Let’s have some more Casey now. He’s clearly been up to something while Barbara’s been fiddling with Whiteboard.
One of my toes has a huge bruise on it, and I can’t figure out why. The plot thickens.
Let’s have some more Casey now. He’s clearly been up to something while Barbara’s been fiddling with Whiteboard.
One of my toes has a huge bruise on it, and I can’t figure out why. The plot thickens.
I’m authoring an online course on fairy tales at the moment. Last week, I wrote the heroes module. I kind of love doing the heroes unit in a fairy-tale course because the students absolutely don’t expect the content.
Go up to someone on the street and ask that person to describe a fairy-tale hero. Seven out of ten people will say something about a handsome prince; the remaining three may bring up the Beast from Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin from, well, Aladdin. It is worth noting that by the ends of these Disney movies, the Beast and Aladdin have become, well, handsome princes. We don’t really have any other kind of fairy-tale hero any more. Every once in a while, a rogue with a heart of gold turns up. There’s also Shrek, but Shrek did start off as a deliberate deconstruction. If the handsome prince weren’t already regarded as the norm, Shrek wouldn’t work as a character.
I tell my students that the Disney films constitute a continuation of the storytelling tradition in filmic form and in a twentieth- and twenty-first-century American context, and I do actually believe that. However, I also believe that the almost universal association of Disney and fairy tales has caused us to lose a lot of rich material, which has been shunted aside for a very few stories with some very definite messages. This has all been observed before, of course. Volumes have been written on what the whole “Disney princess” thing has done to the brains of little girls. But also worth noting is that the concentration on princesses has obscured the vast amount of fairy-tale material out there, much of it not concentrating on princesses at all.
I could say a lot about stories in which the female characters actually did stuff. There are plenty of those. Yet today, I think I shall take a look at the heroes instead, simply because we tend to treat them as if they don’t exist. Disney has turned fairy tales into stories about girls dreaming of meeting pretty boys and living happily ever after. Those pretty boys have become our fairy-tale heroes. In the source stories, the pretty boys are mainly prizes for the heroines; many of them do very little. If you want heroes, you have to go to stories with male protagonists, which, conversely, tend to involve princesses only as prizes.
What can be said about fairy-tale heroes? Well…generally, they’re jerks. Don’t get me wrong: so are fairy-tale heroines. Most fairy-tale characters are jerks. It’s how they survive. The heroes tend to be underprivileged, sometimes to the extreme. They’re usually youngest sons. The rich ones are still regarded as useless because they have older brothers; the poor ones often spend all their time sitting in the ashes, pretending to be stupid. When the crisis comes, the older brothers are going to try and fail, whereapon the simpleton youngest brother, all covered with grime and never having worked a day in his life, will stroll in with a magic axe and win the princess without trying. That stereotype about heroes being good and kind and generous? Yeah, right. They’re assholes. They rescue princesses only if there’s something in it for them. A lot of the time, the princess doesn’t even need to be rescued; she’s just sitting on top of a glass hill waiting for a bunch of random knights to ride up and get her because her father has never heard of such concepts as “courtship.”
And then there are the real tricksters: the heroes who wander into the Other World and immediately start murdering giants. In many fairy tales, giants exist solely so they can be murdered by trickster heroes. The heroes tend to be kind of small and weak, so they’ll often just get the giants to murder each other. Occasionally, they get the giants to murder their own children. Heroines sometimes get in on this sort of thing too, but the heroes really go to town on those giants. If there aren’t any giants around, there are always the witches. The more subtle heroes treat the giants and the witches carefully and end up with supernatural goodies that they can use later in their stories, but the trickster heroes just go, “Hey, there’s a giant. I think I’ll trick him into strangling his seven daughters.” It’s all good clean fun.
If these guys run out of giants and witches, they tend to start in on their neighbours. A common trick is to fool the neighbours into murdering their grandmothers. Heroes are really all about the murdering. If I were in a fairy tale and had a choice between encountering a hero and the devil, I’d pick the devil every time. He has rules; the hero doesn’t.
Of course, it may not be his fault. A lot of heroes are born after their mothers accidentally sleep with: a) trolls, b) bears, c) elves, or d) bulls. Some women accidentally ingest bird poop that apparently has the power to impregnate them. It occasionally goes the other way around: a human man will impregnate a cow or a female troll. And every once in a while, someone just makes a colossally stupid wish, such as, “I would give anything to have a child, even if it were a hedgehog.” Take a look at the Grimm Brothers’ “Hans-My-Hedgehog” if you think I’m making that up. Hans annoys everyone he knows, demands his father buy him bagpipes, tortures and disfigures his first wife, and eventually lives happily ever after with a girl who spends the first part of their relationship terrified of him.
Oh…you thought these guys found true love? Ah ha ha ha. Silly mortals…fairy tales aren’t about true love. The Grimms made their fairy tales all nice and moral for little children, but what counted as “all nice and moral” two hundred years ago is not what counts as “all nice and moral” now. The Grimms’ story “The Brave Little Tailor” ends with the titular character tricking his way into marriage to a princess who is not at all pleased with him and tries to have him kidnapped. When that fails because the tailor uses his Intimidating Voice, they just stay married. Whenever mention of “true love” turns up in a fairy tale, odds are it has been inserted by a transcriber who feels that he or she has to justify all those princesses being handed out to peasant boys like candy.
I’m not complaining, incidentally. These heroes are far more interesting than the Disney princes, who ride around waving their little decorative swords and being good and kind and generous and very, very boring. When we come across characters who resemble fairy-tale heroes nowadays, we generally call them “anti-heroes” and imply that they’re contradicting thousands of years’ worth of stalwart heroes fighting for the Forces of Good. In reality, many of our anti-heroes can’t hold a candle to the murdering, princess-stealing bastards who gleefully pillage their way through our fairy tales. I guess it isn’t all that surprising that Disney leaves these guys alone.
On Friday, it was revealed that Dan Harmon, the showrunner of the struggling but critically acclaimed NBC sitcom Community, had been fired by Sony and replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port, two consulting producers on the ABC sitcom Happy Endings. Admittedly, this is not a world-changing issue that will bring Western civilisation crashing to its knees, but some elements of what has happened are still worth discussing because of what they tell us about some pretty problematic trends in television. These are not new trends; their pervasive nature is part of what bothers me.
Some aspects of the Harmon ouster should probably be discussed by someone eventually, if they haven’t been already: for instance, the devaluing of the work’s creator (Community is pretty specifically Harmon’s baby), the debate as to whether Harmon’s reputedly difficult behaviour justifies him getting the boot without consultation, and the issue of whether a generally good but struggling show should be forced to have wider appeal so that it can stay alive for a bit longer. These issues tend to come up sooner or later when Community is the subject at hand. I would like to take a slightly different angle—one that not many people have dealt with yet—by concentrating on Harmon’s replacements.
Harmon’s devoted online fans have had a lot to say about Sony’s little coup. However, when Guarascio and Port come up, the comments become rather cautious. Some people admit that they haven’t seen Happy Endings but have heard that it’s “quirky” and are glad the new showrunners do not, for instance, hail from the much more middle-of-the-road The Big Bang Theory. Others express trepidation that the choice means Community will become less geeky and odd. I do get the sense that relatively few Community viewers also watch Happy Endings. I watch both, not entirely by choice. Last term, I taught a course on television in which my students took on a home-viewing assignment for which they needed to choose their own shows to watch. Since several groups went with Happy Endings, I decided to work my way through its run. Descriptions of it online do generally contain the word “quirky”; they also imply that it’s a lot like Community in tone. The premise has potential: six good friends struggle to adapt after one of them leaves the other at the altar. I was cautiously optimistic about the show before I started the first episode.
I could say a lot about many aspects of Happy Endings, but that isn’t really my intention here. Instead, I would like to apply one concept to it as a demonstration of why I think the appointment of the new showrunners is even more of a step backward for Community than everyone is implying. In short, Happy Endings fails the Adjectival Complexity Test, which will hereafter be referred to as ACT. It actually goes beyond failing it. It kind of cuts it up into little pieces and then dances on the bits.
ACT, which I have invented just now, is a system for evaluating fictional characters. It can be applied to anything from Dora the Explorer to The Wire, and that’s just taking television into account. The premise is simple: any given character can, theoretically speaking, be described with a series of adjectives. ACT measures character complexity, which can be determined via how many adjectives are necessary for a complete, accurate description. The simplest “flat” character may need only one adjective. A slightly more nuanced but still flat character may require a string of adjectives. As a character becomes “rounder”—that is, more capable of change and development—a string of adjectives will become inadequate and give way to adjectival phrases, then complete sentences explaining motivations, back story, contradictory behaviour, and change through time. The most complex characters will need paragraphs.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with one-adjective characters in certain contexts. Many background characters will be one- or two-adjectivers. Some shows are populated entirely by such characters. I would argue that the series 24 contains mostly flat characters, and it works very well. Even the protagonist, Jack Bauer, can generally be characterised by the adjective “tough”; it’s one of the major reasons he has become so popular. You might add “patriotic,” “intelligent,” “rebellious,” and, in the final season, “vengeful,” but you really don’t need much more than that. Jack’s character arcs tend to be shallow, if not non-existent. Again, this is not a criticism; the show does exactly what it sets out to do. None of the characters is particularly well developed because the action is really what matters.
A show will often begin with one-adjective characters who eventually become more complex, not an uncommon strategy in fiction; it is useful to start with a set character type, then gradually add nuances to it. The sitcom How I Met Your Mother gives us “lovelorn” Ted, “commitment-shy” Robin, “womanising” Barney, “naive” Marshall, and “acerbic” Lily. Several seasons in, it is impossible to describe the characters with even just a few adjectives each. HIMYM is, in many ways, a fairly traditional sitcom, but it has some innovative aspects such as an unreliable narrator and an eventual slide from comedy to dramedy without reliance on the tradition of the Very Special Episode. The characters have grown. More importantly, the characters have grown at the same time. All of them started out as one-adjectivers, and all of them are now full-sentencers. Admittedly, the sentences are not very long. Though HIMYM does some neat stuff, it does not take it nearly as far as it could. It goes for the easy laughs. It chooses safety over innovation.
The Community characters are full-sentencers too, and the show almost invariably chooses innovation over safety. It’s one of my favourites, but I am capable of admitting it isn’t perfect. Its quality is uneven. When it’s good, which it frequently is, it’s transcendent; when it’s less good, it’s just sort of meh. The characters have grown and developed throughout, but they sometimes seem in danger of sliding into ruts. Of the seven protagonists, Pierce and Shirley have been neglected a bit, though I would argue that Shirley has had a lot of development this season and has gone from a several-adjectiver to a full-sentencer. The best thing about the Community characters is that they are not necessarily defined by their categories. One danger that ACT highlights is that the single adjective will be something like “black” or “gay” or “married” or “female” or “disabled” or “old.” Community mostly avoids such tokenism, despite—or, perhaps, because of—the fact that its cast is so diverse. The characters are individuals; what matters is not what they are but who they are. Community somehow manages to weave meaningful character growth into a continued, and often viciously clever, attempt to take the piss out of sitcoms in particular, television in general, and all forms and genres of fiction in really general.
Happy Endings, like How I Met Your Mother, begins with a series of one- and two-adjectivers. Dave is “wounded,” Alex is “confused,” Max is “gay” and “sarcastic,” Penny is “needy,” Brad is “married,” and Jane is “controlling.” To be fair, some of these adjectives fragment pretty quickly. Max’s sexuality, for instance, turns out not to be his defining attribute but simply a part of who he is, as with the sexualities of the other characters. Max is portrayed without the stereotypical attributes generally assigned to gay characters in American television shows, but conversely, his sexuality is not hidden either; he has a healthy sex life, and his friends discuss it with him as openly as he discusses their sexual escapades with them. Max develops throughout the show, eventually attaining full-sentencer status as he explores his fear of disappointing his parents, his inability to commit, his secret yearning for a long-term relationship, and his underlying common sense, which is masked by his sarcasm and apparent callousness. Dave and Brad follow suit. None of them, please understand, is likable—in fact, all six protagonists are reprehensible human beings who behave like entitled brats most of the time—but Max, Dave, and Brad are not without complexity. Attributes of naivete, arrogance, over-confidence, and a tendency towards the romantic emerge in Brad as the series continues. Dave’s initial hurt eventually gives way to determination, ingenuity, a need to get his life together, and a constant inability to do so. The three men demonstrate both positive and negative qualities; each is an individual who fits into more than a single category.
At the beginning of the show, as I said, Alex is “confused,” Penny is “needy,” and Jane is “controlling.” As the show continues, Alex is revealed as “stupid,” Penny as “needy,” and Jane as “controlling” and “manipulative.”
The problem with Happy Endings is not that the characters remain undeveloped. As I demonstrated with 24, some shows work well without character development; in fact, sitcoms are known for doing so. The real problem here is that one large category of characters—men—is allowed development, while another large category of characters—women—is not. Alex’s adjective changes, but that’s mostly because we get to know her better. Jane gains a second adjective once we have seen her in certain situations. Penny’s adjective remains the same throughout. Moreover, the adjectives that fit the women are all negative. All six characters are unlikable, but Max, Dave, and Brad have positive qualities, while Alex, Penny, and Jane don’t (or none strong enough to act as defining adjectives, at any rate). The best that can be said about them is that Alex and Penny are “cute,” and in Penny’s case, “cutesy” fits better; she is trying so hard to come across as cute that she makes herself repellent. Subtly, the men become the point-of-view characters, while the irrational, incomprehensible women are shrugged off.
The episode that really sums up the problematic nature of this discrepancy is called “The Kerkovich Way.” At the end of the preceding episode, Alex slept with Dave for the first time since their non-wedding. “The Kerkovich Way” begins with Dave telling Alex they need to talk about this. However, Alex says the encounter never happened; Dave dreamed or imagined it. Investigating further, Dave finds a lot of evidence that Alex is telling the truth, including Brad’s memories of watching a movie with Alex and Jane on the night in question. Brad confesses that he can’t quite remember watching the movie, but he has chronic problems with his memory, to the extent that he has to have regular MRIs. He points out that he even has popcorn stuck in his teeth, proving that the movie viewing took place. Dave eventually uncovers a crucial piece of evidence, and the truth comes out: Alex and Jane together made up the whole story and convinced Brad to believe them. Jane confesses that she does this sort of thing to Brad all the time and even went to the trouble of planting the popcorn between his teeth; she calls it the Kerkovich Way and claims it was invented by her grandmother.
The whole situation is presented as light and amusing instead of bloody freaking horrifying, considering that Jane habitually manipulates Brad into believing he has serious memory problems.* The Kerkovich sisters are even demonstrated to have manipulative behaviour in their very DNA. Ah, those womenfolk! Who could ever really understand them? Hyuck hyuck hyuck.
This attitude towards television writing is not uncommon; gender roles are pretty strictly delineated even in the otherwise fairly well written How I Met Your Mother, in which men who demonstrate stereotypically “female” traits are mocked, while women who demonstrate stereotypically “male” traits are praised. Some other sitcoms, such as Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, play on the assumption that gender creates personality. Happy Endings, however, is one of the worst I’ve seen outside shows from the 1950s. The show is a sort of nightmare rip-off of Friends and Coupling in which the male viewpoint is so strongly privileged that the female characters may as well paint their skin green and fly off, cackling, on broomsticks. It is “safe” in a much more ominous way than HIMYM is safe, as it implies not just that gender roles are inherent but that one gender is more worthy of attention and sympathy than the other, and it mines the inferior gender for as much condescending, contempt-based humour as it can. If Guarascio and Port have any meaningful influence over the content of Happy Endings, Community is truly going to be in trouble.
Dear Sony and NBC: screw the ratings. Screw the status quo. Screw appealing to the widest possible audience. Community is good TV. Happy Endings? Oh, hello, cultural hegemony. How very much I have missed you.
*Before you start upright in righteous indignation and cry, “But you used this very plot machination in your own comic!”, let me just say: yes, I did, and I presented it as appallingly cruel, a fact that was driven home by Marie when she pointed out to Casey that she had already been worried she was going crazy because of her confused and contradictory memories of her parents’ deaths, and his callous screwing with her wasn’t helping.
I just need more time to read fairy tales. WHY CAN’T ANYBODY GIVE ME THAT?
In the meantime, have some ranting from Barbara.
I often Rant about my long, futile struggle to find a computer that works and doesn’t hate me. I spend less time complaining about my problematic relationship with watches. I expect I’ve done a Rant on this relationship (or bits and pieces of it) at some point, but if so, it was long enough ago that an update may be in order, especially in light of recent development.
I’ve always been, for want of a better phrase, a “watch person.” I do remember stretches of my childhood during which I didn’t wear a watch, mainly because it was summer vacation and I didn’t need one. However, I did get my first watch when I was just a kid, and if you discount those summer vacations of yesteryear, I’ve worn one more or less steadily ever since. I love watches. Actually, I love clocks of all kinds. There’s something about the idea of this intricate machine full of delicate little cogs that just makes me happy. For that reason, my watches have rarely been digital. I know a lot of people can’t read clock faces any more–my students are often sheepishly puzzled when they ask me the time and I automatically show them my watch–but I prefer them. I think it may be because I’m one of those strange people who think of time as having a shape. When I picture the months of the year, for instance, I see them going around in a sort of wonky elipsis. The hours of the day have a shape too. The clock face mimics that shape. A digital clock is easier to read but divorces the sense of time from the sense of space.
Despite my fondness for watches, I have a hell of a time with them. I’ve owned a ridiculously large number of them. I seem to be very good at making them not work.
My childhood $30 Timex was actually a decent watch that worked properly for years. It lost about half a second a day, but I just had to remember to fix the time every once in a while. I wore it into my twenties. Then I graduated with an M.A., and my long watch-based nightmare commenced with a graduation gift of a Tissot.
It was a lovely watch. An automatic, it ran without a battery and didn’t need to be wound. It was just too bad that it kept time so badly. Swiss watches are, of course, supposed to be the best, but my Tissot lost far more time than my Timex per day. It wasn’t a regular amount, but it was often around a minute. Sometimes, it would simply stop, then start again later. Automatics are wound by movement, and I don’t think I was moving so little that the watch was winding down; I tend to move a lot, even when I’m supposed to be at rest, and I swing my arms enthusiastically as I walk. My parents and I took the watch in for repairs something like three times. No one could figure out what was wrong with it. The final time, it was out of warranty, and it cost far too much to “fix.”
The thing is…I hate not being able to trust my watch. The Tissot was the least trustworthy watch I had ever owned. Sorry, Tissot makers. I’m sure your products are usually very nice, but mine was a dud. I still have it, and it’s still very pretty, and it still keeps absolutely appalling time.
I eventually gave up on the Tissot. I would have gone back to the Timex, but my parents had moved in the interim, and the Timex had vanished. I made do with a gift watch that was too small for me and hurt my wrist, but when its battery gave out, I found another cheap watch that was relatively accurate. The really bad watch times had begun.
The new watch worked fine, but the band was one of those faux-leather things, which never last for long. The band eventually broke, and I got another one, which was itself on the verge of breaking when the watch went from “working fine” to “rather resembling the Tissot.” It didn’t seem to be the battery that was the problem; the watch itself was breaking down. Fortuitously, this happened shortly after I found a Timex Ironman in the middle of the street. The Ironman is a digital watch, but a good one. My wrists are surprisingly skinny, and the Ironman, which was made to fit a man, could barely be cinched tight enough. I managed.
I’m not sure how long all these watches lasted. I think I had the Timex for at least ten years, the Tissot for maybe six, the too-tight gift watch for one, the watch with the cheap strap for four or five, and the Ironman for maybe one and a half. Then its strap broke too. I replaced the watch with a cheap Shoppers Drug Mart watch, which I told myself was good enough. It ran for a few months before stopping. Again, it didn’t seem to be the battery; to this day, it runs sporadically for a few minutes at a time. I found myself making do with a wind-up steampunk pendant watch. It was a cool watch, but it wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to wear every day. It was the middle of the marking period, and I had no time for watch-hunting, so in desperation, I found another Shoppers watch.
That was the nadir of my Great Watch Adventure. The second Shoppers watch lasted for three days. It kept time well, but the last straw came a few days ago, when I rode my bike down to the university. It was a fairly humid day, which meant that perspiration happened, and the perspiration triggered an allergic reaction to the watch. I don’t know if it was the cheap acrylic band or the (assumedly) nickel buckle that was to blame; I know I have a nickel allergy, so it could have been either. That was the day I decided I needed a real bloody watch, damn it.
I have a decent watch now, or so I hope. The band is stainless steel, so I’m not allergic to it, and it isn’t likely to break. The watch is keeping time well so far. I really hope it lasts. I do like watches a lot, and I am tired of not being able to keep one for more than a few years at a time. If my new watch outlasts my new computer, I shall declare victory.