Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Perfect characters: Chloe O'Brian from "24"

It's hard to create an audience surrogate in a genre show. It's pretty easy to create one set in a world we're sort of familiar with. A cop or a doctor that the audience identifies with isn't much of a stretch because most of us know cops and doctors in the real world (or actually ARE cops or doctors).

But how many of us know brilliant counter-terrorist computer technicians?


So let's talk a bit about audience surrogates and what they're meant to do before we get into how 24 made Chloe into one almost accidentally.

In any work of dramatic narrative (from a play to a novel to a film to a TV show to an epic poem), the writer may insert a character whom the audience is supposed to identify with. The character may express some of the doubts the audience has (and allow the writer to gloss over plot holes through quick exposition from the other characters). This character may express the emotions that we as the audience feel about the world the show is set in. This character just might be there to let us know it's okay to laugh or cry or feel ambivalent.

An audience surrogate is a hard thing to pull off in a genre entertainment because so few of us KNOW people like this in our real lives. If they're written well, we may be able to identify, but to be honest, very few of us know super spies, vampire slayers or spaceship captains (I should hope). Buffy got around this by making Xander the only normal guy in the whole cast. We identified with him because his most outstanding personality traits were his normal ones. To a very real degree, we believed in the world (in the first few seasons at least) because Xander believed in the world.

That's SORT of the function Chloe fulfills in 24, though she also has to be a super genius with a computer, which very few of us are (I have trouble just figuring out how many hits this blog gets). However, because of her status as a computer super genius, she also lets the show get away with a lot of truth-stretching in the name of fiction. Can we really do all of that with computers in the real world? Probably not. But CHLOE certainly can. She's perfect!

One of the most crucial things 24 did when the writers created Chloe (who was the breakout star of the series' third season, which remains their weakest to date) was grounding her in a reality we're all aware of: specifically, that of the insufferable employee who's a stickler for the rules. Chloe whines and complains. She's generally unpleasant to everyone around her. But she's good at what she does, so she stays. EVERY workplace has one of these people. Perhaps you ARE that person. At any rate, the insufferable person was not someone you saw a lot in workplace shows. To see that person turn up on an action drama perversely increased the gravitas and verisimilitude of the series. "Hey! That girl's just like Jim from work!" you could hear America saying. "This must be real!"

As time has gone on, Chloe has remained unpleasant, but she's also become a character we can relate to. She's someone who asks the questions we have, but she's also someone who trusts implicitly in Jack Bauer (another perfect character). She reacts as we might react if we were tasked with saving the world from a terrorist threat (if we had mad computer skillz).

All of this is highlighted by the performance of Mary Lynn Rajskub. Rajskub is someone who doesn't look like someone who would be on TV. She's attractive (I mean, she dated David Cross and Jon Brion!), no doubt, but not conventionally so. She's got an oddly angular face that can contort at some weird angles. And she's a trained improv comedian. EVERYthing about her plays against type and clashes with the rest of the 24 cast. Because of that, you've either got to identify with and love her or hate her.

Thankfully, the character of Chloe, as written and performed, is almost impossible NOT to love. She stands as possibly the finest audience surrogate character on TV.

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