Fictional character assassination is a phenomenon unique to serial television. I’m defining character assassination as the process of altering a character’s fundamental essence for the sake of humor, plot, authorial laziness, or ineptitude. Characters can change; of course they can. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about a betrayal of the character’s nature in a way that is not believable or even possible. Omar on The Wire can grow more careless and focused on revenge as the series progresses, because that makes sense based on what’s happened to him. But Lester Freamon would never have abetted McNulty’s ridiculous serial-killer plot, no matter how desperate he was for justice. That was an instance of plot guiding character, rather than the other way around. (I hate using the best-written TV show of all time to make a point about lazy writing, but David Simon asked for it with Season Five.)
This doesn’t happen in movies because they’re too short. Two hours is barely enough time to get to know a character, let alone realize if that character is performing actions that don’t make sense. It doesn’t happen in books because books are the work of one author, and that author typically stays faithful to his creations. Television shows are written by committees, more often than not, and scribes who write a particular episode in a series’ sixth season might not have been anywhere near the original creation process for that series’ characters.
A trust must be established between a show’s creators and its audience that what’s on the screen is the truth, in its own universe. Even on stupid sitcoms, we need to believe in the characters’ underlying consistency, or nothing that happens holds any weight. It’s one of the reasons why I hate Family Guy so much – its characters barely exist, they function only as vessels for gags. And it’s also why South Park is ten times the show Family Guy will ever be – even on a filthy cartoon, I never say to myself, “Cartman wouldn’t do that.” Because that show’s writers know and understand their characters, and stay faithful to them above all else.
Character assassination can ruin TV shows as quickly as anything, and in the most heartbreaking way. When it happens, it’s a sign that the writers are out of ideas, have stopped trying, or have so little faith in the audience they don’t think we’ll notice.
Some of the most egregious, JFK-esque examples of character assassination:
Sam Malone, Cheers
Ol’ Mayday went from an uneducated, womanizing jock in early seasons to an inept, bumbling moron toward the end of Cheers’ run. And it made absolutely no sense, because Cheers already had one Sitcom Dumb Guy, in Woody Boyd. For Cheers to work, to really work, we needed to root for Sam. And that became impossible in the show’s final seasons. Nobody wants to root for a buffoon.
Nancy Botwin, Weeds
Mary Louise-Parker’s character held this show together for the first two-plus seasons. She served as an excellent protagonist because, although she behaved selfishly a lot of the time, we believed she was motivated both by grief and a desire to help her kids. Nancy’s transformation into an amoral whore mirrored the show’s descent from morbidly funny to unwatchably misanthropic.
Mike Seaver, Growing Pains
Yes, I know we Growing Pains fans have other things on our mind these days, but this was a rare case in which character assassination was spurred by an actor rather than writers/producers. Kirk Cameron, growing increasingly holy, insisted that Mike be written in a positive light at all times to better reflect the grace of the Lord, or something like that. So Mike was defanged, and any traces of the character’s lovable mischief vanished. What remained was yet another stumbling sitcom fool, with no spark of originality. The show sucked by then anyway, so the deconstruction of Mike Seaver was merely another nail in the Chrissy-shaped coffin.
Steven Keaton, Family Ties
Unfortunately, most occurrences of sitcom-based character assassination involve turning a character irredeemably stupid. Along with wife Elyse, Steven Keaton was originally a perfect foil for son Alex: liberal, intelligent, respectable and respected, a good father. Well, that didn’t last. By the end of the show’s lengthy run, Steven had turned into an incompetent cretin, cast on the same level of social intelligence as Skippy. As such, Family Ties episodes all too often turned into extended riffs on “Why is Dad so silly and dumb?”
Arnold Becker, L.A. Law
When L.A. Law began, Corbin Bernsen played its finest, most believable character – a glossy, smarmy Hollywood divorce attorney. He didn’t have a heart of gold, but he wasn’t completely without compassion either. Then the show’s writers mired him in an endless will-they-or-won’t-they romance with drab secretary Roxanne, during which his edges were dulled, his teeth filed down, and his balls removed. Arnie became soft, weak-willed, and worst of all, boring.
Bailey Salinger, Party of Five
Bailey was never the world’s most interesting character, due in large part to Scott Wolf’s baby-faced blandness, but he was initially a sweet kid at heart. But when Party of Five ran out of stories, as so many teen dramas do, Bailey became a blank canvas used to spark new plots. Bailey’s an alcoholic now? Sure. Bailey’s a cock who wants to steal little brother Owen from a cancer-ridden Charlie? Why not.
Chuck Bass, Gossip Girl
Speaking of teen dramas, here we have a rare instance of character assassination working out to almost everyone’s benefit. In Gossip Girl’s early days, Chuck Bass was not just a villain, he was a multiple attempted date rapist. Apparently, that’s OK with everybody, because he gradually transformed into a Dylan McKay-like poor little rich boy with Daddy issues and a soft underbelly that only the right girl could access. The show’s more entertaining for it, but every trace of potential rapiness has been wiped from the characters’ collective memory.
Jim Halpert, The Office
The inspiration for this post. When The Office began, Jim was the character with whom we were supposed to identify. He was a likable underachiever who hated his job and consoled himself by having gentle fun at the expense of his conceited co-workers. And he pined for a girl who strung him along while remaining just out of reach. What’s not to like? But something shifted when Jim landed and then impregnated Pam, and he discovered his dormant ambition: Jim became an insufferable asshole.
There was always a touch of douchiness to Jim’s character, and the show could have taken a very believable turn in which Jim became progressively Michael-esque and unlikable. Unfortunately, we’re still supposed to like Jim, and root for him, even as cruelty has replaced mischief and arrogance has replaced confidence. He’s still supposed to be the show’s heart. So when Jim’s an absolute, unrepentant dick to Dwight, Phyllis or whomever, or when he gives self-satisfied, smug interviews, it’s revealed that The Office no longer has a heart at all.