Ten Most Improved TV Characters of 2011
Richardson's TV Top 10 List
Michael Richardson
Ten Most Improved Characters on Television This Year

Hello all, and welcome to the beginning RTBN's December List-o-palooza. We all have those shows we love, that when it comes time to tell people they need to start watching, are forced to advise they skip the first few episodes/season. Some shows are growers, or need to fix the kinks. Sometimes the shows themselves are great from the beginning, but some characters need tinkering. Sometimes characters were already pretty good, and then became transcendent. This list is dedicated to them, the characters who got fixed up enough to make a noticeable improvement on their shows over this past year.

10. Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother

Most characters improve the more we get to know them, the more that we get to understand the inner workings of their brain. Ted Moseby is not like that. From the beginning of the series How I Met Your Mother, Ted was always the most humanistic character, thinking that he would find his true love and other fairytale nonsense. Now he's been simplified, his desires coarsened and, one could claim, even a little misogynistic. Such a shame when that happens to a character, huh? Not on HIMYM, where Ted Moseby is often taken out of the equation completely because of this. In past seasons, he was a black hole sucking fun out of the minor character's antics. But this past year, more of the stories involved Robin and Barney, Marshall and Lily, with Ted as a supporting character. Thank god, because by stripping him of his narrative purpose, the new, cartoonized Ted is actually bearable. That's saying a lot.

9. Gus Fring, Breaking Bad

Perhaps Fring was your favorite Bad Guy on television before season 4. He was definitely mine. But the Fring of seasons 2 and 3 was cool, subdued, and subtle. Season 4 sought to change that. In the first episode of the season, he opens a henchman's throat without giving a reason, simply to threaten our protagonists. He purposely poisons himself in order to exact revenge on a Mexican cartel. He tortures, maims and kills to get what he wants. In short, everything that used to bubble under the surface erupts in season 4. If Breaking Bad examines the ways that people can change over time, Fring offers a counterpoint: sometimes breaking bad just requires you to tap into something that was always there. The only time his steely resolve crumbles is when he realizes he is about to die - but before that he has to make sure his tie is straight.

8. Zooey Deschanel, The New Girl

This entry stretches the definition of improvement - after all, the character has only aired half of it's first season. But I'm considering this because Jess, played by Deschanel, is essentially the same character that Deschanel has played in the past. She is the prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But the show has made me realize something. Sure, the MPDG cliché is pretty unbearable when she's there as a supporting character for a boring male to fall in love with, but when she's the main character, it doesn't seem so grating. She's no longer quirky and adorable and lovable. She's quirky and adorable and those things can actually get annoying for the people around her. The show manages to walk a fine line between making Jess the creator of everyone's problem and the solution to their problems, and that's enough for me to disarm this tired trope. You could make the argument that The New Girl deconstructs the idea of a MPDG all together, but that's giving it too much credit - it just makes it more fun.

7. Davis McAlary, Treme


If you share my opinion on Season 1 Treme, then you'll agree that there was only one likable character on the whole show - and that person died at the end of the season. So the fact that Davis, the ostensible free-thinker who mostly just made asinine speeches about "the man" and gave music obsessives a bad name, actually manages not to make me clench my teeth is a sign of great progress. Technically, if you consider the jump from "unwatchable" to "alright" the most important kind of change, than Davis should be at number 1. And I'll admit that exploring his actual musical aspirations works much better than having him complain on the radio for an entire season. At this trajectory, he could be Walter White by season three as far as watchability goes. Then again, probably not.

6. Luke Dunphy, Modern Family

Modern Family's youngest member went underutilized in the early seasons of the show. Perhaps having realized that precocious young man Manny has been mined dry for humor, the show has looked to Luke for its "young person says something unexpected" gag machine. Though this last season has been extremely uneven, Luke scenes manage to be the funniest the show has been able to produce consistently. Maybe somebody on the writing staff is a father just writing down the stupidity of his own children, but something about Luke keeps him from being a one-note character like his young uncle Manny. In earlier seasons he was just that dumb kid. Now he's as multi-faceted as any of the other characters on this show could hope to be (faint praise, but legitimate nonetheless). Also, he says dumb stuff, which is funny. Man, my standards are low.

5. Daenerys Targaryen - "Game of Thrones"

Game of Thrones doesn't have many characters that change in any serious way throughout the first season. Ned Stark is tragically unable to figure out the titular game, while characters like Cersei Lanister were born to play. Even Carcetti 2.0, as I call Littlefinger, starts as a snake and ends as a weasel. Daenerys actually gives us something approaching a character arch. She begins as a passive character, getting married off to Khal Drogo in order to lead his horde to Westeros. But at a certain point (and we all know what point this is), she begins to realize her true potential. Giving order to the men under her husband becomes easy, and she is finally able to convince the Khal to make the trip across the sea to take back what is rightfully hers. Though tragedy ultimately befalls her, this change is all but permanent. The meek Daenerys from Episode 1 will never come back. She has her own horde, and her own ambitions.

4. Richard Harrow, Boardwalk Empire

Richard Harrow, at the end of the last season of Boardwalk Empire, made perhaps the most lasting impression in a fairly boring season. His physical deformation, covered by a face mask, and soft voice covered up an innate ability as an enforcer. This season has given Harrow room to breathe, examining his own problems with this work while keeping up a polite veneer and the image of subordination. More so than Van Alden, or Jimmy, or definitely Nucky, Harrow has improved over time, fleshing out his desires and examining his relationships with the other characters. Introduced as a freak, he might be the most human person on the show.

3. Mike the Cleaner, Breaking Bad

What? Two characters from Breaking Bad on the same list? Yes, but for diametrically opposed reasons. Gus Fring was a man who leaves as the man he always was, straightening his tie. Mike the Cleaner is only part way through his journey as of the finale of Season 4. But what a ride this last season was. Sure, there were the action scenes, like Mike working his way through an office building full of armed enemies without looking like he's even trying. But he's most threatening when driving silently through New Mexico with Jesse at shotgun, or intimidating Walt when the latter gets too uppity. The jovial muscle has been done before, but Mike seems more like a quiet philosopher, not attached to his employer but his employment, doing what he was always meant to do. When he advises Gus Fring on what his next step should be, it's a voice of authority, not just a tip.

2. Ben Wyatt, Parks and Recreation

Remember when we were all really upset that Brendanawicz turned Brendanaquits? You know, Brendanawicz? Leslie's love interest from the first two seasons? You're right to forget, because we forgot our sadness at Paul Schneider's departure as soon as Adam Scott was brought on board. Though he was introduced as another straight man to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Adam Scott has been able to turn auditor Ben Wyatt into one of the funniest figures on the show. Nerdy without resorting to tacky old clichés, every line that comes out of Ben's mouth speaks volumes about his character, a little weary without irony, passionate about Batman but respected nonetheless, and his love for Leslie seems like it comes from a very real place, rather than just the studio notes. Scott seems so effortlessly charming on the show that he often threatens to steal the spotlight from other characters, and with a reduced role from Aziz Ansari this season he's stepped up very nicely indeed. Finally, a will-they won't-they actually deserving of all of our time.

1. Britta Perry, Community

When Community comes to an end, after three more seasons and the movie, I know that Danny Pudi and Donald Glover will always have work. Allison Brie and Yvette Nicole Brown will probably be reliable character actors. Chevy Chase can retire at a new peak, and Joel McHale will show up in a Fletch remake. But after this season, I'm most excited to see what Gillian Jacobs ends up doing. After a few years of uncertainty with the character, Britta has become the standout of the season. And I'm here to say that this seems like it's pretty much all Jacobs' doing. She's become one of the most effective physical comedians on television, from the ridiculous stunts to the subtle facial tics. And the character herself is the most ridiculous on the show, the most likely to show off all their contradictions (watch as she imagines a serial killer strangling herself while reading "Warren Piece," or berates somebody for immaturity before launching into a full-body pizza dance). In a show where everyone is a bit of a cartoon character, Britta finally manages to fill her own niche. Pretty good for a character initially conceived as a stubborn romantic foil.

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