The current TV schedules mean that it’s a good time to talk about a character type that seems to be in endless supply at the moment: The Player.
Now obviously The Player is not a new invention – the Fonz could make girls appear with a simple ‘Eyyyy…’, Captain Kirk was a hit with women of all ages, races and species and, of course, Lord Flashheart stole his best friend’s bride while acting as best man at the wedding (complete with pocket canoe). But just at the moment barely a day goes by when you can’t switch on and find a comedy complete with The Player chasing the ladies: Tuesdays give us New Girl and the painfully metrosexual Schmidt, Thursday is a double bill of The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz and How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, Tony DiNozzo pops up on NCIS several times a week, and every night, it seems, is Quagmire night (Family Guy).
But what makes The Player interesting is not that he exists in so many forms, but rather that viewers seem to love him. Bearing in mind that The Player is a character who makes a life’s work of finding new ways to chat up, flirt with, entice, trick and ensnare women, it seems crazy that he should be popular, especially with female viewers – but he is. Take Joey Tribianni. He only ever had two things on his mind (the other being food) and was, not to put too fine a point on it, two eggplants short of a lasagne; yet he was an incredibly popular character, so much so that the Internet is still producing articles about how wonderful he is. And as for Barney Stinson, AKA The Barnacle, AKA way-past-borderline sex addict and least PC man ever to don a lobster bib in New York City: he has nearly four million likes on Facebook, his own real/fictional blog, several books, and a vast array of T-shirts and other apparel so that you too can totally suit up.
Of course, not every Player is a popular Player: see for example Howard Wolowitz, the tiny Jewish science geek with the worryingly tight trousers. Far from being adored and admired, he’s the watchword for sleazy chat up lines and was recently described by the Radio Times as the “King of Creep”. Howard speaks, and every female part of me runs away to wither and die in a corner. So what makes Howard hideous and Barney awesome?
One obvious answer, albeit a worrying one, is that Barney is attractive, and can therefore get away with his awful behaviour. Maybe we just don’t notice the terrible things coming out of his mouth because we’re too busy looking at his angelic face and natty suit. The same applies to Kirk – beam me up, captain! – and DiNozzo – ahoy, sailor! – as well as to other well-groomed Players such as Grey’s Anatomy’s Mark Sloan, who came into the show sleeping with his best friend’s wife and who has nonetheless managed to steal it. Contrast Howard, whose absurd bowl haircut only seems to be emphasised by his atrocious taste in clothing, and Quagmire, who has one of the most inexplicable faces known to man or cartoon and has the dubious honour of being even more horrifying than Howard.
But then there are exceptions. For example, Don Draper of Mad Men is quite the looker – again, note the snappy tailoring – but he’s also an awful human being (Sixties morality notwithstanding) and quite frankly I wouldn’t want anything to do with him. On the other hand, Green Wing’s Guy Secretan famously resembles a certain animated equine, and yet who would say no to a quick round of Guyball and an Elton John singalong with him? So perhaps the world isn’t quite as shallow as it sometimes seems.
Maybe, then, something else is at work here. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether a Player is actually any good at playing. You might think that a Player who doesn’t know how to play (what TV Tropes calls a ‘Casanova Wannabe’) might be less threatening, and that’s certainly the case for those inept Players like Guy and Schmidt – and, if Marshall’s arithmetic is accurate, Barney – who are actually pretty likeable. Meanwhile, Players with game are more, such as Don, Quagmire and Two and a Half Men’s Charlie Harper (who wouldn’t be a catch even if the actor who plays him hadn’t recently gone completely insane). Yet Joey, Kirk and DiNozzo are also pros at the dating game and fans love them to bits; and Howard, though generally appallingly bad at picking up women, remains objectionable.
Ultimately I think we judge fictional Players in the same way that we judge real people – the ones we like are the ones whose good points outweigh their faults, and the ones we shy away from are icky to the bone (no pun intended). Quagmire and Howard are one–trick ponies: all of their other characteristics pale into insignificance when compared to just how creepy they are (which is one of the reasons why Howard has become so vapid and pointless now that he’s hitched).
The good ones, on the other hand, have a bit more substance. Sure, Schmidt takes his shirt off a lot and makes so many slimy comments that his friends have instigated a Douchebag Jar – but he’s also generous and thoughtful (how many men do you know who’ve designed a girl her very own perfume with “base notes of cocoa because of your brownness and sea salt because it kind of sounds like ‘Cece’”?). Sure, Joey eats off the floor, but he’s a fiercely protective older brother who takes a cuddly penguin to bed. Sure, Guy keeps a league table of his female colleagues, but he cries when he finds out his best friend is dying. Sure, Kirk has slept with half of the known universe, but, hell, HE DRIVES A SPACESHIP.
Even Lord Flashheart’s canoe can’t compete with that.