The sad reality about television is that sometimes, great performances get trapped in not-so-great television shows. So, as we wrap up 2012 in arts coverage, I decided to list my Most Compelling TV Characters of the Year. These are the characters who kept me tuning in, week after week, even when I knew the show they appeared in wasn’t so great. Or they added extra sizzle to a series already on my must-see list.
10. Miles Matheson (Billy Burke), NBC’s “Revolution."
This post-apocalyptic show about a mysterious process that snuffed out the world’s electricity is a thin collection of TV tropes that would have died messily if it weren’t airing after NBC’s super-successful “The Voice." But Burke’s Matheson, a world-weary good guy who once led a brutal militia that took over part of the United States, is a serious highlight. He’s a less frantic, more deadly Han Solo, annoyed by those who insist on idealism in a dangerous world, even as their open-hearted ways rub off on him.
9. John Ross “J.R." Ewing Jr. (Larry Hagman), TNT’s “Dallas."
Those eyebrows! That honey-coated Southern accent! That ability to sound convincing while saying the most devilish things! The TV world lost a landmark character when Hagman died last month of complications from throat cancer. His J.R. Ewing was a scenery-chewing delight through every iteration of the 35-year-old nighttime soap opera. One consolation: there’s more J.R. coming in episodes taped before his death airing Jan. 28.
8. Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), HBO’s “The Newsroom."
Aaron Sorkin’s fictional cable news anchor is, in many ways, a liberal’s dream TV journalist: whip-smart, fearless in confronting hypocrisy, entertainingly irascible and an avowed Republican who still somehow agrees with lefties on all the important issues. Daniels, better known for playing rumpled, less astute characters on film, turned McAvoy into an authoritative blend of Tom Brokaw and Keith Olbermann.
7. Capt. Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher), ABC’s “Last Resort."
As the captain of a nuclear submarine that refused a hinkey order to fire on Pakistan, Braugher’s Chaplin was a principled, tough leader whose gift for strategic thinking made him a standout character. Too bad ABC canceled this series before we could see exactly why the U.S. government was so keen on wiping Pakistan off the map.
6. Louie and the Secretly Maladjusted Bookstore Clerk (Louis C.K. and Parker Posey), FX’s “Louie."
Louis C.K. delivers one of the year’s best TV monologues when he asks Parker Posey’s cute, sympathetic bookstore clerk out by saying “some time goes by, you get past the bald head and I sweat a lot and I’m lumpy." But on the actual date, Posey’s character reveals herself to be manic in a way that is both intoxicating and a bit frightening. When she dies of a mysterious, nosebleed-inducing ailment after bumping into him on a bus in the season finale, it all feels sadly appropriate.
5. Kristina Braverman (Monica Potter), NBC’s “Parenthood."
NBC’s family drama knocked it out of the park this year, with poignant episodes on the n-word, adoption struggles, post-traumatic stress disorder and the splintering of an awkward engagement. But the struggle of Potter’s Braverman to beat breast cancer has been the linchpin of a heart-tugging season.
4. The Governor (David Morrissey), AMC’s “The Walking Dead."
You’d never know it from his Marlboro Man-deep baritone or laconic on-screen charm, but the man bringing “The Walking Dead’s" secretly twisted leader to life is a British actor, best known for playing English politicians in acclaimed TV dramas. Here, he’s a sly charmer hiding the iron fist he uses to rule Woodbury, a town full of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse.
3. Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), HBO’s “Girls."
Entitled, aimless, vaguely ambitious and trapped in a demeaning relationship, Dunham’s Horvath embodies the attitude of too many young twentysomethings aware of the life they’d like to lead with no idea how to achieve it.
2. Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller), on the BBC’s “Sherlock" and CBS’ “Elementary."
Both men play updated versions of the classic sleuth Sherlock Holmes, but Brit actors Cumberbatch and Miller offer highly different takes. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is in England, a straitlaced sort gifted with an Aspergian ability to notice detail. Miller’s Holmes is also brilliant, but a tattooed, recovering addict living in a seedy New York apartment with a female sober companion (Lucy Liu) who is his Dr. Watson.
1. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), Showtime’s “Homeland. “
There may not be a more interesting character on TV than Danes’ Mathison, a bipolar CIA agent whose manic impulses led her to discover that a U.S. war hero was a secret double agent working for Middle Eastern terrorists. No one plays a woman hanging on by her fingernails like Danes, and Mathison spends more time dangling by her cuticles than any character on TV today.