Making a TV show is hard. Just how troubled does your white guy lead need to be? And just how charismatic do you need to make him to balance out all the terrible immoral shit he's about to do? How oblivious does his family need to be? How British does the antagonist need to sound? Will you choose a B-List actor with surprising talent, or an A-List actor who can only sign on for one season? It's so damn difficult to be wealthy and in a high position of creative power!
But despite this near-impenetrable formula, they still find ways to mess up main characters. Here's how it happens ...
#5. They're Made to Be Infallible
It's important to give your characters flaws, but it's even more important to make them feel the ramifications of those flaws. That way, you have something other than the word "Terminator" when you're writing up a cast list. There's an arc to the story of someone who has flaws and manages to rise above them. But there's a flat line for characters who have flaws but are better than everyone else regardless, as with the character of writer Hank Moody in Californication.
That's him on the right, sort of.
By the end of Season 6, David Duchovny's character has slept with close to 75 percent of the female cast of the show. If you're wondering who the last quarter of those people are, they are primarily made up of a female main character who was married to Hank Moody's best friend, and Hank's daughter. Otherwise, all characters were fair game. I don't want to say that Californication had issues with coming up with complex women, but it's weird to think that the only thing stopping what would be a perfect batting average is that the life of a playboy writer would be seriously hampered by allegations of inbreeding. One might think that this would eventually take a darker turn, considering Duchovny himself had a history of problems when it came to boning things within his vicinity, but the show, in all of its seven seasons, never reached that level of maturity or self-awareness.
Californication was written like some poor showrunner had six seconds to come up with a way to combine Charles Bukowski and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and hadn't been previously told exactly what a "Bew-cow-skee" was.
Wait, it's not the sex thing?
Hank Moody is flawed, but he maintains a superiority over everyone else in the show, solely because he's the guy who's given the one-liners, while the rest of the cast is left to say, "Hank!" or, on rare occasion, "Hank?" Every dilemma is solved simply because Hank Moody is roguish and charming. There's a certain kind of thrill that comes with this, as Hank is the wish fulfillment for any guy who wants to be a writer, except with none of the verb form of it.
This is easily contrasted with an egomaniac from another comedy: Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down.
"Something about titties!"
Now, on the surface, it's easier to play Kenny for laughs since Danny McBride resembles a weird cousin to the entire state of South Carolina, and Duchovny is proof that the key to being a successful paranormal investigator is looking like an underwear model. But Kenny is a more interesting character because when he gets embarrassed (which is very often), he takes the full brunt of it. He is constantly humiliated, and it doesn't weaken his character. Hank Moody could've used the same treatment, but since all of his wacky situations (Hank Moody's got his dick caught in a hot single mom! How can he possibly orgasm his way out of this one?) end with him grinning and prancing away, he ends up being nothing more than a caricature that no amount of depressing blowjobs can save.
#4. They Never Evolve
If you managed to stick it out through all eight seasons of Showtime's Dexter, what you were generally treated to was a frustrating "one step forward, every step back" progression that never let up. At the end of each season, we'd sort of discover the answer to a prominent question (usually something like "Can Dexter have a successful relationship?"), only to start the next season with the exact same question looming ("Can Dexter have a semi-successful relationship?").
Audiences spent eight years learning the same thing every season. Yes, Dexter can give a proper handshake and look normal. The creative team also spent eight years trying to force us into thinking that it was more substantial than this. Yeah, it's a handshake, but it's a deep handshake. In the pilot episode, Dexter looked down into an empty box of donuts and said, "Just like me. Empty inside." This actually happened. It's one step away from the writer leaning in from the side of the screen and saying, "And that, kids, is a metaphor."
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Write it down.
This was then multiplied 96 times until the show finished.
On the opposite side of this, you have Breaking Bad, which, if you didn't hear, is a show that people seemed to dig. That show was explicitly all about transformation, and not just within a single character. The supporting cast of Dexter were placed in a constantly rotating wheel that either set them as bewildered or suspicious. While this certainly played to Dexter's strength of comparing his personality to a container sans pastries, it didn't help a TV show that was meant to be murdery and serious, and it especially didn't help the intended audience reaction of "Oooh, such moral ambiguity!"
Instead, from 2006 to 2013, whole families would gather around their screens for 12 weeks out of the year, just to shout "WHY IS EVERYONE IN MIAMI SO FUCKING DUMB?" The last time I was in Miami, I watched a guy crash into the back of another person's car and handle it by getting out and kicking at his own bumper. If that guy was a character in Dexter, he would have been what's known as "president."
Reminder: this sign doesn't even exist.
And it's totally cool to have idiot characters who don't make smart decisions. But when faced with constant serial murders, done by a variety of people, odds are pretty good that you'll change your outlook and the way you react to things. The dumbest people in the world don't repeatedly touch hot stoves. Breaking Bad excelled at this, because the people caught in this hurr-meth-icane (named that because I'm an idiot) were dynamic. They questioned Walter and gave the slightest of shits about what was going on around them. This helps the lead character, because now they have different things to interact with that aren't the products of blatant idiocy.
Dexter, on the other hand, was surrounded by the perfect sarcastic environment for a vigilante serial killer: people who had gone through years of police training, only to be dumbstruck because the culprit couldn't possibly be Dexter Morgan, the guy who lives alone, shuns human contact, and is constantly somehow personally involved with the biggest murder sprees that the United States has ever seen.
#3. They Get Lost in the Mix
If you watch any show with a plethora of characters for long enough, eventually it starts to feel a bit like a chess match. Characters start getting shuffled and moved around in the hopes that maybe some kind of inorganic spark will light. You just keep pairing characters together until enough witty banter occurs. Game of Thrones remedies any potential issues in this area using the magic of surprise deaths. You liked that character more than the rest? Did they seem like they would become a focal point in the future? Or did you hate them? Regardless, got you! It's not HBO if it comes without graphic mutilations.
Steve Buscemi, a fine actor who plays Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, is someone who got lost in the mix of a show where he should have been the focal point of the whole affair. The main conflict of Boardwalk Empire is that Nucky is both a politician and a gangster, which means that, due to the inherent nature of drama, he's going to want to be involved with the nicer option, while constantly getting himself involved with the more reprehensible one. The problem with Nucky Thompson is that he's just not as interesting as the people who are willing to go all in on their crime shit.
Everyone be more like Jimmy Darmody, please.
Nucky, as a character, is complex, has changed, and has broken and formed new relationships, so it's not that he's boring. Still, the show often feels like it's phasing him out, even though he's still onscreen for the same amount of time. You don't want to have to spend any more time with him than you have to, especially when the alternative are things like the masked sniper Richard Harrow, or Kelly Macdonald's driven, curious portrayal of Margaret Thompson. Nucky Thompson is the center of the show, and way too often it feels like he shouldn't be.
Deadwood, on the other hand, often becomes "The Al Swearengen Hour," and this is no fault.
The creative forces behind Deadwood are very obviously in love with him, and that's because, in a sea of entertaining characters, Al is just a little more entertaining. Ian McShane's portrayal, like most good main characters, was extravagant enough to be memorable, and nuanced enough to be taken seriously.
At one point in the second season, Al gets a kidney stone and spends the majority of a few episodes writhing in pain. Now, one would think that Swearengen would exclaim, "Fucking kidney stone cocksuckers!" and pull it out with his own hands, taking shots of whiskey to dull the strain of the people around him. But the writers manage to rein him in enough that he reacts like a normal human.
So this, then?
While he is bedridden, the rest of the town feels lost, but no less appealing. The nucleus of their cell is missing, and it's hard for them to function. This should be the weight of a good main character. You need to miss them.
Boardwalk Empire is a solid show, but if I watched four episodes of it and never saw a glimpse of Nucky Thompson, I'd probably wonder why I watched four straight episodes of Boardwalk Empire before I wondered where Buscemi was hiding.