There are three major roles that male characters on television can be boiled down to: The Nice Guy, The Nice Guy (TM), and The Anti-Nice Guy. Make no mistake – all three of these generally have a heart of gold (if he doesn’t, expect him to make a swift exit sometime soon). You can see it anywhere that men populate the screen – which is, to say, on every television show ever. Sometimes more than one of each type exists, sometimes one of these is lacking, but I believe these are the majority of male characters right now.
You have The Nice Guy, who is generally nice and a good friend, if a little boring. You have The Nice Guy (TM), who is generally nice in his master plan to receive something in return (usually something sexual). And you have The Anti-Nice Guy, who is lovable because he’s funny, but in reality is kind of a jerk and if you had to be around him all the time, you’d want to stab yourself in the eye.
The reason these three tropes exist and, indeed, co-exist, is that they all create excellent foils for each other in any combination. One of the most famous trios of male friends exists on Friends, where you have Chandler (The Nice Guy), Ross (The Nice Guy (TM)), and Joey (The Anti-Nice Guy). Now, before you jump on me for that, know that I realize they all have characteristics of the other traits – if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they did. But think about it. On Happy Endings, you have Brad (The Nice Guy), Dave (The Nice Guy (TM)), and Max (The Anti-Nice Guy). On New Girl, you have Winston (The Nice Guy), Nick (The Nice Guy (TM)), and Schmidt (The Anti-Nice Guy). As How I Met Your Mother is probably the most successful and popular descendant of the Friends-type roommate comedy, I chose to examine that one further. This is a show in which you have three adult men who fall categorically into these three types, almost without exception.
First, you have Marshall Eriken (Jason Segel), The Nice Guy. Even if his relationship with Lily is a little sickening at times, you know he’s genuine and has his friends’ best interests at heart without expecting anything in return. His jokes are rarely at anyone else’s expense, and if they are, you know they aren’t mean-spirited or with further expectation. He tempers both Ted and Barney, often remaining the moral compass of the show. Marshall’s plot involves him furthering himself, becoming who he is meant to be. While it’s possible to interpret Marshall’s place here as because he got Marriage out of the way before Ted and Barney, I think it’s because he’s the one with a settled head on his shoulders, with “Inherent Midwestern Values” and a clearer idea of what he wants for himself. Marshall also knows the other characters generally better than they know themselves, especially Ted. He knows what makes Ted tick, which is why he gives such good advice. He wants the best for his friend, knowing that it won’t threaten his own happiness.
The Nice Guy also tends to be the emotional punching bag for the show when it comes to serious matters, which is why it was Marshall’s dad who died in season six. Yes, Ted’s parents had issues, but instead of dealing with it like an adult, he endlessly whined about it – I mean, there was a reason they didn’t tell him for a long time, right? When Marshall goes through gut-punching emotional trauma, including his and Lily’s break-up and his father’s death, we feel it intensely, too.
HIMYM has actually done a really good job of making Marshall, the married father-to-be and lawyer, not boring. Though I suspect this is largely due to Jason Segel’s perfection as a comedy actor, I also think most Nice Guys are saved from the chopping block by being quality actors on comedies, as the Nice Guy in a drama starts to brood and be more of an obstacle than a person. Generally, the way Nice Guys are made interesting is by making them Quirky (again with comedies), which endears them to viewers and makes them the potential window character through which we see the ups and downs of the other characters.
Other Nice Guys on television: Troy Barnes (Community); Ben Wyatt (Parks and Rec); Sam Winchester (Supernatural); Diego Soto (Alcatraz); Monroe (Grimm); Hurley Reyes (Lost); Phil Dunphy (Modern Family); John Watson (Sherlock); Jim Halpert (The Office); Sheldon Cooper (Private Practice); Lincoln Lee (Fringe)
Then there’s Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), the Nice Guy (TM). Think about it for a second – there is very little that
Ted does in the name of friendship without expecting something in return, especially when it comes to women. When Robin was down at Christmas, Ted made her a fun light show, only to turn around a few episodes later and express his love for her. He’s the kind of guy who assumes that because he’s putting forth any effort to get a woman to fall in love with him (that’s the reason we’re watching this show, right?), she should fall all over herself to be with him. And, shockingly, it hasn’t worked out for him. He’s almost gotten several women to marry him (somehow), but made a fatal-but-typical mistake at the last minute, generally involving his annoyance that she won’t accommodate some ridiculous expectation of his (where he’s generally unwilling to make any compromise). Marshall hit it on the head when he called Ted out on doing something for Robin as “a platonic friend thing,” asking if Ted would do the same for him – it’s different with Robin, because deep down (or not so deep), Ted wants something in return.
A great example: In the season two episode “Slap Bet,” when the gang is bothering Robin about why she doesn’t want to go to the mall, he tells them all that if she doesn’t want to say, she doesn’t have to and they should just drop it. Later that night, though, he begs her to tell him. He later complains, out of her presence, that she “won’t tell [him] anything.” When she tells him the first lie, he immediately tells the rest of the gang. I think this is universally acknowledged as one of Ted’s more awful moments, but it is by no means outstanding in a line of genuinely nice behaviors. While it did give us the beauty that is Robin Sparkles, if Ted had let it go like he said he would, I would have respected him a lot more.
And the unbelievable part of all of this is that Ted is supposed to be the main character, the one we care about the most. In fact, I’d argue that most viewers care about Ted the least (enter the Ted fans out of the woodwork, I know). The whole show is centered around Ted’s journey to meet the mother of his children, but I find myself cringing any time Ted does something nice for someone else – because you know he’ll expect repayment of some kind at a later date. I don’t believe Ted was intended to be a Nice Guy (TM), but as his actions become further self-centered, that’s who he’s become.
The thing with the Nice Guy (TM) is that you know you’re supposed to like and respect him as a character, but you know that in the end, you have kind of a bad feeling about him. You know he’s the protagonist, but at the same time, if he weren’t one of the primary characters, you don’t know if you’d like him very much at all. He’s not a total jerk, and he’s very often actually a good guy, but there’s always that one nagging thought in the back of your mind that maybe, just maybe, he isn’t as good as he protests he is.
Other Nice Guys (TM) on television: Xander Harris (Buffy the Vampire Slayer); Rick Castle (Castle); Nick Burkhardt (Grimm); Jack Shepard (Lost); Pete Campbell (Mad Men); Derek Shepherd (Grey’s Anatomy); Sam Bennett (Private Practice); Pete Wilder (Private Practice); Andy Bernard (The Office)
Then, lastly, we have Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), The Anti-Nice Guy. As with all of his kind, Barney does have a secret heart of gold, but at the same time, he makes no bones about being a cad. He does nothing without expectation, often not even pretending to be a friend to get there. We know he’s insincere with everyone except The Gang, and sometimes even with them, frequently lying to them about inconsequential things (laser tag tournaments) and occasionally bigger things (being in love with Robin). The Anti must be played by someone with incredible charisma and a winning smile in order to remain lovable, which explains why Neil Patrick Harris was picked. Barney consistently double-crosses everyone in his life to his advantage, even as he develops into a “real adult.”
The important thing to remember here is that we are still meant to love the Anti, no matter how awful he is to everyone around him. The Anti is not the villain – he is still a protagonist. He may even be the protagonist, and no matter how much of a jerk he is, we’re told to still love and respect him as an Independent Man. Is this right? No, I don’t think so. It’s kind of incredibly frustrating, actually. But take a look at the list below and tell me I’m wrong.
Other Anti-Nice Guys on television: Jeff Winger (Community); Ron Swanson (Parks and Rec); Jack Donaghy (30 Rock); Alex Karev (Grey’s Anatomy); Dean Winchester (Supernatural); Sawyer (Lost); Dwight Schrute (The Office); Don Draper (Mad Men); Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)
Of course, all three of these types fan into shades of each other, blending and cutting to create a multitude of smaller tropes that better fit other characters. But I’m pretty sure all men on television are derived from these three types, if only because together they make the golden trio that spans the range of human emotion – everyone is drawn to one of these, giving the ensemble cast a fandom to stand on.
Before I end, I’d like to mention that there is a second part coming, about the types of women available on television. Though roles for women are much more limited (annoyingly), I’d be unable to live with myself if I didn’t go through them. So look for that coming to an ABPW near you soon.
Do you agree with my assessment? Anything or anyone you disagree with? If you don’t agree, where would you put these guys?