Too Many Crazies: Super Bad Guys on Television

A plethora of crazies now inhabit television: random, Joker-like, serial-killing bad guys who lurk about the edges of episodes.

I mention this because Mentalist, Season 5 just came out. I refuse to watch Red John episodes which have reached a melt-your-brain dumbness scale I find impossible to enjoy. However, I'm such a fan of Simon Baker, I can't give up on the show entirely (oh no, not another The Guardian!). So I went through, noted all the Red John-heavy episodes, and watched the rest.

I was glad I did, if only for the episode where Jane sees his dead daughter and the back-flash episode which was so impossibly well-written, it makes the creation of Red John all that more bewildering.

But it did get me thinking about super bad guys again, especially since I am currently watching Person of Interest, Season 2 and thoroughly enjoying the non-super, excellently written bad guys. (Spoilers and analysis of Person of Interest follow.)

Here's three problems with Red-John-like-clever-serial-killers:

1. Random badness makes nonsense of narratives. 

I mentioned in an earlier post that "the idea of a master-mind criminal who has his fingers in every pie, who can flip any agent, access any storage locker, and bribe any poor slob to take his place, etc. etc. etc. undermines the whole CONCEPT of a procedural show . . . Nothing is dependable . . . The absence of real meaning does not make things better. It just makes them boring."

In addition, the serial killer narrative precludes all other story-lines. The show can't be about anything except the randomness of badness and/or what humans should do in the face of that randomness. The Dark Knight, with the remarkable Heath Ledger, dealt with this theme better than most. But that's all it could do. Any movie with the Joker must be about the Joker.

Likewise, Dexter can't be about anything but Dexter which brings us to #2 . . .

2. Serial killers are bad people.

It's one thing to ask viewers to care about Dexter, a serial killer with a heart of gold, but empathizing with sociopaths does lose its charms. In early seasons, Dexter succeeded by exploring choice versus fatalism, Harry's Code versus Dexter's bad beginnings. Season 4 notably failed, despite the excellent John Lithgow, because the show couldn't maintain its own balance. After awhile, killers are just killers.

In comparison, the show Criminal Minds--whose scripts range from mundane and pointless to truly impressive--has (mostly) solved this problem by focusing its narratives not on the killers but on the team. The episodes revolve not around the killers' minds (though the corpses do tend to pile up) but on the team's handling of each problem. One of the best episodes from Season 3, "Damaged" has no corpses at all, focusing instead on Rossi's relationship with the grown children of slaughtered parents and on the team's investigation.

As a result, the team--rather than the killers--occupies center stage. (This is surprisingly difficult. Consider Dracula--the moment, it became a play followed by a movie, Dracula the character moved center-stage. How many people know the names of the scooby-gang? Other than Van Helsing?)
The talented Thomas Gibson who has gained his own
following as Agent Hotchner: Sometimes there are no words,
no clever quotes to neatly sum up
what's happened that day.
Sometimes, the day just . . . ends.

3. Serial killers are not all-that. 

As Criminal Minds points out (sometimes), despite Red John's too-clever-to-be-believed persona and the oft-touted idea that serial killers have high IQs, serial killers are notably lacking in everyday commonsense. The ability to kill randomly and escape detection does not denote great insight; it points, rather, to the ordinary citizen's inability to fully understand and stop such brutality.

Here's what many writers miss: this incomprehension works both ways.

In Person of Interest, the crazy Root is super-intelligent. Since she is technically smarter than John ("the ape"), she is irritated and flummoxed when he tracks her down. She is incapable of imagining, and therefore foretelling, John's approach to locating Finch, his absolute willingness to bargain his life, his role as "contingency," against the machine's "rules."

Root cannot comprehend such an action; her world-view distorts her ability to read Finch and John correctly. Like many serial killers if not most, she lacks empathy.* And lack of empathy is a weakness.

So, warning to all writers: before you make your evil bad guy a random serial killer who is just, like, you know, totally baaaad, consider the following--

You're going to have to keep writing him.

*One touching aspect of Finch's rescue is how much more objectively Finch sees John than anyone else. Both Carter and Fusco (and to an extent, the viewer) see Finch as the show's moral center ("Why do you need all these guns?"). Carter and Fusco are sweetly pleased to have Finch back. Finch is the nice boss while John is the scary one.

Finch, however, sees John, not himself, as the rock on which they all rely. Finch works at being moral. In comparison, he perceives John as truly moral, a good man who may have strayed from his chosen path but who in the end, is fundamentally more virtuous than Finch. John is the reason Root is wrong. 


Joe said...

The comparison of Finch and John is interesting. I think one big difference between the two is that Finch's morality is idealistic--it's largely based on impersonal hypotheticals. John's morality, however, is largely based on the real consequences of his actions and those around him. To put it another way, Finch is an ivory tower moralist, John isn't.

Idealistic morality doesn't mesh very well with reality since there are more gray areas than not. The solution is to try to make everything black and white by setting up strawmen and knocking them down. (Or by passing "no tolerance" laws.)

Ironically, writers tend to do the same thing, hence the serial killer. It truly gets weird when, like Silar in Heroes and basically everything Whedon touches, the super bad guy is a most interesting person and thus must be redeemed, except the price of redemption is all to often much to easy and conveniently ignores that definition, super bad guys are pyschopaths* and arguably irredeemable. (I like Spike, but Angel went through an "eternity" of torment, not a short visit to Africa. At least Spike retains much of his selfishness.)

*Psychopaths (I prefer sociopaths) lack empathy and thus lack a true conscience. They live outside the frame of human existence and generally fit into society by mimicry. Their morality isn't situational, it's non-existent. Thus, they are incapable of redemption, but only in changing what they project. We are fortunate that psychopaths make up such a small percentage of society, though it's higher than I think most people realize.

Kate Woodbury said...

To be honest, I've never been clear on the difference between sociopath and psychopath. I think I read somewhere--maybe in John Douglas--that sociopath is a functional state of mind while psychopath is that same state of mind gone all nonfunctional and violent. Of course, most scriptwriters want to do whatever works for them, so Root is both functional AND super-violent.

I figure Root is just, well, nuts (I love that she is played by Amy Acker; I LOVE how Person of Interest gives faces to its villains; it makes those villains so interesting!)--Parisse's character is also completely nuts (I think it is interesting how John knows she is nuts long before the viewer; it is only through backflashes that we realize: Ohmygosh, this lady is notallthere.)

In reference to theory v. experience: One of my favorite Angel-Spike conversations is in the last season of Angel when they are both chasing after something or other that is supposed to guarantee redemption; Angel tries to explain to Spike that it isn't some easy solution:

It's not a trophy. It's a burden. It's a cross. One you're gonna have to bear till it burns you to ashes. Believe me. I know.

I always liked the characterizations here; Spike is the more ambiguous and therefore, perhaps, easier to relate to, but Angel is the voice of experience--much like Finch and John!