Are There Any People To Look Up To On Television Now?


don draper mad men

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.

joffrey gam of thrones

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.

Like this, FYI

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.

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    • Lo

      I haven’t read the books so I’m not sure how long this will last, but Tyrion Lannister. I want to hi-five him every time he’s on screen.

    • endn

      interesting! maybe I enjoy the darker turn on TV, I never thought about it like this. I just think of it as, in a lot of ways, better than the goofy sitcoms and hyperidealistic dramas of yore. maybe TV history has progressed to the point of looking back with a critical eye, which is good. and a lot of the more modern dramas you use as examples on the slideshow were, I thought, more morally ambiguous than aspirational or heroic, like boston legal had the amoral james spader and egomaniac william shatner and was all about legal shenanigans (which was awesome but still) and buffy was– I thought!– all about contrasting these traditional TV heroics of good vs bad with the drama and failings of real teens/young adults. I don’t know, what do you think? I thought the slideshow would be more about older shows like mary tyler moore, because certainly in the last decade there’ve been a lot of shows with antiheros and moral ambiguity right? I guess you mean that we’re in a particularly dark place right now though, which is true, I’m having trouble thinking of a show on air right now where people actually have the intent of taking down evilness other than Law and Order. sorry for the long post, tv is very near and dear to my heart.

    • Lemona

      I’ve been thinking about this problem lately, so thank you for writing about it. I know that characters can be nuanced and imperfect people without being *the worst.*

      What saved Don Draper from being *the worst* despite his philandering, cold detachment from other people, and the fact that he lives a lie, was the fact that he turned those negative traits into something; he transformed all of that momentarily when he pitched an idea.

      I’m not saying manipulating people’s emotions in order to sell them condiments is an example of humanity at its best, but rather that watching someone turn their personal demons into something creative is compelling. Watching Don momentarily connect with humanity (and then recede back into philandering and being a controlling jerk) is what I thought the show was about . . .

      And we haven’t had any of that this season!

    • Lindsey

      OK… uhm… Alicia Florrick is ok? I mean, she cheated on her husband, but he cheated first? And I think they were separated. But she’s very competent, wears lipstick, is a good mom, a good lawyer, etc. I think someone could definitely look up to her.

      Once Upon a Time is pretty popular. Not very rag tag, but the ‘hero’ thing works for that.

      Buuuuut I wouldn’t look for role models on AMC or HBO. (Except on The Walking Dead… next season… Michonne!)

    • Jamie Peck

      I think you hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph. I love morally ambiguous, or even straight up bad, characters. They are much more fun to watch than nice people. Perhaps it’s a cathartic release for my own criminal fantasies. A lot of these shows also show how hollow the American dream is, and I like that too, because I hate America.

    • instructor

      The NBC show Awake is a semi-supernatural detective show, but the central character is an honest, intelligent and when necessary compassionate cop. His dealing with the switchable tragedies in his life (you’ll haveto watch it to see what I mean) is very forthright and, yes, admirable. Highly recommended.

    • Nancy

      When I first started watching Mad Men, I thought the best thing about it was how real the characters were. By that I mean, there wasn’t a good person or a bad person, they were all just like real people with depth who can do good or bad (and how the directors wouldn’t tell you what the characters were thinking half the time, just kind of led you to your own conclusions..) There was so much MORE to everyone, that would make you question the whole concept of there being good or bad people rather than just good or bad actions.

      But I had to stop watching it when I became really really sick of how all these successful, seemingly strong independant smart women would just think they were special and end up falling all over Don. It made women look like idiots, and made it seem like even the most put together women just really want the handsome player to sweep them off their feet. It made me so mad.

    • MR

      That’s why I only watch movies, and only the good ones, the ones those with artistic talent create. Not everyone is good, and there is a constant struggle going on. That’s real life – that vs glorifying douchebag behavior. Just look at the decline in the ethics of society. It feeds on itself.

    • Fiona

      Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec!

      +1 for Tyrion Lannister and Detective Britten.

      Also Eric and Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights, even though that’s sadly no longer airing.