The rogue good guy
Examples: Sarah Linden, The Killing; Jack Bauer, 24; Neal Caffrey, White Collar; at least one character from every police procedural; various Sherlock Holmes incarnations
Often they’re cops, but sometimes they’re government agents or independent detectives. What they have in common is an intense — sometimes pathological — need to catch the crook, save the world, or do whatever needs to be done to discover the truth and/or set things right. They may break the rules of their profession, but that’s because they answer to a higher morality, or know something their superiors can’t know, or the larger institution that surrounds them is corrupt. This forbidden knowledge or persecution has left them with a dark side. Every once in a while they go off the rails and make us doubt whether they are the hero after all — but, with a consistency that’s getting boring, they always turn out to be good.
The desperate housewife
Examples: Betty Francis, Mad Men; Nicolette Grant, Big Love; and, obviously, the casts of Desperate Housewives and all the innumerable Real Housewives incarnations
Since the days of The Feminine Mystique, we’ve known this woman. She’s married with kids, and the tasks of housekeeping and child-rearing are supposed to keep her busy… but something’s missing. Without a career to channel her intelligence or ambitions into, she hatches crazy schemes, plots social sabotage, or just generally unravels psychologically. At a time when so many women work, it’s curious — and more than a little bit depressing — that TV keeps shoving this archetype down our throats.
The career woman whose love life is a disaster
Examples: Liz Lemon, 30 Rock; Mindy Lahiri, The Mindy Project; Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation (early episodes)
The other side of the “desperate housewives” coin, these are the women who’ve thrown themselves into their careers, to the detriment of their personal lives. Sure, they happen to number among our favorite TV characters, and their endless romantic debacles entertain us. But in 2012, the repeated implication that women who care about their jobs couldn’t possibly also maintain strong, stable relationships is worrisome.
Examples: Ben Fox, Ben & Kate; Andy Dwyer, Parks and Recreation; Buster Bluth, Arrested Development; Tim Taylor, Home Improvement; Homer Simpson, The Simpsons; Kenneth Parcell, 30 Rock; and — literally — at least 100 others on TV past and present
It may be an even bigger problem in Hollywood, where Judd Apatow’s aimless, commitment-phobic 30-something men run wild and free, but the man-child is also a staple of TV comedy. He’s naïve, immature, bumbling, and maybe just plain dim, with a heart of gold that endears him to other characters and the audience. If he’s a husband and father, he’s just one more kid for poor Mom to cook for, clean up after, and tuck into bed at night. Those poor women may not be ready to kick these dudes to the curb, but we sure are.
The mismatched straight couple
Examples: Doug and Carrie Heffernan, The King of Queens; Peter and Lois Griffin, Family Guy; Ralph and Alice Kramden, The Honeymooners; Bill and Judy Miller, Still Standing; George and Angie Lopez, The George Lopez Show
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Uncle Phil was smart, accomplished, and filthy rich. Tony Soprano? Despite the infidelity, it’s not difficult to imagine what he brings to a romantic relationship. But the schlubs listed above? How exactly did they end up with wives that are not only beautiful but also smarter and more competent than their (often man-child) husbands? We know why casting like this happens: audiences who love to see a “regular guy” grumble and flail and screw up hilariously wouldn’t be as welcoming to a less-than-perfect wife. That’s the theory, anyway. While a Roseanne or a Mike & Molly does come around every decade or so, we’d love to see it tested more often.
The mismatched gay duo
Examples: Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett, Modern Family; David Murray and Bryan Collins, The New Normal; Will Truman and Jack McFarland, Will and Grace
Here’s the dilemma facing contemporary sitcom creators: They want to feature gay characters — especially since they know that an effeminate, camp personality can be great comic relief. But they also don’t want to be accused of stereotyping. So instead of creating one realistic character, they balance the Barbra Streisand-worshiping drama queen with a “normal” gay dude who has a level head and a high-powered career and who might even love sports. Will and Jack may not have been in a relationship, but they were the prototype for this setup, which Modern Family perfected and The New Normal ripped off.
Examples: Tony Soprano (et al), The Sopranos; Nucky Thompson (et al), Boardwalk Empire; Vincent Savino, Vegas; Constantine Alexander (et al), The Mob Doctor; the Mob Wives’ husbands
Hollywood had its love affair with the gangster in the ’70s, but the heyday of the small-screen mafioso is right now. A few years ago James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, one of the most fascinating TV characters of all time, passed the torch to Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, a similarly complex 1920s mobster/politician in Atlantic City. But in the past two years, the trend has spread to less high-minded projects like Fox’s The Mob Doctor, titled for maximum obviousness, and VH1’s Real Housewives-meets-mafia reality show, Mob Wives. Organized crime is so inherently captivating that we never expected to grow weary of it, but in 2012, we’re getting there.
The teenage heartthrob with a heart of gold
Examples: Tim Riggins, Friday Night Lights; Finn Hudson, Glee; Daniel Desario, Freaks and Geeks; Nate Archibald, Gossip Girl; basically every love interest of every female character on ABC Family or The CW
We see this archetype as a sort of wishful rewrite of high school. Of course, these football-playing, class-cutting, superhumanly attractive male specimens exist in nature. But do they also happen to be sweet, deep, caring individuals with tender souls just waiting to be saved by an all-consuming teen romance? Um, no. Almost never.
The scheming queen bee
Examples: Blair Waldorf, Gossip Girl; Cordelia Chase, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Alison DeLaurentis, Pretty Little Liars; Rachel Berry, Glee
It’s telling that shows set in high school tend to idealize their male leads while vilifying their female counterparts. Whether they rule the school or just preside over one specific clique (like Rachel), these girls are hyper-aware of their social status, and nothing matters more to them than maintaining it (along with just generally projecting an air of untouchable perfection). We’re not saying teenage girls can’t be manipulative. But just once, we’d like to see the gender of this archetype flipped.
The Jersey girl
Examples: The casts of Jersey Shore, Snooki & JWoww, Jerseylicious, Jersey Couture, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and other various New Jersey-set cable programming we’ve had the good fortune not to encounter
In the beginning, there was Jersey Shore, and reality TV producers saw that it was good — well, not good, but wildly popular and cheap to make. So they went after Snooki’s orange-tanned, big-haired, mouthy sisters, mining their recognizable look and flair for self-dramatizing in shows that profiled New Jersey’s hair stylists, clothing boutique staff, and (of course) housewives. These people are not interesting. They were never interesting. Now that the original show is in its final season, isn’t it time we all start to look away?