The Importance of Characters
A few nights ago I finished the last episode of Schitt’s Creek, a show that I loved enough that I used a scene from as my exemplar to explain subtext. This was a show overloaded with ability, not just in the incredible actors, but in the writing, dialogue (obviously), and zeitgeisty pitch. Everything was stacked in its favor, and yet the last season felt tired and almost perfunctory. Perhaps it was the cliched decision to end it on a wedding, which is second only to a pregnancy in season/ series endings.
And then compare this to my wife, who I walked in on just minutes ago as she finished the last episode of The Good Place with tears in her eyes. I never made it past the first season of Good Place—not because it wasn’t good, but because I didn’t have much time and then fell behind—but I never missed a season of Schitt’s Creek.
So why then did one ending provoke tears from my wife while another show made me keep checking the clock to see when the interminable wedding was over?
Well, as the title of this blog post should have hinted at, it comes down to characters. But what I’m hoping to drive home is not how the ending of Schitt’s Creek sucked, but how and why I stuck around to watch it when it bored me senseless. And that came down to the emotional investment I had already paid those characters.
The tiredness of the last season reminding me of another poor final season in Parks and Recreation, which was a very good show for many seasons (not the first though; that was terrible). Well... let me rephrase: Parks & Rec was exceptionally staffed by some amazing comedians in some iconic roles. In fact, the lovability of all the characters is what made that show for me.
I can isolate the importance of the characters in Parks & Rec in that I can hardly think of the plot of any particular episodes. I definitely remember several gags, particularly Ron Swanson and Andy Dwyer’s escapades. Hell, I remember both their characters’ first and last names, which I certainly can’t say about half the people I have listed as contacts in my phone.
But I don’t remember any particular episodes of Parks & Rec. For all the dozens of episodes I binged, I can’t really speak to any that stuck out. They were all pretty good and funny in the moment, but the plots never really stuck around in my headspace. I compare this to 30 Rock—which I religiously watch at least once a year along with the first four seasons of Arrested Development and first season of True Detective—which I can remember not only specific gags of, but how the plots of the individual episodes worked together individually and as season-long arcs. 30 Rock was a perfect marriage of excellent characters and plot, whereas Parks & Rec (along with Schitt’s Creek) relied upon their characters alone to carry the show.
At no point did this become more apparent than the last season when they went into the future (alternate future, unfortunately). That whole season was entirely devoid of laughs for me, just like the last Schitt’s Creek. Yet I stuck with them both because I wanted to know how things turned out for the characters. I’m man enough to admit I loved those characters and wanted to see them succeed in the end, even if the journey to get to that point was slow, sloggy, and a chore.
So no, the real lesson of this post isn’t that characters are important. We all knew that going in, and it’s a general understanding in Hollywood that producers immediately flip to the character section of a series bible when its being pitched because they understand its the characters that people are showing up week after week to spend their time with. They don’t have to be likeable (paging Dr. House), but they have to be compelling so as to have people invest their time and attention again and again. Great characters are why people watch in the first place.
Great characters can also ensure people with stick with the show even after it has squeezed all the humor and originality out of the initial idea (Simpsons, I’m looking your way).
No real reason for this pic except it amuses me.
The more I thought about it, the more I’m convinced there are few shows that actually go out on top and were as good if not better than when they began (off the top of my head: 30 Rock, BSG, Buffy (the first ending), Angel, Watchmen, Airbender, and Gravity Falls), which can be chalked up to series fatigue. The Flanderization of characters also plays no small role in a series becoming stale. You can only squeeze so much for so long, after all. But we still stick with so many of these shows, long after we stopped enjoying them. Lost and GoT should demonstrate that.
So there you go. If I have any wisdom to give, it’s to invest all your attention to your characters. In a perfect word, you would invest your abilities equally between characters, plot, and prose/ direction (and worldbuilding if you work in the SFF genres), but 2020 has definitely demonstrated this is not a perfect world. So know you should spend some extra time and energy on your characters before you get to work and make sure they shine.
Because a little extra effort in them buys you some laziness leeway when it comes to the other elements.
Crap, that was probably the wrong lesson to learn...