The Naughty and Nice of 2014 TV

Welcome to my fourth annual Naughty and Nice of TV list!

This year, I wanted to focus on the TV characters themselves. To borrow from Into the Woods, characters on the Nice List aren’t necessarily “good.” Likewise, characters on the Naughty list aren’t “evil.” Who are the characters that grabbed my attention and made me what to root for them? As I’ve often said on my love of television: characters are key. Make me care for the people I’m spending time with, and you’ve got me hooked.

And just for the hell of it, here are my favorite episodes of 2014 television: “Beach House” (Girls), “So Did the Fat Lady” (Louie), “Cooperative Polygraphy” (Community), “Looking for the Future” (Looking), and “The Strategy” (Mad Men). My previous Naughty and Nice Lists can be found here: 2013, 2012, 2011

Here are the TV Characters on the Nice and Naughty Lists, presented in their show’s respective alphabetical order:

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TV Characters on my Nice List

Big Brother – Zach Rance

The 16th season of Big Brother was an underwhelming strategic bust, thanks to Derrick Levasseur dominating the game with his Bomb Squad and Detonators alliances. Thankfully, we had the bright ball of charisma that was Zach Rance to keep us entertained. The self-proclaimed “Zach Attack” was new type of reality TV character: the lovable bro. He was by no means the sharpest player, but his heart-on-his-sleeve attitude won over the hearts of millions. Zach Attack was a never-ending fount of emotion, ranging from bitter outbursts to tender cuddling. His bro/showmance with Frankie Grande (dubbed “Zankie”) was the fodder of YouTubeTumblr, and Twitter users everywhere. Big Brother took a commendable progressive step by showing such a strong bond between a straight guy and a gay guy, while not playing into any homophobia.

Zach_Attack

Source: bigbrotherz.tumblr.com

BoJack Horseman – BoJack Horseman

Little did we know that when we first entered the surreal animated world of BoJack Horseman, on the surface a pointed satire of Hollywood celebrity, that we would come out the other end of its first season having saw a sobering examination of anxiety depression. Voiced by Will Arnett, BoJack was a washed-up 90s sitcom star and a tortured soul who diagnosed his childhood hangups in an endless sea of booze and partying. We all want to be loved and accepted, man. Buried underneath the animal puns and the celebrity cameos lies a surprisingly deep and twisted heart submerged in a profound well of pathos. And the reveal that Andrew Garfield loves lasagna and hates Mondays.

BoJack_Horseman

Source: dewogong.tumblr.com

Enlisted – The Hill Brothers

Oh, my dear, sweet Enlisted. You were taken from us way too soon. This little comedic gem followed Sgt. Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) who was reassigned to a rear detachment unit that was home to his younger brothers Randy Hill (the ever-hilarious Parker Young) and Derrick Hill (Chris Lowell at his snarkiest). Enlisted hit the perfect sweet spot of hilarity and heartwarming, from the silliness of Randy sobbing while describing the plot of Toy Story 3, to the poignancy of Pete stepping into a solider support group for the first time to seek help for his post-traumatic stress. The pilot episode introduces “hands on heads” as how the Hill brothers say “I love you.” This simple, loving gesture perfectly encapsulates the empathetic nature of Enlisted. No one is alone.
Source: nalle.tumblr.com

Source: nalle.tumblr.com

Fargo – Molly Solverson

Fargo is my favorite series of 2014. Watching such intriguingly off-kilter characters amidst a fantastically rich landscape filled me with glee. Fargo was blessed with brilliant performances from its all-star ensemble of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Key and Peele, Kate Walsh, and more, but one performance stood head and shoulders above the rest. Allison Tolman made the most out of the very definition of a breakout role, as her complex performance of Molly Solverson became the shining beacon of hope in an otherwise frigid world. Molly’s quiet confidence and doggedness proved to be perfect antidote to the well-worn hyper-masculinity of anti-hero dramas. Witty, smart, charming, and vulnerable, Molly took the reigns of Fargo and made the show hers, one decent action at a time.
Molly_Solverson

Source: fxfargo.tumblr.com

The Flash – Barry Allen

The Flash revels in the optimism of superherodom, anchored by Barry Allen’s determination for doing the right thing and actor Grant Gustin’s charisma. From my earlier article, The Best New Shows on TV: Jane the VirginThe Flash, I wrote about what makes Gustin’s performance so refreshing: “Grant Gustin as Barry Allen is as charming as all get out. His fresh-faced earnestness makes lines like, ‘Lightning gave me abs?!’ and ‘My chest feels like that one time I had a cigarette. Yeah, teen me lived for danger’ absolutely work in his favor. Gustin nails not only Barry’s easy-going nerd charisma, but he also brings a necessary depth to the role. Barry’s capacity for empathy is deep and you can see the passion and heartbreak in Gustin’s eyes.”
Source: felicitytech.tumblr.com

Source: felicitytech.tumblr.com

Jane the Virgin – Jane Villaneuva

Gina Rodriguez and Jane the Virgin became the first-ever Golden Globe nominees for The CW Network and deservedly so. This wonderfully warm telenovela-inspired concoction was the biggest surprise of the fall season. In my article about Jane the Virgin, I wrote: “The throughly charming Gina Rodriguez leads the cast as Jane Villanueva. Reveling in a star-making turn, Rodriguez provides the nuanced emotional center of honesty and warmth. We feel for her. We laugh with her. We cheer for her. Her earnestness is instantly endearing. Yet at the same time, the Latin Lover Narrator notes, ‘Jane was a virgin, but not a saint.’ She’s flawed. She’s judgmental. She’s judgmental of her flaws.” Jane Villaneuva welcomes us into her world with open arms.
Source: linhcinderella.tumblr.com

Source: linhcinderella.tumblr.com

The Legend of Korra – Korrasami

It is a damn shame that Nickelodeon pulled The Legend of Korra off the airwaves halfway through season three this past summer, airing the final season and a half exclusively online, as the last two seasons were quietly groundbreaking. Korra was an exemplary display of feminism, highlighting both the badass strength of its female ensemble, as well as their flaws and vulnerabilities.

The show gave these characters the freedom to explore their wants and needs through nuanced character development. Women rose to power, women wielded power, and women abused power. The striking journey of Avatar Korra demonstrated the difficult, necessary, and lonely road to recovery. However, she ultimately wasn’t alone. Korra ends the series with her close friend, Asami, by her side. Once rivals fighting over the same boy, Korra and Asami developed a deep friendship over the years, using each other as supportive confidants.

Now we’ll get into spoilers… By the third episode of season three, I had picked up on Korra and Asami’s friendship, and tweeted: “I’m especially enjoying the deepening relationship between Korra and Asami. Not everything’s about boys.” and I was aware of the fervent Korra online fanbase shipping Korra and Asami (“Korrasami”), having followed a couple Korra tumblrs myself. I was not ready for the last minutes of The Legend of Korra series finale, however, when the two women travelled to the Spirit World together, eyes and hands locked. I gasped as I watched those closing moments, with my hands over my face. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Were Korra and Asami ending up together?

Indeed, it was real. Korra co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino revealed post-finale, that indeed the two women ended up together. I’ll let Konietzko explain why this relationship carries so much power and importance (excerpted from his Tumblr post “Korassami is canon“):

“Just because two characters of the same sex appear in the same story, it should not preclude the possibility of a romance between them. No, not everyone is queer, but the other side of that coin is that not everyone is straight. The more Korra and Asami’s relationship progressed, the more the idea of a romance between them organically blossomed for us… But as we got close to finishing the finale, the thought struck me: How do I know we can’t openly depict that? No one ever explicitly said so. It was just another assumption based on a paradigm that marginalizes non-heterosexual people. If we want to see that paradigm evolve, we need to take a stand against it.”

This is progress.

Source: magnificent-vennificus.tumblr.com

Source: magnificent-vennificus.tumblr.com

Orange is the New Black – Rosa Cisneros

In its second season, Orange is the New Black broadened its canvas, expanded its world, and showed a deft confidence in both the cast and writers. By shifting the central narrative away from Piper Chapman, the show’s lesser characters like Black Cindy and Gloria were given time to shine. Through this season’s flashbacks, we learned that not all the women in Litchfield simply made bad decisions, but that some were actually criminals. This was the case with Rosa Cisneros, played beautifully by Barbara Rosenblat. In OITNB‘s first season, Rosa barely made an impression, but her season two quest to find any remaining vestiges of life’s thrilling joy made a profound and powerful impact. The fact that Orange is the New Black showcased such a moving story for a seemingly minor character displays the show’s limitless respect for telling the stories that aren’t always told.

Source: ayeshunx.tumblr.com

Source: ayeshunx.tumblr.com

Silicon Valley – Peter Gregory

The late and very great Christopher Evan Welch gave us a gift with his peculiar and precise portrayal as the eccentric and enigmatic billionaire, Peter Gregory. The scenes in “Articles of Incorporation” in which Welch delivers a speech on the business machinations of Burger King are nothing short of remarkable.
Source: adultum.tumblr.com

Source: adultum.tumblr.com

Survivor – Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson, winner of Survivor: San Juan del Sur, was, in the words of a fellow contestant, “basically a badass.” She was socially savvy, physically strong, and brutally honest. As two-time veterans of The Amazing Race, Natalie and her twin sister Nadiya, entered the season with huge targets on their backs. Nadiya was the first elimination of the game, which stoked Natalie with a passionate fire for vengeance which she fueled brilliantly into her social game. It bears repeating that in a season of Survivor that featured pairs of loved ones (husband and wife, mother and daughter, boyfriends, etc.), a pair of identical siblings bookmarked the game. One Twinnie was voted out first, while the other Twinnie won the whole freakin’ game. This feat shows that Survivor is not only a game of strategy, but also a game of luck and circumstance.

Source: herasyed.tumblr.com

Source: herasyed.tumblr.com

TV Characters on my Naughty List

American Horror Story: Freak Show – Elsa Mars
Yet another power-hungry Jessica Lange matriarch desperately striving to assert her authority in a world where youth and beauty threaten to destroy everything dear to her? Yawn.
 
Downton Abbey – Lady Mary’s male suitors
I honestly could not tell these men apart from each other, nor did the show make me care to distinguish them. I commend Downton Abbey for handling Lady Mary’s grieving process with care, but saddling her with tired flirtations was a bore to watch. Downton Abbey is just more of the same every year.

How to Get Away with Murder – Everyone who isn’t Viola Davis or Jack Falahee
Yes, HTGAWM is progressive in its portrayal of a strong, black female who is given powerful moments of vulnerability and its portrayal of a gay character who is allowed to be as sexual, if not more so, than his straight co-stars. Unfortunately, every other character in this show is a lame, underwritten snooze.

Orange is the New Black – Larry Bloom
For a show bursting to the brim with many vibrant characters, why does Orange is the New Black feel the need to keep coming back to the trials and tribulations of Larry (Jason Biggs)? Yes, he started the series as Piper’s fiancé, but we have traveled down so many more interesting paths since then. Time spent with Larry is time taken away from the richness that is Litchfield.

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But let’s not end on such a downer note, shall we? Let’s end with this Nice unaired Saturday Night Live short, which perfectly skewered 90s family sitcoms, through the “very special episode” trope, chicken wings, and Andrew Garfield’s midriff.

Saturday Night Live – Wing
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Community & Downton Abbey – New Year Premieres

This past week ushered in the new year, and with it, new seasons of Community and Downton Abbey. Both shows entered their new seasons with the task of rebuilding their worlds after massive shake-ups: Community returned with creator Dan Harmon once again at the helm, putting back the pieces of last year’s David Guarascio and Moses Port’s admirably-led, yet empty, season, while the inhabitants of Downton Abbey began life anew after the unexpected death of Matthew Crawley and departure of actor Dan Stevens.

Both shows turned the pages onto new chapters, but after watching the first two episodes of each, only Community glimmered with exuberant hope, while Downton Abbey dulled with lackluster.

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I bailed on Community after four episodes last season. Without Dan Harmon on-board, I felt as though I was watching a show that was an empty shell of its former self. Port and Guarascio tried too hard to imitate the past season’s idiosyncrasies and it showed. The Harmon-free Community wasn’t the darkest timeline, but it sure rang hollow. The lighting was brighter. Pop culture references fell flat. Character motivations rang false. The heart simply wasn’t there. And worst of all, the show simply wasn’t funny.

With “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching,” the first two episodes of this season, it was like welcoming back old, familiar friends, albeit ones that were sadder, and perhaps even a bit wiser (nah). These were the characters we once knew. Community has always worked best when it dove into the weird recesses of its characters’ flaws, exposing a dark self-loathing hidden beneath the surface (see “Mixology Certification” and “Cooperative Calligraphy”). The show doesn’t need high-concepts all the time to be successful, but these skewed perspectives can bring out what rings true in these characters’ emotional lives.

Simply put, the Greendale gang felt like people again, people prone to Nicholas Cage-fueled breakdowns and messy owl analogies, but people nonetheless. Jeff Winger makes a quintessential observation on this necessary retooling of the group: “Don’t blame it all on a gas leak year. This is a four-year process. We went in one end as real people and out the other end as mixed-up cartoons.”

Community_Nic_Cage

Jeff’s pointed statement wasn’t just a knock on last season, but a commentary on how the characters have evolved since the pilot, for better or for worse. In these new re-calibrated episodes, the characters were given more grounded motivations that stayed true to their essence. Annie Edison was the most smartly-written she had been in years, free of her Jeff-impaired schoolgirl crush. Britta, Shirley, and Troy hitting rock-bottom rightly fueled them to shed the loser mentality that they feared most. And Abed was Abed. These characters need each other in order to succeed and that need for connection was palpable.

Even Ben Chang, my least favorite character, came across as tolerable and palatable. Over the seasons, Chang has gone from teacher, to student, to megalomaniacal despot, to Changnesiac (thank goodness I skipped over that), but now it appears that he’ll be used in the capacity that suits him most: an obnoxious “teacher” that pops into frame in measured doses.

The addition of Jonathan Banks as Professor Buzz Hickey fills the hole that Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne left. Hickey is the suave, world-weary mentor figure that Hawthorne could only dream of being. Hickey will be around for most of the season, and it will be interesting to see how the little-explored Greendale student-teacher relationships will pan out, especially now that Winger himself is a teacher. The addition of the faculty lounge also opens up a brand new world to examine.

While Community is more than a well-oiled strings of zingers and meta-humor, it was a relief to simply laugh again. Insightful references to Scrub’s ninth season, Donald Glover’s impending departure, and Nicholas Cage’s particular brand of crazy examining the randomness of human nature hit the mark. And I can’t not mention my absolute favorite exchange that occurred between Jeff and Troy:

Jeff: “Your entire identity has been consumed by your relationship with another man.”

Troy: “You found my Clive Owen Tumblr?!”

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Like Community, Downton Abbey entered its new season with rebuilding on the agenda, but unlike the Greendale gang, it failed to breathe much of a new life into the show. The unbearable soapyness of Matthew Crawley’s shocking death almost made my Naughty List this past year, along with the unbearable tedium of the Batezzz in Jail storyline.

Starting six months after Matthew’s death, creator Julian Fellowes gave a great opportunity to shake up the estate. Unfortunately, Fellowes is prone to falling into the same repetitive narrative traps and circling around the same tired conservative themes. Downton Abbey’s poor pacing and whiplash character motivations breed a familiarity and a repetitiveness that to some viewers may feel absolutely comforting (Oh that Dowager Countess and her witty bon mots!), but to others comes across as a dreary slog. I can appreciate the soapyness of it all (heck, I sat through all eight seasons of Desperate Housewives), but the show has failed to rise to its dizzying first season heights time and time again.

So with the cyclical narrative nature of the everyday life at Downton Abbey (Really? Edna Braithwaite again? What a blatant attempt to fill the Mrs. O’Brien void.), we must cling to the familiar character beats to find viewing satisfaction (Oh that Dowager Countess and her witty bon mots!). It is this character predictability, portrayed by talented actors and actresses that can elevate middling material, that makes Downton Abbey such a huge hit, with a record-breaking 10.2 million viewers tuning into the premiere.

Millions tuned in to see how Lady Mary would mourn her late husband, and the show did not disappoint in that regard. Michelle Dockery played every note of grief and stoicism with great and cold aplomb. Her icy delivery of “Oh, it’s Valentine’s Day” killed me. And her emotional and vulnerable breakdown with her father-figure Carson was a highlight of the two hours.

I have always been on #TeamEdith and I’m looking forward to watching her bloom into her own this season. The confidence with which she carries herself is ever-so satisfying. “I don’t care. Kiss me. Now.” she tells her boyfriend at dinner. In public. Get it, Edith! And it wouldn’t be Downton Abbey without the frustratingly insufferable Lord Grantham. Can we also move past the Ivy/Daisy/Alfred/Hot Jimmy love quadrangle? That was so last season. Thanks. Thankfully, the effervescence that Lady Rose has brought to the proceedings bodes well for the future of the series. More spunk and less Batezzz please!

3 Reasons Why I Cried This Week

It was certainly an emotional week in television. Thanks to some genuine honesty in storytelling and well-earned emotional payoffs, I shed tears in watching no less than three shows this past week. But admit it, if you watch these shows, you probably did too. No one’s judging, least of all me!

If you haven’t yet watched the most recent episodes of American Horror Story: Asylum, 30 Rock, and the US airing of Downton Abbey, don’t read on. SPOILER ALERT!

American Horror Story: Asylum – “Madness Ends”

What words come to mind when describing American Horror Story: Asylum? Certainly “shocking,” “disturbing,” and “grotesque” pop up. But surprisingly, so do “beautiful” and “moving.” Yes, the finale to AHS’s second horrific installment brought tears to my eyes. For all of the power that the series stripped of its characters, the finale presented a moving epilogue in which power was restored. Sister Jude, played by national treasure Jessica Lange, finally found the peace she deserved, thanks to Kit Walker’s compassion. He rescued her from Briarcliff, not for her sake or even his, but for his children. This act of forgiveness, along with the help of his half-alien children (this is still American Horror Story: Asylum, mind you), rehabilitated Jude back to sanity.

AHS_Madness_Ends

Behind all the blood and guts, the beating emotional heart behind American Horror Story: Asylum’s showed itself through its genuine empathy in concluding Sister Jude’s character arc. Jude began the season in a villainous light, stoking Briarcliff’s wretched fire by committing acts of wrongful imprisonment, electro-shock therapy, and the like. Through various twists and turns, she became the asylum’s prisoner, and took hold of the audience’s sympathies. By the end of the journey, she found redemption and grace, acting as the surrogate grandmother to Kit’s children, and reveling in her new-found purpose. Her final moments on her deathbed were deeply moving, as she parted one last piece of feminist wisdom to Kit’s daughter: “Don’t you ever let a man tell you who you are or make you feel like you’re less than he is.” As Jude passed away, her redemptive ending turned out to be even more gratifying than any vengeful arc could have been. Jude accepting the Angel of Death’s kiss was gorgeous, heartbreaking, and just about the classiest way to close her character’s ascent from madness.

30 Rock – “A Goon’s Deed In A Weary World”

When looking back at 30 Rock‘s seven seasons, it’s easy to recall such hilarious moments as Jack Donaghy’s role-play therapy for Tracy Jordan, Liz Lemon inadvertently parading around as the Joker, or Jon Hamm in blackface. The series prides itself on its pop-culture irreverence, but underneath its layers of self-aware cynicism lies a sincere fondness for its characters. At the end of 30 Rock’s penultimate episode, when the TGS crew members quit in front of the Kabletown board members for the sake of Liz Lemon’s happiness, I reached for a Kleenex. This honest gesture of support and sacrifice was a truly earned emotional moment, seven years in the making, and I shed tears of joy.

30_Rock_Lizz_Criss

Many (ruth-filled) television sitcoms would end its series run with the big, happy wedding, but not 30 Rock. With Liz and Criss’ wedding occurring mid-season, the big, happy ending for 30 Rock and for Liz Lemon became motherhood. Liz has always struggled to find a balance between her personal life and her work life, wrangling her unruly, impulsive TGS crew as she might her own children. But in these final moments, her TGS crew finally stepped up to the plate, sacrificing themselves to allowing Liz to make it to the airport on-time to greet her new adopted children, an experience she would only have once in her life. Liz Lemon is finally getting everything she’s wanted, fully embracing her very own children, fittingly, a mini-Tracy and mini-Jenna (Liz: “That seems about right.”). Here’s to the final episode!

Downton Abbey – “Episode Five”

Judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, everyone, including myself, succumbed to the ugly cry when Julian Fellowes killed off Lady Sybil. This unflinching tragedy was the hardest emotional gut punch Downton Abbey has faced in its three seasons. But why the heavy sobbing, even if we can’t personally relate to lords, valets, and early 20th century England? It’s a testament to the series’ strong writing and acting (save for this season’s Batezzz storyline) that we have such a deep emotional investment in its rich, vibrant characters. Sybil’s strong moral compass and pure heart made the loss even more devastating, as her sense of humanity brought a refreshing ease to the Crawlely household.

Sybil’s final episode proved a fitting showcase for Downton Abbey’s SAG award for Best Ensemble in a TV Drama, which it won this past Sunday. All of the characters, both upstairs and downstairs, grieved in their own personal way. Each of these moments proved to be emotionally wrenching, from Branson holding his motherless child, looking out into vast empty world, to the Dowager Countess quietly soldering forward into Downton Abbey, about to join her mourning family, to Thomas’ breakdown outside the kitchen, acknowledging the loss, “In my life, I can tell you, not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.” Narratively, Sybil’s death will prove to be a rich source of conflict driving the series forward, in pushing characters apart, especially between Lord and Lady Grantham, and sisters Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Emotionally, however, Sybil’s demise brought everyone together in a standstill from which the characters and we, the audience, are still recovering.