The most thrilling new characters on television this year
Half of 2017 is through, and the year has already seen us make many a new television friend. It’s been a heavy year, thick with fine performances, but rather than go on about the best performances — a conversation that usually favours those in lead roles — I thought to single out the most electrifying new characters we met this year. Here, fellow binge-watchers, are those I believe could rub shoulders with Omar Little and Niles Crane and Josh Lyman and Tony Soprano. Created when the talent hits the words at just the right angle, these are, at the very least, characters you won’t soon forget. And can’t possibly ignore.
In Bryan Fuller’s meaty adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (streaming on Amazon), fine actors have a blast playing mythological icons in modern times, but nobody has quite as much fun as that lady called Media. Gillian Anderson plays the god we can’t get ourselves to switch off, and this involves her metamorphosing into Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and even — in what will doubtless remain one of my favourite scenes of the year — a stunningly on-point David Bowie (complete with Ziggy Stardust hair) whose conversation is (naturally) made out of his own lyrics.
A solid shapeshifting character gives an actor a lot to bite into, and Noah Hawley’s Kubrick-influenced mutant story, Legion — surely an early contender for new show of the year — saves that seat for Aubrey Plaza. Playing middle-aged junkie Lenny Busker, she appears in the protagonist David’s head in various unusual and captivating shapes, most unforgettably as a music-video vamp living a neon life as she sashays through his mindscape. Right before clicking back to being his therapist and literally pouring self-doubt into his head.
Legion is populated by a striking ensemble — Jean Smart, Rachel Keller, Dan Stevens, Bill Irwin are all excellent — but one of the oddest and most inscrutable characters shows up late in the series. Played by Jemaine Clement, Oliver Bird knows what he likes to drink and what he likes to listen to, and, living as he does on the astral plane, concerns himself less with questions of saving the world than with the more important things: like putting together a barbershop quartet. One half of the Flight Of The Conchords, Clement is a naturally magnetic performer, but Oliver Bird is something else, a man so goddamned cool he lives inside an ice-cube.
David E Kelley’s Big Little Lies (Hotstar), a show with a stupendous ensemble of actresses, becomes a showcase for Nicole Kidman as it goes on, and Kidman is indeed magnificent in the demanding part of a successful lawyer and abused wife. The real character of the show, though, is Laura Dern’s Renata Klein, the antsy antagonist who chooses to swim upstream yet holds it against the rest of the world for not keeping up with her. Dern — as can be evidenced by her work in the new Twin Peaks, or her goofy cameo on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — is a treasure, and I’m glad television is tapping into her delightful atypicality. More, more.
Few things scream comic gold as obviously as an odd couple, a pair of mismatched wits ripping into one another with undisguised vigour. This is what Netflix’s GLOW is built on, with Marc Maron’s disgruntled director Sam forced to deal with the unflagging enthusiasm of Alison Brie’s Ruth. Brie is super outside of her usual perfect-little-girl box as she plays a highly flawed character, while Maron is tremendously enjoyable as he, brimming with cocaine and cynicism, keeps shutting her down. “Oh, you’re not going to have a say,” he tells her at some point when she thinks he needs her help. “I just want someone to disagree with so I can clarify my own instincts.”
I loved Mike Schurr’s The Good Place when it started last year — enough for it to make my top of the year list— but strike all that because, as the incredible season came to a close, it became clear that the show was not just wickeder but far more ambitious than even the high-concept plot, of a not-nice girl struggling with ethics in the afterlife, made it seem. This is not just a clever comedy but genuinely more brilliant and insightful than many acclaimed dramas, and those like Westworld could learn how to execute a twist from this fine show. I watched The Good Place all over again and marvelled at the nuances and the comedic commitment, and while I can’t spoil the show for you, believe you me when I say that the great Ted Danson, who plays an archangel called Michael, deserves to be on this list if only for one laugh. One laugh. That Sam Malone, he’s still got it.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. The writer tweets at @rajasen.