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Television’s most valuable players

In television protagonists becoming bigger than the shows they're in can be an incredible thing, leading to genuinely iconic characters, but it may also prove detrimental to the overarching story

‘Game Of Thrones’ hero Jon Snow might know nothing, but we know he isn’t likely to be one of the men who must die.
‘Game Of Thrones’ hero Jon Snow might know nothing, but we know he isn’t likely to be one of the men who must die.

Argentina are hanging on by their fingernails in the World Cup. This is strange for a beloved team that nearly lifted the Cup last time, and stranger still for a team boasting of a footballer many place atop the all-time summit, Lionel Messi. The reason the blue-and-white-clad Albicelestes are looking feeble, however, seems to be because of Messi, with the team consistently focusing strategy on that one bearded messiah instead of the game itself.

This happens in television as well, when protagonists—gradually winning us over season after season—become bigger than the shows they’re in. This can be an incredible thing, leading to genuinely iconic characters, but it may also prove detrimental to the overarching story. Game Of Thrones, for instance, used to ruthlessly slaughter its finest centre-forwards, shocking us by crushing the most charismatic skulls and decapitating the noblest of men. Then the one-liners of Tyrion Lannister, the scaly imperiousness of Khaleesi and the blank naïveté of Jon Snow made it apparent that a few characters are too darling to be killed.

A fundamental storytelling problem with having one Most Valuable Player (MVP) is that the rest of the characters are forced to play catch-up. Whenever that specific character isn’t on screen, the audience interest is liable to plunge, which naturally makes the narrative lopsided. This is why Mad Men—a story principally about Don Draper—leaned on compelling secondary characters, who enriched the narrative in their own individual ways instead of trying to make Draper look good. Breaking Bad is as much about the frequently clueless Jesse Pinkman as it is about the twisted leading man, Walter White, with vividly fleshed-out supporting characters around them, like Hank Schrader and Skyler White.

Serialized storytelling is a team sport, with multiple characters passing the narrative ball to take the show ahead. If and when a singular star emerges, the best way to use them is to let them do their own thing, while the other characters—freed of the responsibility to make the primary character interesting, since we’re already hooked to his/her track—explore other nuances, seeking their own chances to shine.

Increased popularity should not mean increased screen time for a character. The phrase “jumping the shark"—used to denote something hitting a peak of popularity and then rapidly declining in coolth—was born when the old sitcom Happy Days, buoyed by the trademark leatherjacketed style of The Fonz, kept giving the character increasingly wacky things to do, eventually allowing him to literally waterski over a shark. Suddenly thwacking a jukebox into action didn’t seem as neat any more.

Some shows have more than one MVP. All four girls of Sex And The City were superstars in their own right, characters who defined—and defied—types. This is why, 20 years after the show began, watchers still introspect deeply on the question that matters: whether they are a Samantha, a Carrie, a Charlotte or a Miranda. It is rare to have four iconically memorable characters who can play off each other superbly, passing the ball as balletically as Brazil circa 2002.

In comedies, the situation is oddly predictable. The main lead in a traditional sitcom, the guy who gets the girl, is almost always the least popular. Think Ross Geller from Friends, or Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother, feckless leads who bumble about good-naturedly while friends and lovers pick up one-liners and laughs. It is the goofball—a character written with extreme abandon, one who has fewer boundaries to worry about—who frequently steals the show in this genre, which is why sitcoms these days throw in too many weirdos. Parks And Recreation makes its heroine, the irrepressible Leslie Knope, likeable by making everyone around her excessively bizarre. Knope is left with the serious stakes while the rest divide up the quotable scene-stealing, therefore no single character is (often) likely to entirely eclipse Knope, which keeps the storytelling on course. We care about her goals.

Speaking of goals, back to Argentina. A way forward may be glimpsed in the approach taken by the football-themed Netflix show Club De Cuervos, a Spanish-language comedy I wrote about two columns ago. Just in time for the Cup, the show has taken a delightful secondary character, Hugo Sánchez, a gopher and general dogsbody with a disturbing past—think Jared from Silicon Valley—and let him fly solo. Club De Cuervos Presents: The Ballad Of Hugo Sánchez tells the nutty story of this mousy young man taking a Mexican football team to Nicaragua for a tournament they can’t take seriously. The new series is goofier than the original, but it works, giving us more of the show between seasons while making Hugo Sánchez far more memorable.

Argentina could simply give their youngsters more to do. Take the pressure off one marvellous man and inject confidence into the rest. It couldn’t hurt, surely. Good luck, Albicelestes. Try and keep it less messy.

Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

The writer tweets at @RajaSen

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