One of the most sophisticated American TV shows of recent years was, oddly enough, a basic cable Saturday morning cartoon, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which I belated discovered in the last few years. The ensemble eventually expanded to four and then five, but let’s limit ourselves to the three core members: The young master of the elements, Aang, and the bother-sister team who help him find his destiny, Sokka and Katara.
When I tried to divide this cast into head, heart and gut, I realized that they were neither 1-dimensional nor 3-dimensional, but rather 2-dimensional:
- Aang is usually either Heart or Gut, but almost never Head
- Sokka is usually either Head or Gut, but almost never Heart
- Katara is usually either Head or Heart, but almost never Gut
The show had some of the benefits of a classically polarized ensemble, such as heightened conflict and philosophical meaning, but it also allowed the characters to be more complex, to shift positions dynamically as situations escalated, and to grow and change over time. If you can pull it off, this is perhaps the best of all possible worlds.
Now let’s look at another 3-season cult favorite with an even more complex polarization: Dan Harmon’s late, lamented “Community” (soon to be replaced with an apocryphal non-Harmon version, but let’s not speak of that).
In the beginning, disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger was on an open-hearted quest to become a better person. To help himself, he formed a seven-person study group, with three partially polarized characters and three classically polarized head-heart-gut characters. (Incidentally, the show’s biggest flaw was that the fully-polarized characters, Britta, Shirley and Pierce, tended to be too shrill, exemplifying only the negative aspects of head, heart and gut.)
The neat thing is that both versions of the show worked. Fans were disappointed in Jeff for his failure to change, but it was certainly a believable failure and well acted by Joel McHale. Meanwhile, that disappointment was more than made up for the happiness we felt at the growth of Abed.