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Leverage is a show that I still haven't managed to catch yet, even though I've heard nothing but good things about it.

Not too long ago, Leverage writer John Rogers coined a term so awesome, to describe something that's so sadly lacking in far too many stories nowadays, that even though I haven't even watched his show yet, I still feel it's important to turn his phrase into a pervasive meme.

The following are the quotes from his blog that are relevant to our interests:

LEVERAGE #204 "The Fairy Godparents Job" Post-game

The whole thing really clicked for me when I first heard "This kid has the world's greatest thieves as his Fairy Godparents" in the room. That was it for me, that moment. Everything else was filler.

Originally, the first act was comprised of multiple, foiled attempts to get the villain and the FBI out of the apartment. For budgetary and scheduling reasons those went away, and we wound up with one of the most sedate first acts we've ever had. Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the 'net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. "Competence porn" as we started calling it.
Let's think about this for a moment.

From everything I've heard of his show, John Rogers sounds like he's a very good TV writer - indeed, given my frequently voiced complaints about the current state of superhero comics, one of the things that's made me want to check out Leverage is the number of my friends and acquaintances whom I've seen say things like, "Why can't the protagonists of superhero comics be this competent anymore?" - and yet, even a very good writer like John Rogers expresses shock at the fact that audiences actually like stories about competent characters doing things competently.

Maybe it's the increasing degree of nihilism in society. Maybe it's the trend of pretension-driven attempts to "deconstruct" characters into oblivion. Maybe it's the fact that so many preexisting characters are now being written by people who resent having to attach their names to characters that they didn't create themselves, and genres that they wish they could be writing outside of, and who wind up taking their frustrations out on both those characters and their fans as a result. Maybe it's the lowered expectations of writers (and a certain subset of audience members) who develop inferiority complexes whenever they're forced to write (or read, or watch) characters whom they see as being more competent, decent or heroic than themselves.

And maybe, to be more charitable and fair, it's simply the fact that writers run the risk of taking for granted the positive points of the characters that they write about, and whom they therefore already know inside and out, which is why they might expect their audiences to be more willing to join them in exploring the uglier sides of characters whom those writers are nonetheless still expecting their audiences to see as sympathetic, or even "relatable."

With preexisting characters, I suspect this impulse to "deconstruct" becomes even more of a temptation, especially with well-known superhero characters, because the writer starts out with the assumption that the audience will continue to side with those superhero characters regardless, simply based on the goodwill built up by past stories, and subsequently, such writers will express genuine surprise when their audiences respond negatively to sufficiently downbeat, unflattering portrayals of those characters, because as far as such writers are concerned, the fans are supposed to like [fill-in-the-blank name of superhero character] and enjoy his adventures no matter what, because "that's what being a fan MEANS!"

And hey, to be fair, with regards to the latter motivation, I've been there myself, with both original and preexisting characters that I've written, because if it's a character that you're excited enough over having created, or a character that somebody else created that you're enough of a fan of, then of course you're going to be starting from the baseline expectation that those characters are awesome by definition, and that everyone else should just automatically see their awesomeness as clearly, and with as much love, as you do.

Except that even superhero fans - hell, ESPECIALLY superhero fans - still need to be given REASONS to root for those characters.

I'm struck by the fact that, for as much as Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer always emphasize in interviews that The Venture Bros. is all about "failure" (their word), almost all of the show's characters are still portrayed as being exceptional, if not in ADMIRABLE, then at least in IMPRESSIVE ways.

Brock Samson is increasingly morally conflicted and fed up with his lot in life, but he remains an unparalleled ass-kicker. The Monarch is a fucking batshit creeper with a pointless and self-destructive obsession, but he and Doctor Girlfriend are genuinely in love with each other. Hank is a dimwit and Dean is a wimp, but Hank has an endearingly never-say-die attitude and Dean actually seems to be winning over the heart of Triana Orpheus. As for Rusty, he may be a total failure in every aspect of his life now, but even he can take pride in the fact that even those who don't respect him as an adult still regard him as the greatest boy adventurer ever.

There's this mantra of conventional wisdom that dictates that characters need flaws in order for the audience to sympathize with and relate to them, but unless those flaws are, in and of themselves, exceptional and unique, then the only subset of the audience that will find such characters to be sympathetic or "relatable" will be the same types of mediocrity and status quo-loving milquetoasts whose favorite comedian is somebody like Dane Cook, the Wannabe-Clown Prince of Soul-Deadeningly Generic Anti-Lulz.

So much of this is tied up in the desire to pander to the "everyman," but I say, now and forever, FUCK THE EVERYMAN.

I have NEVER sympathized with or related to the guy (or gal, *cough* Rose Tyler *cough*) who's supposed to be the most ordinary, average, everyday person out there, and quite frankly, FUCK that dude for even INTRUDING on my superhero comics in the first place.

If a character MUST be a "failure" or a "loser," then make him a DISTINCTIVE failure or a WEIRD loser - don't give me fucking ARCHIE with an entitled, Seth Rogen-ized, all-too-COMMON privileged straight white boy attitude of BITCHEZ UR CRAY-ZEE AMIRITE FELLAS???

If I'm reading about characters whom we're still calling "SUPERHEROES," then even if they aren't necessarily HEROIC, they should still be SUPER in some significant way.

Give them extreme flaws if you must (and indeed, if you're writing actively ANTI-heroic characters like Deadpool, then yes, I'll agree that you MUST), but give them extreme TALENTS to accompany those flaws. If they're not quite to the level of professionals at what they do (which would be an appropriate characterization of who Peter Parker USED to be, when he was MUCH younger than he is now), then show their POTENTIAL (as John Rogers himself did with Jaime Reyes as the new Blue Beetle).

And above all else, I say again, FUCK the everyman, because he sucks, and always has.

In the original issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Flash Thompson was the everyman, for all the same reasons he was Peter's ENEMY, so he shouldn't be Spider-Man's TARGET AUDIENCE.

Comments

( 79 comments — Leave a comment )
stubbleupdate
Sep. 25th, 2009 11:56 pm (UTC)
The most striking example of competence porn that comes to mind in my recent pull list would be the scene in Dark Avengers (3?) where Norman banishes the Void and makes you think "Why the fuck couldn't Tony Stark do that, if he wanted to see Bob become something special?"
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 12:08 am (UTC)
I suppose the problem I have with scenes like that is that, if it makes you ask the question, "Why couldn't a previous supposedly competent character do what this character did?", then there should at least be an answer. Otherwise, you're not really building one character up as much as you are knocking another character down, because if the only answer is, "Because the previous character was dumb or didn't care," then you've only made your current character look smarter and more careful than a dumb, careless character, which hardly makes a case for their competency.
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box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 12:31 am (UTC)
YES.
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hyperactivator
Sep. 26th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
This reminds me of alot of bad horror movie rants. Many horror movies tend to make all thier characters shallow unlikeable jerks that you want to see die horribly. But that defeats the purpose of being scary. If you don't care about the character you don't feel scared when they are about to die or horrified when they do. The result is an unscary aesop-like mess.

I'm getting the same result above with the ordinary people in the Marvel Universe. I don't want the superheros to save them I want the superheros to be saved from them.

I would feel no sadness if the Inhumans took all of earth's Superheros,Mutants,and Atlanteans into space to help them rebuilding the Kree empire and left earth to the Norman and his kind. In fact it would make me blissfully happy because Marvel's Cosmic heros are all written awsomely.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 12:31 am (UTC)
Good points.
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fnordmotorco
Sep. 26th, 2009 12:56 am (UTC)
I loved Global Frequency for this exact reason.
colonel_green
Sep. 26th, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
In the original issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Flash Thompson was the everyman, for all the same reasons he was Peter's ENEMY, so he shouldn't be Spider-Man's TARGET AUDIENCE.

Flash Thompson was the school bully/jock. That's hardly the common definition of 'everyman' (maybe in a Ditko Objectivist-influenced way, but that's an aspect that the comics have been trying to get away from ever since Romita came onboard).
jarodrussell
Sep. 26th, 2009 01:08 am (UTC)
That's hardly the common definition of 'everyman' (maybe in a Ditko Objectivist-influenced way, but that's an aspect that the comics have been trying to get away from ever since Romita came onboard).

And you don't see a connection between where comics were to where they are due to that exodus?
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freddie_mac
Sep. 26th, 2009 01:42 am (UTC)
See, that's exactly why I've always preferred Batman to Superman. Batman may be a genius, but he still had to work damn hard at various disciplines to become such an expert fighter. I've always liked the stories or throwaway scenes where Bats is revealing more about his training, or the skills that he's picked up over the years. Superman just is, but Batman is the result of a fierce dedication (obsession!) and lots of hard work. Saying that Bats is a genius is one thing, but I also like to see that genius!Bat in action.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
You make a good case for your preference.
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deepspaceartist
Sep. 26th, 2009 01:58 am (UTC)
You are so right. Heck, my favourite fight scenes have never been the ones where the hero struggles the whole way through, but the ones where they show that they've been doing this for a while. Like when the New Avengers fight someone, and Luke, Peter and Clint are just bantering their way trough the fight.

Actually, that probably why some of my favourite dialog is in-team banter. Beacuse the fact that they can make jokes in a life-or-death situation shows, instead of tells, that the heroes are in fact confident and competent.
auryn29a
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC)
Great post. We live in a society where the most popular entertainment has to do with watching average or below-average people doing stupid things. Sometimes it feels we really are regressing into "Ow! My Balls!" from the movie Idiocracy. So, yeah, I love my competence porn. I love watching Stargate and Doctor Who and Leverage. (I'd love NUMB3RS but for some reason I can't identify, the show irritates me.) I love watching smart people figure things out.
corrinalaw
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:17 am (UTC)
As a writer, my objection to briefing scenes is that they tend to be hard to make interesting. Yes, having characters be competent is good--having them be boring is supposed to be death for a writer.

Briefing scenes can be just awful as everyone says "well, as you know, Bob.." Look at the dull briefing scenes in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But they can also be good if they contain a lot of conflict--and this may be where the banter of which idea is better/worse comes in, and the chance for the audience to see competence.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:28 am (UTC)
I love the fact that your comment immediately precedes this one by dv8nation. :)
dv8nation
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:24 am (UTC)
I've never really understood why so many writers don't like briefings and other "laying pipe" work. When I write that's some of the most fun things for me to do.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
I love the fact that your comment immediately follows this one by corrinalaw. :)
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neo_prodigy
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
"I have NEVER sympathized with or related to the guy (or gal, *cough* Rose Tyler *cough*) who's supposed to be the most ordinary, average, everyday person out there, and quite frankly, FUCK that dude for even INTRUDING on my superhero comics in the first place....don't give me fucking ARCHIE with an entitled, Seth Rogen-ized, all-too-COMMON privileged straight white boy attitude of BITCHEZ UR CRAY-ZEE AMIRITE FELLAS???"

THIS!!!

One of the biggest tropes that gets on my nerves is when the privileged straight white guy finds out he's a chosen one and he goes throughout the story with his sense of arrogance and entitlement and gets rewarded for it because for no other reason he's a speshul snowflake for being the privileged straight white guy and having no other redeeming qualities whatsoever.

This was one of the issues I had with Twilight (among many many many others) is that we're supposed to accept Bella as being this exceptional amazing creature when she's anything but.

I mean she's not beautiful (Kristen Stewart is obviously but in the story, but in the story Bella is average), she's not smart, she's not athletic, in fact she's a clutz, there's nothing unique about her yet we're supposed to believe that she's this amazing heroine when in fact she's not.

At least with Rose Tyler, she had a purpose in the story. Not only was she the eyes of the audience and we traveled with the Doctor vicariously through her, but she was very childlike and represented humanity's innocence. She was there to inspire the Doctor and heal him from his wounds and his darkness. This is also why she was able to selflessly give up the power of the Tardis after it consumed her.

But as much as I loved Rose, I loved Martha even more. Whereas Rose represented humanity's innocence, Martha represented humanity's potential and strength. Even though she was human, Martha repeatedly proved herself to be an equal to both the Doctor and Harkness. She was resourceful, smart, self-reliant, hell she was already a Doctor and there were several times throughout series 3 where the Doctor got taken out and Martha had to save the day and had Rose been with him in those predicaments, that would've been their asses.

I have many theories on why writers pull the everyman trope (and do it poorly at that) but it kind of reminds me of a rule that my editor used to tell me when I was writing for a local newspaper. You're supposed to write down to the public as if they have an eighth grade education.

So I guess many writers believe they want the characters to be relatable to everyman Joe Plumber out there so they can feel speshul too. Either that or writers are supposed to write what they know and if they create characters that are more complex, exceptional than they are (and I'm just talking about personality here and character traits), well we can understand why they might resent those characters.

*shrugs shoulders*

Edited at 2009-09-26 02:30 am (UTC)
schmevil
Sep. 26th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC)
How do you feel about Donna?
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ninjapeps
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)
I don't think it's the competence part that surprises him. I think it's that he didn't expect people to love seeing their competence during planning sessions rather than while that week's con was going down.

I love Leverage because I love these Ocean's 11 styled ridiculous and over-complicated plots. the crew gets the job done by being really good at what they do and being able to quickly adapt to unforeseen developments. they come out on top not because everyone else is dumber but because they're better.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 02:31 am (UTC)
they come out on top not because everyone else is dumber but because they're better.

YES.
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athenemiranda
Sep. 26th, 2009 03:01 am (UTC)
I have NEVER sympathized with or related to the guy (or gal, *cough* Rose Tyler *cough*) who's supposed to be the most ordinary, average, everyday person out there, and quite frankly, FUCK that dude for even INTRUDING on my superhero comics in the first place....don't give me fucking ARCHIE with an entitled, Seth Rogen-ized, all-too-COMMON privileged straight white boy attitude of BITCHEZ UR CRAY-ZEE AMIRITE FELLAS???

So very fucking much word.

I'm not here for everygals, I'm here for wish-fulfilment super-characters who can do all the things I can't do in real life, such as setting the world to rights and doing it properly.

The idea of 'competence porn' has been around for a while, btw - I've sometimes spoken to slash fans who have a kink for competence.
yaseen101
Sep. 26th, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)
"Give them extreme flaws if you must (and indeed, if you're writing actively ANTI-heroic characters like Deadpool, then yes, I'll agree that you MUST), but give them extreme TALENTS to accompany those flaws. If they're not quite to the level of professionals at what they do (which would be an appropriate characterization of who Peter Parker USED to be, when he was MUCH younger than he is now), then show their POTENTIAL (as John Rogers himself did with Jaime Reyes as the new Blue Beetle).

And above all else, I say again, FUCK the everyman, because he sucks, and always has."

I agree and great post. My mind is currently not up to the task and I have a lot of things to say but right now THIS (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsWazWtSD64) is one of the reasons why I enjoy characters like Alucard/Anderson/Light/L/Mello/Batman/Kakashi/Raikage/Integra, etc it's because they are so good and competent at what they do. But, to me, one of the best parts of fiction is when a character faces these impossible odds and they know they will die and they go ahead and fight anyway.
radiumhead
Sep. 26th, 2009 03:25 am (UTC)
The Venture Brothers is not a good example. The characters he listed are likable, and they try, but that isn't the same as being competent. They all completely suck at what they do, except for Brock and the dwarf.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 03:33 am (UTC)
Actually, I'd dispute that. For the MOST part, yes, they all suck at what they do - this is, after all, a show whose MISSION STATEMENT revolves around failure - and yet, almost every one of the characters does indeed get at least one Crowning Moment of Awesome each in the show's run. The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend's Xanatos Gambit against J.J. Venture - after their rough start - was brilliant, Dr. Girlfriend herself is nearly Brock and Molotov's equal in terms of melee combat, and even the Monarch's henchmen get to kick some ass eventually ("YOU! ARE! MURDERFLIES!!!").

Hell, even the moments when they're NOT competent often make them look cool (nothing tops Henchmen 21 and 24's aces rendition of "Mars, God of War").
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sistermagpie
Sep. 26th, 2009 03:40 am (UTC)
As a big fan of Leverage: YES. I think it's a big reason people love thieves in general. In their own way, they're like superheroes.

This post actually makes me think of one I wrote recently about the flipside of this, which was also sparked by a comics discussion. I was saying the opposite--not fuck the everyman, but that the everyman was the everyman, and therefore ordinary, and I like stories them to have to accept and deal with that. Like your mention of Flash, he's defined by his ordinariness in contrast to Peter, and how he deals with that compared to Peter.

This is very different than making the person who's supposed to be special ordinary, which is frankly annoying, because they're usually really bad at being ordinary. They're just irritating. An ordinary character like Flash can struggle with the dramas of being ordinary. Peter's drama is that of the extraordinary.
scottyquick
Sep. 26th, 2009 04:14 am (UTC)
Also, please tell me you read Blue Beetle.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 04:22 am (UTC)
The only reason I wasn't able to break my I-haven't-bought-any-comics-in-nearly-two-years streak for it was because of some other pressing, extended and unfortunately unplanned-for expenses. :(
refraction
Sep. 26th, 2009 04:54 am (UTC)
It's like the comparison to NCIS. No one on that show carries the "idiot ball" (their term) - most of the time on that show, everyone is super competent. It's stuff that is no fault of their own that leads to there being problems (if they're character caused). Or the criminals are somehow more skilled (uber uber hackers, incredible fighters, forensic experts). Basically that section of the eastern seaboard has the world's greatest criminals - who all happen to commit Navy related crimes.

By contrast, the Leverage team isn't perfect. They're all fantastic at what they do, but that doesn't mean they're not human, and don't screw up things, or can't be out of their element. Or have surprises. Which leads to improvising and whatnot. It makes the show more fun than an NCIS or what have you where everyone is non stop competent. The characters can be brilliant and be human and Rogers nails this.

Also, Blue Beetle. Why? Because it's Blue Beetle, that's why.
ninjapeps
Sep. 26th, 2009 06:19 am (UTC)
there was that episode of Leverage where their whole con was ruined because it turned out the guy's cousin lived where their made-up characters were supposed to be from. they couldn't have prepared for every single person their mark might know but they were good enough to change the plan and still get the bad guy in the end.

they get into unexpected trouble a lot but since they each know what they're doing so well, they still manage to come out on top, though usually more bruised than they'd planned.
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joysweeper
Sep. 26th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)
Eh? Hey, everymen can be cool too. Wedge Antilles is as everyman as a character in the Star Wars Expanded Universe can get, and he's awesome. Yes, he's one of the best pilots alive, but he's still a normal-ish pilot in a 'verse where the other protagonists are almost all psychic warrior monks, supercommandos, or Han Solo. I resent the thought that being an everyman means being a whining sack of fail. It's often the whining sacks of fail who are the most Special.

The good everyman strives, and is... human, I guess. Flaws and strengths both.
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 08:01 pm (UTC)
Heh. I suspect we're looking at a ) me overstating for effect, as usual, and b) differing definitions of "everyman." Your definition of Wedge almost makes him seem like Batman in the Justice League, as The Guy Who Earns Himself A Spot On The Roster by Working Twice As Hard As Those Who Are Just Gifted Naturally.

Your thoughts actually correspond with the thoughts of cygna_hime.
cygna_hime
Sep. 26th, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
YES, THIS.

A large part of the affection for briefing scenes, I think, is that the most common alternative is...really not great. You know, when you don't know what the characters are planning, but after it all works out, they say, "Yes, yes, I planned it all"? I hate that: it makes the character look either incredibly lucky or psychic (when they're not supposed to be either). But if I know what the plan was, I can see how the plan went wrong and they fixed it, and they actually look competent.

Without the briefing scene, it's really easy to have your plot look like Authorially Mandated Competence, which is like an Idiot Plot but worse, because the characters are uncharacteristically stupid and win anyway.

In the history of Western literature, heroes have never been "average". They have always, by definition, been very. Very powerful/strong/smart/tough/motivated, very doomed/proud/reckless/crazy/vengeful, but always very. And people have loved their stories for thousands of years. The whole "ordinary-guy-with-a-fuckton-of-privilege-but-no-special-characteristics" thing flies in the face of everything we know about people's taste in heroes. The actual "Everyman hero" is "person from a non-privileged background [remember all those farm boys?] who nevertheless has an incredible character", not "meh guy who isn't much and gets to save the world for some reason anyway". The point of the Everyman Hero is that he/she is like your dream of yourself. Powers or no powers, the real difference is supposed to be personality.

I love competence porn. *makes a note to self to snap up Leverage ASAP*
box_in_the_box
Sep. 26th, 2009 07:55 pm (UTC)
Without the briefing scene, it's really easy to have your plot look like Authorially Mandated Competence [...]

An excellent point that I hadn't even thought of.

The whole "ordinary-guy-with-a-fuckton-of-privilege-but-no-special-characteristics" thing flies in the face of everything we know about people's taste in heroes. The actual "Everyman hero" is "person from a non-privileged background [remember all those farm boys?] who nevertheless has an incredible character", not "meh guy who isn't much and gets to save the world for some reason anyway".

Very good. I may quote this.
xanykaos
Sep. 27th, 2009 01:12 am (UTC)
Fantastic post, lotta thoughts, but headache+no sleep leaves me with enough energy to just put out one:

I like incompetence. Or, really, more than sheer competence, I should say. I like Justice League International more than previous or current incarnations of the League. Beetle points out that they usually saved the world "in spite of themselves." Which means that, yup, they step up and save the world, but nine times out of ten, folks would look at 'em and think "Hm...maybe we can get the Titans instead." For me, there's something endearing about D and C-listers of Life (not just underused characters, but the guys that others don't take seriously because compared to the awesome fellas, they kinda suck).

I'm probably reading it wrong. Honestly, when I hear "everyman" and "loser" I start to think of Rogues (Flash Rogues). Blue collar, average joes who are too stupid to do better with their talents, and who know they are. But then, as you mention, they're distinctive failures, and they do get their CMAs often enough.

Sleepy time now.
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