There’s a fascinating piece up on The Atlantic this week about the evolution of television dramas, specifically how the shows themselves have gotten better but for one glaring problem: The main characters never grow. That’s obvious in a show like “The Walking Dead” (Rick Grimes) or “24′ (Jack Bauer), but it is less apparent but no less true in shows like “Mad Men” (Don Draper) and even “Justified” (Raylan Givens). The reason why shows like “Justified” and “Mad Men” are so much better, however, is that the static protagonists surround themselves with dynamic characters, so even if the protagonists face the same dangers and make the same choices week after week, it feels less apparent because characters like Boyd Crowder offset the problems.
There were two paragraphs that best illustrated the dynamic, specifically how one great show (“Breaking Bad”) has managed to grow its main character and another (“Justified”) hasn’t yet (although, it doesn’t take anything away from how brilliant “Justified” is):
It’s easy to rail against the worst offenders (hey there, six seasons of “Dexter”), but take a series as strong as FX’s “Justified,” which—in the middle of what may very well turn out to be its best season—has also reached the point at which its main character is also one of its least interesting. The pilot of “Justified” opened with Raylan offering a fugitive one last off-the-record chance to escape, and though that went poorly, I wouldn’t bat an eye if Raylan made the same offer to a new fugitive next week. For two and a half seasons, Raylan has been too strong and too clever to be beaten, and if even if that wasn’t true, “Justified’s” premise requires him to stay alive anyway.This is no fault of star Timothy Olyphant, who continues to bring nuance, humor, and gravitas to his portrayal of the series’ prickly deputy marshal. It’s not even the fault of Justified’s creative team, which impressively manages each week to invent reasons why a U.S. marshal would be intimately connected with the goings-on of a small Kentucky county. The problem isn’t “Justified”; it’s television, which can’t afford to change its primary status quo until a series’ end is in sight.
There are, of course, other ways to build suspense. As “Breaking Bad” enters its fifth and final season, Walter White is not likely to be written out of the show. The series has maintained dramatic tension not by killing the character, but by changing him; as Walter descends ever-deeper into corruption, we’re drawn right along with him. The Sopranos performed a similar trick by having Tony Soprano flirt with goodness before ultimately proving himself irredeemably evil. But even these innovative series can’t fully escape the episodic TV structure; events from the first act pay off in the third, Chekov’s gun is always fired and major events, with clockwork precision, at the climaxes of each season. Life doesn’t have dramatic arcs, but television does.
I don’t disagree with the assessment that Raylan hasn’t changed (at least not much), but I don’t think he’s the “least interesting character” on the show. On the other hand, it’s difficult to argue that any character on “Justified” would fall under the category of “least interesting” (Winona, maybe). However, I will agree that Walter White is a slightly better character, but that’s in part because “Breaking Bad” is not as open-ended. There’s been a plan all along to take the show a certain limited number of seasons. You can do more with a character if you have story you want to tell and an end point in mind.
But I’ll put the question to the rest of you, knowing that it’s like choosing which of your children is your favorite. Who’s a better character and why? Raylan or Walt? Try not to let this GIF (compliments of WarmingGlow reader Clay) persuade you one way or another.
(Source: The Atlantic)
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