Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Suspending Disbelief - The Accuracy of TV Show Names

Hello, readers!

Many of you (my family members included) may be big fans of Law & Order - Special Victim's Unit: over 8 million viewers watch the show regularly. Me? I can't get past the first name of the main character, Olivia Benson. Her character was born in 1967, towards the low point of the name's popularity (then #512). While it's possible a baby girl born at that time would have been named Olivia, it's much more probable that she would have been a Lisa, Jennifer, or Michelle. But then again, television shows often take liberties with character names!

I suppose that if statistics were the only factor in naming television characters, we'd see a lot more Jennifer's - and every man would be named Michael. But at the same time, it can be hard to believe that an adult character has a name that wasn't common until recently.

I'll admit that Olivia is more common than Mariska, at the very least - but how well do other television shows fare when naming their main characters? Let's look at some examples!

That 70's Show - A

"What a long strange trip it's been... in Foreman's basement." This love letter to the late 1970's brought teenage Boomer culture to Gen Xers and Millennials alike. Main characters Eric Foreman, Donna Pinciotti, Steven Hyde, Jacqueline Burkhart, and Michael Kelso also have the distinction of wearing statistically probable names - all first names were in the top 100 in 1960, around the year their characters would have been born. Why no + after the A? Dear sweet Fez never has his true name revealed!

The Big Bang Theory - B

One of the highest-rated television comedies in recent years, this gem has welcomed guest stars from Neil DeGrasse Tyson to Stephen Hawking - hardly comedic masterminds. But the lovable nerdiness of its five original stars (and two subsequent additions) has kept this science-oriented show in the spotlight. First names at play include Sheldon, Howard, Leonard, Rajesh, Penny, Bernadette, and Amy.

Though their ages range a bit, the only character whose birth year is given is Howard - 1981. Going off that year, I was surprised to find that five out of seven names have similar popularity levels, ranking between #208 and #517. Though these names weren't popular, these characters have more in common than just proximity and academic interests. The two outliers are Amy, at #6, and Rajesh, off the list entirely. While I wasn't able to find name data for India (where Rajesh was born), Amy's popularity definitely lends itself to the show's accuracy.

Friends - C

A cultural touchstone of the 1990's and early 2000's, Friends rocketed six actors to stardom and still appears in writings on television criticism. The term "friend zone" first appeared in an episode of the show, and lines like "How you doin'?" and "Unagi!" are now popular references. The six characters are as follows: Chandler Bing, Phoebe Buffay, Rachel Green, Monica Geller, Ross Geller, and Joey Tribbiani.

While Joseph, Monica, and Rachel rank in the top 100 for the year 1968 - the year in which most characters were born - Ross ranks at #245, and Chandler and Phoebe don't even appear in the top 1000. While this could be due to their characters having uncommon parentage, the white, middle-class success they exhibit seems a bit unlikely. Incidentally, both Chandler and Phoebe jumped noticeably in popularity after Friends debuted in 1994, and both names are well-used today.

How I Met Your Mother - D

While the show garnered mixed reviews from fans and critics alike - especially when it aired the series finale - it was still incredibly popular during its run: between 8 and 11 million viewers tuned in every season. The antics of Barney, Lily, Marshall, Ted, and Robin have given rise to countless Internet memes, as well as memorable quotations - "Challenge accepted," "Suit up," and "Legen-wait for it-dary!"

The character names are all over the map, from popular Robin to incredibly rare Barney. Lily barely makes the top 1000, and Marshall and Ted are middling. I'm giving the show a low score, because there doesn't seem to be a trend or theme in naming - almost like the names were picked out of a (gargantuan) hat.

How do your favorite shows rank? Does a main character's name affect your enjoyment? Tell me in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Fewer things put me off a TV show, book, story, or movie faster than obviously predated naming trends! While I don't like the opposite approach of only using current Top 100 names, since that can quickly date something, there's a happy medium. Normal groups of friends tend to be a mix of trendy/popular names, steadily popular classics, and outliers. Though I tend to remember characters with standout names, like Ernestine or Felix, more than overly common/popular names, I still roll my eyes when it's clearly a name that only got hot in the current generation.

    As I've said on several posts on this topic on my blog, if you're going to use an outlier (e.g., a Liam born in 1984 or a Jennifer born in the 19th century), at least make it within the realm of plausibility, like parents who were really into traditional Cornish names. A further touch I like is when people react to this name as the outlier it is, like frequently commenting on how unusual it is, or how most people with that name are a lot older and younger. There's also a huge difference between a name that existed but wasn't very popular, like an Isabella or Jason born in 1950, and a name that either didn't exist or was only used on a certain sex in that era, like a Kayden born in 1985 or a female Ashley born in 1900.