[20 May 2009]
I believe it was Neil Gaiman who suggested that writing serialized fiction is like jumping out of an airplane with a needle and thread and hoping you’ll have sewn a parachute before you hit the ground. Certainly there’s always been something of a slapdash, catch-as-catch-can, make-it-up-as-we-go-along feel to even the smartest and most ambitious of long-running television serials (Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
This reckless approach lends TV series (and some comic book series) a thrilling, anything-can-happen sort of spontaneity, but it also exposes the seams at times. (Fans rightly dismissed Spike’s attempt to rape Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s seventh season as a transparent bid by the show’s writers to remind the audience that Spike was evil, after having slowly neutered him over the course of three seasons.)
What I find most intriguing and satisfying about extended serial fiction is that it is uniquely equipped to reveal the startling extent to which a character can change over the course of time; while your average film might devote two hours to a given character’s narrative arc, Angel gave us five seasons to marvel at its title character as he struggled his way through 20-some episodes at a go. Removing commercials, each ostensibly hour-long entry offered perhaps 40 minutes of real story, but even then, you’re looking at a narrative which lasts well over 70 hours; a talented writer can do a lot with a character in 70 hours.
While Angel’s increasing (if also sporadic) domestication was compelling and comical, supporting characters Cordelia, Wesley and Fred/Illyria boasted far more rewarding arcs than the show’s protagonist: Wesley grew from a bumbling, deluded, self-aggrandizing milquetoast into a fierce warrior, then deeper into a dark, despairing, isolated outcast; Cordelia went from being rude, spoiled, mean and self-absorbed to being arguably the noblest and most selfless character on the show; Fred joined the show as a cowering lunatic who slowly learned to feel safe enough to trust and love, and who later became consumed by the evil entity Illyria, herself a stilted, pestilential monster who reluctantly became an almost unwitting ally to the surrogate family of the very woman she destroyed, and who shifted in a few short episodes from Big Bad to beloved comic relief. It is a rare movie that can subject a character to this kind of complex evolution.
While live-action television serials will probably always be richer and more credible than their animated counterparts (I do not anticipate the imminent broadcast of any animated equivalent of Mad Men or The Sopranos or Six Feet Under), characters in animated series can change in ways unique to their medium; if you require evidence that traditional acting varies wildly from voice acting, compare a Simpsons episode from 1990 to the episode that airs this week and ask yourself why Tony Soprano and Nate Fisher and Don Draper’s voices never changed the way Homer Simpson’s has.
Still and all, my favorite example of long-term character evolution in a television series is a character in a cartoon. I’m talking about Brock Samson, from Jackson Publick’s transcendent Adult Swim series, The Venture Bros.
We first meet Brock in “The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay”, the series pilot (which is only kinda-sorta considered canon, on account of it aired well over a year before the debut of the series proper.) He is the towering, broad-shouldered, mulleted bodyguard of the frail and effeminate Dr. Thaddeus Venture, and he spends entire scenes literally convulsing with barely or rarely concealed homicidal urges; his face twitches, and his response to seemingly any query or greeting is to reach for the soothing comfort of the nearest knife.
In three short seasons, Brock develops a paternal affection for Dr. Venture and his hapless sons, Hank and Dean. Further, far from the quivering, gleefully murderous beast of “Turtle Bay”, Brock has evolved into a so-calm-he’s-almost-lazy Zen master, regarding most threats to the Venture Compound as not particularly alarming, nor even necessarily worth getting up for (to be fair, Brock is already pretty damn stoic by the time the first official episode of Season One comes along.) In Season Two’s “Fallen Arches”, voice actor Patrick Warburton offers a brilliantly understated delivery of what might be my favorite line in the entire series; Brock seems to almost dismiss a group of invading villains in choppers before finally conceding, “I better go deal with this; they’re landing in my herb garden.”
Equally memorable is when the self-conscious Monarch is desperate to prove the viability of his Coccoon lair as a hotbed of hero-villain warfare, and Brock, clearly feeling nary a trace of legitimate bloodlust, nonetheless chooses to accommodate the villainous Monarch by dismembering several of his cannon-fodder cronies; if we require proof of Brock’s selfless motives in this scene, he turns at one point and gives a grateful Monarch a collegial thumbs-up.
In “The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay”, Brock boasted all the complexity of Tom and Jerry. (That said, he was a funny, intriguing character, even then.) Now, three seasons later, he is a father figure, a staunch Led Zeppelin fan, and a lover (his on-again, off-again partner in love/hate, Molotov Cocktease is one of the show’s most delightfully violent and ridiculous characters.)
Brock Samson is part killer, part nanny, and he seems wholly at home and at ease in both roles. I don’t know that even Mad Men could pull off such a character.