The Weekly Rant with Gary Patella

Thoughts and ideas on various grievances that are relevant to everyday life.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Unseen Television Characters

Back in 1897, Karl Braun invented the cathode ray tube oscilloscope. This paved the way for inventors like Jenkins, Farnsworth, and Zworykin to develop the television. The television has gone through many changes over the years, and many of the individual components used came from a wide variety of sources. In short, it was a collaborative effort and has become one of the most popular forms of entertainment.

Through the years, many shows have come and gone. When looking back, one can see that the storylines and the plots of shows have become a bit more intricate and engaging. Many shows that were big hits a few decades ago now seem rather silly. Shows have matured, developed and grown over the years. Yet not every aspect of the show has grown. One particular trend still remains, and I don't quite understand why.

When writers come up with a new show, there will be two basic elements-- there will be a concept and characters. The characters each have their own personality and habits, and eventually work their way into the hearts of viewers. The various antics displayed by the characters can be quite amusing. The variety of personality types can often be used to drive the plot forward. The characters become the main focus of the show while the actual plot takes a back seat.

But then there are other characters. On many shows over the years there have been characters that have very simplistic personalities. Perhaps only a single trait is ever known. The character falls into a single stereotype and is never developed further. The reason: the character is never seen.

Some may find it rather clever or witty to insert a character into the show that never makes an appearance. I assure you, it is nothing of the sort. Whether we discuss Vera Peterson on Cheers, Maris Crane on Frasier, or Wilson on Home Improvement makes no difference. Vera is Norm's wife, the end. No personality added, yet receives constant mention. Maris Crane in Frasier had some traits mentioned, but still not terribly witty to never see her. Only half of Wilson's face was seen, and he played the role of the wise advice-giver. No other development of the character.

There are many of these characters throughout television history. There is Sparky in M.A.S.H., Peg Bundy's mother in Married...With Children, and Howard Wolowitz's mother in The Big Bang Theory. Many others could be named, but I am not writing to merely construct a list. My point is that leaving a character unseen does not add any wonderful element to a show. Some of the shows that use this device are very good or even excellent programs. Why would even hit shows resort to such gimmicks? It makes no sense.

In some cases, the unseen characters are seen in the final episode. If you need to use such a ploy in order to get viewers to tune in to the final episode, your show probably sucks. If a show is well-written, no great mystery needs to be revealed in the finale. And don't mistake my gripe with the unseen characters. I am not upset out of curiosity. I do not sit restlessly wondering what the character might look like. What upsets me is the pretentious pseudo-intellectual thought process that is responsible for creating an unseen character. It is a writer shouting "Look how clever I am! I can create a character that no one sees."

Well I'm sorry dear writer, but you are not brilliant or clever for coming up with such a concept. Get rid of the gimmick! Who is writing these scripts anyway? Samuel Beckett? I don't get it. So my message is this: when coming up with characters, come up with a full character. Don't simply come up with one trait, add a name, never show the person, and call it a character. And if you must do so, please don't feel like you're now a witty modernist writer. You are not!


At 3:41 PM , Blogger Ed said...

I move an exception to this for Mrs. Wolowitz. She is omni present in any scene where Howard appears. Half of Howard's statements are from his mom's warped worldview. The fact that we actually hear her regularly from "off screen" is like a chance to be howard wolowitz. She is constantly nagging him in his brain, and when we are I'm his room with him I hear what she says to him ALL THE TIME!

She is sorta one dimensional, but how much depth does a domineering parent have in a child's life anyway?


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