Why TV Shows Should be More Like Comic Books

This post contains some implicit and I think somewhat obvious spoilers about Dexter.

I don’t read comic books. (I never have,  really, even when I was a kid). I did read a Michael Chabon book about them once, though, so I think that makes me qualified to discuss them as an expert. In particular, the trait of comic books that I want to discuss is the idea of recurring characters, particularly recurring villains.

You see, most dramas on TV mishandle recurring a certain type of recurring character — the one big enough to build an episode around. When I say mishandle, I probably mean eschew: most dramas will have a “Big Bad” who dominates an episode or a season, but not one that pops into episodes across (or even within) seasons. Some examples of the type of character I’m talking about: Q from Star Trek, Lilith from Frasier, Maggie Lizer (as in, “lies her ass off”) from Arrested Development, Saffron (Mal’s “wife”) from Firefly, and Newman from Seinfeld.

There’s a reason that all of my examples are either sitcoms or sci-fi — sitcoms are almost completely non-serialized (each episode is independent of the others), and sci-fi descends from a comic book, pulp fiction background. It’s hard to find good examples of well-executed recurring characters from dramas (though I challenge/implore the readers of this post to do so in the comments). Part of the reason for this is that most good dramas are serialized: they have stories to tell that span multiple episodes; other dramas are so purely procedural that stories never bridge multiple episodes (criminals from Law and Order don’t come back to kill again). Nevertheless, there’s a solid middle ground of dramas that have both procedural and serial elements: each episode has a similar story, but collectively they add up to more than the sum of their parts. It’s these last group of shows that consistently underperform and which I’ll be talking about in this post.

Take Dexter. Please. Dexter is a show whose deterioration can be traced in large part to the approach it took to its villains: they always die. Here’s the way Dexter has trained its audience: there’re two types of bad guys — little bads and Big Bads. Little bads are introduced in the same episode in which they die (the one exception to this I remember offhand is a drug dealer in season 2, who muddles on to get offed in his second appearance). Big Bads are introduced in the same season in which they die. Thus, if you see a Big Bad, and it’s the second-to-last episode of the season, you know his time is short.  The tension is whether Dexter gets him in episode 12 or 13.  This takes all the suspense out of the show, both in individual episodes (the little bads always die), and in the season as a whole (there’s only so much change that can occur). Incidentally, Burn Notice works the same way, with a couple exceptions.

Imagine a different Dexter, one where, rather than dying immediately, some of the little bads escaped Dexter’s wrath, and were always somewhere in the background, waiting to jump out into another episode (maybe they’d come after Dexter’s family; maybe they’d blackmail him). Even better than this, of course, would be a recurring Big Bad. How could would it be if Jimmy Smits was always in the background, kept at bay via an uneasy truce with Dexter but always with the potential of revealing his secret or coming after his family?

The more important feature of good recurring characters is not so much the characters themselves (though it’s true that the best Burn Notice episodes are probably the ones with Jay Karnes’recurring character Brennen, and the Dollhouse episodes with Alpha are also better than the rest of the show). Instead, having some recurring characters raises the stakes in every procedural episode and across every season. In Justified (the rare drama to do a good job with recurring characters well, which I’ll write about tomorrow) some little bads die in the episode they’re introduced, but some come back to piss off Raylan again. This creates a great deal more suspense, because the viewer genuinely doesn’t know what’s going to happen in a given episode: maybe the villain lives; maybe he dies. Maybe he goes to prison; maybe he gets away. Compare this to Monk, where every mystery gets solved and every killer gets his just desserts. Ultmately, if TV shows introduced a bit more variety, and were more tolerant of uncertainty in the resolution of a plotline, they and their viewers would be greatly rewarded.

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3 thoughts on “Why TV Shows Should be More Like Comic Books

  1. I agree with your general proposal here, but I think you might be taking it too far.

    “Imagine a different Dexter, one where, rather than dying immediately, some of the little bads escaped Dexter’s wrath, and were always somewhere in the background, waiting to jump out into another episode”

    One of the worst things that can happen to an awesome villain is that he or she becomes lame due to overuse. Q was great in TNG. He popped up a few times over 7 years, always doing something new and crazy, and he anchored the amazing series finale. However, he showed up every few weeks on Voyager, the writers ran out of novel things for him to do, and he became basically comic relief.

    I like the idea of bad guys getting away to keep the audience unaware of what will happen next, but great villains must always be used sparingly!

  2. I completely agree with you Josh. I think the best example of how powerful this type of storytelling can be is the wire. (I’m placing the wire into your hybrid category). Omar is the best recurring character ever used on television. But the wire was so good that it used multiple recurring characters spanning several seasons (bubbles, prop joe, etc.). It also did a fantastic job of turning ostensibly tertiary characters into primary characters and vice versa. Thus, while watching the show, you learned that you could never ignore any person you met because they may well be important three seasons later AND you could not trust that someone who seemed fundamental to the show would always be there.

  3. I think you’re right on the money. Dexter, in particular, suffers from its lack of overarching antagonists — particularly when it’s forced to dredge up new ones. I still think Season One of Dexter was its best, and although I didn’t have a problem with that story arc, the pattern of introduce/eliminate sags even more as the writers struggle to come up with new foes.

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