On shows like The Newsroom, Californication, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the curmudgeon is exalted; intentionally unlikable folks populate the worlds of Girls and Mad Men; and a thoroughly bratty child holds court on Game of Thrones. Opportunists, narcissists, jerks, the morally bankrupt – these are some of people that we tune in to watch every week.
I’d say all of this is a good thing, a sign that we’re living during a time where viewers are smart enough and open-minded enough to appreciate irony and satire and flawed, realistic characters. But sometimes, maybe not usually, or even often, people aren’t selfish, cold, or totally self-involved, and for the sake of diversity, it would be nice to see more shows with characters who are as optimistic as, say, Hank Moody is misanthropic.
To make myself clear, I’m not saying that there aren’t enough family-oriented programs on TV today – that isn’t an issue that I’m even remotely concerned with. I’m not advocating wholesomeness or a return to the benign, Miller-Boyett characters of my ’90s, TGIF-centric youth (I cherish the Danny Tanners and Balki Bartokomouses of that era, but TV is a lot more interesting now and I think even cousin Larry would tend to agree with that). But cynicism and self-centeredness are the go-to traits for so many characters and even if that’s an authentic representation of the way people actually are, it’s kind of boring. I mean, do I really need to see it on my TV all the time if it’s already a part of my daily life?
Thankfully, there’s 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell, the naïve NBC page turned janitor who is so sublimely selfless that, when trapped in an elevator with eight other people, he attempts to kill himself so as not to hog what precious little air there is. Even if you stripped away the fact that his body has no discernable smell, or that he doesn’t seem to age, or that his teeth were whittled for him, he’d still be weird because he’s pathologically upbeat. His behavior is extreme and his selflessness is equated with a kind of non-humanness but there isn’t anyone else like him on TV right now and I certainly welcome that novelty.
Leslie Knope, the recently elected City Councilor played by Amy Poehler on Parks and Recreation, is a genuinely decent person – perhaps the most genuinely decent person on TV – and less of a caricature than Kenneth. To be honest, I didn’t think that this show was particularly funny when I first started watching; what initially drew me to it, though, was Knope’s idealism. She’s ambitious but she isn’t cutthroat. She’s actually enthusiastic about her job and loves her town. Does this sort of person even exist?
Probably not, but we can live vicariously through the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana who are lucky to have someone so altruistic serving them.
It’s harder to create an interesting kind-hearted, optimistic character that really resonates with viewers than it is to create an interesting neurotic one or an interesting morally ambiguous one because these perennially bright figures strike most of us as false and one-dimensional – this is why I imagine so many people had a problem with Jess, the bubbly character Zooey Deschanel plays on New Girl. But one series that has managed to find a way to imbue its protagonist with depth and realism is HBO’s Enlightened.
Amy Jellicoe, Laura Dern’s character, has an emotional meltdown and then tries to emerge from the experience a better person. She fails at this repeatedly. What makes her compelling is the attempt at transforming herself into this righteous woman. She is self-involved, don’t get me wrong, but she’s making a concerted effort to turn her back on the anger that formerly defined her and that’s refreshing.