As the year comes to a close (and before we count down our favorite episodes of 2010), let’s pause and look at the characters, some returning and some new, who made the biggest impressions:
5. The Study Group, Chang, Dean Pelton, Duncan, basically everyone on Community: Okay. I really tried to pick just one representative from this stellar cast. First I was going to go with Troy based on his awesome maturity in the dark birthday episode or Annie getting lost in the character dictated by her fake ID. Then I thought back to Shirley defending her faith against Abed’s epic religious movie and Jeff and Pierce, in the same episode, hitting a particularly poignant note when Jeff came to collect his older friend after an ill-advised Senior Citizen joyride. Pelton’s attempt to teach Jeff a lesson in inventing a class on conspiracy theories gave him some of the best moments in the “shootout” climax (and I loved Britta getting her freak on in Fluffy Town). Chang popped and locked as the rest of group tried to pry Jeff away from the fellow lawyers who were never his real friends. And an animated Abed searching for the meaning of Christmas was wildly funny and unbelievably touching (also give props to Duncan for his self-absorbed Christmas wizard). We’re in an age of lots of strong comedy ensembles, but the students and staff of Greendale, week in and week out, are at the head of the class.
4. Adam Newman (The Young and the Restless): As played by Michael Muhney, Adam Newman, son and black sheep of one of Genoa City’s most powerful families, is what makes soaps great. He’s a villain with a conscience. In 2009, he inadvertently caused his stepmother to lose her unborn child, worked to encourage a hysterical pregnancy to cover his tracks, and kidnapped his own niece to keep the lie going. Then he fell for grieving mother Sharon, his own brother’s ex, and the guilt just grew. In 2010, the walls closed in on Adam, thanks to an “intervention” where nearly every character on the canvas railed against him for his crimes. Written into this corner, Adam faked his own death and left town. And that’s when he stood out the most. When Adam was gone, the show was lacking. Every time somebody flashed back to a conversation or confrontation with Adam, I found myself thinking he can’t come back soon enough. Adam’s return, and the circumstances that kept him out of jail, allowed him to mix it up with his enemies and call them on their hypocrisies (it’s a soap; everyone has blood on their hands). Now Adam, against all odds, is reunited with Sharon, who has never been better paired, and while he’s facing a murder charge engineered by his vengeful father, he’ll get out of it, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
3. Agent Nelson Van Alden (Boardwalk Empire): Boardwalk Empire is the best new show of 2010, and there are many characters, some fictional and some factual, to choose from. Do we pick Nucky Thompson, the cool, controlling boss of Atlantic City? Or his one time protege, the hotheaded Jimmy Darmody? Then there’s the lovely and intelligent Margaret Schroeder and a young Al Capone learning the ropes that he’ll climb to infamy. These, and many more, could have made their way onto this list, but Michael Shannon’s zealous Prohibition agent takes the prize. Van Alden wasn’t always front and center, but when he was… holy hell! Whether smirking at the sight of busted barrels of green beer, or whipping his back while lusting for Margaret, or awkwardly dining with his barren wife, or engaging in one of the most disturbing sex scenes in recent memory (and now Nucky’s former lady friend, Lucy, is expecting his child), Van Alden and his actions haunted my thoughts as the credits rolled. But nothing stands out more than his murder of partner Agent Sebso. The audience knew that Sebso was in bed with Nucky and murdered the witness who would have sent Jimmy up the river. But Van Alden only suspected, and that was enough for him to lead Sebso to an outdoor religious service and drown him in front of the entire congregation. He’s not playing with a full deck, and in a world populated by murderous gangsters, Van Alden is the most dangerous character on the show.
2. Peggy Olson (Mad Men): I came this close to selecting Don Draper for his lost weekend arc, but I have to give a slight edge to the continuing metamorphosis on his former secretary. No longer the mousy girl pining for Pete and frequently serving as Don’s emotional punching bag, Peggy took charge of the reinvented agency and the season. On the personal front, she kicked a lame boyfriend to the curb, started hanging out with a female photo editor who obviously wanted to be more than friends, and ultimately took up with a liberal artist. She also had to cope with the news that baby daddy Pete finally impregnated his wife. But it was in the professional realm that Peggy made the biggest impact. She made the pitches that Don couldn’t, stripped naked to assert her authority with Stan, the smug new art director, and signed Topaz as a first step towards keeping the young firm afloat. And of course, there was the Glo-Coat commercial that netted SCDP a CLIO. It was her brainchild, but Don took most of the credit. This led to a confrontation four seasons in the making. Peggy called Don out for his abuse, finally rid herself of former lover Duck, and ultimately came to a new understanding with her boss. Peggy allowing Don to be vulnerable took all of her strength. Credit Elisabeth Moss with a performance that better get some love come Emmy time.
1. Paul Weston (In Treatment): Gabriel Byrne took his troubled therapist to new heights this season. As always, he listened with an unmatched intensity to his patients. But it was during his own sessions with new therapist Adele that Paul most impressed. Initially, Paul goes to Adele seeking a refill for his Ambien prescription. Among other things, his belief that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, weighs heavily on his mind. It’s not that much of a stretch; his father died of the same ailment. But it soon becomes clear that Paul is using the possibility of the sickness to excuse his lack of effort in his personal relationships. Adele recognizes this, but her attempts to force Paul to go deeper in order to understand why he sometimes succeeds as a therapist but rarely as a man, only lead to Paul putting Adele down and then trying to convince her that a romantic relationship outside of her office might be all that he needs. In short, Paul came off as manipulative, if not more so, than any of his past or present patients. In the end, he appears ready to make some positive changes, but to get to that point, Paul sank very low. And I hated him, and loved Byrne’s performance, during every minute of it.