Tuesday, March 15, 2011

With Lackluster Leading Roles, What Keeps You Watching A Show?...

There is something to be said for flawed protagonists on today's television landscape. As the seasons go on, they become more and more the "go to" and even the expected. Creating characters who aren't perfect, who don't have everything together, and who look like the "every man (or woman)" draw an audience due in part to their inherent relatability but also because if they are overtly flawed, many can watch their mistakes unfold and feel a little better that "at least it's not them" screwing up so badly. But flawed or not, what happens when you just don't like a show's protagonist? What keeps you watching a series when you don't care if the main character accomplishes the goals so clearly set up for him or her at the beginning of the journey?

That is the dilemma I find myself in now. I have begun marathoning Scrubs thanks to Netflix streaming. It's a show I caught a handful or two of episodes of while it was actually airing, but I could never quite get into. I've always had an aversion to medical shows of any kind, but a lot of people I know still reference the show, and I really like Sarah Chalke, so I figured I'd give it a fair shot. But here's the thing: pretty much right from the get-go I realized I didn't like J.D.

In the beginning I found myself continuing watching, hoping he would grow on me. But no. As the series has unfolded (I'm still not all yet caught up), I found him more annoying, more condescending, nerdier (and not the good kind), more self-absorbed, and at times even downright rude. He doesn't feel like any real person I know, and in the moments when he has to put on "serious doctor face" and tell a patient they're not going to make it, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for him to make an inappropriate comment or pratfall or something. He's kind of a buffoon, and for me, not a lovable one. I just don't buy him as a doctor. nor do I think he's a very good friend or boyfriend. I wouldn't want to hang around with him. I do wonder if I would feel differently with another actor in the role in this situation, as in the beginning I easily replaced Zach Braff with Zachary Levi in my mind and realized a seriously missed opportunity. But that is neither here nor there since it's too late to do anything about it.

I see Scrubs the way I see How I Met Your Mother. Ted (Josh Radnor) is pretentious; he's often inappropriate; he's co-dependent; he's a cartoon. I have next to no interest in who ends up with him at this point because whoever she is, I'll just feel badly for her. I don't care if he finds love or success; in fact, at times I find myself rooting against him for all of those aforementioned qualities. When he struggles, I smile a bit. And then he makes me feel badly about myself for succumbing to such bitchiness. I gave up with the show for a short time, and even when I do tune in, I find myself much more focused on Lily and Marshall-- much the way I am deeply invested in Dr. Cox and Jordan on Scrubs. It is those secondary or supporting characters that often can save a show with a great concept but a lackluster lead role.

Now, you can pull the "but those shows are ensemble" card on me, and admittedly that does soften the blow a little bit.
But really, what show isn't an ensemble these days!? I didn't really like Ross (David Schwimmer) on Friends either (and I still get a lot of crap for saying that!), but with five other characters in the cast, plus handfuls of guest stars as the seasons went on, there wasn't a whole lot of time to worry about him. But when you think about it, where the major difference lies is that these two have a central character-- most notably obvious due to the voice-over aspects of both shows. It is not uncommon for who were thought to be "just supporting" players to inch closer and closer to the spotlight, with the shows often asking you to focus on the surrounding characters from time to time. But even then it is to instill balance and bring the others up to the level of interest and attention that supposedly the protagonist has already piqued. If your main guy (or girl) is widely disliked, chances of long-term and consistent success should be slim. After all, you're only as good as your weakest link!

Sometimes characters are written in the "you will love to hate them" vein, but if you think back on some of the best of those, or even some of the current ones gracing our screens today, they are not main characters for the reason that writers, producers, actors, and networks all know if you don't like who you're watching, you'll just change the channel or (God forbid) turn the television off all together. Once in awhile those types will turn, as Sue Sylvester on glee actually managed to become one of the more beloved characters on that show. You may be rooting against Alderman Gibbons on The Chicago Code, but you can't look away from him, for example. It is in such characters' c
omplexities make them more compelling.

Showtime has made its mark in original scripted programming in this way, offering characters from Nancy Botwin on Weeds to the titular Nurse Jackie and of course Dexter, who they describe as anti-heroes. You don't find yourself agreeing with their decisions all of the times, and you may want to slap some sense into them or scold them for some of their actions, but in equal amounts you will find yourself emphasizing and wanting to see them pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, shake off their seemingly inherent, inward negative energy, and actually come out okay on the other side. You may not like them all the time but you certainly like them enough-- or find them interesting enough-- to hold an investment.

I don't have that kind of investment in either J.D. or Ted. I could not care less what happens to them, and I often find myself wanting to fast forward through their scenes, which is tough considering they carry most of the weight of their respective shows. I stay watching for those around them, but mostly because I am a completionist. Once I have invested time and energy into a show, I want to see it through to the end, even if it becomes a somewhat excruciating road following characters who really have no business leading anyone anywhere.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I know Ted is the protagonist, but the way the show is set up, he almost feels like background noise, especially next to Barney.