The Attraction of the Dysfunctional

Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Monk, Dr. House--they're brillant, they're dysfunctional, they're highly obnoxious, they're totally lovable.

Maybe not lovable. Nobody except a Watson, an Archie, a Sharona and presumably, a bunch of interns would put up with these guys for very long. Yet, as the main characters of major TV programs, they are long-term watchable.

I'm talking here specifically about the amazing Jeremy Brett, the incredible Maury Chaykin, the delighful Tony Shalhoub and the devastating Hugh Laurie. All four have taken on the roles of highly dysfunctional individuals, who, nevertheless, retain the respect of their viewers.

This is harder, much harder, than it sounds. Like a first person narrative, once your hero crosses the line from slightly annoying to incredibly irritating, you switch stories. It's one reason I have a hard time with Everybody Loves Raymond and Will & Grace. Megan Mullally who plays Karen on Will & Grace deserves to be ranked with Brett, Chaykin, etc. as a sarcastic harridan who is still the funniest thing to watch on the show. But an hour of Karen would be too much.

The key to Brett, Chaykin, Shalboub and Laurie is sarcasm but sarcasm wrapped up in an appealing package. Shalhoub especially illustrates this combination. Monk is an obsessive-compulsive filled with ticks that most of us recognize within ourselves. He is finicky, demanding, lacking in empathy. And he has a dry humor. It sits just below the surface, rising at odd moments in half remarks usually delivered in a deadpan manner. He is the perfect straight man.

And then there's the whole persona of Shalhoub which, through an utter lack of self-consciousness (the character is self-conscious but only a truly unself-conscious actor could pull off some of the stuff Shalhoub does) gives Monk an endearing quality. One of the intelligent parts of the show is that Monk's apartment, despite its squeaky, hands-off neatness, is decorated in warm, brown tones. And Monk's finicky obsessiveness is relieved by moments of pure kindness, such as his treatment of his brother, his treatment of Sharona's child and his treatment of the Captain when the Captain's wife is hurt. It isn't emphasized; it is omnipresent. Monk doesn't behave obnoxiously for seven shows and then really nice for one, justifing all his subsequent behavior. Rather, Monk's mix of humor, querlousness and kindness are at work in every episode.

Ah, yes, Monk has a brilliant older brother just like Holmes. I can't go into raptures over everyone of these guys. Suffice it to say that I consider Brett the definitive Holmes, and that he brought to Holmes the same combination of intelligent eye-brow lifting mockery (often at himself), oddity and kindness, plus an emotional tension which is shared by Wolfe and House.

Nero Wolfe and Dr. House are, perhaps, the least likeable, that is in their characters. But again, the audience keeps watching. With Wolfe and House, the quality that holds is an ability to cut through the crap and even more, the emotional cost of their choices. Both Chaykin and Laurie exude an utter lack of self-pity. (Self-pity kills a character faster than anything else.) They don't play for laughs. Despite Chaykin's bulk and Laurie's slenderness, they both play from a similar inner tension. There is a frenetic quality (which Jeremy Brett as Holmes shares) to their actions, an inability to keep still intellectually or physically.

Wolfe, at least, has Archie. Played by Timothy Hutton, Archie quivers with passion: the emotional excess that Wolfe cannot afford to feel. House is more distant. The wounded leg sets him apart, like Hephaestus. His distance gives him power. In the ordinary way of things, he would just be an arrogant doctor who nearly kills patients and gets sued. But in TV-land, in myth, he becomes prophetic. His gift ("or curse," as Monk would say) is that he perceives the real cost of choices and subsequently, endures real emotional grief. He is cleaner at heart than those around him. He doesn't lie to himself and therefore, his choices become real choices as when he decides to continue his painkillers, even though he knows he is an addict.

And that I suppose, is in essence the attraction of them all. They are more truthful than the rest of us and therefore more brave. Grissom from CSI isn't quite strange enough to join this coterie (my brother Eugene has pointed out that Grissom started out stranger), but he plays the same role. This person, one can say, can be trusted to tell us how things really are. They are talismans, heroes, tricksters who, by living outside the rules, keep the rest of us pure. Perhaps, it explains the fame of Simon (from American Idol), the only problem being that Simon is playing himself. It's one thing for a mythical doctor or detective to cry out Jeremiah-like condemnations, but when an ordinary mortal does it, well, that's just mean.


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