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?