Once again, for February this year, I’m counting down my favorite characters who by all rights shouldn't be favorites, and yet something about them never fails to win me over.
Click the links for Favorite Fictional Character (That I Shouldn’t Like) #4, and #5.
For those who don't know, Dharma & Greg is a sitcom revolving around the passionate but rocky marriage of an extremely New Age woman and a straight-laced lawyer born of old money.
It's a funny, clever, often heartfelt personal favorite of mine, but being a '90s sitcom, its thoughtfulness is often sacrificed in the name of the joke.
Why I shouldn't like her:
Dharma's the type of character who's very evidently written from the outside in, to her detriment. She comes into existence as the epitome of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" archetype, giving the instant illusion of being a special gem of a character, as women onscreen go, by pure virtue of not being bland and wooden.
Dharma and Greg are presented as equal co-stars of their story, maybe even with a little extra emphasis on Dharma as the breakout character with Greg as her more understated straight man, but in practice, particularly in the early years of the show, her quirky wildness is clearly tailored for the express purposed of getting the desired reaction out of Greg for the sake of his emotional development, and then attached to the surface of her with krazy glue, rather than naturally extending from any organic part of herself.
In the pilot episode, for example, Dharma sees Greg, recognizes him instantly as her soulmate, and asks him out for pie... in another state. They jump on a plane, have the best date of their lives, and end up coming back married.
It's wild! It's spontaneous! It shatters the crushing weight of the rules of what's normal and reasonable that have governed Greg's suffocating existence up to this point!
And it's a completely unrealistic habit for Greg's social opposite, his economic opposite, to have.
Dharma's a yoga instructor at a struggling New Age co-op. She lives in a dilapidated apartment converted from a battery factory, but she loves her life, her parents, her work, and her friends, cares not one bit about financial success, and finds joy in everything. Contrasted with Greg, she's supposed to be walking proof that money can't buy happiness.
She's later shown to be irresponsible and impulsive with money on occasions when it falls into her lap, but the pie excursion isn't Dharma's reaction to suddenly having a rich boyfriend; it's played as a normal, semi-regular thing for her.
And why is she best friends with a barely restrained psychopath?
We're told that things that seem normal to Dharma seem normal to her friend, Jane, as well. They have a shared cultural background and long-built rapport that Greg can't break into. Yet apart from her genuine regard for Dharma, Jane's primary character traits are all somehow related to criminal malice.
Dharma's the kind of person who cries inconsolably when Greg squishes a spider and gives impassioned peace-and-love speeches to powerless city hall paper pushers in defense of her right to put coins in other people's parking meters, but it hardly seems to bother her when Jane suggests poisoning a professional rival with antifreeze in total seriousness and with the not-so-subtle implication that she's done it before.
There's never any explanation given for what their friendship was founded on or why Dharma cuts Jane so much slack, other than someone at the writing desk wanting to give her a best friend who makes Greg as uncomfortable as possible.
That's not even to mention the inconsistencies in the subcultures Dharma supposedly belongs to. Words like “Wiccan” and “Druid” and “hippie” and “New Age” get casually tossed around with no evident understanding of what they mean or how they're not interchangeable.
The show's representation of the lives of the 1% on Greg’s side may be equally erroneous, I have no way of knowing, but as someone who spent my middle school years in a Waldorf-style homeschooling cooperative, I can pretty confidently call out Dharma's lifestyle as a careless hodgepodge of half-understood mismatched elements seasoned with plenty of plain old making shit up.
Though it does occasionally hit the nail on the head...
Dharma: You know that stuff [cold medicine] doesn't do anything. It just makes you feel better.
Greg: That's what I want!
Why I love her anyway:
As a character designed to provoke a certain reaction from an outside perspective, Dharma's pretty effective. Her hopeless optimism is infectious, and her simple ability to have fun in daily life is something I want to study, isolate, and keep a syringe full of it on my person at all times.
And for a character created from the outside-in, the in part does eventually take effect as the series progresses, with Dharma becoming more consistent and less childish, and Greg's issues being played up as more extreme and trying for her, rather than average and only trying for him.
Dharma's positivity, compassion, and energy make her an influence we should all be so lucky as to have in our lives, but she’s at her best when we get to see the cracks in her faith, including in her own upbringing, with its stifling rejection of both conflict and commitment.
During the hellish preparations for her parents' long-awaited wedding, she loses her patience and snaps at them:
"You always told me your way was better, because every day you chose to be together. But did you ever stop to consider that there was someone else in that house who woke up every morning wondering if this was the day her parents would choose not to be together?"
Even her faith in her own supposedly predestined relationship is tested. In the make-or-break argument for Dharma and Greg's marriage in the final episode, the crux of all their differences comes out in her exclamation:
"I don't think I can raise a child like that. I don't know if I can raise a child with you."
Those are the moments when she's finally, after her shaky origins, a true co-protagonist, and when I love her the most.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome! Or keep up with my fictional musings by joining me on Facebook, on Twitter, or by signing up for email updates in the panel on the right!