A few months ago, I was watching A Show Which Will Remain Nameless when two characters who had absolutely zero chemistry together started flirting with each other for no reason I could fathom. I believe my exact words at the time were, ‘WHAT?!’ The scene was so bad, it set off a chain reaction: I couldn’t help noticing how arbitrary all the characters’ actions seemed to be. There was nothing consistent about their underlying wants, needs or beliefs. They shifted episode to episode. In fact, the only thing consistent about them was the actor who showed up to play them.
This got me thinking, and led to what I called at the time The Good Character Test. This was a terrible name for anything but I wasn’t planning on sharing it with anyone at the time. It went like this:
If a show was completely recast, could the audience still figure out who everyone was?
I liked this test. It worked. I knew that if they decided to recast A Show Which Will Remain Nameless, no one would have the slightest clue what was going on. The actors would have to wear name badges all season. They’d have to walk into scenes saying things like, “Hello there, Chief of Police whose wife is my sister and with whom I have a strained relationship as documented in this portfolio of backstory I am handing you.” And when I thought about shows I was enjoying, they passed with flying colours.
The Good Character Test could be applied to different media, too. Of a novel, you might ask: if all the characters were given new names, could the reader figure out who everyone was by the end of the chapter?
But there were two problems with The Good Character Test. First, the name sucked. Second, I knew that it was just a thought experiment, stuck in hypothetical limbo. Shows seldom recast any of their actors, let alone the entire cast.
But then The Good Place happened.
(Note: I’m going to keep spoilers on a leash, here. That’s a NO SIGNIFICANT PLOT POINTS MENTIONED OR YOUR MONEY BACK GUARANTEE!)
As anyone who has watched even just the first episode of the show can tell you, the universe of The Good Place is prone to glitches. Flocks of shrimp occasionally soar through the sky. Feelings of guilt will occasionally manifest as neighbourhood-destroying sinkholes.
In the most recent episode, Janet(s) one particular glitch resulted in something I’ve never seen in television before. Almost every character was temporarily turned into a Janet, which meant almost every character in every scene was played by a single actor: D’Arcy Carden.
They saw my Good Character Test and raised me a Janet.
AND THEY PULLED IT OFF! The episode was easy to follow, and there even came a point where I forgot about the gimmick entirely and just went with the action. Admittedly, this was due in part to the decision to dress each Janet in character-specific outfits, but a) I’d argue that they didn’t have to and b) the fact that each character has such a recognisable wardrobe perfectly congruous with their character is further evidence of how well these characters are designed.
Not only did the episode pass The Good Character Test, it surpassed it. So, if you really want to test the distinctiveness of your characters, you need to run them through The Janet Test
The Janet Test:
If every character in a scene was played by D’Arcy Carden, could the audience still figure out who everyone was?
The Good Place certainly passes The Janet Test. But how? Well, this may not be an exhaustive list, but here are a couple of factors that occurred to me.
Diction: Word choices and phrases typically used by each character.
Character role: The role the character plays within the story. Who is the protagonist? The villain? The mentor? The comic relief?
Relationships: How the characters relate to one another. What is the basis of their relationship? Are they colleagues? Friends? Family? Rivals? Lovers?
Dialogue delivery: This could encompass things as broad as accents, but also includes things like intonation. (Hooo-ly MOther FORKing SHIRTballs!)
Body language: The way characters express attitudes and feelings through posture and movement.
Let’s see how this all looks in motion by examining one of D’Arcy Carden’s performances in detail.
How Eleanor Shellstrop passed The Janet Test
Eleanor is the primary protagonist of The Good Place. She is rude, selfish, lazy and horny, all hallmarks of the typically-male ‘douchebag’ character, except in the body of a petite blond woman. As her surname suggests, she is stroppy, and her toxic behaviour is a protective ‘shell’ she uses to distance herself from other people, a defence mechanism developed to protect herself from the emotional abuse inflicted on her by her neglectful parents. Premise of the show: can Eleanor redeem herself and earn a spot in ‘The Good Place’?
Diction: Eleanor talks like ‘one of the guys’. This is reflected in her word choices. She often finishes sentences with “man” or “dude.” Things “suck.” When reprimanded she says, “Jeeez!” and icky things make her want to “barf.” In a room full of Janets, Eleanor is the one who sounds like a Ninja Turtle.
Character role: Eleanor is the protagonist. While the characters of The Good Place are three-dimensional and have their own desires, it is usually Eleanor’s that drive the narrative forward. In a room full of Janets, Eleanor is probably the one driving the story.
Relationships: Characters in The Good Place often relate to each other in multiple ways. We can ‘triangulate’ a character by looking for intersections in their relationships with others. For example, when it comes to academic philosophy, Chidi is the teacher and Eleanor is his student, but they are also each other’s love interests and allies in their quest for redemption in the after-life. In a room full of Janets, Eleanor is the one falling in love with the philosophy professor.
Dialogue delivery: Eleanor speaks very casually in what, to my untrained Londoner’s ear, sounds like a fairly typical American accent. This is in contrast to, say, Jason’s inebriated eight-year-old schtick, or Tahani’s haughty British accent. Being a generally selfish individual, Eleanor speaks with unchecked confidence. She is loud and assertive. In a room full of Janets, Eleanor is the brash one.
Body language: Eleanor’s body language subverts feminine stereotypes. This is another way in which Eleanor is ‘one of the guys.’ In one scene, Eleanor, Jason and Tahani are sat at classroom tables. While Tahani sits with her legs together, her back straight and her head held high, Eleanor and Jason sit with a more relaxed posture, their legs spread beneath the table. Eleanor’s ‘unladylike’ manner is also the source of a gag later in the episode, when Jason tries to impersonate her. He waves daintily, exposing D’Arcy Carden’s midriff, jiggling her breasts and emphasising her silhouette. When he adds a high-pitched voice to the mix, the jig is up. “That’s not what I sound like, Jason,” Eleanor says. Since the premise of the show revolves around people judging her, Eleanor spends a lot of time defensively crossing her arms. In a room full of Janets, Eleanor is one sitting comfortably with her arms crossed.
So, those are just some of the ways in which Eleanor Shellstrop stands out from the crowd. What is impressive is that every character on The Good Place stands out from the crowd.
I don’t think The Janet Test is the be-all and end-all. Not every scene would be improved by characters spouting catchphrases and modelling a signature posture. But failing The Janet Test is a serious red flag. If you can’t get away with D’Arcy Carden playing every character in a scene then you need to have a very good reason why. After all, what’s the point in the scene at all if the character’s needs aren’t being addressed?