Weekly Insanity

Good sitcom characters are likeably insane. The television industry is very careful with its money, preferring long-running franchises to succinct, original storytelling. This means that sitcoms are populated with characters who generally will not change week to week. We want to count on Diane Chambers to act intellectual, Michael Scott to be inappropriate, Sheldon Cooper to be a difficult genius, and these characters have to get into the same kinds of problems every week.

I’m using Einstein’s definition of insanity here – each week these characters do the same things but expect different results. Characters are usually coloured with at least one type of mania. Their obsessions and blind spots serve as the engine of their adventures. Real personal growth in any of these characters alters the dramatic dynamic of the show, which is why if there are any major character changes, they usually happen after the first season (often redundant characters are written out and where the dynamism is weak new ones are written in or roles shift).

In Modern Family, for example, Cam and Mitchell each are foils. Cam is full of flair and fabulousness while Mitchell is the neurotic, nervous type. Each week they are afraid of getting caught being who they are and they usually lie to avoid awkward situations. These awkward situations each week resolve in reconciliation and life goes on as usual. But each week they make the same mistakes. They never learn, never become less fabulous or nervous, things don’t get better or worse for them.

Because television needs to generate stories dependably, fictional characters need their blind spots. A conscientious character would stop getting into trouble while a slightly insane character provides more dramatic latitude, more comedic opportunity and a more consistent viewing experience.

If these characters were friends of ours we would be frustrated they keep getting into the same trouble. Unless, of course, we were stuck in a complimentary pattern of enabling.

While sitcom characters are generally unrealistic. Of course there are plenty of people in the world who do make the same mistakes every week. None of us fix all our mistakes, but some people are particularly bad. Enter reality television.

The reason shows like Jersey Shore are compelling is that they actually do feature insane people who seem to learn nothing from their experiences. They repeat mistakes ad nauseum. In fact, these people don’t seem to notice their mistakes at all. If every week you get drunk and get into a fight, I must assume it is because you want to get drunk and fight. In which case I don’t like you.

The challenge for sitcoms is to make characters insane while remaining likeable. Jack Donaughy, super-Republican of 30 Rock, pursued corporate and social domination every week but remained hilarious. By contrast Leslie Knope, political nerd of Parks and Recreation, ran out of steam after the first season and has grown consistently more erratic to keep us entertained.

Every week we can count on Sterling Archer (Archer) to get the job done while bagging girls and killing spies, and because the character is a fresh iteration of an old archetype, we don’t get bored. Reagan Brinkley from Up All Night started as an ambitious TV producer, and when she decided to stay home with her child the show fell apart, both creator Emily Spivey and star Christina Applegate left, and the show now hangs in limbo.

The insanity is just a matter of personal taste. Give me someone with my own brand of insanity and I’ll watch. If the insanity mirrors some of the mania I have in my own life, it will resonate and I’ll tune in to vicariously experience my own passions and paranoia play out every week.

Even better is to watch shows with dynamic and nuanced characters. Have you seen Breaking Bad yet?

Stephen King’s “The Stand” vs. Ricky Gervais’s Athiesm

I just read The Stand by Stephen King and it impressed me as a well-crafted contemporary novel. Having read almost no Stephen King I had almost no expectations. But hearing the popular opinion that it is his magnum opus, I thought it might shed some light on my own writing.

The Stand is well executed technically. The way he sets the story up is compelling – it starts in the middle of a super-flu epidemic and offers enough dramatic action to carry the introduction of a wide cast of characters. Like a Yahtzee throw, there’s a good chance I’ll want to stick with at least one of these characters. One hundred pages in the story-engines are revved and there’s a lot of machinery in motion. It’s written in a thoughtful voice that isn’t over-sophisticated. It’s easy to read.

Whereas many long books can meander during the second act, Book 2 of The Stand is a great piece of writing. When the immediate viral threat to our heroes dies down, we’re quickly thrust into a survival situation offering food for thought for all tastes. The questions of civilization rise up from ancient history and we think fundamentally about society, politics, law, love, comfort and all the rest we take for granted living in a stable situation.

But here’s where The Stand let me down. [Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Stand, which came out in the seventies, and you’re just about to read it now and will be pissed if I spoil something, skip down to “I’m no Objectivist”.] The forces of antagonism through the book reach climax much earlier than our heroes are ready to deal with them. By the time our heroes get to Las Vegas, Flagg’s powers are already on the decline. And although Flagg still has enough evil magic to overpower our guys, the climax is deflated and unsatisfying because as readers we already have a sense that Flagg’s time is drawing to a close. With all the intricate set up in the first 66.6% of the book, I wanted more of a bloodbath at the end, firstly, and a more concrete resolution to the arc of each character. Instead what we get is a sterile explosion, viewed from afar, that kills heroes and villains alike.

I am also unsatisfied with the good/evil dichotomy presented throughout the book. Aristotle’s two-valued logic is faulty and naive. Nothing in life is absolutely good or absolutely evil except perhaps in our own imaginations. Understandably King wants us to feel we’re on the side of the “good”. But do “good” characters go out in search of violent confrontation as these heroes do? Their idea of a preemptive strike against Flagg reminds me of the illegal American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not a fan.

But the major criticism I have with The Stand is that for all their politicking, civilizing, and good intentions to re-boot, the intrinsic problems of humanity creep back in and our heroes win the day by submission to Divine Providence. And in the end, it will all happen again. All well and good in a religious, “it’s all meant to be,” kind of way, but as a writer and a human, I want my characters to take a more proactive position and I want some kind of change from beginning to end. I believe the phrase is “God helps those who help themselves.” The way to an exciting climax is not to let characters just give up and submit to whatever is coming.

Novels must offer some glimpse into the mind of the artist. But if Stephen King’s message is that in order to win we should lie down and accept what’s coming, I disagree with the thesis of the novel. Then again, if Stephen King didn’t have a theme or point in mind, was in fact telling a meaningless story, then the book is as culturally significant as a Sudoku puzzle. I doubt this is the case.

I’m no Objectivist, but I agree with Ayn Rand that the will to make one’s own destiny is a good ideal, and to eschew mediocrity and complacency is helpful to society. Most of our great geniuses from Buddha to Einstein saw a gap in the world and filled it with their own brand of intellect; they went against convention to rise above.

Objectivism, and the outspoken atheism of people like Ricky Gervais, rub me the wrong way. It rubs me just as wrong as outspoken missionaries trying to spread their version of religion among “heathens”. If atheists tell me not to believe in God, they are not motivating me to think for myself, they are motivating me to think like they do. Outspoken atheism is simply the negative form of religious fanaticism (fascism).

But Atheism does have this positive effect: the message that we shouldn’t wait for heaven after we die, that we shouldn’t wait for God to come down after death to redeem our lives, motivates us to make the most of our waking hours and work hard. Hard work is something I can definitely get behind, and I know hard work is something Ricky Gervais can get behind. Hell, Stephen King writes 2000 words a day so I know he can get behind it too. We should all work hard to shape the lives we want. Obviously. My ideal novel won’t get written by anyone but me.

There is also this facet of the argument: I’d take laughter over horror most days. For that reason I’m declaring Ricky Gervais the winner of this battle-between-two-completely-unrelated-things. Besides, you can likely watch BBC’s The Office in less time than it will take you to read The Stand.

Thanks for reading this piece of tangential writing and I hope you appreciated that despite it’s strange structure, it had a point. Now get back to work.