Character Bleed; or, What is Lorelai Gilmore Doing with Nate Fisher?

May 3, 2010
By | 13 Comments

[A]s much as I love her, Lauren Graham was miscast.  / After 7 yrs. as Lorelai, it was just too much. Couldn’t get past it in the pilot; swear I heard Sam Phillips’ “la la las” 🙂

In a recent Twitter exchange, Derek Kompare and I were discussing the new NBC series Parenthood, and while there were several issues we disagreed on, his ultimate argument was incredibly visceral and personal: Lauren Graham didn’t work for him as a single mom in her thirties with teenage kid(s) who’s imploring her parents for help. Or rather, it seemed that for him Lauren Graham was too much Lorelai Gilmore to fully inhabit this new role – a role not fully alike, but ultimately too close.

Among actors, character bleed usually references the way days and weeks of playing a character can be difficult to shed right away. Method acting, in particular, is often caricatured as a full immersion that extends into the actor’s real life. I want to think of character bleed not as a function of the actor but rather as a function of our reception. In other words, character bleed is the aspects of a character that we as viewers bring to the text.

In a comment discussion about Treme here in Antenna, one of the most interesting things to me was the way we all brought our different viewer expectations and contexts to the show and to a degree expected others to have similar associations. So while I might realize that my interlocutors didn’t go to school in New Orleans and thus have a different sense of the city, it was much more difficult to talk about what watching Treme against The Wire brought to the text for every one of us. It’s not just that audience reception is multiply complex but that the same intertexts can create fundamentally different responses.

Likewise, seeing Graham as Sarah Braverman evokes for both Derek and myself her role of Lorelai, but whereas I emotionally view Sarah as maybe a little snarkier and wittier than she’s written in the show, for Derek the roles crash. The bleedover breaks the illusion, or maybe it’s simply snarky thirtyish mom with teenager overload.

As a fan scholar who is interested in media fandom and fan works, I’m all too familiar with this readerly/viewerly character bleed. Fans follow actors to new shows and often the fannish characterizations are indebted to earlier roles. Sometimes this is done explicitly in truly marvelous and imaginative narratives. Supernatural’s John Winchester here can also be engaged to Grey’s Anatomy’s Izzy Stevenson, since Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays both roles. Amnesia and undercover police procedures can explain how The Professional’s Ray Doyle is indeed the same character as The Chief’s Chief Constable Alan Cade, both played by Martin Shaw. And Stargate Atlantis’s John Sheppard can have a past that includes being Murphy Brown’s much younger lover of one episode or that connect him to his FBI past in the TV movie Thoughtcrimes (all three characters played by Joe Flanigan).

But more interesting are actually the implicit and possibly unconscious bleedovers where characters get written with particular habits that may indeed be attributable to another character. If Ray Kowalski in Due South fan fiction smokes a lot, I lay that mostly at the feet of Callum Keith Rennie’s role of burnt out punk rock star in Hard Core Logo. Likewise, SG-1’s Jack O’Neill is often characterized at surprisingly adept at McGyvering his way out of situations, which may very well be the result of both roles being played by Richard Dean Anderson. The actors themselves may bleed over into their characters’ fannish representations as in the multiple present day Merlin AUs in which Merlin is written as a vegetarian, one would assume because Colin Morgan is.

Whereas these character bleeds are writ large via collective community assumptions, all of us certainly have these moments where our previous encounters with the actors and the characters they have embodied influences our affective responses. At heart then remains the question as to how much of a character is steeped in the writers, the actors, and how much we bring to it as viewers.


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13 Responses to “ Character Bleed; or, What is Lorelai Gilmore Doing with Nate Fisher? ”

  1. Lori Morimoto on May 3, 2010 at 9:51 AM

    Taking off from what you write here, we could also talk about the pleasures of such character bleed, especially where the difference between iconic and subsequent roles is stark. I’m thinking in particular of Ted Levine on _Monk_; while I sometimes got a bit of mild enjoyment out of Monk itself, I occasionally find myself tuning in just for the experience of listening to (more than watching, to be honest) Ted Levine talk. More than his body, it was his voice that distinguished his role in _Silence of the Lambs_, and for a fan of the movie there’s a real, if somewhat indefinable, pleasure in listening to that same serial killer voice perform the role of an irascible police detective.

    Producers play on this as well, some to better effect than others. The Mel Gibson/Danny Glover moment in _Maverick_ seems a bit forced, but you still laugh the first time you see it; same with the Dirk Benedict double-take in the opening credits of _The A-Team_ as he passes the (old school) Cylons on the studio lot.

    This opens up a lot of food for thought – nice work.

    • Kristina Busse on May 3, 2010 at 2:17 PM

      There are tons of great examples, and my flist came up with dozens more. Sometimes they’re purposeful allusions created by TPTB; other times they’re very individual and personal.

      And we didn’t even get into the inverse, namely same character played by different actors (I’m just saying, Richard Hatch 🙂

      And the extreme personal component, I think was what I was driving at with Lorelai…Derek couldn’t get out of Gilmore Girl mode, whereas I quite liked that added layer…

  2. Myles McNutt on May 4, 2010 at 12:52 AM

    I think I’m with you when it comes to Parenthood, Kristina: I think that my previous knowledge of Lauren Graham in a similar role gives her a certain authenticity in this sort of role, and she and Mae Whitman have made even the most predictable parts of that story feel genuine. I’d say I have more issues with Krause, in that Nate Fisher and Adam Braverman couldn’t be less alike and I much prefer the dark complexity of the former, but in the case of Graham I think the “bleed” works. Plus, I’m enjoying it as sort of a flash sideways Mother/Daughter relationship: Rory was too perfect in the early parts of Gilmore Girls and too wayward in the later years, so it’s nice to see how a character like Lorelai would have responded to more of a problem child. Throw in “Lorelai with a Son,” and you’ve got enough variations on a character type I enjoyed a whole lot in the past that I’m willing to look beyond the bleed.

    I have more trouble getting past the fact that Krause and Graham are dating – at least it’s less creepy than Dexter.

    • Kristina Busse on May 4, 2010 at 4:03 PM

      OMG, I had no idea Krause and Graham are dating 🙂

      And yes, I think it’ll create nice backward intertextuality when rewatching GG.

      And you’re not the only person who responded to m,y piece talking about Dexter. Now there’s a character backlash you don’t want to have fall back onto 6fU 😀

      I think what I was most fascinated with when I was writing this was that regardless of the interpretive community agreements I used as examples from canon/fanon, Derek’s and my reaction (and yours) showed how incredibly personal it is.

      I love reception aesthetics and like that film and TV studies has embraced audience studies much more thoroughly than language departments ever did. And yet I keep on coming back to a Five readers reading scenario, because my individual experiences are central to all reception and not generalizable…

  3. Anne Helen Petersen on May 4, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    I just finished teaching television ‘stardom’ to my undergrads, and we had a lot of discussion about differentiates a film star, TV star, TV actor, TV personality. (James Bennett’s recent work on TV’s ‘personality system’ is especially productive when thinking through the new batch of reality stars that have emerged over the last 20 years). Of course, there are old (and tired) arguments dating to the early ’80s (Langer; Ellis) about the fact that TV stars possess less ‘aura’ than the film star. But my contention is actually strongly linked to what you point out above — TV stars find it difficult to transition into film roles (and other TV roles, for that matter) because they have played a single character for such an extended period of time that his/her image is inextricable from the character that formed his/her ‘ground note.’ Graham is thus always Lorelai; Jennifer Aniston is Rachel (and has only been able to succeed in film through playing Rachel roles); the guy who plays Lester Freeman is Lester Freeman, etc. etc.

    The heavily alignment with a singular (and very popular role) can lead to that particular actor becoming a star — defined by fan knowledge of his/her extra-textual life. But at the same time, the actor is also confined to that role, and usually unable to outgrow/move on from it. (There are, of course, exceptions, but they are few and far between).

    Ultimately, this is what differentiates television stardom from film stardom — if Tom Cruise is an indelible Top Gun, he’s still only that character for one two hour chunk, and can go on to other movies (and bigger pay checks) that still recycle that image, but do so in ways that further his career. In contrast, while the TV star may receive a steady paycheck over the course of 3-10 years, his/her career is wed, perhaps forever, to that singular role.

    • Kristina Busse on May 4, 2010 at 7:17 PM

      That’s even more true of fannish roles, I think. While we love to follow actors, we do enjoy them playing similar roles (or at least similar characters). McGyver to O’Neill is not that far of a stretch. David Fisher to Dexter Morgan’s much harder!

      But then it might also be a function of ‘character’ actors versus type cast ones. De Niro pretty much’s always DeNiro for me, whereas i can watch Hannibal Lecter, Stevens (in Remains of the Day) and Nixon in turn and stay firmly within the text.

      But you’re totally right about TV actors being longterm associated with roles–for better or worse! [And now i’m trying to think of lead actors/actresses reinventing themselves for several central role runs…]

  4. Jonathan Gray on May 5, 2010 at 12:21 AM

    I struggled with this in tonight’s Lost, continually frustrated that Sayid didn’t try his hand at disposing the bomb earlier, partly because Naveen Andrews will always be Kip the bomb disposer in The English Patient to me. It created a lot more tension and angst for me, though, and made the conclusion all the more interesting.

    • Kristina Busse on May 5, 2010 at 11:01 AM

      Right. I think we really need to try to acknowledge and incorporate these things more into our reception theory. I’m still in love with your post (comment?) a while back about flipping channels and having several shows talk to one another. Likewise, commercial interruptions (or local ticker posts at the bottom of the screen…). Didn’t Josh talk about this at some point in a TV off TV post, discussing the online paratexts? Too many thoughts 🙂

  5. Christopher Cwynar on May 5, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    Very interesting post. One element of this that hasn’t come up is the extent to which producers do or do endeavor to create or cast vehicles in an effort to consciously recall an actor’s previous work. I am thinking specifically of the trajectory of Ted Danson from Cheers->Ink->Becker and Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ ‘Watching Ellie’ and the ‘The New Adventures of Old Christine’. While these series are not exactly spin-offs, there seems to be in each case an effort to summon the positive associations of the star with a successful program from the past. Certainly, fans often seem to expect these continuations, but I find it interested to think of the ways in which stars might negotiate these transparent attempts to replicate or reproduce their success in a prior context.

    With this in mind, I wonder how this affects the star’s performance, and whether or not these questions of difference and similarity draw a significant amount of attention during production and the test screening process. Were Danson and Dreyfuss more likely to play up the similarities in mannerism, delivery etc between their previous characters and their new vehicles, or is this something that they might try to avoid with varying degrees of success? This seems to a particularly common issue in the situation comedy where so many of the shows have, at least in the past, been star vehicles and the star’s comedic style is often such a drawing point.

    • Myles McNutt on May 5, 2010 at 10:32 AM

      See also: Kelsey Grammer as “Frasier Crane turned suburban father” in this season’s Hank, the season’s first canceled series.

    • Kristina Busse on May 5, 2010 at 11:24 AM

      I like the idea of thematic spin-offs or character similarity spin-offs so to speak. And, of course, I didn’t write about the purposeful casting…I’m so audience-focused that I tend to pretend there’s no writers/producers/casting agents 🙂 And clearly these are purposeful decisions! But like my interaction with Derek shows, it’s not as clear that everyone will respond the same…

  6. Lisa on May 6, 2010 at 7:07 PM

    I think “Castle” is an interesting example of this character bleed—and how it can be intentionally used. The producers of “Castle” seem to be very aware that much of the show’s popularity derives from Nathan Fillion’s popularity and the rather rabid fan base he’s built from his work with Joss Whedon. And so the show has intentionally made winks to those past roles: making a Buffy joke in an episode, having the character Rick Castle dress as a space cowboy in the Halloween episode (with a knowing comment from another character on it). This week’s episode referenced Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along-Blog. These little winks act as a reward for Fillion’s fans who follow him from project to project.

  7. […] “Character Bleed, Or, What’s Lorelei Gilmore Doing with Nate Fischer” (Kristina Busse on the ways that television characters previous roles ‘bleed’ onto their new performances.) […]