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Friday, December 6, 2013
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The Excision of the TV Protagonist

By Søren Hough

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Television has apexed once again. If the Emmys have proven anything over the past few years, it is that we live in what celebrated filmmaker Steven Soderbergh refers to as “a second golden age of television.” The networks — cable and streaming, more than broadcast — are investing more than ever in smart, original and ambitious shows, and are consequently producing more high-quality material than ever before. So successful have these networks become that major figures in the film industry have begun to make the once-unthinkable jump from the big screen to the small screen. Indeed, everyone from Steven Spielberg to Kevin Spacey seems to be hopping on the bandwagon.

But at what cost? Has this shift in production value brought with it narrative strength? Maybe not.

Along with this resurgence in television has come a recurring and potentially sinister theme: the abrupt excision of the protagonist. Consider the Emmy-winning fantasy series, Game of Thrones. At the onset of the first season, audiences were introduced to the levelheaded, good-natured Lord Ned Stark (Sean Bean). Much of the initial intrigue of the show used Ned Stark and his family to anchor the plot. The story followed the mystery of succession to the Iron Throne, focusing on Stark’s actions as he tried to earnestly maneuver himself around the Capital. It was compelling television.

And then, without warning, Ned Stark is unceremoniously removed from the cast in the penultimate episode of the season. Narratively speaking, this may have worked in George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book trilogy to raise the stakes for the main characters. However, in the case of the television series, this had a different effect: defocus. Indeed, opening episodes of subsequent seasons of Game of Thrones suffered without a focal point. They failed to collate their many disconnected story lines, engendering a slow-burn approach that felt needlessly anticlimactic.

Perhaps in anticipation of the discord sewn by Ned Stark’s absence, show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss attempted to rectify the situation. In the second season, the role of the protagonist was eventually filled by indomitable fan favorite Peter Dinklage as Lord Tyrion Lannister. The show fell back on his clever machinations as the Hand of the King, making for exciting and often-times hilarious viewing.

And like clockwork, by the season finale, this new protagonist was cast to the wayside. And again, this lead to yet another couple of weary introductory episodes opening season three.

This has ramifications with the audience. When the protagonist is removed from the picture, the series in question loses emotional weight. In particular, it means that the audience no longer has anyone to empathize with as the scope of the show widens to encapsulate the supporting cast. These background characters are often strong and three-dimensional, but without giving them time to supplant the protagonist organically, they cannot become vehicles through which the audience can vicariously experience that fictional world.

A lack of psychological investment isn’t new to the industry. In the late 19th and early 20th century, early filmmakers like Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers produced what scholar Tom Gunning calls the “Cinema of Attraction.” For those auteurs, Gunning says that movies were more akin to magic shows or carnival rides. They offered little to no narrative elements, and their characters lacked psychological realism. Perhaps the overwhelming popularity of shows like Game of Thrones, then, is not in their narrative strength, but instead in their raw, exhibitionist qualities. Modern television, it seems, may have come full circle.

Some shows do manage the trick of removing a protagonist while avoiding the antiquated realm of cinema of attraction. Consider another HBO series, Rome, which used the everymen Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) to begin the story of Caesar’s rise and fall in its first season. When the show expanded to include a larger cast, secondary characters still managed to carry the story even as Pullo and Vorenus took a backseat.

Around the same time, Deadwood successfully used Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) to garner empathy from its audience. In this way, the writers were able to introduce the denizens of the frontier town of Deadwood. And here again, other characters fell in and out of the foreground for its three-season run without losing audience empathy.

This balancing act isn’t reserved to drama, either. In recent years, the award-winning comedy Parks and Recreation actually benefited by drawing the focus from Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to the rest of the cast. After a rocky start, critics such as James Poniewozik of TIME Magazine noticed a marked improvement in how the writers had managed to find “things for its supporting characters to do.”

The excision of the protagonist is not an incurable trend. In fact, it’s not even inherently a problem; it’s the way in which it is handled that emotionally alienates viewers from the story. If it continues unchecked, this trend may push the envelope too far in the wrong direction. This “second golden age” may be inducing a retrogression of the medium to cinematic days of yore. And although I love MélièsThe One-Man Band (1900) as much as the next cinephile, I can’t really see it making for a compelling television show. Can you?

Photo courtesy of HBO.

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