The Basement

Breakout Characters Keep TV Interesting

These unexpected stars can't be manufactured

Series television primarily depends on stars – people, or rather characters – that the viewer wants to invite into their home week after week (till they overstay their visits like annoying relatives).

Recently, while viewing AMERICAN GODS and CHANCE, both first-season cable shows, I was reminded of the pleasures of “breakout” characters, characters featured in a secondary role that seem to take over the energy or focus of a show.

In the past, on HAPPY DAYS we had Fonzie, the cool antidote (with a hint of “G-rated” rebellion) to the mostly safe and staid 1950’s middle-Americans in the rest of the cast.  Can you imagine the show without him?  Or LEAVE IT TO BEAVER without Eddie Haskell?  If the show is selling conformity, the character viewers are most drawn to are invariably the rebels, because they promise conflict and drama.

On JUSTIFIED, Walter Goggins famously turned his intended brief recurring role as a vacillating racist/born-again contrite sinner into a mainstay of the series with his devious proclivity of playing both ends against the middle, often with several aces up his sleeve.  Yet most appealing was his own inner conflict – sharing a childhood affinity (grudgingly affirmed on occasion) with the straight-arrow star, Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, which gave the characters a sense of cultural kinship amid an otherwise neglected (both onscreen and in real life) area of  the country – Appalachia.

But breakout characters can’t be manufactured, by nature they have to grab the audiences’ imagination, almost by surprise, like a viral video.  Scott Baio’s then youthful appeal alone could not save JOANIE LOVES CHACHI from a fate experienced by countless other spin-offs.   Perhaps even then we knew Chachi loved Trump values more than ours on some level.

And speaking of Trump, as a character he seems developed and nurtured via television as his own APPRENTICE.  So when he debuted against the GOP’s “usual suspects” enmeshed in their terminal blandness, he stood out like a 7-footer pulling a carjacking (yes, it’s happened.  What was he thinking?).  And with his P.T. Barnum sensibility, has continued to do so. If breakout characters thrive on the unexpected and controversial, Trump wallows in it.  War with North Korea –unthinkable – except DJT is in the white house.  Taking away poor people’s health care?  Cutting their food supports, etc.?  Trump is right there every time to guarantee he grabs the headline.  Who else could out-sleaze Cruz?   “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is often attributed to Barnum but Trump has a better claim to it than his other claimed self-initiated phrase “prime the pump.”

Rarely, as Trump demonstrates, the star of the show can be considered a breakout character if the show is so markedly different from all the other fare available – as it did with MR. ROBOT.  There the decidedly anti-corporate capitalist first season gave the target audience, millennials oppressed by onerous student loans and ruled by robotized neo-fascist tech overlords, a voice of protest and a symbol to cheer for.  One can imagine Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson watching it with their kids and going to sleep muttering “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.”

This year things are looking up — CHANCE, an otherwise sleepy noir with some twists headlined by stalwart Hugh Laurie pleasantly broke through with a hulking, menacing brute known only as “D” for most of the episodes.  He was not handsome but he was expert in the dark arts of violence and intimidation, yet always displaying an infectious calm, quick insight into dangers the neophyte Chance was faced with.  And he was on the side of the oppressed – Chance was up against a crooked cop who knew how to bend the rules.  Episodes came alive when “D” was on screen, and seemed to be merely marking time till his reappearance.

Similarly, AMERICAN GODS with handsome Rick Whittle as the nominal star really only soars when his coterie of vivid co-stars, Ian McShane, Pablo Schrieber and Emily Browning pop in. Like Mary Tyler Moore, Whittle is the comparatively bland center of an eccentric universe of characters.   Even the villains, played by such notables as Crispin Glover (called an actor’s actor) and Gillian Anderson (manifesting media icons from Lucy to Marilyn) are also deft scene-stealers.

What unites breakout characters is they often demonstrate a radical reaction to the accepted social conventions (moral, political, social) manifested by the universe that surrounds them.   Think of Trump’s glorification of graft and self-dealing with virtually no opposition from the supposedly upright evangelicals supporting him.  And they are effective, remarkably so, which is doubly alluring since in real life it is often the opposite.

Apart from “D,” my current favorite is “Mad Sweeny” from  AMERICAN GODS.  Though Emily Brown as Laura Moon is wonderfully articulate and self-aware and easily one of the most intelligent female characters anywhere and Ian McShane a delight as “Mr. Wednesday,” it is Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeny who always seems like an animated grenade with the pin removed.  You never know when he’ll explode. And that makes for riveting television.


About the author

David Stauffer

Dave Stauffer attended USC Graduate Cinema, then a master class in comedy writing with Danny Simon,sampling the famed brisket of beef that launched The Odd Couple. His action-thriller RUNNING RED played SHOWTIME and worldwide cables and one critic called it “the best DVD actioner of the year.” He judges several screenwriting and playwrighting contests.

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