Sidekicks are second bananas no more

Times Television Critic

It’s not often that box office-numbers send such a clear message to the electorate. But last week’s top movies -- “Baby Mama” and “Harold and Kumar 2: Escape from Guantanamo Bay” -- make two things perfectly clear: Americans are desperate for a good laugh, and we’d better be very careful about who’s running for vice president this year because sidekicks now officially rule the world.

Certainly they rule Hollywood, which has been lamenting the death of the traditional leading lady, the romantic comedy, the adult drama and the good-old-fashioned megastar for years now. (There is even heretical talk in some quarters that George Clooney can’t open a movie!) “Harold and Kumar” and “Baby Mama” both follow the exploits of characters who, as recently as five years ago, would have been the scene-stealing best friends of the swoony and traditional lead. When the first “Harold and Kumar” (“Go to White Castle”) came out, it was considered a fluke -- how could two bumbling characters played by unknowns carry a successful movie? Now, of course, Seth Rogen is a Big Movie Star (take a moment and let that just sit with you a while. Really, take your time.)

But “fluke” or even “quirky new genre” is no longer an accurate description because the girls have gotten in the game. What was “Juno” if not the story of a snarky sidekick? If we needed to be hit in the head with an anvil, she even had a pretty best friend. (The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad.) And you can’t buy a pack of gum without being informed by some media platform bellowing about Tina Fey and her white-hot career.

What no one seems to mention is that she is just the final piece of a nefarious plot begun years ago by folks like Vince Vaughn, Steve Carell and Owen Wilson -- the Revenge of the Second Banana.

Fey is by her own admission a far cry from the traditional leading lady. She has a lovely smile, but it does not split her face into equal beaming quadrants or drop a roomful of Regal Crown Club members to their knees. She will probably never don an empire-waste gown and go toe to toe with various Dames. People have compared her role as Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” to Mary Richards, but really it’s much closer to Rhoda Morgenstern. Which is great. Rhoda always had the best lines, and the audience loved her for her terrible love life and weight issues (not to mention all those head scarves).

Now, of course, Fey is a movie star. But in “Baby Mama” she remains, essentially, the wacky best friend, although now she has an even wackier best friend herself, played by Amy Poehler.

Still, it’s as if the Carrie Fisher character from “When Harry Met Sally” got to be in her own movie -- and isn’t that a relief? Because sidekicks are always everyone’s favorite characters, with their less than perfect hair, attitude issues and snappy rejoinders. In “Baby Mama,” there is transformation, of course, but Fey’s character remains just as neurotic and twitchy as when she started. No one is going to confuse her with Julia Roberts.

Which is only fair since the guys have been dispensing with traditional A-list roles for years. What was “The Wedding Crashers” but two sidekicks divvying up the lead? Vaughn has a tendency to steal any scene he’s in -- for all the sexual mayhem of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the best scenes were still the ones with Vaughn’s slacker assassin rattling advice to the more glamorous and traditional Brad Pitt. Ten years ago, Carell’s 40-year-old virgin would have been a wacky friend, a side plot while the real lead pursued someone more along the ingénue lines of Meg Ryan or even Andie MacDowell. Now he’s a big star, though part of a wacky entourage, hooking up with Catherine Keener and Juliette Binoche.

Judd Apatow has built a career on sidekicks as leading men, bypassing the meat and vegetables of the traditional romantic comedy and going straight to the carbs, which in Apatow’s case seems to consist mainly of Cheetos -- the slacker dude with the wacky vocabulary and the skewed worldview. “Knocked Up” was nothing less than a declaration of war, with the sidekick flag planted firmly in traditional lead territory. As in the “Harold and Kumar” series, a traditional leading man is not only unnecessary in an Apatow film, it’s against the rules.

It’s as if the narrative proletariat, the character actors, the funny guys and now gals who have so often provided all the best scenes in film without getting any of the awards or big paychecks, have risen as one and demanded above-the-line treatment. Even Patrick Dempsey, who doesn’t have a sidekick bone in his body, has to play a wacky best friend -- a bridesmaid! -- to grab a leading role these days.

Television is a safer haven for traditional leads, but the sidekick mentality is making definite inroads, whether through the geek humor of “The Big Bang Theory” or “Miss Guided” or the fractured leads of “Saving Grace” and “Ugly Betty.” Hard-drinking and unattractive were once key words for “sidekick,” especially when it came to women.

What does it mean that we seem to be rejecting the broad strokes of traditional narratives (except for action pictures, of course) and going for the messier, more crosshatched background, stories and characters that are, rather than larger than life, almost smaller? Or at least more narrowly focused.

The role of the sidekick is to keep the lead grounded, provide comic relief and, if they’re lucky, find a little happiness, if not as grand and sweeping as that of the lead’s. (In “When Harry Met Sally,” Carrie Fisher’s Marie and Bruno Kirby’s Jess got married, which made everything much more satisfying than when poor old Rosie O’Donnell’s Becky just got left with her less-than-happening love life in “Sleepless in Seattle.”) But now we don’t seemed satisfied with letting the little guy, or gal, get less than the real goods.

Let’s face it: Most of us identify more with the sidekicks than the leads anyway; that’s what makes them so vital to a film or series. We need to feel part of the action, and most of us don’t look that good in black pants.

With the media becoming more porous in general, how surprising is it that the second banana is having its day? Viewers choose the next “American Idol,” not the critics. You don’t have to be a journalist to have an impact on social commentary anymore. The personal is replacing the archetype on almost every level; in the blogosphere everyone’s a columnist, a critic, a screenwriter, and now an above-the-title lead.

We are the sidekicks, and this is Sidekick Nation.