A few weeks ago I stumbled across this list of Ten Characters You Meet On Primetime TV, enumerating some of the stock characters and stereotypes writers trot out on a weekly basis. While I agree with much of the list (and am a little concerned with the author’s apparent fondness for “Two Broke Girls”), one entry made me bristle. Call Tom Haverford of “Parks and Recreation” a “Token South Asian” will you? NOT ON MY WATCH, FLAVORPILL.
Then, I took a breath, treated myself to some chicky chicky parm parm, and thought about other characters who defy stereotypes. And, truth be told, they’re not too thick on the ground. As Dustin pointed out the other day, some of the oldest stereotypes are still alive and well on our favorite shows. There’s “The Hapless Single Gal” Liz Lemon (“30 Rock”), “The Sassy Black Lady” Donna Meagle (“Parks and Recreation”) and “The Nagging Housewife” Claire Dunphy (“Modern Family”). Sometimes, as is the case with Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, the stock characters are parodies that are meant to poke fun at the stereotype. But, in doing so, there’s still a certain level of perpetuation. Also, it’s not that we don’t love these characters, we do. (Truth be told, I don’t love Claire Dunphy, but homegirl won the Emmy this year, so somebody loves her.) But isn’t it nice to see some nice, complicated characters that break the mold? It is, I promise. So, with one exception, here are ten characters on current TV shows that bust those stereotypes wide open, much to our delight.
The Token Gay: Max Blum on “Happy Endings”: Dustin has been ringing this bell since “Happy Endings” premiered last year, but Max truly is one of the most refreshingly non-“gay” gay characters on television. Are some homosexual men effeminate? Do many of them like shopping, sharp clothes and sassy catchphrases. Sure! Most likely! But it’s rather boss for the slovenly, macho Max to represent. Cause, ya know, the gays come in all shapes and colors, not just pink.
The Saintly Disabled Kid: Adelaide Langdon on “American Horror Story”: This is a funky stereotype that is actually a reversal on an older, more damaging one. In earlier fiction, film and television, disabled people (specifically those with Down’s Syndrome) were depicted as evil, cursed, supernatural, etc. Then the pendulum of Political Correctness swung the other way, and we got kids and adults with Down’s Syndrome who were presented as saintly presences. A divine gift. So it was fun to see Addie be an *sshole. Especially when she was an *sshole to those Harmon Douchebags. (Runner Up: Becky from “Glee,” another Ryan Murphy joint.)
The Funny Little Person: Tyrion Lannister on “Game Of Thrones”: First, some nomenclature. “Dwarf” and “Little Person” are, to my knowledge, interchangeable. Peter Dinklage (an actor with dwarfism) acted the sh*t out of the part of Tyrion Lannister (a character with dwarfism). The Death At A Funeral franchise aside, Dinklage has been bringing a level of depth and nuance to his performances for years. While the other most famous actor with dwarfism, Warwick Davis, has mostly been relegated to “funny” roles as Ewoks, Goblins and Charms Professors, Dinklage was allowed to be f*cked up, bitter, clever and dead sexy. Yeah, that’s not something you would ever see from Willow.
The Walking Fat Joke: Sookie St. James on “Gilmore Girls”: This is my one exception to the “currently airing” rule because I could not, for the life of me, come up with an example. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and you can point to an overweight character on television who is not subject to regular comment on his/her weight. As Sookie St. James, the adorable Melissa McCartney was bubbly, neurotic, a wife and mother, at the top of her field and never, not once, as far is I can recall, ridiculed for her weight. This contrasts sharply to her current stint on the tedious “Mike and Molly.” And, oh yes, even one of my favorites, “Parks and Recreation” is guilty of this one. (Damnit, Jerry!) The only other example in recent memory I could come up with was Mags Bennet on “Justified,” a badass big bad who nobody ever poked fun at.
The Jock: Troy Barnes on “Community”: A lot of the characters on this much beloved show started out as stock “types.” That was rather the point, a sort of Breakfast Club homage. But, with the exception of Pierce and Shirley, most of the characters have morphed into something else, melding with the actor’s strengths and the dynamics of the show. Truth is, Donald Glover is one hilarious nerd. So that’s what Troy has become, a football player with a comic book fascination.
The Fiery Latina: April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation”: Did you forget she was Latina? You are forgiven. There was really only one or two episodes that made a point of/mocked April’s Puerto Rican descent. (“That’s why I’m so lively and colorful.”) Unlike other Latinos on TV, Ludgate is never “vivacious” and has never once in her tenure pulled a Desi and bursts into Spanish when upset. (God knows I love her, but ay dios mio, Sofia Vergara.)
The Cowboy: Raylan Givens on “Justified”: One of the oldest professions in TV history, the cowboy is a favorite stock character. Raylan Givens is, however, a modern day cowboy with, oh yes ladies, a sensitive side. You can argue that Timothy Olyphant played a version of this character on “Deadwood,” and, to a certain extent, you’re right. But the uptight, stiffly moral Sheriff Seth does not, if you think about, bear that much of a resemblance to Raylan Givens. It must be the hat that’s throwing you off.
The Token South Asian: Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation”: While South Asians are often portrayed as proud and macho, or effeminate and nerdy, they’re rarely portrayed as cool dudes. And though Tommy Haverford is certainly a spaz, he’s also charming, smooth with the ladies (mostly), and a sharp dressed man. So you can keep your Rajeshes (“Big Bang Theory”) and the entire cast of “Outsourced,” I’m a Tommy girl. (Runner Up: The awesome Kelly Kapur of “The Office.”)
The Dumb Blonde: Dallas Royce on “Suburgatory”: Kelly Kapur is, in fact, The Dumb Blonde stereotype in a dark-skinned body. The dumb blonde trope is another classic that dates back to the dawn of television and is still very much alive. (Penny “Big Bang Theory,” Cerie “30 Rock,” Laurie “Cougartown” and Alex “Happy Endings.”) Dallas, on the other hand, is, on the surface, exactly the sort of appearance-obsessed, ditz who fills the role. However, in the sitcom formula of lesson taught, lesson learned, she’s often on the teaching side. She’s cannier than her bubblier personality would suggest. (Runner Up: Caroline “The Vampire Diaries.”)
The Perpetually Single Best Friend: Penny Hartz on “Happy Endings” Yup, here’s the second candidate from this, one of my favorite sitcoms. Like “Community” before it, “Happy Endings” took a fairly rote sitcom formula and turned it on its head. What should have been a show about the Big-Breasted Blonde and her will they/won’t they relationship with her Hunky Regular Joe Fiancé somehow became not only an ensemble show, but one wherein the least gay Token Gay, the least macho Token Black Guy and the seriously awesome Perpetually Single Best Friend became the breakout characters. It’s an ensemble show, but Penny, Brad and Max are the focus now, not Alex and Dave. And while Penny’s role is often played for stereotypical laughs (this season’s premiere being a prime example) it is, in fact, The Year Of Penny. And don’t you forget it.
Joanna Robinson watches entirely too much television. Sometimes she talks about it here.