In Praise of Garret Dillahunt, and the Difficulty of Creating Good Characters Who Aren’t Very Smart

I’m somewhat anxious about the turn that Raising Hope has taken this season into incredibly broad humor, but this article and watching Deadwood made me think about how much I like Garret Dillahunt. He’s a wide-ranging actor, but he’s also very good at doing something pretty difficult: making sympathetic characters who aren’t very smart.

Maureen, the Bunny who is supposed to be our entre into The Playboy Club in the show of the same name, is hard to sympathize with not because she’s bought into a false idea of liberation (though, the whole my-long-lost-dad-will-see-me-on-the-cover-of-Playboy-and-get-in-touch thing is pretty false), but because she’s really, really dumb. She leaves her blood-stained Bunny uniform poorly concealed under her bed in a Playboy-owned dorm. She keeps the key to the club owned by the man she killed in self-defense. She doesn’t seem to understand that hanging out in her underwear with a man one of her coworkers is dating might not be interpreted as a good-faith attempt not to flirt with the dude. All of her problems are self-created. And the plot doesn’t exist and move forward without Maureen making transparently dreadful decisions. That’s a recipe for disaster and perpetual infuriation.

But Dillahunt is kind of a genius at portraying characters who are, well, not that, but who don’t seem repellently stupid. Jack McCall is an obnoxious, thin-skinned sot, but in Deadwood, you can sort of see why Wild Bill Hickock needles him so much. Hickock has everything, but he’s not happy about it, and he’s not blowing it gleefully: he’s bitter, and obnoxious. McCall has nothing but the power to mess with Hickock, not even the power to resist doing it.

Similarly, Burt Chance isn’t particularly bright. He gets overly attached to lobsters and thinks his son is a musical genius when he’s drunk and gets deeply anxious over the prospect of a vasectomy. But these things aren’t patently illogical or detrimental. In fact, Dillahunt does an amazing job of selling Burt’s optimism, of convincing us that it might be better or more fun to live in the world as he sees it. It would be wonderful if Jimmy really could sing again. It’s nice that being a little bit sexy amps up the lawn care business. A lot of the time, seeing things through a different perspective in pop culture is about opening up a broader aperture, but Dillahunt’s managed to convey what it would be like if the lens were smaller, and in some ways, more pleasant.

Of course, that’s not the only thing Dillahunt can do. It’s a testament to his considerable skills as an actor that he can play two characters in the same show as he does on Deadwood, and even though the main difference in the two characters’ appearance is a beard, have them feel totally distinct and arouse no cognitive dissonance. His turn as Francis Wolcott is tremendous. That he’s been able to make the character simultaneously repellant and an object of pity is pretty impressive. I hope that his turn on Raising Hope doesn’t get him pigeonholed as some sort of goofball when he’s got an incredible range.