Likeability

First off, some of these thoughts were inspired by a blog post by Erika (post here: http://seriality.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/what-do-we-mean-when-we-say-we-like-a-character/). But it’s a concept that has been running around in my head for a bit.

Obviously, almost every television show has a hero, or an anti-hero. Even if there is a strong ensemble cast, there are usually one or two central people, around whom everyone else is built. This is also obviously not unique to television, the same can be said for almost every form of fiction. The attraction that we feel to those characters is often what brings us back to a show week after week, month after month, year after year. I can remember in the early years of following Buffy, where I wanted Xander to be my friend, I wanted Willow to be my girlfriend, and I wanted Giles to be my mentor. I wanted to spend time with these people, and that is what brought be back. The same could be said for early films I was passionate about, like The Breakfast Club. These were people I wanted to know, wanted to spend more time with, that I returned to again and again.

Years ago, I was flatting (local lingo for sharing a flat/apartment) with a close friend of mine. Our friendship was built around cinema – we met working in a cinema, much of our friendship involved hanging out in cinemas before and after films, and she had gone from that job to working in a video store. Films were our thing. But we had in some ways quite divergent tastes in films. I had gone down the indie road. I loved weird, obscure films, films which made me think, films which made me question myself. She preferred films that made her feel good, films that ended nicely, films where she could fall in love with the leads, and see an ending which saw the people she cared about do well, and the villains received their dues.

I wish I could remember which film we were discussing, but I had loved it, and she had hated it. And when it came down to it, there was one facet which we both agreed on which was also the dividing point. We both disliked the main character. Whoever they were, the audience did not seem to be expected to like them – they were a problematic character, and whatever ending they received could not be seen as ‘justice’. I loved the ambiguity of this. She very much did not.

Now, all of this is fine – I’m not arguing for one of these perspectives being preferable over the other. But it was what immediately came to mind when I thought of the next key point. Which is that I seem to have a completely different perspective when it comes to television. I don’t think that this is necessarily something conscious, but when I think about the shows that I haven’t stuck with, they seem to be the ones where I either don’t like, or just don’t care about the main characters.

I was fascinated by the shows that Erika mentioned in her post (and that come up in the comments), because I don’t watch any of them. Mad Men, Dexter, Breaking Bad. All critically acclaimed. All modern markers of Quality TV. All shows which should be exactly my sort of thing. All of which I have watched the pilot, and no more. All of which have a main character that I just found myself not caring about.

I have a theory. I think that the serial nature of television, the extended nature of television programming, mean that these are characters we are going to spend a lot of time with. With film, we’re probably only going to spend 90-120 mins with these characters. The shortest of those shows has thus far produced 33 television hours, and that is still climbing. That’s a lot of time to devote to people you either don’t care about, or actively don’t like.

I was worried about this before I watched the first episode of Terriers. The sort of show it seemed to be, the sort of acclaim it was receiving – I’d heard it all before, around the previously mentioned shows. But when I watched it finally, I loved it. The difference? Hank and Britt are, at the most basic level, likeable. Flawed? Absolutely. Do they have questionable judgement? Absolutely. Does everything come out peaches and cream for them? Not at all. But all the way through, I liked them, I cared about them, I winced as they made mistakes, but I still was rooting for them. And that led me through the show.

**I want to be clear – I’m not detracting from these shows, just trying to gather some thoughts around why I might not like shows which so many other people obviously do**

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2 thoughts on “Likeability

  1. Erika

    Interesting post. It made me think about my own preferences, and I think, when it comes to film, I much prefer actually liking a character, in the sense that I’d like to hang out and have tea with them. Whereas with TV, I’m less interested in characters who I like at a personal level, and more interested in characters I like watching, even if they’re serial killers or womanizing selfish admen. And in opposition to your sense, I think it’s because of the serial nature of the shows that I feel this way. The characters exist over time. Sometimes changing, sometimes not, be as long as they remain dynamic characters, who sometimes surprise me, even if, or because they’re awful people, I’ll continue to find them likeable in the sense I tried to explain in my post.

    Example, the reason the SATC movies are terrible (well there are quite a few actually, but nevermind that for the moment) is that any depth the 4 main characters had was completely lost in rendering them down to their types. They all conformed to the idea of their characters as expressed in a Cosmo “which SATC character are you?” quiz. I dunno, I’m kind of rambling at the moment, but I think the question of likeablity is worth pondering over more.

    • Mark S

      I’m afraid I can’t comment on SATC – I have never seen a full episode of the show, or either of the films. But I do take your point on the changing characters that television can provide. All the characters that I can think of who I have really cared about, they’ve built, they’ve grown, they’ve shifted, and almost all of them have been problematic at some point in some ways. But from the first or the second time they’ve been on screen, I’ve cared about them, I’ve liked them, and I’ve wanted to know them better, and I think for me that’s the fundamental difference.

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