Why do TV Show Characters End Up Becoming Parodies of Themselves?
Sometimes Giving Fans Exactly What They Want can be a Double-Edged Sword.
Felix Quiñonez Jr.
Everyone has different ideas on what makes a show work, but we can all agree that the characters are essential. We see things through their eyes and experience the story through them and their perspectives. That’s why it’s crucial that as the audience, we find the characters relatable or at least understand their points of view.
When a show treats its characters with respect and care, then we also care about them. Well-developed characters can remind us of people we know. We’ve all seen shows and thought, “I know someone just like that.”
The thing is that we usually grow and develop as people. When we watch a well-done show, it feels like the characters are growing along with us. Unfortunately, with some shows, the exact opposite is true.
At the start of the show, characters are often more rounded and closer to real people. They feel like someone you might run into on the street. They have more than one side to them. Sure, they are often there to fill particular roles. Whether that’s the ladies’ man of the show, the cool older brother, etc., but they are more than just their function. However, as the show goes on, it’s like they get swallowed entirely by one defining characteristic, and that’s all we see of them. That one facet of them becomes so overwhelming that they become one dimensional.
From Boy Meets World, Eric (Will Friedle) is the perfect example of a character becoming increasingly one-dimensional throughout a series. Even watching the show as a kid, I noticed this and wondered what happened to him. The change was even more glaring when I revisited the show recently. By the end, he’s barely recognizable as the same character.
Boy Meets World was a staple in the lives of a lot of 90’s kids. It was one of the shows that we felt was distinctly ours and not something our parents made us watch. We grew up beside the characters and could relate to their experiences. We felt like we knew them and that we were invested in their lives. At times, watching an episode felt like inviting friends over and catching up. It was also something we’d use as a way to relate to one another. The latest episode was a regular topic of conversation at the lunch table or after school.
Although Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) was the protagonist and the titular boy, his older brother Eric was an essential member of the cast and an instant fan favorite. He often stole scenes and was a cornerstone of the show, providing levity and moving moments.
Eric was never the smartest guy in the room, but he also wasn’t a dumb person. Yes, he often did dumb things, that’s hardly debatable. But that was usually due to his being a teenager and not thinking things through. And to call him a bit girl crazy would be a severe understatement. Because of this, he often wound up doing ridiculous things to win over a girl. But it felt real because when you’re a teenager, hormones have a pretty solid grip on your actions. And frankly, many of us knew someone who would get himself in similar situations.
He was also a bit shallow and even ditzy, but you could at least tell that he was a fully functional human being, and more importantly, he was generally grounded. He was the kind of person who would ultimately do the right thing even if that cost him what he wanted.
Eric had a kind heart and a moral compass, and even though his schemes didn’t usually work, he was smart enough to come up with them. He was cool and charming. Topanga (Danielle Fishel) even had a crush on him at one point. He was also a caring older brother. He was there for both cory and Morgan. Even though he sometimes gave Cory a hard time, he was just as likely to provide him advice. On more than one occasion, he also stood up to cory’s bullies.
Unfortunately, as the show progressed, he gradually lost all of the traits that made him feel like a real person and made audiences care about him. Little by little, he regressed until he became nothing but a vessel for forced comic relief. The cool, caring, charming Eric disappeared. In his place was a childish and obnoxious caricature of who he once was.
He once felt like a fleshed-out human being but was now someone that could only ever exist on a television show. When he’d do things like walk around the college campus dressed as a tree, trying to sneak up on Topanga, he resembled a cartoon character. In moments like that, and there were lots of them, it felt like he wouldn’t be out of place in a roadrunner cartoon.
The weird part was that during these times, the rest of the cast just ignored him. It was like he was on a different show altogether. More accurately, it felt like the writers no longer knew what to do with him but couldn’t get rid of him because they knew fans liked him. At one point, it seemed as if the writers stopped trying to incorporate him into the stories. Instead, they just came up with increasingly dumb things for Eric to do onscreen. Sometimes that meant that Eric would be inexplicably scared of the dark, like a child.
In one episode, Eric Sets Cory’s dorm on fire. When the firefighters break through the door with an ax, Eric kept singing and dancing, seemingly incapable of grasping the situation. At times like that, he bore no resemblance to the character the audience loved. Scenes like that were genuinely disruptive. It made you think that he needed to see a doctor of some kind. It was a shame because, initially, Eric was genuinely a funny character who had no trouble making audiences laugh. By the end, he became a one-dimensional cartoon, and the laughs came at his expense.
Another example of this trend is Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother. No matter what you think of the show’s finale or the entire last season, the show was, at one point, genuinely excellent. Sure, the laughs could sometimes be a bit broad, but it had quality writing, the characters were perfectly cast, and the actors had terrific chemistry.
The premise of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) telling his children the story of how he met their mother was unique. By essentially setting up the series’ endgame right away, it gave audiences something to look forward to. It also added extra meaning to events. Suddenly a date wasn’t just a date; it was also a chance for audiences to speculate. Could she be the one? The audience would decipher clues and red herrings along the way. I can’t think of any other show that made viewers get so excited about a yellow umbrella.
The pilot was great, it not only gave us the show’s ultimate destination, but it expertly set up expectations only to subvert it by the end of the same episode. At times, especially in the earlier seasons, the show was genuinely insightful. It gave heartfelt and believable explorations of relationships, growing up, and even what it’s like to live in New York City. And it had great music. This show is only one of two times I can recall ever hearing The Walkmen on screen. (The other time, was in the movie 50/50)
Although Ted was ostensibly the show’s lead, Barney was the real star. Barney was the Pacey to Ted’s Dawson. He was the fun and refreshing counterweight to Ted, who could sometimes be melodramatic and whiny. It’s easy to forget, but for a time, Barney was a genuine pop culture icon. There was a point when it was hard to go out and not hear someone say, “…wait for it.” People were continually describing things as “Legendary,” even when they weren’t. I’m also ashamed to admit that I traded my jeans and t-shirts for a suit for a very brief time. I know it’s embarrassing, but I’m only telling you because we’re such good friends.
But back to Barney. He dated an assembly line of beautiful women, but that was only an aspect of who he was. If that was all there was to him, he could still be entertaining, but audiences wouldn’t care about him as much. Instead, he was a multifaceted, realistic character who just happened to date a lot. He felt like a real person. Many of us probably knew someone just like him.
The show even went further by giving Barney and origin story. Sure, he was an incredibly charming guy who could quickly get just about any woman he wanted, but that wasn’t always the case. Through flashbacks, we got to see Barney before he became a ladies’ man. After a woman broke his heart, he decided that he wouldn’t let that happen again. More importantly, we found out that his persona was an armor. We also learned that his father abandoned him at a young age and that he has abandonment issues. This added a layer to his character, and we sometimes go to see the cracks in that armor.
The show also made a lot of effort to make it clear that he was not a one-dimensional character. He was always there for his friends and loved ones when it counted. But that only made it much more disappointing to see how towards the end of the show, he became a parody of himself.
Unfortunately, one could say the same about the show itself. How I Met Your Mother feels like one of those shows that went on for at least a couple of seasons longer than it should have. You could argue that by the end, all the characters became parodies of themselves.
But Barney was the worst offender. As the show progressed, his efforts to get women grew increasingly elaborate and ridiculous. He was no longer a believable character but a caricature of who he used to be. At the show’s peak, Barney felt like a person, the audience might know. By the end of the show, he dressed up like a genie and told women his penis could grant wishes.
Although his schemes were zany from the beginning, in the early seasons, it felt balanced. By the end, the silliness took over, and he no longer resembled a real person. What’s worse is that he came off as desperate, weird, and downright creepy by the end. If the show was airing today, I genuinely wonder if people would have a problem with the way Barney behaved in the later seasons.
To the show’s credit, they did address some of this in the finale. And Barney’s ending was pretty good. Unfortunately, that gets overshadowed by the last season’s and the show finale’s many deficiencies. But that’s a story for another post.
Another prime example of this is Gretchen (Aya Cash) from You’re the Worst. The show centers around two self-involved people, Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen, and their relationship with each other and their best friends.
It almost seems unfair to single her out since the same could be said about the other members of the show’s very insular, core group. However, it’s most disappointing with her because, at the show’s peak, she was undeniably brilliant. Aya Cash is a comedic genius who, when needed, could be heartbreakingly vulnerable. She often felt like the emotional center of the show and, through her performance, helped elevate it to something exceptional.
Sure, you could say that she was over-the-top from the beginning. And it’s certainly true that she was never the most mature character. She’s been self-destructive and insensitive from the start. At times she resembled a spoiled 10-year-old in an adult’s body.
But during the show’s peak, that was always balanced with pathos. Gretchen’s antics, the way she behaved with friends, in relationships, or sabotaged her career were manifestations of her struggles with depression. Through her performance and the show’s willingness to tackle mature topics, we got to see the larger picture of who she was as a character.
Heartbreaking scenes like the one in which Gretchen first reveals her depression to Jimmy allow the viewer to understand her and why she behaves the way she does. Her honest and brave depiction of depression made the viewer feel genuinely invested in her life and sometimes even protective of her. It’s no easy feat to make viewers care about a character who often, actively, makes it very hard to do so.
Unfortunately, as the show progressed, it often felt more interested in upping the ante when it came to Gretchen. While she could often still be very entertaining, her behavior felt less grounded and balanced. It felt like the writers were more concerned with making Gretchen increasingly silly and over the top than exploring the root of her behavior.
In the earlier seasons, the things she did and the way she behaved still felt somewhat plausible. You could believe she was a real person. By the end of the show, Gretchen acted in a way that could only really exist on the screen. The show and her character, too often, felt divorced from reality. The only reason the people around her didn’t punch her in the face, or worse, was because they were on a tv show. Meanwhile, the more serious themes and subject matter that were once prominent parts of the show often felt pushed aside or forgotten. And when they did appear, it didn’t feel natural but as something cynically tacked on.
To be fair, the show is still enjoyable even in the end. But I would argue that’s because the show had built up a lot of goodwill during its incredible earlier seasons. By that point, you already knew a lot about the characters. When the show reduced Gretchen to a one-dimensional cartoon, as the viewers, we could fill in the blanks. But if the show had portrayed her this way from the start, I never would have made it past the first season, and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.
So, why is this such a common occurrence on television? Like many things, there’s probably not one definitive answer. Part of it could be as simple as writers getting lazy. It’s much easier to have characters do silly things for cheap laughs than developing interesting stories and arcs for them.
A lot of times shows simply stay on the air for too long. If it is successful enough, networks will find ways to keep it going regardless of whether the writers have any stories to tell. But in another way, we, as the audience, can be partly to blame. In the beginning, the writers have no way of knowing what the audience will enjoy.
As the show goes on, though, they learn what audiences like about the characters and bend over backward to provide more. What happens is that what used to be one side of a character becomes their defining characteristic. The writers go overboard and turn them into one-dimensional caricatures. In the end, by trying to give the audience precisely what they think we want, the writers end up erasing what made us like the characters in the first place.