In the short-lived Sorkin show Studio 60, Matt Perry advises a TV writer to axe the narrative in a cartoon short called “Peripheral Vision Man.” Narratives, Perry argues, can sometimes throw off the viewer. He suggests giving the hero a sidekick to talk through the story. This is a great concept for writers: a relationship with two inseparable characters can be the best part of the story.
Heroes find their footing by shared experiences. Give them time at the end of a quiet bar, in the front of an old clunker, on the trail of a looming mountain, or in the center of a storm. This is where adventurers form a bond. People enjoy those characters and sympathize with their journey. But risk and action are just part of the development. Some of the best partnered protagonists exhibit habits and vices, fierce emotions and eccentric obsessions. The best fictional pairs are those that identify such conditions and help one another. Below are some familiar examples of the dynamic duos that continue to entertain us with their complexity:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sherlock Holmes is an analytical machine with uncanny perception. His success is reinforced by Dr. John Watson, a practicing physician and former army surgeon. When first united in A Study in Scarlet, both men are adrift in the labyrinth of London. Holmes is a quirky bachelor whose behavior makes it difficult to find roommates, while Watson is recovering from the war in Afghanistan and searching for a home. These are not ordinary Londoners. Holmes’s deductive powers allow him to penetrate the criminal element, but he can’t solve a case without the cool and steady Dr. Watson. The detective’s late-night violin, smoking, and amateur chemistry draw some friction at Baker Street, but the problems don’t end there. Readers forget about the cocaine, which Holmes absorbs to cure the painfully still and low-data moments in his life. Watson tries to pull him out of those slumps. The humble doctor is a constant reminder of human qualities that the super sleuth may forget. (The penultimate Holmes and Watson are played by Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and splendidly revamped in the BBC series Sherlock.)
Batman and Robin. The original “Dynamic Duo” is actually quite complicated. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are an unusual American family—a billionaire and his ward—living comfortably in a mansion on the outskirts of Gotham City. Both have lost their parents and cope with those tragedies as shadowy crime fighters. Batman is often portrayed as a solitary rooftop avenger with his share of demons, but Robin serves as a counterweight for the would-be extremes of his partner. Robin keeps Batman on an even keel, which is a critical value for a guy that bruises bad guys but never crosses the line. We’ve never seen this detail in the chummier TV series with Adam West or early cartoon adaptations, but anyone familiar with the comics will remember the darker side of the Caped Crusader only lightened by the Boy Wonder. (The darker side of the vigilante is perfectly displayed in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again.)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Charismatic bank robbers are a kind of anti-hero in our culture. . . the miscreants we love to hate. Redford and Newman have the look of boyish scraps up to their ears in trouble. But the game is more fun when they ride together. Hired lawgivers chase them across a panoramic country with deadly purpose, and for the first time, Butch and Sundance see that glory is fleeting. They have to agree to survive even if that requires a literal leap of faith. It takes a couple of outlaws to show what was lost, what can be redeemed, and what it takes to find happiness.
Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Star Trek has a lot to do with the maturation of humanity. When you’re cruising through deep space, it helps to have a friend to help figure out these things. James Kirk was quick to fire phasers but could always draw upon Spock’s logical reservoir to slow him down. An empirical and dispassionate analysis from the science officer reassured the captain. Kirk reciprocated with a dose of human education for his seemingly emotionless Vulcan. They behaved like colleagues but lived like brothers, and we enjoy that comradeship during the journey.
What about the other guy? I just noticed how these dynamic duos are greatly assisted by a vital third character. Alfred Pennyworth always waited for his masters in the Bat Cave while Mrs. Hudson guarded Baker Street. Butch and Sundance were inspired by lovely Etta Place while Kirk and Spock seldom beamed anywhere without Dr. McCoy. Do you see any other examples in popular fiction? Post a reply below!