Long-time readers of Shades of Caruso will be well aware of the concept of The Gupta, but I must admit to being concerned that new readers have come across this post and are wondering why I sound like an enormous racist. Here is the long version if you want a proper explanation, but if you don’t want to check that out, here is a short version. Spielberg’s The Terminal features a deeply unlikeable character who seems to be awful to everyone around him for no apparent logical reason. Gupta, played by Kumar Pallana from Wes Anderson’s troupe of supporting players, is a total schmuck, and every scene with him in drove Canyon and me into fits of apoplectic fury. This is not — I repeat, NOT — a comment on Kumar Pallana, who is delightful in his other roles. The problem lies with the character of Gupta, not the performer. Why writers Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson thought this odious little sprite was a good idea is beyond me, and Spielberg’s motives are similarly unclear. Is he some form of trickster demon? An experiment in audience sympathy? I am still perplexed by this.
Nevertheless, after seeing it, me and Canyon came up with the theory that every show or film features a Gupta, some character who annoys us, or has seemingly no purpose, or fails to do what they are supposed to do (i.e. be charming, coming off instead as a bit of a dick). This is never a knock on the actor, who might be perfectly fine when not playing this poorly designed character, and it’s not objective (these things never are). It is also not a racist comment, for the millionth time. If the original Gupta from The Terminal had been, say, a bespectacled nerd from the West Midlands called John who had a weird compulsion to leave large wet patches on slippery floors to make Catherine Zeta-Jones fall over, we would be talking about the John of the show. Gupta was just the character that inspired the observation, and has now been immortalised. It is more than the character deserves, to be honest.
So anyway, here are the ten new Guptas from shows seen over the period from September 2008 to September 2009. Remember, this is not a comment on the actors, though if they have in any way contributed to the Guptocity of the characters they are playing, we will have to cry foul. Sorry, potentially lovely people who have been unfortunate enough to get work playing douchebags.
10. Kimmie Keegan - Ugly Betty
The obnoxious stunt-casting of Lindsay Lohan can be forgiven. The increasingly desperate Ugly Betty needed to do something to draw attention to itself now that the glowing articles from EW and Salon have dried up, and the former interest in presenting a candy-coloured and energetic vision of a tolerant world has given way to a tiresome soap opera pastiche that lies dead on the screen like something that gets lampooned by Joel McHale on The Soup. Nevertheless, Lohan’s character — Kimmie Keegan — was a misfire from the first second. Played as a spiteful figure from Betty’s past, she was used to make our heroine feel even more insecure at work than ever, but as this season was scattershot and poorly organised, this long long set-up of Kimmie as a supervillainous foil paid off far too quickly to have any impact. Yet another waste of our time from a once-great show. Lohan’s listless and unfocused performance didn’t help either.
Worst Moment: Dissing Marc and Amanda in the Mode cafeteria. Yes, we get that her arrival has turned the office into a kind of surrogate for school, and they’re playing with those uncomfortable moments from our past, but there is no way she would turn them away. They have too much accumulated power between them. The grinding gears of the plot were deafening.
9. Emile Danko - Heroes
As I said above, the appearance of a character on the Gupta list is not a knock on the actor. Indeed, Željko Ivanek is a terrific character actor who has given numerous super performances in the past. We were lucky enough to see him at the Edwin Booth Theatre in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, opposite Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup, and he was superb. Heroes is possibly the polar opposite of an acclaimed play by an award-winning playwright. Here, Ivanek is forced to play a deadly hunter required to hunt powered individuals, operating with staggering ineptitude and making all sorts of baffling and ridiculous double-deals, all the while letting people off the hook whenever the abysmal scripts require it. There is almost certainly a way to make the character work, but when he is written in such a way as to have no coherent arc or soul, there is no way to invest in him or his goals. No, we don’t add characters to the Gupta list because we hate the actors, but we can add a character to the Gupta list if we love the actor. Seeing Ivanek in the middle of this mess was a dispiriting experience.
Worst Moment: After making a million comments about how he will show no mercy to any powered individuals, he promptly teams up with Sylar. Eventually he betrays him, just as he reflexively betrays everyone in the show at some point or another, but he still allows him to go around absorbing powers while he is his “partner”. Dear God, this series is beyond awful.
8. Lucas Douglas - House
In his first appearance in House, hired by the titular character to spy on his team and friends, Lucas Douglas is very funny and charming. He’s a bit inept, and makes numerous social faux-pas that endear him to people around him enough that they open up to him. It was an amusing take on the private detective role. And then he crops up again the following week, acting like he has known all of the characters for months and starts hanging out with House at his home. And then he turns up for a third week and he’s coming onto Cuddy, and she seems to be responding to it. That was enough for us. David Shore has said that Douglas was meant to get his own show, meaning his appearance in House was a dry run for that show, though now it appears not to be going ahead. A shame, as I would happily have watched him in his own show, which would have had a chance to grow organically with new characters and situations. Having him hang out with well-established characters like some kind of misguided Gary-Stu? Thanks, but no thanks. And he’s coming back in season six. Let’s hope they get him right this time.
Worst Moment: Seeing him hanging out at House’s apartment, jamming on a piano and chatting away with the long-time misanthrope and professional asshole, was the first inkling that something had gone wrong with the show. Has the example of Poochy taught us nothing?
7. Captain David Shepherd - Kings
Kings cannot help but be dominated by the incredible power of Ian Mc-Fucking-Shane as King Silas Benjamin, with that rich, booming voice resonating through the cavernous locations and sets like the word of God. The only actor on the show who can stand up to that is Brian Cox as Vesper Abedon, the former king of Carmel, and we sadly don’t get to see much of that. (I’m not counting Dylan Baker’s William Cross, as he is a sneaky toad who conspires against his king behind his back, meaning he rarely has to go toe-to-toe with Benjamin). So who do they get as the potential usurper, the future King David to Benjamin’s defeated King Saul? A hick soldier who gets lucky against a tank one time, looks terrified throughout, and seems to have “Crying about how horrible the world is” listed as a hobby. Christopher Egan should feel no shame for being outclassed by McShane; other than Cox, everyone on the show is, including such fine actors as Dylan Baker, Eamonn Walker, and Wes Studi. What can’t be avoided, though, is that David Shepherd, as conceived here, is a whiny loser. I don’t care how many butterflies hover around his head (this is a plot point, not a weird metaphor). He looks completely wrong sharing the screen with King Silas Benjamin. It’s like watching Milhouse Van Houten facing off against Charlton Heston as Moses.
Worst Moment: In The Sabbath Queen, a flashback shows King Silas Benjamin visiting his dying daughter in hospital. In the atrium of the building we get to see David before he becomes the soldier that destroys the Goliath tank. He is crying. Of course. Cowboy up, you wimp!
6. Martha Rodgers - Castle
Castle is a star vehicle, no doubt about it. Other than the dashing, hilarious charmster Mr. Nathan Fillion Esq., there is very little going on to make Castle appointment TV. We only watched a few episodes, waiting for a moment when Fillion would get a chance to inject some unpredictability into the show, while the supporting cast did stuff in the background. I think they were police detectives or something. We couldn’t tell the difference between them, to be honest. One of them was a woman, right? She was in The Spirit, chewing the scenery? Whatever. When Fillion was onscreen, all was right with the world, but sadly he also had to interact with his character’s mother, played by Susan “Falcon Crest” Sullivan. Hamming it up as an actress and socialite, she has little to do other than chide Castle constantly. That’s it. She’s an old show-off who moans a lot, sucking the energy out of Fillion’s scenes. There’s nothing there for Sullivan to do, and she’s never given anything funny to say. When Tracy Jordan yelled “Banter!” on 30 Rock that one time, he was expending more effort than the Castle writers did cranking out this tired repartee. Sometimes, being a Gupta is a case of just not being properly thought through.
Worst Moment: In A Death In The Family (which regrettably has nothing to do with the murder of Jason Todd), Fillion does a pretty good impression of Christopher Walken. It’s not quite as good as Kevin Spacey’s, but it’s still funny. Martha is required to point out how terrible it is, but the complaint just doesn’t fly because it is a good impression. Also, earlier in the episode, she calls Robert Picardo “Doctor Death”. It’s like she’s just trying to annoy me personally.
5. Eli Loker - Lie To Me
Lie To Me seemed, in early episodes, to be a concept with very little room for expansion. With the main characters able to detect lies, the possibilities for crime-solving seemed set in stone: watch person twitch, explain meaning of twitch, clap said twitchy person in irons. Next case. Eventually it broadened its parameters and introduced new characters to play off Dr. Cal Lightman, but in its early stages it seemed like the show would revolve around truth and dishonesty to the exclusion of all else. As an avatar to explore these themes, one Lightman Group worker — Eli Loker, played by Brendan Hines — refuses to lie, and spends much of his time saying the most outrageous things to people in the interests of maintaining this self-imposed philosophy of perpetual honesty. In the context of Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s forthcoming The Invention of Lying, I’m sure that conceit will play out in various interesting and amusing ways. Here it’s used to give Loker an opportunity to sexually harass his colleague Ria Torres by pointing out how much he wants to sleep with her all the time. Is he meant to be charming or creepy? If it’s the latter, thumbs up. Oh, and forgive my irrationality, but I hate his fucking floppy hair too. I want it to get caught in an escalator or something.
Worst Moment: After taking the moral high ground all season, in the episode Depraved Hearts he decides to rat out a businesswoman who has done a Bernie Madoff with a ton of money. This sabotages a deal with her father, leading to innocent shareholders losing out on fiscal reparations, just so he could feel better about himself. Then, when it becomes apparent he has humiliated team leader Dr. Gillian Foster, he implicates Torres. We prayed for him to get fired, but sadly he’s just demoted to intern-status and asked to give up his paycheck. Apparently he can still afford product for that shitty hair, though.
4. Stuart Radzinsky - Lost
As our heroes became trapped in a terrible decade and forced to wear unflattering jumpsuits, my love of Lost palled ever-so-slightly, mostly because I thought I knew exactly where the show was going. How much could it surprise us when we knew that there was going to be an Incident at the Swan Station building site, and a Purge instigated by Richard Alpert and hastened by Ben Linus? With the future seemingly set in stone, I thought the fifth season was just putting pieces into place, not realising we were being set up for what might be a temporal reboot in one of the most thrilling episodes of TV I have ever been lucky enough to see. Nevertheless, that frustration remained for the last seven episodes, ruining my enjoyment of my favourite show. However, that cloud had one silver lining. I knew that Stuart Radzinsky, paranoid one-note jerk, was going to die by his own hand, blowing his brains out and leaving a stain on the ceiling of the Swan Station. For the latter half of the season he alienates the audience with a seemingly never-ending stream of shrill complaints about interlopers, bitching about security at his beloved station, and then, for good measure, risking the entire planet just so he can drill into the exotic matter at the heart of the island and complete his precious experiment. In a show as carefully constructed as this, it is surprising to see the writers find nothing for Radzinsky to do other than moan and moan and moan. Good riddance to bad scientist rubbish.
Worst Moment: Taking over every group he is a part of just by bleating louder than everyone else is his modus operandi, but his behaviour at the end of season low-point He’s Our You — voting to kill Sayid and strong-arming Horace with the threat of bringing Dharma HQ into the equation — was the bottom of the barrel. I’ve met guys like this. They were assholes too.
3. Clement McDonald - Torchwood: Children of Earth
The glitchy, unhinged character who has some kind of weird insight has become an overused cliche of modern SF or fantasy TV. Was it Whedon who first introduced us to annoying stream-of-consciousness blitherings from those who have been touched by madness or revelation? If so, consider it a black mark on his otherwise spotless résumé. Even so, he still managed to do it better than most. Drusilla could be funny, and River Tam was okay, though crazy season seven Spike was relentlessly annoying. That’s a better run than Russell T. Davies, who has stolen this most irksome of writerly tics for use in his own shows. Doctor Who had all sorts of chattery psychic grandmothers or mad Daleks talking about space beyond time and dancing in the lonely places blah blah. It was supremely silly and leached all drama from their scenes. His attempts to turn Torchwood into a cross between State of Play and Quatermass were scuppered by a vast and embarrassing number of plot inconsistencies, absurd melodramatics, and shaky performances (all Torchwood trademarks), but he did himself no favours by introducing a man who can smell aliens as a vital plot device. As with Heroes and the Incredible Mister Sniff (as played by Jamie Hector from The Wire), the sight of a person snuffling as hard as they can while trying to look intense is the silliest thing an actor can do. It’s impossible to take this seriously, and to have so much of the drama of Torchwood: We’re Very Serious And Adult This Time hinge on a man who keeps punctuating his ramblings with repeated bursts of “Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” and then smelling the air around him with a look of terror on his face is a disaster waiting to happen. Paul Copley’s unfortunate performance was not the only thing that didn’t work in this noble failure, but it was the thing that made me shout “OH DO SHUT UP!” at the screen whenever his tics kicked off.
Worst Moment: As all he did was sniff and panic, there wasn’t really a single moment that stood out. Perhaps his death annoyed me the most, as it seemed added to the story only so that Captain Jack could then use that most scientific of solutions — a frequency with the things reversed or something! — to defeat the junkie snotmonsters from planet Zorb or whatever they were supposed to be. If it were up to me, he would have gone out like the young woman in Quatermass — levitating and then blowing up in a hospital. They really don’t make ‘em like they used to.
2. Topher Brink - Dollhouse
Actually, I was wrong. Whedon’s penchant for mad characters and their crazy chatter is not the only bad mark on his report card. He also created Topher Brink, who was very nearly the number one Gupta of the decade. Perhaps it’s because of the moral ambiguity running through the show, but Topher’s alignment with the ethically dubious Dollhouse makes it hard to get a bead on his character. Is he meant to be funny? Is he a surrogate for the nerds watching at home? Is he Xander gone wrong? Is he Warren gone right? Perhaps he is meant to be thoroughly, irredeemably unlikeable, which would at least explain why he is thoroughly, irredeemably unlikeable. That would give us the hope that he turned out exactly as planned and isn’t a failed attempt at something more nuanced. However, we also see Adele feeling sorry for him for not having friends. Surely this would be an impossibility anyway. The universe wouldn’t let it happen. We also see a tragic Topher of the future, broken by the realisation that his inventions have brought about the end of civilisation, not to mention the concepts of individuality and consistency of self. So what? We’re meant to think poor Topher? Fuck Topher. When it comes down to it, I can commend the Dollhouse crew for creating yet another complex and mystifying character, beautifully shaded in such a way as to generate any number of interpretations as to his true personality by the audience. Unfortunately, he’s also unwatchably smug, grating, and unfunny. How much of that is the fault of Fran Kranz’ interpretation of what Topher should be or Whedon’s initial conception of the character will remain a mystery for now.
Worst Moment: It was painful to see the cast having to goof around in the disappointing comedy episode Echoes, but having the already unfunny Topher become even more unfunny by an order of magnitude was torture. Coming after the brilliance of Whedon’s mid-season “revamp” Man on the Street, it was even more aggravating.
1. Zoe Chae - Knight Rider
One reader of Shades of Caruso recently caught up with Dollhouse and asked me, via Twitter, whether Topher was going to be the Gupta of the Year. She was amazed when I said no. The same thing happened with Canyon, who was convinced there could be no other candidate. Both of these people did not sit through almost the entire season of Knight Rider (a confession: I stuck with it until the mid-season reboot and when it was obvious the changes didn’t improve the show, I finally bailed). From the very first moment Zoe Chae appears onscreen, smiling with galactic-levels of self-satisfaction at the prospect of her team-mates being cooked to death inside a napalm-coated sentient car, I knew there would be no competition for the top spot. The point of Topher remains a mystery to me, but while I find the character insufferable, I also trust that Whedon has a plan for him, and that one day there will be some revelation or adjustment that makes him at least tolerable. Zoe, on the other hand, was always just a callous rotter and nothing more, and I can see absolutely no reason for it. It’s not entertaining or funny to see her belittling her colleagues, revelling in the thought that they are facing death, sexually harassing them or playing mindgames with them. There is zero devilish charm there. She is dedicated to making her colleague Billy as miserable as humanly possible, flirting with him until he makes an sexual overture in return before dashing his hopes with an evil smile and a flick of her hair. She’s a menace.
That, however, is not the worst thing about her. When I look deep into my soul to try to figure out why my dislike of this most reprehensible of characters is so visceral, I realise it’s because I have a sneaking suspicion that this character has a huge and passionate fanbase, which might explain why she survived the mid-season cull that removed Bruce Davison, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, and Yancey Arias. Perhaps Zoe, whose creation seems to me to be a colossal miscalculation on the part of the inept showrunners, is actually the pinnacle of cookie-cutter, focus-group created fictional beings. The thought that this nasty piece-of-work is actually widely adored and admired for her no-nonsense attitude and Chaotic-Neutral alignment is so upsetting to me that I can’t bring myself to Google her name just in case I stumble across dozens of fansites filled with accounts of how her fans have been spreading the word of Zoe throughout the land by insulting their loved ones and then grinning inanely as they weep.
I am terrified by the possibility that, somehow, the world has become so broken, so mean-spirited and narcissistic, that Zoe Chae, a woman who reacts to the imminent death of her friends with the word, “Awesome!”, is actually the poster child for a new generation of nihilistic, hedonistic, self-centred motherfuckers, and we can just kiss the concepts of civility and brotherhood goodbye as our kids sashay through life with no thought for their fellow man. Of all the characters I have selected as Show Gupta in the past, no other one has made me despair of the damage done to the human condition like Zoe. In the mind’s eye of the most paranoid Daily Mail reader is an image of a heartless youth whose emotional responses to the people around them seem utterly detached from those you would express if motivated by empathy and compassion. That is how I felt watching Knight Rider. The Awful Adventures of Zoe Chae actually managed to depress me. Topher’s annoying tics are nothing compared to that.
Worst Moment: Given a chance to go on a secret mission with Michael “Le” Knight (née Michael “Le” Traceur), Zoe spends the majority of the mission trying desperately to get into bed with him even though she knows he still holds a torch for his former lover Sarah Graiman, and that Sarah, who will doubtless be watching, feels the same way about him. She also knows Billy, the poor besotted fool, will be watching too. If she could have figured out a way to break the hearts of the rest of the Knight Industries team, I’m sure she would have done it. KIDS TODAY!!!!
Right, much as that seems like I’ve covered most bases, there will be more to come in a few days time, mopping up the last few traces of TV observation from the past year. Remember, kids: don’t play with the feelings of your loved ones. Just because Zoe Chae does it doesn’t mean it’s cool.