Less Likable Protagonists

Last night, my ever-so-compliant husband and I were watching “Once More, With Feeling,” one of the greatest triumphs in the history of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As we admired Sarah Michelle Gellar’s stunning good looks and surprisingly impressive vocals (for those of you who don’t know, “Once More, With Feeling” is a musical), I noted that Buffy is actually one of my least favorite characters on the show, even with all her charm. Scott then suggested that I make a list of lead characters who aren’t, in fact, as likable as the characters who surround them. So, away we go, starting with Ms. Summers herself.

Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I think it’s certainly worth noting that Buffy is by no means a bad character. She’s strong, she’s independent, and her wit is razor sharp. However, when you’re surrounded with such endearing supporting players, and your character suffers from issues with maturity and control, it’s hard to keep up. She’s certainly not as empty as Riley or infantile as Dawn, but she’s far from perfect, and her imperfections are much less interesting than a character arc like Xander’s or Willow’s.

Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother

Like Buffy, Ted is constantly surrounded by more interesting, endearing characters. But he’s also just flat-out annoying. He’s both hung up on himself and pretentious, and his hopes for great romance went from “Aw, that’s cute” to “Ugh, shut up” seasons ago. He flip flops on just about every decision he makes, and it’s usually because of some woman’s external influence, a woman we’ll never see or be asked to care about again. In truth, the fact that we’re still being asked to care about Ted is tough on its own. But give Josh Radnor credit for filling that role as best he can. (Note: all I wanted to write was “Just look at him!” after I found that picture.)

Angel, Angel

This is the first case where I have to add the disclaimer that I really appreciate the character of Angel. Just as the show took Cordelia and Wesley and made them into intricately written characters, it did the same with Angel, formerly just a broody, hunky guy best kept in the shadows or turned evil. Like Buffy, it’s a case of better characters all around him, but there’s also a flaw that keeps coming back: that darn brooding. Sure, plenty is thrown at him in the run of the series that justifies sulky behavior, but it gets pretty trying every now and then.

Jack Shephard, Lost

First, it’s essential that I point out how hilarious this picture is. Look, it’s Jack … balanced between some rocks … raising one foot like a gimpy flamingo, the ocean’s waves crashing behind him. How is that not funny?

Anyway, Jack is another character I don’t have any glaring problems with straightaway. However, after a riveting glimpse into his past in the first season, he becomes less of the focal point and more of a somewhat grating background player. By the time he’s addicted to pain pills and yelling about how WE HAVE TO GO BAAAACK, he’s fallen somewhere between Juliet and Kate on a character likability scale. I will say that his lack of charisma doesn’t stay the course of the series; by that final moment, you love Jack as much as you did at the very beginning. Still, he’s not a consistent hero, earning him a spot on this list, certainly not as cringe-worthy as Ted Mosby, but occasionally worthy of scorn nonetheless.

Jeff Winger, Community

Look, just because I want to date him in a fictional universe doesn’t mean he’s a likable person. When the first two words on your Wikipedia entry are “snarky” and “glib,” chances are you’re not going to be the friendliest guy at Greendale Community College (though it hasn’t been determined whose honor that is just yet). Jeff isn’t the only character with undesirable traits. Britta is shrill and a causehead, Pierce is flat out offensive, and Senor Chang is … well, he’s Senor Chang. But he’s still a jerk. An attractive jerk you’d like to kiss, sure. But a jerk nonetheless.

Jim Halpert and Michael Scott, The Office

(At series’ beginning, Michael is the focal point; somewhere down the line, Jim steps into the spotlight.)

At some point in time, Jim Halpert was very, very likable. He was equally goofy and charming, and you, the viewer, were always rooting for him. Get the girl, Big Tuna! We know you can! And then, after he did, something shifted. He became more like the character with whom he shares the spotlight most, Michael, the worst boss in TV history. (I’m going to go ahead and say his British equivalent, David Brent, is better, but that’s just one girl’s opinion.) Their jokes are bad, their social skills are questionable at best, and their respective levels of self awareness are nonexistent. This was never cute on Michael and, now, it’s never cute on Jim. The Office’s appeal is lost on me of late, and that’s due, at least in part, to Jim and Michael, who just keep on letting me down.

To me, there are no other glaring examples. I can think of shows with no sole protagonists on which I love each and every character (BSG, duh, and The West Wing), in addition to some truly excellent protagonists (30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and Flight of the Conchords’ Bret & Jemaine). Honestly, even with an unlikable main character, these are quality programs, and I can look past a showblocker or two for their sake. (Except The Office, which I haven’t stopped watching, and don’t know why.)

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3 thoughts on “Less Likable Protagonists

  1. First off, you may be the best person ever- I mean, a BtVS, HIMYM, Angel, Lost, AND Community fan? Woah.

    I totally agree with Angel, Jack, and Buffy (she’s kinda a bitch!) and even MAYBE Jack. But personally, I feel that Ted is a fairly good protagonist. Although he can be, well, annoying, he’s but a human (albeit a fictional one) and he is always well- intentioned. And adorable.

    Oh, and are you a Joss Whedon fan? He produced Buffy and Angel, as well as the short 14 episode series Firefly starring Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk, Dollhouse (with a pretty annoying protagonist) and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

    Have a nice day.

    • 1. Thanks! I try. =]
      2. I actually think Ted is a fairly strong character most of the time. It’s really in seasons 5 and 6 that he becomes too much for me.
      3. I’m definitely a Whedon fan on the strength of BtVS and Angel alone, though I’m not absolutely in love with Firefly. I did watch Dollhouse end to end and completely agree about Echo, and I adore Dr. Horrible. Can’t wait for Cabin in the Woods.

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