Villains, Good Guys and Unlikable Characters

So I don't watch Without a Trace anymore and the reason, which I hate to admit, is because I don't like the main character. Well, and it was obviously headed towards soap-opera central with a steamy love triangle and so on and so forth.

But my reaction to the main character bemused me. In general, I don't rule out shows simply because I dislike a character. Quite often, I like a character, even if the character is a villain or kind of shady, so long as I feel that that character works and is necessary. Even badly written characters don't bother me—I just figure that's the fault of the script writer.

For instance, Jan from Firefly is an excellent example of a dislikable character who is nevertheless very fun to watch. Dawn from Buffy is a good example of the latter (average actress, pointless character—started out good, the writers ran out of ideas). Bob from Becker is a fabulous example of the former. Wesley (yes, Wesley!) from Star Trek: Next Gen was a good example of a character that needn't have been as annoying as the writers made him.Even when I just don't like a character at all, I can usually find something else about the show to watch. Wesley from ST:Next Gen didn't ruin everything for me. Kes from Voyager got close but hey, they got rid of her within three seasons, thank goodness, and even when she was on, she was usually playing opposite the doctor, who was a hoot.

But the main character on Without a Trace (Jack played by Anthony LaPaglia) is just—yech. And I decided that it’s an unfortunate combination between the script and the actor. I don't mind the actor especially, but his character is supposed to be this great boss who had an affair once upon a time with an associate. Two years later, his wife leaves him, moving to Chicago and basically stealing his daughters. He thought he was moving to Chicago too and one of his subordinates got his job. Then, his wife serves him with divorce papers, and he's back at his old job, ousting the subordinate, all for the sake of his daughters.

In all honesty, the ousting the subordinate part got me angrier than the affair part. The affair was just stupid people behaving stupidly. But the ousting the subordinate was unfair and wrong and sexist and also weird writing, script-wise, since the actress who played the subordinate (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) was actually a far more convincing leader.

BUT—this horrible script could almost work if the character was a charismatic leader who was good at his job, that is, if the character was actually interesting. There's a kind of fascination in watching people self-destruct. But unfortunately, LaPaglia plays the whole thing just on the edge of whine. Just barely. I don't think he means to. I think he means to be all concerned-like and angst-ridden. But it doesn't work. It comes off as the man feeling vaguely sorry for himself. Sorry for himself! Oh, I get it, it's the old, "It's my private life, nobody should care what a jerk I am" ploy. So he messed up his marriage. His wife obviously hates his guts. And now he is going to make everyone pay for it.

If, instead, they played him as a villain (and there was a marvelous show ten years ago or so about an amoral lawyer who cheated and lied and stole; the show was told from his point of view, which was great although the show only lasted about half a season—there's this scene where the villain sticks nails in his shoes to get himself through a lie detector test), the show would bounce back from maudlin to fun. Amoral works. But passing amoral turpitude off as "hey, he's the hero, don't you feel sorry for him?"—nah, I don't think so.


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