TV on My Terms: Give Me More Shirley!
Characterization on television these days is arguably at an all time high, which makes it very difficult for a TV Fanatic such as myself to keep up with the amount of quality shows on a growing number of networks.
In most cases, the best are able to perfectly balance their character development, providing each with robust contributions to the story. Examples of such brilliant execution include The Good Wife and Mad Men. In some instances, even procedurals like NCIS or comedies like 30 Rock are able to build and use each characters thoughtfully, within their own unique environments.
Then there are some equally smart and enjoyable programs that seem to struggle when it comes to achieving such parity. Here, I cite five characters from five different shows who I think suffer a bit from a character imbalance, and that I would like to see given more to do in their respective worlds:
Shirley Bennett, Community
Of all the quirky characters in this comedy ensemble, Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) is my favorite, mostly due to the fact that Brown is a talented comedienne and can deliver a line better than any of her counterparts. Yet it seems like she's given less and less of an opportunity to do so, while some of her more outlandish castmates are given beefier stories to play out.
In fact, it's ironic that Shirley's catch phrase ("That's nice") pretty much sums up what her character has turned into: the saintly mother hen who sits in the corner and reacts to everyone else with either nurturing or judgment.
As I commented in a recent episode review, the writers set up Shirley for a potential goldmine of laughs when the group went to a bar she used to frequent in her wilder days, yet it fizzled out with only glimpses of "Old Shirley" in a handful of photographs.
In fact, the only Shirley-centric episode we've had all season showed her mostly sullen and depressed over the godlessness of her fellow students. One of my favorite episodes of Community to date is from season one, "The Science of Illusion," when Annie and Shirley serve as campus police and compete over which of them is the bigger "bad-ass."
In that episode, Shirley was full of laughs, yet still conveyed a desperate need for validation and to be seen as a strong woman in the wake of her husband's abandonment. With the recently announced casting of Malcom Jamal-Warner as Shirley's ex-husband/current boyfriend, here's hoping her character will soon have more opportunities to shine.
Ellie Bartowski-Woodcombe, Chuck
Chuck is another one of those shows with so many characters that it's got to be difficult for the writers to come up with ways to use them all on a regular basis. But after three and a half seasons, it's time they figured out how to use Ellie.
I was thrilled when she was manipulated by the Ring operative last season and ended up helping Devon and Morgan rescue Chuck, and expected her to become more involved in the show's spyjinks. But then what do the writers do? Knock Ellie up, and have her try to talk Chuck out of spying. How disappointing. I foolishly allowed my expectations to be raised again when Papa Bartowski left Ellie the car containing a hidden laptop.
I thought maybe, just maybe, SHE would end up with an Intersect. Wouldn't THAT be a major twist? Yet, that fizzled out too when they just turned the laptop over to Chuck and he got the Intersect back... again. She's a Bartowski for crying out loud! Can't they find a place for her in the spy world, even if it's just as a medical consultant with regard to the Intersect?
Not to mention Sarah Lancaster is a strong actress with chops to handle more than simply nagging Devon and worrying over Chuck's safety. Give the lady something more substantive to do than wring her hands and have babies. If it means lightening the character load by dropping say, I don't know, Lester and Jeff, then by all means do it.
She is far less of a story weight than those two numbskulls, and its high time they bring out the true Bartowski side of Ellie and get her down to Castle. Then again, if they did, she might just out-spy Chuck.
Perhaps it's not fair to include a character from a freshman series after only 11 episodes, but as much as I'm enjoying Nikita, I can't help but be curious about the increasingly enigmatic Amanda. Melinda Clarke has the ultimate look of a vixen, and when they initially introduced her as the Division interrogator, or "The Inquisitor" as she is affectionately referred to by her counterparts, I thought this was perfectly delicious casting.
So far, though, we've only seen Amanda stand on the sidelines while leering chillingly at the cadets or dressing them up for a kill. Her "talents" always seem to be used off camera and are merely referenced in passing. In the winter finale, I thought we were finally going to get to see some of why everyone seems to be afraid of her during her interrogation of Nikita, but all she did was show Nikita a few home movies and then flip out when Nikita became free of her shackles.
Doesn't seem like such a tough gal after all. I hope that as the season progresses we get to see her unleash a bit of what's been alluded to, and learn about how she came to be part of Division and what makes her such a rumored reckoning force, because it's beginning to feel like the lady is all talk and no action.
Astrid Farnsworth, Fringe
Fringe storytelling is exceptional, and Astrid (Jasika Nicole) does get a fair amount of screen time for a supporting character, but does that classification mean she can't have more to do than simply serve as Walter's right arm in the lab and bridge the gap between story and audience when the details get a bit murky?
Astrid makes for a wonderful confidant, is often the level head others turn to for a shoulder, and she shares some of the best exchanges with Walter when he's at his kooky best, but doesn't she have a life and back story of her own that's worth learning about? Isn't there more to Astrid that simply serving as straight man to Walter's loopy scientist?
I'd like to see Astrid get out of the lab and participate in the investigating for a change. She is, after all, an FBI agent first and foremost, right? Supporting characters on procedurals get more to do than she does. Let's see Astrid use some of her FBI training in the field and even put her in a situation which would require her to do some butt-kicking of her own.
Something tells me Astrid, and Jasika, could more than handle herself. Heck, I'd even settle for some Olivia/Astrid girl-bonding at the local bar at this point. Anything to make Astrid feel like more than a one-dimensional character on a 3-D playground.
Elizabeth Burke, White Collar
White Collar is essentially a buddy dramedy, but does that mean that the ladies can't carry the ball a little more often? Some of the most enjoyable episodes have factored heavily around females, such as Dianna (Marsha Thomasson) posing as a high-end hooker or Sara Ellis (Hilarie Burton) spar-flirting with Neal, but so often Elizabeth is left sitting at home with a glass of wine waiting for her hubby to come home, perusing a case file or two with him over breakfast, or at best, yukking it up with Mozzie.
Granted, Thiessen was pregnant offscreen for the better part of season two, but now that she's out from in front of the horrendous green screen, she needs some court time with the rest of the team. Fellow USA hit Burn Notice has found creative ways to use Mama Weston, so I have no doubt the creative minds at work here can find a use for Elizabeth that involves more than video chats and burned casseroles.
What do you think? Is it relevant that I seem to have pinpointed all female characters who lack the development of their brethren? What other examples of similar character imbalance can you think of? Comment below and follow me on Twitter!
Jeffrey Kirkpatrick is a TV Fanatic Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter.