Appeal of the messed-up character

Good television and films dare to show characters who are failures and draw in viewers who can identify with them

Morons, self-defeatists, social rejects, otaku, the success- impaired: Movies and television are now full of them and I couldn't be happier.

I've come to enjoy television greatly because series characters have evolved, while movie characters are stuck in the past.

I'll admit that this TV evolution can look a lot like devolution - main characters are now dumber, more childish and impulsive than ever, and thank goodness for that.

There are creations such as Lester Nygaard from Season One of the crime thriller Fargo, who starts a chain of murders by accident, because he is an idiot.

Baskets, the rodeo clown in the show of the same name, views himself as an artistic hero; the rest of humanity just sees an oaf.

Perhaps the most broken of them is Selina Meyer from the political satire Veep, who rose to the American presidency the old- fashioned way: through back- stabbing, cover-ups and hypocrisy.


They appeal to me not because I feel superior to them, but because I identify. Baskets, Nygaard and Meyer are playing at adulthood, faking at knowing what they are doing when in fact, they are like a lot of us, they are imposters.

I hadn't realised how much I loved the messed-up main character until last week.

While watching the biopic Brain On Fire, I could not put my finger on why it left me cold. After all, this was based on the true and tragic story of journalist Susannah Cahalan, who suffered greatly after being struck down by a rare neurological disease.

Before illness hit, her life was humming along. The journalist, played by Chloe Moretz, had fantastic parents, a loving fiance, and a boss at the New York Post who was pushing her to be great. The story was competently told and the acting was fine.

Despite trying hard, I didn't care. It was because she was a winner. For her to lose everything to the disease, the plot needed her to have a lot to lose, or else, where's the tragedy?

That is how stories work. Correction: That is how stories with dull plots work - you show a puppy in the first act, put it in danger in the second, save it in the third.

Thankfully, good television has the luxury of taking a different approach. It dares to show you despicable characters, who, because they are stupid and greedy, land in trouble.

Its creators expect that the viewer will stay interested in spite of it - or maybe because of it.

British television, in particular, has embraced awful people. Think of hotel keeper Basil Fawlty from 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers. Bullying, snobbish and practically useless, he offended everyone who stepped through his doors.

Three decades later, David Brent from the workplace sitcom The Office appeared. He defined a new era. Unlike Fawlty, Brent was no strutting blowhard. The lengths he would go to win the affection of his colleagues made viewers laugh at him, in a pitying way.

David Brent from the workplace sitcom The Office is someone we know: The insecure man trying to be cool. I cannot take my eyes off him because I fear that I am him and I suspect lots of people watch for the same reason

He is someone we know: The insecure man trying to be cool. I cannot take my eyes off him because I fear that I am him and I suspect lots of people watch for the same reason.

With Brent, cringe comedy was born, in the United Kingdom, at least. He paved the way for more losers, such as Roy and Moss in the sitcom The IT Crowd, launched in 2006. The two computer experts are desperately awkward around women, when they were not knee-deep in some hobby or pursuit that guarantees a permanent seat in Pariah Corner.

It's interesting to me that American television still cannot see the allure of the uncompromisingly pathetic person. The American version of The Office does not have a Brent, played by the pear-shaped, craggy-toothed Ricky Gervais. Instead, it has a Michael Scott, played by a handsome, orthodontically perfect Steve Carell.

Audiences there can handle any social defect in a character - avarice, stupidity, laziness are fine - but never sexual unattractiveness, probably because it breaks the unwritten rule that unmasculine males are an audience turn-off. It's why even the geeks of tech-boom sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley have attractive women on the fringes.

To me, that's having one's cake and eating it. Just as you can't be slightly pregnant, a character is either a loser or not, never in between.

Veep, Baskets and Fargo are good shows featuring horrible people, but to feed my addiction to walking disasters, I turn to British TV, to watch characters such as Fleabag blow up their lives. She is the hopeless owner of a failing cafe in the comedy of the same name, a woman who manages to ruin everything she touches, semi-deliberately.

Like Celine Dion's heart, my quest for the bleakest, and tragi-comic hero or heroine will go on. So far - and luckily for me - television has no shortage yet of characters who aim for the stars, but shoot themselves in the foot.

Their pain is my gain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'Appeal of the messed-up character'. Print Edition | Subscribe