Best TV Characters 2006

[9 January 2007]

By Matt Cibula

The end of 2006 has inspired a lot of essays about how television is dead. The idea isn’t new, and the essays are repetitive: they all mentioned YouTube, the “futuristic” ease of today’s life, downloadable music, how The Wire is better than anything on corporate-owned TV stations, and so on.

I beg to differ. While The Wire might be the best show in the history of TV, I cannot say that for sure, because we don’t have HBO. As for the rest, here are my picks for the best characters to emerge during the 2006 calendar year.

Perhaps the most surprising was Betty Suarez on Ugly Betty. That said, the show’s origins as a telenovela grant all its characters impressive range, from broad farce to subtle moments. In our house, we especially love the show tunes-loving Justin (Mark Indelicato) and scheming-bitch-with-a-heart-of-gold Amanda (Becki Newton). As the show’s mislabeled protagonist, America Ferrera has charisma to go with her chops, with Betty tying up a fashion industry spoof and tender immigrant-family drama with a big pretty bow.

A returning show, Lost, brought us the awesome Henry Gale (Michael Emerson). Or, make that Benjamin Linus, the mastermind overseeing an alternate group of losties. First beaten up by Sayid (Naveen Andrews), Benry was revealed to be a bad-ass, kidnapping half the cast and hating on Stephen King books. When we learned he has incurable cancer (and one hot tamale of an ex, Juliet [Elizabeth Mitchell]), our opinions may have shifted, but he’s still pumped a lot of life into Lost as we get tantalizingly closer to whatever it is we’re supposed to get tantalizingly closer to.

I’ll give props as well to Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser) on The O.C., the incredibly sexy, Type-A honor student who’s also into anime and science fiction. In the spring and fall of 2006, she took over this show, quite a feat, considering that she is competing with the amazing Rachel Bilson as Summer Roberts.

This year also featured the debut of some truly great science fiction characters. All my geeky friends are loving Hera/Isis on Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, because she is the first Cylon-Human hybrid: no one knows what powers she has or will develop, and she’s still too young to outshine any of the tried-and-true characters. I’ll also mention Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) on Heroes, though I am annoyed by his “adorable Asian nerd” thing. For me, 2006’s sci-fi breakout was Isabelle Tyler (Megalyn Echikunwoke) on USA’s The 4400. Again, we’re talking about a child with amazing untapped powers, but this one is housed in an adult body and has no moral center. Great character and a great moral dilemma, though Echikunwoke is not that great an actress.

This year’s best comedy characters are Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the two-headed monster that drives the increasingly surreal NBC sitcom 30 Rock. Jack, the crazy right-wing executive, gets all the credit from hipster critics, and with good reason. He dates Condi Rice, changes into a tuxedo after work, and attends “Ann Coulter’s 60th birthday party.” But Morgan’s work is stellar, as the pampered Martin Lawrence-like star of Honky Grandma Be Trippin’, suddenly fronting a sketch comedy program once called “The Girlie Show.” I like Tina Fey just fine, but she’s playing straight man to these mug-meisters, a thankless task.

More NBC Thursday night love goes to Rashida Jones for her work as Karen Filipelli on The Office. I know everyone’s all up in Ed Helms’ grill for his great work as brownnose Andy, but Karen is even better. I know she’s the target for all the Pam-o-centric haters, but, y’know, OMG, it’s not Karen’s fault that Pam (Jenna Fischer) couldn’t admit her feelings to Jim! The Christmas episode—in which Karen and Pam team up to thwart Angela’s (Angela Kinsey) fascist “Nutcracker Party” was beyond greatness. I don’t think Jones will last much past 2006, as it looks like Jim will dump her soon. But I want to celebrate the magic while we still can.

Under the category of children’s programming, High School Musical was the year’s biggest TV show for many reasons. Not only was it was immensely popular in all its incarnations, including the sing-along karaoke edition and the pop-up edition (my daughter and her friends proudly watched every single version; my son and his friends watched them too, but didn’t talk about it as much), it also spawned 2006’s best selling CD. It was actually pretty good, reveling in its own cheesiness. Though the characters are uneven, one stood out like the center rhinestone on a prom queen’s tiara: the scheming drama club queen Sharpay, played with over-the-top aplomb by Ashley Tinsdale. (She deserved this role after toiling thanklessly on The Suite Life of Zach and Cody, a truly horrible Disney Channel show.) Scoff if you will, but doubters clearly haven’t heard her duet with Ryan on “Bop ‘Till You Drop.”
Laudable reality characters also emerged in 2006. Jeffrey Sebelia was a lot of fun to hate on Project Runway 3. He was an arrogant prick and his designs weren’t anywhere near as edgy as he though they were. (In my house, we preferred Michael’s humility, Uli’s practicality, and even Laura’s weird WTF-ness.) But the winner of the best “reality” show contest was undeniably its best character as well, if only because his neck tattoo highlighted the fact that his head resembles a penis. Plus, Laura was being such a sore loser, we kind of rooted for him too.

It was even more fun to root for B.J. and Tyler, the happy hippies on The Amazing Race 9. They annoyed us at first, but won us over with their childlike sense of wonder at the great cultures and countries they got to visit. We always root for whichever team appreciates its great good fortune to be on a race around the freakin’ world, and these guys were all wide open to everything. Plus, most of the other teams on TAR9 were jerks.

This year’s best one-off reality performance was Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in April. The Colbert Report has been kicking butt all year long, but Colbert’s clueless self-aggrandizing character reached its apex with this guerrilla theater performance, in which he spoke truth to power like it ain’t been spoke in years. Pretending to praise in order to damn is the oldest trick in the book, but Colbert did it so precisely that he could not be denied. Watching Bush squirm under this onslaught was great, but listening to the stunned silence of all the press sheep was even better. Hilarious bonus: all the old media losers who wrote articles about how it “just wasn’t all that funny.”

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