The thing you call ‘character development’ isn’t really character development.
Sometimes I think the true bottoming out of pop culture began when Chris Pratt lost weight. Not because he lost weight, but it was around that time.
Pratt was known for little more than his role as chubby goofball Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation when he was chosen for the lead role of Starlord in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. While Pratt had to undergo a way over-publicized body transformation for the role, it otherwise wasn’t hard to see why he was chosen. Through his portrayal of Dwyer, Pratt had carved himself out a cozy little place in the hearts of TV viewers. Andy was a sweet, dimwitted goofball, a devoted husband and a dependable best friend. Even his flaws — extreme irresponsibility and incomprehensible stupidity — were cute and the source of most of the series’ biggest laughs. Beyond the spectre of Parks and Rec, Pratt and every character he played were shoved down our collective throats as a loveable, carefree oaf who also happened to have a rockin’ bod. He became a light box office draw, and his character slowly started commanding more attention on the show that made him famous. No one could get over how sweet and silly Andy was.
It’s hard to remember that this wasn’t the Andy we were supposed to get.
Season 1 of Parks and Rec is generally regarded as one best forgotten. The characters were regarded as either boring or bad rip-offs of The Office archetypes. The overarching plot was uninteresting and the day-to-day plots had been done before (see once again: The Office). One other glaring difference — one of the very things that brought Leslie and Ann together — is that Andy, then the boyfriend of Ann, was a selfish, needy, crass partner. He spent most of the first season lying to Ann in order to get her to take care of him, and his lack of ambition, rather than being cute, is a genuine detriment to Ann’s life.
But series creator Michael Schur saw a star in Pratt. When he was made a series regular for the second season, he was given a character makeover — while he still showed jealous tendencies with regard to Ann, they manifested in excess levels of zany sitcom antics. In order to become the comic relief, Andy’s selfishness-driven idiocy was transformed into childish ignorance and bewonderment. From the moment he was paired romantically with April, it was clear: the show had reneged its original portrayal of Andy and now wanted us to like him.
Numerous TV writers and listicle generators have labelled Andy as a supreme example of character development. With all due respect: you have no idea what character development really is.
Andy Dwyer didn’t develop. He was rewritten.
As a literary device, character development is essential in virtually any text in order to give the reader a sense of an emotional journey. The only times a text can seemingly be effective without character development is when the characters’ static nature is, in itself, a plot device (see: I’m Thinking of Ending Things).
When character development is brought into a television setting, however, it becomes difficult to convey, even under the most effective creative leadership. Writers rooms rarely stay exactly the same from season-to-season. Episode writers and consulting producers play musical chairs with regards to their roles on the shows on a near-weekly basis. Television shows are also one of the only medium whose reception and commercial success can change over time at the same time the text is playing out. The longer a show plays out, the more we’re likely to see jabs at “character development” that is actually fluctuation from writer to writer and the convenient softening or all-out abandonment of previously established traits for the sake of likeability, with the ultimate goal of commercial success in mind.
There are two main kinds of character development that aren’t really character development: Type A is the aforementioned Andy treatment, in which a character is consciously rewritten and then spends the remainder of the series lapping it up in fans’ good graces. Type B is the shakier, episode-to-episode variations, with “development” really being a series of convenient epiphanies, only to be forgotten and re-learned again because the writers don’t know how to create conflict without such actions.
Both types are most common in comedy. Andy isn’t even the only cast member of Parks & Rec who is a Type A; the show decided somewhere between the second and third season to become a show fully about adult children, which made Andy’s transformation less conspicuous. After weeding out Mark Brendanowitz, a character whose dryness is looked upon by fans with almost universal vitriol, nearly every single character remaining and introduced became far more infantile, because Park & Rec had a mission to make everyone “loveable” and didn’t know how to do that with professional, 30- and 40-something characters who acted their age. Leslie had always had her head in the clouds, but Tom went from being sardonic and apathetic to a full-on rejection of reality and social norms; April went from being a bord goth-lite teenager to someone with a near-constant impulse to be performatively weird; Ron as a character derived just as much humour from acting out-of-character (high-pitched giggle fits and unexpected outbursts) as staying true to character; Ben could barely stay a straight man for a full season before he devolved into an anxious mess; Chris’s obsessions with health and living forever causes him to pretty quickly leave the bounds of reality. I’ve spoken before about TV shows — comedic and dramatic alike — having a pathological need to make their characters likeable.
As audiences, we want to enjoy ourselves, and so in shows — particularly those that are semi-serialized, ones which don’t necessarily follow an overarching plot throughout the seasons but don’t reset to Simpsons-level status quo every episode — we will naturally find ways to endear ourselves to all of the characters involved at some point. As we invest ourselves in them, we long to see “growth.” But the easiest way for writers to do that — with maximum payoff — is for all growth to lead to characters becoming nicer, funnier, more mature and have more chemistry with even more members of the cast.
When I explain my degree — cultural studies — to others, I usually explain that the difference between art and culture is that culture is art plus context. Art becomes an item for us to engage with on a cultural level when we put it into context — most often sociopolitical context. But there’s also historical context, specifically the context of its own history.
Steve Harrington is one of the most delightful characters within Stranger Things, but at a certain point even I have to realize that the most entertaining aspect of Steve in the third season is not really any personality traits he actively displays. It’s his context: that he used to be a jerk jock, and now he spends all his time scooping ice cream and helping out his little nerdy friends on adventures. Had Steve been introduced in these circumstances, no one would find his character cute or worthy of carrying on from season to season; he’s also such a dopey, harmless presence by the third season that it’s easy to forget that he was an all-out hate sink in the first three quarters of Season 1.
For even longer-running series, like Friends or The Office, it’s not even a case of going from hate sink to pitiful nerd in a matter of two seasons; you’re more likely to see the Type B character development, having critics call someone’s best moments “growth” while ignoring a near-total reset the next week when a different writer has taken the reins.
It is true that human emotional development is not a linear pathway, so on one hand it is believable that in some cases, writers jump around a fair amount. In that regard, it might make sense that in Season 3 of The Office, Michael has learned how to show sensitive appreciation for Pam and her art, but in Season 4 he’s humiliating her in front of potential student interns. But there’s a limit on that. Does it then make sense for Michael to have developed a stunning sense of dignity and self preservation while running the Michael Scott Paper Company, only to reveal at a company picnic weeks later that a branch is closing — and feel very little remorse? And between Andy’s Play, The Christening, Viewing Party and Classy Christmas, Michael seemingly has to learn over and over that the world does not revolve around his emotional impulses. He’s seemingly unable to learn, long-term, from an epiphany, until something comes along (his engagement to Holly) that makes the writers decide to make it stick.
It seems at many times as though “character development” is actually a search, on the writers’ part, for gratification; to put all their efforts into unearthing a positive quality of an otherwise hateful character and then stand around shrugging with “what now?” Either the character resets completely, or they continue on an unrealistic skyrocketing trajectory toward lovable flawlessness. Neither is realistic.
Additionally, many showrunners and writers fail to embrace the idea that not all character development has to be for the better — and I don’t mean in the enviable “Wow, Walter White is one evil dude now!” kind of way (something being “badass” is not the same as being “bad”). While I’m against the gratuitous infliction of trauma and calling that character development, there’s still a need to have your character’s evolving psyche reflect the circumstances around them. Whether it’s a crumbling facade, like Gemma in Sons of Anarchy or increased overcompensation like Mr. Peanut Butter in Bojack Horseman, it shows a good deal of self-discipline and understanding of the long game to make a character less likeable as the show goes on (which is why I can’t overstate enough that I love that the writers of This is Us, after they realized that they couldn’t squeeze any additional sentimentality out of the William storyline, decided to lean into Randall’s most toxic traits in the third and fourth seasons).
Interestingly, I find Bojack to be one of the few comedies that actually gets character development right; Orange is the New Black comes close as well, although it’s hard to fully identify either of those as comedies (runtime alone has previously precluded OITNB from the comedy category at certain award shows). It’s not always easy to think of truly character-driven comedies, which is not really anyone’s fault. Dramas are typically thought to be character-driven, and comedies situationally driven. And even when comedies are more character-driven than their creative peers — think King of the Hill — rotating writing staffs and a constant need to up the ante on gags week after week can see traits and development uninstalled and reinstalled on an almost arbitrary basis. When your main motivation is laughter, it becomes too easy to ride the hot hand after you’ve been validated for your choice. For example, in King of the Hill, when a single episode arc saw John Redcorn become inconsolable and pathetic, which was then out of character for him, we started to see this take hold more and become embedded in his character. Was this really motivated by genuine growth and evolution, or simply the writers realizing how fun “depressed John Redcorn” was?
Either way, it seems as though TV writing is a Venn diagram; there is joke and gag writing, and there is character writing. Both, on their own, can be brilliant. Occasionally, they combine, and that can be brilliant as well. But with long-running comedies that are firmly rooted in the “jokes and gags” segment try to stake claim in the middle ground without having really committed, it feels performative — as though TV shows are adding in half-hearted “character development” because otherwise, long-suffering viewers will start to wonder why they’ve stuck around so long, or rewriting characters all together out of a sense of commercial preservation.