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The Harold Problem (and Vanillagate)

Introduction

I know what everybody's thinking. "Harold? Really? What more is there even to say about him?" Look, I know that Harold's such an obvious choice, and it's not like I'm really countering anybody's opinion of the character (merely reinforcing the fact that he's a complete mess), but he is seriously the worst written character since Season 1. The least I can do is drive the final nail in the coffin by defining that argument to the best of my ability.

In short, Harold's simply a cruel and aimless character, and those two ideas don't mix. If a character is destined to be mean-spirited, we have to see some reason that at least affirms that behavior within him (if not the audience), but instead, he's bad for the sake of being bad, and because of that, there's simply nothing enjoyable about anything he does. With that, let's transition very casually to his lowest point thus far.

The Actual Start of the Article

"The Cycle" was already a wobbly balancing act in and of itself, with the only marginal saving grace in terms of character development being Richard and how he resolves the issue as audience surrogate catharsis, which is a terrible fallback. I get how important it is that characters have a sympathetic edge, but the fact that we feel sympathy towards every character save the man of the hour only makes him more frustrating. 
CYCLE31

What an upstanding Samaritan we've got on our hands.

It's not like Harold was particularly exaggerated in his tormenting Richard either, so the ultimate comeuppance, while sweet, feels off. The explosion is an exaggerated response that would be better justified if Harold actually acted cartoonishly himself, but instead, it's all uninspired. People have put up the same argument about Gumball in episodes like "The Dream," but even then, he's acting out in an uninhibited way that reaches towards the extremes. Here, Harold's acts of misdemeanor aren't even remotely comical, instead being wholly sadistic. Thus, the fact that the resolution is almost an overreaction (however grating Harold is, he never does anything that goes beyond being prickish, and while he goes insane in the finishing minutes, he never raises intensity on the Wattersons) makes the ending, in its attempt to appease us from the ordeal of watching the episode, feel terribly disjointed instead of triumphant and warranted. It's fine for him to be antagonistic (a character trait that few characters on the show have), but there's nothing unique about the character to let him stick the landing.

Perhaps the worst thing about the character is that the show's been trying to figure him out for five seasons and the end result was some of the flat-out worst characterization on the entire show. We've been through a lot, we've seen what's worked and what hasn't, and we've seen the peaks and valleys, but after almost six years, what we got, to quote the great raconteur Olan Rogers, was a massive douchecanoe. Not just a douche, mind you: a canoe of 'em. And that's a real phrase.

S02E33HaroldpokingGumball

Harold lost his ability to be touching... is a terrible joke that I'm going to pretend never happened.

It's also worth noting that his finalized form as presented in "The Cycle" wasn't his first characterization, and though it's the sharpest in its conception, it's also the worst. His first notable appearance, in "The Castle," found Harold to be submissive to his wife and a kind of pitiful figure, taking solace in the Watterson's house to be able to express his true self. After that, he had a major appearance in "The Bus," this time working alongside Richard and other parents in 'hijacking' a bus to teach Gumball and his peers a lesson. Oddly enough, both forms have absolutely no connection to what the show turned him into, and while such appearances were certainly lacking, there was at least something somewhat appreciable about the character: he had some moral backbone and fragility. (Sure, he gets rowdy in "The Castle," but that's only because he was free of his wife's inhibitions and couldn't contain himself.) That doesn't exist in "The Cycle," instead casting him as a jerk with an overinflated ego and nothing further.

There's only one instance where the character actually worked by virtue of his design, and that's "The Choices," where he does a short flash-forward with Nicole showing his coldness to his hypothetical bride, ultimately causing her to snap and turn to arson. I think the big question is why he works perfectly in "The Choices" but not even remotely in "The Cycle," but it's a question with an easy answer: his personality is one-note. The former episode only relies on him to deliver an incisive aside.  Harold's simply not built to support a full eleven minutes without him becoming instantly tiresome. Further, the show's inability to really give him any tweaks to his personality as to accommodate to his increased burden means that there's nothing we get out of watching the episode that hadn't already been perfectly represented in a much shorter span of time. 

CYCLE15

Some things never change.

Alright, with that being said, how could you add backbone to the character? Well, for starters, one thing that "The Cycle" was in dire need of was some backstory for Harold. Sure, it presents us with a little vignette of his high school years, but it only shows more sadism and no explanation to really justify it. If Tobias were to, say, serve the same purpose as Masami in detailing how the issue took root as in "The Fury" (a bit that definitely helped smooth over some of the admittedly shaky characterization of Yuki), we would at least be able to see the character from a different light, something Harold desperately needed. Such a moment seems highly superfluous to the bigger picture, but it helps build complexity and would give the character clear motivation. 

Beyond that missed opportunity, though, there's no say in how Harold will endure in the future, so we'll just have to wait anad see how he holds up.

Vanillagate

Spoiler Theater

Not vanilla, but close enough.

Alright, so I've been called out a bit for, in my last post, describing Gumball as "vanilla," so let me clarify a little.

I get that the word has a bit of a negative connotation to it, but when I'm saying that Gumball is vanilla, I don't mean it as necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it's incredibly important that he is what he is. For the show to be able to trot out as many different scenarios as it does, it's vital that Gumball doesn't weigh them down with an overarching personality (as in Season 2, where he was consistently unexcited to do virtually everything). Instead, the show accentuates varying facets of his personality when certain episodes call for it to make them all feel unique and work as well as they do.

When I'm saying that he's a vanilla character, my objective was not to conjure an image of a soulless character that is completely re-written for every appearance. It's simply that the episodes work more to shape his characteristics than his characteristics shape the episodes. He's a character that is tailored to the show's fleeting necessities, whether that means he's assertive, merciful, or painfully awkward.

Likewise, I don't really think of it as a fault of the character in the same way that I can pigeonhole characters like Harold or Bobert. He's the complete opposite: a character with a necessary versatility that lets the show constantly feel fresh through whatever approach it takes. The more complex a main character is, the more samey everything becomes, and by now, it's almost imperative across all media that the leading character is the most collected.

Gumball Season 3 Episode 57A Still

That Monday feeling.

Working with a tightly-written main character with crystal-clear attributes is insanely difficult, and unless you're a pro, nearly impossible to sustain for this long. The show's not being lazy by avoiding that intense specificity - it's being smart. It seeks to disarm those limitations by giving us a malleable lead, and in doing so, the show is able to take more routes and explore its other characters more and how they play off of one another. To paraphrase Taliats, with whom I had some thoughtful back-and-forth, it's a show built on character interactions, and not every character has to be deep as to detract from that. Gumball is that kind of character, and regardless of if you think he's actually complex or not, he exists to interact with others.

Anyway, to wrap up this mini-series and get back to the good stuff, we'll be taking a bit of an odd route and continuing down the Wilson family with Rachel, and I know what you're thinking, but with so many still demanding her improbable return, I might as well address it.

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