As viewers, we've all had the experience of watching a show and just not connecting with a character. There are always going to be characters populating the dial that just annoy us. What can shows do to make these characters more palatable? How about embracing the very things people don't like?
On an episode of 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) tells a 127 Hours-esque story about ice climbing in which, after hurting his leg and getting stuck, he had to climb down into the crevasse to freedom. I bring this up not only because I relate to life almost exclusively through 30 Rock quotes, but because I've noticed TV show runners do the same with problematic characters. Instead of ignoring a character's irritating attributes, sometimes shows just turn right into the skid. When the narrative acknowledges flaws, those same flaws can become endearing parts of what make a character great.
Britta (Gillian Jacobs) from NBC's sitcom Community (returning this Thursday!) is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Early in the show's run Britta existed mostly as a stiff dream girl archetype for bad boy Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). Her purpose seemed to be mostly in giving Jeff disapproving looks and trying to make him be a better person. In short while she had a narrative purpose, Britta wasn't a very funny character.
Community, one of the most meta and pop culture obsessed shows ever created, realized this quickly. Instead of trying to change Britta to be more laid back or quirky, the show instead decided to revel in exactly what made the character unpalatable. It emphasized her underdeveloped sense of humor, her hipster posturing and her false sense of superiority.
Variations on the phrase "Britta is the worst" became commonly sprinkled through episodes. Her name became a verb for making things horrible. (Google Britta's name and Community and you'll see a list of articles about how NBC "Britta'd" their winter schedule.) A funny thing came out of pointing out what made Britta annoying: she became one of the best characters on the show.
Not only is Britta now hopelessly endearing, but the show mines tons of comedy from the group's disgusted reactions to her. In the mid-season finale her awkward Christmas song, including lyrics like "me so Christmas", ground the Christmas pageant to a screeching halt. Britta's very name might have become a punch line for being horrible (Troy memorably called her the AT&T of people) but Britta is undeniably hilarious. As she herself would say, Britta for the win.
How I Met Your Mother has similarly climbed down into the crevasse with romantic hero Ted Evelyn Mosby (Josh Radnor). At the show's inception Ted was a wistful romantic looking for the woman who would eventually be the mother of his children. As the show has plugged along, however, viewers have often complained about Ted's more annoying qualities.
Much like Community, How I Met Your Mother has embraced them. Ted can be something of a douchebag who over-pronounces words like "encyclopedia" and reads Dante in the original Italian. Instead of ignoring Ted's more pretentious traits, the show has squeezed amusing moments out of calling attention to them. This makes Ted a more potent comedic character and works to make him much more likable.
Not every show reacts to viewer discomfort with characters by dropping into the crevasse though. In fact, most shows tend to stubbornly stick to their original conception of the character, no matter how they are received by viewers. A perfect example is the way Glee continues to write Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) as a noble hero despite his often selfish actions.
While the show doesn't exactly canonize Finn as a saint, it usually excuses and hand-waves his misdeeds. Conversely, the show is always quick to point out Rachel's (Lea Michele) more irritating attributes. Maybe this is why Rachel feels infinitely more likable, even when doing bad things. Viewers know Rachel, unlike Finn, likely won't get a free pass on her bad behavior.
Sometimes to embrace a character shows will change tracks entirely. In the delightful Parks and Recreations Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is something of a super heroine. But that wasn't always the case. In the first season the show made fun of Leslie for her overzealous nature and rampant idealism. Not having fully divorced itself from The Office's more world-weary and cynical point-of-view, the show was laughing at Leslie but not with her. Soon enough the creative team behind Parks realized that the very things the show mocked Leslie for were things that made Leslie a great character. The tone of the show became just as sunny and optimistic as Leslie herself and the show became a bright spot of comedic sweetness in the sitcom landscape.
The cognitive dissonance between what a viewer sees on screen and what the narrative tells us we're seeing can sometimes spoil a show. When shows are willing to address these issues, however, great characters are often the product. I hope more shows follow the example of Community and don't "Britta" great characters by refusing to embrace their flaws.
What do you think? Does embracing and acknowledging a character's flaws make them more likable? What are some good examples I missed? Sound off in the comments!
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