NGN’s Best of 2014: Character Arcs and TV Performances

The women of Once Upon a Time, including Emma Swan, had some of my favorite character arcs on TV this year.

The women of Once Upon a Time, including Emma Swan, had some of my favorite character arcs on TV this year.

With the holiday season upon us, it’s always fun to reflect back on the year that was. Here at Nerdy Girl Notes, that means reflecting on all of the best things to happen in the worlds of television, movies, and books in 2014. In the days leading up to the start of 2015, I plan to share some lists of my favorite things about the media I consumed in the past year.

Because one of the things I enjoy most about running NGN is hearing about why all of you love what you love, I hope these lists can serve as a starting point for discussion about what meant the most to you this year. I’d love to see you share your own lists in the comments, and I hope you’re checking out plenty of other “Best of 2014” lists, too, including the ones made by everyone’s favorite beautiful tropical fish, Heather!

Today’s “Best of…” list is all about character arcs. This was a fantastic year for rich, complex character development on television, which means it was also a year filled with outstanding performances, as talented actors brought these character arcs to life. From first ladies and lawyers to evil queens and clones, here are my 10 favorite character arcs of 2014.

1. Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time (Jennifer Morrison)
If Once Upon a Time’s motto is “Love is strength,” then Emma Swan’s character arc this year was all about becoming her strongest self by opening up to love. In 2014, Emma found a home, made a friend, confronted her forgotten past, fell in love, and made the choice to love her true self even when that choice seemed anything but easy. Emma’s journey this year was a journey of vulnerability, and Morrison made me feel every painful and beautiful step of that journey. But it was also a journey of joy, of coming to choose hope and happiness after a lifetime of pushing those things away out of fear of them being taken from her. And, for as much as Morrison showed Emma’s growth so well in moments of tearful vulnerability, she showed it even more in moments of quiet joy and intimacy. It’s not easy to make a smile feel as important to an audience as an emotional breakdown, but Morrison managed that feat, making Emma’s choices to believe in love, in the people around her, and in herself resonate with me. They felt as heroic as fighting any wicked witch or evil spell.

2. Regina Mills on Once Upon a Time (Lana Parrilla)
This was a fantastic year for the women of Once Upon a Time in terms of character development. Regina started 2014 ripping her own heart out to save herself from having to feel pain, and she ended the year choosing to cause herself pain in order to spare someone else loneliness and loss. Regina’s journey towards becoming a better, more selfless person was a true joy to watch this year. Whether it was shown through making peace with Snow White, giving her heart to Robin Hood (in every way she could), or choosing to let him go in order to do the right thing, Regina proved that she’s become so much more than the Evil Queen. And Parrilla has found the perfect balance of sass and sincerity to completely captivate me as a viewer every time she’s onscreen. I want a happy ending for Regina so badly even though I used to actively root against her, and if that’s not the sign of a well-written and well-acted character arc, then I don’t know what is.

3. Louis Litt on Suits (Rick Hoffman)
In the barren landscape of summer television, Suits is an oasis of great characters played by incredible actors. And this summer, it was Louis (and Hoffman) who stood in the spotlight. Louis’s character arc in 2014 was all about emotion and the pitfalls of letting that drive you in a world as cold as the one he inhabits. Louis lost so much this year—his fiancée, his job—but he seemed to gain a real friend in Donna and more respect than ever from Harvey. But ultimately, Louis’s character arc led up to a final, climatic moment of emotion where he discovered Mike’s secret and used it to demand the one thing he’s always wanted: to become a name partner. Thanks to the brilliant work Hoffman turned in this year, I cried for Louis, I celebrated with him, and I ultimately shared his anger and sense of betrayal, too. But the fact that I genuinely feared him in his final confrontation with Jessica is the real mark of Hoffman’s skill and the genius of the way Louis is written. He could have been a one-note office antagonist or bumbling idiot, but he’s now one of the most complex characters on television.

4. Sarah Manning on Orphan Black (Tatiana Maslany)
Sarah Manning chose to become part of a family in 2014, and it was bigger than she ever could have imagined. She grew from a loner to a woman who is slowly learning to trust and even love, despite the dangers of both of those things for a woman who is constantly fighting for the right to control her own body. From reconnecting with Cal and trusting him with Kira to telling Cosima she doesn’t want to lose her, Sarah made a choice to let people into her life instead of trying to run away, and that’s a sign of real bravery in the world she’s found herself a part of. Sarah grew as a mother, a sister, and a woman this year, and Maslany brought her trademark fearlessness to every scene showing that growth. Maslany’s talent shines through in every clone she inhabits, but it’s in her performance as Sarah where I feel most emotionally connected to her, and I think that’s because Sarah is the clone who has grown the most.

5. Kate Beckett on Castle (Stana Katic)
This was a huge year for Kate Beckett. She got closure and justice by putting her mother’s killer behind bars, she was tortured, her fiancé disappeared, and she finally got married. Through it all, I felt so much pride for this character who has finally reached stability and peace after years of feeling like she was drowning in grief. The moment she put the handcuffs on Bracken I cried happy tears for her, and the moment she said her vows to Castle I sobbed because this character, who has gone through so much, finally got the happiness she deserved. And through it all, Katic continued to show her impressive range—from fierce rage and emotional devastation to quiet relief and radiant joy. In 2014, one character arc for Beckett (her mother’s murder) seemingly ended and another (her life as a married woman) began, and both were true treats for longtime Castle fans to watch.

6. Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation (Amy Poehler)
What happens when a dream ends? You have to learn to dream bigger, even it scares you—especially if it scares you. That was the heart of Leslie Knope’s character arc through 2014, and it was as inspiring as any arc this show has ever done. Leslie lost her dream job and her best friend in 2014, and she struggled with those losses as only Leslie would. But she also grew from them into a stronger, more balanced person, and she concluded this year’s arc with gains perhaps even more monumental than her losses: a new job with the National Parks Service and a pregnancy with triplets. While the beginning of Leslie’s arc in 2014 looked bleak, it ended with this kind, passionate, hard-working woman being rewarded for being all of those things. Leslie was able to strike the ultimate balance between her bigger career goals and her place in Pawnee, and that flash-forward to a successful, happy Leslie was worth every bump along the way. Poehler’s unique ability to be both hilarious and heartfelt added equal parts levity and weight to Leslie’s story exactly where they were most needed, achieving true success at a very difficult kind of balancing act.

7. Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project (Mindy Kaling)
I know, I know; when you talk about The Mindy Project and character arcs, everyone wants to talk about Danny. But I’m here to argue that Mindy Lahiri grew even more as a character in 2014 than Danny did. She grew from a woman who was desperate for love to a woman who was willing to walk away from the man she loved if he didn’t want her as much as she wanted him. Mindy finally came to believe in her own worth as a person and to stand up for herself when it came to being treated the way she deserves to be treated. Those moments of self-respect were some of my favorite moments in all of television this year because of how great Kaling was in them. As Mindy Lahiri grew as a character, Mindy Kaling also grew as an actress, and it was a wonderful thing to watch.

8. Diane Lockhart on The Good Wife (Christine Baranski)
Diane Lockhart was a phoenix in 2014, rising from the ashes of grief and a career in chaos to start fresh. The inherent bravery in starting over with Alicia and Cary at this stage in her life and career can’t be overstated, and neither can the incredible power of her strength in the face of the loss of her friend and partner. Diane’s story in 2014 could have been defined by loss, but instead it was defined by rebirth and renewed ties with people who genuinely cared about her. Her strength and her vulnerability were brought to life in the same way in Baranski’s talented hands—with a subtlety that sneaks up on you, to the point where all of a sudden you’re crying when she touches someone’s hand in shared sorrow or smiling when she whispers one last “Goodbye.”

9. Jake Peralta on Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Andy Samberg)
Who would have thought that one of my favorite things about television in 2014 would be Samberg’s ability to move me with his sincerity? There’s something special about a character who seems like a goof but is actually disarmingly sincere, and that’s Jake Peralta at his core. Both the character and the actor never stop surprising me. Of course Samberg is hilarious, but he shines in Jake’s little moments of heartfelt honesty—from confessing his feelings for Amy without pressuring her to return them to apologizing to Rosa for messing up on the job. There’s real depth to Jake’s relationships with the other characters on this show, especially his female coworkers, and I’ll admit it; I never saw it coming. The layers continually being added to Jake’s character and the way Samberg is bringing them all to light believably were two the most pleasant surprises of the year for me as a TV viewer.

10. Mellie Grant on Scandal (Bellamy Young)
Mellie Grant went through the emotional wringer in 2014. She found romance, she admitted she was raped, she lost her son, she fell into a deep depression, she climbed out of that hole on her own only to collapse under its weight again, and she ended the year back on her feet and with the steel in her spine stronger than ever. At each point along that rocky journey, Young made every word that came from Mellie’s mouth count. From drunken monologues to quiet admissions of past trauma, when Mellie spoke this year, we all listened. And when she defiantly told her husband she was back, I was so happy I actually cheered. Mellie got her groove back through righteous anger, and just as she won’t soon forget the way Fitz treated her as she grieved for their son, I won’t soon forget that moment of powerful character development.

Which character arcs and performances were your favorites in the world of television in 2014?

14 thoughts on “NGN’s Best of 2014: Character Arcs and TV Performances

  1. My no1 is also Emma Swan. Her arc has been heartbreakingly beautiful… she is healing and growing beautifully with acceptance of herself, home, family, and love… and romantic love.

  2. My number 1 is Stana Katic. I honestly think season 6 of Castle was terrible but her character Beckett is the one thing that kept me interested. I really hope to see her in another show after Castle.
    And I completely agree with what you said about Sarah Manning / Tatiana Maslany 🙂

    • I’m glad Beckett helped you find reasons to stay interested in Castle as a show. And I don’t think you have to worry; I have a feeling she’ll have a lot of offers for work once the show ends someday. 😉

  3. I love all of your choices. The only episode of Suits I watched this year is the one I watched with you, so reading about the year Louis had made me especially happy. He is one of my favorite characters on the show and him gaining an actual friend in Donna and Harvey starting to respect him made me emotional for him.

    Everything you said about Leslie and Diane was just perfect. I’m so glad you wrote about them because they are so fantastic and I ran out of room on my list lol.

    I say this every week in your OUaT post, but a giant yes of agreement to your choice of Regina and the always talented Lana Parilla. It has been such an incredible year for Regina’s growth and she has made me love her to an extent that I never would have guessed possible.

    • Whenever you get the chance to catch up on Suits, you’re going to love watching Louis’s arc unfold. It was an incredible bit of writing and acting that was a true pleasure to watch.

      I’m happy that all of our favorite TV ladies found a home between my list and yours. We had each other’s backs to make sure they all got their recognition. 😉

  4. This is such a fantastic list. I have so little to add to it. I especially love the Louis and Diane picks. Their arcs were both so powerful for reasons that are less than obvious in the trajectory of TV storytelling. That’s probably what made them my favorites on this list.

    When I think of character arcs this year one that stands out in addition to these for me are the women of MOM. I stuck with Mom based purely on my deep love of Alison Janney. What began as a bit chaotic reaching comedy has settled into something surprisingly more (and will pop up in my 2014 review next week). What began as characteristic over the top versions of two recovering addicts has settled into a very introspective, thoughtful comedy that understands hardship and a life rife with disappointment demands we find humor, both as a relief to the seriousness, but as an outlet to cope and survive. I was very ready to write this show off this season only to discover that they were poised to hit their stride. The dynamic and arc of Bonnie and Christy as mother and daughter has become one of my favorites. It is an arc of forgiveness and one that evolved surprisingly and honestly.

    Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jenning’s took a journey in season 2 of the Americans that made her story so intriguing. How does family change us? Discovering at the close of season 1 that all she had been trained and conditioned to be – a spy whose loyalty was only for country – only to discover that her family was the thing she most coveted and the ways in which that completely altered her actions, motives and increased the stakes and danger for every step she and Philip made. To see this woman not conflicted but fearfully fierce in her actions was defiantly powerful and terrific to watch setting the table for a new season where so much is at stake. I feel like Elizabeth found her humanity in season 2. How she will reconcile the two is something I eagerly anticipate.

    Honorable mention for 2014 was the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth McCord in Madame Secretary. The show doesn’t always work, but its’ shortcomings are repeatedly redeemed when we get scenes between these two characters. Their marriage is put into a new challenging position when Elizabeth is thrust into the role of Secretary of State. What evolves both for them as individuals and in their marriage is a great portrait of what partnership looks like in honest, love driven complexity. Tim Daly and Tea Leoni are easy to believe and quickly found an ease with each other that lends credibility to their life partnership built in respect and admiration for the other.

    • I’m so glad you liked my Louis and Diane picks because they were such easy choices for me. And they were so much fun to write about—not just in this post but throughout the year whenever I got a chance to write about them.

      I loved reading your additional picks too! Anytime someone can mention Tim Daly on my blog, it’s a good day. 😉

  5. Love this list! I will have to read your thoughts on Sarah Manning once I eventually catch up with Orphan Black, but I do really enjoy her character so far. I’m ordering S2 on DVD with my Christmas money so I will hopefully soon be caught up and able to flail about the S3 trailer that I’ve seen floating around the internet lately.

    Regina definitely is on my list of top character arcs this year, she had so much growth and Lana has put in an incredible performance with the way she has portrayed her this year. She is such a complex character and it’s been a joy to watch her journey lately.

    Kate Beckett, one of my favorite characters on TV. I recently saw a rerun of that episode where Beckett finally gets to put Bracken behind bars, and it made me cry just like the first time I watched. I think some of my favorite Castle episodes aired this year – the wedding, the honeymoon, Beckett finally getting Bracken. I am so proud of her and the growth this character has gone through, and she is definitely on my top character arcs list for this year as well. (Also, Stana did an amazing job this year, per usual.)

    Your words on Leslie, Mindy, and Jake reminded me that I need to get back to my comedy show catch-ups! I shall have to add those into my weekly schedule this year 😉

    I haven’t watched all of The Good Wife, but the episodes I did see over this past year were phenomenal in the complexity of emotions the writers were able to convey for their characters, and Diane Lockhart was one of the characters that stood out to me, so I fully trust your opinion in adding her to this list. Amazing female characters are always a favorite for me.

    Mellie Grant sounds like an amazing character, and if I ever get around to starting Scandal I look forward to seeing her develop on screen!

    My list of top character arcs for this year would probably include Regina Mills, Kate Beckett, Joan Watson and Sherlock Holmes from Elementary, Andy McNally (and maybe Sam Swarek) from Rookie Blue, and Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock BBC. These characters have grown in learning to accept love, in learning to accept emotions are not a weakness and learning to treat people better, growing into their independence and trust in their own abilities, and growing in inner strength and their choices to do the right thing even when it is not easy. I am so proud of all of them and their journeys this year have been wonderful to watch.

    • Since I responded to all of your comments in reverse order, I just wanted to take a second to say thanks for sharing all of your thoughts with us, Leah! I absolutely loved catching up on all of your comments this morning and reading about all of the things you loved in the world of television this year.

      “These characters have grown in learning to accept love, in learning to accept emotions are not a weakness and learning to treat people better, growing into their independence and trust in their own abilities, and growing in inner strength and their choices to do the right thing even when it is not easy.” – You know I love character arcs like these (which is basically my whole list), so it’s always great to read about characters on shows I don’t watch who are growing and developing in such wonderful, meaningful ways. I also thought it was really cool that you had both Sherlocks on your list—it must have been a good year o be Sherlock Holmes. 😉

      I’m so excited for you to catch up on your comedies and on Orphan Black! We will have much to discuss when you do!

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