The Dysfunctional Alpha, Part I:
The Old Guard
Despite the deluge of reality tv dreck threatening to overrun American society and ruin an entire generation, I firmly believe that we are in the midst of a golden age of television. I think the two greatest shows of all time have come and gone (which I will detail later), but I think there are a number of active programs that will be giving them a run for their money soon (two of which I think are already in that same conversation). To be clear, I am only considering dramas within this categorization—while I love programs like 30 Rock, The League, Archer, Family Guy, Modern Family, The Daily Show, and The Office, for purposes of this article, I am only including dramatic fiction. Furthermore, I will not be including miniseries (like Band of Brothers) because they do not have a large enough sample pool, and because most are based on non-fictional events and use non-fictional characters. Dramatic fiction is the name of the game here.
The two greatest shows ever to grace our personal screens, in my not-so-humble opinion, are The West Wing and The Wire. To be fair, I do not believe a major network would ever pick up The West Wing these days, and the fact that 7 million Americans tuned in to such a smart show every week for a 24-week season astonishes me. I’ll admit it went downhill after Sorkin left following the Fourth Season, but never before had a show in primetime been so driven by dialogue—intense, smart, and witty dialogue that raised the national consciousness about important social and political issues. Sorkin developed a great number of characters deeply, to the point where you felt like you knew all of the President’s senior staff, right down to with whom you would want to drink beers and shoot the shit (Sam, Charlie, & CJ), who you would call if you were in a jam (Leo or Josh), and who would be your moral guide (Toby, Sam & President Bartlett) when necessary. I have seen every episode of The West Wing four times (that’s something like 168 episodes for a total of 672 episodes viewed, which comes out to 21.9 days of my life spent watching that show. I was often doing other things at the time I was watching it, but it’s still a lot of hours to devote to one show). This was the crowning dramatic achievement of major network television in the modern age.
The Wire was the most inventive and penetrating view into how a city really operates, especially one with a deep-seeded drug culture. It was based on a lot of real characters and situations from Baltimore, but was still fictional enough to warrant inclusion in this conversation. It followed the plight of Baltimore from the perspective of drug lords, police officers, harbor workers, educators, prosecutors, and reporters—weaving in new narratives and new characters while preserving the same core story arc throughout all 5 seasons. Each season continued the story from seasons prior, but always from a different perspective within the city. Many political scientists believe The Wire gave a better view of the myriad social issues faced by a city mired in drug crime, as well as the personal tolls those issues took, than any other production to date. I have seen The Wire all the way through three times (12 episode seasons, 5 total seasons, only 2.4 days spent here). The characters might not be as relatable to me (a white, college-educated, mid-20s man from a stable and loving family) as The West Wing characters, but you still felt like you knew every character—what drove them, what enraged them, what their fatal flaws were. When your favorite characters died, you felt like part of you died with them—your hopes for what they might become, your wishes for their future, or your question of why one of the other, more deserving characters couldn’t have died in their place. I’m trying to convey that I really know these shows. I love these shows. I miss these shows. But luckily, I think there are brilliant storytellers crafting narratives that already do, or soon will, rival these dramatic achievements. And the more I analyze the shows I love the most, the more I am finding two unifying themes throughout.
The New Guard
The shows that I love to watch within the same genre are: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Californication, House of Lies, Lie to Me, The Newsroom, Rescue Me, Homeland, and Boardwalk Empire. Granted, a few of these most certainly are not on the same level as The Wire or The West Wing. I would say that Mad Men and Breaking Bad will make major claims on “Best Show Ever” depending on how they close the book on each, respectively. Breaking Bad has one final season whereas I don’t know how much longer Mad Men plans on continuing. If Breaking Bad concludes the show as strong as its first 5 seasons, it will be 1c to The West Wing and The Wire’s 1a & 1b (or however you want to rank them within that spectrum, but it’s right there). I think Mad Men is every bit as solid as those three, but I could also see it jumping the shark in the future. I really hope it doesn’t and remains every bit as solid as these other shows, at which point in time we’d have a four way tie for the top spot. Regardless, the object of this article wasn’t really to rank the best shows of all time, but rather to discuss the unifying factors between all of these shows—namely, the presence of the dysfunctional, gifted alpha.
Every one of these shows is marked by a strong leading character who is tragically flawed in the ancient Greek sort of way—even the shows that have already concluded (The Wire, The West Wing, Lie to Me, and Rescue Me). Except for Homeland, the alpha of each show is a man and there is so much angst, anxiety, and downright self-loathing you can feel it dripping from the screen. In these character-driven dramas, it seems like well-balanced leads are just too boring to get the job done (or too unrealistic to draw the audience in). I’ll draw more conclusions about this commonality in Part II, but the bottom line is that the alpha is almost always gifted beyond measure at his or her vocation, but is every bit as flawed as s/he is brilliant.
The West Wing
The West Wing is a little different from the other shows in that you could make a legitimate case for multiple leading characters. However, in the end, President Josiah Bartlett has to be the most logical choice as the show’s alpha. He was the president and while not always the most compelling character, he was certainly the boss. He was idealistic and morally pure (except for one MASSIVE exception). He believed in an America where people cared for one another and the government could actually help people’s lives improve. Despite his vast intelligence and good heart, he withheld a monumental secret from the voting electorate—he had multiple sclerosis and knew about it while he was running for his first term. The show raises many interesting questions about privacy and where it ends in relation to individuals seeking high public office, but the conclusion the audience is left with is most assuredly one in which President Bartlett defrauded the American public to win an election. Regardless of the amount of good he wanted to do, he is still a tragically flawed character—not because of his disability, but rather his willingness to conceal it from his constituency. He was staggeringly bright (nobel laureate in economics), good hearted, and stood by his convictions. On the flip side, he was always trying to impress his father, even though his father had died by the time the show started. His dad beat him as a child, and Jed Bartlett always wanted to prove that he was worthy of his father’s love and admiration. You can track this desire throughout the fictional career of President Bartlett: he went to Notre Dame, followed by achieving a PHD in Economics, then a tenured professorship in the Ivy League, followed by Nobel Laureate, then a congressman, then the governor of New Hampshire, and finally, The President. The bar always kept moving on him because nothing he did was ever good enough to make his father love him (in Jed’s mind, anyway). The specter of his father haunted him throughout the show. Jed was brilliant and effective in all of his vocations, but he was every bit as dysfunctional an alpha character.
As an aside, when you get into the second tier of main characters on The West Wing, each one of those characters has a core flaw as well: CJ struggles with intense feelings of inadequacy because she feels like she’s a woman trying to do a man’s job; Sam is tragically naïve, often to the detriment of his entire team; Josh is so stubborn and actively seeks out conflict that he makes compromise nearly impossible on important issues; Toby gives off an air of moral superiority to everyone and in the end, knowingly breaks the law and sabotages the President to do what he thinks is right; Leo is a recovering alcoholic with a talent for manipulating people when needed… The list goes on—every Alpha and even Beta character in The West Wing exhibits a varying level of dysfunction despite all of them being the very best at what they do.
The Wire also has an abundance of would-be alpha characters, but the main character is almost certainly Jimmy McNulty. He is the brilliant murder investigator crusading against drugs and corruption in a city overrun with both. He will break any rule, hamstring any superior, and go as far as is required to accomplish the end goal of cleaning up Baltimore, disregarding legality when necessary. He is a raging alcoholic and womanizing man-whore who is very often a shitty father to his two sons. Of the alphas in this list, his alcoholism ranks right at the top whereas his womanizing falls somewhere in the middle. Regardless, he routinely falls into self-destructive patterns despite his prodigious police skills. He really is the best cop in the city, is loyal to a fault to his team, and generally wants to do the right thing when given the opportunity. You can neither buy nor intimidate him and he shows compassion to many of the downtrodden characters within the show. He doesn’t make enough money and doesn’t have enough professional support to tackle the ambitious projects he lays out for his unit. He gets snowed under the politics within the department, most often resulting in him getting screwed. He is a good friend but is obsessed with the job. Every time you think he has turned his life around for the better, he goes on a bender and fucks it all up again. Each time he has a good thing going with a steady woman, he sleeps around and ruins it. He is a modern crusader, fighting the good fight, if only he could out of his own way. Despite being a gifted murder/drug investigator, McNulty is one of the more conflicted alphas a major drama series has ever seen.
In Mad Men, Don Draper is the undisputed main character (or Dick Whitman for the fanboys out there). The powerful partner of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price is mind-fucked three ways from Sunday. Despite being an amazing creative director, he is jealous, power-hungry, cold, and generally trying to fill a giant hole in his heart where his soul ought to be. He treats most women like shit, especially the ones to which he gets close. He has had sex with at least 12 women in the five seasons of the show, many of whom led to extended affairs on one of his two wives. His philandering is much more insidious than the other sex-addicted alphas of this list because he doesn’t just pick up slam-pieces for the night, he entertains drawn-out affairs with almost all of the women he sleeps with. He drinks and smokes incessantly (which definitely makes me miss the 1950s when you could drink at work) and is almost assuredly addicted to chasing strange. I don’t think he’s really addicted to sex, because it almost seems like he doesn’t enjoy the physical act—he just likes the chase and the feeling of conquest. Deep down, we as the audience want to feel like he’s a good person at his core, despite the fact that he gives you so few glimpses of goodness. We keep waiting for him to put it all together and just be happy. He’s got everything you could want—tons of money, a beautiful wife, loving kids, a cool job… Yet he always seems like he’s searching for something to fill that hole in his soul. Once again, incredible creative director, horribly conflicted person.
Breaking Bad is an exercise in power gone awry. Walter White was an all-universe chemist fired by his previous company (under dubious circumstances that lead the audience to believer he was hosed) making tons of money, who then landed as a high school chemistry teacher. He ends up getting aggressive lung cancer and cannot afford the treatment. His insurance won’t cover the entire cost and he refuses to leave his family with crippling debt from his travails. So what does a genius chemist in need of a lot of quick money do? He starts cooking chemically perfect meth, of course! In the beginning, it’s pretty comical watching this total square “break bad” in order to combat his illness the only way he can come up with. But as his product becomes more (in)famous and more widely distributed, the stakes and the danger rise as well. By the fifth season (which I haven’t yet seen for reasons passing understanding), he has toppled his previous #1 rival through manipulation, sabotage, and murder. Each season, Walter White descends further into darkness, relishing his role as a legitimate drug lord more and more as the show progresses. He becomes increasingly more comfortable utilizing any means for survival, most notably murder—not self-defense, outright murder. What began as a legitimate attempt to help his family has culminated in a full-blown crime lord clinging to every shred of power he can grasp. Once again, the character is brilliant at his vocation (chemistry/cooking meth) yet this alpha loses his identity as he transforms into his drug lord alter-ego (Heisenberg) seemingly forever.
Dexter is an easier diagnosis—the main character is an incredible blood splatter analyst and an other-worldly caliber serial killer. Overall, Dexter is not a bad person, he simply has toxic psychological flaws that make him truly amoral—not immoral, but rather unable to discern morality in any meaningful way. He does not feel emotion, to speak of (except in a couple of very rare instances, usually in the season finales). He’s not as conflicted as other characters in this list because he is much more sure of his standing in the world. His cop father recognized his pathological psychosis early on in Dexter’s childhood and taught Dexter how to kill people without getting caught. But, he also instilled in Dexter a code highlighted by an acceptability of only killing those who deserved to die (rapists, murderes, child molesters, etc…), kinda like Boondock Saints, but without the instruction from God piece. So while he was not nearly as conflicted as the other characters, he most certainly is a tragically flawed, fully dysfunctional alpha character—I mean, the show is predicated upon his inherent need to murder people... The dude is seriously off.
Californication is the first good project in which David Duchovny has been involved since the X-Files. I will admit, it is more of a guilty pleasure than a transformative, dramatic “tour de force”, but it still nails the stereotype for solid dramas—brilliant yet dysfunctional alpha (and his character, Hank Moody, sets up part three of this feature quite well). Hank Moody is a gifted novelist who also dabbles in screenwriting, biographies, TV shows, movie producing, etc… Most importantly, though, he is a great writer. He also might be the most self-destructive character of the bunch. He is a functioning alcoholic (functioning most of the times… sometimes he’s just a raging drunk) who has no qualms about dabbling in drugs all over the map. He is absolutely addicted to sex and takes great pleasure therein, unlike our friend Don Draper. He has had some sort of sexual relations with at least 26 women on the show (that we know of) and we’re led to believe he as a person has had sex with over 100 women in his life. He gets into fights often, most often as a result of his drinking problem. He is a terrible father to his only daughter most of the time and he cannot get his shit together enough to reclaim the love of his life, Karen, who deep down wants him to win her over again. Unlike the other characters, he is not cold or mean spirited—he’s simply a good-natured guy who can’t put his life back together. I’ve never pulled for a TV couple like I pull for Hank and Karen. They’re both awesome in their own ways and they love the shit out of each other, but Hank keeps screwing everything up (both literally and figuratively). Every time she dates another guy or Hank messes up his chances by banging another woman, I feel fully pissed off—I want these two idiots to figure their shit out and just be together already! I can’t really blame Karen, but Hank is generally a good guy to the point where you want it to work out for him. You’re pulling for him to stay the carefree, substance using wrtier without teetering over the edge to womanizing, asshole, alcoholic. Hank Moody, like McNulty, is brilliant at his vocation, but can’t get out of his own way to find true happiness in his life.
House of Lies
House of Lies isn’t really one of my favorite shows on the same level as the others. I think it’s entertaining and a good time killer, which is a decent reason to watch anything, I suppose. I also love Don Cheadle and will give anything he’s in a chance. But, it definitely fits the mold of dysfunctional alpha within a dramatic television fiction. House of Lies is about a management consultant (which strikes me as a funny premise for a show, but whatever) who is riding the toxic psychological train somewhere between Don Draper and Dexter. Marty Kaan is not as much of an alcoholic as McNulty or Moody, but definitely has a substance abuse problem. He drinks, smokes weed, does special K, LSD, ecstasy, you name it. He is also addicted to sex on a level near or surpassing Hank Moody. He has a horrible relationship with his ex-wife that ends up with the two of them having sex in weird places constantly, even though they work for competing management consulting firms and hate each other to the core. He’s obsessed with his work, at which he is a legend. He will do literally anything to “win the business”, consistently demonstrating an alarming acceptance of performing morally unethical and illegal behavior to that end. He manipulates his staff that idolizes him and pushes all of the good women in his life away by sleeping around. He’s a great father at times and a terrible one at others. He struggles with internal demons emanating from his mother’s suicide that I’m sure manifest themselves through his aforementioned destructive behavior. He will doublecross anyone he has to in order to achieve his goals, many of which are unethical to begin with. But, he’s one of, if not the, best management consultant in the business. Brilliant yet highly dysfunctional alpha, once again.
To Be Continued…
As you can see, each of the shows outlined so far has had a deeply dysfunctional alpha character. Every one of these alphas is beyond gifted at a specific vocation or craft, but constantly struggle with inner demons. In Part II of “The Dysfunctional Alpha”, I’ll work through Lie to Me, The Newsroom, Rescue Me, Homeland, and Boardwalk Empire, as well as draw some general conclusions on the topic of dramatic television fiction. Look forward to that coming early next week!