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There is a character often found in ensemble shows, someone who right from their first scene forces viewers to choose sides: you either love him or hate him (and they almost always are "him"s), a reaction which is immediate, visceral, and total. Nobody feels anything for this character halfway, and frankly, that's just the way he likes it. There's nothing halfway about him.

I am speaking, of course, of the Asshole.

Now, Assholes are not to be confused with the Villian, or the Protagonist, or even the Jerk. An Asshole can be part of the "good guy" group, and he often is. But he's rarely the Hero of the show (with a few exceptions), and more often than not, he's a supporting character with limited air time. This is often a good thing because he's extremely polarizing and caustic and he packs a big enough wallop that a little of him can go a long way, and sometimes too much of him is just too much.

The examples I will use of Assholes all come from cop shows and dramas, although I suspect there are several Assholes lurking in several sci-fi shows that I'm not familiar enough with. Also, I suspect Spike from Buffy is an Asshole, but that's only based on reading friends' LJ entries, not from any personal knowledge. So I won't be discussing those characters, but feel free to insert them if you feel they are appropriate.

Some Assholes of recent TV shows:

Nick Vera, Cold Case
Andy Sipowicz, NYPD Blue
Sawyer, Lost
Alex Karev, Grey's Anatomy
Bosco, Third Watch
Toby Ziegler, The West Wing (I'm on the fence about him, but in the end I think he does qualify because as loveably curmudgeonly as he is, he also hits all 4 characteristics)
Col. Tigh, Battlestar Galactica
Alex Krycek, The X Files

There are also two others who *should* qualify, but the writers of the shows have either stepped back from writing them as aggressively Asshole-ish or changed their minds about the character's direction once they were on for a bit and have softened them up so they are more of a Snarky Sidekick than a true Asshole: Colby Granger, Numb3rs, and Lee Scanlon, Medium. For that matter, I also think GA's Yang *and* Burke skirted the edge of Asshole-dom before the writers saw their potential and moved them into Flawed Hero status. Which is fine, because that show needed some genuinely Flawed Heroes to make up for the sodden messes of Meredith and McDreamy.

There are 4 main characteristics of an Asshole, and it's the combination of them that I think makes them so appealing to me.

1. As GA's Alex said a few eps back, Assholes are the ones who "get to speak the truth". They say what they're thinking -- and often, what we the audience are thinking -- straight out, with no embellishments or gently-phrased words. They speak bluntly, and rudely, and aggressively...but they get to do that because more often than not, they're right. Assholes cut through to the heart of a problem or a scene, and even when you wince as they do it, stomping on everyone's feelings on the way, you're also kind of relieved because you know their point is a valid one and it needed to be said.

Think of any Oval Office scenes with Toby and Josh and Bartlet, how they would yell and debate and then Toby would toss out the bellow that stopped them all cold in their tracks. Or the way Alex convinced Izzie to let go of Denny in the finale. Or Sawyer during any discussion he's in with Jack and Kate.

The downside of this is that often Assholes are not only NOT "politically correct", they are often bigoted and racist and misogynistic. (Alex: "She's ruining vaginas for me." Bosco: "The world would be so much better without people." Sawyer: "Baby, I am tied to a tree in the jungle of mystery. I just got tortured by a damn spinal surgeon and a genuine Iraqi. Of course I'm serious." And much worse.) But this again, is part of being the truth-teller; they don't have filters and they say what's on their minds. Right or wrong. Hello, that's why they're Assholes!

2. For all their abrasiveness and gruff exteriors, Assholes always have a weak spot, something that makes them vulnerable and will cut them to the quick if they let it. For Bosco, it's his family; he's ripped apart everytime he comes into contact with him. Sipowicz also is laid low by his family, and more so when the few people he lets in (Sylvia, Andy Jr., Bobby, Danny) die. For Tigh, it's his wife Ellen and his unwavering loyalty to the "Old Man". For Alex, it's Izzie. For Vera, it's children; he wants to become a father so badly it's curdled him inside. Sawyer's demons go back to his own childhood tragedy. Toby fights a constant battle between what he knows will be politically expedient and what he knows in his heart is the "right thing to do", and in the end, he will choose "right" over everything else, to the detriment of himself and those around him.

3. This weak spot usually goes hand-in-hand with the Asshole's inability to have a healthy romantic relationship; because their weakness is so personal and because they're so afraid of letting that be exposed, they tend to sabotage and ruin any relationships they do attempt to have. Witness Bosco's painful breakup with Nicole, Toby and Andie, Tigh and Ellen, Krycek and Marita, Vera and his wife, Alex and Izzie, etc. (Sipowicz appears to be the lone winner in this category, although he did clod-foot all over Katie a couple of times. And his first wife died in a hail of bullets.) The failure of these relationships for the most part is due to the Asshole, and often they *know* they're destroying it and still they can't do anything to stop it from happening. They can't change themselves enough to bend and to give in, even if they want to. They are who they are, and no one -- not their wives, not their children, not themselves -- can change them.

4. The final part of what makes an Asshole is that they are fully aware of numbers 1-3; they know themselves and they know the impact they have on people around them. They know they're disliked, they often don't like *themselves*, and still they don't budge. They know their weakesses (Bosco: "You think when I'm married I'm going to beat my wife, because that's what I saw growing up?" Faith: "I don't think it has to be that way. Not if that's not how you want it to be." / Bartlet: "You know what my mother would call you, Toby? A pain in the ass." Toby: "That's what my mother calls me, too, Mr. President." / Starbuck: "I have my flaws, too." Tigh: "The difference is my flaws are personal. Yours are professional.") and they know their strengths (Alex: "I'm talking this time. I tell the truth. It's what I do. It doesn't make me a bad doctor. Maybe I'm a pig, maybe I'm an ass, maybe I'm a vermin like everybody says. But I tell them the truth. It's the one thing that I've got going for me, and you don't get to take that away and call it a lesson. Sir."), and you know, I just admire the hell out of them for that. It's easy to make excuses for yourself (Hey, how ya doin' there, Mulder? Still blaming Krycek for everything?), or to deny your own flaws (HELLO, MCDREAMY YOU DICKHEAD!!), but Assholes don't do that. They own their own crap, and I like characters who do that.

Final point I want to make: for me, the fun of rooting for the Asshole comes from their redemptions, and they almost always get some redemption, even if it's temporary. And when it comes, OMG hand me the tissues. I'm gone. The way Alex convinced Izzie to let Denny go, and then holding her while she cried. Toby with the twins: "I didn't realize babies come with hats. You guys crack me up. You don't have jobs. You can't walk or speak the language. You don't have a dollar in your pockets but you got yourselves a hat so everything's fine. I don't want to alarm you or anything, but I'm Dad." Vera's divorce talk with his wife. Sipowicz discovering Andy Jr. is the fallen cop he's there to investigate. Krycek's badass little speech in The Red and The Black. Sawyer telling Jack about his father's regrets. Bosco's 9/11 breakdown in Falling. He and his mom crying in each other's arms after she takes back her abusive boyfriend.


Those Assholes get me every time. That's why I love them.

Okay, so that just swallowed up my whole morning. Time to go get some chores done and whatnot!
Date: 2006-05-24 05:13 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
Thank you for this. I've been wondering about the foundation of your distinct preference for non-lead characters, and aside from the obvious basic matter of potential, this really helps clarify things for me.

They really are prevalent, aren't they?

Female assholes really are tougher. Wasn't Sandra Oh's character in Arliss the asshole of the show? Endora was kind of an asshole, but her assholery fades into obscurity in the face of Darren's monumental assholeishness. Oh, there was Tatum O'Neal's character in that camp movie where she pretended to seduce Armand Assante on a bet with Kristy McNichol.

And of course, there's Herb from WKRP in Cincinnatti, but it's a pretty safe bet that any time Fred Willard's in a movie, his character is the asshole.

I like it when the asshole is also one of the leading characters, like Ryan O'Neal in What's Up, Doc? or Sanjeev in The Kumars at Number 42, or Daffy Duck in anything.

What a cool subject!
Date: 2006-05-24 05:41 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
Endora was kind of an asshole, but her assholery fades into obscurity in the face of Darren's monumental assholeishness.

any time Fred Willard's in a movie, his character is the asshole.

Hmm. See, I don't think I'd classify any of those characters as Assholes, except maybe Endora a little. Because any character can be a jerk and/or obnoxious, but they become Assholes when they display self-awareness for their flaws, and their story becomes a bit tragic, in a way. And Darren never did that, nor do I think Fred Willard's characters do. In fact, I love Fred *because* his characters are so oblivious to themselves!

Self-awareness, and a nice dose of self-fucked-upped-ness, is what separates an Asshole from just a jerk. They have to get hoisted on their own petard, again and again and again, and STILL not be able to change who they are. Herb from WKRP is totally an Asshole. Daffy Duck, hmm...I'm not sure. (I don't know the others you mentioned.)

It's a tricky line to walk, no question. :)
Date: 2006-05-24 05:43 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
Ah, I'm just an idiot and missed your point entirely. I'll shut up now.
Date: 2006-05-24 05:50 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
Heh, no, not at all! I should have been more clear that I meant a specific dramatic character type -- a capital-A Asshole as opposed to a little-'a' asshole. Because there are tons and tons of little-a's in various shows and movies, but I'm not necessarily drawn to them. But I am drawn to the big-A ones, and I've finally figured out they all share certain characteristics.

Date: 2006-05-24 05:53 pm (UTC)

ext_2918: (housegecko)
From: [identity profile]
Hmm, interesting. So, would Gregory House be an example where the Asshole is also the protagonist?

Date: 2006-05-24 05:58 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
I've only watched that show a couple of times, but my answer is: probably.

(Heh, in fact, that may be why I don't necessarily like House; I love Assholes, but I prefer them in small doses, as one of many in an ensemble cast. I guess I like them better as the "underdog" than as the lead. But that could go back to my preference for supporting characters, so...who knows? Oh hell, maybe I should give House a chance! *g*)
Date: 2006-05-24 06:09 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
I think both Gregory and Cuddy might qualify.
Date: 2006-05-24 06:11 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
Is Cuddy the Lisa Zane character? Because yes, I think both she and House might qualify then...
Date: 2006-05-24 06:16 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]

Coincidentally, Rick saw both Jennifer Morrison and her boyfriend who is also on the show, over the weekend. Her dad was Rick's high school band director. Yet another link in the Kevin Bacon game!
Date: 2006-05-24 09:44 pm (UTC)

ext_2918: (televisiongecko)
From: [identity profile]
Hee. Gotcha.

You know, on BSG, I think it's not Tighe who's the Asshole, but his wife.

Date: 2006-05-24 09:49 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
You know, on BSG, I think it's not Tighe who's the Asshole, but his wife.

Hmm. The only thing is, she has no redeeming vulnerability, like he does. I suppose her love for him would qualify, though...

Actually, I was thinking about it more this afternoon, and truly the Asshole on BSG is Baltar. He's lacking a bit in self-awareness sometimes, but he's got the other characteristics NAILED.
Date: 2006-05-24 10:14 pm (UTC)

ext_2918: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, yeah, totally.

Date: 2006-05-25 07:42 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
I have nothing substantive to contribute, but you reminded me of what may be my favorite Toby moment:

From the President and Leo on through, we're a team. We win together, we lose together, we celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories sweetened because we did them together . . . It's great to be in the know. It's great to have the scoop, to have the skinny, to be able to go to a reporter and say, "I know something you don't know." And so the press becomes your constituents and you sell out the team. So, an item will appear in the paper tomorrow, and it'll be embarrassing to me and embarrassing to the President. I'm not gonna have a witch hunt. I'm not gonna huff and puff. I'm not gonna take anyone's head off. I'm simply gonna say this: you're my guys. And I'm yours. And there's nothing I wouldn't do for you.

I love me some Toby.
Date: 2006-05-25 11:22 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
Awww. Toby rocked.
Date: 2006-05-25 09:07 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
I love the idea of Toby as the Asshole. It works so very, very well.

I'm trying to decide which character on Homicide was the Asshole, but I keep coming up with "almost all of them" -- both Pembleton and Munch fit the profile, at least some of the time, but so do pretty much all the characters aside from Tim.

How significant to you think the gender thing is? because I do think that this is a character who is easier to spot when he's a guy; female Assholes are perceived differently, although I think that Cristina on GA fits this category more often than not. I'm less certain about Cuddy. But it strikes me that female Assholes are often put into the "antagonist" category, and I think it's because agression and tactlessness are perceived differently in women than in men.

Except that I've just remembered the perfect example of this character type: Cordelia Chase, on Buffy (on Angel she was more of a protagonist). She was a real bitch, but mostly because there was just no filter there, and she was mean about people who were less popular than she was (ie everyone else in the school), but yes, all four of your points fit her. She was always the person who would come out with the unpleasant truth.

And as for Krycek... I agree with the point you made in my lj that we just don't see enough of him in canon to tell for sure. He does play the role of the inconvenient truth-teller, but... I don't know. I think it's a plausible interpretation of the character, and it's obviously one I prefer, but I'm not sure there's the same kind of canonical evidence there.
Date: 2006-05-25 11:43 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
I'm trying to decide which character on Homicide was the Asshole, but I keep coming up with "almost all of them" -- both Pembleton and Munch fit the profile, at least some of the time, but so do pretty much all the characters aside from Tim.

Yep, I went through the same thoughts, which is why I ended up not listing anyone from that show. It's occurred to me this morning that there is a fifth characteristic that I failed to note: while they are part of an ensemble and they are included in various groups, Assholes are usually not outright embraced and/or accepted by the groups. They tend to be loners, or they stay just on the edges of the group, next to them but not a close member.

And using that fifth characteristic, Cordy does still fit the description to a T, but it becomes clearer why Cristina no longer does and Alex has taken her place in that role. And for Homicide, well, they ALL still fit and they all still don't, because they really didn't have a cohesive "group" -- or, rather, they were all outsiders in some way to it.

How significant to you think the gender thing is? because I do think that this is a character who is easier to spot when he's a guy

Agreed, but I think you pointed a few good examples of a female Asshole, and your point is a valid one about aggression and tactlessness being perceived differently in women. I also think writers simply don't write many women for that role. Besides, this specific type of Asshole isn't found in *every* show, because it isn't always needed.

Totally agree about Krycek, too. I think it's why I was drawn to him in fanfic, because this is a character type I like and it's one he *could* and did fit in fanfic, Rachel Anton's stories being prime examples of that. (Heh, I am particularly drawn to the concept that Assholes can and will self-destruct their relationships due solely to their personality flaws. That they cannot stop themselves from being themselves even when they don't want to be that person anymore, and they will blame themselves (rightly so) for blowing their one chance at happiness. That's a story I will read and watch over and over and it never fails to push all my buttons.)
Date: 2008-08-03 08:18 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]
Oh, Bosco. ;-)
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