Thursday, October 24, 2013

Never show invisible characters

Exactly as I start writing to you, it pops into my head that 'invisible characters' is a term you get in Microsoft Word. There it means things like the return between paragraphs. Here I mean characters in drama and comedy that you never see but who are forever talked about. I'd like to now make some deeply philosophical connection between these meanings, maybe say that these drama invisible characters are never seen yet without them the rest would be a mess.

Instead, I'm going to say that I need to warn you: there will be spoilers a little ways down the road.

Because it used to be a rule that if you had invisible characters, you never turn that around and show them. As great as Waiting for Godot is, the one thing it doesn't have for me is any tension that Godot will ever appear. After a beat, he was set up as so important that I knew this fella, he ain't coming.

That's usually the thing, that these invisibles are so important that no visible can live up to it. I remember the creators of Frasier saying that they hadn't intended to make Niles's wife Maris be invisible, they were just going to get to her in a few episodes. The first episode of Frasier – The Good Son by David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee – is perhaps the finest piece of pilot writing on television. Seriously. Watch the episode or, here, read the draft script online, and you'll just enjoy it. But without you being forced to be aware of it, this short script irrevocably changes Frasier Crane from a minor Cheers character to the lead of his own show, introduces four major series-long characters, a dog and two sits: the sitcom setting of a home in Frasier's apartment and the other sitcom setting of a workplace.

Plus, famously, it's the only sitcom pilot that includes a truly dramatic and raw argument between two main characters: usually we're supposed to like everyone so pilots don't risk any rows, but we get one here and it feels true.

If anything, the aired version is better still because it is trimmed back to get the show into its mandated 22-minute running time. Looking at the script now, the opening feels a bit flabby compared to the transmitted version because it is so spare that every syllable does at least two jobs. And what gets it this best-pilot-writing status in my mind is that you simply do not realise that any of it is doing any job at all. It's just a funny show.

But I suspect Maris isn't in it because that would just be one element too far. I don't know, but it's so superbly packed that one more piece would burst the lot.

So we get this:

NILES: I thought you liked Maris.

FRASIER: I do. I like her from a distance. You know, the way you like the sun. Maris is like the sun... except without the warmth.

She gets mentioned a lot in the opening episodes and that seemed to seal her fate: it was surely impossible to cast anyone to fill a part when we had begun to have an extremely detailed and, as it transpires, an increasingly strange mental image of her.

The one thing that makes me question that this happened with Maris is that there was another invisible wife on Frasier's predecessor series, Cheers. Norm Peterson -
- was married to Vera and we never quite saw her.

But it happens a lot. There are more invisible characters than I realised. And it's a bit uncomfortable that so many of them are wives: Maris, Vera, Mrs Columbo. But then there is Stan Walker on Will & Grace.

I just looked into this. There's also Enid Kelso on Scrubs. I don't know if she's a wife or not.

Juanita Beasley in The Andy Griffith Show. I've never seen her or The Andy Griffith Show.  Oh! Diane in Twin Peaks: Dale Cooper was forever recording messages to her for dictation about his business travels. Bob Sacamano in Seinfeld. Apparently The Gooch bullied little Arnold in Diff'rent Strokes. A lot.

There was also Ugly Naked Guy in the apartment across the street in Friends and there we did at least see his back, he was played by someone.

Charlie Brown features Miss Othmar but I can't decide if she counts because we hear her speak, or at least we hear her make sounds. If you count her, do you also count Charlie as in Charlie's Angels?

You can see more of these than you expect, and others too, on a Huffington Post video I just found.

That video is how I remember that we did see Vera, albeit with a pie on her face. And it's reminded me that Mrs Columbo was always just out of shot, just in the next room, just coming in a moment in the Columbo episode Troubled Waters.

But Mrs Columbo is sort of proof that you must never show these invisible characters because she sort of got her own series. In 1979, there was a TV show called Mrs Columbo and the idea was that this time Lt Columbo would be the invisible character. It was a cute idea aka a cute business solution to the fact that they couldn't afford to hire Peter Falk.

I think of all this as being only sort-of showing us his wife because the whole show was a series of business decisions. Of course people would tune in to see what his wife looked like: it was a guaranteed hit idea. But it's also guaranteed that viewers like young, beautiful types so fine, Lt Columbo had married someone much younger than himself.  All we really knew about her was that she has a fantastically large family that is forever coming around but that means a big cast. Can't have that. Forget that.

So Mrs Columbo is the wrong age and the show ditches the family. She really is just Mrs Columbo in name only. And she's Kate Mulgrew, later to be better known for being the only good one in Star Trek Voyager. Have a look at her in the role in this fan-made compilation of Mrs Columbo clips.

Guaranteed successes are not guaranteed. Within seconds, the show called Mrs Columbo was being rejigged and renamed to Kate Columbo to see if more viewers liked that any better. No. Within seconds after that, it was renamed to drop the Columbo part entirely and becomes Kate the Detective before finally becoming Kate Loves a Mystery. Even within the show, she stopped being Kate Columbo and became Kate Callahan. Mrs Columbo got divorced? No idea. All that was skated over.

So I think of this as only sort-of showing us Mrs Columbo.

No other invisible character has got her or his own spin-off. No other invisible character has ever been seen except in that kind of pie-over-the-face or camera-over-the-shoulder shot. And the reason is that they cannot, they must not be shown. The Frasier producers were right about how they could never cast anyone to play Maris after they'd built her up so much and not only because what they built up was this barely human figure.

We yearn to see these invisibles but we don't want to see them. The delight of that Troubled Waters is the tantalising thought that Mrs Columbo, the real Mrs Columbo, will walk in any moment but never does.

She cannot, she mustn't, it cannot and it must not ever happen that we see an invisible character.


Here be spoilers.

If you haven't seen the end of the eighth season of How I Met Your Mother, you're more than smart enough to know where I'm going and so I've already spoilt it for you. Sorry. But the ruining gets much worse so perhaps now is time for the kettle.

A little ways down the road
How I Met Your Mother hasn't been very good for a long time. The first four years are remarkable: very funny, very clever, terribly satisfyingly entertaining. After that, there's the odd good episode but you keep watching because of the characters and their story. You've long given up hope that we'll ever see the Mother of the title, she's plainly a Godot invisible, but what else happens in the lives of this group of New Yorkers is always enough to keep you wanting to know more.

If you don't know the show, it is ostensibly about Ted in the future telling his children the story of how he and their mother met. We get Old Ted narrating, we see younger Ted living this story. The delight for me has not been anything to do with the Mother, it has been in how Old Ted is an unreliable narrator and lies to us all the time. It's delicious.

But over the years, there have been the odd glimpse of the Mother. We once saw her ankle as she walked into a bathroom, just before Ted passed by.

And often enough that it has become a leitmotif, we get to see a yellow umbrella. Because Old Ted is narrating, we know that it belongs to the Mother and it's terribly, warmly satisfying as we see it crop up here and end up there. Ted actually has it for a time, not knowing whose it is, and I have no idea why that works so well.

A friend just mentioned the other week that he'd started watching How I Met Your Mother season 1 and much as he was enjoying it, he had a hunch we wouldn't be seeing the mother for quite some time.

I couldn't tell him. Couldn't. The answer is eight years.

It's the last episode of season eight and, again, it's not been a brilliant year. It's got so that the laugh track distracts me: previously I'd be laughing so much that I wouldn't notice the track. Now I'm disappointed in them for turning up the laughs instead of turning up with better jokes. But, you know, again, there are flashes of brilliance and always all these characters we've come to know so well.

In the last moments of this last episode of the season, each character is beginning a journey. They're going to a wedding weekend and some are driving from New York, some from elsewhere, everybody travelling. Fine. It has that end of season feel and also start of something new one. We know that the next season is going to be significant, we know it'll be the last one ever, and we know that all these characters are heading somewhere significant. We even know where they're heading.

And that's it.


Here we go, here's another shot of the Mother's ankles.

And the yellow umbrella.

It's funny and it's right, it's what we've seen before and it's enjoyable to see it again.


There's the Mother's back. For the first time, we see an actual person instead of an umbrella or a body part. That was a jolt. That was an unexpected head-jerk-back surprise. You still know they'll never show her, but wow, this is closer than any other invisible character has got and I was mentally processing this, thinking how well they'd done it -

- and then there she was.

The Mother is in How I Met Your Mother and she's played by Cristin Milioti.

I tell you, I gasped. More than that, it brought a little tear: I'm not especially a soppy sort but when something difficult is done absolutely perfectly, it moves me. The episode was written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the show's creators, and directed by Pamela Fryman.

I knew they shouldn't ever have shown her, I knew the next season couldn't possibly work with her as a new regular character, but that reveal was exquisitely well done. I don't know if this can work for you if you haven't been following the show or if I'm spoiling the season's end because you haven't got there yet. And if you've seen it too, you've already seen it.

But I really want to show it to you so here it is. YouTube slaps an ad over it that's hard to remove but it does go away before the key moment.

And smash out to end titles.

That doesn't look like a four-camera sitcom to me, that looks a feature film. And the first time I ever saw How I Met Your Mother, that's what I thought it was. Flicking channels on the TV in a Lake District B&B, coming across what looked like the end of a movie. Asking newsagents the next day if they still had that week's Radio Times so I could find out what it was. (How did we live before iPhones?) It was a first-season episode called The Limo and I didn't think other episodes could be as good so it took me a long time to watch more.

But – cue the show's own phrase again – a little ways down the road, I got hooked. For four years, it was joyous. For the following four years, it had joyous moments at least.

I'm watching the final season now – it hasn't aired yet in the UK but I have a US iTunes Store account – and, unbelievably, the Mother is the best element of it.

An invisible character has become visible and she has become key. The reason I'm writing this to you today is that there have now been a couple of episodes without her and I'm actually not enjoying them as much.

Never show invisible characters. Not ever. Except when you do.

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