overthinking the idiot box

February 1, 2006

I Just Hate That Guy:

Unlikable Protagonists Make for Good TV
by Mark T.R. Donohue

None of these guys are likable, really. Save, of course, The Green.
My TiVo actually went empty for a couple of hours there a few weeks back. ItÕs a slack time in the television season. ThereÕs been huge gaps between new episodes of my reliable favorites, and midseason replacements are dicey territory. (There is actually one very good midseason show this year, Love Monkey, but a painful two-week wait for the third installment is throwing the overall situation into sharp relief.) It hurts to admit it, but IÕve actually been watching Four Kings. Well, it has Seth Green, it canÕt be all bad, right?

If only. I donÕt mean to pick on Four Kings specifically, because IÕve certainly seen far worse freshman sitcoms, but the showÕs unambitious averageness makes me long for a Homeboys in Outer Space revival. Green and his three castmates fill such obviously prefab roles that itÕs self-defeating; we canÕt be surprised or offended or even interested in anything they do or say because their limited archetypes wonÕt allow for it. ThereÕs the handsome but sensitive one whoÕd have everything he wants if heÕd just stop overthinking things. ThereÕs the sweet stoner one. ThereÕs the closeted one. And as a final insult, Seth Green plays a short insecure guy. There's a casting reach.

Well, TV actors, by and large, are likable folks. WhatÕs the challenge here, for writers and viewers alike? Give me the rare show thatÕs willing to make our first impression of a character a negative one.
TV writers have been cranking out sitcoms for so long that they know exactly which bundle of flaws they can distribute to each regular while keeping each and every one Essentially Likable. Well, TV actors, by and large, are likable folks. WhatÕs the challenge here, for writers and viewers alike? Give me the rare show thatÕs willing to make our first impression of a character a negative one.

For example: the brash young doctor, straight out of Starfleet Medical, is unpacking in his new infirmary. He tells the first officer, who didnÕt really ask, how excited he is to be practicing medicine out on the wild frontier, thousands of light-years away from any civilized facilities. It doesnÕt occur to him that this barren backwater outpost happens to be the first officerÕs home.

Besides trying to pick up the science officer, which also doesnÕt reflect particularly well on his character, Dr. Julian Bashir doesnÕt have any other big scenes in Star Trek: Deep Space NineÕs pilot, ÒEmissary.Ó For the rest of the showÕs first season, Bashir was somewhat of a divisive figure for Trek fans. For some, the callow young medic was just the most obvious sign of how DS9 betrayed Gene RoddenberryÕs vision of our utopian future. For the rest of us, BashirÕs obnoxiousness was the first indication that Deep Space Nine had depth and shading that The Next Generation only hinted at and the original series lacked completely. The only thing more we might have hoped for was for Major Kira to pop him one across the chin right there in the pilot.

It takes a show of unusual creativity and long-run vision to make one of its nominal protagonists so obviously flawed. The villain you love to hate is one thing. The hero youÕre supposed to like, but donÕt, is another still. Characters of these first two types are common. It takes quite a bit more finesse to create a personality whoÕs wholly good when it comes to the big issues, but really gets on our nerves even when — especially when — the heroes we do love unambiguously work with them and pair off with them. Why donÕt they see what we see? It puts a strain on the contract between show and viewer when characters we love make such obviously bad choices. But like Joss Whedon often says, itÕs not about giving the audience what they want sometimes — itÕs about giving them what they need.

Dr. Bashir is an interesting example for a few reasons. His character arc really begins at its lowest point (perhaps the showrunners were encouraged to dial his obnoxiousness back a little bit), but he appears on the series right from the beginning. The other examples that IÕll get to in a minute were thrown into already-existing casts to wreak a little creative havoc with their chemistry. The creators of DS9 had a somewhat unique opportunity when they put together their cast. They were creating a new show, but they had plenty of backstory to draw upon. They took one established character from Next Gen (OÕBrien) and made Kira a revision of another TNG personality when Michelle Forbes (Ensign Ro) was unwilling to commit to the new series. Dax and Quark were new characters but their races (Trill, Ferengi) were established on the first spinoff. All this continuity presented Rick Berman, Mike Piller, Ira Behr and company with a guarantee and a related challenge. First, being a Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine could more or less count on a several-season run. (Those were the days.) On the other hand, the temptation to just keep the good TNG times rolling with a new cast was one to be resisted.

To hell with RoddenberryÕs utopia. IÕll take BashirÕs unreformed arrogance, dangerous curiosity, and ethically dubious science projects any day.
Hence, the genesis of Julian Bashir. A male human Starfleet doctor is nothing new. But BashirÕs obvious character flaws, which were ironed out over the next several years in some obvious ways and a few extremely unexpected ones, made him in a way the most wholly original creation of Deep Space NineÕs inaugural year. Even as Julian became increasingly heroic (and eventually, superhuman) that air of fallibility remained and led to some of the seriesÕ best moments. The bombshell Section 31 reveal wouldnÕt have worked in Next GenÕs antiseptic universe. To hell with RoddenberryÕs utopia. IÕll take BashirÕs unreformed arrogance, dangerous curiosity, and ethically dubious science projects any day.

Julian Bashir when we first met him was kind of a jerk, and that was deliberate on the part of the writers. They always meant for him to eventually be redeemed, or at least for his obvious good qualities to in time outnumber his obvious bad ones. But what about our next example, a churchgoing, law-abiding, guileless Iowa boy who was by design never going to hold a candle to a schizophrenic undead serial killer? I have a lot of sympathy for Buffy the Vampire SlayerÕs Riley Finn, sympathy IÕve never been able to get many other fans to share. So much of the criticism IÕve read of BuffyÕs fourth season centers around two seemingly contradictory points: they got away from having the storylines mirror everyoneÕs college experiences as the early seasons explored high school, and ÒI hated Riley.Ó

So cute and normal! What could possibly go wrong?
But wait a sec: wasnÕt Riley and BuffyÕs whole relationship pretty much the stereotypical college romance? Less fireworks, more sleepovers. Less drama, more sex. Instead of a romantic, bittersweet parting enforced by graduation, an ugly gradual one enforced by her just not being as into it. Second love is never quite as epochal as first love, and a major part of young adulthood (if not specifically freshman year of college) is learning that you will date and sleep with people who arenÕt your true love. Hell, youÕll sleep with people you donÕt even like. In the extra features for the Seaon Four Buffy DVDs, writer Jane Espenson talks about a line of dialogue cut regarding BuffyÕs earlier tryst with the lecherous Parker, which could just as well apply to the milquetoast Mr. Finn: it was all about Angel.

Perhaps if the Buffy writers had been more up front about RileyÕs being a poor substitute for the original vampire with a soul, in BuffyÕs estimation and in everyone elseÕs, more attention would have been paid to Marc BlucasÕs roundly decent performance as a guy who falls hard for a girl whose heart belongs to another. Alas, the insight came too late (and was delivered by Dawn, of all people, in Season Five), so most fansÕ reaction to BlucasÕs best work on the show was ÒIs he still here?Ó Remember, IÕm arguing that you should sympathize with Riley, not that you should like him — you were never supposed to like him.

And to another Season Four we go, albeit one about as far removed in genre as you can get from Buffy and still share several writers: Gilmore GirlsÕ. Gilmore Season FourÕs Jason Stiles is one of the most successful applications of the deliberately unlikable protagonist technique I can think of. The fact that his narrative function is incredibly obvious from the outset doesnÕt undermine the deliciousness of his eventual downfall in the least. In fact, the way the writers manuever ÒDiggerÓ such that LorelaiÕs ultimate rejection of him doesnÕt only bring her closer to her parents but also (finally!) steers her into the arms of Mr. Right is probably the best job of bravura plot engineering the Gilmore majordomos ever cooked up.

The Internet doesn't think you should see this man with a beard, it seems. Hard to argue with the Internet.
WhatÕs especially neat about Digger is the great lengths the writers have to go to to make Chris Eigeman, an extremely likable actor, into an obvious romantic mistake for Lorelai. First, they have him grow a truly repulsive patchy beard. Then they give him parents who make Emily and Richard look mellow. Finally, some truly hideous personal habits are added just for good measure — sleeping in separate rooms after sex? Man, thatÕs just creepy. And I havenÕt even mentioned the pet dog who is trained to stay perfectly still at all times.

IÕve racked my brain trying to think of other good examples, but my failure illustrates why itÕs worthwhile to write about this subject at all — itÕs less common than you would think, and shows that can pull it off successfully tend to err towards the creatively superior end of the spectrum. A few counterexamples just for fun — The X-Files half-heartedly attempted to make John Doggett a real heavy when first introduced, but the show was quite out of juice by that time and Doggett ended up coming across alternately gruff and cuddly depending on the needs of the individual episode. Besides, after seven seasons of mounting evidence — evidence that made Scully a true believer, for peteÕs sake — anyone still a skeptic comes across as just pigheaded for his own sake. And finally, I think you could construct an interesting argument around Jin from Lost, the lingual and cultural outsider. Problem is, heÕs been my favorite character on the show from the getgo due to my prior affection for actor Daniel Dae Kim of Angel and Enterprise fame. Someone else will have to make his case.

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