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TV main characters: why do they suck so? [Jan. 29th, 2010|04:51 pm]
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timprov and I were talking this over and came up with some theories, but I want to hear yours. Our thesis: it is extremely rare that we like the main character of a show best. Even if we like the show--even if we like the main character fairly well--the supporting characters are almost always better. If you have some additional ideas for why this should be, please share, but here's what I've got so far:

1) The kind of characters I like--geeky and eccentric, mostly--are not usually in the starring role. In shows like Bones where the main character is theoretically geeky and eccentric, the supporting characters are even more so.

2) There seems to be an expectation that main characters should have romantic complications of a type I find very boring. The Will They Or Won't They Dance makes me want to wander off and make myself tea and come back when they've figured it out, and it's alarmingly popular. So are the I Saw You Hug Your Sister And Just Assumed You Are A Lying Bastard and similar romantic subplots, even in shows that are not mostly about the romance.

3) Main characters have less leeway to be wrong. Supporting characters are allowed to do things that take them out of commission, temporarily or permanently. Main characters a great deal less so. We have an alternate plot for S5 of The Wire where Jimmy McNulty turns into a serial killer to justify his lies and expenditures. Not gonna happen--even though it was the last season. But even beyond the decisions that would take somebody out of the plots the writers want to write, I think there's a reluctance to give us protags in the process of making big, unsympathetic mistakes or doing things the show itself does not endorse. Which constrains their actions a great deal and gives them less to recover from or rise above. (The exception I can think of, The Shield, never convinced me that I wanted to spend any time watching that character in the first place, so when he did things I presume the shows creators didn't endorse, it was just one more reason for me not to like him, rather than a daring thing to do with a beloved character. Fine line to walk.)

Any other thoughts? Or do you tend to like main characters best?
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: adb_jaeger
2010-01-29 10:53 pm (UTC)

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1) The kind of characters I like--geeky and eccentric, mostly--are not usually in the starring role.

I assume you watched CSI while Grissom was still there, right?
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 03:42 am (UTC)

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I haven't watched CSI at all. Should I? What do you like about it?
[User Picture]From: adb_jaeger
2010-01-30 02:20 pm (UTC)

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It's a police procedural drama (well, mostly investigators/techs, not police). Seems like you mentioned a few shows like that (although I may be confusing your commenters with you), so I thought you might like it.

The lead character (Gil Grissom) is definitely geeky, and slightly eccentric. The rest of the ensemble cast (especially for the first few seasons is very strong).

It's set in Las Vegas, and the few gambling/poker references there are aren't done so poorly that they would drive Mark and Tim nuts, like some shows.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 02:35 pm (UTC)

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I do like crime shows, yes. I am not, however, a fan of Las Vegas. Hmm. Maybe I will see whether the library has the first season on DVD.
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-01-30 08:44 pm (UTC)

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"Regardless of what kind of city you like, there's a CSI for you!"

Not that the above is necessarily true, and the other CSIs may not have the character-types you want -- I don't know; I haven't watched any of them -- but I'm amused that the show more or less allows you to choose the flavor you like, because it has such a wide selection. <g>
[User Picture]From: merriehaskell
2010-01-29 11:00 pm (UTC)

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*ponders all the shows she's ever liked*

Generally, yes. Willow, Xander, Dawn > Buffy. Everyone on Lost except Jack > Jack.

Now... Quantum Leap and Sam? I mean, Al is great, but the show is about Sam. But the show is only about two characters anyway. Star Trek: TNG--Picard's my fave, though yeah, everyone loves Data or something. But those are older shows. Is that because I was younger or because something is fundamentally wrong with modern main characters?

Still processing. No real answers. Back later.
From: orbitalmechanic
2010-01-29 11:05 pm (UTC)

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Did you ever watch Wonderfalls? I think your postulate is often true for me, but that show might be my exception.

And I came to Criminal Minds for Mandy Patinkin, so--oh, nevermind, I loved Penelope Garcia just as much, very soon.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 03:43 am (UTC)

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I did not. Should I? What do you like about it?

I consider Criminal Minds a successful ensemble cast show. Every time I think they're making somebody The Main Character, they go and have something interesting happen to someone else.
From: orbitalmechanic
2010-01-30 06:20 pm (UTC)

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I think what I like about Wonderfalls is that it kept doing the wrong thing for a TV show, if that makes sense. People kept saying the wrong thing, delightfully. Someone recently commented to me that Parker, in Leverage, is always "out of rhythm" with the rest of the actors--Bones is like that too at its best--and that's how I felt about Wonderfalls. You might love it, for that reason, or it might just hit you wrong, which would be why it was cancelled after about a month.

Booth is actually my favorite character on Bones, because he's trying so hard to bridge the squint/non-squint gap. He's this incredible straight-laced uptight guy around Hodgins, but when he's with other FBI types (these days) he's almost as out-of-place. Shockingly I think David Boreanaz gets a lot of the credit for that.

Agreed about the ensemble cast of CM, of course, though that was harder to tell at first while they were running through a lot of Patinkin's Traumatic Back Story.
[User Picture]From: barondave
2010-01-29 11:11 pm (UTC)

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I liked Mary Tyler Moore, but I liked most of the cast. I liked Fraser more than Niles.

On the other hand, Buffy ultimately didn't work for me, while several other characters fared better in my estimation, though still not well.

My guess as to the situation you find yourself in: The major character has to be a) Lowest Common Denominator and b) on screen a lot. Bones is going to try to appeal to a lot of demographics, and you are not legion. The supporting cast can be fleshed out by delving deeper into their uniqueness. Personally, they started losing me a little when Hodgins stopped being so paranoid, and they are finally getting back to that.

One of my goals in life (for certain values of "goal") is to be the whacky neighbor. I have achieved that. I should get a plaque.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 03:44 am (UTC)

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The thing about Bones is that I have a hard time imagining people who could enjoy a show with that much Zach and Hodgins and yet need a main character to be as overtly non-geeky as Booth.
[User Picture]From: barondave
2010-01-30 05:02 am (UTC)

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Booth is pretty geeky, though less so than in early shows. A military/FBI sort of geekiness, to appeal to certain demographics. That aspect of his personality has been tamped down, as the relationship between he and Bones developed. Structurally, he was there to get the squints involved in criminal cases. After a few seasons of increasingly wild explanations, the show doesn't even try to rationalize why the Jeffersonian is CSI.

But I have a theory, based on Mr. Douglas. For much of the early days of radio or tv, you had the star (or stars) who everyone reacted to. Lucy/Gracie Allen/Capt. Kirk would do something outside the box, and the show revolved around them.

Some shows are the reverse of that. The archetype for me is Oliver Douglas on Green Acres: Everyone else is completely surreal, and he gets to play straight man for the whole shebang. (Fred Allen had a similar role on the Allen's Alley radio show.)

Booth is Mr. Douglas/Robin/Data: He gets to substitute for the audience and ask questions and provide exposition. Otherwise, all the dialog would be as stilted and filled with shorthand jargon as, well, as in Real Life (tm).

I like Bones, though the soap opera/character arc aspects sometimes get in the way.
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-01-29 11:17 pm (UTC)

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Yeah, the main character seems required for structural purposes to be less quirky, more generic, so as to appeal to (or at least not put off) as wide an audience as possible. And any risk taken with them, in terms of their actions, is a risk taken with the entire show. The side characters are more the equivalent of your art-house theatre or film festival or small press publishing, where you can run some wacky experiments and occasionally find out one of them's more of a mainstream success than you expected.
[User Picture]From: tiger_spot
2010-01-29 11:36 pm (UTC)

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Well-put. That (main characters intended to appeal to a wide audience, therefore somewhat generic) was my guess, but I don't know that I watch enough television to have a statistically reasonable sample.
[User Picture]From: cissa
2010-02-01 10:49 pm (UTC)

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I think that sums it up. I have the same problem with a lot of novels, in fact.
[User Picture]From: akirlu
2010-01-30 12:03 am (UTC)

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Not really an answer, but have you seen Doc Martin?
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 03:45 am (UTC)

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I assume you don't mean the oxblood red knee-high ones sitting by my back door. So no.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 03:48 am (UTC)

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I don't know how non-Western shows would fare, either. This is not a problem for me in, for example, novels or movies, so clearly it's not all main characters, it's a genre thing.

As for The Wire, they treated Jimmy McNulty as a main character kind of a lot, except for in my beloved S4.

One of my theories about what's wrong with Veronica Mars S3 is that it was even less of an ensemble cast show than before and Veronica was treated as more of a standard-issue main character. But there's a lot wrong with VM S3. Still, while I like Veronica, I like Weevil, Mac, Wallace, and Keith better.

In what way do you feel the supporting characters you're thinking of would have to change as characters in order to be main characters? Is it the plots/development arcs they're given or something else?
From: elsue
2010-01-30 01:18 am (UTC)

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I've long had a theory about why some spinoffs of sitcoms work and some don't. Namely, the star has to have enough gravitas to hold the show together, and enough comedy chops to be funny while doing it.

Ted Danson can be solid and funny; Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke can; likewise Bea Arthur and Kelsey Grammer. (Sometimes being stuffy, like Frasier, works well for this.) But some great second bananas turn earnest and lose what they do best when they become the lead. Rhea Perlman had a very short-lived sitcom where she didn't get to do her funny stuff at all. Brooke Shields was supposed to get a drama but did such a hilarious guest star turn on a sitcom they gave her Suddenly Susan--in which she was earnest and not allowed to do her funny stuff.

I think funny AND able to keep the show level is a rare and valuable trait.
[User Picture]From: sksperry
2010-01-30 02:01 am (UTC)

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I think secondary characters are a lot more interesting because they are aloud to be a lot more out there. They don't even have to be consistant, because often we don't know enough about their background to know what is or isn't consistant for them. Some of my favourites go waaay back:

Don Knotts on the Andy Griffith Show

Buddy Hacket on the Dick Van Dyke show.

Daryl, Daryl and Larry on the Bob New Hart Show (and the preppie couple, who's name I can't remember).

Karin and Jack on Will and Grace

Karin and Jack light on Ugly Betty

What I find really interesting is often these characters were the epitome of water-cooler talk, sometimes for years. People loved them, and couldn't get enough of them, yet once the show went off they air they practically vanished from the face of the earth. Why? Obviously they're extremely talented to effectively portray a character that is loved by so many, yet most can't find any real work afterwards.


Edited at 2010-01-30 02:03 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: moiread
2010-01-30 02:02 am (UTC)

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It depends on the show!

I-- Actually, I'm trying to think of examples of shows I watch where I like(d) the main characters best. Life? No, I loved Charlie, but I loved Dani more, and Ted even a little bit more than Dani. Bones? I am a huge Booth fan, but Zach and Hodgins were/are my favourites. Criminal Minds? Well, I suppose that one works. Reid and Hotch and Penelope are tied for my favourites, of which only Penelope is (sort of? not really? grey area?) a secondary character. Oh, oh! House! House is my favourite character. He just is. (Wilson is my second favourite.) So that one works. Fringe? Walter is a main character and he's my favourite, but he's less a main character than Olivia, who I dislike intensely. Battlestar Galactica? Well. Starbuck, Head!Six, Roslin, and Helo were my favourites, along with Doc Cottle, and I'd say those are mostly main characters.

And so on and so on. So I guess it does depend on the show. But as for why, I don't know. It may have something to do with TV writers thinking that even if a main character is geeky and eccentric, they have to be accessible to a mainstream audience, which apparently translates to "do a bunch of stupid shit with them". Like Bones' social ineptitude -- it's not a genuine impediment, it's just a comedy shtick. So even when they have the beginnings of a character that will really appeal to me, having them be the main character means automatically fucking them up in a multitude of glaring ways.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 03:50 am (UTC)

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I think of Criminal Minds as an ensemble cast show--once you have six or seven main characters, I'd say they're not performing the same role as a show that has one or two.

Zach and Hodgins <3 <3 <3.

Also I think after S1 I am liking but not loving House largely because it hasn't got enough Wilson. Will it have more Wilson later? I might cross the line into loving it if it does. I have S2 on the pile right now. So.
[User Picture]From: terpsichory
2010-01-30 04:32 am (UTC)

Still me; wrong journal. Woops.

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Wilson will come and go. He'll feature prominently for a few episodes and then not so much for a few more. I forget how often he shows up in S1 and S2, but I can tell you that by later on, he has bit parts in most episodes, and sometimes more. The team does change eventually, too, and you may like some of the new folks there as much.

Edited at 2010-01-30 04:33 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: marydell
2010-01-30 04:28 am (UTC)

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Hm, this is very interesting. Thinking about what you say about not having this problem with movies and novels--I wonder if stretching a favorite movie or novel into a series would tend to make the main character less interesting over time, and the other characters more interesting. I'm imagining a weekly series of any of Jane Austen's books, for example--the supporting characters would be the best reason to watch.
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-01-30 05:48 am (UTC)

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The MC might get less interesting simply because the author fails to think of good ways to make them go on developing, but I don't think it's an inevitable consequence. Other characters becoming more interesting, on the other hand, I think might be necessary; if you're going to do a series, you have to keep coming up with Stuff that can Happen, and that more or less requires you to have a fruitful source of possible Stuff. That's pretty much either Monster of the Week (which is hard to maintain well), or interactions among/plot complications for the secondary cast.
[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2010-01-30 06:48 am (UTC)

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The protagonist of the TV show is meant to be a character the audience identifies with-- everybody in the audience. Which means you get cyphers without too much quirkiness, because having traits might exclude someone from identifying, or worse yet, offend somebody.

Which is of course a horrible way to do things, writing-wise. The assumption that people can't identify with people who aren't Just Like Them has caused truly impressive quantities of bad fiction.

Shows I did not have this problem with: Wonderfalls. Occasionally lapsed into too twee for me, but generally awesome, and the main character is certainly very, very much herself. The Middleman. In a more perfect world, this would have run at least one damn season longer. I think you, Mris, would probably very much like The Middleman; it's a funny snarky witty they-fight-crime show that is actually aware of the entire existence of SF as a genre.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-30 02:37 pm (UTC)

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I agree with you that this is the theory, that everyone is to identify with the main character. But it just seems so lunatic that it's hard to believe that anybody who thinks long enough about this to do it for a living has agreed to go along with it.

I will look into The Middleman and Wonderfalls. Thanks for the recs.
[User Picture]From: sartorias
2010-01-30 03:39 pm (UTC)

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I noticed this trend clear back when Fanny Burney wrote Evelina . . . the h/h had to be as proper according to the mainstream rules as possible, so that everyone else could be interesting. Nowadays, I'd say that the main character has to have the broadest appeal, which generally means vanilla.
[User Picture]From: netmouse
2010-01-30 08:44 pm (UTC)

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I think part of the reason why I like Castle is because the main character (Nathan Fillion's mystery writer Rick Castle) is both geeky and eccentric. Very geeky, in fact, about various minutia. Mostly about crime. And eccentric in a very fun way, highlighted by things like expensive laser tag games with his teenage daughter.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-01-31 03:44 am (UTC)

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You mention this on the same evening when two of my friends (one of them currently a geeky teenage daughter herself) were waxing enthusiastic about this show, so I'm very glad the library has it.
[User Picture]From: netmouse
2010-01-31 01:37 pm (UTC)

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Awesome! I hope you enjoy it.
[User Picture]From: columbina
2010-02-01 07:57 pm (UTC)

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In shows like Bones where the main character is theoretically geeky and eccentric, the supporting characters are even more so.

It might be better if the Television Engines did not attempt to break this formula, as they are not very skilled at such things and the grim possibilities should they get the main character wrong are horrible to contemplate. (Personal example, which others might not agree with: "Monk.")

The Will They Or Won't They Dance makes me want to wander off and make myself tea and come back when they've figured it out.

I shall now put this on my wall, as it suits my personal philosophies in the matter nicely.