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Sometimes I’m watching a show and the hero/lead is the worst character on it. Exhibit A: Lost. Exhibit B: the few times I tried watching the new Hawaii Five-O. With Lost, the other guys were strong enough to watch anyway. Hawaii Five-O, well, is that even still on? Can you think of any other shows or films with elements you liked, but particularly crappy leads? —Terri
I recently saw a film with a lead I hated so much, I wanted to pull together an entire inventory about anti-heroes who are worse than the villains in their stories. I’m not sure I had any other examples of that trope, because it’s rare a lead character is this repellent. The film is Blitz, and the lead, Jason Statham, is one of those hard-bitten rogue cops who never cracks a smile unless it’s sardonic or sadistic, and who takes no guff from anyone. In other words, a Jason Statham character. But this particular one is written in a way that’s presumably meant to make him a hero to sociopaths and impotent-feeling 13-year-olds everywhere. He kicks off the plot by viciously beating a perp and not even bothering to arrest him, because he’s all about the brutal violence, not the law. He grunts and eye-rolls his way through every human reaction. His idea of detective work is assaulting or threatening people. He even abuses his badge to get free drinks via intimidation. He’s basically just a violent, self-absorbed asshole with absolutely no redeeming qualities, though we’re supposed to care about him because he’s a cop, I guess. There are a lot of really fun elements to Blitz—particularly Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger from Game Of Thrones) as the loopy, conniving serial killer Statham is chasing—a serial killer, incidentally, who wouldn’t exist if not for Statham’s inciting violence—but the lead ruined it for me entirely. Nothing against Statham, who’s basically doing what he always does. It’s just that the character is written incredibly poorly if he’s meant for an audience that cares anything about human beings.
I know of several of these, actually, Some of the classics include Curtis Hanson’s smartly plotted neo-Hitchcock thriller The Bedroom Window, in which the supposedly intelligent, suave ladies’-man hero was played by Steve Guttenberg, and Sidney Lumet’s Prince Of The City, a three-hour movie shaped around the performance of its star, Treat Williams, and which, practically overnight, ended his brief career as a leading man in A-list pictures. (Williams plays a crooked New York City police detective who agrees to wear a wire for prosecutors investigating corruption in the NYPD. He looks as if the only thought he had while making the movie was that half the people in the audience would hate him for being a bad cop, and the other half would hate him for being a rat, but maybe people in both camps would cut him some slack if he always looked as if he was just about to burst into tears.) But the best recent example I can think of is probably Mel Gibson in The Beaver. This is the movie in which Gibson plays a despairing businessman who goes crazy and starts delivering wild-eyed rants through a beaver hand puppet, and that was in production when Gibson’s profane, demented phone messages to his ex-girlfriend made the news. Even before it was released, the movie was the subject of a lot of chin-stroking ruminations about whether it was morally acceptable to enjoy a comedy about a raving lunatic starring an actual raving lunatic, but it turns out that this is kind of beside the point, because Gibson just looks monumentally depressed even when the puppet is supposed to have had a reviving, liberating effect on him. He makes being out of his gourd look like sad, backbreaking hard work, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t the idea. Maybe he thought that if he seemed to be both mentally ill and having a great time, it wouldn’t count as acting.
I realize Whedonesque readers will have my head on a stick for this, but Dollhouse felt like a potentially great show hamstrung by the weakness of its lead actor, Eliza Dushku. As Buffy’s badass slayer, Faith, Dushku worked perfectly as a warped mirror image of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s virtuous vamp-staker. But even though Whedon wrote Dollhouse with Dushku in mind, she seemed hopelessly out of her depth as a mutable “doll” required to take on a new identity almost every week. There are successful, even great, television actors who are essentially one-trick ponies: They do one thing, and they do it well. January Jones may be a terrible actress in everything else, but she’s still great on Mad Men. Dollhouse, however, required serious chops, not just to realize the show’s role-playing conceit, but to lure the audience into feeling for characters who were, at least theoretically, blank slates. Enver Gjokaj, Amy Acker, and Alan Tudyk nailed their personae, while Olivia Williams and Harry Lennix gave the show the gravitas needed to ground its potentially toxic premise. Even Fran Kranz, who for most of the two-season run functioned as an animate dispenser of Whedon’s trademark neologisms, found new depth in his amoral tech geek as the show wound down. Dushku was the weak link, and she stayed that way, no matter how often Dollhouse stripped her down to her skivvies.
You know what? I didn’t really like Buffy Summers, particularly as Buffy The Vampire Slayer went on. Even when I enjoyed the character, more or less, I enjoyed the people around her a lot more, and by the last season—when she was given lots of dull, repetitive speeches about the nature of leadership and heroism—I was actively hoping the show would go find something else to pay attention to for a while. (That said, the final moment with her in the series finale is quite good.) I respected what Joss Whedon was doing with the character and skewing the traditional hero’s journey through a feminist perspective. But at the same time, I found Sarah Michelle Gellar’s work wildly inconsistent. She’d be brilliant in one episode (“The Gift,” say), then seem like she’d rather be doing just about anything else in the next. Buffy is one of my favorite shows ever made, and saying that when I found the center of the show so often lacking just suggests how good the show actually is.
The protagonist of the 2002 romantic comedy Tadpole is a 15-year-old, Voltaire-quoting self-styled intellectual (Aaron Stanford) who proves equally irresistible to girls his own age (though he of course finds them hopelessly vapid and lacking in life experience, unlike his distinguished self) and gorgeous, accomplished older women like the hot-to-trot best friend (Bebe Neuwirth) of a stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) he’s in love with. The character is supposed to be witty, charming, and a precocious, impressive intellectual, but I just thought he was an obnoxious, pretentious little prick who should be punched in the face repeatedly, then exiled from civilization until he wipes that smug fucking smirk off his eminently loathsome mug. Tadpole is a silly, self-satisfied little trifle, but my raging contempt for its unbearably precious protagonist keeps it fresh in my mind, in the worst possible way. In conclusion, sweet God, do I hate that little fucker. I do not care for him at all.
Last year’s competing fuck-buddies rom-coms, No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits were an interesting study in contrasts: The former had poor leads and delightful actors on the periphery, while the latter had electric leads surrounded on all sides by drudgery (and flash mobs, which are worse). Friends With Benefits is the better of the two films, which testifies to the importance of the center holding strong in romantic comedies, but the curious pairing of Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached proved so distracting that many missed the considerable delights of Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, and Kevin Kline—all of whom deserved a separate and better movie. Kutcher and Portman are an odd match from the start—he with his ingratiating, shaggy-dog dopiness; she with her high-strung, aristocratic air—and the film doesn’t make sense of them, with Portman looking particularly uncomfortable as the White Swan in a lowbrow relationship comedy. At least her friends are having a good time.
I was never a fan of the simpering Dawson Leery, the namesake of the mid-’90s youth-programming juggernaut Dawson’s Creek. While James Van Der Beek seems all right, Dawson Leery was entirely unsympathetic, grousing about filmmaking and acting ancient even in his teens. I had absolutely no desire for him to get the girl, or any girl, for that matter. The show’s creators obviously picked up on my mental daggers, as the show became less about Dawson and more about the far superior Pacey in later seasons.
I’ve read all of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books—devoured them, really, because whatever her flaws, the lady does a terrific job at building compulsive narratives and enjoyable worlds. But the more time I spend away from the series, the more its problems get to me, and the biggest problem of them all is the main character himself. Harry is, to put it kindly, an absolute no one. He suffers at the hands of the despicable Dursleys because, hey, what’s a hero’s journey without a little suffering? Then one day he learns he’s inherited great powers and wealth, neither of which have any connection to him beyond basic genetics. The news hunts him down like a wretch-seeking missile, and before you know it, Harry’s whisked away to a magical land where he’s repeatedly informed how wonderful he is by strangers, all without ever having accomplished or earned much of anything beyond a passive ability to not die. Yes, Mr. Potter makes his fair share of enemies, and yes, he does do his best to live up to the responsibility of being the most famous boy wizard in the world. But the series never shakes the fact that Harry is destined to heroism less by merit than by fait accompli, and every good fortune that comes his way plays like wish-fulfillment to distract us from the fact that there’s no real center to the kid. He’s as generic as a Hardy Boy, and when Rowling did try and give him some edge, he became just another self-centered, whiny teenager, given to fits of self-loathing that manifested as witless sarcasm and dull surliness. It’s not that Harry Potter is a horrible person, or even the worst fictional character to ever grace a fantasy narrative; fantasy does, after all, rely an awful lot on prophecy and fate. It’s just hard to accept that a writer capable of characters like Severus Snape and Hermione Granger chose to rest the crux of her narrative on a boy whose most memorable personality trait is a facial scar.
I know Enlightened has its share of fans, my wife and several friends among them. And I generally really like Laura Dern, to the extent that
one ponders such things. But personally, I wanted everybody on it to disappear back into whatever navel-gazing crevice of Mike White’s imagination they came from. Most of all, Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, whose Jack Handey voiceovers and simpleton citizen outrage pretty much drove me crazy. I kept thinking the show should be renamed Entitled. Or White Woman’s Burden. And then I started trying to win the approval of cartoonishly terrible corporate status-climbers who led me down the pursuit of self-destruction, treating the decent working-class drones and family members under my nose like shit under my shoe, and trying to fix my ex-husband while I’m still broken myself, until finally starting to become “enlightened” and reading shitty poetry about it at the end of each episode. I know Amy’s trying to change the world, but I don’t even care if she betters herself.
I’m not saying anything new here, but this definitely needs to be said: As much as I love How I Met Your Mother and all the characters in it, it’s always been frustrating that the title character, Ted Mosby, has always been the least interesting member of the show’s ensemble. Oh, and he’s a bit of a douche, on top of things. Up until this year’s episodes, when Ted has realized that he’s approaching his mid-30s without a mate mainly because he’s repeatedly made the same mistakes in his love life, his quest for “The One” has always been more of a turgid exercise in creating a mythology for the show than anything really interesting. He’s overly romantic and idealistic, and his long-term relationships not only become less interesting as time has gone on, they’re also providing diminishing returns as far as romantic chemistry is concerned. And Ted’s inherent douchiness—his desire to give everyone architecture lessons, his ability to be a precocious twit in even the most laid-back circumstances—is starting to feel old, especially considering how the rest of the gang from the show (even Barney!) have grown over the years.
There are poor heroes, and then there’s trying to re-up on an amazing hero played by the hero’s hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Take Predator 2, in which Danny Glover plays a hard-nosed L.A. cop in the then-future of 1997, who squares off against the titular interstellar hunter. Glover, coasting on the fumes of the first two Lethal Weapon films, is convincing enough as a badass cop who’s perpetually too old for whatever shit he’s doing at any given time. But seeing him go toe-to-toe, mano-a-uh, extraterrestrial-o with the Predator is just ludicrous. Where, in the first film, Arnold strips naked to the waist, covers himself in mud, and lies in wait to trap the alien, hunted becoming the hunter, Glover basically ducks and tumbles his way through Predator 2, narrowly evading death like a futuristic Buster Keaton. It doesn’t help much that he’s “aided” by a group of cartoons, like an especially useless Gary Busey and Bill Paxton’s wisecracking, quickly-dispatched cowboy/cop. Luckily, all this goofiness, and the wildly racist projections of what 1990 thought 1997 L.A. would look like, make Predator 2 some pretty great so-bad-it’s-good viewing.
As a once-religious watcher of the Disney Afternoon lineup—at least through TaleSpin—I came to realize that Chip from Chip ’N Dale’s Rescue Rangers is a major-league asshole. I could work past his “cool” wardrobe, but his constant pissy attitude about everything and his relentless physical and emotional abuse of Dale easily made him my least favorite character on the show, and possibly my least favorite in the whole Disney Afternoon universe. Even in the NES game, I would always want to be Dale and try to throw Chip off the roof, because he’s just the worst.
Saying anything negative about Community here at The A.V. Club is a risky proposition: Its popularity around these parts is so vast that daring to invoke it in this list might seem like an effort to be contrarian for contrarian’s sake. But while there’s a lot to like, and even love, about the show, Jeff Winger isn’t one of them. You could argue that the show has moved to a place that features the entire study group as an ensemble. But while Jeff doesn’t occupy the same central space as Ted Mosby, he’s certainly the hub around which all others rotate. Still, the show has stubbornly refused to let him adapt, mature, and change at the rate of other characters such as Britta and Troy. This season’s best episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” posited that Jeff, not Pierce, was the real problem within the group. And yet the show promptly dropped that potent observation as if that episode never happened. It’s not Joel McHale’s performance that irritates. It’s the show’s steadfast refusal to confront Jeff’s issues head-on in a way that forces him to evolve. The darkest and most terrible timeline might involve fake facial hair for Abed. But for me, it involves a sixth season (and/or a movie) in which Jeff is still as emotionally removed from the group as he currently is.
In a previous AVQA, I pointed out how Ben Linus, Lost’s anti-hero, became one of the most beloved characters on the show, while many fans got turned off by the show’s alleged protagonist, Jack Shepherd, altogether. So I’ll agree with the original letter-writer’s comment about that show. Beyond that, I’ve become less and less enamored with The Walking Dead, particularly as the show sputtered around Herschel’s farm in season two. If you think Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is the sole lead, then I’ll just complain about his wishy-washy ways, his desire to do the right thing while constantly agonizing over what that is. Newsflash, Rick: It’s the zombie apocalypse. Do whatever you have to stay alive. In a way, there’s a lot in common between Rick and Jack from Lost in the way both characters are kind of appointed leader of their survivors group, but neither know how to handle that burden, and as a result, neither makes for a very good hero. But just for fun, let’s expand Dead’s “hero” list to include the entire group. In which case you have the maniacal, whiny Lori, who tells Shane to stay the hell away from her one minute, then the next, is telling him how sorry she is about everything. (Continuing the Lost analogy, there are similarities between Lori and Kate, in that both emotionally manipulate the show’s “hero” and like to change their minds at the drop of a hat.) Throw in the fact that Lori and Rick are apparently the world’s worst parents—again, zombie apocalypse, you guys, keep an eye on that son of yours—and you’ve got a gruesome twosome. And Andrea has been completely neutered from the comics, becoming a wide-eyed, wishy-washy moron cut out of Rick’s mold instead of the level-headed badass she is in graphic-novel form.
Can I point to a case where an intentionally bad hero is the best part of a movie? I like Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow more than most people—though I’ll admit it fell apart at the end—and most of what I like about it involves Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane as the worst possible person to confront a threat, supernatural or otherwise. He faints at the first hint of danger and generally gets bounced around the movie like a squeamish fancy-lad. It’s a hilarious inversion of what a movie hero is supposed to be, and Sleepy Hollow would be a much less interesting movie if he filled out the role any better.