#2- “Sand-Boobs, Alcoholism, and Mommy Issues”- On Characters, Change, and Archer’s Return
Welcome to Chekhov’s Gunman- a film and television blog from the point of view of Kevin Lanigan, an aspiring film and television writer and past and future trick-or-treater. Mild spoilers lie ahead. You have been warned. If you yell at me, my father will fire your father.
You have to be careful with change. Human beings are creatures of habit. We have nightly routines and schedules for everything from exercise to television. It’s all habit. Change is dangerous to those set in their ways. Don’t believe me? Turn on the national news and wait for absolutely any news story. Someone will be against it. It’s the reason we stay in abusive relationships and it’s the reason we don’t buy it when Tom Cruise goes from dead-beat dad to Dakota Fanning-saving Tim Robbins killer.
Character change is a tough tightrope to walk. On the one hand, if no one changes or learns anything the audience is left to wonder what the point of all this was, exactly. On the other, more heavily laden, decades-old hand with more rip-offs than you could shake a stick at if you had a free hand, if the character has moved too far away from their original starting point, we feel jipped. It’s like they’re not even the same person anymore, just a plot point on some screenwriter’s check.
When a character is introduced, from the absolute first moment they are on screen, an idea forms in the audiences’ heads of who this person seems to be. We learn their personality, how they feel about those around them, their personal view on the song “Like a Virgin.” The tightrope that must be walked is advancing and increasing that character without losing the fundamentality of who they are. A crotchety old lady can learn that slavery is bad, as long as she remains crotchety and old about things that don’t have to with people in chains.
In Die Hard, we are introduced to John McClane as a wise-cracking, down-to-earth New York cop, and even after a horrible night where he learns how to respect his wife and kill German models, he still remains that guy. That’s also where most of the backlash against the sequels comes from, as John McClane has gradually moved away from the average guy in the wrong place at the wrong time to a jet-riding wrecking ball with an ever-changing line of side-kicks who firmly shoves his bloody feet right in the face of God and his stupid physics. We don’t like change.
This tightrope walk only gets harder the longer it gets, like on television or in “Trapped in the Closet” music videos. If the characters don’t evolve or deepen, especially in drama, things stagnate and the show dies. Every time. Unless maybe you’re CBS, which I believe stands for “Old People Leaving the TV On.”
Lost is one of the all-time greatest works in character depth, developing a flashback system that J.J. Abrams has replicated while slapping his name on Revolution and Person of Interest. The strength and range of characters kept us anchored to the shakier stretches of the show. If your characters are dull, so is your show.
Although it isn’t as commonly discussed, this is just as important on sitcoms as it is anywhere else. Character change is harder in this capacity because it changes the dynamic of the ensemble, aka The Only Thing That Makes Sitcoms Work. The greatest comedic writing in the world can be killed by dead chemistry. On the other side, mediocre writing can be saved by solid chemistry. Look at any movie starring Jackie Chan and someone who isn’t Jackie Chan.
Community has done a decent job of this over its time, keeping the character of Jeff Winger mostly grounded in his own snarky self, as things like his vanity and his empathy towards people have advanced.
There are different kinds of chemistry, from traditional sitcom chemistry (more theatrical, like we see on MASH up through The Big Bang Theory) to The Walking Dead’s tense love triangle between Rick, Lori, and a zombie’s dismembered jaw bone. Not all chemistry is the same, but it has to be there, and you can always tell.
But, as I said, change can kill the ensemble, so some seem to avoid change altogether.
That brings me to Archer.
Throughout its three aired seasons, not an awful lot has changed over at ISIS. Sterling Archer has remained fundamentally the same self-centered, wise-cracking jerk with near-devastating mother issues. His supporting cast of sociopaths has remained largely the same as well. This poses an important question. Why hasn’t it stagnated? Stagnant water breeds mosquitos, and we’ve all seen enough mosquito sitcoms to bleed us to death, so why hasn’t that happened with Archer? If a shark stops moving, it dies. Why isn’t Archer dead in the water?
A new paradigm has entered entertainment, where ever-increasing character depth can supplement character growth, often with even more entertaining results. Archer views each of its characters like onions, slowly peeling back layer after layer into the sullen, terrible cores at the heart of each of them. It does so lovingly, taking great joy from their twisted, dark psychosis. It feels like change to us as an audience, because new and interesting things are still happening and developing.
It’s not a trick, nor is it cheating or lazy writing. In fact, it’s abnormally clever. As I mentioned in my last column, we’ve become rather used to the standard delegation of story turns and character change that it’s incredibly difficult to surprise us anymore. The best way to do something new is to do something new. Don’t let anybody tell you different.
This new idea on character change can work, like any idea, if and only if it is used correctly. Usually in the case of alcoholics, because it is well-documented that alcoholics are about as easily moveable as a glacier in a snowstorm. The best way to make this idea work organically is to thread it into the project, either to the character or to the theme.
For a great example, look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredibly divisive but also incredible The Master. Joaquin Phoenix’s transformative, flawless, and almost certainly Oscar-denied Freddy Quell is an uncontainable idea, an immovable object, and kind of a dick. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s alluring and devilish Lancaster Dodd ensnares many in his web of big dreams and bigger words. He’s a man of bluster and importance, and he started a cult, so, yeah, he’s a little persuasive. The only one to really escape is Freddy Quell, Alcoholic. Because, as has been stated here and in an insurmountable number of author-surrogate creative writing assignments, alcoholics can be a tough lot to work with. One of the most interesting facets of the journey was that easily the most incredibly flawed character was also the one to resist the man who seemed to be perfect. Alcohol? Yes. Crippling sex addiction? Yes. Philip Seymour Hoffman? No.
As I fear I may have to do on the majority of these columns, here is a disclaimer. Before I get cited by misreading screenplay writers for giving them faulty information, hear my closing arguments: If you are reading this, and you intend to start writing things, whether they be screenplays, play-plays, or those paper-bound blog posts known as books, know this and follow this to a tee… Change Your Characters, Mate! (CYCM)
CYCM is and will always be the forte to write to. The Master is so divisive because almost half of the people who saw it took an issue with the fact that Joaquin Phoenix’s character never changes. Every single person who I cited in this article as having written an unchanging character didn’t dare do so on their first major project. You cannot and should not ever attempt this until you have a near-mastery over scriptwriting. It is dangerous and you will die. Paul Thomas Anderson wrote five fantastic movies before he dared tell the story of Joaquin Phoenix denying Philip Seymour Hoffman and groping sand-boobs on the beach instead. And he was denied an Oscar nomination because of it.
Oscars aren’t something to live or die by, but it’s a pretty decent way to determine of your movie was alright. We as humans are resistant to change, but the folks over at the Academy still love to watch people realize that slavery is bad.
Be creative. For the love of my sanity, be creative. But if you have to tell more than a handful of trusted people, “You just don’t get it,” it may be time to instead write something with talking animals and get a ten picture deal at Dreamworks.
Chekhov’s Gunman is updated regularly by Kevin Lanigan. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinWroteThis and he loves discussion, so be sure to leave your comments below on what you thought of this article. If you think the people in your scriptwriting class need to see this, chances are they probably do.