Every TV character is the same (and we like it that way)


Have you ever watched a TV show and thought a character was just like you or someone you know? Maybe you’re best friends with a Phoebe or a Chandler, or maybe your boss is actually a Michael Scott. Finding these real-life connections to on-screen characters is part of the appeal of television. But have you ever considered the similarities characters on different shows have to one another?

Television (and film, literature, and other media) is full of what we call character archetypes – molds that help shape and define our favorite individuals on screen. Here’s a few examples you’ll recognize:

The Anti-Hero

Style: "Mad Men"The Anti-Hero has become an increasingly common protagonist character. He’s not a hero in the traditional sense – he may be immoral, unstable, deluded, or struggling with a dark and troubled past – but we accept these flaws and root for him anyways.

A few recognizable Anti-Heroes include Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, Dr. House on House, Don Draper on Mad Men, and Walter White on Breaking Bad.

The Fool

GilligansIsland_74.jpgThe Fool never seems to have any idea what’s going on. He can usually be found tripping over his own feet or bumbling his part in the plan to catch the bad guy. He may unintentionally create trouble, but nothing bad ever seems to happen to him – he’ll always duck to pick up something shiny on the ground just as the villain swings his sword. The Fool’s cheerful disposition and tendency to make a mess of even the simplest of tasks combine to make him the most lovable of idiots.

Some examples of TV Fools include Gilligan in Gilligan’s Island, Maxwell Smart in Get Smart, Joxer the Mighty in Xena, and Ron Stoppable in Kim Possible.

The Chosen One

Harry Potter wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last.

buffyThe basic premise of this character type can be summed up in one sentence: “Only you, The Chosen One, can save the world from demons/vampires/evil/[insert other applicable peril here]!” This is often one of the least difficult archetypes to spot because the character(s) in question is almost constantly being referred to as “the chosen one” by other characters.

Some TV Chosen Ones include the Halliwell sisters from Charmed, Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Winchester brothers in Supernatural, and Emma Swan in Once Upon a Time.

There are plenty other character archetypes on screen, from “The Cynic” to “The Eccentric Mentor” to “The Dumb Muscle” (find a list with more archetypes and examples here), and frankly, it probably isn’t news to most of us that these archetypes exist. In fact, sometimes we even acknowledge them.

One of my favorite “call out the archetype” moments happens in the 1976 film Network. A woman relays pitches for new TV shows to a network executive. While the ideas are supposed to be for different shows, the woman uses the phrase “crusty but benign” to describe an elderly gentleman character over and over again – each “unique” show pitch fell back on the same type of characters.

networkThe scene’s humor comes from the audience’s recognition of the common character tropes on television, but this brings us to another question: if we recognize the characters on our favorite TV programs are often essentially the same, why do we continue to watch them?

“The world can only be known in relation to peoples’ experience of it, not independently of that experience.” – Tom Andrews, Grounded Theory Review

In the context of television programming, this means writers must create characters that fit into the social context in which viewers expect to see them. If a character does not fit into a socially constructed archetype, the audience may find them harder to understand and relate to, making the program less interesting and enjoyable overall. In essence, the relatable character (even the archetyped one) is the most loved.

If you need more proof, think of that TV character from earlier who reminds you of yourself or someone you know. This character is your TV spirit animal. My TV spirit animal is Liz Lemon from 30 Rock (who is played by my real-life spirit animal, Tina Fey). Our fascination with relating to these characters leaks into the online world through Buzzfeed articles like 21 Ways You Are Definitely Leslie Knope or 29 Reasons Why You Are Liz Lemon.

say yes

You might be thinking that character archetypes would make media boring, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I think they are actually essential to successful TV because they help create bonds with the audience. We can’t always relate to the situations TV characters find themselves in (I don’t have any experience slaying vampires or being the mother of dragons, for example), which is why it’s so important to be able to relate to the characters themselves on such a human level.

Don Draper and Walter White may both be Anti-Heroes, but in the end, we actually like it that way.


A Beginner’s Guide to Flaking


Scenario: You make plans to meet a friend for drinks Friday night at 8. At 5pm you text them, “Still on for tonight?”

What are the possible responses, and how do you know if they’re flaky?

The True Confirmation

Flake rating: 0 (Not Flaky)

Reaffirms your plans (and means it). Shows up for drinks. Totally great and not flaky.

The Fake Confirmation

Flake rating: 1 (Deceptively Flaky)

Texts you back at 5 saying you’re definitely still on for drinks, then follows up an hour or two later (or worst-case, just before 8) with some kind of reversal message. Something came up, they can’t make it, or they just don’t feel like going out any more. The message probably contains some kind of self-deprecating statement like, “I know, I suck” or “I’m literally the worst!”

the worst

The Chronic “Maybe” Case

Flake rating: 2 (Maybe Flaky)

Catchphrase: “I’m not sure I can make it, but I’ll try!” It’s the friend who can neither confirm nor deny if she’ll be able to follow through with your plans…ever. Are they really unsure, or is “maybe” just their nice way of saying no? This one probably depends on the person. If they have an unpredictable job or a busy family life, the “maybe” may be for real. If not, they may just be stringing you along, which definitely makes them flaky.

The “Sorry, something came up!”

Flake rating: 3 (Flaky)

Vague and unoriginal, but at least this person thought you were important enough to not leave hanging. There’s about a 75% chance this is a total lie and they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a more specific excuse to ditch you. Or maybe they did actually have something come up last minute that’s more important than your plans together. Either way, definitely flaky.

The Zero-response No-show

Flake rating: 4 (Frustratingly Flaky)

Unacceptable. End friendship. You don’t need this kind of person in your life.

not cool

I’m kidding, but really, unless a true emergency happened to prevent this person from contacting you, there’s no excuse to both not respond and not show up as planned – not with all the ways we have to get in touch with someone.

But the same tools making it easier to contact our friends have contributed to an influx of those friends flaking out on us. Technology makes flaking easier than ever before; you can cancel plans via text or Facebook faster and easier than you could ever cancel face-to-face. Technology makes flaking more convenient (for the flaker) and less socially awkward.

“Nothing lets us so seamlessly shed our commitments quite like a text.” – Kata Hakala, Mic.com

Still, just because we can ditch plans more conveniently doesn’t mean we should. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a flaky text, you know how frustrating it can be. (Especially if you’re in touch with the kind of flaker who tells you they can’t make it for drinks only after you’re already waiting at the bar.)

I think part of the flaking issue stems from an unacknowledged disagreement among friends about Acceptable Flaking Protocol (AFP). Facebook invites are a great example of the disconnect in people’s idea of AFP. Does joining a Facebook event have the same value as a verbal commitment to attend an event? If you join a Facebook event and then can’t actually make it, are you obliged to change your online response to a no? If you don’t change your response and you don’t go, are you flaking? And are all these rules different depending on the event itself (size, location, host)?

idk (shrug)

Then there’s the whole issue of the flaking time frame. How long before an event or commitment should you give notice that you can’t make it? Does AFP suggest 24 hours, an hour, 5 minutes? Again, does it depend where you’re going and who you’re with?

The question isn’t why we’re flaking – we all know why.

cancelling plans

The question is how technology will change our communication patterns, and how we’ll have to create new social rules to deal with the changes.

For now, I’m left waiting for a universally recognized AFP.