Panel Report: The Sociopath as a Television Trope

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

The goal of this panel was to discuss the idea of the sociopath in television. Namely, we attempted to identify characters like Gob Bluth, Sterling Archer, Eric Cartman, and others that share sociopathic traits; why the trope works the way it does; and why it appears so often in television.

To get everyone on the same page, we started with the basic traits of a sociopath: callous lack of concern for the feelings of others, persistent disregard for responsibility or social norms, inability to experience guilt or learn profound lessons, and the tendency to blame others or rationalize when forced to acknowledge one’s own questionable behavior. We noted character comparisons like Eric Cartman versus Michael Scott (for the purpose of this panel, we primarily used the US version, not the British version) to note the difference between characters unconcerned with the feelings of others and characters just a little ignorant of others’ feelings. A true sociopath, many in the audience argued, knows they have these tendencies and doesn’t care.

After defining the sociopath in television, and bearing the disclaimer that no one was trying to diagnose anyone, but just to note similarities, we started to discuss different examples from shows. Audience members brought up shows like Dexter, Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and South Park, among others. The main examples the panelist gave came from Arrested Development, Seinfeld, and Archer.

We talked about all sorts of reasons why the sociopath trope was so common in television, focusing primarily on comedy for time constraints. Within comedy, we found several: the panelists mentioned surreal humor from watching characters who are clearly socially incompetent managing themselves in high-paying positions in social jobs, vicarious living from wanting to break social norms in a society full of norms and networking, and “who you know” scenarios that force us to bond with others. Fans contributed the idea that we also fascinate ourselves with sociopaths that, through their eccentricities, get things done   Dr. House came up here. Other fans noted some shows, like South Park, where we like to see sociopaths eventually get what’s coming to them. 

Then we started to talk about characters like Homer Simpson and U.S. Michael Scott, who shared some but not all similarities with the sociopath, and whose tendencies decreased as seasons when on — habits were humanized or explained, and the characters received depth. Comparing this to older comedies like Seinfeld, we then raised the question of why they felt this was a trend now where it wasn’t before.

Panelists described the technological advances that happened since Seinfeld was on the air; back then, one panelist argued, a series was hard to watch in one sitting. You either watched it live, or on one-a-day reruns, or possibly VHS tapes with a few episodes. Television was all around more casual. But with the introduction of elements like DVDs, Netflix, and season box sets, people were able to watch shows all at once, and catch up on episodes they hadn’t seen. This newfound ability of the viewers made way for two things: 1. the ability to make longer arcs that last over several episodes, and 2. a more hastened diminishing return on comedy. After a certain point, the shows realized they could and had to develop their characters a little more, to avoid boring the audience.

Fans also speculated that we are a completely different culture than before. We do like to overanalyze things, and we’re less into casual television watching. We watch TV more in general, and exposure to great shows in the past have raised the bar of our expectations for later shows.

Overall, this panel was much more audience-driven than the rest of them, though most of our panels this con were pretty intimate with the audience. I enjoyed this, though — especially with a topic as sensitive as a disorder and a topic as wide as television, keeping opinions diverse and examples plentiful is what really makes a conversation like this strong. Thanks again, patrons. The panel wouldn’t have been the same without you.

One thought on “Panel Report: The Sociopath as a Television Trope

  1. I'm so sad I missed this one. Analyzing the gang from "It's Always Sunny"? They're ALL sociopaths!It sounds like it was a lot of fun! I look forward to more of the blog and panels if you come back next year!

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