Saturday, December 18, 2010

Good Character

You know what really bugs me about television shows? The characters.

That's an awfully broad statement, though, so instead I'm just going to talk about one very narrow facet of characters that bothers me: character depth degeneration.

Typically, when a show starts, the characters are silhouettes. Just outlines and possibilities. As the show goes on they reveal their personality quirks under various stresses, their histories loom, and their interactions catalyze into development and significant arcs. The quality of a character peaks at a certain point, though, usually at about four years. After that peak they revert to outlines, but they aren't possibilities anymore. Just stereotypes. Caricatures of their former selves, possessing only a fragment of their previous depth. They stop being people.

There are a number of reasons that this happens. For shows like sitcoms, writers cycle through fairly often, and there are chapbooks on each character detailing major events from their past, the previous developments are painted in broad strokes, and the rookie writer is informed of what is expected from each character. The writers aren't aware of the intricacies that go into the characters, so they don't write them as deeply, indeed, they can't.

For comedies, the characters are deliberately twisted and distorted to find new humor, to write jokes and scenarios that haven't already been covered. Usually also at this point, the show starts being terrible.

In dramas, though, character depth degeneration is usually caused by a regime change in the writing room. See, dramas depend on character interaction, so they tend to have better developed characters in the first  place. The change also is subtler, as a change in head writer doesn't usually happen with someone completely new to the writing team. The new leader is aware of some, if not all, of the previous canon, so it's not as much a change in character depth that we see as it is a change in the writing style.

Which itself causes a degeneration of character depth because the new writer emphasizes different traits, and they can't change the stuff they don't like, so they just write it less or not at all and lo! We have a shallower character.

I was thinking about this tonight because I just finished watching the latest episode of the only show I follow regularly: Criminal Minds. It occured to me last week and again today that the writing has taken a significant dive on this show. It's still good and the overall quality of the show is fantastic, but the writing this season has been lackluster. I worried at first that the head writer, Jeff Davis, had been replaced or hadn't been on the team for most of this season for some reason, but a swift look on IMDB told me that he's been on this season, he just hasn't written for the show since the middle of November (Into the Woods, for those who are interested. Great episode).

I don't know if the drop in quality this season is exhaustion or if Davis has had a lesser role in the writing of the scripts, but the writing is definately what's lacking. Know how I know?

There's a new character.

And it's a girl.

I'd given up on interesting recurring characters this season because JJ was written out (hastily, and badly) due to meta budget cuts, but now they've written in this new girl, a cadet, and I thought (hoped) last week that she'd be a one-off character that we wouldn't see again for awhile, but the writers contrived (so contrived) to bring her back, and I fear she'll stick around. She also had not one, but two subplots set up, in a show that largely minimalizes subplots, in her first episode. Her entire character in her first episode was that of The Girl With a Dark and Victimized Past. She cried a lot. It was awful.

So between the less-than-stellar writing, the change in style, and the new and stereotyped character, I think it's safe to say that they show is on the decline and we can only hope that it dies with dignity. Which is fine, it's had a perfectly respectable run.

But the writing of the characters is always the first herald of doom, and Criminal Minds has given me a great example to show you.

And that is why I hate characters.


  1. Or characters start out as cardboard stereotypes kept around as a fun, sideshow foil to the rest of the (hopefully well-developed) cast and the audience latches onto that character so he gets hastily and clumsily characterized (AKA the Wolverine/Steve Urkle effect).

    Or characters start out interesting but all the meaty parts are bowdlerized to accommodate "audience expectations" (AKA the...well I can't think of any characters off-hand).

  2. ... I tried to stick to the writing of characters that was good in the first place, but yeah. Those too.