I was surprised and saddened to learn just the other day that Rene Auberjonois passed away at the end of last year. Even before the upheaval of the pandemic hit us, I think life was busy and a bit chaotic, and I just missed it.
I'd been a fan of the actor for my whole life, really - on the old sitcom ‘Benson’, Mr. Auberjonois played the cranky, cynical ‘friendly adversary’ character Clayton. Those types of characters are great; often it's the character who goes against the grain that makes a piece of fiction really work.
Of course, the actor later played another ‘outsider’ character that became iconic - he was Odo on Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Star Trek had a tradition of characters who stood outside of humanity, looking in. Of course, Spock was first, and then on Next Generation it was the android Data. The new iteration when Deep Space Nine came along was Odo, an alien of unknown origin (at first) whose natural form was a gooey liquid. He was alone, not even knowing where he came from. He had elastic and shape-shifting abilities, but was isolated living among ‘solids’.
The Outsider character might not be an essential ingredient, but they are pretty close. I think of Dr. Smith back on Lost in Space, who was the ‘villain’ of the show but the one who made it worth watching.
In OG Star Wars, Han Solo was the cynic who didn't buy in the the Force, or the heroics of Luke and company. His presence is an antidote to a trilogy that might have become too sincere and earnest. Now that we've gone through a few years of everything being some kind of ‘subversion’, top to bottom, we see that this kind of thing can go too far. But that's another article.
Back in the comedy world, I find that on rewatch, the show Friends would be much less tolerable without the outsider character Phoebe. Later, I think Joey became the ‘outsider’. While everyone else was occupied with romance and relationships and kids,and too much sweetness, Joey was the one who went against the grain and saved the show. Steve Urkel, the wacky kid next door, became the breakout star of Family Matters.
I've even noticed on some podcasts I used to listen to, it was the one person who went against the grain that made it work. Something about that tension, whether it's comedic or more serious, makes for a much more interesting experience.
Of course, I can't let a chance to mention the legendary Jughead.
Sometimes the Outsider is the Protagonist - the character and show ‘Dexter’ come to mind.
But the outsider really shines in shows or movies where they're not the clear lead of the story: Wolverine, Alex P. Keaton, Spock, Kramer. They go against the grain - I can't think of a better phrase. Through wackiness, having different priorities than everyone around them, or by rolling their eyes and mocking the proceedings…or a gruff ‘harrumph’ like the crusty changeling Odo, their presence is a welcome spice to a story or series.
A belated RiP to Rene Auberjonois
Banes at 12:00AM, Sept. 17, 2020
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