Characters Who Got Left in the Dust

We’ve all seen it. A character is introduced in early episodes who is clearly intended to be an important character on the show, one of the most important after the stars. But as the show develops, other supporting characters become more important, and that character’s relationship with the star, originally intended to be a big focus of the show, becomes almost irrelevant.

The example that probably comes to mind when I’m talking about this is Moira Kelly as Mandy on The West Wing. That character was supposed to be fairly important, and wound up having no purpose on the show; she was dropped after the first season with no explanation.

But usually characters like that don’t get dropped, because the actors don’t want to leave a steady job and the producers don’t want to disturb the chemistry of the show by letting a character go. (It may be hard to write for irrelevant characters, but writing them out is also hard and can provoke hostile fan reaction.) So what happens is that the character hangs around, unmoored from the relationship or plot hook that was originally supposed to give meaning to that character, as the writers either a) search for something else to do with him or her, or b) give him or her lots of token lines and subplots to hide the fact that that character really isn’t doing anything.

I call this “Potsie Syndrome,” after Potsie (Anson Williams) on Happy Days. He was supposed to be the best friend of the lead (Richie) whose wacky schemes to get girls and make money would lead the two into trouble. Then, of course, a short leather-jacketed thug moved into his role as friend number one, and the writers spent the rest of the series coming up with desperation methods to explain what exactly Potsie’s function was on the show. (These include — and are frequently resorted to for any character with Potsie Syndrome — making him dumber every year, giving him subplots with his equally doofusy friend Ralph, and letting him sing in every episode.) An alternate name for this syndrome would be Melinda Culea Syndrome, but I’ll stick with P.S.

There are a number of characters on TV today who are suffering from Potsie Syndrome: their original purpose is gone, and the writers haven’t yet figured out what their new purpose will be. Take the character of Pete on 30 Rock, played by Scott Adsit (like many people on the show, a recruit from Tina Fey’s native Second City in Chicago). This character was definitely supposed to be a pretty big deal on the show. The pilot essentially focused on the professional relationship of the lead, Liz Lemon, with four very different people: her cunning and tricky corporate boss (Jack), her insane new star  (Tracy) her ditzy friend/star (Jenna) and her likable, insecure producer (Pete). Of these, her relationships with Pete and Jack were probably the two most important relationships in the pilot, which culminated in her demanding that Jack re-hire Pete. It was like they were supposed to represent the two opposite poles of what Liz could become, a nice but unsuccessful person like Pete or a ruthless corporate driver like Jack.

But you know what happened: after the first few episodes, it was obvious to everyone that Liz’s relationship with Jack was far more important than any other relationship on the show. And her relationship with her buddy/producer seemed very uninteresting by comparison. Also, Pete was conceived as a pathetic, somewhat realistic character when the show was supposed to be more realistic, and as the show rapidly became a live-action cartoon, he didn’t really fit in. The result was that by the middle of the first season, you could easily forget that he was there at all, even though Adsit is a talented guy and does his best with what little he’s given. I can’t think of an episode that really qualifies as a “Pete episode,” and the writers are so desperate to find stuff for him to do that they recently resorted to that lamest of all devices, having him get his hand stuck in a vending machine for most of the episode. (They might as well have just stuck an “IRRELEVANT TO THE SHOW” caption on his scenes.) Given that Adsit is a regular  on a show that’s just been picked up for another season, I wouldn’t consider him unlucky; it’s just that his character was supposed to be more integral to 30 Rock than he is, because his purpose was lost once the show became The Liz and Jack Show.

One way of spotting Potsie Syndrome is the criterion I mentioned above: if a character hasn’t had an “A” story built around him or her in a long time — or, like, ever — and if lower-billed characters are getting bigger stories than him or her, then that character has a bad case of Potsie Syndrome. You knew that Xander, the best character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first three seasons had contracted Potsie Syndrome when the fourth season’s 22 episodes included not one Xander-centric episode, and when lower-billed characters like Riley started getting stories that could just have easily gone to Xander (and in some cases, may actually have been intended for Xander and then shifted to other characters). Joss Whedon actually told Nicholas Brendon that there was nothing left to do with Xander, and Brendon later said that he regretted deciding to stay on the show despite being “relegated to the background.” But that’s the thing about Potsie Syndrome: even actors who know they’re not getting enough to do will usually stay, because hit shows are rare and it’s just not a good move to leave a hit show, even one where you’re not getting enough to do, for a better role on a new show that will probably not be a hit.

So even if an actor is clearly wasted on a show, he or she will not usually leave unless they are really PO’d about their treatment or they have a lot of better offers waiting. Remember Khandi Alexander on NewsRadio: her character literally never got an “A” story in three years on the show (the only episode with her character at the centre was the one where she left, and even that wasn’t really about her), she was obviously wasted, yet she stuck it out well into the fourth season. She only left when NBC added Lauren Graham to the show for a few episodes and Graham immediately got more to do in a few shows than Alexander had gotten in three years; that was too much to take, and anyway she’d built up enough of a good reputation that she could and did get better parts on successful shows. But otherwise, it takes a lot to make a non-star actor quit a show no matter how little they get to do.

Thoughts on other current characters who suffer from Potsie Syndrome? And also, when a character has nothing to do on a show, would you prefer it if the character was dropped, or is it better (from a viewer’s perspective) to have that character there even if he/she doesn’t do much?

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