In time for the Downton Abbey season 5 finale, we consider the changing characterisation of “good guys” in TV and movies lately.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten into a new relationship. I’ve fallen in love with a young man called Atticus Aldridge, and it’s time for me to go public about it. He’s my new TV boyfriend. He’s recently gotten engaged to someone else, but not to worry. He’ll come around eventually. They always do.
Seriously though – the introduction of Atticus, played by Matthew Barber, as Lady Rose’s new beau in season 5 of Downton Abbey, has knocked me for a six. I love him. I’m utterly endeared by him, I’m impressed by him, I’m fascinated by him… and it’s lead me to ask myself – why? What about this character – a somewhat minor one so far – has bewitched me so?
I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, because this is Downton, where nothing ever goes to plan with a wedding and characters make terrible choices every five minutes, but Atticus is strangely wonderful. He’s more than just “nice.”
He’s good-natured, he’s respectful, he’s gorgeously earnest, he’s progressive, and he’s clever, as proved in last week’s episode, when he solved the mystery of Edith’s whereabouts with some plain logic without making everyone else around him feel like morons.
He treats Rose as an equal. He stands up for himself, and others. He has an interesting backstory. He faces prejudice but isn’t painted as a victim. He’s generally lovely, and in just a few scenes he’s become very real and very dear to me.
Thinking about Atticus has gotten me thinking about male characters in general (for better or worse, I view female characters less divisively), and how, in recent years, we’re seeing more of this – more characters who don’t need their goodness to be hidden in order to be interesting.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the Sherlocks, the Tony Starks, the Jaime Lannisters, the Jesse Pinkmans, the Prince Zukos of this world. Abrasive douchebags exposing their beautiful inner souls, morally grey heroes, cynics, angry loners, or “evil” characters become decent are all still emotionally wrenching for me.
Hell, pretty much my favorite fictional character was always Spike from Buffy, and on most days I’d tell you that Thomas Barrow is one of Downton Abbey’s best and yes, most loveable characters, but I’m wondering – is this trope an easy out? Is the whole “I’m intolerable, but I’m secretly a big woobie” thing something that writers are falling back on because they know it works so well?
Or should the question be – why have the “genuinely solid dude” characters (avoiding the phrase “nice guy” because that has a whole other implication these days) that we’ve seen in the past been dismissed as boring? To bring this back to Buffy for a moment, who here was REALLY Team Riley? That’s right, no one – though Riley did end having some pretty sketchy stuff going on, potentially losing his solid dude status anyway.
The point is, in my world, nice and good equalled bland and boring. It sometimes equalled dumb – the sweet oaf who was never quick enough to keep up. It sometimes equalled conservative. It, very often, equalled lacking in depth, it equalled sanctimonious and it equalled annoying.
Men like this were usually juxtaposed with, or set against, a rude or morally grey but enigmatic character, and it always felt like you weren’t really meant to root for them. If we fell for a lighter character, it was generally the funny guy, the sidekick, who was usually still, to be honest, a bit of a jerk. The boring old good guy only became interesting when something caused him to fall – when something dragged him down.
I know I’m not the only person who felt this way – I’ve been in fandoms for a long time and this has always been the reaction to gentlemen whom D&D fans would categorize as Lawful Good – dull, stupid, wooden, groan-worthy.
But it seems, to me, that lately, things have started to feel a bit different. Atticus Aldridge isn’t the first character I’ve noticed like this, not by a long shot, but he’s gotten me thinking – what’s changed? Has public or fandom opinion altered, and affected the way I view characters? Have I changed – am I empathising with different personality traits? Am I just tired of watching people be horrible to each other? Or has the writing changed – are people creating better characters?
Guys who don’t have to fit the old mold, who are interesting while being “good” without having to be torn down from any sort of pedestal, who are inherently likeable and flawed and real, and who are just as fascinating as their high-functioning sociopath or former murderer counterparts – but more appealing to grab a beer with.
I took this matter to my Hypable cohorts, and on the next page, find out some of our current favorite characters who fit the bill for this theme. Instead of calling them “Natalie’s TV Boyfriends,” we’ll call it the Unapologetically Solid Dude trope.
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