Over the past few years, I’ve noticed there’s a new archetype emerging in TV shows and cinema. This character type is a man who thinks he is a “good” guy, and smarter than the people around him, even though the audience may see things differently.
Two examples I’ve noticed are in the shows Peep Show and Trailer Park Boys, both well-written sitcoms about a pair of guys and their ups and downs. In Peep Show, the two characters Jez (played by Robert Webb) and Mark (played by David Mitchell) are roommates and unexpected friends. Jez is rarely employed and will often rely on Mark for financial support. He has more romantic and social success than Mark, who is obsessed with history, specifically Joseph Stalin, and frequently incorporates him into unsuccessful social encounters.
Mark likes to think of himself as the “good” one; partially, because he is more successful than Jes and also because his frequent failures with women make him think of Jes as a sort of slut. He clearly thinks of himself as some kind of hapless “good” guy even though he is in some ways, a morally questionable character. For example, after impregnating a girlfriend, he declined to marry her until he found out that he would be getting a very nice house from his would-be father-in-law. Such a situation, while making the show funny, is also indicative of selfishness, even if he doesn’t see it, himself.
Jez, on the other hand, while unscrupulous, tends to make poor decisions based on his foolishness rather than a well-thought out plan. He also is more sensitive and more apt to get his feelings hurt while trying not to hurt others unless provoked, a quality Mark does not possess.
In Trailer Park Boys, two parolees released for drug-related charges are trying to get their lives back on track. Ricky (portrayed by Rob Wells) is a blundering, well-intentioned guy. He is an idiot savant when it comes to dealing with police officers (and getting out of trouble) and growing marijuana. When he is released from prison, he attempts to better himself by going back to school to earn his high school diploma (he dropped out at grade nine) and tries to be on the straight and narrow.
His best friend, Julian (portrayed by Robb Wells) is the smarter one of the duo, with usually a less volatile disposition while attempting to keep out of trouble. Ricky is better at growing marijuana, and he is always trying elicit Julian’s help and even demands that he misses school to help grow marijuana. While he thinks of himself as the smarter, good-hearted one of the two, he frequently undermines Ricky’s attempts at bettering himself. He also only lets Ricky sleep in his car after Julian is kicked out of his trailer by his girlfriend, and it is hinted that he is fathering Ricky’s child after having a brief encounter with Julian’s girlfriend.
Creating a subtly non-self conscious character is probably one of the most difficult feats a writer can accomplish, because it requires a delicate balance between trusting the audience to understand the flaws of a character, but also understand the lack of self-awareness that the character possesses. Both of these shows are hilarious because of the complicated nature of the characters, and the traditional “straight man” role is eliminated because of eccentricities and hubris of the main characters. This leads to much funnier (and realistic) situations because it is less predictable than most sitcoms. And unpredictability is a staple for any sort of comedy.