Living Through Others or Learning from Them: Comparing Intellectual and Emotional Television
Watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, in addition to laughing at the abysmal Denver offense, I found myself analyzing every advertisement through the lens of Mad Men, trying to imagine how Don Draper would have pitched each commercial. But “Mad Men’s” greater contribution is how it has redefined the way I view the programs between those commercials.
Watching TV is often very similar to watching sports: much like a sports game, you root for the characters, and for them to achieve their goals and find happiness. In the pilot of a TV show, you are introduced to these characters and begin to understand their personalities and future goals. You learn about their battles and what they must do to overcome their challenges. Whether good or bad, you attach yourself to those aspirations. By watching these characters, to whom you relate so deeply, achieve happiness, you too become happier. Mad Men doesn’t depict a battle or a struggle. Don Draper is not a man who is going to magically find happiness at the end of an episode, a season, or even the series. Mad Men depicts a cruelly real picture of a complicated world. The plot of the episodes simply shows us a glimpse of the characters’ personalities as they continue to live. There is no greater battle around which the show is centered or towards which they are moving. Instead of being focused on the characters’ search for happiness, which will supply the audience an easy outlet to vicariously achieve happiness, the show is instead dedicated to producing a great story.
Mad Men’s characters are defined by their nuance. There are no good guys or bad guys. The characters’ dialogue is deep and poetic. They do not banter aimlessly for our amusement, but instead debate their emotions and ideas, with each interaction displaying the character’s nature. Listening to Don Draper is an ethereal experience, and every sentence he utters is enlightening and profound. Don has discovered the meaning of this world, and has returned to inform us of his great discoveries. But despite everything he explains to us, we cannot understand him. Mad Men is a show dedicated to and full of complex characters, but Don takes this to a new level. After six seasons of discovery, and attempts to understand Don Draper, his true motivations remain elusive both to him and to us. He loves his family and his job, but he also loves alcohol, and self-destruction. Don Draper is uncompromisingly complex and this makes him so deeply interesting, yet un-likeable. But is likability a bad thing?
It is a central tenant of network TV to create likeable characters. The audience will become emotionally involved in these characters and will, therefore, continue watching the show, regardless of its quality. For proof, see How I Met Your Mother, a show which I haven’t found funny for the last six years, but still suffer through every week. I need to see Ted finally find happiness, because his happiness is my happiness. Network TV shows create characters who are so relatable, that we don’t simply see their emotions, we experience them ourselves. I can recall many times when, watching a TV show, a favorite character of mine is about to make a mistake, or do something embarrassing, and I had to look away. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the uncomfortable moment. Even though it is a TV character, it feels as if I am making that mistake, and I am being embarrassed. I can’t subject myself to this pain, so I look away.
Watching the series finales of Scrubs and Chuck, I was left with a profound sense of sadness and emptiness. We watched as these characters moved on from their jobs which had been the centers of the show, and said goodbye to their friends. I wasn’t sad to see these characters say goodbye to their friends, but to say goodbye to me. And to rub it in, they play heartbreaking music about leaving.
While most network shows create characters for you to live through, most cable shows creates characters you are supposed to judge, and to understand. This is a far better approach from a values and literary standpoint. The central characters of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia are terribly immoral people. But the show mocks their moral insensitivity, and tells us not to accept their actions, but rather to judge them, and laugh. On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother asks us to relate fully to each character’s actions and to support them. When Barney goes to strip clubs, or treats women as objects on a weekly basis, we are instructed to accept these decisions as being morally correct, and characteristic of our good friend Barney, whom we trust and love. Despite the terrible worlds many cable shows depict, these are not the worlds they wish us to create. We are expected to understand the motivations of Don Draper, Walter White, and Charlie Kelly. But these characters are not our friends. There is a distance between us and them. Through the nature of the characters, the cinematography, and the score chosen by the director, we are separated from these characters, and are instead asked to judge and evaluate their actions, recognizing which have merit and which do not.
These characters, who are far more nuanced and complex, are extremely difficult to relate to because they are so profoundly real. These characters are far superior from a literary perspective, because they allow us to achieve a more subtle and full picture of the world and people around us.
But when all is said and done, a large component of TV is its enjoyment. Complex and artistic shows often add enjoyment, but there is no objectively superior way to enjoy a show; simply the subjective way you prefer. Personally, I enjoy both. Every show combines both elements in some sense, but most emphasize one and ignore the other. Friday Night Lights achieves a rare combination of both. The characters are not perfect, and they struggle to deal with their flaws. But there is also an intense relationship developed between the audience and the characters. The show is centered around football and invites us to enjoy the characters’ victories. But it also asks us to judge these victories. In the season one finale, after watching the team finally achieve happiness, we are shown a montage of the parade as we and the players celebrate. But “We Are The Champions” is not played triumphantly in the background. The somber “Devil Town” echoes through the scene, and we are asked to judge the true merits of this happiness, and the actions of the characters. In season four, a central character suffers a serious loss. During the episode we watch as he struggles to deal with this loss, and we are asked to understand and judge his reactions, which are not presumed to be correct. The episode ends with us not only understanding his struggle, but also feeling his immense pain. Every episode beautifully blends these two elements, of intellectual artistic achievement and emotional connection. Objectively, Mad Men is deeper, its writing prettier, and its characters more complex and interesting. But I am far happier watching my friends on Friday Night Lights.