In Praise of Arnold J. Rimmer

Keep your So-Called Life. The character I most identified with as a teen was unrealistic, dead, and thoroughly awful.

Oct 26, 2011 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

 

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Apparently people my age are Generation Catalano now, as in Jordan Catalano from the identity-defining teen drama “My So-Called Life.” MSCL only ran for one season, when I was 14 and main character Angela Chase was 15, and I watched it and felt I had a lot in common with the characters and their realistic flaws (Angela’s wishy-washy posing, her friend Brian’s misplaced intensity). In other words, I’m the ideal candidate for the Catalano Generation.

But if I had to pick the character who got me through being 14, it was about as far from Jordan Catalano as you get.

Granted, I don’t know anyone who actually identified with thoughtless blockhead Jordan, as hunky as he was. In fact, as I remember we all gave up on him long before Angela did. Members of Generation Catalano might really consider themselves members of Generation Krakow or Generation Chase. Whoever you fell for on “My So-Called Life,” though, you got the total package: mistakes and triumphs, pride and mortification, talents and Achilles heels. Everyone was well-rounded and three-dimensional -- nobody was wholly worthless.

But I was 14. That wasn’t my experience of myself AT ALL. I wanted to see someone who was thoroughly repugnant, and yet somehow real enough to sympathize with anyway. I had to go to goofy science fiction to find a character like that -- pretty much the opposite pole from sensitive teen drama -- but I found one, in Arnold J. Rimmer.

Rimmer is the most unpleasant character on “Red Dwarf,” which is a cheesy awesome British sci-fi comedy that I used to stay up until 1 am to watch on public TV in my early teens (right around when “My So-Called Life” was airing). Unlike MSCL, the show is pretty far outside my actual experience -- it’s four dudes alone in space, and most of them are robots or holograms or cat people or whatever -- and Rimmer is specifically designed to be impossible to love. But I identified with him more than any TV character ever.
 
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It’s all very well to see portrayals of real-life teens, with realistic strengths they can nurture and realistic flaws they can overcome. But for me, it was much more cathartic to see a character who was just as insufferable as I felt. If you encounter an insecure, pathetic dick like Rimmer when you’re 14 and you’re kind of insecure and pathetic yourself, there can be something really appealing about seeing that insecurity and patheticness writ large.
 
Or, well, “appealing” might be overstating it -- he’s still a horrible prat. But he’s your horrible prat. The only horrible prat who really understands you.

“Red Dwarf” is extremely character-driven; most of the sci-fi conceits are just excuses to get inside the protagonists’ heads. So despite all the jokes fired off at Rimmer’s expense, you actually end up really intimate with him. For instance, one episode introduces the alternate-universe Arnold “Ace” Rimmer, the popular, highly decorated daredevil lady-killer (catchphrase: “Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast”) whose life diverged from original flavor Rimmer’s at a crucial moment in time.
 
Of course he triggers all of Rimmer’s resentments and regrets, all his blame about the things that held him back and his shame at not being better. If you’re self-hating and sulky and spend all your time wishing you were different -- if, in other words, you’re 14 -- it’s like reading your own diary, only with robots.

In another episode, Rimmer is stranded on a planetoid that terraforms itself into a reflection of his subconscious -- and no lie, I watched this one last weekend for the first time in at least 15 years, because it was so emotional for me at the time that I’ve just avoided it since. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the basement of my childhood home, simultaneously laughing and weeping uncontrollably as Rimmer is tortured by the personification (or anyway creaturefication) of his own self-loathing.
 
There’s a little graveyard on this planet with headstones for self-respect and self-confidence and seriously, you guys, I cannot even. I’m just going to lie down over here and bawl for a second. Meanwhile you can watch a representative clip about how lousy Rimmer is -- it was really hard to find a decent one!
 


OK, I’m back. Anyway, everything about this episode -- everything about “Red Dwarf,” really -- is cheesy and silly, and terrible sci-fi to boot. The jokes aren’t even as funny to me now as they used to be, and while that might be partly from well-worn familiarity, it’s partly because they’re pitched just right for a geeky teen, which is not what I am anymore. But the shock of being offered this miserable weasel of a character, this walking punchline, and then seeing his psyche opened up and understanding that his angst and mistrust and bitterness come from the same place yours does... that’s still with me, so many years later.

Rimmer does prevail in the end, against his will, for a little while. Ace, his brave studly alternate-universe double, turns out to be a sort of Dread Pirate Roberts figure, and our Arnie is next in line. He doesn’t want to be Ace -- it’s frightening and difficult and Rimmer’s never met a challenge he didn’t buckle under -- until he discovers that zillions of everyday Rimmers from zillions of universes have taken up Ace’s gold lamé mantle. Bolstered, he gathers his courage and Ace’s hockey-hair wig and speeds off to defend truth and justice and kill alternate-universe Nazis. The man with no redeeming qualities becomes brave and noble, simply because someone finally tells him he can.

I didn’t see that episode until I was an adult. I wish I had, but that season was filmed in my first year of college, and I wasn’t getting much chance to watch public TV in my parents’ basement anymore. I don’t know how I would have reacted at the time, seeing my partner in self-hating miserable bastardness refashion himself as a glad-handing hero type. I think I might have felt a bit bereft.
 
But watching it all again in my 30s, this is the part that strikes me -- not the forays into Rimmer’s bleak subconscious, but his eventual redemption. He has let himself be defined all his life by fear and loneliness and neurosis and resentment... and then suddenly he’s given a job to do, not an unrealistic self-flagellating expectation but a calling, and he finds he can transcend everything he thought was holding him down. I hope it’s not too late to learn from that. I probably still need to hear it.

At any rate, from now on you can call me Ace. Smoke me a kipper, Skipper; I’ll be back for breakfast.