The Best TV Characters of 2011

When Showtime’s celebrated Homeland wrapped up its first season earlier this week, many critics were upset with its final twists. But AV Club’s TV editor, Todd VanDerWerff, wasn’t one of them. He took to Twitter to stick up for the show, noting that its detractors were largely upset about the plot while its defenders lauded its character development and concluding, “If you’re watching long-form TV for plot, it will disappoint you.” In fact, it’s always fascinating and multi-faceted characters, and the way they grow over time, that hooks us on a show for the long haul. So, with an eye to how vitally important they are to the overall success of a series, we’ve rounded up the year’s best TV characters. Since we can’t watch everything, you’ll want to add anyone we missed in the comments.

George Christopher, Bored to Death

RIP Bored to Death. As much as we like the Jonathan Ames character and love Zach Galifianakis, it is Ted Danson’s aging (former) magazine editor, George Christopher, who we’re most upset to never see again. Both a father figure to Jonathan and Galifianakis’ Ray and a big, spoiled kid himself, George was a bundle of contradictions, a helpless womanizer, a stylish clotheshorse, a generous friend, a hilarious stoner, and a guy whose heart was genuinely in the right place. We think this charismatic character would make an excellent late-night host, and we’ll totally forgive HBO for canceling Bored to Death if they’ll simply give him his own daily show.

Sarah Linden, The Killing

It wasn’t a perfect show, but AMC’s The Killing did give us a great character: Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), an ace Seattle homicide detective who’s about to give up her job to get married and live in Northern California. At the last minute, Sarah is drawn back into her work by the murder of a teenage girl — a crime that obviously touches her to the core, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear after a season. An often neglectful parent to her son and a woman who’s lived a difficult life, she’s constantly crisscrossing the line between committed cop and obsessive crazy person. While we could stand to get some more insight into the mystery of Sarah’s past, we also respect that steely secrecy and repression is part of her character.

Freddie Lyon, The Hour

Intelligent, charismatic, brave, conceited, righteous, and self-righteous all at once, The Hour‘s Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is a whole lot of character. Like Sarah Linden, this intrepid ’50s BBC reporter sacrifices comfort and safety to expose the truth, putting his job (and maybe even his life) on the line in the process. His relationship to his producer and longtime friend, Bel (Romola Garai), highlights the fallout of trading love and stability for ambition and excitement, adding a measure of sadness to this promising, young newsman.

Liz Lemon, 30 Rock

Oh, she’s been around for a while now, but how could we leave Liz Lemon off a list like this? A woman in the man’s world of comedy, Liz is smart and confident as The Girlie Show‘s head writer. Her personal life, however, is a mess of sexual anxieties, comfort eating, and the residual effects of a nerdy childhood. Tina Fey has created a character who is enviable and pathetic at the same time, while still managing to be likable and familiar (how many ladies out there haven’t identified with her at one time or another?) — and we can’t wait to check in on her next month, when 30 Rock finally returns from its seemingly endless hiatus.

Nicholas Brody, Homeland

War hero or traitor? Family man or spy? PTSD or guilt? These are the questions that haunt us as we watch Homeland‘s Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) develop. A Marine who is rescued after eight years in al-Qaida captivity, his return home raises more questions than it answers, specifically: Why did he survive for so long? What’s fascinating about Brody is the ambiguity of his motives, and how slowly they’re revealed. Sure, he could have been “turned” by Muslim extremists. But his behavior could also merely be the result of nearly a decade of abuse and brainwashing at the hands of the enemy. Or, the real explanation could fall somewhere in between.

River Song, Doctor Who

While we’re still trying to make heads or tails of some of the things that happened in the final episodes of the last season of Doctor Who, suffice it to say that Alex Kingston’s cheeky River Song (or should we say Mel? or Melody Pond?) completely stole every scene that she was in — which is really saying something when you’re acting opposite someone like Matt Smith. While we’ve recently learned that her parents, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), won’t be sticking around much longer as the Doctor’s companions, we hope that the fact that she is his wife, and has Time Lord DNA, and was conceived on the TARDIS, and is one of the only people who knows the Doctor’s true name, means that we haven’t seen the last of River just yet — or would it be the first?

Eric and Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights

As the 2011 Emmys — which honored Kyle Chandler but not Connie Britton — demonstrated, it makes no sense to celebrate one of these characters and ignore the other. Friday Night Lights‘ Eric and Tami Taylor have often been called the most realistic depiction of a strong marriage on television, and we agree with that assessment. Deeply good people who are imperfect enough to never seem saccharine, they have major disagreements and relationship-changing conflicts but value each other and their marriage enough to work them out.

Amy Jellicoe, Enlightened

Laura Dern’s Amy is a tough character  to like — an executive who’s had a nervous breakdown, recovered from it, and is now trying to face a deeply disappointing life with the kind of zen attitude she learned in rehab. She’s full of New Age bullshit, and her desire to make a difference in the world is transparently narcissistic. What makes Enlightened such a great show (and Amy tolerable to watch) is the fullness it brings her story — a cold mother, a drug-addict ex-husband, and fair-weather friends have all made Amy the person she is. We may see through her flaky embrace of yoga and self-help books, but since they’re all she has in the world, we understand why she’s clinging to them. We may even, perhaps, see glimpses of our own search for meaning in her struggle.

Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

It only makes sense that one of our favorite characters from George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones would in turn be one of our favorites in HBO’s fantastic adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, but here’s the thing: in a less capable actor’s hands, Tyrion could have easily been turned into a one-note character who provided the ensemble drama with some much-needed comic relief, but little else. Instead, Peter Dinklage delivers us with a version of the Imp who, while funny, is also incredibly complicated and can say more with a single glance than one of his cleverly worded quips. Plus, we have to admit that we love watching the black sheep of the Lannister clan slap around a certain someone who’s twice his size and half his age.

Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

Finally, we would be remiss not to lend our voice to the chorus of Ron Swanson love. What makes him great is that, while he’s certainly meme-worthy and quotable, Nick Offerman’s character never lapses into cliché. He may be a rugged, self-reliant, meat-loving libertarian who hates government and all its excesses, but he’s also a loyal friend to Leslie Knope and the rest of the department, and a guy who never lets his own masculinity get in the way of appreciating (or, you know, being completely dominated by) a strong, tough woman.