Mad Men, Breaking Bad: The devolution of the TV man
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 1, 2012 21:10
On the surface, “Mad Men’s” Don Draper is the perfect man – honorable, ethical, loyal and fair. The envy of the common man, he is handsome and well-spoken, charming and snappy. Draper’s style is desired by men and Draper himself is desired by women. However, peeling away the layers of his life, we find a depressed alcoholic, an uncommunicative misanthrope, a fake life created from the ashes of another. So, why is “Mad Men” one of the most popular shows on TV today, and why has it won critical acclaim with a four-year run of consecutive Emmy awards for Best Drama? To understand modern TV, we have to look at the history of visual entertainment.
Looking at older TV dramas, we find a clear trend in the story-telling of the main characters. Shows from the 1980s and before were about average people who dealt with outward struggles, problems in everyday life and difficulties they couldn’t control. However, these people were able to overcome those tribulations and become better people as a result. Today, the main characters of dramas have problems that begin from within – insecurities, greed and anger. They create problems for others, and as a result, they become twisted, cruel and sometimes even evil.
One of the best examples of this is our hero, Don Draper. His real name isn’t even Don Draper – he takes the identity of a fallen serviceman to escape his past. He is cold and unloving toward his wife and children. Don is also unfaithful and has sex with a large number of women: at least two secretaries, a stewardess, an unemployed friend of a friend, a teacher, a client, an artist, a waitress, a prostitute, a business consultant and a hedonist. He may be powerful in the advertising world, but his life is slowly breaking apart because of his own personality.
Another TV man who ruins the lives of the people around him is Walter White of “Breaking Bad.” Walter is a brilliant chemist, who once contributed to research that led to a Nobel Prize and a great family man who loves his wife and son. He’s dying of cancer, but he’s trying his best to live the last years of his life with his family. Oh, and he’s also a brutal meth chemist and dealer. He murders without guilt, performs horrible acts to further his position and protect his secret and does anything to get a larger profit. Is it surprising to find that in his attempts to protect his family, he has grown more distant from them? Walter is a psychopath and a scheming madman. Bryan Cranston, who plays Walter White, has won three Best Actor awards for his portrayal of insanity.
To understand how much the “TV man” has changed over the years, we have to go back to a cop show from the 1980s named “Hill Street Blues.” It won four straight Emmys. The characters in this show, while from urban and poor backgrounds, were portrayed as honest and hardworking people who bettered the lives of those around them. One of these characters, Captain Frank Furillo, was very similar to Draper. He was strict, loyal, fair and had his fair share of flaws. However, unlike Draper, Furillo’s character arc was positive, and his flaws always ended in redemption. The characters around him helped him become a good human, while Draper and Walter White hurt those around them. Are today’s TV audiences bored of “feel good” stories, or do they enjoy Schadenfreude from watching the lives of these men crumble?
It is definitely a combination of the two. There is a strange excitement and unpredictability when following the life of a monster that just isn’t there in a story where the main character will have a positive arc. Shows like “Breaking Bad” also offer dramatic irony, where the audience enjoys perspective and knowledge that the main characters may not. In today’s world of instant gratification through reality TV, screenplay writers have to delve into the deepest, darkest souls to find a story worth telling. Maybe, a few years from now, audiences will get bored of the psychopaths and demand a return to happily ever after.