Friday, December 26, 2008

Today's Unscheduled Unedited TV Rant

One of my favorite television series is Newsradio--it makes me happy and I can watch the entire series repeatedly--but I swear if one more character refer to Matthew as a "sweet guy" I'm going to chuck one of my prized DVDs out the window. Matthew, the resident Weird Guy in the office, the low man on the totem pole so to speak is NOT a sweet guy. He's a fucking hyena.

In several episodes, Matthew momentarily gets the upper hand and starts to act like a complete asshole. Like when he punches Bill and suddenly gets Alpha Male Syndrome, or when Max shows up and Matthew enters a power struggle with him, or when Matthew suddenly becomes smart and condescending as hell, or any of the numerous moments when the punchline is Matthew suddenly saying something cutthroat or mean. And whenever this happens one of the other characters gets concerned that sweet but annoying Matthew is acting so unlike himself and tries to talk him down.

And the thing is, I've seen this behavior in real life. I've seen it at school, I've seen it in the military, I've seen it on the internet. For example, we had a guy in my last office office who got picked on. At first I would tell the guys to lay off him, and defend him when I thought things were overboard. Then came the day someone on shift let someone embarrassing slip and garnered the mockery of the entire office. And GUESS WHO was the one who went too far trying to cement himself as Not The Lowest Ranking In The Room. He failed because the other guy's embarrassment was fleeting, but we all got an ugly glimpse into his true nature. The process seemed to repeat itself whenever someone new became the butt of the day's joke. And almost always, due to his overdoing it, he would be the butt of the day's jokes again before the shift was over. In trying to leave the shitty social role he kept digging his way into it, because everyone quickly realized that if they didn't assert themselves over him they'd be in for ruthless teasing rather than the normal maintenance-world joking.

And the thing I started to perceive about this guy, and other guys who display the same behavior pattern is that they look at the social order like a wolf pack. The Matthews of the world figure there's a bottom and they are it, but there's a chance they can seize on someone else and not be the most put upon person in the room. And so he is very nice and deferential and self-effacing around the other members of the office because he knows they can and will kick his ass. But the second he sees the slightest bit of weakness he tries to exploit it.

And this is the sort of person that Matthew in Newsradio is patterned after. And the thing about this character type is that everyone assumes that--because they act sweet when trying to ingratiate themselves to the rest of the group--they are sweet kind people who can't cut a break. But the real nature shows through NOT when the social order offers you the least power, but when the social order offers you enough power to act out what you really want.

So characters like Matthew, created to be sweet sympathetic people? They aren't. It would be one thing, I suppose, if the guy acted sweet and deferential once he got the upper hand but Matthew (and the guy in my old office, and the guy from my old school and a thousand other "sweet guys" scattered across the internet) does not. He's an asshole just waiting for the opportunity to be an asshole. That's the punchline of at least a third of his jokes. That's why we enjoy watching the other characters push him around.

And why does seeing that the characters are fooled by Matthews sweet facade piss me off so much? Because of all the real-life Matthews who've managed to sell themselves as sweet guys, and all the fiction dedicated to selling this personality type as a sweet guy and because I just plain don't like people who put up a false front and succeed at it. Bastards.


  1. There seems to be a little hole in your theory, though: the Matthews of the world may be utter assholes when they first get some small amount of social power, sure, but as you said they don't maintain it, so you can't necessarily tell whether or not they're actually inherently assholes in the long run.

    I mean, the way you describe it, the "sweet guy", rather than being a straight-up asshole in sheep's clothing, could've been just unaware of where the acceptability line is, or maybe just let a little bit of all that pent-up resentment vent at the wrong time (or, yes, could be a genuine asshole). Or, hell, it could be just as you said: he didn't want to be the office shithole anymore, and so he becomes an asshole when he gets the chance, because clearly being nice to people isn't going to make him any friends.

    But here's something: if allowed long enough, he might realize that being an asshole to other people isn't any fun, or he might not. No way to know because he hadn't had a chance to really make that sort of choice.

  2. Frankly, I'm more worried about the Bills of the world. Possibly also the Cadburys. Damn sneaky butlers...

  3. In fiction, this plot plays out the way it does in order to enable the swift return of the status quo and because "out of character" action is funny. Admitting Matthew is really like that would cause his fellow WNYX-icans to treat him differently.

    In real life, people are often reluctant to admit they misread someone they think they know, and so will place a construction upon that person's behavior that enables the observers to continue to be right. That is, he "really is" a sweet guy, he's just having an off day.

    My point here being, the successful false front is a group effort. :)

  4. I always wonder what terrible, terrible thing Dave did that he gets punished by being left behind with Matthew...

  5. This social phenomenon has been observed as an experiment with other primates, btw. In one that I read about, low-status monkeys, given a taste of power (in the experiment it was steroid injections), will abruptly start walloping on the formerly-middle-monkeys - but carefully avoid offending/challenging the alpha monkeys in the enclosure, groveling to the biggest and most aggressive as before. IOW, common sense and survival instincts continue to operate, for most social animals.

    I've seen this in barns and pastures with other mammals, and at work - sometimes with hilariously comic effect, when the newly-arrived "middle monkey" mistook who was on what rank in the office, and treated someone with so much power that they didn't have to dress that way as a lackey - and also on forums, where someone will continue to hound and harangue other posters and call them fools *until* the moderator shows up and agrees with everyone else, at which point they start groveling *to the moderator* for their out-of-line behavior.

    Primate power worship - once you see the pattern it gets harder and harder to excuse it. (For some of us; my family does a great job at excusing constant bullying behavior as constantly abberant - so long as it's the guys doing it...)

  6. If they stopped calling him "sweet" and saw through it all and acted accordingly, it just wouldn't be as funny. And, simply, that's all that matters.

  7. I was going to add, great people with nothing wrong with them make for piss-poor comedy.

  8. Lisa, you probably liked that episode where Dave is trying to help Bill quit smoking by quitting coffee, and then Matthew says something to get on Bill and Dave's withdrawal-addled nerves and they join forces to verbally tear him a new one.