It’s not the magic that makes a story. It’s the ordinary guy who makes it magical.
I’ve been watching a lot of Charmed lately. No, not the stylish reboot, but the original white-girl series that helped make way for a better deal than girls had back then. My discovery of the series is thanks to a beloved student whom I’ll call TLT, who insisted that I watch at least the first three seasons. Since the show is older than she is, I thought I had better see what kept her coming back.
But here’s my shameful little secret: I’m now into Season Six.
The question, then, is what kept me coming back? I guess it was partly the much-needed replacement of hard-hearted Shannen Doherty with her surprisingly funny successor, Rose McGowan. Maybe it was partly the development of Leo, the witches’ own personal Great Gazoo who would appear inside sparkles to save their lives and sire their spawn. Maybe I just like watching those stained-glass windows shatter. What it wasn’t, though, was the magical powers or the nasally delivered rhyming couplets. It wasn’t the interminable series of failed dates with mannequin co-stars, nor the increasing density of Alyssa Milano’s makeup.
Mostly, what kept me coming back was a supporting character named Darryl.
Say it to yourself: ‘Darryl.’ Even the name almost knocks you out cold. Still, Dorian Gregory’s name in the opening credits always cued me that Inspector Darryl Morris would soon be around to keep the story grounded, and that’s because he was almost as average as I am. When Piper cast a spell while he was working, he hung his head and complained, “You cannot freeze a crime scene,” just like I would. If I found out that some Paige in my life had orbed out of a holding cell, I’d cover one eye to hold back the pulsing vein, just like Darryl did. His reactions would range from bewilderment to outrage whenever those pesky Charmed Ones brought something magical into his world… just like mine would.
Then, I realized that was Darryl’s mission statement. He was the character who could make me relate to an otherwise outrageous story. If you read almost anything speculative, you’ll meet a Darryl: dystopian fiction features characters who fight for our values, and space dramas almost always include characters from Earth. Really, any fiction that expects readers to suspend disbelief needs a character to ground them: someone to wise-crack the grizzled cop, or worry for the invincible superhero. We need a character who can help us transplant ourselves into the story, and gauge our own reactions to all that orbing and vanquishing. I doubt that Darryl is the reason TLT loved Charmed, but his griping is always in the back of my head, bringing me back.
Of course, series that go on too long don’t always get it right. Buffy’s Willow grounded us until she discovered her own Wiccan powers; Sergeant Wu was the everyman in Grimm until he busted out in monstrous ways I still can’t explain. Even Darryl still has three seasons to gain some weird power… and don’t even get me started on Sam and Dean. At the start, though, a character who would bore us in life is always part of the structure—dare I say the ‘formula’—of most successful fantasies.
That can’t always be the protagonist. Sometimes we just need a Darryl.