Friday, 17 February 2012

Roseanne and straw antagonists

The back half of season 1 has seen some improvements for Roseanne, but it’s still more hit or miss than I’d like it to be. My main problem with it at this point is dealing in a kind of sitcom trope that I’ll call straw antagonists. A straw antagonist is a frequent element in sitcoms, though maybe a little less so today. Basically, it consists of a character whose only purpose is to annoy the audience and then get defeated (or told off) by one of the show’s protagonists. It’s an easy way to create conflict in a typically low-stakes genre, and it also serves to increase the audience’s sympathy for the protagonists. At its worst, however, it can be seen as transparent wish-fulfillment for writers and viewers, and can throw off the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Think of the scene in Roseanne’s pilot where Roseanne is dealing with Darlene’s history teacher, who is trying to convince her that Darlene’s barking in class is a result of problems at home. Obviously the audience knows that the Conners have no such problems, so the teacher is painted as the villain in this scene, trying to undermine Roseanne’s parenting abilities. The problem here, however, is that the teacher is perfectly in the right to be making such a judgment call, and Roseanne’s “real talk” way of dismissing it just makes her seem like a difficult parent to deal with. The whole scene reeks of shallow wish-fulfillment of teaching these intellectual types a lesson, and sticking it in the pilot episode left a nasty taste in my mouth for the start of the series. And in a show where the audience goes crazy with applause whenever a character does something sassy, this sort of thing gets tiresome quickly.

Straw antagonists are frequently used in lower-stakes environments as well. In “Mall Story,” late in season 1, Dan has to deal with an irritating shoe salesman, and it’s a big victorious moment when he finally snaps and chastises him for his poor service. But in Dan’s insistence on good service to the point where the salesman has to give him all of his attention while he tries on shoes, he’s becoming just as irritating a customer as the salesman. We just give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s a main character and we’re supposed to sympathize with him. Even worse, the salesman’s only characteristic was that he was a difficult person, making his only purpose in the scene getting his comeuppance from Dan.

This sort of thing happens in bad and good shows alike. One of my least favourite episodes of Mary Tyler Moore came late into its run, in season 7’s “The Critic.” Its entire plot is only in service of its critic guest star, whose only characteristic is his unrealistic pompousness. All of the main characters are united in their hatred of him, until they band together to take him down a peg. It almost reads as if the episode’s writer was dealing with a grudge against a critic, turning this episode into therapy. It’s completely out of the ordinary for a show that’s usually as positive as MTM, especially when it so infrequently stooped to this kind of level for laughs. One noteworthy example of a show using straw antagonists to its advantage is Seinfeld, which is one of the few shows to make this character type work. It builds whole plots around it, like “The Movie,” which jumps from one artificially difficult clerk to another, and yet works perfectly. But it too succumbs to its wish-fulfillment aspects occasionally, the most famous example being Jerry’s telemarketer call in “The Pitch.” That’s wish-fulfillment at its most transparent, a sort of “boy, don’t you wish you had the guts to talk to a telemarketer this way?” scene in service of a cheap laugh and easy sympathy for Jerry.

As I said before, Roseanne is the first sitcom I’ve watched for this project that hasn’t gotten me on its side immediately. It’s slowly been shedding elements I haven’t enjoyed as the first season has gone on, but quite a few are still there, including this one. I’m really hoping the show made the right decisions in regard to its less enjoyable elements, because I really do want to love it. I have high hopes for season 2.

1 comment:

  1. And of course, the villain of the season 1 finale is a textbook example of this. But at least it led to some plot movement this time.