Any show worth its salt will give you a variety of characters fulfilling a variety of roles, but it goes beyond the personality styles we discussed earlier in this series. I’m talking about archetypes. We’ve come to expect them, even if only subconsciously.
Keep in mind as you read that in smaller casts these archetypes are combined. But we’ll talk more about that as we go along and again near the end.
The Viewpoint—sometimes called the Entry character—gives the audience someone to identify with, a way into a world we may not be familiar with. But even in shows where we know the terrain, without this character, it’s impossible to engage an audience for the long term.
We need someone to care about, someone whose dreams and hopes we either share or understand. He may also introduce us to the environment as he learns about it and see how people operate there, but the most important thing is that we give a damn.
Take the madhouse of the WKRP radio station. Andy Travis is our Viewpoint and he’s the only sane person in sight as we—and he—try to understand what the hell’s going on. He knows radio stations, but he doesn’t know this one. From him we learn how things are supposed to be while we also discover just out how out-of-whack things are at WKRP.
Penny stands in for us in The Big Bang Theory as we explore the world of geeks. Sure, we all think we’re geeks, but these guys are a cut above and we need an outsider’s view.
Rick Castle acts as our guide while we explore the differences between fictional detectives and their real-world counterparts… well, what passes for the real-world on TV, anyway. And at the same time, he shows us how writers (some of them, anyway) work.
This character gives us someone we love to hate while giving the main character a force to contend with. He may be a permanent fly in the ointment or be replaced each episode, but whether he’s a true Jerk or just a pain in the ass, he’s there to lend color and force the main character to show his mettle. Degrees of jerkiness leave room for multiple Jerks.
As odd as it may seem at first glance, Kate Beckett is Castle’s Jerk. She’s also the love interest which means we don’t hate her, but she takes pride in being the Jerk, dumping on Castle because he’s far too off-the-wall for the business of solving murders… until he steps in with an oddball idea that actually closes a case.
In WKRP, the Jerk role is shared, mostly between Herb Tarlek and Les Nessman, but episodically it’s Momma Carlson or the British actor wearing the WPIG costume.
In The Big Bang Theory, it’s Sheldon, but Sheldon is an enigmatic character as far as archetypes go. We’ll talk more about that in Part III, Archetype Stacking.
This person has all the information. And if he doesn’t have it, he’ll soon get it… off camera. We don’t see him work his magic and we don’t need to. If pressed to explain, he’ll say, “Don’t ask.” Removing his mystique would just be wrong.
All he needs is a reputation… unless he’s the Fool, because the Informer comes in three flavors: Researcher, Fool and Sage.
In WKRP, this is Bailey Quarters. She’s the intern and the researcher, so it’s built in. In Castle, it’s Lanie Parish, the medical examiner. In The Big Bang Theory, it’s Sheldon, another example of archetype stacking.
With this Informer sub-type, the character gives unwanted or seemingly useless information. He’s the butt of jokes… although sometimes his information proves useful anyway. But the Fool doesn’t always know how to win gracefully and may end up ostracized even when he plays an important part in the outcome of a plot.
The Big Bang Theory depends on Sheldon again for this role while Rick Castle often plays out this archetype himself… although in some episodes Martha Rogers steps up with her off-kilter view of the world. In WKRP, we’re talking about Les Nessman more times than not, but Arthur Carlson can carry this archetype well, also.
TV writers have to be careful with the Sage. He’s best played off-screen because if he were directly involved in the main plot, the problem would be solved too quickly.
The Sage has life experience beyond that of most other characters. He can also be rather intimidating, making him a natural last resort when the main character wants that final bit of information he needs.
In WKRP it’s Jennifer Marlow. She knows how life works and isn’t afraid to use that knowledge for gain or to help the other characters turn a situation around. Castle’s Sage often comes onstage in the form of his teenage daughter, Alexis. His talks with her often yield some brainstorm that leads Castle to an overlooked clue. And in The Big Bang Theory, a rare combination of archetypes sees Penny take on this role. The only other show I can think of in which a single character takes on both Viewpoint and Sage archetypes is The Andy Griffith Show where Andy Taylor guides us through the mild insanity of Mayberry while handing out homespun advice.
(To be continued…)