Now that nearly all the new shows of the fall TV season have premiered (Once Upon a Time and Grimm both unmagically limped onto the scene last week), let's take a look at who we like the best right now. Television is largely about telling the same story over and over again. The one thing that can save the medium is a great character: part actor's performance and part writer's creation. Stumbling onto a great character is like discovering a particuarly pretty pebble on a rocky beach. From listless New Yorkers to men with half a face, these are our favorite TV characters right now.
The Wounded Soul: Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire
While Harrow (fitting name!) first appeared on HBO's oftentimes deceptively shallow crime series as merely an oddity -- half of his face was blown off in the Great War, so he wears a creepy painted half-mask -- he has become, thanks to a few generously written scenes and to Jack Huston's lovely, quiet performance, a more fully realized and sympathetic character this year. The grimly efficient expert marksman has gone from creepily tragic righthand man for a young upstart gangster in the Atlantic City bootlegging scene to something a bit deeper -- he serves as both a reminder of the visceral horror of the 1910s and as a chillingly saturnine omen of all the bad that's still to come. So, of course, nobody on Boardwalk Empire wants to look at him. Better for them to just enjoy the rah-rah roaring '20s in peace. But we here in the future can't look away.
The Villainess: Constance, American Horror Story
Sure FX's new horror series is oftentimes a jangly, garbled mess, but boy oh boy is Jessica Lange's Contance -- the next door neighbor from hell (perhaps quite literally) who torments, with a malevolently chipper smile, the fractured family inhabiting the show's house of horrors -- a whole lotta fun. We're not sure if the scenery is lined with chocolate or what, but Lange sure does seem to enjoy chewing on it. But it's not just Lange's fin-de-Dunaway performance that makes Constance so compelling -- it's that she's really the only character who seems fully instep with the show's lugubrious rhythms. Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton's characters are intentionally drawn as the plain ol' regular folks confronted by crazy psychosexual phantasmagoria, of course, but they could at least be a little outsized in order to better fit in with the show's kitchen sink aesthetic. Basically, they're no fun! Constance, though, with her Ipecac cupcake baking and daughter tormenting ("Go to your closet!"), both lives up to and raises American Horror Story's grand, often laughably over-the-top stakes. It seems as though Ryan Murphy and Co. created one great camp-fabulous character and then built a whole series to showcase her. To that end, the show would be nothing without her.
The Slickster With a Heart of Gold: Eli Gold, The Good Wife
Long one of the secretly best actors of his generation, Alan Cumming finally gets the kind of big, smart, meaty role he deserves. First introduced during the first season of CBS' stylish legal drama as a snappily amoral campaign manager, as Eli has moved into the law firm populated by Julianna Margulies et al. to act as an elite damage control consultant, he has evolved into a far knottier and more morally complex character. Sometimes he is still charmingly conniving and ruthless, but we've also seen him be earnestly passionate about a cause or, on Sunday night for example, reduced to a brokenhearted divorced guy. The Good Wife is often hailed as network TV's most intelligent drama because its writers are able to create full-bodied, wholly compelling characters like Eli. Never does he wander into the ho-hum realm of obvious character sketch; he constantly reveals new and surprising, yet still wisely subtle, facets, ones that Cumming and the writers show off with aplomb. Now writers, an assignment: Give him a real, serious love interest and see how weird things get.
The True Heroes: The zombies, The Walking Dead
Think about all the exciting, interesting scenes on The Walking Dead, AMC's plague of the undead thriller series. Are the zombies in those scenes? Most likely yes. And the duller scenes? No zombies, right? Right. The zombies are really the ones we care about on this show -- their story is the most compelling (what happened to them? What will happen to them?), their motivations are clear and well-stated, and they enliven (endeaden?) the show every time they're on screen. The zombies are why we watch! Do we root for them? No, not usually. But are we alone in kinda sorta starting to wish these shambling ghouls would just go ahead and eat up the weeping, moralizing mortal folks at the center of this increasingly listless show? Give the best characters their beloved brains, please.
The Real Girl: Rachel Chapman, How to Make It in America
OK, yes this HBO trifle is mostly just an East Coast Entourage, the kind of we-own-this-town boys fantasy that has no room for women characters unless they're disrobing while saying cool, sexy things. But somehow one real, fleshed-out female character has sneaked past the man censors on HTMIIA, and thus we have Rachel, a young woman navigating various aspects of the Manhattan media scene who is a bit lost and unsure of herself yet also still coolly savvy and humbly competent. Though she once functioned primarily as the love interest for the show's male lead, the writers have done well this season in turning Rachel into her own, believable human being -- she's the kind of young woman you may know these days if you live in any major city full of strivers and dreamers. Sure she's portrayed by the gorgeous and willowy Lake Bell, so she is certainly still eye candy, but Bell is also such an assured, naturalistic actress that she manages to fill even Rachel's smallest scenes with a gently whirring pathos and intellect. We know that using that kind of language about a show like this seems silly, but compared to, say, the manic froofing of Zooey Deschanel's character on New Girl, a desexualized childwoman fit for any indie boy's curio collection, Rachel is that rarest of TV creations: A character you might actually know, and like, out here in the real world.
The Comedy All-Star: Frank Reynolds, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Bouncing back to form after last year's lackluster season, FX's gutter-garbage band of Philly friends are in top form in this year's crop of episodes. And none more so than Danny DeVito's near-feral father figure Frank. Between the wild thicket of flyaway black hair, the bought-at-a-Walgreens glasses, and DeVito's naturally strange and delightful physicality, the mere sight of Frank is funnier than all the past and future episodes of Whitney combined. Frank's doomed romance with a hooker was a highlight of this season, as was simply watching him interact with the group while they played a bizarre and menacing board game on last week's episode. Frank might not get the attention that Charlie Day's addled manchild Charlie does, but he's so consistently weird and filthy and lovably unconcerned about the polite trappings of society that he deserves singling out.
The Loose Cannon: Carrie Mathison, Homeland
Everyone thought that Cassandra was crazy, though of course they were wrong. She wasn't a raving lunatic, but a true foreteller of doom. The interesting thing that Showtime's paranoid spy drama Homeland has done with its own fortune telling young woman, CIA analyst Carrie, is that she may actually be crazy for real. Carrie, who is trying to reveal what she suspects is the secret terrorist sleeper agent status of a returning American war hero, lamely tries to seduce her boss when things don't go her away, she doesn't eat, she stays up til all hours staring wild-eyed at surveillance footage, and, oh yes, she pops anti-psychotics like Altoids. That Carrie, played with vibrating smarts and anxiety by Claire Danes, may be both right and crazy is one of the show's fun and clever conundrums. (That "fun" and "clever" are being used to describe a Showtime show is a small revolution in its own right.) We both root for Carrie's assuredness and are turned off by her brash, erratic, and occasionally reckless behavior. She's actually sorta what you'd imagine a real CIA analyst to be like in these shadowy times, when it's difficult to tell whether we're tilting at giants or windmills -- she's a paranoid, but still smart, mess. Wracked with 9/11-related guilt enough to make her a bit too close to the case, but possessed of enough intelligence and authority to make us believe her, Carrie is "the thinking person's" Jack Bauer.
The Tragic Heroine: Kim Richards, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
Let's try for the time being to forget about the fact that Kim, former child star and current brain-fried Bravo reality TV Housewife, is a real person. That's too depressing. As a TV character, though, Kim's arc these past two seasons has been a fascinating depiction of mental catastrophe. Oscillating unpredictably between (alleged) mysterious substance-fueled cuckoo-birdiness and sober self-help platitudes, Kim -- in her interactions with the other Housewives (especially her constantly undermining, Little Miss Perfect sister Kyle, who is also on the show), with her children, with the maid -- is just so darn deliciously bleak and tragic. She's a modern day Mary Tyrone, wandering around Beverly Hills with a camera crew chasing after her. Again, if we dwell too long, or at all, on the fact that Kim is a real-life lady with real-life problems it all becomes too sad to enjoy, but for those 42 or so minutes every week we can turn off our moral sensors and just enjoy this gravelly voiced generator of grand human drama.