Now that I’ve discussed the shows I didn’t get to see, it’s time to start talking about all the things I’ve loved about television this year. I watch TV for the emotional engagement more than any other element of a show and that’s what this list and the other four I will be releasing represent. They represent the characters, relationships, moments, episodes, and shows I have been drawn to the most over the course of this year. Each list has gone through several iterations until I landed on one that felt the most right and authentic to my engagement over the year and I would like to think that in years to come, I will be able to look back on this list and see who I was in 2015 and how that related to the media I connected with. That, even more than recommending new shows to people, is why I enjoy these lists. They are a record for me of what I loved and how I loved them, as I believe they are for everyone else who makes similar lists.
There were a lot of characters that caught my attention this year. Some for their personality, some for the struggles they went though, and some for what they represent and their importance to the larger pop culture landscape. These are the ten that resonated with me the most.
Mariana Foster (The Fosters) This year, Mariana coded a routine for her dance team’s competition and lost her virginity to her sister’s ex-boyfriend. She did amazing things and she made huge mistakes. While that level of complexity from a teenage girl (who isn’t even the main character on her show) shouldn’t be remarkable, it still is in today’s TV environment. She has wholeheartedly embraced the power of “and” by refusing to fit into a convenient mold. She loves both dance and STEM, looking pretty and being valued for her intelligence. She wants it all because she’s been taught she can be both and she will challenge anyone who thinks otherwise. And that is a remarkable thing in any character, let alone one who is only 15. But despite that, she’s not perfect. She’s not immune from society’s messaging. She slept with Wyatt because she was hurt and because she felt like everyone else was having sex so she should be able to as well. She messed up and did something she regretted and caused herself and people around her pain but it never made her less of character. There were consequences but she wasn’t demonized for her choice even though she knew it was the wrong one.
Ilana Wexler (Broad City) This was a fabulous year for messy, flawed women in comedy and Ilana Wexler is their queen. As Lindsay Jillian (You’re the Worst) would say, Ilana “wears her stains on the outside” except Ilana doesn’t even think of them as stains, just another aspect of herself that makes her fabulous. She’s self-absorbed and a terrible employee and is kind of awful to most people she interacts with but you still can’t help admiring her confidence in herself. Ilana has no front, she is exactly who she is at all times. She is entirely controlled by her impulses and makes messes that Abbi ends up cleaning up, but at the end of the day, Abbi doesn’t care because she knows Ilana would do anything for her. Ilana loves Abbi so entirely and it grounds her character. She’s always going to be someone most of us envy at least a little for her ability to do whatever she wants with seemingly few severe consequences but it’s in her love for Abbi that she becomes a full person and not just a chaotic, impulse-driven plot device.
Clarke Griffin (The 100) If anyone needs a hug on TV right now, it’s Clarke. She went through more in 7 episodes than many characters do in an entire season. She has been in so many situations where there is no clear answer and she’s done her best to make the right choice but the weight, pressure, and consequences of those choices have been their toll. Clarke is a good leader because of her love for her people. It’s what drives her to keep them safe and risk everything to get them back. But she knows that alone won’t save them. She needs to be smart and strategic as well. She needs to be pragmatic. She believes herself to be a good person (and I think she’s right about that) but when that belief, her love for her people and her strategy and pragmatism come into competition, how is anyone supposed to hold on to who they are? Especially in the face of a strong leader who is telling her that the love that partly defines her is weakness. The choices she has made have been strategic and worked toward her goal of rescuing her people. But they weren’t without a heavy cost. She was responsible for a lot of pain and death this year and now that the battles have been won, she must learn to face herself and the person she’s become.
Vanessa Ives (Penny Dreadful) Where season one Vanessa was haunted and more reserved, season two gave us a new side to Vanessa. She’s still haunted, as one could expect of someone being courted by the devil, but she’s no longer alone. She has gathered a group of people around her who care for her and wish to protect her, not out of obligation or to use her for their own ends, but because of who she is. Her rift with Malcolm repaired, her friendships with Ethan and Victor strengthened, and the loyalty of Sembene affirmed, Vanessa is free to experience moments of happiness and something akin to peace. And in those moments, we see the kind soul she possesses underneath the evil power she is capable of wielding. Vanessa can be both the person who saw and loved the poet in a monster and the person who essentially told the devil to go to hell in his own language. She longs for a normal life but knows that as long as she still suffers, it’s not a life she can allow herself to have. She longs for a lasting peace, one in which her thoughts, dreams, and prayers are safe. And as we see her goodness and the care she shows to those who are otherwise outsiders (not a pleasant place to be in Victorian England), we want her to find that peace. We want the struggle to be over so she can live the life in her dream. She couldn’t grasp that vision this season, but you can bet I’ll be tuned into the next one to see her continue to battle her demons.
Amanita (sense8) Quite frankly, this list could be made up of just of sense8 characters because so many of them are fantastic and among the characters I love most right now. But of them all, Amanita was among the first to completely steal my heart and refuse to let it go. Amanita is the partner we all want. She loves so purely and is completely committed to the concept of partnership in a relationship. Whether it is literally setting fire to a building to keep her girlfriend safe or being onboard with the idea that there are other people that her girlfriend can see or access because of a unique ability, she’s up for it. She’s doing whatever is necessary to keep Nomi (and the rest of the sensates by extension) whole because she loves so openly. And is absolutely beautiful to watch.
Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation) How many people get to say that a character they love had all of her dreams come true and lived happily ever after surrounded by people who love her? I do. In a triumphant final season, Leslie Knope accomplished everything she could have dreamed of. It was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication, and it payed off in spectacular fashion. Leslie Knope is a character who’s always had big dreams and ambitions. She believes in the power of people to make a difference in small ways. She believes that small changes and improvements lead to big effects. She believes that by working hard and surrounding yourself with the right people, we can accomplish anything. She’s a character who encourages those around her to find and embrace their own dreams. She’s a character who has left a permanent mark on the pop culture landscape and who inspires so many real women to achieve their own goals. There will never be another character quite like Leslie but I and many others are better people for having watched her growth and success and I couldn’t have chosen a better way to say goodbye.
Joe West Joe has been amazing since day one of The Flash and he just keeps getting better. While he is a good cop and a dedicated member of Team Flash, it’s in his role as a father to Iris and Barry that he shines the most. Joe just wants what is best for his kids. It’s why he encouraged Barry to save his mom, even though it meant that Joe would never get a chance to raise him. It’s why he encouraged Iris to talk to her mom so she wouldn’t regret it down the line. He loves them both so much and it comes through in every interaction they there. What I love the most about Joe is the way he embraces emotion. Rather than tell young Barry to continue to hide his emotions and sadness over the loss of his parents in order to be “strong”, he tells him that it’s ok to feel them and let them out. He encourages emotional expression in Barry, which is not a commonly accepted trait in traditional masculinity. Barry cares so much and he is so group-oriented, which aren’t typical of superheroes, and I think a large part of that comes down to Joe’s influence on him as he was growing up. Joe raised two kids who care so much and are intelligent and driven to make a difference. I think it is the legacy he would be most proud of and that is why Joe West is the best.
Teddy Talbot (Rectify) If you had told me when I started watched Rectify that Teddy would one day make my list of best characters, I probably would have laughed at you. Teddy was kind of awful. Not necessarily maliciously but he had set ideas on how things should be and when Daniel was released, all of that was upended and it’s taken him a long time to figure out he can be someone else. Teddy grew up this year. He had to do a lot of thinking and introspection to figure out just where he went wrong in life, especially his life with Tawney. He had to confront his anger and heartbreak toward the loss of Janet as a maternal figure when her “real” son returned. He learned how to give Tawney what she needs, even if that meant time and space away from him. His challenges aren’t over and he’s by no means perfect or even completely reformed. But he’s in a space where he is willing and able to grow and become a better man and it was an incredible journey to watch.
Shelagh Turner (Call the Midwife) The world needs more people like Shelagh. Like the other characters on this show, she has so much compassion and empathy for humanity. She has a beautiful, giving heart that she uses to help and care for those around her. Whether it is shown by helping out her former sisters of Nonnatus House by doing administrative work, taking over her husband’s practice when his PTSD briefly returned, or providing a listening ear for a friend in need, Shelagh’s strength comes from her tenderness. She is gentle and quiet but unwavering in her ideals and beliefs. She is a pillar of support for those around her when they don’t quite know who else to turn to. This season, we got to watch her don a nurse’s uniform for the first time (and Patrick’s very adorable reaction) and get a chance to practice medicine again for the first time since leaving Nonnatus. The joy on her face and the fulfillment she felt by being able to help the people of Poplar once again was undeniable. She was called to have a family (and she found an awfully beautiful one) but she was also called to work and serve others in the best way she knows how and I expect nothing but great things for her continued growth as she is able to be everything she knows she can be.
Will Lexington (Nashville) This was the year I’ve always wanted for Will. He started out the year firmly convinced he needed to stay in the closet and hide who he actually is and now he’s realized that he’d rather be out, even with the more limited career prospects, than stay in the closet and be successful. This year, Will found love. He found the kind of love that gave him the courage to fully embrace every side of himself, stand up to his father, and come out to an audience he wasn’t sure would approve. His relationship with Kevin may be over (though I’d love to see them get back together) but with every piece of resistance and adversity Will faces in the country music scene, he becomes that much more sure that he wants to be himself. He struggles with it and he hates that he feels like he needs to choose between being honest and his career and he still has his self-loathing moments, but he has come so far from who he was at the beginning of the year and I couldn’t be more proud of him.
Honorable Mentions: Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time), Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project), Ravi Chakrabarti (iZombie), Jessica Jones and Trish Walker (Jessica Jones), James Aubrey (Bones)
Who were the characters closest to your heart this year?