Part One: The Relative Benefits of Setting Up Rigid Character Roles
It's easy to determine the respective roles of the Buffy core four; "Primeval" does it for us. Buffy is the hands,
the warrior; Giles is the mind and intellect; Willow is the spirit, the magic; and Xander is the heart, the emotional touchstone
of the group.
By setting up these roles, the show's writers have a defining characteristic to work off when writing each individual. "Primeval"
simply made explicit what had been present for quite some time- I can't say "all along" because Willow doesn't pick up magic
until the second and third seasons, but once it began, the roles solidified fairly quickly.
The tricky part of this setup, however, is Xander's role. Being the "heart" is not at all the same as being the hands, mind,
or spirit. Xander's role is abstract, passive rather than active. Buffy fights, Giles researches, Willow casts
spells. They have verbs. Xander is the "mere mortal," the character without a special role or extraordinary characteristic.
Before Willow picked up the "magic" role, she was a researching sidekick to Giles and defined by her brain; she still had
a "verbal" role.
What difference does this make? Well, to take the most cynical, fill-in-the-blanks view of writing a scene, it provides a
baseline for each character. In a given scene, Giles will provide exposition and talk about his research. Willow will either
contribute to the research angle or mention a possible use of magic. Buffy will discuss tactics. Xander, lacking a concrete,
active role, has no baseline.
And this is where what I have chosen to call, in a not-at-all-snippy way, "Xander Harris Syndrome" comes in.
Part Two: Xander Harris Syndrome
So what does my pretentiousness mean? The sequence is something like this:
* The character lacks a defining role to use as a characterization baseline.
* Therefore, the writers use the character as a handy "catchall" to fill whatever they need in a scene.
* Because the character is written on an "as-needed" basis, it becomes difficult to maintain a consistent arc of characterization
I came up with the "catchall" theory while pondering how sometimes Xander is completely goofy and oblivious ("Bitca?") and
sometimes snippy, harsh, and evil. It occured to me that, possibly, the character was being used to fill whatever was missing
in the scene. Need someone to be funny? Use Xander. Need someone to be snippy? Well, he can do that too. Need someone
to be oblivious and play the cabbage head [read: audience stand-in] so Giles can provide exposition? We've got your Xander
Obviously, these are all necessary elements to the show. Humor to break moments of tension, snippiness to provide some internal
tension or bring the cynical-viewer-POV into it, oblivion to let the exposition get to the audience without being TOO obvious...yeah,
we need that. But when it's given to the same character every time, it makes them a trifle schizophrenic. Over time, the
inconsistency makes the character less stable than ones that come from the same place every week.
Part Three: Well, that's nice. Anyway. Connect to Angel, considering that Gunn was your original point?
The character roles are more malleable on Angel, but the same divisions can be traced, and characters still have definite
* Angel- parallels Buffy as the chosen one (champion), the warrior, the center of the group.
* Wes- parallels Giles, with research, strategy, and the connection to the greater mythos beyond the monster-of-the-week.
* Cordy- the visions make her a parallel to Willow's magic, for all intents and purposes here.
The roles obviously blur and intersect a lot on this show; Wes is also a fighter (though Giles did his share as well; it's
part of the Watcher setup) and does the actual spellcasting; Fred picks up intellect/research as well; Lorne also gets some
magic in. However, the primary divisions are still there as a fallback for characterization.
Gunn falls into the Xander parallel of the mere mortal without anything extraordinary. Cordy fills this role pre-Gunn, but
the visions change that by giving her a special power that provides her baseline. To use the cynical, fill-in-the-blank thing
again: if all else fails, have her talk about a vision. Gunn, however, gets the switch-hitter job and serves as jester, grumpypants,
and cabbagehead as needed.
Fred and Lorne also suffer from this to some degree, since Fred is Wesley's backup at research and her service as emotional
touchstone is sporadic, and, as pointed out with Xander, rather abstract. Anya also experienced the Syndrome (until the re-demonization/re-humanization
of s6/s7), but it was managed the same way Lorne's was: by reducing them to comic relief instead of working on character complexity.
Part Four: Further Gunn/Xander parallels
* Both of our regular Joes went through a period of being defined through a love triangle. The respective gender imbalances
of the two shows make this kind of funny, actually...
Xander had the Willow/Oz/Cordy thing in s3...okay, so that's actually a quadrangle, but the point is the same. Afterwards,
he was paired with Anya. There were no other male regulars left in his age range to challenge him, so the two of them were
left peaceably together for the rest of the series, except for a breakup that involved no outside party.
Gunn had the Wes/Fred thing in s3. After it ended, he was left flying solo, because there were no female characters left
to pair him with!
* The meta of it all: Both of the boys went through characterization periods that could be read as the writers projecting
onto them. "We don't know what to do with this guy- hey, let's have his story be how he doesn't know what to do with himself!"
Gunn's primary role was as a fighter, but Angel already had that core role locked up- and then came a storyline about how
he wanted to be something other than "the muscle." Xander suffered periodic "what should I do with my life?" crises, culminating
in the "I'm useless" post-"Hell's Bells" fit that transformed into the rather lovely, only-the-non-superpowered-one-could-do-it
climax of "Grave."