Working on my spec pilot script during the strike, I've had occasion to think about the structure of various sitcoms, and I found myself pondering an issue similar to the one TV blogger Jamie Weinman discusses here. I had intended to blog about it, but never quite found the initiative. Ironically, it had even occurred to me that it was the sort of topic that Jamie, if he still reads this blog, would find interesting, so it was fitting, if still surprisingly coincidental, to see him post on practically the same topic.
Jamie's post is about how 30 Rock falls into the mold of shows with a weak central character. That is, a central character without a strong drive who doesn't seem to anchor the show. He draws a parallel to Arrested Development, and how Michael Bluth also failed to anchor that show, theorizing how this may be a factor in why both shows have had difficulty finding a large audience.
I wouldn't put it in quite those terms. As I see it, Michael Bluth and now Liz Lemon are characters who function exactly as they should. Both of them are characters who largely play the straight man and sarcastic commentator to the parade of eccentrics who surround them. However, I do start to wonder whether this cast dynamic is inherently one that creates cult favorites as opposed to breakout hits. Newsradio, whose lead, Dave Foley, struggled to keep a crazy staff under control, was another brilliant show that hovered near hit status for years without ever breaking out.
Since so many of my favorite shows have been built on this dynamic, I think it's safe to say that I enjoy it a great deal. But it seems like many hit shows are built around a central character who is the source of the show's zaniness. Take Homer Simpson of The Simpsons or Michael Scott of The Office. Or even Weinman's example, Charlie of Two and a Half Men. I argue that what sets these characters apart from the likes of Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon is not that they are stronger characters or have clearer agendas, but that they are each the main comic engines of their respective shows. Michael Scott and Homer Simpson are idiots whose stupid decisions actually create story and generate jokes. Charlie is a boozehound sexaholic who always follows his worst instincts. These characters are the joke, whereas Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon are reacting to the joke. (Interestingly, The Office has a character, Jim, who fulfills this very role, and perhaps succeeds by wisely not making Jim the central character.)
Are there any hit shows in which the central character plays sarcastic observer? Bob Newhart's shows were successful and from what I've seen, they seem to fit this mold. The one that comes to my mind is Seinfeld, which itself took years to win an audience. But that show's cast was small enough that the other, bigger characters regularly carried their own stories. Also, unlike the perpetually aggravated Liz Lemon, Michael Bluth or Newsradio's Dave Nelson, Jerry seldom seemed to be at the mercy of the other characters.
Is there something about the format of a show hinging on a central wacky character that makes it more broadly appealing than a show in which a central character plays straight man to a large cast of wacky characters?
First, obviously, a show built around one wacky character is easier to understand. It's easier to "get" that The Office is a show about a clueless boss, or Two and a Half Men is a show about a sleazy guy, and pick up the rest of the nuances of the show as you go along, than to have to learn the specific quirks of many different people who are all funny for different reasons (though The Office does include this element as well).
Second, I think some people find it unpleasant to watch the one sympathetic character on a show beset by others who make that character's life difficult through no real fault of their own -- that was a complaint I heard at least once by a first time viewer of Arrested Development.
But why does the 30 Rock/Arrested Development/Newsradio model seem to yield cult hits? Perhaps it's a certain type of person who can relate to it. Everybody can feel superior to Homer Simpson and laugh, but if you like Michael Bluth, does that mean that you consider yourself to be an island of sanity fending off the weirdoes who surround you? Is there something about these shows that appeals to people who are smart, or think they are smarter than others, or, intelligence aside, simply identify themselves as not fitting in with other people? Perhaps. But then again, surely most people consider themselves the straight man in their own lives.
Can anyone think of more examples of each type of show to either bolster my point or refute it? The straight man as the lead, surrounded by wacky types, versus the comic/idiot character as the lead? Obviously the examples that spring to my mind are culled from my own favorites.
And in case you're wondering which model I'm using in my pilot? It's the straight man as lead. But after giving this topic some thought, perhaps next time it won't be.