I just finished watching my fourth season of Psych. The last episode, the season finale, was the best episode ever, and one of the best TV episodes I’ve ever seen.
Psych is a comedy detective show. Shawn Spencer, the hyper-observant son of an ex-cop sets up a faux psychic detective agency with his lifelong best friend Burton Guster – a pharmaceutical salesman. The entire premise of the show is that it’s hilarious. Shawn is often hired by the Santa Barbara Police Department as a consultant on hard to crack cases. The head detective hates him and his methods, but over the years everyone grows to have a grudging respect for each other. No matter how many insults they may trade they’re always there to back each other up, and while no one would actually admit it they soon become a very close knit circle of friends.
For the most part Psych is part funny and part cool. Shawn’s detective skills are amazing, and the character chemistry is better than most. Shawn’s relationship with Gus is one of those riddled with inside jokes, and in this case the audience gets to share them. I laugh through every episode and while the humor is occasionally crude the unique camaraderie of the characters more than makes up for it.
But my favorite episodes aren’t funny in the least. The season 3 finale brings in a serial killer, Mr. Yang and Shawn must race the clock to keep innocent people from being murdered in the game. When Shawn gets overwhelmed and wants to quit the killer gets personal and targets the people he loves the most, forcing him to continue.
On the surface Shawn seems like a really shallow, carefree guy. He loves girls, crimes, and good fun. He can’t hold down a regular job. His best friend basically supports him. He insults whoever he happens to come across, and lies fairly regularly in an innocent kind of way. He has no apparent morals. He loves adventure, but doesn’t really seem to have many redeeming points. He’s notorious for being undependable and fickle as the weather.
But in the Mr. Yang and Mr. Yin episodes we see the side of Shawn that you didn’t realize existed – that the show-writers probably didn’t realize existed. You see how he operates under stress. You realize he actually does care for something in this world besides the next cool gadget that catches his fancy. You see him desperate, exhausted, losing control, and downright terrified. And the very fact that for once he’s not being a smart-alec and driving everyone around him absolutely insane is every bit as effective as any other misery you could possibly put a character through to get a reaction out of the audience.
For 13 out of 14 episodes Shawn Spencer is nothing but a pain in everyone’s rear end, self-centered and only interested in personal gain. But for that one episode all you want is to have the carefree, happy-g0-lucky version back again.
This is what makes him one of the best fictional characters in existence. A very similar characters would be Sir Percy Blakney/The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Sir Percy is a dandy, a fop, and a fool. He’s extremely wealthy, but cares for nothing but composing little ditties and making sure he’s always dressed to the height of fashion. Those familiar with the story know that this is simply a cover for the daring and bold Scarlet Pimpernel who rescues aristocrats from Madame Guillotine. But those who have read the series by Baroness Orczy see the bigger picture than the movies present.
Sir Percy really is a dandy, and he does love clothes. But they don’t rule him. Even in his role as the Scarlet Pimpernel he makes disparaging remarks about costume and fashion, and cracks jokes in the most tense of situation. To him it’s a game, an adventure, what he thrives on. But he’s not just a shallow thrill seeker. When someone is at risk, or when something goes wrong, he can be very, very serious indeed. He could show Lady Marguerite exactly how deeply he loved her, far beyond the infatuation that he showed on the surface. He could silence protests with a steely glance. He’s no wimp or mere wealthy fool. But he’s still capable of laughing in the face of death.
A similar, yet slightly different character is Sherlock, from the new BBC reboot of the famous Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock cares for no one and nothing. He is married to his work. He has no moral scruples. He doesn’t get attached to anyone, possibly for the very reason that they could be used against him, but more likely because he’s incapable of it. He’s cold, detached, and the equal of any stone-hearted killer. He has no friends. Like Shawn, he lives for the thrill of the game. He begs for a new murder case so that he can have something interesting to do, never mind that lives are lost because of it.
Eventually we accept this. John Watson accepts it. John cares about these people, but he realized Sherlock doesn’t, and never will. And he sticks with him anyone, following an instinct to protect him. Because he knows, as everyone does, that you can’t live long without a heart. The climax comes at the end of the most brilliant cliff hanger episode in season two, for which was are still waiting a resolution, Reichenbach Falls.
Every good Sherlockian knows what happens at Reichenbach Falls, and therefore knows the inevitable end to the cliffhanger, but just in case you’re not a good Sherlockian I won’t give it away. But the cold-hearted, thrill-seeking conscience-less Sherlock is forced into a situation where he has to admit, not just to himself, but to the world, that there are things he cares about… more than catching the bad guy, more than having the last word, and more than his own life. Take my word for it that when Sherlock comes back in season three he may pretend that life goes on as normal, but he won’t really believe it. He’s as human as the rest of us.
Another character who claims to not care about anything, but is clearly lying, is Loki, specifically the Avengers version. In Thor Loki admits to caring, but in Avengers he’s supposedly gotten over that and only wants to rule the world. But we can see through the facade easily enough. Oh he’s cold, cold enough to be an absolutely breathtaking villain, but at the same time all you want is to help him to see that all he wants is to go home. The world really is within his grasp – he just needs to take it.
And the third kind of Amazing Characters are those tortured souls who pretend to be happy and jovial, but use it as a mask to hide behind. The textbook character for this type is the Doctor.
Perhaps once upon a time the Doctor was a boy, happy to run and feel the wind on his face. He laughed all the time. He had the world at his fingertips. He had friends and family. He laughed at the rules. He laughed at the danger. He scorned tradition, rules and regulations.
But then a lot of bad things happened, and a lot of people got hurt. People died, and then more people died, and the Doctor didn’t know what to do. So he kept running, because he was good at that. And he kept laughing, because he’d gotten so good at it he didn’t have to pay attention in order to spew off a bunch of fun nonsense and keep people happy. But inside, in flashes that come increasingly often you can see that everything is totally not okay. And every time he laughs you want to cry, and every time he says it’s all okay you know that what he’s really saying is that nothing will ever be okay again.
We’re almost done here. The last character I want to bring up is Loki meets the Doctor, and that’s Doctor Horrible himself. Doctor Horrible wants to rule the world because he can’t come to terms with the evil in the world. Being that evil is his way of coping. He talks, sings in fact, about how evil he is, and how much havoc he can wreak on the world, but when push comes to shove that’s not who he is. He’s forced with a choice too, but this time it’s not as simple as other characters. It’s an accident that confronts him with the fact that he cares more about a single girl than all the riches and justice in the world. Unable to cope with that realization he tries to hide behind his evil facade, but we can all recognize a facade when we see one.
So what do all these characters have in common, and what makes them so incredible? I’m not really sure. They’re extremely three dimensional. They’re original and lifelike, yet larger then life. They exaggerate the struggles we all go through and make them apparent and beautiful. But the primary thing I’ve noticed, the thing all the examples have in common, is that all of them can laugh and cry.
There’s nothing more pathetic than the perpetually serious character. The angsty, dry snappy kind, the ones who don’t show any emotion or who lie about it – the ones who can never take a joke and wouldn’t be caught dead playing a prank. And yet there’s nothing more boring than the shallow, bright and laughing character. The ones evil can’t touch, who never lose their cool, and apparently have no more troubles in the world than figuring out what to have for breakfast. Most characters are about 80% one type, and the 20% that’s different rarely shows through. Most readers won’t even pick up on it at all. Such characters can still be fun and enjoyable, like Shawn Spencer for three seasons, but they’re not going to make it to the amazing list. The amazing characters will have you laughing your head off, even when everything seems hopeless, but when the time is right you’ll realize just how much it matters to them to save the ones they love.