Friday, March 24, 2006

Character rehabilitation

It's always an interesting thing when a television show finds itself with a clearly important character that the viewing public can't really stand. In most cases, this is a new character that has been thrown into the mix at the start of a new season, especially after a season where the viewing public fell in love with the ORIGINAL mix of characters.

The Internet has exacerbated this. Maybe everyone hated the frequent cast changes on M*A*S*H, but those reactions have been lost in the mists of time. Now, all we know is that Harry Morgan was pretty good in his role.

Thanks to Television Without Pity and other Internet TV forums, we get to know EXACTLY how everyone feels about EVERYthing. And this means that shows often have to engage in character rehabilitation. That, or they have to write the characters out. But we'll talk about that option another time.

Two of my favorite shows on right now are trying to rehabilitate characters through two very different tactics. Let's take a look.

Lost brought on the character of Ana Lucia (played by Michelle Rodriguez) earlier this season. She was supposed to be the leader of a small band of plane crash survivors who had constantly been at war with the mysterious Others. When she was introduced to us, she dominated the storylines for a good six episodes, taking time away from cast members the audience had grown to love in season one. Because of this (and because of how the character was written and performed -- as an almost stereotypical tough chick), the audience turned on her. Ana Lucia almost made the show lose a lot of its viewers.

After the Ana Lucia flashback episode (which came midway through November sweeps), though, the producers cannily kept her to a line or so per episode (this led to rumors that Rodriguez was a pain on set and would soon be written off). Ana Lucia was a lot more tolerable as another supporting player in the huge cast than as a lead thrust upon us.

Finally, in Wednesday's episode, the B-story focused on Ana Lucia's search for a balloon hidden somewhere on the island. Since she had had so little to do for so long, it seemed almost refreshing to have her go on an adventure (paired with two other characters who haven't had a lot to do this season). The producers were even canny enough to give her a speech about how "no one likes me." To be sure, it was meta, but it also served to deepen the character. If no one has ever liked her, she would put up defense mechanisms, which would lead to us not liking her, etc.

Will this work? It's already helped my opinion of the character (though I'm easy to please). More specifically, though, I think the producers made the right move (whether it was one thrust upon them by circumstance or not) by keeping her in the background until these recent episodes. It kept her well hidden enough so that we wouldn't realize just how much our strings were being pulled.

Veronica Mars, on the other hand, has made no bones about its string pulling. Early on in the season, the show introduced a character named Jackie. She earned the audience's enmity by questioning Veronica and her motives. Up until this point, Veronica had been someone you couldn't question. Though her methods should have led to discussion, a new character was not the person to begin that discussion (it would have been better to give this role to Logan). In addition, Jackie was treating fan favorite Wallace poorly. It was almost as if the producers were daring the audience to hate Jackie.

Then, Wallace left for a string of episodes. Since she didn't have a reason to be in the story anymore, Jackie disappeared as well. When Wallace came back, Jackie came back too. But by this point, everything in her life had changed. Her dad was accused of killing many, many people in a bus crash (he was dating a woman on the bus). And the school had ostracized her. In other words, she was in a position VERY similar to the one in which Veronica began the whole series.

The show then began a concerted effort to make Jackie likable. She held her head high in the face of adversity. She turned to Veronica for help, not snide comments. And, most importantly, Wallace forgave her. When stripped of the things that made her snobbish in the first place, Jackie turned into someone worthy of the audience's respect. And the whole metamorphosis fit in with the shows nonjudgmental themes.

Sure, it was manipulative. But it was well done.

Fox preview tomorrow. This disease seems to be ending!

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