Ellen Besen is on the lookout for good examples of emotionally real performance and finds it where youd least expect it
Emotional reality can turn up in the most unlikely places. Like on primetime TV, where a handful of animated series are delivering surprisingly sophisticated characters who not only entertain, but stand up emotionally, year in and year out, with admirable consistency.
In fact, in a particularly bleak TV landscape dominated by shows, which promise reality but deliver bad amateur acting, animation has oddly become one of the more reliable oases of emotional reality. I dont know exactly what that says about the world we live in but it does say something nice about the growth of animation. Especially when you consider that animated series like South Park and The Simpsons dont have the luxury of characters who grow older and therefore shift naturally into new story territory. Nor can they easily add on or change major components like a marriage, a new baby or a career shift.
No, the characters in an animated series are really rooted in their situations, committed essentially to living one year of their lives over and over again, making it all the more remarkable that the best of the shows manage to keep it fresh.
There are compensating factors, of course. With a bit of discipline, animated shows can break their boundaries, giving characters temporary outlandish changes or shifts of location to places real and invented.
But more importantly, these shows work because they have characters we not only are attached to, but can believe in. Only characters with this level of psychological believability (placed in the right context, of course) can keep generating stories without falling back on the Big Book of Sitcom Plotlines: high school reunions, the sudden reappearance of incredibly attractive former lovers, etc. In fact, its to their credit that animated shows almost never rely on the old standbys and if they do, more likely use them as fodder for satire. They do borrow occasionally from each other but even this is often openly acknowledged. Self-awareness is a hallmark of these programs and is another key to their success.
So what are some of the specifics that make these shows tick? Looking at three of the strongest examples, South Park, The Simpsons and Family Guy, it becomes obvious that there isnt just one working formula.
First, lets look at the world of Stan, Kyle and Cartman, a Peanuts gang (or maybe its Leave It to Beaver) for the 21st century.
After an initial period of overdependence on fart jokes and the shock value of hearing eight-year-olds swear (a bit too much like reality for the shows own good), South Park has found a way to use its unvarnished view of childhood as a means to throw new light on an adult world gone crazy. Some episodes go over the top or lose focus, but generally, the shows take on celebrity loonies, world politics, big business and real taboos (not just the obvious stuff like leather fetishes and bondage either) offer some of the boldest commentary around.
The first rung of commentary comes from the feeling that this is a kids show made in direct rebellion against the idealized world so typical of standard childrens programming. You know- that simple world adults wish they could give their kids, one where there are no really bad or weird people; where bullies can be subdued with an admonishing word and turn out to be Just Like You, only bigger; and where parents actually know what they are doing.
Instead, South Park offers us a more complicated, more unhinged, more real world where bullies just get more twisted when the adults try to step in, even the nice kids are mean and self-centered a good deal of the time and parents, though well-meaning, are mostly (though not always) clueless. This, of course, is a key to how the show works because it throws the kids back on their own resources. How they solve the various problems the writers devise for them then forms the main spine of the series.
Placing kids at the heart of an essentially adult show is not a new idea there really are correlations here to Peanuts and Leave It to Beaver. But unlike LITB, the problems these kids have to cope with go beyond the boundaries of the playground. In fact, they not only go into the full range of adult problems, but enter into the realms of metaphysics and speculative fiction. This exaggeration off the old formula is an apt commentary on how much more complex and perplexing a world kids face today.
So Peanuts-like, the gang has to deal with adult level problems. But unlike Charlie Brown and Lucy, they are not adults in childrens bodies; they are only kids, with the limited resources of kids, left to muddle through their confusing lives as best they can.
There is a lot going on in this series, so much so that it could easily turn into a hash. What holds it together are the personalities of the three main characters and, more so even than other shows, the way their personalities interact. Stan is the lynchpin, the everyman in the middle who is friends with the other two. This is critical because Kyle and Cartman dont really get along and would probably not be friends if they werent held together by their mutual friend and the childhood rules of proximity.
This works well because it builds believable tension into the foundation element of the show. Stan is the glue and the kid we can most easily identify with. Kyle is almost as normal but in many ways, his most important role is as the foil for Cartman.
Cartman, of course, is the primary source of tension and a very believable bully every neighborhood has a twisted troublemaker like this who you later find out was abused or traumatized in some way. His fractured personality argumentative, prejudiced, manipulative and yet also compelled to make little tea parties with his toys when he thinks no one is looking adds up to a disturbingly real portrait of a kid in serious emotional trouble. Or it would be disturbing if it werent so funny.
This edgy group dynamic functions as the primary running storyline of the series, a useful device, which affects everything they do. Because of it, the group can be dropped into any situation, whether close to home or completely off the map, and the dynamic provides a framework for their response which grounds even the craziest plotlines in emotional reality.
One of the things thats interesting about a show like this is the way we identify with it. Younger kids who are actually allowed to watch it can come away confused. The kids are so real and so much about it feels like a show meant for them, but what are they to make of the content beyond the gangs interaction? This isnt like Toy Story where you can watch the show on several levels, the adult level being on top of the rest and not essential for primary continuity.
Stan, Kyle and Cartman are too entirely enmeshed in their stories; you have to take them whole or not at all. I remember many interesting discussions in my household about exactly when South Park would be sanctioned viewing and about why that wasnt going to be just yet. I havent ever been one to shirk some of the more challenging conversations, which, being a parent demands. But tackling the challenges of this program how exactly do you explain The Island of Dr. Moreau references to a five-year-old? proved too much even for me.
But that, of course, is part of what makes watching the show engaging for an adult. On one level, we are the kids, remembering what it was like to catch glimpses of the adult world without really understanding the implications of what we were seeing; remembering how lame our parents began to seem as we reached mid childhood while also re-experiencing how nasty and unforgiving kid culture can be.
And then, we can reverse this perspective and get a glimpse of how we look to the current younger generation. It is, after all, the conceit of every new generation of parents that we will not become like our own mothers and fathersfamous last words.
And on a more general level, we can identify with Stan and friends as the underdogs in a crazy world, regardless of their age. Kids make great underdogs because they can attract universal identification (we have all been kids) and also because, while an adult underdog carries a certain stigma of shame- he or she must on some level be a loser, kids are simply victims of circumstance. No blame or shame attaches to them just for being young and naïve.
This is quite a load for such a simple seeming show. And remember, they manage to do all this and still make it funny.
Lets wrap this up for today. Next time well carry on with The Simpsons and Family Guy and also take a closer look at that other key factor in creating emotional reality: the ever flexible, all important context.
Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan in the early 1970s. Since then she has directed award-winning films both independently and for the NFB, worked as a film programmer and journalist, taught storytelling and animation filmmaking at Sheridan and given story workshops at many institutions and festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She is the director of The Zachary Schwartz Institute for Animation Filmmaking, an online school that specializes in storytelling and writing for animation.