Recently a blog called "Crass Talk" published a list of the Top Ten Greatest TV A-Holes. Ranging from Jeff Winger on Community to The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, these are characters who you probably wouldn't be friends with in the real world but who make you laugh by watching them be rude to their reel friends. But after checking out that list and then reading the hullabaloo (that's still a thing, right?) on Twitter after E! Online's interview with the Gossip Girl executive producers regarding Chuck Bass' abusive behavior, I had to stop and think: Why are we so willing to forgive television characters' bad behaviors?
"That's easy," you may say. "Because they're not real, and we know they're not real, and we can dismiss whatever they do, good, bad, or indifferent by pointing out that whoever they are doing it to is not real either. And if no one gets hurt, who cares?"
Well, that's a nice brush-off, but it's just not true. Television characters are real in the worlds they live in, and for the twenty-two or forty-four minutes we are in that world with them, assuming they are written half decently, they come alive and make us believe when they're happy, when they're sad, when they love, and yes, when they abuse. And say what you want about art imitating life or life imitating art but at the end of the day those stories, although told on fictional shows, aren't coming out of thin air. They are somebody's stories, and if they open a dialogue among viewers about what is acceptable behavior and what is not, the shows are using pain to spin gold. But if we are passive in our response or make excuses, then it is not the writers who have failed but us as consumers of popular culture.
Admittedly I don't watch or write about Gossip Girl, so it would be unfair for me to call out Chuck Bass' behavior simply based on the responses I have seen online. And for most of the characters on Crass Talk's list, they came out of sitcoms, and snark is not really full-on asshole ability in my mind. So let's use the lesser example of The Vampire Diaries' Damon Salvatore, shall we? Last week I wrote an article over on my Examiner page detailing the second season finale's quest for forgiveness from this brooding vampire. At that point he had already harmed Andie, but wronging Elena had yet to be aired. I knew about it, and I didn't want to give away the action away simply through my somewhat newfound disgust for the character, so I ultimately chose to remove the bulk of me talking about how I found the character irredeemable. It's probably a good thing that I did because the fan support for Damon on that article was overwhelming.
For me, the major difference is that Damon is a vampire. In a genre show such as that, or even Supernatural where one of the so-called heroes of the series, Sam Winchester, did more wrongs than rights and is actually responsible for kickstarting the apocalypse, belief has to be suspended anyway, so we're able to chalk a lot of their bad behavior up to that "other" side of them. And that's true, in part. But that still doesn't make it justifiable.
Sam has always been so remorseful for his actions, which usually were unintentional anyway, that it's hard to really keep him in this category, but Damon has only recently begun to discover his feelings again. He turned them off years ago and is therefore acting out of sheer selfishness and primal instincts, and isn't that exactly what a sociopath does?
Since day one it was set up that Damon was the "bad boy," the dangerous brother-- except dangerous was not in air quotes. He actually is very dangerous, deadly even. I've had my share of "bad boy" crushes in the past, so I certainly understand the mentality of such appeal. But not every "bad boy" has a heart of gold, and more often than not we read much more into them than is really there. For some viewers, the desperation to find something to glob onto allows reading between the lines to take a smirk to really be a smile to find good behind the wild, wide eyes. Let's face it, many probably still have a problem thinking the character with the boy-next-door good looks could be all bad anyway, right?
It's also a lot easier for for a viewer to overlook bad behavior when another character is willing to. In the case of The Vampire Diaries, both Elena and Stefan have made excuses for Damon, citing everything from misunderstanding to a literally hundred-year-old broken heart. They coddle him; they don't hold him accountable; so the audience desensitizes and does the same. In the case of Blair on Gossip Girl, she keeps going back to him even when he literally pushes her away. It's an act of co-dependence, of insecurity, of low self-esteem, but for many, the need to "follow" the lead is great.
It is a television character's struggle that makes them the most interesting, and yes, the most grounded. We need to watch the spoiled rich kids like Chuck Bass hit rock bottom and expose all of their flaws. We can't expect them all to learn from their mistakes and be better characters, but we can hope that the writers are taking them on a very specific journey and regardless of how deeply and perhaps surprisingly viewers embrace them, still lead them where they always intended. Relentless "shipping" not withstanding.
Not everyone can be rehabilitated. Not everyone can be redeemed. It's okay to still cling to a hope, an idealism, that they can-- but it should never be acceptable to ignore or excuse or rationalize.