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.

Coming of Age With South Park

The most recent season of South Park has presented a strange pattern: many episodes seem to be addressing the theme of coming of age. And while previous seasons and choice episodes have touched upon this, this season so far has had a respectable focus, especially with the episodes “Royal Pudding,” “T.M.I.” “City Sushi,” “1%,” and, of course, the two-parter “You’re Getting Old” and “Ass Burgers.” Of course, what makes this particularly strange is not only that it comes from South Park, a show known more for toilet humor than catharsis — but also that it comes from a cartoon that is episodic and inconsequential in nature.

Despite these titles seemingly implying vulgar or childish names, these episodes entail serious, maturity-related subject matter. Butters Skotch, for example, learns to take responsibility for his personas’ actions after being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder in “City Sushi.” In “T.M.I.,” all the boys are forced to come to terms with the limits of their own bodies when the school inadvertently reveals the boys’ penis sizes. In “Royal Pudding,” Kyle’s toddler brother Ike must heed the call of his destiny as a Canadian, called in a state of crisis to defend his culture’s princess.

In “You’re Getting Old” and “Ass Burgers,” Stan is diagnosed with cynicism, which, in the South Park world, is a near-terminal disease in which the victim is caught between growing up and staying the same. The doctor explains that as a kid, one believes certain things are terrible and others are great, while as an adult one believes certain things are great and others are terrible — but as a cynic, the victim is caught between these two growing up processes and hopelessly thinks everything is terrible. Stan becomes alienated from his friends, unable to cope with being the only one who sees the mediocrity and trite qualities of his peers’ music and movie tastes. “There’s no known cure,” Stan’s doctor tells him. “Everything just seems shitty and everyone just starts to seem shitty.”

In “Ass Burgers,” Stan finally begins to accept the growing up process, and works towards being happy again through embracing change and accepting what won’t ever be the same. “Maybe it won’t be like before, but at least it will all be like new,” Stan says. “And that’s what’s gonna make it so that I can keep going. For the first time in a long time, I’m really excited.”

However, this doesn’t seem to last, as the changes that plagued Stan in “You’re Getting Old” are all instantly resolved in the final few minutes of “Ass Burgers;” his parents get back together, his friends start to invite him to things again, and his ear for childish radio returns to its original form. “People get older, Stanley,” Stan’s mother tells him. “And as you get older, you realize the best thing to do is stick with what you know.”
But what makes this episode so monumental is the fact that, unlike normal sitcoms and episodic television shows, when things inevitably return to the status quo, the viewer is left unsatisfied and frustrated. Stan returns to his old life, but right before he leaves with his friends he drinks Jameson in private, implying the only way he could go on tolerating his old life and cynicism was through alcoholism. It is very normal for a television show like this to fix everything magically in the last few minutes; however, this is one of the rare times where a show subverts the technique a bit, causing frustration and regret where there would otherwise be relief. The viewer stays on Stan’s side, wishing he had gotten the opportunity for change he had finally embraced. Given the right personal experience and memories, the audience even sympathizes with Stan’s slow process of overcoming his fear of change (and even wanting it), only to be forced to stay the same a little longer. Most of us have been there.

One of the more recent episodes, “1%,” parodies the Occupy events and forms them into a murder mystery about the deaths of Eric Cartman’s stuffed dolls. But, it is revealed in the end that Cartman, tired of being told to grow up, decided to kill off his dolls himself. These dolls have been prevalent in several seasons beforehand (in particular Clyde Frog, Cartman’s favorite toy), making it quite eventful that these “secondary characters” would be killed off.

In all of these episodes, the same elements occur: the need to grow up becomes inevitable, and while the new changes aren’t pleasant for the protagonist of the given episode, the audience is convinced that the change is right, either by accepting the character’s fate or resisting its reversal.

But due to the show’s episodic nature, it’s hard to tell if the effects of the previous episode resonate beyond the credits screen. Does Stan still face trying to overcome cynicism? Does Eric still try to overcome his childish ways? In many ways, the show returns to its status quo, and the topics aren’t directly brought up again — part of which can be shrugged off to the notion that boys will be boys, part of which can be shrugged off to the show’s format. Time doesn’t pass as quickly as in real life; the boys remain in fourth grade despite fifteen seasons (though, to the show’s credit, they did finally finish third grade).
But some subtle points hint that events have lasting effects. In “A History Channel Thanksgiving,” Stan is the first to say that the 1/16th Cherokee was not actually one — after the pilgrim proves the man was lying, Stan is the first to comment with “I didn’t think so.” And in the most recent episode, “The Poor Kid,” Eric even has a moment where he sympathizes with Kenny after the tables are turned on their economic situations. However, these moments are spread few and far between with the usual comedy.
In some ways, though, this makes the aging moments more powerful; we see a dramatic difference between those moments and the usual ones because of how much they stand out — not only because of the nature of the humor, but because the moments where a character develops are sparse in a show where time hardly moves.

Much like their topical and recent subject matter with most episodes (“1%,” for example), the coming-of-age emotions and catharsis reach a strong effect when juxtaposed with both the delivery of such lines by small children and the delivery of such lines from a childish and relatively grotesque show. Having these themes snuck into the background amplifies them as the audience repeatedly gets caught off guard as the serious tones set in. To

this, South Park is almost a prime candidate for serious moments, despite its usual reputation.