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Best of 2016: Characters

On television as in life, it does not do to stagnate. We must continue to change and if we are to become the best versions of ourselves. We won’t always change in positive ways, sometimes we end up in places we later realize we don’t want to be. But we must always believe that growth is possible and above all else, that hope can be found. Hope for a better life. Hope for peace. Hope for the chance to be a part of something.

I have always been a person who is more drawn to the characters on a TV show than the plot itself. My engagement rests on the ability of a show to create compelling arcs and believable characters and motivations. Whether it has been a striking change over the course of a season or the retrospective observation of a character’s full journey, these stories were the ones that most grabbed my attention and my love.

1. Maya Hart (Girl Meets World) I started watching Girl Meets World this year and Maya quickly became one of my favorite characters of all time. This year was one of great uncertainty for her. She and her best friend were caught in a love triangle with their first crushes. She temporarily lost her way and had to rediscover who she is and who she wants to be. She finally had something good happen that she had hoped for and she was so scared that it was going to go away that she tried to push it away so it couldn’t hurt her in the future. Compared to her growth and slow embrace of hope in season two, she backslid a little and it only increased my feelings of protectiveness over her. She’s a young teenager, of course she doesn’t have it all figured out yet. But that urge to run, to avoid hoping for things because it hurts that much more when they disappear, that’s something that can resonate with people of all ages. She’d rather hurt herself than let someone else hurt her but she’s growing. She’s trying and learning that it is OK to have hope and that good things can happen to her. It’s not a linear process and sometimes she needs a reminder but it doesn’t make the journey any less valuable or compelling to watch.

2. Kelly Severide (Chicago Fire) Kelly’s been my favorite male on the show since episode one and I could not have asked for more from him this year. Since Shay’s death (and even before, but at least he had her to call him out on his nonsense), most of his stories have involved him impulsively sleeping with someone in an attempt to run away from any deeper examination of his feelings. He doesn’t believe that he’s capable of forming any real romantic connections and is so concerned with losing someone else important to him so for years he’s pretended that he isn’t interested. Some of the fault lies with the show for not giving him more to do until this year but that self-doubt has been a prominent feature in his character arc from the beginning. This year, he decided he could do more. He deepened his friendship with Casey back to what I imagine they were before they lost Andy. He’s become one of Gabby’s sounding board as well when she has doubts. He made connections with people that had nothing to do with sex. And finally, in the 100th episode, he decided to become a bone marrow donor and save the life of a young woman with leukemia. He wants to be a part of something bigger than himself and is craving those connections with others. He cares so much, whether he will admit it to himself or not. He’s often self-destructive, but he’s a good man and it’s time for him to recognize that and move forward.

3. Vanessa Ives (Penny Dreadful) No matter how strong a person is, they need people by their side to love them and hold them up when they need help remembering who they are. Vanessa started the season alone and depressed. Her love had turned himself in for the crimes he committed in his home country of America, her surrogate father went on a voyage to Africa to bury their friend, and the comfort she once found in God’s presence was gone. It had been broken by the events of the previous season and she thought there could be nothing left for her. But even without those things, she was determined to press on. She found new friends and allies and remembered someone who showed her incredible kindness in the face of the brutality of the asylum. She was once again hunted by the forces of evil, by the twin forces of Lucifer and Dracula. She managed to be seduced by one of them, convinced that darkness was her destiny and fighting would only lead to more suffering. It was heartbreaking to see her give in to the force she’d spent so long fighting against. It was equally heartbreaking to see her summon the strength to fight it one final time, in the form of her own sacrificial death to rid the world of the evil contained inside her. I wanted a life for her, with Ethan and the children she longed for. I still wish there had been another way to end the series. But she chose the faith that defined her in her last moments. She knew Ethan loved her deeply and that she was not lost to God. She was at peace for once in her adult life. It was a bittersweet ending for a character who has touched me so deeply but I wouldn’t have traded the time I spent with the character or the lessons she taught me for anything.

Continue reading Best of 2016: Characters

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Best of 2015: Characters

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.

Continue reading Best of 2015: Characters