With the golden age of television now on the rise, one can’t help but appreciate the noticeable progression in both comedies and dramas as they begin to introduce new layers to their characters never seen before. Though norms and stereotypes still abound on the small screen (take the uber-geeky scientists on “The Big Bang Theory” and the eccentric foreigner on “Community”), many shows have taken presumptions about their characters and turned them on their heads, bringing audiences some of the most fascinating, challenging and entertaining new figures in recent TV history.
Here are five TV characters who notably overturn any easy labels:
Selina Meyer on “Veep” (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus): Anyone who’s seen “Veep” has to wonder if the character of Vice President Selina Meyer is at least loosely based on VP candidate Sarah Palin. But while Palin’s political buffoonery and ignorance on matters foreign and historical highlighted a growing national political divide, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the show’s writers have made the wise decision of going much further with their character development, instead presenting Selina as a woman who has merely been perpetually handed the short end of the stick, despite everything she has to offer. What makes Selina so recognizable are the constant brick walls that block her way in every mission she creates for herself (and in the ones forced upon her by her male superior). What sets her apart is her wisdom in navigating the halls of power and frequently being one of the few women present. These things drive her to bouts of integrity and political cunning that every once in while earn her the respect she seldom gets — and that quickly brings her closer to becoming the most powerful person in the world.
Rust Cohle on “True Detective” (played by Matthew McConaughey): McConaughey has been given a lot praise this past year, and much of it is attributable to his portrayal of Rust in “True Detective”. On the HBO crime drama, McConaughey plays a police officer attempting to solve a murder committed almost two decades prior, one that takes place in a small Southern town in Louisiana. Though the show makes a definite point to depict the environment as a frighteningly religious one, playing off stereotypes in as negative a way as can be expected given the gothic horror tradition to which the series nods, it also counteracts them with Rust’s complete lack of faith and profound nihilism. Rust is obviously much smarter than not only the monster he and his partner track down, but he’s in fact much smarter than any of us. His open mind to philosophical ideas (made evident by his 10 dollar words) and his objectiveness to the crimes he’s assigned to solve render him an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Even in the modern-day setting of the story where Rust is depicted as an oafish alcoholic, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s still the savvy crime-solving prodigy he was in his glory days.
Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones” (played by Peter Dinklage): Packed with action and brutal violence, “Game of Thrones” certainly isn’t lacking in machismo, with many of the male characters on the show being knights or warriors who engage in one battle after another. That’s precisely what makes the character of Tyrion Lannister (also known as “The Imp”) such a captivating contrast. Though Tyrion’s size causes him to lose his footing on the battlefield, instead leaving him to have preferred a lifetime seeking thrills in either a pub or a brothel, his stature is more than compensated for by the size of his mind and heart, both of which combine to create the most complex character on the show. In fact, what prevents Tyrion from ever turning into a permanent joke fueled by laughable frustration is not his constant need to prove himself to all those who deny him his well-deserved dignity, but rather the fact that he already has proven himself, having earned a higher political standing than anybody would’ve expected and the love of a beautiful woman that alludes to his unmistakable potential as a unexpected romantic lead.
Sophia Burset on “Orange Is the New Black” (played by Laverne Cox): Sophia Burset manages to kill two birds with one stone, knocking down both stereotypes about African-American women and trans people. “Orange Is the New Black” has done an exceptionally great job of diversifying its cast (possibly more so than any other show in history), and the one character who stands out most is Laverne Cox’s Sophia. And it’s not because of her gender or race — she stands out because she steals every single scene she’s in. Both sassy and sympathetic, the complexity of her character is paradoxical, as her gender and race are the two traits that drive her character’s stories most, yet still remain the least relevant part of her characterization. Instead of watching an African-American transwoman going through her daily life, the writers make it clear that we are in fact watching a person whose familial problems and identity crisis are as common as that of every other woman seen on the show — and of every other person in existence. Her personal troubles may not be something audiences are able to directly relate to, yet they’re impossible not to understand, ultimately breaking the barriers of race and gender.
Elka Ostrovsky on “Hot in Cleveland” (played by Betty White): Who better to cap off this list than the one and only Betty White? The mere fact that White is 92 years old and still gracing our television screens is both a testament to how capable she is in spite of her age and a prime lesson for anyone who’s ever wrongfully underestimated her generation. Her role as Elka on “Cleveland” features her not as some senile old coot failing to get with the times or understand the concept of a swivel chair (we’re looking at you, Violet Crawley), but as someone whose days of excitement are far from over, with sex, booze, drugs and even mob-related crimes still a part of her life. Elka’s also got a sharp mind and acerbic wit which she uses to guide everyone around her. And there may be no better tribute to the ageless Betty White than the unfortunate fact that, ironically, the younger ladies on “Hot in Cleveland” are all completely stereotypical, rendering Elka’s presence on the show a breath of fresh air.