Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Another Technique for Approaching Characters

Ha! I am surprised at what an interesting reaction I am getting to my recent insignificant posts. I am surprised to find how many people think I'm crazy for liking "Pirates 2" and "Entourage" as well! Ah well, I would rather hear the opinions of someone who has a different one than mine anyday, so hopefully people will find it interesting to read my wacky thoughts.

In any case, here's another small observation about "Entourage" that I think is an interesting storytelling technique.

Of the four main characters, two are more "realistic" or "empathetic" types and two are more "cartoony" or "stereotypical". What I mean is, Vincent and Eric are pretty "straight" characters. They deal with the kind of things we all deal with (particualrly Eric, he carries our regular-guy point-of-view on a strange situation: the world of Hollywood, actors and agents). So we empathize with him and feel for him. Most of the emotion we feel from the show comes from realting to how these two are feeling and what they're going through. They're relateable.

Then there are the two "cartoony" characters, Johnny and Turtle. They are harder to relate to but tons of fun to watch. They have problems that they cause for themselves by doing things we all know won't turn out well. They make impulsive, stupid decisions based on their own insecurities and inexperience. C'mon, what doesn't sound entertaining about that? They balance the pathos of the other two characters and make sure the show doesn't become maudlin. Whenever the show gets serious they're there to lighten things up.

Johnny, in particular, is such a fascinating character. He's amazingly caricatured and yet we all know people like him. He's constantly trying to keep up a macho facade and yet the most sensitive of all the characters. He's a mediocre has-been actor living off the success of his younger brother yet unable to face the truth of the situation. He has to rationalize everything to himself constantly so his fragile ego doesn't fall apart. He's truly a tragic figure and fascinating to watch. Kevin Dillon has to have the best role on television.

"Seinfeld" followed a similar pattern, I think. Jerry and Elaine had very relatable problems. Caricatured, yes, but everyone could identify with the kind of uncomfortable and uncharted social situations they always struggled with. Whereas George and, to a greater extent, Kramer dealt with cartoony problems and situations that were funnier and less relateable.

It's a balance that works well. Any story or group of characters that can cover the emotional side of things and the humorous side are going to work well. We crave both things in our stories. And it's hard to cover all the shades of emotion and all the wide range of humorous situations with the same characters so it's better to have well-defined categories and have a set for each type of storytelling.

And Ari Gold on "Entourage"? He's hard to classify. He's such an outrageous character that it's hard to feel emotional about him. If anyone other than Jeremy Piven played him I don't think he would be as great a character. But Piven does such a great job at making Ari's most desperate actions seem understandable. He's a character that can make you laugh, and yet while you're laughing you feel really sad for him. So maybe he's that rare instane where he covers both the empathetic and the cartoony side as well. So maybe it's Jeremy Piven who has the best role on television.

Or maybe it's just been a long day and I'm rambling. Anyway, just my opinion...feel free to tell me if you think I'm full of beans.


Michael Sporn said...

These are great observations about the show. I love your comparison to Seinfeld.It's spot on, accurate.
I wonder if Turtle's small bout with success will threaten his entry into the "real world," or will he remain a "cartoon."
The current shows haven't quite lived up to past years, but I expect some larger conflict to kick in soon.

klahd said...

I think, like a lot of shows, the first season was debatable, but then the second season really took a hold of characters that a lot of people thought were pretty simplistic and built on top of that. They did this great write up in the Times about how when "Sex and the City" went off the air, no one thought HBO had any good half-hour, character based comedies to replace it. But then the second season of "Entourage" began and everyone realized that it was, in character and story structure, a male SATC. And I think that has a lot to do with the points you mentioned above, because both shows utilize those same techniques.

Ali said...

Jeremy Piven is the most underrated character actor in America. He should be a household name and make millions.

I may start a blog dedicated to Jeremy Piven. ;)

I think how funny or how relateable the story situation is can be more based on context than on character. I agree with your Seinfeld analysis. But if you look at a show like Frasier, you will see that a character can be cartoony as well as sincere depending on the context. In the context of Frasier's trouble with women, work and Eddie, he is hilarious and cartoony. In the context of his relationship with his Dad, his son or his dead mother, he is sincere and relateable.

It's sad when most of your cultural archetypes are sitcom characters.

Lee-Roy said...

Sorry I can't offer a different or fresh opinion to counter yours, because I LOVED Pirates 2. What a fantastic story! An epic campfire story.