A Guide To 21st Century Television Stock Characters

By  · Published on August 24th, 2012

The precocious child; the old grump with a heart of gold; the plucky young woman, looking to make it in the big city all on her own, who spins around in the middle of a busy street with a big, stupid grin on her face while wearing a hat. For better or worse, these sorts of characters have been and, most likely, will always be a part of the TV landscape. They’re templates that take all of the pesky guesswork out of creating a show.

Over the years, familiar archetypes are re-imagined and deconstructed to reflect the changing values.

This is why we have the wholesome Brady Bunch in the ’70s and the dysfunctional Bundys of Married with Children in the ’90s. And then, sometimes, new constructs are born. But you know all of this. We may be in the midst of a TV renaissance but that doesn’t mean that shows aren’t leaning hard on archetypes – these five in particular are getting a lot of play.

The Adorkable One

Zooey Deschanel’s Jess from New Girl is the greatest, most in-your-face expression of the adorkable archetype – as you’ll recall, Fox actually hung the sitcom’s whole advertising campaign on the word – but sensitive Ted from How I Met Your Mother, Jim from The Office, with all of his aw-shucks grinning, and Rory aka Mr. Amy Pond from Doctor Who also fit here. The adorkables are sweet underdogs. They’re socially awkward in a socially acceptable way – that is to say, they’re cute and blundering and ooze quirk.

They’re suppose to be the ideal boyfriend or girlfriend or friend – someone who is attractive, funny, and perfect because of all of their flaws, but still attainable. In an earlier era, they would have been relegated to asexual sidekick status, but now they’re often one of the central protagonists, if not the lead character.

Why it’s annoying: When the characters are unrealistically twee, as Jess was in the earlier episodes of New Girl – goofily dancing in heels, singing non-stop, calling guys “sailor” – it’s just too much. Her entire personality was undistilled cuteness, and it was contrived. But the word “adorkable” is actually the most grating thing here and with The Mindy Project debuting alongside New Girl on Tuesday nights this Fall, we can all expect to hear it lot more of it than we’d probably like to.

When it works: Most of the people I interact with would probably fall into this category, so I’d say it isn’t obnoxious to see these characters on TV whenever there’s some attempt at verisimilitude. Doctor Who’s Rory, for example, is just a regular guy – he’s a gangly nurse from a small town – and his regular-ness is heightened by the fact that he’s hanging out with a time-traveling alien. Even when he does something extraordinarily brave, he’s still just this bumbling, ordinary, relatable guy.

The Whipping Boy

The joke here is that it’s funny to yell at, mock, or ostracize some unassuming or taciturn person for no good reason (or for a reason that’s forever buried in the show’s mythology). And, yeah, it is, but it’s also part and parcel of the edgy (read: mean) comedy that’s so popular right now. Family Guy’s Meg, American Dad’s Klaus, and Parks and Recreation’s Jerry are all examples of undeservedly put-upon characters (though Klaus, a human in a fish’s body, may have formerly been a Nazi, so maybe that’s not so “undeservedly”).

Long-suffering human resources rep Toby from The Office also filled this role during the Michael Scott seasons of the show. You could understand why an incompetent boss wouldn’t like the HR guy but, when you take Toby’s mild-mannered demeanor into consideration, Michael’s ire was excessive – he once called Toby a “convicted rapist.” Therein lies the humor.

Why it’s annoying: The joke runs its course after the first couple of seasons.

When it works: Short, silent, bespectacled Waymond from Workaholics is the source of a lot of exasperation in his office – sometimes even getting treated like a bad dog. But the non-specific rage directed toward Waymond (last name: Womano) always works because we know next to nothing about the character – he’s a man of mystery. Maybe he’s a massive jerk, maybe he isn’t, and the uncertainty makes every scene that he’s in satisfying. On other shows, though, the whipping boy/girl has a backstory or will begin to take on a larger role, at which point, there needs to be an explanation for why those friends/family/co-workers won’t ease up.

The Character Without Supernatural Powers

A trend within a trend, the non-supe grounds a series filled with vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and brujos in reality – and we have more than our fair share with the fantasy horror genre being so nauseatingly bankable at the moment. Because writers get bored or whatever, characters can and will be transformed into undead or magical creatures as the series progresses. But there are always the vulnerable few who remain human and somehow don’t die.

Why it’s annoying: Even if non-supes are a necessary part of vampire or werewolf dramas like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Teen Wolf, their continued presence in towns fraught with danger and death makes no sense. Move someplace else!

When it works: If they know their way around a one-liner like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s resident, mortal, quipster Xander Harris, it’s easy to overlook the improbability of their continued existence.

The Robotic Genius

According to Bones, Criminal Minds, and The Big Bang Theory, having a big ol’ brain is a detriment to your social skills. There may be some truth to that, but Temperance Brennan, Spencer Reid, and Sheldon Cooper aren’t just inept, they’re totally incapable of picking up on social cues. In Temperance and Sheldon’s cases, they seem insensitive.

Why it’s annoying: There have to be a different ways to depict genius.

When it works: The character needs to amount to more than just that hyper analytical monotone delivery. On Criminal Minds, Reid has this rich history – he was raised by a schizophrenic woman, it’s suggested that he falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, he’s dedicating his life to save lives despite having these problems connecting to people. Not that there has to be a clinical reason for the lack of social grace, but we need to be offered glimpses of hidden depth. The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom, so the writers’ goals are different from those on Criminal Minds, but there are episodes of the show that have Sheldon so locked into that literalism that he’s down right unlikable.

The Lead Character Who Dies (Spoilers Ahead)

Over the past two years, HBO shows have been killing off lead characters like it’s no big deal. On the first season of Game of Thrones, we said goodbye to Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon, played by Sean Bean and Mark Addy respectively (though, their deaths are in the George R.R. Martin book that the first season was adapted from the actors were two of the bigger names in the cast that year); Boardwalk Empire had Jimmy played by Michael Pitt die; and most recently, Christopher Meloni’s Roman on True Blood met the true death – he barely even made it halfway through the season.

Why it’s annoying: We haven’t reached a point where this seems gimmicky yet. Of course that’s bound to change. But in the above examples, the deaths show that the “leads” are just as expendable as everyone else, which obviously raises the stakes (literally, for Roman).

When it works: So far, always.

Have you noticed any new stock characters? Are there any that you find especially irritating?

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