Welcome to the Grab Bag – the much-hyped but never over-exaggerated new feature Ian and I will be doing whenever a month has an extra week in it. Or, you know, whenever we feel like it. Because we can! As always, I’m your host John. So, grab a beer, put on your stretchy pants, and find that groove in your sofa that fits your butt just right, because this is a long one.
In case you don’t know, Mad Men is phenomenal. If you don’t know that, you’re probably prettttty tired of people saying it though. But the fact of the matter is: it’s amazing, and if you disagree, you’re Wrong. That’s “Wrong,” not “wrong.” The capital letter indicates that this is Serious Business, and that your opinion has rendered you Ritually Unclean. So repent, Sinner, and make your reparations by watching this stuff! Also, if you don’t watch it, this post has ALL THE SPOILERS, so STOP READING.
First of all, the show is technically flawless. The writing, the acting, the directing, the music – it’s all spotless. Most of the episodes are co-written by the creator of the series, which gives it a level of consistency that is unfortunately rare in television. The scripts are so polished and so tight that there’s no room for improvisation (which wouldn’t be much fun in a comedy, but is probably dramatic gold). The characters are so fleshed out, so complicated, so… real. Even when they’re doing terrible things, you can fully understand why they are doing them. Because real people make choices based on logic – even in extreme situations [I’m talking to you, THE WALKING DEAD].
But what I really want to talk about is Mad Men’s part in a very interesting trend in quality American television right now – I call it “Douchey Protag Syndrome.” By which I mean, the protagonists of some of the best shows in America right now are douchebags. Walter White of Breaking Bad? Douche. I mean, he repeatedly kills innocent to semi-innocent people to serve his own needs. The entire cast of the Walking Dead? Douches. DUMB douches. House? D-bag. The Lannisters on Game of Thrones? Douchenozzles. And of course, most of the Mad Men. They drink. They smoke. They cheat. They whore. They lie. Douches.
I’m not sure what our fascination is with these Anti-Heroes, but it isn’t a new phenomenon. The 90s in particular were positively FRAUGHT with them – at least in the comic book world. Wolverine became the template for legions of them. Cable, Shatterstar, Spawn, Deadpool, Witchblade, and Venom are just a few of the more famous examples. This was all part of a reaction to the 70s/80s era of comics, which was… campy to say the least. Superman had a whole circus of Super Animal Pals. Women were almost always damsels in distress. Everything was black and white, and full of puns. So, there was some deconstruction going on, as well as some – frankly – riding on the coattails of Watchmen.
Anyway, the Anti-Hero Wave didn’t really affect television until the early 2000s. My own personal opinion as to why this happened: 9/11. In a nutshell. It launched our country into two wars and a recession, and told us all, without a doubt, that the age of Boy Bands and mullets was officially over. By and large, I approve of this shift. There have been some truly great television anti-heroes. Jack Bauer? Angel? The Winchester Boys? Tony Soprano? Mal Reynolds? All amazing characters. Not to mention Walter White and Don Draper.
But back to Mad Men. Don Draper is more or less the definition of an anti-hero. Here it is via TV Tropes: “An antihero is a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. (S)he may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic. More often an antihero is just an amoral misfit… Other common attributes are: rarely speaking, being a loner, either extreme celibacy or extreme promiscuity, father issues, [and] occasional Bad Dreams and flashbacks relating to a Dark and Troubled Past.” So if you’re playing along at home: Apathetic. Check. Rarely speaking. Check. Loner. Check. Extreme promiscuity. Check. Father issues. Check. Flashbacks/Bad Dreams. Check.
So what keeps us coming back to a character like that? What makes us sympathize with a man who has cheated on his wife with dozens of different women, going so far as proposing to them or asking them to run away with him? How can we root for a man that stole someone’s identity to get out of Korea? How can we relate to someone who leaves his daughter’s birthday party for hours without telling anyone just because he can’t handle the social norms of suburban life?
Are we that dark and twisted inside? Are we that sure that our lives are terrible, that we are terrible? Can we only relate to characters who almost always do the wrong thing, or at best the right thing for the wrong reason? Do we find good people doing good things so foreign that it destroys our suspension of disbelief? God, I hope not.
Actually, I know that’s not the case. I think a large reason Modern Family is so popular is precisely because the characters are good people. Are they perfect? No. But Phil, Jay, and Mitch would never cheat on Claire, Gloria, or Cam. Might they ruin a child’s birthday party? Yes. But either it would be an accident, or it would be something that they felt deeply sorry for, and apologized for later. The characters might fight, but they’re a family, and they’re always going to hug it out in the end. They aren’t going to go to jail for breaking the Good Samaritan Law, because they are good people doing (mostly) good things.
Even dramas have their share of traditional heroes. Except for a few episodes of self-pity, Buffy is a traditional hero. She isn’t a loner. She has no more daddy issues than any other person in this day and age. She isn’t quiet. She’s neither prude nor prostitute. She’s good. Just like Sydney Bristow. Helo and typically Apollo from BSG. Olivia Dunham on Fringe. Aang and Korra (hell, everyone but Zuko) from Airbender/Legend of Korra. You can’t say those are “unrelatable.”
Back to my point… The reason I think we love Mad Men so much is because, yes, these characters – and especially Don – are dark. But there’s always hope that they might turn it around. When Don proposes to Megan, you’re like “OK way to give Faye the SHAFT, ass!” But you’re also kind of like “Well, he’s in love, and he’s a better person around her.” When Betty divorces Don, you’re like “Well you’re a child.” But at the same time, at least she’s standing up for herself and finding a man her father would approve of. You may pity Joan and kind of judge her for not breaking up with Greg after he rapes her, but you have to admire the strength and class with which she deals with it (and cheer all the harder when she kicks his ass to the CURB). If these characters were just getting progressively darker, with no hope of redemption, would we enjoy it as much? I mean, that’s kind of what’s going on with Breaking Bad, but Walt’s downward spiral is really wonderfully contrasted with Jesse’s general redemption arc. And who knows how the show will end? Probably an explosion, but maybe, just maybe Walt will turn it all around. Somehow.
In conclusion, if you’re not watching Mad Men, you probably hate me for spoiling some seriously salacious drama, but you were warned so shut it. But if you do, I hope you’ve maybe come to some peace about it. I hope you’ve realized that maybe you don’t love it because you hate yourself, but because you’re a secret optimist. Maybe you’ve learned something about yourself, and society, and well… I’m glad I could help. Damn I’m awesome.