The Existential Problem with Character Development in Television Series

Creating a TV Character is Truly Difficult

Ernest Hemingway once said about writing fiction that an author would decide on a plot, would outline his or her characters and then “put everything you know about people in the book”.   There’s more to writing a successful book, story, or television series, of course, but character is essential and it’s character as much as plot that makes it so hard for a show to stay fresh and original for more than a couple of years.

The same is true in many other fields.  We are always looking for a new game to play.  As exciting as that great new computer game was when we started playing it, after a while we grow tired of it because it never changes.  We often see lists of the top 5 dramas, or the top 5 comedies, or the top 5 restaurants, or the top 5 motel chains, the top 5 mobile games, or the top 5 investments this week.

So, what made some TV series great and then made them so boring?


This series simply ran out of storylines.  Ross started out as a whiner and continued whining to the bitter end.  Chandler never really grew up; Monica became a battle-axe; Joey never had a single serious relationship in all the years the show ran; Rachel was so pathetic at the end that she forced her way off a plane to a great job in France so she could be with—oh, my God—Ross.

They retreaded the themes of pregnancy, Janice, Ross’s divorces, Monica’s obsessions, and Phoebe’s flightiness.  The wedding in London just had to be NOW and Phoebe’s wedding just could not be allowed to succumb to winter.

This show needed to end after five or six seasons.

Person of Interest

No matter how loud we turn up the volume, we couldn’t hear Reese.  They introduced an alternative Machine which took over the world but our heroes continued fighting.  By the time the number of bullets fired at them from automatic weapons and not hitting any of them reached say a million we knew this series was done for.

Grey’s Anatomy

They killed off so many characters in this hapless series that we gave up caring for any of them.  Each couple had its career developing battle but never a single character developing series of events.  So we knew what was going to happen before it happened.  Then the show took the better part of a season trying to resolve yet another marital conflict of world-epic proportions and when the writers either ran out of ideas for more nothing dialogue or simply got bored themselves they killed off another one.


We wondered if people in the Wild West actually spoke like the people in Deadwood and then we found out that the professionals who made the decisions thought that if they used the language of the 19th century it wouldn’t speak to modern people, especially millennials who thrill whenever someone uses, in the same sentence no less, one or more of the words George Carlin declared couldn’t be said on television, so they wrote in modern dialogue to a 19th century show.

That was enough for me.

George Carlin

Speaking of whom, when he was funny he never used the language he used when he ceased being funny.  He still had his moments, of course, but he was no longer the great comedian he once was.

House of Cards

Long before we knew for sure that Kevin Spacey was a compromised human being, his character on screen and his wife and everyone on his staff left no stone unturned proving that it’s possible to have a hit show without a single sympathetic character.  Instead of developing anyone, someone in a positive manner, they had everyone devolve into the fever swamps of Washington politics.

Why watch when real-life is essentially the same?


Thank God that we lost patience with this disappointing series when it got wierd in the second season.


The first season was exciting.  The idea was new and fresh.  Then, in the second season, they stretched the storytelling so they could fill 24 full hours.  That’s all we needed to look for …a show that was as faithful to its viewers as the viewers were to it.


It is just so dull watching a genius tell everyone around him that he is the superior one and they are intellectually useless, week after week.  It was interesting for the first half of the first season.  After that, bye, bye.


We were very disappointed that nothing came of Tony’s visits to the shrink.  Instead of him telling her how much he wanted to sleep with her and instead of frightening her so much that we were forced to sit through her sessions with her shrink, it would have served the show better to have Tony Soprano come to see himself fully and do something about it.

Breaking Bad

Although the show ran for years, we felt that the character of Walter White was so despicable from the outset that we couldn’t watch after just a few episodes.

Which Series do We Recommend?

Here are five series we liked from beginning to end or present time:

  • The Americans.  Flawed but still excellent.
  • Homeland.  Seriously flawed but still excellent.
  • Chicago Fire.  My number three, all time TV series.
  • Baltimore: Life on the Streets.  Number two, all time.
  • Justified.  The best TV series of all time.  It stayed true to its characters throughout.  The dialogue never faltered.  The characters showed development.  And, finally the show ended the way it should have.