Monday, March 10, 2014

Why do we like hateful characters?


Well, first off, we don’t like them all. Lots of anti-hero shows like RAKE are dying a horrible death. Networks are generally wary of dislikeable characters because they tend to test through the floor. And it’s important that you care about characters for a show to work. If you don’t give a shit what happens to them you’re not going to invest your time.

So why do them?

Because they’re interesting.

It’s a trend that comes and goes. Forty years ago we loved Archie Bunker and those kooky Corleones, and thirty years ago we cheered on J.R. Ewing. I suspect the trend really reignited with debut of THE SOPRANOS. Tony Soprano was clearly a monster, but he was so fascinating and complex that he drew us all into his world. Don Draper on MAD MEN was another. Walter White became America’s chemist. Vic Mackey brought new meaning to good cop/bad cop. And who can forget everybody’s favorite serial killer, DEXTER?

Evil characters create drama and suspense. They stir up the pot. They surprise us. They make choices that we wouldn’t make.  They say things we'd like to say.  They cut through the bullshit (or create their over own).  Their worldview is different. It’s fun to watch them operate. Sometimes you actually root for them, and other times you can’t wait for them to get theirs. And on certain rare occasions you do both. Seriously, who holds your interest more – Anna from DOWNTON ABBEY or Claire from HOUSE OF CARDS?

Several things have to come together for the anti-hero to work. First off, the writing. The character has to not just be interesting but jump off the page. Otherwise he’s Snidely Whiplash. He must be layered. It’s nice if he’s a little conflicted, or has a horrible mother, or once gave a dollar to Jerry’s Kids. Will he be a good little league coach or teach the kids how to make Meth?

Second, and maybe most important, you must get a great actor to play him/her. With all due respect, Kevin James as Tony Soprano wouldn’t work. If someone other than Greg Kinnear was playing Rake, that show might have had a chance. In the case of HOUSE OF CARDS, Kevin Spacey is always a delicious villain, whatever his accent, but the real revelation is Robin Wright as Claire. Her portrayal of Claire Underwood is chilling and mesmerizing. Princess Butterc**t.

And finally, the timing has to be right. You could never do THE SOPRANOS on a network. David Chase tried. Premium cable companies just happened to be looking for alternatives to network dramas when Chase peddled his offbeat Mafia show. Same with HOUSE OF CARDS and Netflix. CBS was looking to shake-up their comedy roster of rural GREEN ACRES-type shows when ALL IN THE FAMILY fell into their lap. Try pitching that the year they bought GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.

Audiences also have to be in a place where they’re willing to go along on rides with evil characters. Tony Soprano was a refreshing alternative to CSI: FILL IN THE BLANK. Frank Underwood arrived at a time when collectively we couldn’t be more cynical about politics. Good luck selling HOUSE OF CARDS during the Reagan Era.

Television comedy has produced few great anti-heroes. I wish we had more.  Archie Bunker and Kenny Powers from EASTBOUND & DOWN would be two. Maybe the funniest dumb comic character since Gracie Allen is Dewey Crow from JUSTIFIED. But for my money, the best (meaning the worst) and the most hilarious is Dabney Coleman’s BUFFALO BILL from the early ‘80s. I don’t know if it’s streaming anywhere, but you can get the DVD’s. The show was created by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses and is not only funny, it’s fearless and wildly inventive. Here’s just a sample.

God, what I wouldn’t give to hear Claire Underwood sing “The Bitch is Back..”

63 comments:

Pat Reeder said...

Can't believe you didn't mention "House, MD." For my money, both the best drama and the best comedy on TV for several years, with the most fascinating and entertaining SOB lead character. The fact that Hugh Laurie never won an Emmy for that role is just the latest example of how pointless the Emmys have become.

Anonymous said...

Ken, thanks for mentioning "Buffalo Bill." An utterly overlooked classic, centered around Dabney Coleman's brilliant portrait of a self-absorbed lout. Hilarious and so outside the boundaries in its time.

B.B. Callow said...

The British seem to have had the knack for creating despicable yet endearing sitcom characters well before Americans took to them.

"Fawlty Towers", "Father Ted", "Black Adder" and "Steptoe and Son" to name just a few. I believe even All in the Family was a retooling of a British comedy called "Till Death Do Us Part".

Curt Alliaume said...

This is better than my sitcom theory (nearly every situation comedy cast I can remember has either an idiot, an asshole, or a kid).

Kate said...

Then there's Two and a Half Men, which has all three. And each character is all three.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I'll throw in my vote for Walton Goggins, playing Boyd Crowder on Justified. Any scene he is in really crackles. Running a close second would be Margo Martindale, who played the best head of a crime family since Tony Soprano.

Rob said...

Carla Tortelli.

Roger R. said...

Jay Tarses also created "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" - the original (and better) "Sex in the City".

I've always been praying that he might have another trick up his sleeve but he seems to have vanished.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Alan Partridge! "That was classic intercourse. So thanks."

Grump said...

Why the "Rake" hate? I usually can't stand lawyer shows but I like it lot. Mainly because of G.K.

normadesmond said...

yes, claire underwood does have
charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent.

Anonymous said...

The original version of House of Cards - Ian Richardson as Francis Uruquat - pure evil, purely delightful. Blows Kevin Spacey (who I thank is great) out of the water.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for getting the "Hit the road, Jack" video. I'd always heard it was not available for rights reasons and that it wasn't in the boxed set. Has that been cleared up? Is it now available or was this just some internet find? Am I wrong but didn't they also do a great "Attack of the Jerry Lewis's" on the show, too? Buffalo Bill was always one of my favorites and Dabney Coleman perfected the nasty character creation without the creme-filling.

Anonymous said...

Most anti-heroes are appealing because they operate in a world just as or even more corrupt then they are. For exceptions like House, we forgive them because what they are doing is ultimately noble (saving lives).

tim said...

Buffalo Bill. My wife and I loved it and therfore knew it could not last long

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"Networks are generally wary of dislikeable characters because they tend to test through the floor."

Really? Because I've heard just the opposite, I've heard that networks actually keep wanting more and more straight-up unlikable characters, because apparently, they're more, "Believable" and, "Relatable" as opposed to characters who may be flawed in some way, yet still have redeeming qualities.

tim said...

Buffalo Bill Bittinger: Michael Scott without the sweet side.

Mike Barer said...

The character "love to hate" Louie from Taxi and Dan Fielding from Night Court are two of my favorites.

Mike Barer said...

Then there was Gerard on the Fugitive who stood for the right things but was the adverse character.

Brian Fies said...

John Fiedler! Loved him, and forgot he'd done "Buffalo Bill." On topic, he did play a villain once: the lovable voice of Piglet was Jack the Ripper on "Star Trek."

Seconding "House MD," the only SOB you'd want on your mysterious malady.

My take on "Rake" is the opposite of yours: I think Greg Kinnear brings charm and inherent likeability to the part. His Rake always seems like he means well. Anyone else would be insufferable.

McAlvie said...

I can see why writers love a good anti-hero. As you said, they'd be a lot more interesting to write for. But as a viewer, I don't care for them much. The real world has enough of that type that I have to deal with on a regular basis.

I don't see Archie Bunker as an anti-hero, by the way. He certainly had a cart load of faults and flaws, but was mostly a product of his generation who was having a lot of trouble adjusting to changing times. Archie rarely won, but we rooted for him anyway because it was him against his daughter and son-in-law, and they were just annoying.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

craig m said...

Didn't Buffalo Bill once take a swipe at Cheers with a backhanded compliment? If I remember right, Bill was listing what he found funny and he said "The first season of 'Cheers'." If that did happen (and my memory is hazy), how did the Cheers team react to it?

Victoria said...

USC just posted the schedule of classes for the fall and it's got 404 on it again. Will you be back? I had a scheduling conflict last year, but I really wanted to take the class!

BigTed said...

First lady Mellie on "Scandal" is the most delightful character on TV right now. Seriously, I feel about her the way Annie Hall's young Alvy felt about the Wicked Queen in "Snow White."

I think it's unfortunate that the show has recently given her a back story that explains her political Machiavellianism and coldness toward her husband -- they should just let her be nasty for the fun of it. (Maybe the producers think audiences won't accept a female character who's just plain bad.)

benson said...

@Anonymous the First

You might very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment. LOL

It was funny running across a Grey Poupon commercial with Ian Richardson via You Tube, too.

Courtney said...

Thanks also for name-checking Kenny Powers. A wickedly well-coonceived (and written-for) characterization that deserves more attention than it got...

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,
Great post today. I've thought that for a comedy to work you have to like the characters even if they're not the most upstanding of citizens (i.e.-Married w/Children, Always Sunny in Philadelphia) Comedies don't work if the lead kills people, hurts animals or robs banks. Usually. For dramas, it's different. I've watched everything from The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Boardwalk Emp, Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Mad Men, Damages, Weeds, (haven't watched House of Cards yet) and if the lead character is unsavory, for some strange reason, the audience will empathize with him. Some of the time. I wasn't a psych major so I don't know the reason behind this phenomenon. It just is. Who didn't "root" for Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey or Walter White? I'd like to hear some other commenters on this. -LL

Question Mark said...

Don't forget the Seinfeld gang on the list of notable TV anti-heroes. (Though, given the criticisms of the finale, it seemed like a lot of the audience didn't realize they were watching and rooting for anti-heroes until the very end.)

DBenson said...

W.C. Fields in bunco man mode, as opposed to oppressed family man mode.

Johnny Walker said...

This is the first clip of Buffalo Bill I've ever seen. It was actually pretty arresting from the first moment. What a performer Dabney Coleman is, and the supporting cast seemed perfect, too.

Added to the list.

One thing: Despite what the YouTube video description claims, the segment was excised because of (as you might expect) music licensing issues. Ray Charles's version of "Hit the Road Jack" is probably not very cheap!

Johnny Walker said...

Hmm. I guess it would be too much to hope that the canned laughter has been removed for the DVD? :)

D. McEwan said...

"Good luck selling HOUSE OF CARDS during the Reagan Era."

The novel and original TV series came out in 1989, tripping on the tail of the departing Reagan Era, during the first Bush era, which means the book and original series were pitched during the final months of the Reagan Era.

Part of my problem with the American version is that they made Underwood a Democrat. Francis Urquart was a CONSERVATIVE!A MARGARET THATCHER CONSERVATIVE!

Michael Dobbs had been a member of Thatcher's government staff and saw the corruption and evil of the right wing first hand. Francis Urquart was the ultimate conservative.

By making Frank Underwood a Democrat, they have betrayed the source material in an effort to bring in conservative viewers also. This story, about how evil the Right Wing is, has been perverted into an "All politicians are corrupt, the Left is as bad as the Right" screed inimical to its source material, instead of remaining the expose of the Evil of the Right-Wing that it was originally intended to be.

And of course, Claire Underwood is a fascinatiing character. She was back when Shakespeare first created her and named her "Lady MacBeth." (Dobbs is very open that Mrs. Urquart is Lady MacBeth in late 20th Century drag.)

D. McEwan said...

I loved Buffalo Bill and watched it regularly during its all-too-brief original run. My friend Martine Beswicke played a transexual in the episode. Has to be the only show that would ever cast the vivacious Martine as a man. (At 71, Martine is still a stunning beauty.)

Stoney said...

Ten years before Dr. Gregory House there was Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on "Chicago Hope".

Hey...what about Frank Burns?

Stoney said...

This piece got me to thinking about the "Television Code" adopted by the National Association of Broadcasters back when the medium was just starting.

From Wikipedia: The code prohibited the use of profanity, the negative portrayal of family life, irreverence for God and religion, illicit sex, drunkenness and addiction, presentation of cruelty, detailed techniques of crime, the use of horror for its own sake, and the negative portrayal of law enforcement officials, among others.

The code was suspended in 1983.

Just sayin!

KG said...

Hi, Ken.

For your Friday questions: what do you think about people who say that they wont watch a show anymore because their favorite actor has left the show, got fired etc. ?

Can you understand their hurt feelings or do you think they are silly?

Greetings, Kaan

Anonymous said...

Matt LeBlanc as himself in "Episodes" is another example, but done humorously.

MrEd said...

I immediately thought of Walter White on Breaking Bad. What really made him interesting was to see how low he would go. He went from a somewhat goofy high school teacher to completely despicable sociopath. If I did find myself rooting for him, I had to take a moment to collect myself and rethink. But you had to laugh at the Heisenberg get-up. He looked like what a nerdy high school teacher would think a bad-ass would look like. Heh.

Mike Schryver said...

This is the biggest reason I can't watch many of the current dramas. There has to be some joy, somewhere, for me to get involved.

And I agree with McAlvie that Archie Bunker wasn't a completely unlikable character. He was pretty carefully written, I think, to always believe he was doing the right thing, and as has been said, he was trying to deal with a changing world. When he met up with the KKK, admittedly later in the series, he would have nothing to do with them.

And the show AITF was based on is
called TILL DEATH US DO PART.

Kat said...

I have never seen the US version of Rake but the original (?) Australian version with Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver is fantastic... Perfect casting!

Jake Mabe said...

Archie Bunker and J.R. Ewing are my two favorites. Whenever I get sick, I put in DVDs of "All In The Family" or "Dallas" and laugh my ass off.

As someone pointed out, Archie was carefully written. You could tell that he was doing the best that he could, given his lack of education and his upbringing. He was quite the human character.

J.R. was just a cartoonish big ball (or gushing oil well) of fun. The best part of that show was watching him in action. I've only watched one episode of the current TNT reboot's third season. I just can't do "Dallas" without Larry Hagman's J.R.

Here's something submitted for your approval (with apologies to Rod Serling): Would Charles Emerson Winchester III be considered an anti-hero, Ken? This can be a Friday question or not.

My careful, tentative answer is yes. Charles was an ass. A snob. A shithead. But under all that upper-crust Boston blubber was a heart of gold.

I watched the episode just the other day in which he takes such an interest in the wounded GI with a stutter. At the end of the show we learn why -- because of his sister Honoria. That episode moves me to tears every time.

I'd really be interested in your take on that, Ken. I know you and David didn't write that episode, but you spent some time with Winchester. Would be great to get your take.

SharoneRosen said...

I just LOVED Buffalo Bill! He was so irredeemably horrible! I tell people about it and no one seems to remember it. And that clip of Hit the Road Jack is one of the funniest pieces of TV comedy ever.

Somewhere, I have that on VHS...

Looking at the great shows other people have posted about. We have been blessed with some great meanies over the years.

Paul said...

I came here to comment, then saw that B.B. Callow said what I was going to say. British comedies have been doing it for decades. I'll also through Bernard Black from "Black Books" in that mix. Brilliantly misanthropic character from the creator of "Father Ted."

Paul said...

"throw" for goodness sakes. I'm usually better than that, I promise.

Cap'n Bob said...

As the cliche says, the villains have all the good lines.

That Television Code sounds exactly like the Comics Code, but the Comics Code also has a proscription against showing with with exaggerated body parts.

Democrats aren't as corrupt as Republicans? Thanks for the laugh.

Jeff Baldwin said...

Have you considered that party affiliation is immaterial to the american version of house of cards? I've watched both seasons and can honestly say that i dont think the show at all explores democrat v republican ideologies. That isn't what it's about anyway.

Ed from South Bend said...

A well-crafted villain is a lynchpin of great theater.

I always think of the Bond movies in this. Pretty much, the better the villain, the better the Bond movie.
Skyfall is a notable exception.

Something that is rarely noted: Archie was proven correct about Mike (Meathead).

For many Star Trek: Next Generation fans, John de Lancie's "Q" was a pure delight who provoked fantastic existential questions.



Barry Traylor said...

Ken, your mention of Justified and the character of Dewey Crowe as played by Damon Herriman he is a delight to watch as that character. He also played a cold blooded hit man on the short lived series Vegas. I was surprised to learn that Herriman is Australian.

Ellen said...

Buffalo Bill was brilliantly funny. So glad I'm not the only one who remembers it.

And thanks for sharing your thoughts on anti-heroes. I'm going to send this one around.

Hamid said...

No character, anti-hero or otherwise, comes close to the brilliance of JR Ewing and Larry Hagman's flawless performance. JR was a joy to watch and I always rooted for him. The producers knew they were onto a good thing, which is why they kept giving the character the best one liners.

No one could deliver a razor edged insult better than Larry Hagman. I love this compilation of some of his best quotes as JR:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZV3365a7Ew

Stephen Robinson said...

JAKE: What I liked about Charles Winchester was that he was as flawed as Hawkeye and BJ and also as noble. He waa a real person. Frank, though I enjoyed him, was a cartoon with no positives. Frank was incompetent, but Charles was brilliant and arguably superior to Hawkeye. The Frank/Charles shift was so great that it even wound up changing Margaret, as well.

Charles is someone I look to when writing characters because I like to avoid having "good guys who are right" and "bad guys who are wrong." There are probably people we know, especially in the workplace, who are decent family people but you just don't get along with them for whatever reason. That is a source for great tension.

Charles, like the less noble Doctor House, was a physician who saved lives. You get a lot of leeway if your unlikeable character saves a kid's life once a week.

RCP said...

Another thing about Archie Bunker: The fact that someone as good as Edith would marry and continue to love him indicated from the start that beneath his obnoxious bluster was a good man. Both the writers and Carroll O'Connor can be credited with allowing Archie's decent side to emerge often enough to prevent his becoming a one-dimensional clown, while maintaining enough of an edge to reflect the ugliness of ignorance.

Cap'n Bob: The 'each side is as bad as the other' argument doesn't wash: money has corrupted both parties, but the GOP has become the all-time champ of political corruption.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Of course, one reason we like hateful characters is that they are played by talented actors with great charm whom we *do* like.

wg

chuckcd said...

Love James Spader in The Blacklist.

thirteen said...

You mentioned Dabney Coleman, of course, in connection with Buffalo Bill, but my first thought was of The Slap Maxwell Story from 1987-88, another Tarses series with an anti-hero in the lead.

Gary Benz said...

So glad you mentioned Buffalo Bill. Dabney Coleman in his prime could have played the lead in House of Cards. Great writing but pulled off well by Coleman. But that showed, which I still watch on DVD from time to time, proved your overall point about audiences not liking anti-heroes. Bill was such a despicable guy that audiences just wouldn't rally around him. I think audiences today would be more accepting of the show.

Steve Mc said...

Surely the issue is not whether a character, in drama, is likeable, its whether a character is compelling. And that's about stakes - that character is sufficiently layered that we see they have something to lose. Walter White is compelling because they set up a dilemma which anyone can relate to, which spirals out of his control to the point where he becomes his own worst enemy. That's compelling. Funnily enough, I'm never sure how much is at stake for Frank Underwood, other than his own ambition, so as much fun as he is to watch, is he lacking depth as a character?

If a character is likeable and compelling, its gold dust. If a character is likeable but not compelling, they become dull very quickly.

Jake Mabe said...

STEPHEN ROBINSON: I couldn't have said it better myself re: Winchester. Which is one of many reasons why I'm a proud member of the minority group that prefers the last six or seven or so seasons of "M*A*S*H" to the first four or five.

Well done, sir. Thank you for the points to ponder.

Mike Barer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Barer said...

John Ross on the new Dallas is well played, every once in a while, he fools you into thinking he has some decency, just like the JR Ewing character.

D. McEwan said...

:"Ed from South Bend said...
I always think of the Bond movies in this. Pretty much, the better the villain, the better the Bond movie.
Skyfall is a notable exception."


How is Skyfall an exception to the Better-the-villian-the-better-the-Bond-Movie rule? It was a terrific Bond movie and it had a great villain. Seems to me to be a prime example of the rule at work, quite the reverse of an exception.

Pete Grossman said...

Man! I haven't seen this since it was originally broadcast! Thanks for posting! Brilliant!