I’ve begun to notice a little more about TV than I should. It’s an indication I’m watching too much of it, for one thing. For another, it means things are going to start falling apart. You can’t chip away at those facades too much or there’s going to be a collapse. So it is, so it has been, so shall it ever be.
One of the funniest things about the portrayal of villainous characters in movies and on television is how incredibly versatile and insurmountable they are as obstacles. In particular, the ones who are recurring characters are especially prone to this. For instance, in the movie Untraceable, the antagonist is someone who’s barely old enough to vote and isn’t yet old enough to drink. Yet, he’s mastered multiple technologies, each of which might take lifetimes to master. But, he’s a genius. The antagonist is always a genius. He has to be, or else … well, he’d get caught. And we can’t have that, now can we?
For another thing, the antagonist must be wealthy. Always. Unrestricted financial means are necessary for the success of their nefarious deeds. This was portrayed with good success in the movie Seven with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. On television the same must also be true, because if the antagonist isn’t of unlimited resources, he won’t have access to all the great things they need to be the recurring character.
If they’re not financially independent, they must then be of astonishing power somehow, such that monetary necessity is irrelevant. The character I’m thinking of here is Sylar from Heroes. He had almost unlimited power and thus didn’t need the unlimited resources. He didn’t require access to man-made goods or services for which money is normally exchange in our current societal structure.
The television show The Mentalist has been heralded as an outstanding new drama. There are elements of horror, humor and intrigue in many episodes. Their recurring antagonist, the force driving the central character Patrick Jane (played by Simon Baker), is a serial killer known as “Red John”. His calling card is painting the toenails of his victims in their own blood and leaving a painted, stylized happy face at the crime scene.
The show involves the pursuit of crime by the California Bureau of Investigation, or CBI. They have hired Patrick Jane as a consultant to assist them with solving their crimes and with their pursuit of Red John. But they never even get close to Red John. In a couple of episodes, they are in the same general vicinity, or on the same property, but in every case, there is insufficient manpower to cover contingencies and alternative escape routes, and in every case, Red John slips away, either by outwitting the hapless police or by their inability to properly plan their moves.
This is problematic. First of all, the police have some experience in catching serial killers. They also have access to other, more powerful resources and agencies, such as the FBI, which has specially designed divisions devoted to catching serial killers. But no one ever calls the FBI in, unless it’s a show featuring the FBI, such as Criminal Minds. And who wouldn’t call in those cool FBI agents? Only one of them dresses and grooms in something remotely like FBI regulation. The others are more like The Mod Squad with degrees in criminal psychology or behavioral science. How cool is that, huh?
Anyway, the set-up for the recurring antagonist is almost nothing like the actual serial killer profiles we’ve banked since those kind of things have been done. A lot of them have either a preferred victimology or methodology and/or geography, but I can’t recall ever hearing about one that had James Bond Villain-type money. While serial killers of wealth aren’t unheard of, they aren’t the norm either … except on TV.
Given all that BS (and that was a lot of BS), how does this touch upon fiction in other media? For example, books? (In which I have a particular interest.)
When does archetype become comic book supervillainy? When does it go too far?
We writers know your antagonist must be as strong or preferably stronger than the protagonist. If the reader isn’t concerned the hero can be stymied in his quest – hurt or killed by whatever antagonist he’s facing – there’s no need to read the book, no compelling reason to turn pages. We know, after all, the hero will triumph in the end. But that strength, that fear for safety, can take on a few other forms, and isn’t very appetizing when the antagonist is super-human.
Why does television then rely so much on it? Why can’t they come to the same sort of character creation we as writers are forced into? Why is it acceptable for those villains we see in movies and on TV to be so untouchable? It’s a lot of the reason TV and movies, for me at least, fall flat.
Sound off, y’all. I really want to know what you think.
All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
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