Analysis

Five Strong Characters From Terrible Shows

Literally strong in this case.

Some TV shows are just bad. They might have inconsistent writing, terrible special effects, lousy acting, or all three! But sometimes, a character stands out from these awful shows, a shining diamond of good storytelling in the rough of mediocrity. These characters rise above the bad stories they’re a part of, and they make us wonder at what might have been if every character were so well crafted. Let’s look at some of them, shall we?    

1. Seven of Nine, Star Trek: Voyager

Seven with a phase rifle.

Voyager is ambitious in many ways. It features a ship completely cut off from the Federation, with a crew divided between Starfleet officers and Maqui insurgents. Unfortunately, Voyager is deeply afraid of its own premise. It does everything it can to minimize the importance of being stuck in the Delta Quadrant with a crew that should hate each other’s guts. A heavy reliance on technobabble, poorly realized characters, and a host of mediocre aliens seals the show’s fate as below average at best.

Seven of Nine proves a remarkable exception. She is a former Borg drone, taken from the Collective after Voyager briefly allies with it against Species 8472.* It’s not hard to see why audiences immediately fell in love with Seven. She has a deadpan snarkiness she employs whenever another character says or does something stupid, which is often. Seven is highly competent, which is a welcome break after three years of a crew that couldn’t find its photon torpedo launchers with both hands.

But Seven’s character goes deeper. She is a counterpoint to Captain Janeway, a pragmatic check on Janeway’s idealism. She provides a unique perspective on the many issues Voyager encounters, separate and distinct from Starfleet’s point of view.* Despite her late entry onto the show, Seven has a compelling emotional arc as she rediscovers what it means to be an individual. She comes to terms with the loss of many Borg abilities and forges an adorable friendship with the young Naomi Wildman.

That’s not to say everything about Seven is perfect. Her outfit, for one, makes no sense and is clearly pandering to the male gaze. This is even creepier because it’s established that the Doctor, who is strongly attracted to Seven, designed the outfit himself. Worse, Seven’s interactions often consist of little more than the other characters bullying her into being more human. The only character who makes a point of affirming Seven’s agency and supporting her choices is Tuvok, so naturally they spend almost no time together.*

Despite these problems, Seven remains a standout character. If the other characters had been on her level, Voyager wouldn’t be included on this list at all.     

2. The Android, Dark Matter

The Android from Dark Matter

In its first season, Dark Matter is little more than a bad copy of Firefly.* The cast of characters include Imitation Jayne, Imitation Simon, Imitation Zoe, and a character who begins as Imitation River but quickly becomes Imitation Kaylee. None of these characters have what made the originals work. Then there’s Asian-Stereotype Man who, as the only Asian character, is stoic and obsessed with martial arts. The characters aren’t great, and the writing isn’t good either, with plots that ignore obvious solutions to problems and depend on the characters making wildly irrational decisions.

Fortunately, we have the Android. First, she scores points for not being an obvious clone of a Firefly character. Neither does she try to copy Data or other androids that have come before her. Her struggle is not with emotions – she can simulate those just fine – but with forming attachments to her crew. As an android, she is supposed to make pragmatic decisions, always prioritizing the greater good. Instead, she finds herself taking bigger and bigger risks to help her friends. She worries that this is a flaw in her programming. In another show, her concerns would have become a tired joke about how she’s becoming more human. In Dark Matter, they are the start of a soul-searching character arc.

The Android is a very subtle character, and a lot of credit goes to actress Zoie Palmer. Her ability to communicate changes in the character’s mood through tiny facial tics is impressive. The Android does not rage or cry, she always wears the same pleasant smile, and yet the audience can tell what’s going on in her mind. At one point, the Android creates a copy of her personality using only the factory defaults, and Palmer’s acting makes it obvious which is which, even though their faces are nearly identical.*  

Another advantage the Android has over the rest of the cast is that she’s actually likable. Most of the other characters are either annoying, dull, or such jerks that it’s hard to care about them. Meanwhile, the Android’s earnest desire to help and her understated delight at praise make it impossible not to root for her. And, like Seven, the Android is always the one charged with telling another character how stupid their plan is.

The Android shows us that Dark Matter’s writers do know how to craft a three-dimensional protagonist, which makes the other characters’ lack of depth even more puzzling. I can only assume she is the product of a writer who dared to defy the doctrine of copying Firefly.   

3. Varrick, Legend of Korra

Varrick from Legend of Korra

Avatar: The Legend of Korra was a show that didn’t find its feet until season four. Before that, the writers tried to cram huge storylines into too few episodes, so they had little time for character development. Avatar Korra solved all her problems by punching them and never once faced any serious repercussions. Her bending friends were a one-note romance interest and a brainless comic relief. Asami, the only non-bender in Team Avatar, was mostly relegated to being Korra’s romantic competition or being sad about her father going evil.

Season two was the shows lowest point, with a bizarrely evil villain and an entire episode wasted on Korra having amnesia, but it did give us Varrick. Varrick is, to put it mildly, an eccentric fellow. He’s a wealthy inventor who assumes everything he does will succeed, and on the off chance it doesn’t, he spins it so failure was his plan all along. He’s abrasive and hard to get along with, but since he’s a foil to the protagonists, those traits work in his favor.

Varrick is genuinely funny, but there’s more to him than jokes. His comedy arises as a natural extension of his hare-brained schemes, instead of being the central focus of his character. His resources also put him on an even playing field with the bender characters, as he uses his technology to overcome the disadvantage of being a non-bender. Sure, the other characters might be able to shoot fire out of their hands, but he has a ship that launches airplanes. This is something that the writers should have done with Asami since the beginning, but instead she was stuck in a love triangle.

Varrick is sometimes a villain, and sometimes an unreliable ally, but either way his motivations are always complicated. When the Avatar first meets him, Varrick is hard at work to end the Northern Water Tribe’s occupation of the South. It’s soon revealed that Varrick is using underhanded means to enrich himself off this conflict, but even so, his desire to free the South was genuine. He does care about the South, but his way of resisting the North is unacceptable to many, which leads to some delicious conflict with the protagonists.

His complex motivations continue into season four, when he is hired by the main villain to create a doomsday weapon. At first, he is delighted with the project, so excited to be pushing the boundaries of science that he ignores his employer’s flaws. As the villain becomes more overtly evil, Varrick makes excuses for her. Eventually, even he reaches the climax of his character arc and selflessly tries to destroy his creation at the risk of his own life. Of course, Varrick’s arc is less noteworthy by then because the show’s general level of quality is so much higher than season 2, but Varrick got his start early.

4. Walter, Fringe

Walter from Fringe.

The first season of Fringe* practices a style of mystery storytelling that consists mostly of throwing a bunch of random crap on the screen and promising to explain it all later. This is the same type of storytelling that worked so well on Lost, so why not try it again? The show’s protagonist, Olivia Dunham, is boring and lacks a compelling motivation. Despite being cast in the role of badass FBI agent, Dunham often ends up in the role of helpless victim.

The other characters are okay but nothing to write home about, except for Walter. From the first episode, it’s obvious that Walter is the breakout character. Part of that no doubt goes to the extreme charisma of actor John Noble, but the entire character is highly compelling. First, the show sets up a contrast between his high intelligence and his unfamiliarity with modern technology. He spent 17 years in an institution before the show starts,* and so he has no experience with smartphones, streaming video, or any of the numerous technological advancements that have rolled out since the mid ’90s.  

The contrasts of Walter’s character don’t stop there. He’s naturally kind and understanding, except when he’s attacking a problem and other characters can’t keep up. Then he gets snappish, lashing out when frustrated. This hints at his dark past, when he cared more about the results of an experiment than the lives of his colleagues.

Like Varrick, Walter is a mad-scientist archetype, but he’s a much more subdued version. While Varrick is still fully in the grips of mad science, Walter is played more like someone recovering from a bad phase in their life. His job on the fringe science team is to investigate exactly what he’s trying to leave behind, making his arc more compelling and complex.

Walter has a difficult relationship with his son Peter, who is also part of the team. While Peter isn’t a noteworthy character, he plays a decent foil to Walter. This gives Walter the chance to work through his regret at being a largely absent parent, and it builds tension about a mysterious plot involving Peter’s exact origin. It’s too bad the rest of Fringe’s plot wasn’t so well foreshadowed, but that’s what happens when a show thinks getting Leonard Nimoy to play a major character constitutes a reveal.

5. Betty Broderick-Allen, The OA

Betty Broderick-Allen from The OA.

The OA isn’t just bad; it’s so bad I don’t know how it ended up on Netflix. Surely someone would have spoken up? But no, we have a supernatural mystery that refuses to answer its own mystery, has the most boring supernatural elements of all time, smells of ableism, and makes its protagonists use interpretive dance to stop a school shooting.*

One of The OA’s many failings* is the storyline of five random people essentially being told a story about the show’s supernatural elements by the protagonist. Of these five characters, three receive almost no development at all. The fourth receives plenty of character development, but it’s tainted by the fact that he’s a homophobic bully, and the show prioritizes his feelings over his victims’ safety.

But the last member of this surrogate audience is a shining exception. She is Betty Broderick-Allen, or BBA as her friends call her, a local high school teacher. First, she stands out immediately just for her looks. The number of heavy, middle-aged women cast in major TV roles is so vanishingly small, that I couldn’t even think of any others.

Beyond the diversity factor, BBA is the only character with a compelling character arc. She begins the story suffering from two serious problems. First, she’s completely burnt out on teaching. Second, her estranged brother has died and left her a lot of money, but she feels guilty taking it because she doesn’t think she was there for him when he needed her. Over the course of the show, she forms a bond with the other characters, who are all high school aged. As she helps these kids, it eases her through the guilt of her brother’s passing. The climax of her dual-arc comes when she uses her brother’s inheritance as a bribe to rescue one of the kids from an abusive reform school.     

You might ask what any of this has to do with a supernatural mystery, and the answer is nothing! BBA’s character arc is by far the best part of the show, and it is completely removed from the central premise. That’s just the kind of quality storytelling you get on The OA.


If a character in your story is garnering a much more positive reaction than the story itself, stop and consider why. Are they breaking more conventions? Are they more complex or interesting? More competent? More relatable? Studying your gems could teach you a lot.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Skull Bearer

    Given the horrendously bad relationship Varric has Zhu Li, I’m surprised he made the list. That was utterly toxic from start to finish, attempted to be shown as healthy while being about as bad as 50 Shades.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Honestly, that relationship read as funny to me until they tried to make it into a romance. Then it was gross. Varric has problems for sure, but even so he was so much more vibrant than the cast of blandness that surrounded him.

  2. SunlessNick

    Fringe? Understand that there can never now be peace between us. (There can of course; I just like the sound of that sentence).

    But onto where I agree with you. Seven of Nine. And that Tuvok has the best interactions with her – he was the only one who seemed to realise that her becoming human, at least in the way Janeway meant it, was never going to happen.

    Another example might be Kenzi on Lost Girl. Not only is she smart, funny, tenacious, and brave, but as a human in the world of the fae, she *has* to walk the lines that the protagonist Bo only does for the sake of being special. (And while Bo declaring for the human world over light and dark is a reasonably good thing in moral terms, it could have been something Kenzi inspired rather than a special fae invented). And most of the other characters are at their best – or in some cases, their only tolerable – when interacting with her. Almost all the best lines were said by or to her. She was a rare case of friendship being accorded equal narrative, emotional (and eventually metaphysical) weight to love interests. And Ksenia Solo was the strongest acting link.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Kenzi is the best character in Lost Girl for sure. And Tuvok/Seven is my only ship because they clearly had the best chemistry of any two characters and the writers apparently decided that was a bad thing. They don’t even need to be in a romance, but they should have been friends!

      • Cay Reet

        Let’s be honest, character-wise, Seven and Tuvok would have made great friends. I’m sure they would have had a lot of fun together. They understood each other and Tuvok didn’t expect Seven to become a certain kind of person. He went with what she was.

  3. Wiliam A. Hainline

    Fringe? C’mon man, work with me here! I love Fringe! You had to stick with it a while. They eventually did explain *everything* in Season 1 — you just had to wait for Seasons 2 and 3, and it took rewatching Seasons 1 and 2 at least once to catch all the explanations, clues, hints, and signposts that explained everything that was in Sesaon 1. Trust me, I’ve done the homework on this; I’ve seen the show multiple times. (I watched all five seasons once with my mom, once with my buddy Greg, once with my dad, and once, the first time, by myself before I bothered getting anyone else hooked on it.) The “big reveal” wasn’t Leonard Nimoy; it was the enigmatic William Bell, who went on to cast a long shadow over the proceedings of the entire show’s plot and premise going forward, as well as backward, once you took into account the events leading up to his reveal and that were later revealed in flashbacks in Seasons 2 and 3. Unlike some shows (ahem, X-Files, ahem), J.J. and Orci and Kurtzman *had* to have sat down and planned out *everything*, the entire Fringe mythos, from start to finish, at least to Season 4, from the get-go, on paper, before they ever wrote episode 1. They *had* to have; everything clicked way too well and fell too neatly into place for them not to have. And about Olivia — yes, she winds up being a victim far too often in Season 1, I’ll agree with you there. But she really comes into her own in Seasons 2 and 3, and by the end of Season 3, I fear for anyone she’s sent after to arrest. Seriously, the woman is a complete and total badass by then.

  4. Tyson Adams

    I actually like Dark Matter (and Killjoys for what it’s worth). But I think it is fair to say that the first season is barely worth watching. The second season is far superior and actually builds upon the android’s character, making her development a major plot arc, especially leading into season 3.

    And I’ll continue going against the grain by saying that I’ve never seen the appeal of Fringe. Any show that kicks off by having one of the characters have to casually tell us he is a genius to establish he is one, and then proceeds to have him act as clueless as an average person, is annoying show.

  5. John Ferguson

    I also loved Fringe, but I can’t deny the mediocrity. It was just that rare occurrence when the mediocrity added to the charm for me. It was fun watching it try to fill the shoes left by The X-Files and try to fill them with an almost Fantastic Four-ish character relationship vibe. I also can’t deny the sheer awesomeness that is Walter.

  6. Quinte

    Have you considered reviewing OA? The show is an unique mixture of high production value and THE most insanely stupid story. This comes across as an interesting case sample of what can go wrong (this feels uniquely bad) and I’m still puzzled as to why people thought it was good (similar to Star Wars).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      A review of The OA would just be screaming in pain for 10 minutes.

      • Quinte

        That’s a shame because I think you’d have an interesting take on what went wrong and how on earth there are people who seem to like it.

      • Quinte

        That’s a shame because I think you’d have an interesting take on what went wrong and why some still like it.

  7. Doctor Weather

    How harsh you are with Dark Matter. Though only season 1 was great in my mind, I think that first season had four considerable good points:
    – Characters well defined by their actions and responses, where a name, job and – sometimes – ability set wasn’t given
    – A hidden-traitor plot that put me in the same frame of mind as the hidden-traitor board games I love to play
    – A cleverer, subtler form of geek comedy that didn’t compromise character choices and reactions just to force a joke, dodging a horrible current trope
    – The dodge of another trope in mystery plots whereby characters hide information from each other for no good reason.

    And I promise I don’t mean to be purposefully offensive with my thoughts on Firefly, rather the reversal of our views caught my attention: I didn’t find Firefly very interesting, feeling instead that it was often caught up in itself, relying on a rather well-hashed style of humour to carry it.

  8. Laura Ess

    Of course don’t forget that Walter got that way by HAVING BITS OF HIS BRAIN REMOVED! Of course Walter was the reason I watched Fringe, and he (nor his alternate version) did not disappoint.

  9. Naima

    THE LEGEND OF KORRA WAS AN ABSOLUTE MASTERPIECE!! HOW CAN YOU SAY IT WAS A BAD SHOW?!?!! THE ANIMATION WAS BEAUTIFUL, THE CHARACTERS WERE AMAZING, AND SOMETIMES KORRA DID NEED TO PUNCH HER WAY OUT IF THINGS!!!! THE SHOW WAS FANTASTIC AND THERE WAS A LOT OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT!!! THE SHOW FOUNDIT’SHOOTING IN THE FIRST EOPISODE!!! THIS ARTICLE IS RIDICULOUS!!!!! 😠😠😠

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