Who Are the Biggest Breakout Stars of Television’s Golden Age?

If you’re like me, you’re startled by the staying power of Stranger Things. While I enjoyed the show, I also saw that there were some flaws, and I certainly didn’t expect that it would be the breakout hit of the summer. But here were are, a month later, with Stranger Things cupcakes, Stranger Things cats, and roughly two thousand posts about Barb.

Finally, Jason Concepcion over at The Ringer asked the question: what is the deal with Barb? Why is everyone so obsessed with her? Since such questions are part of the ineffable workings of the cosmos, and provide no ready answer, he quickly moved on to an even more interesting question: why is it that characters with tiny fractions of screentime sometimes explode? OK, Concepcion didn’t quite answer that one either, because really, characters become fan favorites for lots of different reasons. But he did come up with a really interesting way to look at these breakouts.

First, he formulated a way to look at breakout characters in a more theoretical way, divorced from their actions in their respective shows. He chose to create a sample size by looking at each characters hits on Google News, and then created an equation he called CUPS (Content Units Per Scene). Then he did a little math:

(Google News hits) divided by (total screen appearances) = CUPS

Again, this allows a pop culture scholar to look at the breakout character in their purest form – no catchphrases, slapstick routines, crying jags, fashion choices – just screentime. Using this formula, Concepcion then works out the Top Ten Television Characters by their CUPS. The current listing features several characters from Stranger Things, but also a few surprising entries from classic, pre-Netflix-binge shows as well, such as Seinfeld’ Soup Nazi. Even more interesting is that certain aspects of iconic characters have more CUPS than others. For instance, “crying Don Draper” has a higher CUPS count than any other version. Could this mean that people are responding not to an iconic, handsome, ultra-patriarchal symbol of 1950’s masculinity, but instead to the moment when his facade of perfection cracks?

Or does it just mean that we enjoy illustrating points with crying gifs?

Concepcion also grapples with the other implication of his CUPS scoring process: people who write for the internet are in constant need of content.

Much like our hunter–gatherer ancestors, the modern content creator has learned to use every part of that which sustains them. Lunch does not purchase itself. This process, spurred by parallel developments in technology and a deepening of human understanding, will only continue. CUPS has revealed patterns in the roiling chaos of the internet.

Head over to the Ringer to see the CUPS results!

The winning portrait of Barbie as Barb via A Doll’s World over on Instagram!


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