From ‘Homeland’ to ‘The New Normal,’ The Six Best Kids and Teenagers On Television

Watching this year’s crop of fall pilots, I was struck by something: it’s an awfully good time to be a kid on television. If you’re a child or a teenager, you get to be the voice of reason on a show full of insane adults! Confidant to a terrorist who you know as your dad! The clandestine prize in a battle between your father and your uncle about what counts as heroism and successful masculinity! Or a whole new archetype of teenage nerd. Even the adorable moppets cast for sitcoms these days have some edge, from Joey King in the tragically-cancelled Bent, to Shania on The New Normal. One note: these roles remain overwhelmingly white—when you slot characters of color in peripherally, we don’t get much chance to meet their families. Interestingly, a lot of these great, smart, intriguing characters are girls. In honor of the the rise of great kids on television, and with hope for more, here are six of my favorites:

1. Dana Brody, Homeland: Dana started out Homeland‘s run as one of the sulkiest teenagers anywhere on television, but her father-daughter bond with her former prisoner of war father has turned into one of the most touching depictions of parent-child closeness on television. Dana is her father’s confidant on issues like his conversion to Islam and his troubles returning home, and he, in turn, is her champion when Dana and her mother Jessica, turned rigid and controlling by Brody’s years in exile, come into conflict. And at the end of the last year, that love helped prevent a devastating terrorist attack. This year, Dana gets to flirt with boys, stand-up for her father yet again, and continue to be one of the most crankily real teenagers on TV. I dread to think what would happen if she ever learns the truth about her dad.

2. Shania, The New Normal: I remain unenamored of Ryan Murphy’s portrait of a gay couple having a baby with a surrogate. But I cannot resist Shania (Bebe Wood), the first daughter of surrogate Goldie. As Shania, Wood is a rare thing on television, a child with opinions and interests that are decidedly her own. She calls her grandmother a bigot. She gets obsessed with Grey Gardens as a way of communicating how alone she feels in California. She kisses boys in the cloakroom. And unlike her mother, she pulls the lever for Obama in her school mock election. More than almost another other child on television, Shania feels like an actual person rather than a moppet. I would watch a spinoff in which she and Joey King’s character from Bent are bitter enemies, or who solve crime together, for ten seasons.

3. Walter Junior, Breaking Bad: I was initially annoyed by Walter Junior, AKA Flynn, but over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the sensitive son Albuquerque’s resident super-villain has never really appreciated. Walter Junior began the series loving a father who is somewhat disgusted by him, whether Walt’s resentful of Walter Junior’s efforts to built a website to raise money for his care, or Walt encouraging Walter Junior to drink until it makes his son ill. Since then, Walt’s courted his son with cars, but something interesting has happened: Walter Junior’s seized on the idea that his Uncle Hank is a hero instead of his father. Walt may have convinced himself that he’s a meth-cooking ubermensch, but the New Walt can’t even convince his own son to admire him. He has to buy him instead. Poor Flynn. If Hank busts Walt and Carrie busts Nicholas Brody, he and Dana should sneak some beers out of the house and try to figure out what went wrong.

4. Alex Dunphy, Modern Family: Alex Dunphy’s a new kind of girl on television: a nerd who’s relatively confidently superior to the popular kids, embodied by her gorgeous but academically-struggling older sister, Haley. As a result, she’s put social studies low on her list of academic challenges, but like a popular kid learning to enjoy hitting the books, Alex is starting to realize that her older sister’s approach to life has some assets, too. Rumor is, she’ll have her first boyfriend this season on Modern Family. Hopefully the show finds our favorite girl geek a fellow as iconic as Haley’s on-again-off-again sweetie, musician Dylan.

5. Simon, The L.A. Complex: Simon, more so than some of the other precocious creations on this list, feels like an actual child, a kid who gets super-excited about bubble machines, runs away from home when he’s angry at his big sister, and isn’t sure if he wants to be a child actor, or to grow up to be a scientist. But he’s sweet, winning, and tough, willing to act through a scary scene on a crime show that frightens Beth, his caretaker, warm enough to make friends with the grown-ups at the long-term occupancy hotel where they’re staying. I’m sorry Simon’s leaving the show, but it’s nice to see a kid have actual relationships with adults who recognize that he has something to offer on his own terms.

6. Arya and Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones: Given that their older brothers are off being King In the North and fighting with the Night’s Watch, I’m not counting the Stark boys as children. But even if I factored them, I’d have to give the edge to Arya and Sansa Stark, two sides of the tomboy-girly-girl coin played to perfection by the actresses who embody them. Both Sansa and Arya have found different kinds of power in their gender. As a hostage in King’s Landing, Sansa’s burgeoning sexuality makes her vulnerable to the sadism of King Joffrey, but sympathetic to men and women alike whose sympathy may be her greatest asset. And on the road, Arya has disguised herself as a boy to survive among warlords and brigands, her skills with a pointy sword and willingness to make unusual allies keeping her alive. Taken together, Arya and Sansa are a reminder that neither masculinity nor femininity is superior: it’s all what the situation calls for.