Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Unlikeable Protagonist

Gillian Jacobs in Love
The new Netflix sitcom Love, which is produced by Judd Apatow, relies upon Apatow's usual stock comedy ideas.  Apatow believes that only bad behavior is funny.  So, in his desperate effort to get laughs, he is compelled to make sure that his characters never stop behaving badly.  You have your standard dickish behavior, which is contemptibly selfish and insensitive, and you have your standard asshole behavior, which is detestably stupid and incompetent.  Vulture's Margaret Lyons wrote, "[W]hen its characters teeter on the edge of genuine introspection, you can see the glowing potential within the show."  But the show choses instead to remain nasty by, according to Lyons, "poking at the worst parts of its characters' psyches."

Yet, these vexatious and unpleasant people are the protagonists that we are supposed to care about.  Defenders of this type of humor say that bad behavior makes a character human and, therefore, relatable.  But this behavior is usually so outrageous and contrived that it far from understandable, believable, or acceptable.  These are not common human flaws.  These are, instead, modern comedy flaws, which are something that inhabit their own reality.  Characters must behave in extremely strange ways to support the shock comedy, the gross-out comedy, and the cringe comedy.  Real people with real problems will not take front and center in an Apatow project.  So, Love involves the unpromising romance of dickish Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and asshole Gus (Paul Rust).

A character who is maddeningly awful is not interesting to me.  Gus has a compulsion to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Every time he opened his mouth, I found myself thinking, "Please don't talk."  It's a problem when a viewer doesn't want the lead character to speak.  Why, then, am I bothering to watch this?  It is understandable that critics and viewers have preferred to focus their attention on the show's supporting characters, whose good humor and humanity make them far more engaging.  Much of the series' strength come from supporting characters who aren't jerks.  The best thing that Vulture's Margaret Lyons could say about Gus and Mickey is that they are "surrounded by people who are lightyears more interesting."  Bertie (Claudia O'Doherty), Mickey's roommate, is sweet, decent and interesting.  Why can't we spend more time with her?

The bad first date trope typically presents very unreal problems.  But that is not the case this time.  Gus takes Mickey to The Magic Castle.  The air conditioning is too cold for Mickey, who asks to borrow Gus' jacket.  Gus explains that the theatre has a formal dress code and the ushers will likely throw them out of the theatre if he removes his jacket.  The problem here is real, but it is also real simple.  The air conditioner in this business establishment is on too high, which is causing a customer a great deal of discomfort.  It is clearly a problem that the theatre management has responsibility to solve.  If they are unable to solve the problem, the couple has no choice other than to leave the theatre and continue their date in a more hospitable environment.  But look what happens instead.

Bad decisions have bad outcomes.

I discuss the Three Stooges' poor problem-solving skills in my new book.  But the Stooges did not exist in the context of a serialized storyline.  The trio pressed a reset button at the end of every mishap-filled adventure.  Love asks us to follow these hopeless characters through a story that lasts more than ten hours.

Jacobs is an exceptionally talented actress who brings a great deal of humanity to her role.  This makes the character sympathetic even when the character shouldn't be sympathetic.  Jacobs allows the series to sometimes alternate between scenes of outrageously bad behavior and scenes of genuine human struggle.  Lyons wrote, "Jacobs's absorbing performance leads us to believe there's a full person under this fidgeting and posturing, but we don't get to see her."

Who can root for these two awful people to get together just so that they can make awful problems for one another?

TV Guide's Sadie Gennis spoke for many regular viewers of the Apatow-produced Girls when she observed that the characters in the show "often felt more like caricatures of monstrosity than watchable anti-heroes."  Slate's Willa Paskin noted that, despite the complaints about the characters' behavior in the first season, they behaved even worse in the second season.  She wrote, "The series became more obviously satirical and biting, sending up its heroines' increasingly outsized and repugnant behavior."  But this just doesn't seem like a send up to me.  What is it a send up of?  It can't be a send up of assholes because assholes acting like assholes is just reality.

Dunham acknowledged in interviews for Season 4 that it was time to "mature them a bit" so that the series' viewers "have a little more sympathy for their plights."  She essentially said that the characters needed to abandon their chaotic lives by relying upon "a little more wisdom" as opposed to "just pure emotion."  It is the most important part of being an adult to put logic before emotion.  But she didn't want the characters to mature too much because, she said, "it's still a show about girls who are constantly causing disasters."  It's a great comic disaster when Lucille Ball unintentionally gets drunk on the Vitametavegamin tonic.  But Ball found herself caught up in highly stylized and carefully constructed comic messes.  The disasters in Girls are aren't too wacky or too structured.  Girls presents real and recognizable lives in shambles.  It is simply girls behaving badly, which is most likely to inspire disgust and disapproval rather than amusement.

Did Dunham achieve her goal to make the characters smarter and more sympathetic?  Paskin wrote, "[Season 4] of Girls begins in what I think of as the ideal Girls weather: warm with a chance of abhorrent antics.  This stands in contrast to Seasons 2 and 3, in which the Girls weather was muggy with a 100 percent chance of an asshole hurricane."

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul

The viewer with the slightest sense of morality will feel emotionally detached from the repugnant protagonists that have come to dominate modern television.  It is no real surprise that viewers were relieved of late to have Better Call Saul, yet another asshole-hurricane, shift its focus from shady, undisciplined lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to Jimmy’s principled, caring girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).  Kim, very much a sympathetic character, is a perfect argument against the anti-hero.  A viewer's reaction to a story is greatly heightened when the viewer has warm and caring feelings towards a character.  A character who is set apart from a cable drama's dark machinations can serve effectively as an audience surrogate.  Kim, in particular, has served an important role in Better Call Saul's catastrophic and insane story about a Caine-and-Caine brother rivalry, a man with electromagnetic hypersensitivity who wears an aluminum foil blanket, and a psychopathic drug kingpin.  She has served as the series' moral compass and in this way has grounded the series.

The reactions to Kim assuming a larger role in the series have been enthusiastic.  The critics openly love Kim because, well, she's a good person.  She is a spring in a moral desert.  Typical of the recent comments about Kim have been "amazing run" (Donna Bowman, A.V. Club) and "stolen the spotlight" (Sean Strangland, Daily Herald).  Strangland wrote, "The MVP is Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, a resourceful lawyer who provides this show full of dubious characters with its moral center. . . It's fun to see Walter White's old enemies show up from time to time, but it's even better to see Kim Wexler every single week."  Katherine Recap of Fetchland wrote, "Once again Kim steals the show in the episode 'Inflatable' and wins our hearts all over again.  Mainly we’re happy because she teaches us an important lesson."  Gretchen Felker-Martin of Nerdly wrote, "Rhea Seehorn continues to deliver one of the most quietly exciting performances on the air.  Her smile when she thinks she’s won Mesa Verde is heart-stopping. . ."  It's fun to see Kim.  She wins my heart.  Her smile is heart-stopping.  It sounds for sure like love.  But Allison Keene of Collider has said it best:
In Season 1, Rhea Seehorn’s character Kim Wexler stood out for not standing out.  In a series with such bigger-than-life male characters . . ., Kim was a voice of reason and a refreshingly normal person. . . Kim is one of the major reasons Better Call Saul Season 2 has been so outstanding. . . Kim has become so much more than just Jimmy’s conscience. . . , and that is wholly thanks to Seehorn’s performance.  She’s a hero in a show where there aren’t many, and when it comes to hard choices she would always rather suffer the consequences then do the wrong thing.  But in no way does that make her boring or uninteresting or vanilla — one could even argue that she’s the most compelling character exactly because of these traits, and her exceptional dedication to what’s right.  She’s someone to admire and cheer for in a world that is so often morally gray.  Kim isn’t perfect, but Seehorn has made her one of the most unexpectedly fascinating aspects of an already great series, and has had an incredible season making her quietly become the heart and soul of Better Call Saul.
Daniel Swensen, author of the "Surly Muse" blog, defended the unlikeable protagonist (Read his full article here).  He wrote, "As long as I find their struggle compelling, I'll get on board with the most twisted, morally repugnant characters imaginable."  He added, "I've had many discussions about 'unlikeable' characters in movies and books, and whether or not 'likeability' is a prerequisite for engaging with a story.  Personally, I don't believe it is.  Some of my favorite movies feature unlikeable people doing horrible things."  He discussed his favorite unlikeable characters, including Darth Vader.  He explained:
I think "likeable" is a bit of a slippery phrase that can mean any number of things.  For example, people adore Darth Vader — is this because they agree with his moral choices or admire his ideals?  For most people, I'd venture to say probably not.  So what's likeable about him, aside from the bad-ass suit, red lightsaber, cool voice modulation, and the ability to choke people with his mind?  Well, I guess I've answered my own question here.
Darth Vader is no more likeable than your average Bond villain.  We can admire a Bond villain's genius, his power, his style, his way with the ladies.  The theme song to Thunderball extols the film's villain, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi).  Let me paraphrase the lyrics.  Largo runs while other men just walk and acts while other men just talk.  He will never stop fighting for what he wants.  He is the winner who takes all.  My favorite line: "Any woman he wants, he gets."  How could I not admire this man?  He's a go-getter.  He's a charmer.  He's a winner.

But, also, Largo kills people.  He kills lots of people.  I have to, in the end, oppose the man's moral values because I do not support the idea of others dying for his success.  As I watch the film, I want nothing more than for Bond to take him down.

Swensen is not the only one who isn't turned off by a really bad guy.  J. Gideon Sarantinos, author of "Gideon's Way" blog, wrote, "[Unlikeable characters] awaken our sense of rebellion, individuality, risk and determination to pursue our goals at whatever cost.  If we're that invested in such characters, they don't have to be totally likeable.  Audiences will root for them just on their boldness."

Root for a murderer?  A bad guy's boldness and rebellion is the kicking and screaming baby that we harbor deep down inside of our id.  At least, it should exist deep down inside of us as a well-developed ego and superego should be layered thickly over it.  I never indulge my id.  He's a little bastard.  You are wrong if you think that you can put your id on a leash and safely walk it around a park.  I prefer an uplifting film about a restrained, moral person than a downlifting film about a bold, villainous rebel.

Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience, a new Starz series about the high-dollar escort trade, features as its protagonist a call girl who may or may not be a sociopath.  The call girl, Christine (Riley Keough), is definitely not the warm and cuddly sort.  She doesn't like spending time with other people unless she gets paid to do it.  The Verge’s Lizzie Plaugic wrote:
Keough’s portrayal of Christine is calculated, cold, and pristine, like a revamped Patrick Bateman [the mentally disturbed protagonist of American Psycho]. . . Throughout most of the series’ 13 episodes, Keough maintains the same dead-eyed stare almost without interruption.  Even moments of intense fear and paranoia are trumped by this blank look, as if Christine is terrified to feel anything other than a deadening emptiness.  This stoicism can also make Keough sound like an unintentionally comedic robot. ("I love vacations" is among the best/worst line readings on the show.)
Other critics have expressed respect for the character.  They see the character's lack of emotion and lack of morality as a form of empowerment.  The message, I suppose, is that our humanity makes us weak.  The character's remoteness is at times unsettling and always unpleasant.  Surely, a real-life escort is more personable than she is.

No critic who is respectful of Christine makes mention of an incident in which the escort is confronted by the wife of a client.  The wife (Marie Dame) tells Christine that she and her husband have children.  She says it will ruin their marriage if she keeps seeing her husband.  Christine doesn't show the slightest emotion.  Instead, she sees this as an opportunity to extort the woman for loads of cash.  It turns out costing the woman $10,000 for Christine to stop seeing her errant spouse.

Christine could not act more ruthless when she meets the woman at hotel restaurant and accepts a thick envelope of cash.  After the woman leaves, she raises a cocktail to her lips and we see her hand tremble a bit.  What is that supposed to mean?  We have seen this character do something unconscionable.  She exploited a distraught and desperate woman.  We are now meant to believe that, after the pitiless shakedown that we have just witnessed, she has a glimmer of feeling.  Today's television producers expect us to work hard to make a connection with a protagonist.   We need to dig through the characters' actions for meaning and relatability as if digging through pony shit to find the pony.  No little hand tremble will make me empathize with this greedy, cold-hearted woman.

Swensen also cited Norman Bates and Charles Foster Kane as examples of unlikeable protagonists that audiences find compelling.  Let us examine those characters further.

We don't know for most of the film that Norman Bates is a murderer.  We just know that he is a devoted son who is trying, in a sad and desperate way, to protect his mother, whose mental illness makes her severely dependent on him.

What does Kane do that's horrible?  It is implied that Kane's yellow journalism tactics encourage the United States to go to a war with Spain.  But the newspaper man's guilt in this matter is too vague and abstract to have a real impact on the viewer.  What else is bad about him?  Kane gradually stops talking to his wife at the breakfast table and turns to a mistress for attention and affection.  I am no fan of adultery, but this hardly makes Kane despicable.  I am sure that Kane would have maintained a loving relationship with his wife if he just knew how to do it.  This is his problem.  He desperately wants love, but he doesn't know how to get it.  We all need love and we don't always know how to get it.  It makes Kane a sympathetic character.  Can we come up with another bad act on his part?  Kane pressures an old theatre critic friend to write a favorable review of his mistress' singing debut.  This rates low on immorality scale.  The Internet is filled with favorable book and film reviews written by friends.

I can think of five instances when I find an unlikeable protagonist compelling.  Let me now list those instances.

  1. Can I learn from the character's mistakes?  This ties in to Mike Nichols' Closer (2004), which Swensen discusses in his article.  The film shows how cruelly and completely infidelity can destroy relationships.  An adulterer can be the biggest fool, but he might be of interest to the viewer.  Anyone who has experienced even a fleeting temptation to cheat on their spouse gets to see a make-believe character on screen cheat on his spouse and see where it leads.  If the character destroys their marriage as a result of his cheating, his story will serve as a cautionary tale and reinforce the viewer's faithfulness to his spouse.  "See," a man says to himself, "that's why I would never cheat on my wife."  The faithful spouse can even feel superior about being a true-blue partner.  I should admit that I tried to watch Closer as research for this article, but I couldn't get through more than fifteen minutes of the film.  Everyone looked and acted like they were starring in a perfume commercial.
  3. Let us consider the husband and wife who, in other foolish ways, screw up their marriage.  These characters can hold a viewer's interest if, again, the viewer believes it's possible to learn from the character's mistakes.  Sadly, most of us have love and we have lost.  It is something we want to avoid happening again if we can help it.  So, it can be useful to see a couple on screen struggle through relationship problems.  Even if these people are assholes, it just might be possible that they have something to teach us.  By teaching us how not to love, they might be able to teach us how to love.

  4. We might be curious about what makes this person the way they are.  The explicit objective of Citizen Kane is to dig into Kane's background to discover his motivations.
  6. The unlikeable protagonist's struggle can be compelling if we think there is hope for the character to become a better person.  We don't root for the character as much as we root for the character they might become.

  7. In the way that we root for the reward of the hero, we can root for the punishment of the villain.  This is the reason that so many people wanted to see The Sopranos end with Tony Soprano getting gunned down.
Understand that none of these examples involve turning a villain into a glamorous role model, which is something that I could never endorse.

More Kim Wexler characters, please.