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Bizarro characters, the story trope writers can rarely resist, explained

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Seinfeld, and The Flash aren't as different as you think.

Stevie (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Jake (Andy Samberg): former partners, current bizarro detectives.
Stevie (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Jake (Andy Samberg): former partners, current bizarro detectives.

This week, two TV shows turned to an age-old device to zap new life into their stories.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the epitome of a solid workplace comedy. It's not particularly interested in reinventing the genre; it knows it can depend on cast members like Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher and twists on old standby jokes to keep its engine running.

But in "The 9-8," which aired February 9, Brooklyn Nine-Nine's titular 99th precinct play host to the detectives from the 98th precinct — who turn out to be the regular cast's somewhat inverted doppelgängers.

The Nine-Nine's Jake (Samberg), for example, is a childish goof-slash-ace detective; his former partner Stevie (Damon Wayans Jr.), who works at the Nine-Eight, is a childish goof-slash-dirty cop. They have weirdly parallel lives — presented alongside several other matchups between the two precincts' eerily similar-but-different detectives.

Over on The CW, DC Comics series The Flash has been adding its own bizarro characters as our heroes learn more about Earth Two, an alternate reality where some of their counterparts are diabolical villains. For example: In our reality, Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) and Cisco (Carlos Valdes) are brilliant scientists. On Earth Two they're supervillains who go by the smirky names of Killer Frost and Reverb (respectively).

These shows are wildly different, but both "The 9-8" and The Flash's Earth Two rely on "bizarro characters," a well-worn TV trope that almost always yields satisfying results.

What is a "bizarro" character?

A bizarro character is an explicit "take" on a character we already know. Bizarros are kind of like funhouse mirrors: They're neither the exact opposite nor the exact same as the characters we know, but they're analogous enough that it's impossible to ignore.

Seinfeld famously first used the term in 1996's "Bizarro Jerry." One of Elaine's ex-boyfriends is Kevin, a man who looks and acts very similar to Jerry, but who somehow manages to lead a more charmed life. As he tries to describe how unnerved he is by Kevin, Jerry borrows the "Bizarro" analogy from 1960 Superman comic "Bizarro World," which tells the story of Superman encountering his near-opposite being in an alternative universe. Later in the episode, Elaine meets Kevin's friends — and comes to the unsettling realization that they're bizarro versions of George and Kramer.

Though other TV shows had used the trope of characters meeting their nearly identical or opposite counterparts before, Seinfeld was the first one to coin a term for such an experience, and so "Bizarro" lives on today.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine uses both bizarro extremes. Stevie, for instance, is eerily similar to Jake in almost every way. But a bizarro character can also be someone who's surprisingly disparate from her counterpart, like the woman who holds the equivalent job to Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) in the Nine-Eight but whose earnest smile is as far from Rosa's snarling deadpan as possible.

Both Jake and Rosa's bizarro versions tell them something different about themselves. Through Stevie's recklessness, Jake learns that his love of breaking the rules could easily go too far. Rosa learns that she will never be someone who cares about cats. Who's to say which conclusion is more meaningful, really?

Okay, so which other TV shows have used bizarro characters?

Killer Frost (Panabaker) and Deathstorm (Robbie Amell), Earth Two supervillains.
The CW

In keeping with its superhuman origin story, the bizarro character is a comic book favorite. Superman's bizarro universe opened the gate for other bizarro DC Comics characters like Wonder Woman and Supergirl. (Fittingly, CBS's current Supergirl series recently put its own spin on the trope and gave her a bizarro counterpart just last week.) But the device traveled beyond the borders of Superman's comic panels, finding a new and vibrant life on television, in particular.

Comedies love bizarro characters for slightly different reasons than comics — or comic series like The Flash — do. First, they don't usually dip into actual alternate realities. They also don't spend quite as much time on blowing our minds with the differences between bizarro characters and "regular" characters, in favor of delighting in the chaos of having different versions of the same people interact.

In the same year that Seinfeld debuted "Bizarro Jerry," The Simpsons and Friends had already done their own takes on the trope. On The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa faced down Lester and Eliza, their do-gooder doppelgängers, in season seven's "The Day the Violence Died." On Friends, season two's "The One With Russ" poked fun at Rachel's denial that she was in love with Ross by having her date Russ, a bizarro version of Ross who looked and sounded just like him (probably because he was also played by David Schwimmer).

How I Met Your Mother, the CBS hangout comedy that took pride in building out an increasingly complex mythology over the course of its 10 seasons, introduced its own take on bizarros in season five. In season five's "Double Date," Ted tells his children about seeing a butch woman who looks so much like one of their own (Cobie Smulders) that they dub her "Lesbian Robin" (lovely). The episode kicked off a running joke that continued throughout the series, as the gang stumbled upon other bizarros like "Mexican Wrestler Ted" and "Stripper Lily."

In fact, the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine's bizarro episode feels a whole lot like Parks and Recreation's "Doppelgängers," a season six episode that forced two towns to consolidate office space, leaving our protagonists to accommodate their mirror image opposites.

There are, truth be told, so many instances of bizarro characters on television that I can't list them all here. But this speaks to the power of a bizarro; for writers, the prospect of getting to take a few liberties with your own characters' personalities is often too tempting to resist.

That's all cool, but what's the actual point of using bizarro characters?

Confronting characters with bizarro versions of themselves is a favorite TV trope for a reason: Imagining alternate realities is just fun.

Once we get to know characters, it's a treat to imagine other paths they could have taken. If Jerry were more well-adjusted, would he be Kevin? Could Rachel have been happy with a Russ instead of a Ross? What would The Simpsons look like if Lisa and Bart weren't so often willful agents of chaos?

In comics, which generally rely on starker conflicts between good and evil than comedies, introducing bizarros is an easy way to make characters face themselves, the choices they've made, and the possibilities lurking within their personalities. Watching everyone on The Flash realize that Caitlin Snow's Earth Two counterpart is a diabolical supervillain with a killer leather wardrobe and a questionable wig is one thing, but watching Caitlin grapple with what that might mean for her intrinsically, as a person, is quite another.

Bizarro characters make TV show universes feel bigger. They leave room for zany experimentation, pithy self-awareness, and a wink.

Basically, bizarros are the easiest, most tangible way to ask one of the richest questions in storytelling: "What if?"

Corrected to reflect that Cisco's Earth Two supervillain goes by "Reverb," not "Vibe." Curse these tricky bizarros!