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September 20, 2014

TV 101: Canaries In The Mineshaft (Pt. 1) - When Characters Become Caricatures

by Jay Black, posted Mar 26th 2010 11:21AM
Sometimes I feel like doing this to MY TV, but I'm married.One of my least favorite internet memes is the race among people who frequent TV blogs to be the first one to comment that a show has "jumped the shark." I'll take a busload of LOLCATS and Epic Beard Men if it means that I won't have to see "JTS!" four minutes into a show's pilot episode.

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:

Michael Scott

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.

Homer Simpson

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.

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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.

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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)

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JLGreenlee

It does seem to happen a lot. Chrissy Snow went from ditz to developmentally disabled. It probably goes back as far as Barney Fife. Any outsized character becomes ridiculous if given enough seasons. Unless they start out that way, like Lenny & Squiggy.

March 28 2010 at 5:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Linda A.

Mr. Black, you apparently don't watch "House," otherwise you would know that House's narcotic of choice is VICODIN, NOT Percocet, and he pops them like they were sugar pills.

Interesting article, though. {:-)

March 27 2010 at 11:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jeo

Could you add NCIS to your list? It seems to have followed a similar path with most of its characters. Take Tony DiNozzo - he was incredibly funny to start with but also very smart and highly competent at his job, but now the writers use him to carry ever more outlandish and stupid bits of comedy, he's too witless and embarrassing to carry a gun, let alone be a federal agent. Ziva started out fairly badly but has turned into Super!warrior!ninja!Ziva. Even Gibbs has become a caricature. Whereas once he smiled and talked and interacted with his team (while still somewhat gruff and brusque by personality) now he is regarded as a "functional mute" and strides around shouting and being morose. Abby's big heart and sense of fun have been exagerrated so much that she resembles and infant instead of the gorgeous, party-loving goth woman she once was. And McGee is now an arrogant computer genius who is very different to the stuttering geek we once knew.

I totally agree with you about Sheldon Cooper too. I think we're already seeing it. He was fantastic in S1 and S2 but S3 has lacked the funnies - in large part down to the fact that Sheldon has taken over the show and the ensemble is missing.

March 26 2010 at 4:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Argus

Homer isn't a character who became a caricature, the writers are very much aware of how unbelievable they are writing him as. During one of the Troy McClure clip specials he even reads a fake letter about how Homer gets dumber every year.

Homer would be a caricature if he was unrelatable at this point, and he isn't. There are still moments where The Simpsons will become frustrating or "awww" worthy, and that's a testement to the characters.

I will agree with House... I'll only half agree with Michael Scott. I feel like MS has been jerked back and forth over the line since the Pizza Box incident. I feel like your article, Jay, is written from the perspective that once you go over the line there's no going back, which I disagree with.

March 26 2010 at 3:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
beanspants1

There is a fine line at dumb & naive, but i think they wanted to illustrate Homer's dumbness. He would have been naive at the beginning and hurt at the end when he found he was deceived.

He wasn't; ergo, they specifically meant him to be dumb.

March 26 2010 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sancty

I'll definitely agree with Homer and Joey Tribiani while protesting with my very being against Dan Fielding.

Sheldon is a possibility, which I hope doesn't happen, as could Barney Stinson from HIMYM.

Other examples could easily be, Monica Geller-Bing from Friends (thankfully Phoebe and Ross became less characitures over the course of the series to level things out), Cosmo Kramer and Fez from That 70's Show

March 26 2010 at 12:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Sancty's comment
Derek

I'll agree w/ what you said about Phoebe. She became more normal as the series went along.

But Ross became much weirder. At first, he was the nerd, pining for Rachel. But by the end, he was yelling at his fellow paleontologists for eating his turkey sandwich.

March 26 2010 at 2:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MosquitoControl

Not sure about Phoebe, who I always found to be an awful character, but agreed about Ross.

Ross started off a human being. By the end he just started ranting and yelling over nothing. That was David Schwimmer's schtick - just getting irate and stupidly yelling. I'm convinced he totally bombed his career in the final two seasons by just constantly yelling instead of acting. Not that he necessarily would have had much of a career otherwise, but he doomed what was there. He made the show unwatchable.

March 26 2010 at 2:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Troy

I think Sheldon on Big Bang Theory has already crossed that character/caricature threshold.

March 26 2010 at 12:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Troy's comment
michele

Sheldon has always been over-the-top though, even in the first episodes of the series

March 31 2010 at 10:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
getchaos

I have to contradict yo,u beanspants (hilarious nickname by the way). Of course Homer hasn't always been the smartest person....but the thing with the french kid was more or less just naiv.

But his deterioration of mind has grown with each season they used him. In earlier season he was very naiv and simpleminded, as well as lazy but often realized this at some point in the episode or season. Nowadays he's just plain stupid....

I don't have any examples right now, i stopped watching the Simpsons regularly ast season 11 or so. But everytime i turn on a new episode it is often unbearable compared to the beginning of the show....anyway...^^

Weird soft drinks in Germany? Would be funny to know which drinks you meant...of course, for me as a German they may seem normal ^^ (and yeah...it's a shame that so few airports in Germany offer free internet or wireless lan at all...when i was in Finland last year, nearly every major building had free access...)

March 26 2010 at 12:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hessian

One of the key problems with the evolution of THE SIMPSONS was the eventual departure of the entire original creative team.

You end up with no one in the writing room who was there from the beginning. The people who remain are writing their interpretation of the original writing room's intentions.

http://its-over-tv.blogspot.com/2006/09/tv-shows-written-by-baboons.html

March 26 2010 at 11:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jimmy_MO

"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."

Excuse me, but all American men are not dim and are you actually comparing American men to cartoon buffoon? That's like saying all stay-at-home moms are lazy, sit around all day eating junk food and watching soap operas. Did you jump in the Wayback Machine and pull that statement out of the 50s?

March 26 2010 at 11:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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