Who Moved My TV Character’s Cheese: Why we respond to strongly to vocational competency on television

Last night’s “Saturday Night Live” parody of “Scandal” was simultaneously funny and instructive. As a fan of both shows, I had reservations when the sketch started: recent “SNL” parodies of programs such as “The Walking Dead” and “Homeland” have missed core aspects of the show so badly that the mockery didn’t land at all. But with “Scandal,” the show not only got to provide super fan Lena Dunham with the chance to act inside one of her favorite hour-long dramas (albeit in sketch form). It also provided a key insight into one of the aspects that gives so many fans pleasure: The act of seeing characters who are really good at their jobs succeed in their everyday roles.

This seems like both an intuitive thing that drives audience engagement but also something completely counterintuitive to what bonds people to fictional characters. The old adage, espoused by me and many other critics, is that we respond less plot and more to story. In this construction, the plot represents what happens, and the story represents why what happens actually matters. Usually, the latter takes the form of the choices characters make when forced to do so by the plot. A character can make a heroic decision in the face of imposed odds, or chicken out and suffer the moral and emotional consequences later.

scandal_season_2.jpgThose choices rarely intersect with a character’s vocation, unless when dealing with tried and true shows such as legal or medical dramas. Those type of programs work so well since character actions and plot almost completely overlap, especially when it comes to straightforward procedurals. But increasingly, programs outside the scope of these two genres feature characters whose in-job skills not only complement these people, but rather offers direct insight into their core characters. Even in established fields such as legal dramas, the choices that characters make in their offices have as much (if not more) to say about who they are as people than what they do off the clock.

This trend isn’t new by any stretch, but it does feel more pronounced lately, in programs ranging from “The Good Wife,” “Parks And Recreation,” and even “Enlisted.” (We’ll get to the latter in a bit, since it seems like a bad example but actually isn’t.) But before we get any further, let’s look back at that “Scandal” parody, in which Dunham’s Kelsey, the newest member of Pope And Associates, marvels at the speed, skill, and efficiency with which Olivia and her gladiators conduct business. Kelsey serves as a “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”-esque voice inside the sketch, but it’s crucial to note Kelsey is never once skeptical of the efficiency on display in the office. Instead, she’s amazed at how well they do business. Now, the sketch is simultaneously mocking how quickly Pope And Associates get things done, likening it to magic than anything that could happen in the real world. But again, this isn’t a condemnation of “Scandal” as a whole, which takes for granted these people are amazing at their jobs and absolutely horrible at actually living their lives. That ironic juxtaposition is baked into the show, and also baked into the sketch.

Thus, it’s NICE if people who get shit done from 9 am -5 pm (in the case of Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation office) or 9 am – 5 am (in the case of anyone working on an important case at either Lockhart & Gardner or Florrick-Agos and Associates) are themselves actually nice. But that’s not exactly a prerequisite: one of the chief pleasures of this past season of “The Good Wife” is stripping away any pretentions that we have been watching morally upstanding people for the past five seasons. Having Alicia and Cary start their own law firm would have painted either side either black or white on a lesser program. Instead, shades of grey are streaked across all sides, with little room to identify anyone truly wearing Olivia Pope’s white hat (itself an ironic piece of clothing at this point). The skill at which the lawyers on “The Good Wife” do their jobs concealed the fact that they were often clever rather than correct when winning their cases, a fact that season five has highlighted, underlighted, and beamed onto the sides of skyscrapers.

good-wife-josh-charles1.jpgBut that doesn’t remove the thrill of watching Alicia and Will engage in mental battles to outwit the other, of watching Robyn sharpen her skills to match those of Kalinda, or Eli Gold stay one step ahead of legal repercussions in the name of clean government. In fact, the greater the skill a person has at a certain profession, the more people in-show and at-home respect that individual for his/her prowess. But getting both the fictional and real world to buy into this assessment is the tricky part. Look at a show like “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” or the front half “Brooklyn 99.” Both those shows feature heroes that are supposedly amazing at what they do, but everything in those programs failed to live up to that lip service. Those serving under Coulson constantly screwed up and needed saving, and Andy Samberg’s character Jake Peralta was damn near unwatchable because Jake’s in-job performance could not excuse his childlike behavior.

I can’t help but wonder if people respond to extremely competent workers in fictional programs because they spend more time with coworkers than family members. It’s all well and good to see a domestic-based comedy or drama, but the plain fact is more people spend more time awake at work than at home on any given day. Everyone has that coworker that drives everyone else up a wall, and that’s an ideal situation. More likely, red tape, bureaucracy, in-fighting, and plain personal differences form a minefield that defines five out of seven days. Most sane people tolerate individual quirks from coworkers if those coworkers are really good at their jobs or help make work easier for others. But a combination of incompetence plus basic human indecency sent people over the edge and into the comforting competency of Leslie Knope and Alicia Florrick.

enlisted.jpgAs I stated before, I lump “Enlisted” here as well, even though a show about seemingly spectacularly terrible soliders seems like an odd fit for this thesis. But last Friday’s “Parade Duty” (coupled with the as-yet unaired “General Inspection”) suggests that the problem for Rear-D isn’t inherently limited people, but rather untapped potential. In “Parade Duty,” Staff Sergeant Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) tries to whip his team into shape to march in the yearly parade rather than serve on “doody duty.” What follows is a battle of wills between himself and his brother Derrick, who has helped instill a mindset amongst his fellow soldiers than trying anything only leads to disappointment. Better to stave off disappointment, Derrick argues, since there’s a far greater risk of that happening that success. Eventually, both Derrick and the rest of Rear-D decide to work with Pete and practice their marching.

The initial results are damning, with Hill and company shamed when they fail to perform in front of Sergeant Major Cody. It’s a surprising sequence, since television shows teach us that montages equal success. But it’s only when Pete joins his crew mid-parade (leaving behind the more dignified role he inherited by default at the last minute) that all the training comes together. Using brooms instead of guns, the unit performs the march flawlessly, earning the “slow salute” from veterans observing the parade. It’s a pretty stunning moment, mostly because the show earns that salute. Had “Enlisted” not earned it, the slow salute would have been mawkish at best and downright offensive at worst. But it’s important to recognize what these veterans are saluting: They aren’t saluting the march, but rather the effort and discipline that went into the march. They are responding to an ethic and an ethos, and what’s thrilling is to see previously shame-filled soldiers all but burst at pride at seeing themselves recognized as kin their elders. The clear message: Work-related problems are not unlike personal problems, with both relying as much on inspiration for improvement (if not more) than innate skill sets.

What “Parade Duty” and that “SNL” sketch about “Scandal” both highlight is how much appetites have changed since the heyday of the American version of “The Office,” in which “just getting by” served as the primary motivation for most of its characters. Even aspirational characters such as Jim and Pam found themselves choosing the paths of least resistance after years on the show, only to course correct at the very last minute. “The Office” contained lots of truths about the way people often seek to slide by unnoticed and do as little as possible. But the best moments of “The Office” inside Dunder Mifflin were always those glimpses into why anyone tolerated Michael Scott at all. Michael was a terrible boss but a fantastic salesperson, and in many ways the tragedy of Michael for so long was that he was in a place that didn’t utilize his skills and therefore didn’t stoke his passion. We can also relate to that on some level, which is why we tend to respond so strongly to fictional characters perfectly placed to perform at high levels of efficiency, creativity, and self-fulfillment.

These people are not their jobs. But their jobs help define those people more clearly than any amount of exposition ever could. Those of us lucky enough to latch onto these characters would do well to find ways to inject even a slight bit of that into our daily lives. It seems like impossibly hard work. But as these shows demonstrate, it’s work worth doing.