Arrested Protagonists

Pain and Gain is a movie with villain protagonists. Not like Dr. Horrible, more if a couple of the thugs from Taken had a movie about them. This creates a whole host of problems for the film. We shouldn’t like the three main characters, they’re based on real life people guilty of torture, theft, and murder who wind up in jail. The paradox is that we shouldn’t like them but we still need to be invested in the show. For better or worse (mostly worse), Pain and Gain wound up humanizing the protagonists far more than the lawful/good antagonists. Their first victim is such a jerk that you find yourself just waiting for him to be killed. Which is kinda messed up when you realize that it all really happened. In short: Pain and Gain simply couldn’t commit with the direction to take its three protagonists. Compare this to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog where they embrace the idea of a villain protagonist and run with it.


Pain and Gain has it particularly hard, given that the events happened barely twenty years ago and the inherently dark nature of it all. That said, the Austrian SS officer Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds is an example of a villain antagonist-sorta-protagonist who we embrace. Why? Because he’s charming, intelligent, and all-around devious enough that we want to see what he does, but it’s also exciting to wait for the good guys to figure out how to outsmart him. There’s a tension there that’s incredibly engrossing. Daniel, Paul, and Adrian from Pain and Gain were no Hans. Hans oozes charm and is such a magnificent human being we’re invested in him by default. Pain and Gain humanizes its characters through moments of comedy and stupidity, which yes, invests us, but it winds up being more sympathetic than the awe we have of Hans.


Arrested Development, on the other hand, shines with its unlucky, bumbling, and sometimes out-and-out dumb protagonists. It takes the show a couple episodes to really find its groove, but once it does it doesn’t stop. The Bluth family is nowhere near as magnificent as Hans Landa and they lack the villainy of the three from Pain and Gain. Rather, Arrested Development channels what can best be described as situational slapstick.


We don’t really want them to succeed all that much because watching them fail is simply so much fun. We want GOB to screw up his trick — sorry, illusion — because watching him make that huge mistake and the ensuing consequences drive the show. It’s the Bluths’ misfortune that attract us to the show, be it Buster’s inability to leave his mother or Tobias’ acting delusions. So the characters in Arrested Development are terrible people and we enjoy watching them fail. Easy?


It’s more than that, though. As much as we may enjoy watching them fail, the characters still wind up being likable. They aren’t quite so terrible that we wind up hating them. If we did, then why would we watch the show? The Bluths manage to walk that line between being terrible and likable. We don’t care much for them, but we like them well enough. It’s a paradox similar to the one that Pain and Gain tackled, but one that’s pulled off much better.The members of the Bluth family are far too flawed to ever get what they really want, but we love them all the same. This garners our investment and the show itself rewards viewer investment by setting up jokes or gags that either pop up consistently or won’t pay off for a few episodes. We don’t get dragged along watching the same thing over and over nor do we suffer the frustrating sympathy-confusion of Pain and Gain. It’s wonderful mix that makes the show so entertaining.


In less than twelve hours the fourth season of Arrested Development will finally be premiering on Netflix. It’s not quite enough time to watch the show in its entirety, but it’s something I really suggest you do.

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