TV 101: Canaries In The Mineshaft (Pt. 1) - When Characters Become Caricatures
That said, the fact that JTS has been defanged by ubiquity doesn't take away from its ability to be a useful tool for analyzing pop-culture. Shows tend to weaken over time and the JTS moment is a fun way to decide where, exactly, the wheels came off.
In thinking about JTS, it occurred to me that there are a few warning signs that a show is about to jump. Today I'll be looking at the first in a series of canaries in the mineshaft: when characters become caricatures.
Every show starts out about something. I'm not just talking about the plot or setting of the show, but the underlying philosophy of what the show is trying to accomplish. 'The Office' is a satiric look at what life is like in the workplace. 'House' asks what happens when a man is as screwed up emotionally as he is brilliant. 'Two and a Half Men' is a show designed to be as appealing to people as it is to lizards and the seven princes of hell.
It's a rare show that's able to be true to a vision for its entire run (and even when it is able to, it's usually because the show is canceled before it has a chance to deviate from that vision). As the seasons progress, most TV shows lose sight of their underlying philosophy - they stop being about hospitals or offices or whatever and start being about themselves.
Before you ask, I'm not high right now. The idea of a show being self-reflexive isn't something I came up with while looking at a Bob Marley "One Love" poster as I listened to 'Ummagumma' (though writing that has made me hungry for Cheetos). It just makes sense when you think about how a show evolves.
The people writing a successful show in its later years are not immune to the fact that their audience is familiar with the show's characters and have certain expectations for them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: by the end of 'The Sopranos', we knew so much about Tony that all James Gandolfini had to do was tilt his head three degrees to the left and we knew exactly what his character was thinking.
Familiarity becomes a problem the same way heroin becomes a problem: it takes more and more of the stuff to get you to the place you need to be. In the first season of 'Happy Days', Fonzie could convey cool by simply riding a motorcycle. As time went by, though, everyone knew he was cool, so the writers had to up the ante to get it across - thus, jukeboxes are turned on with a thump and girls come whenever he snaps. By the end of the show's run, Fonzie was pretty much a magical genie who could do anything with the power of his "cool" - including being able to jump the shark.
This has happened to several characters on the TV landscape:
On 'The Office', Michael Scott started as a well-meaning buffoon. He was stupid, but since the show was a satiric look at life in an office, the stupidity was grounded in believability. Michael might say something offensive in a quest to be funny, but he would never do something as outlandish as, say, kidnap a pizza boy during an office party.
Except, during the fourth season, Michael kidnapped a pizza boy during an office party.
That fourth season is when Michael Scott stopped being a satirical sketch of the world's most needy boss and started being the cartoon character he persists in being today. He's still very funny, but the character has crossed into caricature because season to season the writers need to top our expectations of Michael's foolishness.
In the early days of the 'The Simpsons', Homer Simpson was dim, but dim in the way all American men are dim: he was lazy, liked his beer, and he occasionally ate a gummy Venus De Milo off the butt of a college feminist. As the show shifted its focus from Bart to Homer, however, his stupidity got dialed up to eleven.
It's the show's long history and worldwide popularity that keeps the stupidity-feedback-loop running: since everyone on the planet knows 'The Simpsons', everyone therefore knows Homer is stupid and it thus takes an act of stupidity far beyond what anyone expects in order to elicit surprise from the audience. When you run this loop over the course of 20 years, you take a character that was an outsized but believable representation of the American male and turn him into a character who is too stupid to be alive.
Dr. Gregory House
House was probably the best new TV character of the last decade. He was hilarious, brilliant, and un-PC in a way that I didn't think was possible on modern TV. House's character was so wonderfully drawn that the equation for writing for him must have been a snap: House + X Person Who Wants to Change Him = Awesome.
As we got to know House, though, the feedback loop started running, except instead of stupidity, it was outrageousness and conflict that grew each year. Eventually it wasn't enough to see him pop Percocet and tell Cuddy he didn't want to do clinic hours - he had to be sent, literally, to the loony bin.
There are plenty more examples of this character/caricature phenomenon: Urkel, Dan Fielding, Joey Tribiani, etc. In every case, the character was amped up every year the show was on the air to compete with what had come before, and in every case the character became so outlandish as to help the show jump that shark.
Don't believe me? Let's keep an eye on Sheldon from 'The Big Bang Theory', Cam from 'Modern Family' and Abed from 'Community'. It's a fair bet that one, if not all, will eventually be so far removed from what they were in the first season as to be unrecognizable.
And when that happens, look over at your canary cage because your bird is probably dead.
Germany Update: My apologies for this column being posted two days late. I was trapped in a German airport for 16 hours Wednesday without proper internet and only weird German soft-drinks for sustenance. But, after a successful (and moving) trip to entertain the troops, I'm back to annoy all of you with regular columns posted from the good ole U. S. of A.
(Jay Black is a comedian and writer who really hopes you like this column. You can get more information about Jay or catch one of his live shows by going to www.jayblackcomedy.net)