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Today's TV characters: It's a familiar story

Geeks, gay assistants and soccer moms are alive and thriving on such shows like 'The Big Bang Theory,' 'Ugly Betty' and 'Real Housewives.'

December 29, 2009|By Whitney Friedlander and >>>

For loyal viewers, popular television characters can sometimes seem like a mash-up of Final Draft and Mad Libs. Enter the curly-haired hipster or the back-stabbing blond here, exit the watery-eyed royal waif or the effeminate male assistant there. Send to the show runner and repeat. Of course, recycling in Hollywood did not begin with recent strivings to go green. Characters who dress, sound and talk alike are safe, ratings-friendly choices. "Archetypes are that for a reason -- they've stood the test of time, and have a powerful, iconic status for audiences," said Josh Schwartz, executive producer for fan favorites "Chuck, "Gossip Girl" and "The O.C." "People relate to them, project themselves onto them. The key is in how you update these characters, modernize them, give voice to them, and most importantly, cast them." Here's the latest list of the small screen's usual suspects:


FOR THE RECORD:
TV characters: A story in Tuesday's Calendar about archetypal TV characters cited as one example the gay assistant and said that "it may be some time, however, before the major networks build a scripted show around an openly gay character." In fact, it has been done, on the NBC comedy "Will & Grace." —

The geek as romantic lead

As recently seen on: "Chuck," "Melrose Place,"

"The Big Bang Theory"

Geeks can be sexy. Really. (Just ask the writers of the television shows.)

"Seth Cohen of 'The O.C.' was the first prominent one of that ilk and now we see it everywhere," said Daniel Manu, site director for the we-snark-because-we-care website TelevisionWithoutPity.com. "It's the geek who doesn't resemble the stereotypical geek, but is a geek because of what he's into -- as opposed to the glasses and bad hair and bad social skills."

On why this trend is so popular, Schwartz added: "I think that character [Seth] resonated because a lot of people feel like he did. . . . He wasn't a loser, per se. He was smart, and had tastes in music and books and comics that were more sophisticated than his peers. He just didn't subscribe to the high school company line, he was different, other than -- and was OK with it. That made a lot of kids feel OK about their outsider-ness."

The Asperger's syndrome character

As recently seen on: "House," "Bones," "The Big Bang Theory," "Community," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Criminal Minds," "Grey's Anatomy"

It seems like no show is greenlighted these days without a watered-down "Rain Man" on board, although most of the sufferers appear to be undiagnosed. "Now you sort of expect to see an Asperger's guy on TV," TWOP's Manu said of the apparent malady-of-the-moment. "This is a serious condition and we're seeing it played positive. This specific form of autism is fair game mainly because I suspect there are folks in Hollywood who suffer from it and mainly because it doesn't seem as bad as full-on autism."

The blond nemesis

As recently seen on: "90210," "Glee," "Gossip Girl," "Hung"

It's hard not to hate them because they're beautiful -- and evil! Lying, cheating, manipulating, they're all perfect for "The Hills." "Traditionally you have the blond bombshell," said David Bushman, TV curator at the Paley Center. "There's something intimidating about that, and the brunet seems more attainable or real. I think the ice-cold blond goes back away. There's always been that sort of resentment of the perfect blond woman."

The gay assistant

As recently seen on: "Ugly Betty," "Chef Academy," "Entourage"

They're smart, feisty and, above all, well-dressed! You can largely thank Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" series and its ratings success for this now reoccurring character in both scripted and reality series, according to TV historian Tim Brooks. (Manu compares the gay assistant role to the somewhat dated "sassy black girl sidekick.") Though they're known for coming into a room and lighting it up with laughter (Lloyd from "Entourage"), it may be sometime, however, before the major networks build a scripted show around an openly gay character.

The wheelchair- bound character

As recently seen on: "Brothers" and "Glee"

Though not exactly a cliché, characters in wheelchairs suddenly popped back onto television screens this year -- and one is a main character (Chill played by Daryl "Chill" Mitchell from "Brothers"). Neither of today's characters has come close to reaching the fame of Raymond Burr's "Ironside" character, though.

"A lot of these things come out of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and cartoons and things kids grow up with, which are among the leading channels introducing handicapped kids," Brooks said. "Now the people who grew up with that in the '80s and '90s are starting to be in their 20s and 30s and you're starting to see some of these things in shows like 'Glee' or shows aimed at younger adults as well."

The South Asian character

As recently seen on: "The Big Bang Theory," "Parks and Recreation," "Community," "The Office," "Heroes," "30 Rock"

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