Like all things that lay heavily within public favor, the pendulum always swings back. In late 2001, the New England Patriots, a scrappy underdog, captured America’s heart and later won the Superbowl in the year that we most needed a team with a hyper-American nickname to win a championship (1). Now after Spygate, the constant misdirection of the press in regards to their injured players, and whatever the hell is going on with Aaron Hernandez, they’re the evil empire. After the first Pirates of the Carribean movie, Johnny Depp was the king of slathering makeup on his face, making a silly voice and being hailed as a genius. Now, The Lone Ranger is the bomb of the summer. Barack Obama was Barack Obama, and now he’s Barack Obama.
(1) It would’ve been horrible for America’s post-9/11 mojo if the Buccaneers or Raiders won. Instead of touting the resilience of the American spirit, imagine Pat Summerall, “The Oakland Raiders, named in the spirit of war crimes and terrorism, have won the Superbowl!”
This year, the same thing happened with my beloved Mad Men. Admittedly, season 6 wasn’t the show’s best, but I still enjoyed it more than most shows on television.
For some reason the conversation turned from “this is brilliant,” to “this is boring.” People weren’t even sure if they liked the main characters anymore. I didn’t understand what all the hate was about.
I’m sorry. Wasn’t the boredom, confusion, and frustration towards the characters the whole point of Mad Men? It’s a show about the most rapid cultural change in American history, focusing on a group of people who are themselves unable to change, becoming relics of a generation past. An added level of irony about that dichotomy is that it’s their job to sell the change that they can’t accomplish personally on their own. It’s a show about how Don is the same mess of a person in 1968 as he was in 1961. It’s a show about nothing!
Don Draper and Jerry Seinfeld
A comedian. An astronaut. The self-made man. The lens through which we view society’s decay. Don and Jerry’s lives are perfect to everyone on the outside, but we, the viewer, see the the duality.
Don himself is a representation of duality. Born one man, he takes the identity of another. Don sells a happiness that doesn’t exist. In the last episode of season 6, Don takes a meeting with Hershey and uses the most trusted pitch in his arsenal: the Nostalgia Routine. He sells them on the image of a boy opening the famous brownHershey wrapper and having his hair tussled by a doting father. But these images aren’t true; Don is an orphan, has almost no relationship to his two sons and can’t be further from his daughter.
Jerry is successful, famous enough to get asked onto the Tonight Show, but not famous enough to get harassed everywhere he goes. He dates sexy ladies. But who IS Jerry Seinfeld? Is he the man with his shirt buttoned all the way to the top, standing between a smiling audience and a brick wall— the Superman of the Circuit? Or is he the miserable man in sweatpants, dreaming they were Kal-El’s red cape.
Unable to keep a job, a relationship, or his hyper-critical worldview at bay, Jerry Seinfeld is Don Draper.
Peggy Olson and Elaine Benes
Upward mobility, meet glass ceiling. Love life, meet the man who will forever hold you back.
Elaine and Peggy are pawns in the industries that take over their lives. Elaine bounces from publishing house to publishing house, usually in executive assistant roles, forever pushing paper and booking air travel for her eccentric, male bosses.
Peggy, while managing to push her way into the creative side of her industry, still is just a playing piece on a larger board for her superiors to move around as they please. Even while achieving high-ranking titles, a Don Draper-type is always her creative director, pushing her to work through the night and take no credit for it. She’s even become a bargaining chip, a selling point to prospective clients. “Selling lipstick or pantyhose or Virginia Slims? We’ll put Peggy on it, she’s our copywriter who does ladythings.”
One of the main things people seem to like about Seinfeld and Mad Men is that the male and female leads don’t have any romantic subtext. Jerry and Elaine are exes who, to my knowledge were never “together” on the show (2). Peggy, despite making a lazy pass at Don in season 1, is just plain not Don’s type. Plus, she’s too valuable of a copywriter for Don to burn that bridge with his dick.
(2) Elaine’s first appearance is in Seinfeld’s second episode, “The Stakeout,” which, according to the internet, introduces her as Jerry’s ex with whom he has decided to stay friends. It is common knowledge that only 37 people have seen the first season of Seinfeld. Scholars have translated it but the actual episodes are likely lost to history.
Don and Jerry, while having absolutely zero place in the romantic lives of our female protagonists, may be seen as the reasons these women have no romantic lives to be spoken of. Don has turned Peggy into another version of himself: philandering in movie theaters, working all hours, and feeling no remorse.
Elaine is more of Jerry’s equal, they’re made to be together, so of course they can’t be. They are both shallow, and hyper-critical; feeding on the failed relationships of the other. By remaining friends, they turn each other into the loveless monsters always on the wrong side of being dumped.
Roger Sterling and George Costanza
1) They’ve both been in in a seemingly decades-long mid-life crisis.
2) Dramatically, they serve the archetype of the neurotic best friend.
3) Their jobs consist of pitching things to executives, though their partners (Don/Jerry) are responsible for all of the creative heavy-lifting.
4) They’re often being rejected by women younger and more attractive than them.
5) The famous episode where George drops acid. Okay, yes, this entire section was a stretch.
Pete Campbell and Kramer
This has been an essay of weird logical leaps and unpopular assertions, so I might as well say that I feel that Vincent Kartheiser has given one of the most strangely physical and slapstick performances as an actor in the last few years…right up there with Michael Richards.
This one is going to get a little Inside the Actor’s Studio, but bear with me.
While using their bodies in completely different ways, Kartheiser and Richards have made their characters emblematic of the shows they inhabit by their use of physicality. We know how Kramer looks and moves; he’s got a tall, lanky body, he’s got a pompadour that looks like it was just microwaved, and wears ugly, ill-fitting clothes. When Richards combines this with his constant twitching, sliding, and falling, we have one of the best clowning performances ever.
Kartheiser’s game is a little more subtle. Everyone in the office, save a few weirdos (figure out your life Ginsberg!) is physically larger and generally more attractive than him—Don, Roger, Joan, even freakin’ Harry Hamlin. Kartheiser is always puffing up and trying to make it to their level and typically failing at it. He falls down, he gets the shit kicked out of him by a Brit, he is made impotent by an unloving wife and a receding hairline.
I hate when we call actors brave. There is nothing brave about being put in semi-vulnerable positions and being paid handsomely for it. Fighting fires or going to Afghanistan and being paid okay for it is brave. If acting were brave, New York and Los Angeles wouldn’t be filled with scared, crazy people who would do anything to get a McDonald’s commercial. So next time Charlize Theron shaves her head or puts on a fake nose (I luv u Charli, I’m just using u as an example), let’s not mint a congressional medal, okay?
THAT BEING SAID. Kartheiser is something-less-than-brave but something-more-than-nothing for constantly putting himself in a physical position to always look like the ass. Unless they’re playing Benjamin Button or filming the Harry Potter epilogue or some shit, you don’t see many youngm pretty-boy actors putting on weight, shaving their hairline, and just generally transforming into a creepy middle-aged dude—especially for AMC money.
What are our memories of these two characters? Kramer sliding in through Jerry’s door. Pete doing the Charleston. Kramer as a ball-boy at the US Open. Pete proudly holding Chekov’s rifle.
Seinfeld is what it is. It’s a cerebral sitcom about the modern-day, antisocial dilemma of being too moral or having none of them at all, but it’s still a sitcom. It wouldn’t work without an extreme character like Kramer.Mad Men may be one of the most literary shows on television (3), and I don’t think it requires a performance like Kartheiser’s as Pete, but it greatly benefits from it. We’re given someone who, from their appearance alone, is an “other” in contrast to our protagonist. When Don does something wrong, we usually forgive him because he looks like Jon Hamm; when Pete is a jerk, we call him a weasel. ACTING.
(3) When I say “literary,” I mean slow-moving and deliberate. I also mean that it’s got a high learning curve—you can’t just jump into it if you’ve only been accustomed to the CSIs, NCISes, and the USA Network catalogue. Honestly, Mad Men is only complete to me because I have to read two or three recaps of it every Monday morning so I could figure out what I even saw the night before.
After that, it’s clear that Mad Men fans like myself can finally put away the conspiracy theories that Megan Draper is Sharon Tate or that Bob Benson is the time-traveling CIA agent son of Peggy and Pete. What Matt Weiner and company have really been trying to say is that the only thing we can look forward to at the end of season 7 is one of two possibilities:
1) Every character is jailed for being a jerk.
2) We flash forward to the mid-90s. The theory that Don will commit suicide by jumping out of a building, mirroring the opening credits, comes into fruition. Don, an old man, seeing no hope for his final years of life leaps from a Madison Avenue skyscraper, only to land feet away from the entrance to Elaine’s workplace, slightly inconveniencing her day. Later at Monks, instead of feeling sympathetic to the horrible casualty she witnesses, she complains about it to Jerry and George, who also see more tragedy in the inconvenience than in the loss of life. Kramer enters, dating a 40-year-old Sally Draper. She catches the end of the conversation and agrees, seemingly unaware of the coincidence, as the camera slowly zooms in on her face. She looks at the camera. We are unaware if she knows her father’s fate. Cut to black as a cheery Mo-Town song plays.
That’s definitely how season 7 will end.
It’s been recently brought to my attention after a late-night email rant with my friend Joel, that my one great talent is comparing two stupid things to each other with surprising relevancy. Everybody’s blessed with one special thing. I thought I did a pretty good job comparing Downton Abbey to Battlestar Galactica a while back. So, in keeping with that—let’s make this into a series of sorts.
I trotted out this theory on twitter back in January, but now it’s time for a real essay about it. I apologize that it once again capitalizes on my dedication to Battlestar Galactica, but like Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, or Pete Campbell and his receding hairline, some things are cosmically tied together. I promise my next one is about two shows that take place on 20th-century planet Earth. However, until then, let’s talk about how Battlestar Galactica, and The West Wing are the same show.
Admiral Adama and President Josiah Bartlet
Obviously, these first few are going to be easy ones. The two shows follow the day-to-day operations and hardships of a political administration thrust into unlikely power. President Bartlet, a folksy economical strategist and Democratic idealist attains power by navigating a back-to-basics, grassroots campaign to upset a powerful Texas senator in the Democratic primaries; Admiral Adama happened to be the highest ranking military officer off-planet during the entire genocide of the human race. Okay, so, these are different things.
No matter what happens in these shows, we always look to these two men for guidance, yelling at their underlings when they mess up (but actually giving them the inspiration to do a better job the next time around; it’s tough love!), and for wrapping episodes up with some sort of idiom or old-timey anecdote.
President Laura Roslin and Press Secretary CJ Cregg
The face of their respective administrations (yes, I guess one is actually the President), both Roslin and Cregg are often the lone emotional and moral voices of reason in all-male regimes. Also, both are prone to doing any combination of the following in a given episode:
1) making weird faces
2) showing up somewhere underdressed
3) showing up somewhere overdressed and prompting everyone to go, “wowza!”
4) being flustered by a crush
5) bringing down the house with a monologue about reproductive rights
Col. Saul Tigh and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry
Grumbly, yelling at their subordinates, and addicted to the hooch, Tigh and McGarry are, of course, my favorite characters on their respective shows. The only place where BSG supercedes The West Wing is in their portrayal of drinking. Tigh is drunk in half of the episodes, however when The West Wing starts, McGarry is years sober, and to my knowledge, only relapses once—in a fucking flashback.
His relapse is supposed to be sad and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him and look at those around us and say, “this is a disease,” BUT, few things on BSG were as refreshing as hearing Tigh drunk-laughing like Kermit the Frog and thinking, “whatever this scene is, it’s going to be great!”
In the first season we’re awarded an all-out brawl between Tigh and Starbuck (a FEMALE pilot), but if McGarry got drunk once and told his secretary Margaret she looked nice, we’d get a sappy 3-episode arc that ends with him at the Washington National Cathedral crying about being a 65-year-old divorcé. Then all of the sudden Bartlet would pop out of a confessional (has he been there all day? Isn’t he the President?), pat him on the shoulder, and then flawlessly recite some 400-year-old prose and make it all okay.
Capt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman
Is it confidence or is it arrogance? Is it luck or skill? Is he really the best campaign manager around, or is he just an angel sent by the One True God™ to get the awww-shucksiest Democrat in New England elected President?
Starbuck and Josh are the two characters every 14-year-old boy wants to be. Mad props to Ron Moore and the BSG crew for making that character a woman, and negative props to me for being 14-years-old and watching The West Wing. There wasn’t some sort of other 14-year-old Sorkin-nerd I could’ve been sexually experimenting with? No, apparently not. She was also probably watching The West Wing at home and eating pretzels.
Lee “Apollo” Adama and Donna Moss
Wide-eyed, tragically optimistic about democracy, and the complete bitch of the two characters listed above. Ron Moore and Aaron Sorkin created Starbuck and Josh, two dick-swingin’, highly-skilled, professional badasses, so of course they need to give them will-they/won’t-they romantic counterparts to be useless, pussy-whipped (Hollywood insiders say Bradley Whitford has one of the most manicured pussies in the OC), sadsacks that just get their hearts shat on year-in and year-out.
Remember when they made Lee fat for four episodes and it was hilarious? That should’ve happened to Donna and we could’ve wondered if there was some sort of Peggy Olson hidden-pregnancy thing happening or we could’ve at least felt bad for her instead of feeling nothing at all. Hey, at least they didn’t make Donna the new President for 6 episodes.
Chief Galen Tyrol and Director of Communications Toby Ziegler
Every show needs a brooding, stoic, blue-collar hero (the Jews were blue collar, right?). Battlestar gave us the Chief: prone to epic beards, night terrors, and getting 20-year-old hipster-girl deckhands pregnant. The West Wing gave us Toby: the hairiest bald man on television, who of course has a shiksa ex-wife and more Jew-guilt than George Zimmerman (TOOO SOOOOON).
ALL RIGHT LET’S KNOCK THE REST OUT RAPID-FIRE
Vice President Dr. Gaius Baltar and Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn
Just two dudes who can’t keep their dicks out of the day-to-day operations of their governments.
Sharon “Athena” Agathon and Ainsley Hayes
The political enemy who changes sides for a paycheck/doing the right thing AND who everybody is trying to fuck.
Romo Lampkin and Oliver Babish
Does the chief counsel to the President have to be a smug dick to everybody? No. Does it make for better TV if he is? YES, AND HOW!
Billy and Charlie
Sure when Billy dies it’s part of the stoorrrrrrryyy, but they can’t kill Charlie, it would be raaaaaaaccccist. They even worked in a Charlie assassination attempt, but don’t worry, EVERYBODY LIVES.
It all worked out though, President Bartlet needs a foil for the scenes in which he learns something new about modern American culture, usually involving the internet. If Charlie died in the S1 assassination attempt, we would’ve lost West Wing gold like when the President finds out about the Butterball hotline.
Cally and Margaret
SHUT UP CALLY!!!
Sam Anders and Joey Lucas
2) Both talk like deaf people. (Oh, wait, one of them is deaf?)
When you stare into the Iron Man, the Iron Man stares back into you.
"Butterball has a hotline!?!"