5 Ways Hollywood Ruins Main Characters
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 ...
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.
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."
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.
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.
The Audience Feels Stuck With Them
Was there anyone on Earth who wasn't kind of let down by the final season of the only moderately funny show to ever appear on CBS, How I Met Your Mother? If the final season accomplished anything, it was to illuminate just how stuck viewers felt with the character of Ted Mosby.
As far as sitcoms go, he was a pretty typical lead.
Whoa, that guy was the lead?
However, since we'd watched him go in and out of relationships for so long, all while still pining for the same girl, to watch him continue to face the same problems with his unrequited love for "Aunt" Robin was disappointing. The show had made a huge deal about how you were finally going to "meet the mother." Instead, we were treated to How I Met Your Eh Never Mind.
So we're positive this guy wasn't the lead, then?
A good show usually maintains a certain level of quality when you rewatch it. The initial shock caused by the surprises and plot twists is gone, but you gain a new kind of insight that allows you to focus on different things, like the little details that passed you by the first time. With How I Met Your Mother, though, a rewatch forces you to put up with Ted, and the last thing you want while watching something again is the feeling that the main character is painfully tied to you, with no hope for relief.
And it wasn't this guy, either? Huh.
So much of the original run of that show was spent wondering who the mother was, and when the girl that Ted was with would turn out to be "the one." Any further examination turns him into a grating romantic storm that you can't seem to escape. There is no allure to him, now that you realize that what he is clinging to in the first episode are the things that he is going to cling to in the final seconds of the show. That's a zero-degree-angle arc of storytelling.
They're Simply Not Interesting Enough
Creating a lead character who's interesting enough to be the center of any kind of entertainment is hard, especially if that brand of entertainment is meant to run for eight to 22 times a season, year after year. Of course, sometimes you have things that, despite all odds, flourish, like Smallville, which lasted for 10 years and had a cast primarily made up of the same, blank expression.
Superman takes a lot of flack for being boring, and that's a valid criticism of a guy who, when asked about what powers he has, could reply with, "Most." Add that to the blandest narrative possible and you have a show that lasted for 218 episodes, with enough substantial story to maybe fill four. Will Clark Kent finally become Superman? Who cares? Now let's see if he can solve this whole magic crystal plot before audiences start to figure out that it's utterly meaningless.
And then you have shows like The Walking Dead, which distribute character traits seemingly on a whim. Whoever makes it to the set earliest gets their pick of what motivates their dialogue and decisions that day. Some people get a lot of them while others are simply left being "that guy with the backpack who seems pissed." The latter category includes the show's main character, Rick Grimes, who, in the initial "Personality Aspect & Quirk" draft got stuck with "unsure about being a leader" and "father."
Don't forget "boring."
Now, those things could possibly be compelling. And, in the show's best moments, there is the hope that, maybe, when the cast can finally escape the single set location that the season's budget has allowed them to be plunked into, things will improve. But since the narrative tends to solve every problem both philosophical and physical with "Yeah, we'll probably shoot at it," any passion that you may have had for keeping up with the whole thing deadens. Unless there is some magical turnaround where Rick Grimes is saddled with a backstory and a few more internal issues, he is going to spend the rest of The Walking Dead with close-ups of his face wearing that same concerned "Carl?" expression.
Pictured: The least likable child on television.
The people behind The Walking Dead are always banking on the zombie carnage saving the other aspects, and I might get my horror fan card revoked for saying this, but at a certain point, it's hard to care about all the head splitting. Everything that's ever promoted The Walking Dead as a show and comic has always made a gigantic point to tell us just how much of it is about the characters, yet they still haven't figured out a scheme to create more than two good ones. And with the "Oh, shit!" response to the zombie carnage waning, the longer the show goes on, the more that they're going to need to invent some kind of machine that pumps out a leading role with more than three attributes. Perhaps they could call this machine "Adequate Writing."
Heh. Good one, me.
The real Californication was in David's heart the whole time. For more wisdom, check out Daniel's Twitter.
For more on famous main characters, check out 4 Movies That Followed the Wrong Character and 5 Iconic Characters That Were Only Supposed to Be Bit Parts.