The Internet has revolutionized the way we watch TV. We can chat with, tweet at and connect to not only other fans of our favorite shows – but their stars and creators. We can rescue shows from the cancellation or in rare cases, bring them back to life. But we also need experts to help curate our conversations, to extract the good ideas from the tumultuous sea of noise, complaints, and .gifs. Enter Todd VanDerWerff, the TV Editor of The A.V. Club, a digital beacon for thoughtful insight and analysis amidst the epic influx of fan commentary. Todd makes his living writing and talking about TV and stands as a resident authority for a generation who has come to subsist on a steady diet of episodic recaps.
Todd was kind enough to let Character Grades pick his brilliant brain. We discuss what makes a compelling TV character, fan reactions to Girls and Breaking Bad and his love-hate relationship with Twitter.
Character Grades is based on evaluating characters within their respective worlds. What qualities make a TV character really great?
Todd VanDerWerff: I think strong TV characters tend to be slightly evolved [versions] of types we’ve already seen. Every once in a great while you see this wildly original figure, but for the most part, what you’re looking at is… people who are going to behave in predictable ways, because we’re going to laugh or have a lot of suspense when they get into a situation where we think we know what they’re going to do. But we also want them to have an unpredictable edge to them, so that they can also surprise us. The characters that we like best are the ones that manage that balance very well.
Who do you think is the most original character you’ve seen in the past decade?
I think you’ve really got to look at the characters that other people start copying right away.
Within the last 10 years, my mind keeps circling back to Abed on Community, who I think was a different way to do a sitcom character. And I have some issues with Community right now but I think they still kind of have an idea of how to write Abed and that’s what makes me think they’re going to figure out how to write the show again.
Have you always been a TV fanatic? Was there a specific show or character that made you fall in love with TV?
As far as one show to boil it down to, it was either Mary Tyler Moore orThe X-Files. The X-Files was when I first became really interested in the idea that TV is made by certain people. And The X-Files was a good show to do that because if you looked at the writer credits, you could discern an episode written by a different writer on that show. I’m sure Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz did passes on those scripts, but you could tell a Vince Gilligan episode from a Glen Morgan/James Wong episode. You could tell a Darin Morgan episode from a John Shiban episode. You could really tell those episodes apart, so that was interesting to me as this person who was flirting with being fascinated by TV. The X-Files was what sort of grabbed me hook, line and sinker.
Who are some of your favorite TV characters of all time? Would Mulder and Scully make the list?
If we’re looking at X-Files, definitely Scully would be my favorite of the two there. Which is weird because at the time I was watching it, I really wanted Mulder to be right. I really liked the science fiction aspects of the show, but Scully was still my favorite. It wasn’t just because Gillian Anderson for a 15-year-old boy was very… interesting. It was because I liked her approach. She was very methodical. She didn’t take things for granted. She didn’t just go along with what everybody else said. She really stood up for herself.
Besides Scully, Willow I really liked as well on Buffy. I feel like guys around my age and of my temperament are supposed to like Xander and I do, but Willow always spoke to me more. For the most part I have to say that I really prefer female characters. I think because I use TV as a window into lives I can’t lead. Obviously I would have a hard time leading the life of a female.
Al from Deadwood
As for male characters, I really like Al Swearengen on Deadwood. I love everybody on Deadwood, but his journey is the most interesting to me. He goes from being this really dark-hearted saloon owner to this pillar of the community. It’s entirely natural and believable and he does it entirely because it’s in his self-interest, but by the end of the show he’s a better person because he’s so selfish. I’ve never seen another show pull off a journey like that. I’m just really impressed by it.
To go back a ways because I’ve only done recent things and I feel bad about that because I’m always harping at people about looking back in TV history, I really think Archie Bunker on All in the Family is one of the great characters ever created for the medium. He’s basically every relative you don’t want to have to talk to at Thanksgiving dinner, but the show makes him so sympathetic, without making him soft. It makes him this guy where you understand where he’s coming from. A lot of it is Carol O’Conner’s performance, but a lot of it is also the writers on that show totally getting who this guy was and totally understanding their own people in their own lives who had been that way.
Also, Arnold, the pig on Green Acres was the best.