Dec 19 2013
Characters make or break a story. You can have the best plot in the history of storytelling, but if your characters are flat, good luck getting anyone to pay attention. (Looking at you, The Bible). Even if you do manage to have good characters, a good story has to step back and let them do the heavy lifting. Many an episode of BattleStar Galactica was ruined by the plot shoehorning a character into a stupid action, not because it made sense organically for the character to do that, but because, well, the plot needed them to.
Because of the importance of characters, writers of TV shows, moves and books go to great lengths to ensure that the audience remains sympathetic to the characters they want you to remain sympathetic to. Any objective measure of Walter White would find him to be a terrible, horrible, morally bankrupt person by the end of Breaking Bad. And yet, because the writing/acting is so good (and because we’re with Walter on every step of his descent), some part of us is still in his corner. Even when he did bad things, I sympathized with him to a certain extent, almost in spite of myself.
But sometimes you draw a line. Sometimes a show will do everything in its power to win your sympathy for a certain character, and for whatever reason, you refuse. Here are 5 characters that the TV show/movie wanted me to like, but I saw through their little tricks.
Ferris Bueller is an annoyingly smug pathological liar who emotionally manipulates his “best friend.”
I never liked this damn movie. I know it wants me to be like, “blerh, school sucks! Jeffrey Jones is like my dad, who sucks! Skipping school totally rocks.” Yeah, I get that it’s a lighthearted fantasy and not supposed to be serious, but god, what a terrible message. Similarly to how The Karate Kid implanted the idea in our brains that all it took was a montage to be really good at something instead of, you know, tedious, repetitive, brutally difficult work, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off taught us that actions don’t have consequences if your cause is noble (noble being pretty freaking relative here).
Don’t like Ferris. Never did. He always got away with it. A lot more of us were Camerons in school – or still are. We have that one shitty friend who always gets us to do stuff until we wise up and dump their ass, but until they, they’re cheerfully grinning ruining things while walking away from the flames whistling a jaunty tune like some kind of karma Houdini.
Ferris taught me that you can always game the system if you have enough charisma, and that charisma itself trumps hard work and honesty. As someone who has way more of the latter, this isn’t a lesson I’m too interested in supporting.
“If you’re not over here in 15 minutes you can find yourself a new best friend.”
“You’ve been saying that since the 5th grade.”
I know that exchange is played for laughs, but man, from another perspective…
Bud and Doyle are irresponsible idiots, ruin science
OK, I hear you. Nobody actually liked BioDome; it was universally panned. So it’s not like the characters are these beloved pop culture icons and I’m being a maverick by dissing them. Fair enough.
However… BioDome is a movie that’s so bad, it’s attained a kind of cult status. There’s definitely a fond remembrance of this movie in the circles I travel in, a kind of nostalgia that harkens back to the mid-90′s and everything we loved about that time period, even if the movie itself was so dreadful. That was almost part of its charm. It’s like Dude, Where’s My Car? but less intelligent. And at the center of the movie are those heartwarming, bumbling slackers with hearts of gold, Bud and Doyle. They stick it to the man, man!
Yeah. Except what they really do is break into a research experiment, screw with the scientist’s chances of attempting experiments or getting any meaningful data, destroy the whole point of the dome by letting other people in… and they’re supposed to be sympathetic characters because they feel bad about it at one point?
Michael Scott is a terrible boss and human being
The Office fell victim to protagonist-based morality. To whit, because the show was focused on Michael Scott so often, it wanted us to see things his way – he was a bit of an idiot, but he meant well. The show kept having him do things that were completely idiot and sometimes just plain mean (usually to his subordinates, because it’s extra cool when you taunt/harass people you have power over), and then because he was such a pathetic loser, we were supposed to feel sorry for him, and then root for him as the underdog. Just, no. When you take a step back and think about his actions, just his actions, the picture is pretty clear. From the inestimable TVTropes:
Michael sexually and verbally harasses his employees (and refuses to stop, usually targeting Ryan, Pam, Oscar, Karen, Phyllis, Angela, and Stanley via the photo of his daughter) and put them in physical danger, and almost never actually works. During a game of “Who’d You Do?”, he stated that “I would have sex with Ryan” because he was so good at business. He had sex with Holly on company property after work hours and forgot to lock the doors, allowing thieves to steal most of everyone’s work property. He has kidnapped a pizza delivery boy, knocked a ladder out from under another employee, causing him serious injury, forced a kiss on a gay employee when trying to convince the rest of the office to be accepting, he emailed a sexually explicit photo of his superior to everyone in the local branch, and attempted to get Toby sent to prison. He seems to wreck Stanley’s car numerous times for unknown reasons. And all that was BEFORE he lost new business leads that Sabre (which is a much more serious and successful company than Dunder Mifflin) spent $50,000 on in a failed attempt to get his sales staff to stop acting up, with no later reference to it from corporate. Is a complete douchebag to everyone in the office (except Erin), especially Toby.
Gul Dukat is darkly charismatic, clever, dangerous – and is basically Space Hitler
Gul Dukat was a pretty standard Star Trek bad guy at first. He was fleshed out as a major adversary, and because Deep Space Nine was all about grey morality, his character was fleshed out and given depth. He appeared in certain lights as sympathetic, even misunderstood. He teamed up with Kira to fight invading Klingons, he risked his command (losing it, in fact) to acknowledge an illegitimate inter-species daughter, and collaborated with the Federation crew on several other occasions. His sometimes smug, sometimes introspective, sometimes haunted but always sarcastic demeanor won over fans, helped a lot by the actor who played him, Marc Alaimo.
In the awesome episode “Sacrifice of Angels”, Dukat was at the height of sympathy. His daughter was murdered and he went insane.
He got so much credit during that arc that DS9 had to do a special episode – “Waltz” – to remind people that Dukat was a war criminal, a megalomaniac, genocidal narcissist.
Too bad all that episode did was remind us that Marc Alaimo was a terrific actor.
Robb Stark condemns hundreds of thousands to die in a war with no end game
Robb Stark – surface wise, sure. He’s the Prince, he’s the rising star, in any other fantasy novel, he’s the protagonist. But this isn’t any other story, this is George R. R. Martin’s world. Martin subtly goes out of his way to mock Robb’s faults. Like his father, Robb is all about Doing The Right Thing. Boy is this the wrong show for it. Game of Thrones might as well be called No Country For Non-Pragmatists.
All that doesn’t account for the fact that I find him unsympathetic. Here’s my real beef with him: he’s great at tactics, but terrible at strategy. Let me explain that. He’s great at setting clear, tangible goals and executing them in sneaky, clever, overwhelmingly successful ways. Fooling the Lannister scouts, trapping Jamie in a pincer by crossing the river, corralling the Lords of the North, even using his dire wolf to navigate impassable terrain.
But he’s terrible at strategy. He goes to war with the plan of “1. Kill Joffery. 2, ?????? 3. Profit.” And it doesn’t really work. As he confusedly says during the third season, he’s won every battle but he’s losing the war. The show wants you to see him as a tragic hero – I mean, look at how they portray him in the narrative sense:
Jeez. Yeah, he’s a hero all right. A hero who got a lot of people killed by going to war without an exit strategy. Hard to feel much sympathy for him.
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