Enough Already, Rachel: Liking a Series Even When its Lead Character Annoys You
The season finale of the FOX series Glee, which aired on Tuesday, finally saw the show’s central character Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) move to New York to chase her dreams of Broadway stardom. Her fellow glee club members sang a heartfelt goodbye at the train station—only moments after her fiance, Finn, called off their wedding and told her we wouldn’t be going to New York with her. Once Rachel arrives in The Big Apple the camera spins deliriously around her, a plucky girl from a small town all set to conquer the greatest city on Earth. It’s a whirlwind sequence that covers a wide range of emotional peaks and valleys. It would all be very meaningful, except for one problem: I can’t stand Rachel Berry.
Now, it’s important to note that, as a 32-year-old straight male, I’m not exactly the target demographic for Glee. There are thousands of young girls around the world who identify with Rachel and her struggle for acceptance, and I’m glad they have her—or anyone, really–as a role model. But the obvious gender and age differences between us is not the reason I’ve never connected to Rachel as a character. To me she comes off as petty and selfish, and even the show’s attempts to make her more sympathetic have only served to make her more boring to me. And yet, I like Glee. The show will always be pure cheese, but at its best it’s high-grade cheese, with vibrant supporting characters and peppy musical numbers.
For years I was on the other side of this debate. As a fan of the ABC sci-fi drama Lost I cared about the emotional journey of the lead character, Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), but there were many people who didn’t—even people who were devoted fans of the series. Jack’s detractors found him to be a callous wimp: deliberating without taking action, asking the wrong questions, and crying way too much (to be fair, Jack did cry a lot). In a series with a large ensemble cast, like Glee or Lost, there are bound to be characters that interest you more than others, but what are you to make of a series when you are completely disconnected from the goals of its protagonist?
Why are so many lead characters the least interesting aspect of their series? Part of the problem is that the lead is often created as a cypher, meant to make it easier for a target demographic (very often male, 18-49) to connect to. Giving a character a too-specific personality may alienate viewers who can’t recognize themselves in their actions. This often results in a lead character with a bland “everyman” personality surrounded by more complicated, interesting supporting characters.
In comedy this is often justified by the need for a “straight-man” to deliver setups for punchlines delivered by wacky supporting characters. The leads on two of the biggest comedies on television, CBS’s How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, have no defining characteristics—a fact that hasn’t negatively affected their popularity at all, and has probably helped both shows become hits. Big Bang Theory’s Leonard (Johnny Galecki) may as well not exist other than as a way to set up Sheldon’s next “Bazinga”. Ted (Josh Radnor) of How I Met Your Mother is a boring lead, but seven seasons into the series it hardly seems to revolve around his search for the titular mother anymore, so it doesn’t matter (at this point Ted may meet her at such an advanced age that the end of the series reveal will be an ancient Ted speaking to those pre-recorded children on his deathbed). Like Neil Patrick Harris?Like Jason Segel? Then it will always be the show for you.
Of course, blandness isn’t the only thing that can turn viewers off from a lead character—there is definitely such a thing as too much personality. When the FOX sitcom New Girl premiered it was promoted heavily as a star vehicle for quirky indie darling Zooey Deschanel and her “adorkability” (to quote the rather unfortunate tagline thrown on posters and buses by the FOX advertising department). The early focus on Deschanel’s Jess led to a backlash against the show, but the writers and producers of the series soon figured out that centering on Jess alone gave the show a limited comic voice, and began to flesh out the personalities of the other characters. Jess remains a divisive character, but the emergence of her roommates as funny characters in their own right—especially the breakout star, Schmidt (Max Greenfield)—helps the show feel balanced.
It’s impossible for the creators of a series to make a lead character that everyone is going to like, because people approach series for different reasons. You can approach a plot-heavy drama like Lost and appreciate the twists and cliffhangers without ever caring for the weepy man-child at its center, and you can enjoy Glee without caring for the adolescent melodrama at its heart. But you must also approach these series with an understanding that these characters that you hate so much will always be an integral part of the fabric of the show. If they bug you too much than there are dozens of other series with protagonists that will resonate with you more—and, undoubtedly, drive someone else crazy.