Monday, October 20, 2014

Top 25 TV Characters of 2013

In order to prep for my upcoming 2014 Top 25 TV characters list, I realized, I actually have to post my top 2013 TV characters. Last year's list can be found here ( There's also my Top 10 of last year here.

1. Claire Danes as Agent Carrie Mathison, Homeland-She topped last year's list and is still the best character on TV for my money. The dynamic has shifted as she now has respect of her peers (whichever of them are left) but the chip on Carrie's shoulder never seems to go away. While the show continues to maintain high levels of tension in a world that never seems to become safe (then we'd no longer have a show), there's nothing wrong for the viewer to be happy to see Carrie's status improve and that pathos is a big part of the show. Carrie also benefited this season from being separated from Brody leaving viewers to conclude that she was the less dispensable star of the series. Here's to top billing for Carrie in Season 4.

2. Mark Feuerstein as Dr. Hank Lawson, Royal Pains-Even if “Royal Pains” isn’t the most ambitious show on television, Hank Lawson is one of TV’s most relevant heroes considering the healthcare crisis that’s only intensified since this show premiered in 2009. Hank is such an uplifting character and has a maverick quality to him. He's just a desperado concierge doctor equipped with a scalpel, lightning-quick diagnosing abilities and the mysterious ability to constantly be around some of the rarest medical emergencies ever recorded

3. Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, The Office-And the big winner of the "Next Michael Scott" sweepstakes is (drumroll) Dwight! This is a big turn from a couple years ago in which Dwight was not the best choice for a boss and several years removed from when Dwight was the most ridiculous guy in the entire office (It also inadvertently helped that Kevin got dumber).

4. Damien Birchir as Det. Marco Ruiz, The Bridge-Marco Ruiz is a new iteration of an American hero (and hey, considering the US will be majority Latin-American in 2050, it totally fits that the new Gary Cooper is Latino). He's the modern-day Gary Cooper had Cooper existed in as imperfect of a time and place as the Mexican-Texan border in the 21st century. An Oscar nominee, Birchir brings a great gravity to the role and his emotional showdown with Tate on the eponymous (hopefully I'm using that word correctly) bridge was one of the highlights of the series.

5. Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates, Bates Motel-Farmiga, an Academy Award nominee who should have scored a couple more nods by now, gives a very multi-layered performance that's careful not to rush too deep beneath the surface as the mother of the future iconic knife-wielder. There are no easy diagnoses with which you can label Norma (or what Norma's inflicting on others) in this simmering psychological thriller. Plus when push comes to shove, Norma can handle herself with a knife.

6. Robert MacElhenney as Mac, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia-It's a testament to the great writing of this show that the five leads are continually being developed in interesting directions nine seasons in. Mac's massive weight fluctuation and his ambiguous sexuality, however, are just the writers toying with us. This season's "Mac Day" (which gave us Sean William Scott as Mac's doppelganger) was a pivotal exploration of the lovable karate aficionado who has increasingly become a tangled ball of contradictions whether it's skinny/fat, straight/gay, polite/brusque, religious/amoral or whatever the writers want to throw in there. For more on the fluid nature of Mac's sexuality and other Sunny mysteries, read here.

7. Matthew Lillard as Daniel Frye, The Bridge-Daniel Frye is who I want to be as a journalist and as soon as I finish this column, I'm going to go to the nearest bar and develop a drinking problem. But in all seriousness, I love this guy: He has absolutely no regard for other people or for himself. The only thing keeping his life from unraveling entirely is that he's on the heels of his next story. Frye provided us with the most unexpectedly heartwarming story of the show's first season in his attempts to face down his alcoholism and his budding friendship with colleague Adriana (Emily Rios).

8. Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, Homeland-Berenson is not just a static character: He's rock solid. I would want a man like this running the CIA. He's deeply caring about the people in his custody (see: Aileen Morgan from Season 1), slow, pensive, and has a host of other good qualities. If there's one little nitpick I have, Saul's marital problems seem like an unnecessary cliche to tack onto a character who's personal life doesn't necessarily have to be messy. The good news is there's less of that in Season 4.

9. Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, Scandal-Kerry Washington is a fantastic actress who has long deserved a breakout role like this. I haven't been a regular watcher of the show but I'm happy that a character like Olivia Pope---someone at the epicenter of politics and a gateway point to discussion about Washington's inner working- and an actress like Kerry Washington are becoming prime water cooler talk.

10. Corey Stoll as U.S. Rep. Peter Russo, House of Cards-Alas, poor Peter Russo, we hardly knew ye. As the world within House of Cards becomes more and more hellish, we have the memories of the one idealist who almost made a difference in the system. By the time of his exit, Stoll's Peter Russo won the audience over with his sincerity.

11. Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans-I've devoted a lot of effort show to complaining about the show's realism and even went so far as to interview the head of Washington's Spy Museum to prove a point. While I might find her character absurd, I can see her as a great character (perhaps even the best character on television) under a hypothetical that her character makes sense. Keri Russell, who wins the award for biggest 180 from her previous TV role as an angsty college student in "Felicity", is fiercely committed to her ideology and occasionally quite lethal as deep cover Russian spy Elizabeth.

12. Lucy Liu as Watson, Elementary-The female reimagining of Watson is a fresh twist on one of history's most iconic stock characters in TV and it's a great role for Lucy Liu as well. The chemistry between Liu and Johnny Lee Miller is a tricky one to navigate. In some versions of Sherlock Holmes, Watson is the caretaker to an idiot savant. Here, the pair is in a symbiotic and equal relationship which is what I've always preferred.

13. Robert Lowe as Chris Traeger, Parks and Recreation-One of those eureka moments watching "Parks and Recreation" recently was realizing that Chris Traeger was the heart of the show. His positivity and warmth were indicative of the tone of a show that's considered one of TV's biggest hang-out fests. The abnormally positive person with a hint of sadness underneath made for a fascinating character and I responded well to the idea of him working on himself and his anxieties rather than just immediately finding a cure for loneliness. On top of this, Chris Traeger is far-and-away the best role in Rob Lowe's long career.

14. Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky, Orange is the New Black-Some might feel she was overplayed, but I found her highly amusing. The reformed bible belt poster girl (who ironically met her fate in prison through multiple abortions) was a satire of new wave evangelicalism but a sympathetic character nonetheless. Pennsatucky wasn't the show's deepest character but she was an ideal foil to Piper and I saw a lot of depth in every one of Pennsatucky's physical mannerisms and tics. Whenever she was on screen, you knew something amusing would happen.

15. Alia Shawkat as Maeby Funke, Arrested Development-One can pick any number of characters from here, but in terms of a character really going in reverse yet spinning her wheels in exciting ways, Maeby was hard to top. In her latest ploy for parental attention, the 22-year-old voluntarily flunks her senior year of high school for five straight years.

16. Jim Jefferies as Jim, Legit-Like his Australian counterpart Jason Gann ("Legit" and "Wilfred" comparisons, at least to me, are unavoidable), Jefferies doesn't have any sort of gimmick like dressing up in a dog suit. In fact, Jefferies doesn't do much all day at all but he goes about it in a charming way. It's also amusing how his attempts at self-improvement mainly affect his roommates' life views for the worse (to the consternation of Mindy Sterling). This is a show (and protagonist) based on a stand-up comic that works because it is so congruent with his comedic vision.

17. Dean Norris as Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad-I thought that Hank would go the way of Skyler and call off his crusade once he realized Walter White was family. When the moment came, Hank surprised me and sharply defined the difference between being a good cop and being a man of integrity.  People rave about the show's final season and while it was "stunning" (I can't honestly tell you whether it was stunning on my free will as the critical mass has drowned out any capacity at independent thought on "Breaking Bad"), Hank's steadfast character was the one thing that really threw me for a curve.

18. Taylor Schilling as Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black-For all the attention, the show has gotten on its plethora of supporting characters, I'd maintain that a show based on a first-person memoir is only as strong as its lead. Piper, front and center, is our audience surrogate to a unique and highly unfamiliar world. It is her slow transformation from naive waif to prison-hard that grounds the show. The character gets a lot of criticism for being everything from naive to selfish, but I'd argue that she would do exactly as well as any of us would in prison, if not better.

19. Freddy Highmore as Norman Bates, Bates Motel-Freddy Highmore came to prominence in child roles in the mid-2000's with "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Now he's all grown-up and I couldn't be happier to see a child star nailing such an adult role. 

20. Chelsea Peretti as Gina Linetti, Brooklyn Nine Nine-I've written elsewhere that I don't enjoy Brooklyn Nine Nine anymore. In my opinion, the show suffers greatly from a balance issue: The charaters are too crazy for even a straight man of Andre Braughter's calliber. But Gina is such a well-crafted brand of crazy, her antics are almost immune to this balance issue. For me, there's no other reason to watch this show than Gina. For some of her golden dialogue, see this Buzzfeed article 23 Reasons Gina is the Best Character on TV

21. Diane Kruger as Sonia Cross, The Bridge-With all the "Orange is the New Black" standouts, I was thinking of including 3 OitNB cast members but at the end of the day, "The Bridge" had three very strong characters all of which should be honored. Aside from being one of the most realistic portrayals of aesperger's being shown on screen, Sonia is also a great showcase for Diane Kruger. All the social awkwardness of an aspie character is flipped when a beautiful woman has those traits

22. Julie White as Anne, Go On-A very strong bittersweet character from this gone-too-soon series. She was on last year's list and she got even richer as time went on.
23. Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, Smash-The modern "42nd Street" reimagining is only as good as its Ruby Keelor.  McPhee plays the Broadway ingenue as a girl-next-door type who can amp up her sex appeal if the show demands it. There was something interesting about a hard working showgirl who's sex appeal was a professional afterthought. (full disclosure: I only watched approximately three episodes of "Smash")

25. Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow, American Horror Story: Coven-"A bitchier version of Hogwarts" is an apt description for the show's best season to date. The season started off on the wrong end of creepy (particularly the protagonist-as-necrophiliac angle) but started to pick up steam as the witches started convening in New Orleans for a high-stakes witch-off of sorts. The show's third season was most successful at maintaining a playful tone while building up a mythical world. Among the parade of fun derivations of the standard witch trope was eccentric aunt Myrtle whose outfits and personality tics were never uninspired. A worthy foil for Fiona (Jessica Lange) and the mother Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) never had, may she rest in peace.

25.  Dan Bucatinsky as Jerome, Web Therapy-Bucatinsky won an Emmy last year for his guest stint on Scandal, but I remember him best as the highly entertaining pushover under the thumb of 3-minute web therapist Fiona Wallice. Wasn't it ironic that he interacted with Lisa Kudrow with such a different power dynamic in "Scandal" when she guested?
(full disclosure: It is still really difficult for me to tell which episodes of Web Therapy premiered when and this is all complicated by the fact that much of the Showtime series is derived from a web series sold on ITunes that premiered two years earlier. It's entirely possible that 2013 Jerome perished or became satanic)

Honorable Mentions: Annet Mahendrus as Nina Krelova, The Americans; Danielle Brooks as Taystee, Orange is the New Black; Darby Stanchfield as Abbey Whelan in Scandal; Jeffrey Tambor as George Bluth Sr. on Arrested Development; Jessica Lange as Fiona in American Horror Story; Justin Bartha as David Sawyer in The New Normal; Lauren Benanti as Lauren, Go On; Luke Wilson as Levi Callow, Enlightened; Maria Bamford as DeBrie Bardeaux, Arrested Development; Michaela Watkins as Janice, Enlightened; Mike White as Todd, Enlightened; Nolan Gould as Luke, Modern Family; Sarah Paulson as Cordellia, American Horror Story; Ty Burrell as Phil, Modern Family

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Some old reviews: Wedding Crashers, Lady in the Water, Frost/Nixon

One of the tenants in the apartment building, where Lady in the Water takes place, is a crotchety old film critic who he feels he’s seen it all. “I have come to accept there’s nothing original left in this world,” he says. This is ironic because if this fictitious character knew of the movie he was inadvertently a part of, he would think differently.

It is hard to deny that if nothing else, M. Night Shamylan has a very unique voice. He certainly isn’t the only current filmmaker who’s original but everything in the tone of his films from the characters to the setting and plot feels a little bit off the norm.

In Lady in the Water, Shamylan conjures up a fantasy world that intrigues us in the in the way it intersects with a seemingly mundane group of tenants in an apartment. The lady referenced in the title (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a sea nymph who is discovered in the apartment’s pool* by the building’s super, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Giamatti reaffirms how underrated of an actor he is in the way he gives unforeseen depth to the character of Cleveland. Mourning the death of his wife and kids, Cleveland is a hesitant and uneasy man with a stutter. However, when the girl says her life is in danger, he is overcome with too much empathy and devotes himself to helping her find her way back home. A cryptic folk story told to him by one of his tenants reveals the identity of the girl as an otherworldly prophetic figure who seeks out three groups of tenants in the building and Cleveland must sift through the colorful group of characters that populate his building to find out who they are.

The film creates a constant state of suspense with shots reminiscent of Jaws that show victims being attacked from the point-of-view of the sharks, or in this case mythical beasts that Howard’s character is fleeing from. It’s main strength, however, is how Shamylan’s storytelling is different from anything we’ve ever seen before. Even when the film moves a little slow or gets bogged up in plot holes, we’re too intrigued by Shamylan’s vivid imagination not to want to follow along and see where he’s going.

*One quick potential plot hole to clear up in case you’re wondering how it could be remotely believable to have a sea nymph appear out of a swimming pool: this pool isn’t a concrete hole in the ground but rather it was built over some natural body of water and the sea nymph appears out of some chasm and emerges through a vent.


Directed by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon is on par with the most insightful of political dramas yet it plays out like a riveting sports film.

The arena of competition in this case is public perception and the “sport” is debate. The contestants? Ex-President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and B-level talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) who are trying to earn critical respectability over a course of public interviews. At the time (1977 to be exact), David Frost was trying to become respected as a journalist and earn bigger endorsement deals and Richard Nixon was trying to elevate his speaking fees as well as earn himself a place back among the Washington elite.

The way the public was so glued to their tv screens during the presidential debates the year this film proved that the film’s theme- public perception is everything- is as timely as ever. Is Frost/Nixon commenting on whether democracy’s imperfections can be weeded out through this medium or does the film apologetically state that politics are a zero-sum game? As Frost says in one scene when the President tells him how much alike they are, “I agree but only one of us can win.”

The film is an interesting commentary on the American political myth about the great political outsider who comes from nowhere to be the President of the U.S. and leads the country to greatness. Frost/Nixon is the story of a guy who’s an outsider whose dream of saving democracy and leading the U.S. foward isn’t to become president but to take down an illegitimate US President. Through this inversion, the film teaches us that it’s easier to build up a man than to expose him for what he really is.

The script, by Peter Morgan, made these thoughtful points but also made the film exciting. Even the mundane things- the adjusting of the participants’ ties before the interview, small-talk between staffers, the communications between the tv crew-  all became something to watch. Morgan, who also wrote “The Queen” and “Special Relationship” has an interest in the mores of political conduct and, sometimes he can’t translate his narrow interest in the topic to something exciting for the audience. This is one of those exceptions.

Langella and Sheen are fantastic in their roles and with so little drama in the film outside of their interactions, it’s fair to say they make the movie (although Kevin Bacon provides a highlight in one of the character actor’s more intense supporting roles to date). As someone who’s never seen the original Frost/Nixon debates, I can’t say with authority how they compare to the original, but they two create very deep characters upon which the drama transpires.

 The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and fully deserved it.

From the same comedic team (more or less) that brought you Zoolander, Dodgeball, and Old School, the latest annual installment of a comedy has arrived about people who don’t actually exist (frat boys who technically aren’t college students, professional dodgeball players, etc), but could very easily exist when you think about it.

The comedic team that I’m talking about is combination of at least one guy with the last name Wilson, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell who rotate playing the lead, playing the sidekick/rival, not being in the movie at all, and providing a much loved 2-minute cameo. Owen Wilson and Vaughn take the leads as two more characters that guys could easily enjoy vicariously living through for a couple hours: John Beckwith and Jeremy Klein (Wilson) are two divorce lawyers who spend their spare time crashing weddings solely to meet girls.

After years of practice they’ve refined it down to an art. One of the best running comic gags, in fact, is that they have a lengthy rule book that they memorize and regularly cite from in various situations.
The story begins when after a very successful wedding season, shown through a well-made opening montage; the two buddies decide to end off the season with a bang by crashing what will be their most high stakes wedding to date. Why this wedding is a bigger deal to them than any other wedding is beyond me, but nevertheless, the two go to the wedding and both find themselves with bigger messes than they can clean up by wedding’s end. Jeremy falls for one of the bride’s sisters, Claire, and all is going well until he meets her boyfriend. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) plays Claire a little too lackadaisically charming to come off as anything but clichd.

John, meanwhile, has such good luck with the bride’s other sister that he manages to have sex with her before the wedding is even over. Unfortunately, she mistakes his love of the chase for true love and his efforts to flee the scene get foiled by his love-struck partner in crime who insists they stick around. This is the point in the movie when, like John, it would be best to flee the scene ourselves.

While the film is lined with sharp and hilarious snippets of dialogue throughout, the story is unevenly paced and it never really gets back to that screwball comedy feel it attains in the film’s first half hour.

If not for the fact that these guys will probably be appearing in movie theaters again in some cameo or comedy vehicle before I even finish mourning their failure, I’d have been disappointed because with a few minor tweaks, I could have seen this movie working. For example, one of the downturns that are used in these types of romantic comedies to prevent the guy and girl from getting together before working things out takes up almost a year of the story and one of the characters gets depressed to the point of feeling suicidal. In this scene and in general, the movie too often drifts a little too far away from lighthearted-comedy mode. Considering how with characters that revel in the joy of taking advantage of girls at weddings, the movie’s tone is quite cynical when you think about it, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get the audience taking the film too seriously at all.