Not to be an old fogey about this, but remember when television characters were admirable?
The weirdest part of Mad Men lately is not that Roger Sterling just took LSD – although that’s indisputably weird. It’s that when Roger Sterling was taking LSD, he was getting marital advice from Don Draper. And last week, Don dispensed advise about fidelity to Pete. A vodka bottle spouting classical music has nothing on that, because that was the equivalent of getting law abiding advice from Walter White.
Why? Because Don is an abnormally terrible husband. No, not like ‘oh, he has problems, like everyone.” No, he’s leaving-your-wife-stranded-at-a-Howard-Johnson’s terrible. How many times did he cheat on Betty? That many? Oh. Okay.
Don Draper’s major moral selling point as a character seems to be that at least, unlike Walter White on Breaking Bad he is not a sociopath who is killing people and running a meth empire. Or at least, we don’t think he’s a sociopath. If you recall, there was a lot of doubt a few seasons ago. That’s different than Walter White, about whom the show’s creator has said, “the whole intention of the franchise from Day 1 was, we’re going to take the good guy and turn him into the bad guy.”
But then, even that’s not anywhere near the behavior exhibited on Game of Thrones where Joffrey is setting off trigger warnings. How? With this stuff.
All Joffrey does is threaten to kill women with crossbow. To paraphrase Mrs. Parker, his range of emotions spans the gamut from A to crossbow-killing. I’m sorry. He also kills babies, not with crossbows. Like Katherine Hepburn I sort of underestimated him.
You can argue that no one else on Game of Thrones was brought up in the Village of The Damned the way Joffrey presumably was, but the only really, truly virtuous character on Game of Thrones was beheaded. Ned Stark. It was Ned Stark. What this show teaches me as much as anything is “good people die first.” Which is just proof I didn’t listen to enough Billy Joel growing up, but the point stands. Some characters on Game of Thrones may be more likable overall than others (Lady Stark’s worst act has been trying to kill Tyrion which is… bad) but they’re not exactly a ragtag band of scrappy heroes out to save the world.
In that way, they’re unlike, oh, everyone on every show you watched growing up. Like what? Please click through the gallery. It will be a very exciting but brief walk down memory lane.
The interesting thing is that, while we were watching them when we were younger, these weren’t shows geared towards teens or kids. Boston Legal was pretty clearly geared towards 60 year olds and everyone who remembered what Candice Bergen looked like when she was young.
There was, clearly, something about the heroes formula that worked, or at least worked right up until The Sopranos. And then, not so much. Things seem to have shifted (with a few last gasps like, well, Heroes).
ER has been replaced in popularity by House and Nurse Jackie, which leads you to believe that doctors are less about doing good, and more about popping all the pills. Not all the pills in the hospital – all the pills in the world. If there’s a modern political must-watch it’s maybe Veep, which is a comedy about a woman bumbling her way through Vice Presidential duties. And in great ensemble cast shows – like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones - the characters are less about doing good and more about doing varying levels of bad.
I wonder about the extent to which the shift has to do with the rise of reality television and our growing awareness that people don’t behave that well all the time. It’s hard to feel like the world is filled with heroes when your example of real human behavior is Kim Kardashian.
But then, the notion that “people are morally ambiguous!” is something we’ve always been aware of – maybe it’s only recently that television has become a sophisticated enough medium to express that notion with. After all, there have been plenty of antihero protagonists in novels and movies. Becky Sharp was really on this trend 200 years ago. It just seems more recent that its made its way to television – and perhaps that’s as much a natural evolution for the medium as it is a reflection of our changing perception of human behavior.
What I’m saying is: Heil Honey was ahead of its time.