Character Development

04/02/2011 § 2 Comments

Good TV shows are hard to come by.  Whenever you find a promising show built on an interesting premise and follow it regularly, there comes a point when each episode’s story arc becomes mind-numbingly predictable (I’m looking at you, House, Buffy, 24, and Lie to Me).  But why does this phenomenon have a strong tendency to occur?

Furthermore, why do people stay with shows after the plot becomes easily predictable?  The answer is disarmingly simple:  character development.  Character development refers to a show’s tendency to focus on the details of a character’s personal or professional life.  This is usually approached on a meta level, which leads to the writers focusing on a given character from a long-term perspective.  As a result, specific episode ploys are ignored, for the most part, which is why they become formulaic.

There are basically three reasons why the shift from gimmick to character development occurs if a show lasts long enough:

First, the economics of television makes it impossible to attract top-tier stars as leads.  This is not denigrate the fine folks who take the lead roles in TV shows, but the simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of TV shows are unable to buy name recognition.  Instead, they must create their own.

Most people are able to think of people who got their start in television (George Clooney, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michael Cera, etc.).  But if you ask people to name the most popular stars, most, if not all, will be movie stars.  As such, there must some hook other than name recognition that shows can use to get viewers.  That hook is the show’s premise.  The gimmick, if you will.  Quite simply, it’s cheaper to pay a writer to be more creative than it is to hire, say, Denzel Washington.

Second, television itself is not particularly conducive to getting into role immediately.  Producers have to work with second-tier actors, and they have to work on a very tight time-frame.  A twenty-two episode season is filmed in eleven months, which means that the average episode is filmed in two weeks’ time.  Most movies take at least a month to film, and many take far longer.  It’s easier to get into character when you have more time to do so.  Thus, most TV actors don’t have enough time in the beginning to get comfortable in their roles.

Third, the nature of the television show format makes sustaining gimmicks long-term nearly impossible.  Trying to figure which exotic disease a patient has, week after week, is simply unsustainable long-term.  Not all illnesses are difficult to diagnose, and very few masquerade as different illnesses.  Thus, the sheer improbability of House’s plot makes it impossible to replicate believably week after week.

What can happen, however, is that Greg House matures as a character, and grows more three-dimensional.  When this happens, writers can focus more on House, and help fans relate to him.  Thus, after six seasons of House, fans are finally getting a glimpse at what makes House tick, at what makes him so flawed, at what motivates him.

At this point, it has become apparent that House’s misanthropy is motivated by fear.  He’s a perfectionist, and fears failure, even though he pretends otherwise.  His assholery, then, belies his fear of failure.  He doesn’t let people get close, because he’s afraid that he will screw things up if they become friends.

And this is the way it should be.  Are there really that many House fans that wish they learned more about diseases and less about House?  And this is true of all shows, or at least the ones that last.  Fans become attached to characters, and want to know more about them.  This requires writers to either ditch the premise that made the show in the first place, or to caricaturize it to the point of self-parody.

This isn’t a bad thing, either.  Ultimately, viewers want to “know” a character.  They want to be plugged in to the human experience, to the camaraderie, to the experience.  Sure, crime scene technology is cool, but people want to know why someone chooses to become a crime scene technician.  People want to feel the nobility of purpose.  And so, all good gimmicks must come to an end.


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§ 2 Responses to Character Development

  • rachelnico says:

    Its so true and it makes me mad that no matter how annoyed I am with my television show, I keep on watching! That’s what I was like with Buffy, I think when they introduced a new character (Buffy’s sister Dawn) under the guise of a character that has always been there, it was obvious that they were stretching their resources, or as you said, the writers had to ‘ditch the premise that made the show in the first place.’

    I think the only thing that will let me abandon a show I fell in love with at the begining due to it’s creativity is when it becomes overly commercial and popular to the point that everyone starts watching it and talking about it(The OC, Gossip Girl, etc) because I no longer feel special that I watch it … not that it matters, I guess that’s just pretension.

    Some shows that are horribly predictable or popular that I will never get over are Arrested Development, Trueblood, Californication, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mad Men, Community, Breaking Bad and Dexter.

    PS. Although I rarely watch House, I find the main actor to be quite talented with his fake American accent … then again, I guess all non-American Hollywood actors are required to be great with accents.

  • Simon Grey says:

    I feel the same way about AD. I have all three seasons on DVD and just keep cycling through them. I’m still a little upset that they canceled the show.

    Anyway, it’s not too pretentious to hate a show that becomes super popular. I gave up on CSI when it got big because the show became easily predictable. I think it’s due to the nature of TV programming. Networks let shows take more chances initially because they need the gimmick to draw viewers, but once the shows get viewers, they need their audience to grow, so execs expect shows to become more mainstream in writing and delivery so as to increase appeal (and, more importantly, revenue).


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