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.

Has Nobody In This Family Ever Seen a Chicken: The worlds of Mallory Archer and Lucille Bluth

Jessica Walters has made a niche for herself in the last few years playing borderline psychotic mothers on two shows in particular: the cult classic Arrested Development as Lucille Bluth, and Mallory Archer on ArcherAt first glance, these two may not seem related, but at a closer look the head of ISIS and the matriarch of the Bluth family are incredibly similar, and not just for their shared love of furs, martinis, and secret relationships.

Both Mallory and Lucille are manipulative woman who use their sons, for their own gain in both their personal and business lives  at a great disservice to both of their sons.
Mallory Archer is the head of the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), where her son, Sterling, is considered the ‘best agent’, despite his penchant for using his job for luxury and women (Sterling can be described as a corrupt James Bond). He relies on his mother for his job, but Mallory and Sterling lead mostly separate lives despite how intertwined they are for ISIS. He is able to lead a life mostly free from guilt about his mother  unlike Michael Bluth. Michael, as the lone ‘sane’ member of the corrupt Bluth family who’s patriarch has been arrested for defrauding investors, feels an immense need to keep his family together, fueled by Lucille’s meddling and her constant providing of guilt.
Both sons act differently, but the end result is the same  the mother domineers and the son ultimately (whether or not they want to) kowtows. For Michael, it’s a compulsion to put ‘family first’, while for Archer, the motives are less noble  his mother is his boss, and he wants to keep his job. 
While Mallory and Lucille are similar, Sterling and Michael are worlds apart; Sterling is constantly out for his own gain despite the feelings of others, while Michael regularly sacrifices for his son and family. One could say Sterling is a product of Mallory’s negligent upbringing  it is frequently referenced how Mallory wasn’t there for Sterling throughout his childhood, and her dismissive coldness is still evident even as Sterling is grown. Lucille, however, plays the part of dependence to garner sympathy from her son despite  her apparent independence. We do see her falter at points, though, when she realizes that she needs Michael to be there for the good of the family. Mallory has moments when she falters as well  she understands ISIS needs Sterling. Sterling, in the same way, needs ISIS to maintain his lifestyle that he so loves  without ISIS, Sterling can’t fly around the world in a private jet, seduce swedish models, or wear five-thousand dollar suits.
Are these woman secretly noble, unable to show love for their sons but ultimately realizing the love and need they have for them, or are they cold and calculating, looking out for no one’s good but their own, using their sons? 
At the end of the day, the relationships are balanced between love and need, although neither son can quite figure out why they feel an allegiance for their mother. For both, there is a dependence that they cant quite shake  whether for a job, or because of familial guilt. Both Mallory and Lucille are unlikeable but their sons have a loyalty to them that has a basis in guilt and a staying power because of how dependent Michael and Sterling are on them. The fact that this is a theme in both shows  and in many other shows  plays on a common sympathy that we all have. The loyalty to mothers, despite their shortcomings, is a theme that goes back hundreds of years in literature and film. Everyone’s family is a little crazy; we all have someone who we don’t like who we deal with out of guilt, or because we are inexplicably dependent on.