Character-building December 3, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, television.
Tags: angel, being human, buffy, dollhouse, fangirl, firefly, glee, heroes, joss whedon, merlin, robin hood, supernatural
As most of you know, I’m a shameless Joss Whedon fangirl. As far as I’m concerned, Whedon can do no wrong, and his name being attached to a particular project confirms for me that said project will be amazing. So far, I’ve never been disappointed.
There are three main reasons why I love Whedon’s work so much: the amazing stories he tells (and themes he conveys through these stories), the brilliant way with words he has, and the fantastic characters he creates. It’s this third thing I’d like to talk about here.
At this point I should probably note that ‘Whedon’s’ brilliance is not all down to Whedon: his own talents are supported and supplemented by the writing skills of an ever-growing group of collaborators, all of whom do so much to bring Whedon’s creations to life. When I say ‘Whedon’ in this post, I mean, by extension, ‘Whedon and his co-writers’.
Whedon is the only TV writer so far who creates real characters. I’ll say that again, so that you have time to let my words sink in: there is no other writer on television (except perhaps Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, and in her case only some of the characters fulfil this criterion) whose characters seem like real people. That is to say, you could take any one of Whedon’s characters, from Buffy Summers to Zoe Washburne, from Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle to Topher Brink, plonk him or her in our world and imagine how he or she would act in any given situation. This is not limited to the main characters: I can imagine pre-Season 6 Jonathan as a real person, just as I can imagine Anne Steele (‘Chanterelle’ from Buffy, later on Angel) wandering around real-world LA.
Of course, this characterisation works better on Whedon’s longer-running shows, Buffy and Angel, where Whedon had longer to develop characters and show them reacting and interacting in a wider range of situations, and it’s one of the reasons why Firefly‘s cancellation still hurts. It’s also one reason why Dollhouse was so much less welcoming and so much more ambitious than Whedon’s other shows: when half your characters change personality every episode, how are we to get to know them as people?
In any case, Whedon’s characters spoiled me for regular TV. Since Firefly ended (with a brief respite during which Dollhouse screened), I have found no television show that ever approached anything Whedon created in terms of characterisation. This is not for want of trying. I’ve tried Heroes (never again), Supernatural, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the BBC’s Robin Hood, Being Human, Battlestar Galactica (which I gave up for reasons other than characterisation, but which still suffered this problem), Merlin, and, more recently, Glee. Of these, only Supernatural comes close to approaching Whedon’s talents of characterisation, and only in relation to Sam and Dean. No matter how many new characters are added, the show remains the Sam-and-Dean show, and while it is wonderful at developing the complex relationship of the brothers, it fails to demonstrate how the brothers relate to the outside world.
The other shows I’ve listed are even worse. They fail on so many ways. Some of them (Terminator, Merlin, Robin Hood and Being Human in particular – I wonder if it’s a failing of BBC shows in general?) lack any kind of character development. In Buffy, not one character begins a season in the same place that he or she ends up, and not one character in Season 1 is the same person they are in Season 7. After two seasons, Merlin is still resentful about hiding his magic, Arthur (and all the other main characters save Gaius) are still unaware of Merlin’s abilities and Uther is still bigoted and opposed to magic. Real people change. They change subtly or they change dramatically, but change they do. No person could experience the things that any character on any of these shows experiences and remain the same. (Robin Hood is a particularly egregious example of this: SPOILER ALERT at the end of Season 2, Marion, the love of Robin’s life, is killed. Season 3 sees Robin rageful and grieving for about half-an-hour, and then reverting back to his cheerful, anarchic ways. END SPOILER)
Many of the other shows fail because their writers do not realise that giving characters ‘quirks’ or ‘flaws’ does not make them real people. Heroes and, in particular, Glee are the worst culprits in this regard. Many critics and fans seem to think that Glee is edgy or groundbreaking because it features minority characters in major roles. But after watching the show, you realise that all of these ‘minorities’ have been reduced to their ‘minority-ness’: Mercedes is The Sassy Black Girl, Artie is The Saintly Disabled Boy, Kurt is The Camp Gay Guy (happiest singing show tunes and giving makeover advice) and Tina is The Shy Asian Girl. There is absolutely nothing else that defines or drives them. It’s insulting to think that these characters somehow put an end to whitewashing in popular culture. Take any one of them out of the Glee-verse and you’d be scratching your head to figure out how they’d behave. They’re about as complex and three-dimensional as pieces of cardboard.
A character’s believability lies in how long it would take to describe him or her. What I’ve said about the characters in Glee is all I’d be able to say to a person who asked ‘Who is Mercedes? What drives her? What kind of person is she?’ If someone asked me the same question about Willow Rosenberg, or Mayor Richard Wilkins III, or Mal Reynolds, or Shepherd Book, or Angel, or Rupert Giles, or Adele DeWitt, or even Victor (the Doll), you’d be here until the end of the week.
What most TV writers fail to grasp is that people are more than the sum of their parts (whether these parts be flaws, positive qualities, neuroses or cultural influences). A truly great television character is someone whose life you can imagine in scenes where he or she does not appear, or after the screen goes black. I might’ve been spoiled by Joss, and I might be castigating the writers of the shows I’ve discussed for not writing the shows that I want to see, but I refuse to believe that Joss Whedon and the small coterie of writers he’s gathered around him are the only ones capable of creating characters who are completely and utterly human.