The Slate staff welcomes back the best characters on TV.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 23 2010 7:10 AM

Welcome Back, Kalinda

The TV characters Slate staffers missed most over the summer.

Lily Aldrin.
Alyson Hannigan as Lily Aldrin

Lily Aldrin, How I Met Your Mother, CBS

How I Met Your Mother was so unkind to Alyson Hannigan's delightful Lily last season. It wasn't enough to dress her up like a stripper; the writers had to give her stripper doppelganger a weird Eastern European accent that Hannigan didn't come close to pulling off. And then there were the evil burning eyes.

While HIMYM is nominally about Ted Mosby's journey toward true love, my favorite characters have always been Barney—because Neil Patrick Harris plays him so absolutely over the top—and Lily, for Hannigan's ability to keep surprising you. While in some ways Lily is just an update of her legendary American Pie character, she manages to keep pulling off the "sweet girl who can shock you with her raunchiness" role. That's why I'm especially looking forward to seeing Lily this season, as Marshall and Lily set out to have a baby. It's one thing to play a kindly kindergarten teacher by day and a nympho by night, but it's more challenging (though not impossible) to square that with impending motherhood.—Rachael Larimore

Malory Archer.
Jessica Walter voices Malory Archer

Malory Archer, Archer, FX

Four years ago one of TV's great dysfunctional families left the air when Arrested Development bid farewell. Archer, which reunites three of the actors from the Fox comedy, doesn't quite live up to its creator's claim that the new series is Arrested meets James Bond. But the spirit of at least one of the Bluths, Lucille, lives on in the twisted FX cartoon, in the person of Malory "Mother" Archer, voiced by Arrested star Jessica Walter. As boss of a Soviet-battling spy agency, and mother of star agent Sterling Archer, Malory brings back the absurdly rotten approach to parenting that made Lucille such a joy to watch. Because the series is animated—and rated a strong TV-MA—Malory's reckless disregard for the welfare of her son is even more absurd than Lucille's ever was for her four children. In one episode she accidentally puts out a burn notice on Sterling while on an absinthe bender. In another—"Dial M for Mother"—she shoots Sterling when he attacks her after being brainwashed by Russian agents. Mother then complains that Sterling is bleeding all over her new linens. "This is why I can't have nice things," she shrieks. The Arrested movie has been an on-again, off-again project pretty much ever since the show was canceled in 2006. Until they sort out the details, I know where to go for my Bluth fix.—Jeremy Stahl

Lee Corso.
Lee Corso
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Lee Corso, College GameDay, ESPN Lee Corso's broadcasting career is a testament to how little energy need be expended to rile up college football fans. Each fall Saturday morning, ESPN schleps its gridiron analysts (and dancing sideline reporter Erin Andrews) to some State U to perform acts of prognostication in front of inebriated, sign-waving frat bros. While host Chris Fowler keeps the show moving and middle-aged-man-on-campus Kirk Herbstreit coolly previews the day's action, Corso jabs at the face-painting masses with his trademark No. 2 pencil. (In one of the stranger side gigs in sports media, Corso is the director of business development for the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil company. He's also a spokesman for Hooters.) The 75-year-old Corso, who left coaching for TV punditry in the 1980s, has admirably carried on his GameDay duties after suffering a stroke in May 2009. Those duties were never all that complicated. Corso wrings tremendous entertainment value out of a single catch phrase—"Not so fast, my friend!"—and a closing segment in which he assumes the guise of a badger or a duck or whatever other animal represents the team he's picking to win the week's big game. This "Mascot Head Pick" never fails to stimulate the home fans. As the crowd cheers or jeers, Corso wags his oversize noggin from side to side, further arousing the beery mob. Next stop: Tuscaloosa.— Josh Levin

Laurie Keller.
Busy Philipps as Laurie Keller

Laurie Keller, Cougar Town, ABC Most coverage of the delightful Cougar Town has focused on how the main character—Jules, played by former Friend Courteney Cox— has transcended the show's lame initial premise of fortysomething lady chasing twentysomething guys. As the show has shifted focus from Jules' pursuit of young booty to her ragtag group of friends and neighbors, one of those buddies has emerged as the endearingly trampy heart of the series: Jules' co-worker/BFF/protégé Laurie. Where Jules is extra neurotic, and endlessly concerned about what others think of her, Laurie is breezily unbothered by public perception, and as a result, she's a whole lot of fun. Played by Busy Philipps, who won my heart in the critically beloved Judd Apatow series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, Laurie has a rubber-faced exuberance that is irresistible. For example, after vigorously making out with her boyfriend at the country club lunch table, she earnestly explains to his horrified father: "I just have a rule that every kiss must last at least three seconds. It's what the Obamas do." How can you argue with that kind of logic?— Jessica Grose

Charlie Kelly.
Charlie Day as Charlie Kelly

Charlie Kelly, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX On It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX's sitcom about a group of friends who run a bar, hatch elaborately idiotic get-rich-quick schemes, and pass time by treating each other horribly, Charlie Kelly—the hapless bar janitor who sold his ownership stake for part of a sandwich—is the closest thing around to a sympathetic character. Surrounded by arrogant, heartless pals, he's got a big heart and a small, damaged brain: Witness the episode where he dons a poncho and fake beard, does an exquisitely tin-eared Pacino-as-Serpico impression, and ineffectually takes on police corruption. Calling Charlie (played by Charlie Day) the naif of the show gets at something about his appeal, but understates the lyrical buffoonery of this jittery, eternally unshaven man-child, who reads at a pre-K level and writes musicals about malevolent male night spirits climbing into his bed and entering his body. Calling him an omega man may be more apt— unlike his buddies, he's shrimp-physiqued and weirdly sweaty around women—but may ultimately constitute an insult to omega men. His teeth fall from his rotten gums like birthday candles from melted frosting, he huffs spray paint from athletic socks, and he cooks his meals on his radiator. If he weren't such a cartoon, he could be the mentally-ill subject of some heartbreaking documentary about urban poverty. As it stands, he's the lovable loser to end all lovable losers.— Jonah Weiner

Leslie Knope.
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope

Leslie Knope, Parks & Recreation, NBC For this writing assignment I have chosen to focus on Ms. Leslie Knope, who is a true inspiration to young ladies in Pawnee, Ind., and all the other small cities of America with tribal names, and who graduated in the top 5 percent of her class at Pawnee High School, according to this very impressive Wikipedia account of her life. Ms. Knope never gets discouraged, even when Freddy Spaghetti fails to show up at her big event and her date puts her through an MRI and tells her she has an "industrial sized" baby oven. Even when the citizens of Pawnee throw their vile half-eaten sandwiches at her during community meetings, Ms. Knope does not lose her can-do attitude and merely says they are "caring loudly." (See! She's funny, too!)

If I lived in Pawnee, I would have set up a tent in a pit outside Ms. Knope's house all summer, just as Andy did to Ann, so that I could study how early she leaves her house, how she chooses what to wear, and how she keeps that smile on her face day after day. In my heart, I know I will never have the dedication and commitment to serve the citizens of Pawnee, or any other city, or even serve on the Handicapped Women's Restroom Task Force. Still, I will be pleased to have the shining example of Ms. Knope in my life again, and when Ms. Knope is a candidate for the president of the United States, I will be first in line to vote for her.—Hanna Rosin

Stacy London.
Stacy London

Stacy London, What Not To Wear, TLC

Outing yourself as a fan of What Not To Wear means admitting that you spend Friday nights on the couch, in sweatpants, watching the only people on television less glamorous than yourself at that moment—at least until the end of the hourlong makeover show, at which point you realize that's actually no longer the case. I'm not ashamed to admit, though, that I'm looking forward to spending a few nights this fall with Stacy London, the skunk-streaked co-host who's equal parts witchy and kind. A former creature of the fashion-magazine world, Stacy's sharp-tongued eviscerations of America's Tevas and tie-dyed shirts are an art form. And the delight she takes in the ritual garbage-can sacrifice participants must make of their sartorial safety blankets is itself a delight—especially because every once in a while, if the person cajoles and cries and generally seems pitiable enough, she'll let them keep something, but only if they swear never to wear it outside of the house. Stacy's taste isn't especially fashion-forward—she loves good tailoring, a nice kicky heel, bright colors, age-appropriate choices, and above all, a silhouette that flatters. In short, what your mother probably tells you to wear. And indeed, there's a maternal undertone to her persona, despite all the fabulously cruel things she says about mom jeans. She sprinkles her imperious criticisms with enthusiastic compliments- and really just wants everyone to feel good about themselves. After an hour spent in such company, even the schlub on the couch is better off.—Noreen Malone

The Managers of the English Premier League.

The Managers of the English Premier League, The Barclays Premier League Review Show, Fox Soccer Network

The Barclays Premier League Review Show,which replays every goal and every meaningful play from the world's best soccer league, dispenses with pontificating anchors and flashy graphics. It interrupts the marvelous HD soccer for one reason only: 10-second mini-interviews with winning and losing managers. These sound bites are the greatest joy of the show, for soccer managers in Britain are blunt, idiosyncratic, and unusually funny men. (They are also, incidentally, rarely British, since elite soccer is a global sport.) Avram Grant of West Ham, a sleepy-eyed Israeli, each week manages to convey with a single shrug: I've seen men die in battle, and you expect me to care about a loss to Bolton? Arsene Wenger, the French genius who runs Arsenal, suggests a man en route to advise Malcolm Gladwell or headline a TED conference. Steve Bruce of Sunderland appears to have been pulled, three-quarters drunk, out of a nearby pub. Elfin Spaniard Roberto Martinez, manager of perennial loser Wigan, is allowed to keep his job for sheer comic relief: In accent and genial incompetence, he's strikingly similar to Manuel, the Spanish klutz of Fawlty Towers. And Alex Ferguson of Manchester United—that's "Sir Alex" to you—reigns over all, his Glaswegian brogue incomprehensible, but majestically authoritative.—David Plotz

Jenna Maroney.
Jane Krakowski as Jenna Maroney

Jenna Maroney, 30 Rock, NBC 30 Rock's Jenna Maroney is everything I hate in real-life acquaintances: shallow, self-absorbed, seemingly un-self-aware. But onscreen, I adore Jenna, waiting impatiently for her during the inevitable scenes of Kenneth-and-Tracy buffoonery. Her manic insecurity makes for pure hilarity, and her sometimes honest, sometimes paranoid anxieties serve an insightful, often poignant commentary on beauty, aging, relationships, and gender. Never defensive when called out on her ridiculousness, she admits inadequacies that most women in the smart-girl world would never confess. She confesses that she's jealous of babies for their smooth skin and for all the attention they get. She explains to Kenneth that she likes to employ "back-door brags," in which you "insert something wonderful about yourself" into conversation. Jenna's obsession with fame and cynical take on romance ("Love is going downstairs to the Burger King to poop") coalesced into one of last season's best story lines: her fake publicity relationship with a pillow-lovin' James Franco. Halfway through the episode, she spins around gleefully, saying, "I'm in love!" Liz sighs, "You're really not!" But Jenna's right: She is in love, as always, with herself.— Torie Bosch

Abed Nadir.
Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir

Abed Nadir, Community, NBC I've already spoken of my deep affection for Danny Pudi's breakout performance as the T-Mobile butt-dialer. So it should come as no surprise that I'm looking forward to seeing Pudi's Fraggle-y self—all gangly limbs and googly eyes—on primetime in Community's second season.

Community has a crack ensemble, but pop-culture-loving, possibly Asperger's-having, half-Palestinian-half-Polish Abed is its most purely lovable member. You want to take care of him, even though (because?) he's a little bit creepy. He is Community's Ally Sheedy—but without any self-loathing, and with a wider repertoire of impressions. I direct your attention now to Episode 17, "Physical Education," in which Abed plays a vampire, Don Draper, Bert from Sesame Street, and a white version of himself. White Abed was my second-favorite moment of TV race-bending last season, after 30 Rock's delirious Jamaican nurse routine. (Which still makes me cry, though I suspect it might be really offensive.)

My big wish for Season 2: A very special NBC-CBS crossover episode, in which Abed and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory (which is going head-to-head with Community this season) step up and have a dance-off.—Nina Shen Rastogi

Hercule Poirot.
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's Poirot, PBS If there's a shameful way to spend an hour in front of the TV—and, at this point, that is a low bar to crawl under—it's in being a devotee of shows that are square, off-zeitgeist, and tweedy. Case in point: those British mysteries on PBS. And yet it's David Suchet's portrayal of Hercule Poirot I'm looking forward to in U.S. (re)runs this fall—they're new to me!—and his punctilious accounts of country-house murders I'll savor, at the cost of self-humiliation, as more enterprising viewers navigate the new fall lineup.

Suchet is a virtuosic character actor, the sort of academy-trained chameleon who can go from Arabic-speaking gumshoe to East London kingpin on demand. The central pleasure in his Poirot is the bliss of fictional immersion: Unlike other talents turned to the role (say, Peter Ustinov, whose Poirot always seemed a lot like Peter Ustinov wearing a weird, porn-esque mustache), Suchet becomes Agatha Christie's conception of a prissy foreigner cast against interwar London. The series, in fact, is a nice reminder that obsessive verisimilitude in TV didn't begin with Matthew Weiner: Before filming his first Poirot adventure in the '80s, Suchet spent months studying Christie's books and working up his accent, fine-tuning the Flemish consonants he voiced. It shows. With the series this year halted on the edge of Poirot completism, it's as good a time as any to swallow your shame and enjoy the period styling and rote escapades of a screen character whodunit first.—Nathan Heller

Kalinda Sharma.
Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma

Kalinda Sharma, The Good Wife, CBS

The Good Wife is a series of intersecting mysteries. Some are solved within the course of an hourlong episode: Can the defense lawyers at Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner get their client out of trouble? Some spool out over the course of a season: Can Peter Florrick, a disgraced politician, clear his name? Can his wife, Alicia Florrick, get back on the career ladder after years spent raising a family? And some will probably never be settled: Is Peter a good guy or just another corrupt hack? Is Alicia a chump if she stands by her man?

That's a lot to juggle, but when Kalinda Sharma is onscreen, only one question matters: What is her deal? The law firm's in-house investigator is smart, strategic, and utterly inscrutable. Whose side is she on? Can she be trusted? And does she like girls or boys? (She also comes to the rescue so often she should wear a cape, though I'm glad her wardrobe has more in common with Emma Peel's.) It helps, of course, that Archie Panjabi is the kind of actress who can make a private, withholding character into a compelling cipher. There's so much that I want to know about Kalinda, but for the sake of the show, I hope she remains an enigma.—June Thomas

Dr. Derek Shepherd
Patrick Dempsey as Dr. Derek Shepherd

Dr. Derek Shepherd, Grey's Anatomy, ABC

Why did I start watching Grey's Anatomy? Oprah made me do it—during a flu-induced fever. I swear. The DVDs of the early seasons nursed me through that illness, but I can't blame Oprah for the fact that I've now watched all six seasons. Grey's follows the successful formula of many nonsitcoms/nonprocedurals, a formula I've dubbed "pretty people making out." And there are so many pretty people making out! They couple, decouple, and recouple like they're square dancing. But the pretty person I most look forward to seeing each week is Dr. Derek Shepherd, played by Patrick Dempsey. Much has been made of Dempsey's transformation from McDorky to McDreamy, and it's true: He's finally moussed and mussed that thick, swooshy hair; learned to flash those blue bedroom eyes; and sprouted some delicious salt-and-pepper stubble. But more to the point, he's developed into a shockingly fine actor. Amid all the medical melodrama and goofy comedy, Dempsey's style is natural, believable, and a joy to watch. When he's wearing his loupes in the operating room, I have to keep reminding myself he's not really doing surgery; he's just acting. I think I'm feeling a bit feverish again, Dr. Shepherd.—Ellen Tarlin

Cerie Xerox.
Katrina Bowden as Cerie Xerox

Cerie Xerox, 30 Rock, NBC  

Liz Lemon was born to fret about her advancing age, and Jenna Maroney has grown operosely self-deluding about hers. They are grown women, and the one girl we see on staff at The Girlie Show, aka TGS With Tracy Jordan, throws their adult agonies into relief, much as the chronic pre-adolescence of Kenneth the Page underscores the groaningly distressed masculinity of Tracy Jordan and Jack Donaghy. She is Liz's assistant. Her first name is Cerie—an appellation sounding "as delicate and flighty as a bird's whistle" and smelling like a gratuitous spritz of sweet perfume. Her maiden name is Xerox, and she is a kittenish original. Her married name? Unclear. At the end of last season, we saw a mere glimpse of Cerie on her wedding day, doll-like in white tulle, and 30 Rock left the audience to assume that the nuptials proceeded without incident, thus leaving Cerie partisans to fear for her future on staff. Years ago, the girl confided to Liz that she had no plans to pursue a career in television: "I'm just gonna marry rich and then design handbags." I am loath to ask a youngster to defer such a noble dream, but they need you in the office, Cerie. Radiating the bliss of ignorance and emitting the awful glare of blithe youth, you have a special glow about you, pert to the point of impertinence.— Troy Patterson

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