Facilitation: “From Tony Soprano to Hannah Horvath: What Does a TV Show ‘Want’ You to Think of Its Characters?”

In this article written for TIME, James Poniewozik questions the average viewer’s need to sympathize with the protagonist of a TV show, even when their actions are disagreeable. He introduces this idea by examining audience responses to HBO’s Girls, specifically to creator Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath. Poniewozik writes that many negative reviews of Girls focus on how selfish Horvath is, and criticize the show for expecting the audience to approve of her. However, he argues that Girls’ attitude towards Horvath is more ambiguous than clear approval/disapproval, and suggests said ambiguity to be a source of critical dissent. This comes as no surprise to Poniewozik, as he recognizes that central characters in TV shows are typically made to be liked. Sure, they may have flaws, but shows tend to project a positive attitude towards them.

Another example Poniewozik uses of a lead character with questionable morals is Tony from The Sopranos. This show was, in Poniewozik’s words, the “watershed for TV antiheroes”, because it had a protagonist “whose goals you did not relate to, whom a decent person would, by and large, not cheer for”. Tony is a sociopath, and the show often depicts him doing cruel, selfish things; however, the viewer is also given intimate details about Tony’s life, some of which seem to provide context for his actions. The show doesn’t let the viewer comfortably hate him because, on some level, they understand him.

Much like when Hannah Horvath stole $20 from a maid, many people were very critical of Tony’s actions, and thus panned The Sopranos entirely on the grounds that it wanted you to approve of his crimes. Poniewozik says this response likely came from the assumption mentioned earlier in the article, that the main character is always who the viewer is supposed to root for. He suggests that the intended response is more nuanced than that–just because the viewer understands some of Tony’s motives doesn’t mean they have to praise his behavior. You aren’t supposed to sympathize with him most of the time, and though you may relate to him on various levels of the human experience, you aren’t supposed to be on his side.

Poniewozik writes that this constitutes the basic notion of the “antihero”, a trope which he claims has been extensively retooled and tinkered with over the years. Shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men have their own versions of antiheroes, characters who behave nobly at times, yet continuously incite violence and manipulate others. While Hannah Horvath may not be as morally compromised as Walter White, Poniewozik argues that Girls resembles a “cable antihero drama” in how its characters are depicted. In certain situations, Hannah can be very caring and perceptive, and in others, she lacks the conscience not to steal from a housekeeper. Poniewozik argues that this kind of ambiguous characterization is still new territory for many comedies, as unlikeable characters are often more explicitly readable in funny TV shows. He writes that Girls is less about liking or approving of Hannah, and more about wanting to see her grow.

This idea of wanting to see characters grow reminded me of another HBO show, Six Feet Under. The show follows the lives of the Fisher family, who manage and inhabit a funeral home in Los Angeles. They are extremely dysfunctional, and the viewer is given a detailed view of their grievances with each other and interpersonal fallouts. They hurt each others’ feelings on numerous occasions, and their relationships are fraught with deep conflict. Though they all act on hot tempers, the viewer is aware of each one’s personal trauma, and in very poignant instances, gets to see them bond over it. There’s a payoff that comes with watching them grow closer, and it’s those moments of true connection that keep the viewer invested in their lives. Sure they’re bitter much of the time, but in the end, you want to see them become a happy family.

13 thoughts to “Facilitation: “From Tony Soprano to Hannah Horvath: What Does a TV Show ‘Want’ You to Think of Its Characters?””

  1. I feel you explained Poniewozik’s point of about how show writers want the audience to think of their characters very well, especially his idea that these characters may have more reasons behind their actions based upon their history. Poniewozik’s discussion of the retooling of an antihero like protagonist brings up an interesting idea about how the idea of likeable character has evolved over media’s history. Characters mentioned in the article like Tony from the Sopranos and Walter White from Breaking Bad are both characters who have entered the criminal underworld out of necessity. However, Walter is shown to do this out a need to pay for his own medical expenses while Tony because of family life in the mob. Each give a sense of sympathy but the nuance changes how one can feel about these two. The example that comes to my mind is the character of Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender. While he does start as the villain for the cast but over time eventually shifts to the role of main cast member over the course of the series. While he does eventually have a redemption arc, there are several points both prior to and during this arc where one can questions whether they are supposed to like Zuko or hate him. One example that comes to my mind are his 3 way fight with the main cast and his sister, Azula. He seems to come to understand the cast but once his uncle is hurt, he regresses back to a more villainous mindset. Which shows a complexity to his emotions and goals beyond a desire to capture the Avatar. Overall I feel this facilitation did very well in showing the points made in the article and about the nuance character likability, which continues to evolve even now.

  2. This article and facilitation made me think of The Office (US). In person, most people would likely think that Michael Scott is annoying and pretty stupid. The characters in the show tend to agree (excluding Dwight in most cases). However, most viewers of the show think of his most prevalent quality as humor. This goes along with the article’s note that viewers want to sympathize with the main character, where in this case they may notice all of his less desirable qualities, but still generally like his character. The show then satisfies the viewers by allowing Michael to grow, as you mentioned in your writing, as he eventually finds success in his love life in getting engaged to Holly. To go from seeing Michael getting rejected by romantic interests and friends throughout the show to finding his wife is very satisfying for the viewer and makes them approve of the relationship more than if, for example, Michael could get any girl or something along those lines.

  3. I think you nailed this facilitation, especially with your comment with seeing character growth. While audiences might not be able to like/associate themselves with anti-heroes and villains at first, they can get attached to a redemption of them, especially after seeing the lowest that said characters are willing to go. A great example of a crowd favorite from a semi-redemption story is Reigen from Mob Psycho. Reigen for the majority of this show’s two seasons is a con man, using the protagonists abilities for a scheme to make money off of the unfortunate people who are being haunted by spirits. Reigen himself has no power to banish the spirits, however the protagonist Mob (a middle school boy who is trying to find his way in the world) does happen to have an ability that can. Reigen to make his scheme work, has befriended Mob and tricked him into thinking that he had the same power as Mob has, and as such Reigen promised Mob to teach him how to control it. It was obviously a lie, and as the series progresses Mob becomes more and more aware of Reigen’s lie. The audience at this point is torn, on one hand Mob is being used for cash and as a tool by Reigen and as such is detestable, but on the other Reigen is sticking up for Mob and trying to make him a better person. Eventually after one of Reigen’s biggest schemes, Mob and Reigen get into a fight with one another and go separate ways. During this transition, the show’s perspective is shifted almost primarily onto Reigen as he struggles to maintain his phony business until it eventually comes crumbling down. It is at this point that Reigen realizes how he betrayed Mob, and apologizes to him on national television in a way that also lets the world know that he is a fraud. In doing this not only Mob is brought back on his side, but the entire audience is as well. Reigen making the ultimate sacrifice here (his reputation) to make up with Mob is enough for the audience to realize that he is not such a bad guy at all, and even start to sympathize for his situation.

    Reigen’s arc here is perfectly described by Poniewozik, “admire[able] in some ways…[and] despicable in other ways.”. Reigen fulfills the rolls of a debatable character quite well, and as such the audience is always left wondering whether they should be supporting him or rooting against his current schemes

  4. I thought this facilitation did a fantastic job of going in-depth with the article. Wanting to see characters grow rather than simply being introduced to an intrinsically good character and “rooting” for him or her from the beginning is a very human desire. I believe we want to see our characters grow and evolve because this reminds us that we can do the same in our lives. It’s the same reason we want to see sports teams that are underdogs win against teams that are favored, we see ourselves in these teams and characters. We know in our hearts that we are also not perfect and want to believe that we are also capable of pulling off these upsets in life similar to a team winning a game they aren’t favored in.

    A show today that reminds me of this concept is today’s popular show, a Netflix original Ozarks. Jason Bateman plays a man that was an accountant who out of a desire to get out of debt begins to launder money for a cartel. Without giving spoilers Bateman is forced into a life of crime and running from the FBI. Bateman comes across as a standard middle-class man with kids and a struggling marriage, he then becomes both evil, good and a hero. This range shows both the anti-hero and the man who seemed ordinary and is capable of great things, for the everyday American this is what we want, to believe that we are capable of extraordinary things. This video gives a great explanation of Bateman’s role.

  5. I think you break down Poniewozik’s argument down very well. Poniewozik puts an emphasis on how rhetoric plays a role in the audiences perception of a character, as well as the intention that it creates for the overall argument of the story. As Poniewozik points out, the idea of Breaking Bad and its character development of Walter White raises the question “What does Breaking Bad “want” you to think?” because clearly we as a society don’t want more meth dealers, or cooks, nor do we want the dark and twisted violence of that industry, yet we sympathize with Walter and even to an extent, we root for Walter in his dangerous endeavors. We root for Walter because of the growth we see throughout the series and the backstory behind the reasons he does malicious acts, which contributes to the main point of the argument, and captivates the viewer.

  6. This facilitation has captured the argument that Poniewozik beautifully. It addresses Poniewozik’s ultimate question “what does it mean for a TV show to “want” us to feel certain ways about its characters, and how do we decipher a show’s attitudes toward them?” (Poniewozik) by explaining that all shows create characters for a purpose and that purpose might not necessarily mean that we have to like them. Breaking bad is one of the greatest shows to use towards Poniewozik’s argument. Walter White is a mild-manner man that isn’t too happy with his life. He has a good family but his goals and dreams were shot down before the shown took place. As the show progresses, Walter becomes increasingly more egocentric and evil that the character shifts the attitude of Walter from a great guy that everybody can relate to to a guy mad with power and his own pride. The show itself brilliantly pulled this off without being a detriment to the story and that’s pretty impressive. Modern day shows are allowing creators to create characters that aren’t black and white “good” and it’s great that they can create interesting, nuanced characters that we as an audience have to figure out if we enjoy them or not through our own assessments.

  7. “On pay cable in the last few years, there’s been a move toward half-hours that combine elements of drama and comedy—what people call “comedies that aren’t funny,” like Nurse Jackie, Weeds and Hung. And yes, part of what throws off viewers about these hybrids is they don’t rely on as much ha-ha comedy as most sitcoms. But also, their attitudes toward their protagonists are closer to the ambiguity we’ve gotten with cable antiheroes, and I’m not sure even niche-show viewers are totally used to processing it.”- Poniewozik
    I found this quote interesting because I definitely think the author’s indirect claim that “ha-ha funny” comedies usually don’t have antiheroes, but instead, they usually have protagonists is true because I think it can be hard to watch a comedy show that feels like the main character exhibits antiheroism because you might not want to relate to the character, and then it feels uncomfortable to laugh at their tactics even though the point of comedy is to laugh. However, when it is not just a comedy–but a drama-comedy– show creators are able to play with the idea of the main antihero. This reminded me of the TV show “Shameless” which revolves around a family. There is no exclusive protagonist on the show but I think everyone in the family can be classified as an antihero because they do not exhibit the expected heroic characteristics but the viewer can be able to understand their viewpoint because they have been drawn into their lives.

  8. One of the easiest things for a viewer to do is to assume that the main character is the “hero”. Hero could be interpreted in a few different ways, such as somebody who is relatable, has similar morals, or even quite literally is a savior to other characters. However, just like this facilitation highlights very well, this isn’t always the case. In fact, certain characters aren’t meant to be “relatable” or “heroic”. As Poniewozik said, “… if a character is the lead, yes, he or she may be flawed, but you can generally assume that the show means for you to generally like and root for that person,” (Poniewozik, 2012).
    I haven’t watched Dexter, so there may be a few bumps in this comparison, but I’ve read a little bit about it to try and use it in this context. Dexter is a forensic scientist that appears to be helping society day by day, however, he is also a murderer outside of that job. The catch is that he only kills other murderers. Now, this could be compared to what Poniewozik is saying with characters that aren’t meant to be seen as “likable”. Even though he is the main character, Dexter is not somebody that viewers can relate to, or would even want to relate to. This could be a toss-up for many people, because not only is he a forensic analyst, but he’s getting rid of other murderers. That could be seen as a good thing, right? Do the writers want the viewers to like Dexter as a character, or is he meant to cause a bit of discomfort among some viewers?

  9. I found this article very interesting because of the fact that i’ve never thought of why I like or dislike characters, it was always just a matter of how I perceived them. I like the idea of a characters “growth” in this facilitation because the articles’ main focus was what does the show anticipate its audience to feel towards a specific character, if not, every character. The idea of implementing significant or even minor scenes that call to attention the type of character that is being presented in the show , shows the growth of a type of impression the audience will receive as the characters endeavor specific obstacles. A line that stood out to me the most in the article was, “The show is not about seeing her as a good person, it’s about wanting to see her.” because it highlights the argument being conveyed in the article. It’s not the fact that Hannah is a bad or good person because she stole $20 from her parents, it’s the fact that we allowed that scene to create an interpretation of her- it allowed us to “want to see her” as a certain way or even at all.

  10. I actually really enjoyed reading this article as well as the facilitation. Throughout, I kept thinking about many different examples to bring in. Poniewozik states in his article that “This is still the model for most big-network primetime programming: if a character is the lead, yes, he or she may be flawed, but you can generally assume that the show means for you to generally like and root for that person”. I thought about this and came to my own disagreement about his statement. For example in the show “You”, I never felt swayed to Joe’s side or the other, even if we were guided/prompted to take a side in different areas throughout the series. The show constantly left you in question about if you empathized with Joe or not, and I believe that the show going against the norm is what made it so controversial. Because stalking and killing are such heavy actions to carry out we all know that it is not okay to do that, but because the main focus was on WHY Joe did these things we understand that he is protecting and really caring about his future victims.

  11. This facilitation is well done it not only goes into detail but stimulates the readers mind. I would like to build on the construct of the “antihero” and the “retooled and tinkered” properties of such characters. Narratives utilize antiheroes for different reasons and writers/creators adapt them to their narratives in various ways to obtain a reaction. One can theorize what the creators are attempting to obtain through their antihero but that is subjective to the viewer’s personal experiences. This creates a divide in audiences as mentioned by Poniewozik’s example from Girls, where Hannah steals $20 from the maid. Here the audience splits into two or more groups, those who support her, those who begin to hate her for this, and maybe those who did not react to this action. Another use of an antihero is Michael Scott in episode 2 of The Office, Michael proves his ignorance in racial issues and pushes his employees to do the same. The audience can be split here but interesting part is that the show directs the audience’s reaction by utilizing the other characters and of course by ridiculing the antihero, Michael, and eventually making the audience cringe and be glad that Kelly slapped him. In the end the audience hopes to not be a person like Michael Scott. Narratives can utilize antiheros in various ways with different goals in mind.

  12. Oh man! I haven’t seen an episode of Six Feet Under since I think it aired. But it’s still a solid example to facilitate Poniewozik’s point, especially because I don’t think most of the TV critics writing about anti-heroes would consider the Fishers to be in that category. But you make the connection compellingly.

  13. After this article, it reminds me of how TV shows can often make the audience decide which character they wanna root for, whether it’s protagonist or the antagonist of either a TV program or a film. For example, whenever I watch the classic cartoon show, “Tom and Jerry,” I would often root for Jerry (the mouse) because he is cute and clever, especially when he tries to outrun and outwit Tom (the cat). Same goes for when I saw the film “Us” last year during the spring semester, I had been rooting for the Wilson family, including the main character who was portrayed as the matriarch of the family, as they battle against their dopplëgangers (the tethered). Throughout the film, I rooted for the matriarch character as she battled against her “counter-part” only to realize in the end that they actually switched when they were younger, leaving me and the audience in utter shock.

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