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Why TV Characters Have Boring Names

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By Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

When the actor James Gandolfini died recently, TV watchers around the world mourned the simultaneous passing of one of the best-named characters of all time.

Sure, Tony Soprano was so much more than his name. The character was both rough and smooth. Affable and violent. Powerful and weak. But don’t all those qualities also describe that name?

It’s not every day you stumble upon a brilliantly named TV character. I’ll tell you why in one word: legal.

Yep. Every name—and I mean every name—belonging to a character on a television show is vetted by that network’s legal department. And many don’t pass muster. I learned this while producing my first TV pilot this past spring, a drama for CBS called “The Ordained.”

First let me explain that naming characters is almost as hard as naming your own children. You need something with a ring, a name that sounds a certain way rolling off an actor’s tongue. It might be a homonym to a word that describes the character.

Take Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” The name is bland and upstanding, just like the main character—that is, until he starts to cook meth. Or Don Draper in “Mad Men.” Notice the alliteration in both names? Doesn’t it add a bit of oomph?

Sometimes, TV writers slip in names of people they know. I’ll never forget a staffing interview in which I pointed out that the show’s creator used the name of a journalist I knew in person—and it turned out they were childhood friends. The creator mumbled that he’d have to change the name because it would “never get past legal now.” I didn’t get the job.

In my pilot, ethnicity played a large role in name selection. My script featured a large cast of multicultural characters, set as it was in New York City. One favorite was a young Chinese-American lawyer I named Grace Ping. How I loved that name. We cast the lovely actress Linda Park (“NCIS”) in the role. The crew never bothered to use her real name. She was Grace Ping from the get-go. And then we got a memo from legal. It turned out there was a real Grace Ping. One. So what, right?

Herein lay the problem: if the name belongs to one person and one person only, then that person has grounds to sue for defamation. If it belongs to many people, no problem.

In other words, common names are far likelier than unusual ones to pass that bar. And thus you have your Catherine Willows on “CSI,” your Jack Shephard on “Lost,” your Jack McCoy on “Law & Order,” your Patrick Jane on “The Mentalist.”

In the end I was forced to change Grace Ping’s name to Gloria Ping. It didn’t have the same ring. Our director ignored the change. Even Linda Park kept calling herself Grace.

Though I was bummed to lose my Grace, I got to keep the most important character name of all: Tom Reilly, that of my hero. Played by Charlie Cox (“Boardwalk Empire”), he was an ex-priest who quits the priesthood when he hears a confession about a deadly plot against his political family. Tom Reilly was also the name of my father, a former priest who inspired my story. He died in 2009. Hearing his name bandied about during our shoot this spring felt a little like a resurrection.

In May, CBS announced its fall lineup for 2013, and my show wasn’t on it. Tom Reilly will never get a chance to join Tony Soprano in the public conscience. But it’s okay. Tom Reilly is also the name of my brother’s eldest son—my nephew and my father’s namesake. Tom Reilly lives on in real life, and that trumps television any day.

(Note: The photo shows actor Charlie Cox–her pilot’s “Tom Reilly,” named after her dad–with Lisa‘s two daughters.)

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is the author of Pastors’ Wives, a new novel from Penguin/Plume, and The Ordained, a 2013 CBS drama pilot. Previously, she was a staff writer for Time magazine. Readers can like her author page on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @lisacullen, or visit her website at www.lisacullen.com.    

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