These characters are probably the reason TV was invented.
March 31, 2014 | Gold | April 2014
A flawed character is an interesting character – just look at the league of anti-heros that has cropped up in this so-called Golden Age of Television. While it’s fun to watch people fuck up (hello, Girls), an audience will care about a character more if they’re on some sort of trajectory toward self-improvement. No one can be perfect, but on the imaginary ladder of character development, some eventually obtain the ever-elusive Gold Character status. These characters have reached a place in their lives where they can be the best version of themselves – they might be flawed, but they ultimately enhance their surroundings, and they don’t have to sacrifice who they are to do it.
Is there any fictional character who is more of a role model than the inimitable Tami Taylor? Tami, in her very soul, is the epitome of gold – Texas Gold, to be more accurate. I honestly have a hard time imagining Tami as a young woman still figuring it all out (but wow, wouldn’t that be a great show?). She goes toe-to-toe with Coach Taylor, and it only makes their relationship stronger. She’s pretty much the reason Tyra Collette is my favorite character (okay, so maybe I have a lot of favorite Friday Night Lights characters). She stands up for what she believes in, even when it means causing tension with her own husband and putting her job in jeopardy. Tami seems to know just what to do in every situation, and most of the time, if something goes wrong in Dillon, it’s because no one was listening to her. It’s hard to want to change anything about someone who knows what’s right and refuses to waver from it, even though the lady’s got her flaws, just like everyone else.
If you’re only a casual fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (do those actually exist?), it would be easy to think that Xander never really progresses past the show’s immature and clumsy comedic relief (from the first to the last season, his eye for the ladies results in his falling prey to any number of ill-intentioned demons). But take a closer look, and you’ll see the subtle growth from horny teenage boy to the most grounded and nurturing member of the Scoobies. After his fair share of difficulties and mistakes, he figures out his place in life, and over the course of seven seasons deals with a lot of hidden insecurities. But by the time Sunnydale is destroyed, Xander’s heart of gold is fully formed, and he’s even mature enough to accept the death of his former fiancé with something of a smile (I see those tears in your eyes, I’ll pass the Kleenex).
Luke Danes may have his cap on backwards, but he’s got his priorities straight. His centrality to the town of Stars Hollow, and to Lorelai and Rory, is not just symbolic, but literally iconic (to the point where I die inside at the Pretty Little Liars set and cry because they tore it down). Though he’s not exactly a Gilmore, he might as well be, acting as the veritable pater familias of the show: being Rory’s resident father figure and Lorelai’s home base. Luke didn’t have the most charmed life growing up, so he stays grounded in practicality – making sure that those around him don’t lose sight of reality. There’s a Brawny Man exterior to this complete softy and damn anyone who doesn’t see how much he really cares for his friends and family.
Ben Wyatt bankrupted an entire town at the age of 18, and even worse, he doesn’t understand the appeal of L’il Sebastian. The fact that he is now on this Very Definitive List of Gold Characters is truly the stuff of an ‘It Gets Better’ campaign. Parks and Recreation is still on the air (and hopefully will be until the end of time), but Ben’s been the golden boy of my television screen for awhile now. He’s reasonable, and yet somehow insane enough to fit right in with the rest of the small-town crazies in Pawnee. He respects the shit out of his badass lady love (and wife) Leslie Knope, who is simultaneously far more flawed and far more amazing than he (or anyone) can ever be. Ben is completely willing to sacrifice for Leslie’s career, but he never stops being ambitious, dedicated, and ready with an absolutely hilarious accounting joke.
On a short-lived show, it’s uncommon that characters will have the space and time to develop enough to reach Gold Status. Surely, some of the best short-lived shows will go completely unmentioned in this post. (I almost referenced them here as examples until I realized that would ruin my point.) But to Studio 60’s credit – a show that’s not often given much by the general TV-watching population – it does a whole lot with its characters over only 22 episodes. For TV executive Jordan McDeere (also known as the reason I trust the way Aaron Sorkin writes women), it’s enough to catapult her to a certain level of character perfection that many never find, even after many seasons. To be fair, I’d argue that Jordan starts out pretty damn close to perfect. She’s put through quite a lot for just one season, but she never gives up. Network executives don’t trust her? Jordan refuses to give them what they want, choosing to help the shows on her network rather than the bank accounts or egos of board members. Ex-husband releasing negative information to the press? Jordan’s a pretty awesome grown-ass woman now, and she’s not going to let her embarrassment or her past mistakes hold her back. Pregnant by a horrible ex-boyfriend? Jordan can do this on her own, but she’s emotionally mature enough to let another person into her life when she knows it’s right. (Speaking of which, any girl who wants to ask out a guy should take a note from Jordan’s book and learn a magic trick.) When Jordan fucks up, it’s understandable, but even more importantly, she impressively digs herself out of every single scrape and keeps moving forward.
Once in a while, the character who seems to completely have his or her shit together is the one who needs the most work. A slightly more naïve version of myself might tell you that Veronica Mars is the ultimate gold character right from the start of the show. She’s smart, and she can take care of herself (with a little bit of help from good ol’ Mr. Sparky). By the time she’s sixteen, Veronica’s grown a lot, but the lessons she learns as a young teenager end up causing her more problems in the long run. For our young heroine, learning she can’t trust everyone (even authority figures) is sometimes misinterpreted as anyone, and being jaded can be just as harmful as being naïve. By the end of season three, Veronica has finally realized she’s not always right, and she still has a lot of growing up to do. WB cut the season short, and when the series ended, Veronica was nowhere near reaching her full potential. That doesn’t make her any less of a character, but it means there’s a lot left for her. Lucky for Rob Thomas & co., this makes great fodder for future stories, and the movie brings a whole new side of Veronica Mars to the canon. This claim might initially seem wrong– the entire film, after all, is about Veronica slipping back into her old ways. But this ten years older Veronica has some more life experience and maturity under her belt. She can dive back into the seedy private detective world with more trust and less selfish disregard for the consequences of her actions on others. Over the course of the movie, she makes peace (or at least a temporary armistice) with her past and her current self; detective work may be in her blood, but that doesn’t mean she can’t control who she is while she’s doing it. Veronica’s learned forgiveness, and also that some people just deserve a good punch in the face. And a gold character definitely treats people the way they deserve to be treated.
Some of the best characters never reach this level of fictional nirvana, and that’s okay. Knowing that a character is in the best place of their lives isn’t the only way to get closure. Quite often series finales satisfy fans by resolving open-ended relationships and giving characters the possibility of a stable future, rather than focusing on whether or not the characters are their best possible selves. But for those characters who complete their pokemon-esque evolution, it can be more satisfying than anything else.
Gabrielle attends the University of Chicago, where she studies Character Development (for real). She hates the phrase “guilty pleasure,” but loves “chick flick.” Her dream is to tell stories about the people she isn’t and to never grow out of her 90s teen angst phase (which she entered relatively late, at the age of 18). She can be found tweeting on one of six Twitter accounts at any given time.