After I wrote the post yesterday about Bob Boyett, I discovered that Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen have signed to be in a new Broadway play by Michael Jacobs. Michael Jacobs is the creator of Charles in Charge (though he left before it got really bad), My Two Dads, Dinosaurs and Boy Meets World. We are seriously two steps away from seeing a trend emerge here, as Broadway becomes more and more a haven for refugees from TGIF. But anyway, as news stories often do, this gives me an excuse to talk about something tangential.
Those of you who watched and liked Boy Meets World (many of you) and those who will admit it (fewer) remember that that show had perhaps the most egregious case of, to borrow a word from The Simpsons, “Dumbening,” the process by which a character gets dumber every year until his stupidity goes past the point of all plausibility. The character of the older brother Eric, played by the excellent Will Friedle, started out as your typical cool older brother. Then the writers got the idea that it would be fun to make him goofier, which meant making him dumber. And then they came up with more, even goofier jokes, necessitating his becoming even dumber than before. And every single season, Eric was dumber than the season before, until by the end of the show he was quite possibly the stupidest character in television history. Eric storylines from the final season had him setting his brother’s room on fire; stalking a woman by dressing up as a tree, a woman, a couch, and the guy from the American Gothic painting; he’d forget simple commands and perhaps his own name; and, when a military dude ordered him to “drop and give me 20,” he dropped to the floor and handed the guy a $20 bill. He was funny, but he made Homer Simpson look like Veronica Mars and Willow rolled into one big intelligence ball.
So my audience-participation question (in a desperate bid for comments) is, what is the worst decline in intelligence of any TV character? Or, if you can’t pick just one, who are some characters who started out at least semi-lucid and became complete insane dimwits by the end?
This is a problem that’s as old as the serial format itself (not just television, but radio); any time you have a comedy show with continuing characters, characters tend to get steadily dumber because the writers have to keep trying to top themselves, and that means that if they made a character this much dumb before, the next gag, to top the previous one, has to make him even dumber. Also, if a comedy show becomes more serious, some of the supporting characters may get stupider because they have to provide more of a contrast with the soapy main stories. That’s part of what happened to Eric on BMW and I think it’s also what’s happened to some of the supporting characters on The Office, like Kevin and Dwight and Kelly. Kevin has gotten so dumb that it’s perfectly natural for a newcomer to the office to think he’s literally retarded; but he has to be crazier because in some of the darker episodes, he’s literally the comic relief in a comedy.
But if I had to pick, I’d say the ’90s was the golden age of Dumbening; there were just so many characters who went from being loveably dumb to so dumb that you’d never understand how they functioned in society. Homer on The Simpsons, obviously, is a classic example of how a character gets dumber as the writers keep trying to outdo themselves. (A DVD commentary reveals that the writing staff in season 9-10 argued over a joke where Homer didn’t know how to read, but finally decided to put it in because they thought it was funny. It wasn’t that funny, though, and it just pushed Homer one step further toward complete moronitude.) But there was also Matthew on NewsRadio, who followed a perfect trajectory of dumb: in the pilot, he’s a weird, sensitive guy but quite plausibly the sort of person who would be working at a news radio station. By the fourth season, he was a raving lunatic who never did any work and wasn’t actually capable of doing any work. Actually, everybody on NewsRadio got dumber every year. And Drew’s friends on The Drew Carey Show, and Dale on King of the Hill, and Harry on Third Rock From the Sun, and Kelso on That ’70s Show (very late ’90s, but still), and many more.
I give Friends some credit because while Joey did get dumber, they didn’t let him degenerate quite as far as some of the other Token Dumb Guys. Though I guess you could argue that hanging out with the people on his spinoff was dumber than anything any of those other characters ever did.
Today, Jenna on 30 Rock seems like a case of a character who got really dumb really fast.