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.