Tag Archives: NCIS

Californivacation: Eight Things I Learnt in TV Land


I realise that my blog’s been pretty quiet for the last few weeks, but I have an excuse: I’ve been on holiday. I went to the States, where, thanks to the insistence of my travelling companion (my sister), we saw all kinds of cultural, educational and natural sights throughout the south west: San Francisco, Alcatraz, Stanford University, Pebble Beach, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park. But, hell, I wasn’t going through California without stopping at my spiritual homeland, the epicentre of film and television magic, the guiding light at the heart of all that is broadcast on a rectangular screen: Hollywood.

So we went. And it was magical. And here’s what I learnt there.

1. TV makes stuff look bigger.

It’s a well-worn cliché that the camera adds ten pounds, but, as it turns out, it also adds metres, miles, hectares and cubic feet. Making brazen use of my sister’s love of FRIENDS, I managed to convince her that a tour of the Warner Bros studio in Burbank would be a fun activity, so we headed north, parked up, grabbed a Starbucks and hopped onto a golf buggy, where a friendly guide took us on a little drive around the backlots of the studio. And everything was SO SMALL. Around one little square in the middle of the lot are pretty much all of the buildings and places that ever popped up in FRIENDS – the Geller house, the street where Joey builds a cardboard-box Porsche, the field where Ross plays rugby, the newsstand where the squirrel threatens Phoebe – as well as the Addams Family house, City Hall from Batman (the original and best Adam West version), the Waltons house, the street where Kermit, Jason Segel and Amy Adams sang the opening number in The Muppets, and numerous other buildings from about a bazillion TV shows and films. Add a few distinctive lamp-posts, some brightly coloured signs and a distinctive shop or two and you get twenty different towns from one little hamlet.

I should add that the highlight of the Warner Bros tour was when we got to visit Central Perk. The actual Central Perk. And we sat on the actual Sofa. It was brilliant. But you know what? That was teeny-weeny too.

2. TV sometimes tells the truth.

So, yes, TV can mislead us (like, who knew that amateur detectives aren’t really allowed to stroll onto crime scenes and start solving stuff?). Then again, sometimes the box is bang on. Take Baywatch, for example. For a British viewer, it’s impossibly glossy: the sun always shines, everyone is beautiful, the lifeguard houses are so cute, there are lots of nice piers under which you can have a romantic tryst… Basically, the programme makers have created the perfect setting for a fun soapy drama. But the thing is – it’s actually like that. We went to Santa Monica. We saw the lifeguard shacks and the creaking piers. We gawped at the beautiful people running and doing tai chi and flicking their hair. We sunbathed. We paddled. We watched the silhouettes of surfers making the most of the last rays of sun. And then we damn well went to a diner and had fries and milkshakes.

"In us we all have the power, but sometimes it's so ha-ard to seeee..."

“In us we all have the power, but sometimes it’s so ha-ard to seeee…”

(It should be noted that some of the less savoury programmes are fairly accurate too. Take It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The main characters run a horrible bar in an awful area of the city; they live in squalor, they take drugs, they scrounge welfare money and they sometimes eat dog food. And when we went to see the place in downtown LA where they film the outside of the bar… Let’s just say we were afraid to get out of the car.)

3. TV is big business.

This seems like an obvious thing to say – if people didn’t love TV, no one would make it (and no one would blog about it either). But you go to LA, and TV (and film) is everywhere. Walk down any street and you’ll see signs that say ‘Location available for filming’ or ‘Catering/laundry/decorating services for production companies’; and even the buskers and street performers are dressed up as film and TV characters (we must have seen about a dozen Minions shuffling along the pavement). Plus, if you know where to look, there are TV and film locations all over the place: for example, Buffy’s house is in a nice suburb in Torrance, and the Scrubs hospital is in a pleasant street in North Hollywood (now turned into flats, which was a bit of a disappointment, but damn it, we pretended to be Vanilla Bear and Chocolate Bear anyway).

4. Like, REALLY big business.

Also, people (read ‘tourists’) will pay good money for TV-related stuff. Forget pricey studios tours and TV museums and ‘experiences’ (see #6 below); just walking along the street can seriously cost you, if you get sucked into wanting one of the pieces of TV-related merchandise that fill the shops and sidewalk stalls. All the usual tourist tat is there, Hollywood-themed as hell: key-rings, licence plate covers, sweets, badges, T-shirts. But this is TV Land, and people get creative. Who wouldn’t want, for example, a CSI-themed stain remover pen? Or ‘Bazinga’ shot glasses? Or John Wayne toilet paper?

Naturally, I didn’t fall into the trap of spending lots of money on frivolous television-related items. And I most certainly didn’t buy a dress that looks like the outfit worn by the Tenth Doctor.

Allons-y, Alonso.

Allons-y, Alonso.

5. Contrary to popular belief, celebrities aren’t around every corner.

But for all the excitement and television buzz, there’s one element that is conspicuously missing, and that’s actual actors. They must be there somewhere, of course – it’s where loads of them live and work. But we didn’t spot any. Well, we may have seen one; there was a really tall guy signing a piece of paper for an excited-looking woman outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. But my sister and I both peered at him curiously, and we had no idea who he was, so it probably doesn’t count.

Even if you go to a working studio, it’s tricky to spot a celeb. Apparently past visitors to the WB Studio Tour have been successful (our tour guide mentioned a group recently who’d got to meet Kunal Nayyar, AKA Raj from The Big Bang Theory – cue ‘Oohs’ from me and several other women, and eye-rolling from my sister). But we didn’t see any actors either there or at Valencia Studios, which is where – take a deep breath – NCIS is filmed. Tours aren’t available, so we drove there anyway to have a peek; unfortunately, it turned out that the show was on hiatus, so all we saw was a very bored-looking security guard and some closed-up trailers. But I was there, man. I was there.

6. It’s fun to pretend to be on TV.

After we’d left Los Angeles, of course, the television-related fun was over. Psych! It wasn’t. Our last stop on the trip (after the Grand Canyon and all that jazz) was Las Vegas, Sin City, a place of lights, flamboyance, bedazzlement, poker tables, martinis and, of course, gruesome murders that always turn out to have some kind of unexpected twist. This, my friends, was CSI: The Experience at the MGM hotel, a sort of interactive exhibition where the TV-obsessed tourist gets to be part of a criminal investigation team. I chose my scenario, ‘Skeleton Found In Desert’ (I thought ‘Car Driven Into Living Room’ and ‘Body In Back Alley’ might be too bloody), and then I set to work. I took notes at the crime scene, ran DNA samples, matched bullets to guns, visited Autopsy and looked at suspicious seeds under a microscope. And I had a lovely time. OK, so I probably had a slightly easier job to do than real CSIs (the puzzles at each station were about as tricky as a ‘Spot the difference’ game on the CBeebies website), but the fake bullets were nice and weighty and there were some cool UV lights and they gave me a little clipboard to jot down my thoughts. Plus I got a certificate at the end. Lush.

That's right. ACCREDITED.

That’s right. ACCREDITED.

7. There’s so much TV I haven’t watched yet.

The biggest lesson of all, perhaps, is that I haven’t even started to delve into the extraordinary world that is TV today. I’ve seen the sets for Pretty Little Liars, Suburgatory and Hart of Dixie, but I haven’t seen the shows yet. I’ve been offered T-shirts featuring Sam and Dean from Supernatural, the Stark family sigil from Game of Thrones and quotes from Girls, but I haven’t seen those shows yet either. When I finally got home and spent several jetlagged days collapsed in front of Netflix, I was presented with Wallander, Suits, The Thick of It, Heroes, Prison Break, Modern Family… The list goes on. Honestly, I should start watching more TV.

And the final lesson… 8. Don’t rely on technology.

Hope you liked the pictures that accompanied this post. Sorry there weren’t more – two days before the end of the holiday, the memory card in the camera had a meltdown and corrupted about three-quarters of the photos we’d taken. Guess we’ll have to go back sometime…

The Strange Mystery of the TV Mystery

Spoilers abound throughout.

That curly hair. That ugly brown coat. That perfect eye-roll. That windmill. Yes, folks, Jonathan Creek is back tonight, a mystery series full of twists, turns, jumpy moments, proper baddies and genius solutions. Who could forget the one where the floor was actually moveable? Or the one where the wall was actually moveable? Or where the placing of a single apostrophe was the key to the whole thing? (That’s how important punctuation is, folks.) Everyone else is stumped, except Jonathan, who shambles in, makes some abstruse comments, frowns a little bit, and then explains everything in time for tea.

And that’s what I call a real mystery show. It deeply saddens me that traditional cosy mysteries are slowly being stifled with a pillow in a room locked from the inside; meanwhile, detective shows are becoming high-octane thrillers where the focus is less on working out whodunnit and more on violence, politics and looking cool with a big gun. OK, sometimes a bit of FBI-versus-terrorists action hits the spot, but, in general, I firmly subscribe to the idea that the golden age of mystery fiction was the 1920s and 30s, with your Agatha Christies, your Dorothy L. Sayerses and your Ngaio Marshes. Granted, the 20s were a different, more genteel, better-dressed place, which is why some writers are sceptical about whether this kind of detective can work today – for example, The Independent’s Rebecca Armstrong asks “[D]oes the whodunit have a place in modern crime fiction, or has it been bumped off by serial killers, scalpel-wielding pathologists and sophisticated cynicism?”

Well, I’m stubborn, and I don’t see why TV can’t keep the Christie spirit alive, albeit a little bit updated for the modern age. So, to spur on the television gods to help me out, here’s a handy guide to writing modern detective shows the classic way, courtesy of Ronald Knox and his ‘Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction’.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

With this rule as with many others, preparation is key. Take the episode of Numbers where two girls have had plastic surgery to look identical – we’re told this in the first fifteen minutes, so when it turns out that one is the other, we slap our foreheads and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Contrast the episode of House where a badly disfigured patient turns out to be someone else of similar height and build who’s never been mentioned before, causing viewers everywhere to wail, “Well, how was I supposed to guess that?!”

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Makes sense, and most modern detective shows and thrillers do have at least one dope who needs things explained to them. Other than the eponymous John Watson in Sherlock, we have the cop explaining the rules to the writer (Castle), the medical examiner explaining the cause of death to the other agents (NCIS et al.), the detective chief inspector working things out before the sergeant quite gets there (Midsomer Murders)…

Note: that the Watson should only be slightly stupider than the audience (and the detective), which is why Numbers occasionally misses the mark, with the otherwise delightful math(s) genius Charlie Eppes explaining things in convoluted, patronising, boringly slow detailed metaphors to the poor stupid FBI agents around him. Example, describing how to identify people who write messages online:

“Senders of these messages develop their own unique patterns of speech, which can then be analyzed using statistical linguistic analysis.” (OK, that’s fine, I –) “It’s like a jeweller beading a necklace. A jeweller chooses certain types of beads, then strings them in a particular pattern according to his own unique personal style, just like IM senders will exhibit their own styles.” (That’s a terrible analogy, Charlie.)

Additional note: the expert must explain to the non-expert, not the other way round. I’m looking at you, CSI.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

This isn’t usually a problem in modern TV, largely because of the just-mentioned tendency to err on the side of over-explanation. The one exception is the show that in many other respects is the closest thing to a modern update of golden-age mysteries – Sherlock. Sometimes we get the patented Sherlock word-cloud of all the things he can see about a person (the pause button is exceptionally helpful in these circumstances), but at other times we simply don’t get the chance to access whatever clues Sherlock is working off. So even with a visit to the planetarium earlier in the episode, for example, how on earth is the average viewer supposed to know that the (fictional) Van Buren Supernova only appeared in the Dutch sky in 1858, after the fake painting was supposedly painted?

Obviously, getting the balance right is tricky – make sure the viewer can catch the clues if they’re looking hard enough, but avoid emphasising them so much that you can see the ending coming three miles off – and perhaps I’m nitpicking. But the fun is in the puzzle, and if there’s a piece missing, the viewer is justified in throwing the metaphorical jigsaw onto the floor and stamping on it.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

The rationale behind this rule is that we sympathise with the detective, and therefore it’s too much of a sneaky trick to make him or her the killer; but it’s a rule occasionally broken by even the classic authors (for example, in one Agatha Christie’s most famous books). That said, modern detective TV isn’t generally as tricky as that; what does happen is that someone close to the detective is the bad guy (the first season of 24, The Killing season two, Broadchurch, Sherlock season 3). Is this allowed? I’m saying yes – it can be emotionally devastating, but technically it’s playing by the rules (although you have to question the skills of the detective who can’t work out that their spouse/child/co-worker/lover is a murderer…).

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

"Pass the salt? Of course! That's it!"

“Pass the salt? Of course! That’s it!”

A fine line to tread here – what counts as an accident? This blogger argues that “a sudden inspiration which leads the detective to new discoveries” is OK – well, thank goodness for that, because every TV detective in the world is prone to one eureka moment per episode, usually thanks to someone else (often the Watson) saying something completely unrelated to the case. More of a problem is when pure chance wafts a clue the detective’s way – I think we’d have the right to feel a little put out if Rick Castle stuck his finger in a psychology book and magically landed on a useful idea, rather than working it out like a true writer.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

That is to say, racial stereotypes are to be avoided (a good rule for life as well as detective shows). Again, most programmes stay on the right side of this rule, although fictional Mexican street gangs are a bit of a staple in any American show set south of Chicago, while a Russian is pretty much always going to be a bad guy. Perhaps more worrying is the recent trend in using characters with mental health problems as go-to criminals, the implication being that depressed/bipolar/anxious automatically = psychopathic. In particular, if someone has multiple personalities, at least one will be a killer (Criminal Minds, Law and Order and too many others to mention).

Kudos to The Bridge, though, for bucking the trend with Saga Noren, a detective who’s probably on the autistic spectrum but is unequivocally a good guy (and the most sympathetic character in the programme to boot).

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Again, a tricky one. House has a problem here, because medical information features quite highly, and it’s tough to work out what illness someone will eventually be diagnosed with if you’ve never heard of it*. (To be fair, once the answer was rabies, which most people have heard of – but still the only person I know who guessed the diagnosis before House did was my mother, and she’s been a doctor for thirty years.) In other cases, even the most hardened law-breaking criminals must abide by the laws of physics and chemistry – freerunning thieves, yes, murderers with jet packs, no.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Who uses secret passages nowadays? Everyone can be instantly located through their phone’s GPS tracking. That said, Saga Noren did once spot a false wall in a garage (the woman behind it was a corpse, which may explain why her phone was turned off).

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

A genuinely great rule, although one that The X-Files snatched up, threw against a wall, set on fire and tossed into the sea with a lead weight around its ankles. I think we can agree that Mulder and Scully, as well as other series where supernatural phenomena are part and parcel of the set-up (Medium, Ghost Whisperer etc.), are exempt from this rule; otherwise, down with psychic phenomena as an explanation. The modern, technophile nature of most crime/detective shows currently on TV means that this isn’t generally a concern: The Mentalist uses a detective whose ‘psychic’ skills are a front for Derren-Brown-style mind tricks, and Jonathan Creek gets away with spooky noises and eerily moving objects because Jonathan always proves that a real live human was behind the mystery.

Scooby-Doo knew it was true too.

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

This is the clincher: Knox’s foremost commandment and my golden rule. This is where all those epic Scandi dramas, as well as arc series like 24, sometimes leave me cold – we generally find out who the killer is about two-thirds of the way through the season, and the rest of the time is devoted to catching them. This is also why I just can’t watch Columbo, where the killer is deliberately revealed in the first scene and the mystery is in how Columbo works it out (‘howdhecatchem’ is not a thing, OK?).

Basically, I want to guess. I’m not saying every detective show should be set in the English countryside and feature people who hold village fêtes and live in manor houses (for one thing, if all shows were Midsomer Murders we’d have no black characters on TV). And I’m all for depicting (a very exciting version of) the modern world on television, with facial recognition systems, DNA tests, satellite calls and laser technology. But the one thing I really want in a detective drama is a finite number of characters, all suspicious, all hiding something, but only one (or occasionally two) of whom are actually a killer in disguise. NCIS unfailingly gets it right, with a big splash of humour, which is why I love it (plus I have a crush on Tony). Sherlock usually gets it right, also with a big splash of humour, which is why I love it (plus I have a crush on Sherlock). And Jonathan Creek, while perhaps cosier and less cutting-edge than its fellows, is filled to bursting with two-faced characters, secrets, lies, accusations, puzzles and japes – and, naturally, a big splash of humour.

I think I’ll stay in tonight and watch some TV.

~~~~

*Unless it’s lupus.

Have TV Your Way: How On-Demand Makes Watching Television Trickier

Note: spoilers for (old episodes of) X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS.

Recently I had a very bizarre experience, one that I thought was lost in the mists of time… I watched a TV programme as it was broadcast.

I know, right? It wasn’t a topical programme, or even filmed live (all right, I confess, it was University Challenge), but nonetheless I watched it on the television at a time decided for me by official BBC schedulers. This came as a shock because less and less of my (and many other people’s) TV watching is done thus: in all honesty, I’m a catch-up junkie. I know I’m not the only one, but what with all the repeats, online players, +1 channels and TV subscription services, I sometimes feel like I’ve completely lost the ability to watch TV at the originally specified time.

Oh, it started off harmlessly enough. As a youth, I’d occasionally catch a repeat of Friends on Channel 4, not out of choice but because there was just nothing else to watch after Neighbours and The Simpsons. Soon I was seeking out repeats, then I started buying DVDs of my favourite shows, in order to relive my favourite scenes and jokes. At some point, it occurred to me that I could buy DVDs of shows that I hadn’t already seen, shows that other people had watched but I’d missed out on the first time. From there it was just too easy to put things off – ‘No need to watch it now,’ I’d say to myself, ‘I can buy it on DVD later’ – and the development of BBC iPlayer and 4OD just made things worse. Before long I was catching up on programmes from the last seven days like nobody’s business, filling my shelves with secondhand DVDs, watching things on +1 as if not+1 didn’t exist… And then, finally, the world came crashing down and I hit rock bottom: I joined Netflix.

Nowadays I treat the TV schedules with all the disdain and wanton disregard I can muster. This week, for example, I watched New Girl on E4+1, switched to Channel 4 for the second half of Rude Tube and then switched to Channel 4+1 for the first half of Rude Tube, just because I could. Oh, the humanity.

If truth be told, I’m already paying the price for this destructive habit. Sure, watching TV programmes at a time of your own choosing is convenient, but there are many reasons why pick-your-own-schedules TV may not be the way to go, and they’re mostly to do with the fact that people talk to each other (what are they thinking?).

First, obviously – spoilers. This is most clearly the case with the most popular TV programmes, and particularly when you’re far enough behind the rest of the world to be forever playing catch-up but not far enough for everyone to have stopped talking about it already. Take Downton Abbey. I missed the boat when it was first broadcast, but Netflix offered it to me on a plate; so I took a tentative bite, and have got as far as season two (2011). But because everyone on the planet has been obsessed by the Crawley family for the last four years, I already know that CENSORED and CENSORED get married, CENSORED is arrested for murder, CENSORED has a baby, and CENSORED dies*. Every episode is imbued with either a sense of inevitable dread (‘Don’t do it, don’t visit her, or when she dies everyone will think it was you…”) or a tragic poignancy (‘They think their love might be doomed… it is, oh it is!’). It’s the same when programmes are still ongoing and the cast continues to change – even if you manage not to find out exactly how their characters leave, you still know that their days are numbered. In my TV-watching world, Mulder and Scully have just made it through Mulder’s brief bout of insanity to emerge the other side and share a New Year’s kiss (X-Files season seven, 2000) – and now he’s leaving? How will Scully cope? How will I cope? In my world, Cristina seems to have forgiven Hunt for his affair and has just told him that he’s her ‘person’ (Grey’s Anatomy season eight, 2012) – but how will they get it properly together now before Cristina leaves in season ten? And in my world, Kate has just been killed by a terrorist and no one knows who her replacement will be (NCIS season two, 2005); yet apparently that replacement is already leaving the show. Slow down, man! I ain’t the Doctor – I can’t cope with this many time streams.

Of course, it’s impossible for people not to give spoilers away, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to keep quiet about major TV events, because people like talking about the TV they watch. (Hell, I like it so much that I’ve set up a really great blog dedicated to exactly that.**) Most of the time, people are only giving the plot away because they’re so excited by it and want to discuss it with other like-minded viewers – such as when I accidentally told someone the ending of the first series of The Killing, not realising they were only on episode four. (It’s OK, guys, I did an incredible cover-up, and she was even more surprised when the reveal eventually came along.)

Which is another reason why watching TV programmes months or years after everyone else is a bit of a bummer: you don’t get to discuss them with anyone. Things like Downton are OK, because the series is still going and people are still interested in the characters, but Teachers? Smallville? The IT Crowd? Not so much. I only saw The IT Crowd last winter (a mere seven years after it first aired), and I was finally able to discuss it with those of my friends who’d watched and enjoyed it back in the noughties – unfortunately, by the time I got round to the conversation, it went something like this:

Me: “Just been watching The IT Crowd.”

Friend: “It’s hilarious, isn’t it?”

Me: “Oh my God, yes. D’you remember that episode where Moss accidentally works as a barman?”

Friend: “Um, not really. Hey, you know what’s great at the moment? Happy Endings. Have you seen that?”

Me: “Ask me again in seven years.”

This is even worse now that interaction about TV is both global and instantaneous. I’m still slightly unsettled by the idea that you should tweet or text in to TV programmes while you’re in the middle of watching them (although so far it seems to be only with live current affairs, entertainment and other non-fiction programmes – when Call the Midwife starts running banners on the screen saying ‘Tell us which of the two babies Jenny should save, @midwivescanonlydosomuch #dontaccidentallypicktheevilone’, then pop culture as we know it is officially dead). But it’s increasingly tempting to pick up the phone/mouse and have your say, especially when you feel like you could contribute a damn sight more to the discussion than ‘really dont like huw edwards suit bro’. This is especially the case with The Last Leg, which asks viewers to send in their dubious questions about what’s appropriate to say or do on TV, because Adam Hills actually reads out people’s tweets and discusses them on the show. This week, I confess, I was overcome by the sudden desire to ‘get involved’ in the debate on exam results, and I very nearly made my first use of the #isitok hashtag – then I remembered that I was watching the programme on Channel 4+1, and that Adam Hills and everyone else involved in the show had probably left the studio some time ago.

So, really, watching things as the fancy takes you rather than when other people are watching them has its drawbacks – but it also has its perks. Sometimes it can give you a new perspective on a show or character. I only started watching Doctor Who in 2010, so Matt Smith was my first doctor; when I went back to watch Christopher Eccleston he seemed scarily dark and dour in comparison (and also better: see my Doctor Who post). Likewise, I’m currently catching up on The X-Files on DVD and Californication on Netflix; both star David Duchovny, which means that Hank Moody seems like Fox Mulder in an alternate universe where the absence of Scully has driven him to a world of booze, one-night stands, prolific use of the f-word and more cigarettes than the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The truth is out there, indeed.

What to do, then, dear friends? If we want to talk about programmes properly, if we want to keep the element of surprise, we need to be watching them at more or less the same time. On the other hand, now that we can watch TV whenever and wherever we want, it seems almost silly to watch a programme at 9pm on a Saturday just because someone you’ve never met thinks that’s the best time for it. It’s a conundrum that will probably sort itself out as more and more people start to use on-demand services. Or maybe we could decide by Twitter vote. #greattvscheduledebate, anyone?

~

*The censored parts are less for your benefit than for mine – if I don’t type the names out then maybe the events won’t happen, right…?

**That’s this blog. Just so we’re clear.

Legen – Wait For It – Giggidy!

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.

"Eyyyy!"

“Eyyyy!”

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).

 

Everyone's favourite Friend

Everyone’s favourite Friend

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.

 

Howard Wolowitz's least horrifying shirt

“Howaaaard!”

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?

 

Awesome.

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.

Dr Guy Valerie Secretan

“Rocket ma–a–an!”

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.

Just... NO.

Just… NO.

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).

Schmidt happens.

Schmidt happens.

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.