Brienne to Jamie to Arya to Littlefinger to Varys to Davos to Margarey Tyrell. Shit, that’s ten right there, see what I mean? Thankfully, Pedro Pascal stepped in this season as the deadly Red Viper and instantly became one of the highpoints of the whole series. He had everything you want in a Game of Thrones character: charisma, ruthlessness, charm, intelligence, a wicked sense of humor and deadly fighting skills. His time in the jail cell with Tyrion was one of the best scenes in the series. Game of Thrones sometimes has a weakness for giving their characters awkward exposition to fill in plot holes. Oberyn had his share too but he was able to sell every moment organically. He gave us such a rich history in such a quick amount of time. Having read the books, I knew he wouldn’t be with us for long but even that didn’t stop me from hoping that the showrunners would say ‘fuck it’ and give him a stay of execution. They didn’t though and the result was the most gruesome, heart wrenching death of the year. It’s not easy to come into a show for only eight episodes and leave your mark but Pascal pulled it off like it was nothing.
Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) The Knick
The Knick is the MVP of this list. Seriously folks, it’s a great show. Watch it. I may love Cleary and Harry a little more but Dr. Algernon Edwards is the more complex character. Perfectly portrayed by Andre Holland, he’s the hospital’s first black surgeon and everyone hates him for it. Clive Owen’s lead character can’t accept a surgeon whom the patients will not allow to operate on them and everyone else is just racist. So it’s an uphill battle for poor Dr. Edwards. Does he lay down and take it though? Hell no. Once he learns the hospital won’t treat black or Hispanic patients, he opens up his own secret clinic in the basement. Watching him attain supplies, treat people, and hire a staff while trying to keep out of sight has been immensely entertaining. A scene where he ran out of wire while sewing up a patient and had to run through the top floors of the hospital with bloody hands was suspenseful and hilarious. Algernon’s not just a rule defying badass though. There’s an identity crisis going on within him. His mother and father are both servants, the people in his community think he’s a snob, and his co-workers hate him so finding his place in the world is no easy task. He also can only channel his aggression and rage through self-destructive bar fights. There’s a ton of stuff going on underneath the surface of this character and once again, if the show were solely about him, I wouldn’t complain.
Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) Happy Valley
Here’s another great show no one’s watching. Happy Valley is a British import and all six episodes of the first season are available on Netflix. Despite the benign title, it’s one of the darkest crime shows to come along in ages (not as dark as True Detective but what the hell is?). At the center of it is Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in the Yorkshire valley. She’s had a rough life. Her daughter committed suicide years ago after being raped, her husband left her as a result, she was forced to raise her daughter’s unwanted child on her own, and her former drug-addicted sister is her only true ally. I realize how melodramatic all of that sounds but Happy Valley is filled with details and characters that ring completely true. Catherine finds herself investigating a kidnapping plot that may or not be connected to the man who raped her daughter. She’s also gotta find time to raise her grandson, keep her officers in line, and do what she can to repair the fractured relationships around her. I don’t think the show would work as well as it does if it weren’t for Lancashire. She is terrific in the role, capturing the feel of a no-nonsense police officer while also making her intelligent, witty, sorrowful and kind. Lancashire has to handle some of the most physically and emotionally draining moments for a TV character in this or any other year and she nails all of them. If the Emmys are paying any attention (which they’re not), they should just hand her the award for Lead Actress right now.
Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) True Detective
While I would argue that Woody Harrelson actually gave the slightly better performance (which is splitting hairs cuz they were both great), it’s Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle who is going to stay with us. From his very first second on screen, we didn’t know what the hell to make of this guy, what with his hillbilly hair and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. But it didn’t take long for Rust to reveal how special he was. A nihilistic philosopher capable of shocking brutality, Rust is the most interesting and original detective in years. He would be darkly humorous one moment and bleakly profound the next. McConaughey did an excellent job of making him something of a mystery so we were never quite sure what Rust was going to do next. He had so many great lines of dialogue it’s hard to pick a favorite but this is the one that left the biggest impression on me: “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?”
Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) Fargo
On paper, Fargo sounded like nothing more than a cynical attempt to cash in on name-recognition. It turned out to be one of the best shows of the year, as good (if not better) than True Detective. Like Penny Dreadful, I tuned into expecting to be blown away by certain actors (Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton) and soon found myself hanging my hat on someone else entirely. Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson wound up being the most endearing character of the year. First of all, she’s a cop and her name is ‘Solverson’. That’s just fabulous. Secondly, Fargo painted her as the most courteous ‘badass’ cop ever. She was constantly defying her cheifs’ orders and conducting her own investigations and when he called her out on it, she didn’t huff and scream but instead found clever ways to go around him in order to solve some terrible crimes. Finally, she was so damn smart and good hearted that you found yourself lamenting the fact that there aren’t more people like this in the world. Tolman was marvelous, did not try to copy Frances McDormand at all and created a character that felt totally fresh. She was robbed at the Emmys. ROBBED. Not to worry though, there’s no way we’ve seen the last of Allison Tolman. She’s the real deal.
Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) The Leftovers
The Leftovers is a very good show with a lot of problems. It’s pretentious at times, frequently meanders and features some characters that are way too hard to like. Nora Durst is not one of those characters. She is easily the most sympathetic person on the show because of the loss of her entire family but the show runners, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrota, don’t make her into an object of pity. She’s a person who has suffered an overwhelming loss, yes, but who also understands the importance of moving on, damn near impossible as that may be. The Leftover’s sixth episode, titled ‘Guest’, focused entirely on her and it was the best episode of TV of the whole year so far. Carrie Coon was put through an emotional roller coaster and handled all the twists and turns brilliantly. We felt her indifference to her boss, her desire to let loose a little while on a business trip, her shock at the thought that anyone would want to steal her identity, her rage at a self help guru, and her despair as she struggled to make sense of her grief. When she had her breakdown moment towards the end of the hour and finally released the tears and heartbreak she had been holding back, so did we. But it wasn’t all sorrow and tears. Coon also made Nora one of the funniest characters on the show. When she asked Justin Theroux’s police chief to go on vacation with her, he grumbled something about his daughter and her cheerful response of “Oh fuck your daughter” provided the first major laugh of a show primarily concerned with doom and gloom. She also became the show’s most hopeful character and highlighted the themes best. How do you move on in a world that is broken beyond repair? Nora Durst gave us the answer through warmth, compassion, integrity, anger, passion and resolve. Also this:
Most satisfying scene of the year.