Last week two of my favorite new television shows — Lucifer and Limitless — wrapped up their opening seasons. On paper, these shows aren’t all that connected outside of being procedurals with some sort of speculative fiction element. One of them is about the devil working as a consultant for the LAPD and solving crimes while the other is about a New York City deadbeat who can take a drug that unlocks the full potential of his mind without suffering the usual nasty side effects. However, both of these shows capitalize on a trend that (I believe) started mostly with The Mentalist and has wound its way into a myriad of other procedural shows, and that’s pairing a wacky guy who can solve crimes with a tough woman (usually some form of law enforcement) whose job is to keep him in line.
Castle might be the most famous example of this trope, but it’s appeared now in many newer shows like Rosewood, Sleepy Hollow, and Minority Report (RIP), and while this set-up is certainly better than a show that doesn’t have female characters or only portrays women as damsels/sex-objects I still think it’s getting a little long in the tooth (that’s an expression people use, right?).
For one thing, all of these women are kind of the same…
The actors bring dimension to the characters that differentiates them, and how well an actor is able to interact with her co-lead can really make or break this style of show, but on paper these “strong woman” characters are very similar.
Most of these characters have something from their past that informed their decision become a cop, and it seems like almost all of them have a missing parent, usually a figure whose disappearance is a mystery. Spoiler alert: that mystery will eventually have its own arc and likely be solved. All of these characters are also successful by the book cops or agents who end up babysitting the “weird guy” but tolerate him because he generates results. Spoiler alert: this dynamic may or may not also lead to romance at some point in time, probably sooner if the ratings are down.
I think Chloe Decker of Lucifer is one of the few that breaks the mold, namely because she has a child, and her parental issues don’t have anything to do with police work or a mystery. I’ve also written a past article about how Lucifer is a good example of the love triangle, for any writers looking to use that trope in a story, and that is also another element that doesn’t always appear in this type of show. Generally it’s more about the leads slowly coming to the realization that they love each other, and usually it takes a little bit of time before both are on the same page.
And while the women are similar, the men have the fun…
While, as I said, it is far better first story to have strong women then damsels, these stories still focus very much on the male character, as he’s the one who’s running off and having the grand adventure while the woman has to keep tabs on him. The man really gets the juicy part because he gets to play the “weird guy” who has all kinds of strange and lovable quirks, whereas the woman ends up playing more about maternal straight-man. None of the male characters in any of the shows I listed are similar on paper. Lucifer is wildly different from Rick Castle who is wildly different from Ichabod Crane. The major similarity is that each serves as vehicle to let the lead actor exude all his charm and really show what he can do. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when there aren’t very many shows that allow women to be leads in the same goofy and quirky way, it becomes a bit noticeable.
There are not very many examples of the “weird girl” being accompanied around by a “strong man”. I think Bones is the only real example of this. Wynonna Earp is close to a reversal of this trope, but I don’t think it quite fits into the mold. I’d really like to see more examples of women getting these juicier, quirkier roles in this type of show, instead of being stuck being the archetypal “strong woman”. I think it would be really fun to see a female take on roles like Lucifer, Brian Finch (from Limitless), or Rick Castle. These are the roles that really let actors do more, and I would like to see more of them going to women.
So, in my opinion, if you’re thinking of writing this type of story, whether it’s for a script or a novel, maybe consider swapping things around and giving the lead to a quirky, crazy female and having the enforcer archetype be played by mail. Or just go full Rizzoli and Isles and do a female buddy cop duo. That could be fun as well.
What are your thoughts on this trope? Are you writing something like this? Have you thought of swabbing the genders around, or are you already doing that with your work? Let me know in the comments what you’re up to and what you think about this.
Despite just writing a post calling for a change in the trope, I really do enjoy most of the shows I mentioned above, and if you haven’t seen them already, both Lucifer and Limitless are really great. I highly recommend them. Tom Ellis is delightful to watch in the role of the devil, and Limitless is one of the more creative shows I’ve seen in awhile and incorporates some great comedic elements. I know Lucifer will be back for a second season, and I’m hoping the same is true for Limitless.