TTSCC – The Peanuts Effect

When an ensemble is formed, the creators have certain specific ideas about who is important and who isn’t. Amazingly, the audience doesn’t always hold to those views, and prefer to choose for themselves who are the key characters. As many fans of Terminator – The Sarah Connor Chronicles hold to the idea that the breakout character is Cameron, so too have fans made their picks in the past.

The easiest example comes from the world of the funny papers: Peanuts. This tale of a group of kids focuses on the life of Charlie Brown, his best friend Linus, snoopydancestyled-260and Linus’ sister Lucy. A large group of support characters fills out the cast, but one stood out and eventually became the star: Snoopy.

It was amazing. Even as a kid in the 60s, I was immediately drawn to this unlikely beagle who seemed to have the most well-rounded character in the cast. He was both worldly and innocent, which allowed him to appeal to the broadest audience. “Worldly and innocent” are also two terms that could, with a little taffy-like pulling, be applied to Cameron.

If we do something more modern, the classic example from TV is Happy Days. This series was a vehicle to showcase Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham. It didn’t take long for a different character to have the spotlight focus more often on him: Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli—the “Fonz”. Again, like Snoopy (and Cameron), this character displays both a worldliness and an unexpected innocence (e.g. whenever he’s around Mrs. Cunningham).

With these and other examples: The Three Stooges (Curly), Charlie’s Angels (Jill), Star Trek (Spock), Star Trek – Voyager (Seven-of-Nine), The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (Maynard G. Krebs); it’s clear that sometimes the flame of a show that attracts the audience moths isn’t exactly planned.

So, does that mean that the productions should shift their mission plan to feature these characters? It’s a bit of a balance. If you over-saturate, you dilute the specialness of the character that keeps people returning. On the other hand, if you don’t at least acknowledge the audience, you risk alienating the very people that are the foundation of your fan base. I think the trick is to nudge up the thermostat a little at a time to find what works.

As a writer, I know how difficult all of this can be. I had a screenplay where a support character was “all that and more”. All my readers wanted me to expand the character. I, of course, resisted because it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Even so, I was just as taken by this support character as my readers were. It was just the case that in this specific instance, expanding the part beyond what I’d done wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

That said, for future chapters of the story (had they been written) I’d have put more effort into having this character make appearances…the character was that compelling. It can be likened to the Carol Hathaway character on ER who was supposed to die from a suicide attempt in the pilot episode but was so captivating that she was resurrected and made a featured character.

It’s a lot like something that was told to the author Isaac Asimov after he heard a speaker analyze his writings: “Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you know what it means.”

That’s a tough reality pill to take when you are in the creative arts. The audience makes of it what it will. All you can do is put it out there. The tough part comes if you are creating a serial piece. While you don’t want to pander to the audience, you do have to consider that maybe they are seeing something that you don’t (or don’t want to). That’s when you sometimes have to step back and see what you have.

As I’ve shown in my post about scenes and characters in TTSCC (link), it’s clear that Josh Friedman’s vision is with Sarah Connor. Based on feedback in the various web fora, it’s clear that the “Peanuts Effect” character is Cameron. Even though they were somewhat placated by 2 episodes in season 2 featuring the character, the reality of the numbers shows that, despite the fan clamor, the character’s presence overall actually diminished.

One has to wonder if Peanuts would have sustained its huge fan base for so long if Snoopy’s popularity wasn’t addressed? Would Happy Days have stayed on the air for 11-seasons had the Fonz not been given his due? Is it time for the creative force behind TTSCC to see if a tweak here or there might enhance the interest (and longevity) of their show?

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