The Dysfunctional Alpha, Part II:
The Dysfunctional Alpha, Part II: I know I really left my readers hanging for the past couple of weeks on The Dysfunctional Alpha, Part II as well as a couple of funny Friday’s. Not that it’s a real excuse, but I got a new job and went on vacation for about 9-10 days. So needless to say, blogging was not my most imperative priority recently. I should have done more to publish it before I left for vacation, and for that I apologize. But, it has warped into a much larger journalistic piece, so I’m happy to present it to you now.
As detailed two weeks ago, part II will cover Lie to Me, The Newsroom, Rescue Me, Homeland, and Boardwalk Empire, followed by some general conclusions about fictional, dramatic television. Enjoy!
Lie to Me
Fox canceled Lie to Me after only three seasons, and it breaks my heart that Tim Roth no longer plays the role of Cal Lightman on a weekly basis. One of the coolest facets of this show was that the Lightman character, or his “gift” rather, was based on a real person. Paul Ekman pioneered the field of facial microexpressions and the ability to read people’s thoughts based on what microexpressions flash across their faces when answering questions. Now, the demeanor of the fictional character, Dr. Lightman, is much different from Dr. Ekman’s, but the science is all based in fact. Regardless, Cal Lightman was the preeminent facial microexpression scientist in the world, and was kept on retainer by the D.C. police, FBI, CIA, State Department, etc… Each episode usually starts with an unsolved case or with someone imprisoned and the audience not knowing if s/he is guilty until Cal and his team go to work. Cal is much less self-destructive via substance abuse than most of the other characters, but he has his personal psychosis none-the-less. His mother, like Marty Kaan’s from House of Lies, also committed suicide; Cal has a video of her from right before it happened that showed signs via microexpressions of her intentions. He tries to solve every case with an unmatched voracity because in his mind, if he had pioneered the science earlier, his mother would still be alive. So not only does he have abandonment issues, he aso struggles mightily with deep feelings of shame. He has serious daddy issues, too, and seeks out incredibly dangerous situations as a result of his father’s beatings when he was a boy. Cal loves to fist fight and purposely end up in hostile positions where he could (and does) get hurt. He is maniacal in his work and really treats his employees like shit (except for his female partner, with whom he’s not-so-secretly in love), manipulating them constantly. He’s a great father, though, and a good friend. His neurosis takes on a different flavor than the other alphas, but he’s every bit as brilliant and every bit as dysfunctional as the others making up this list.
Jeff Bridges’ character on The Newsroom, Will McAvoy, exhibits a much more subtle dysfunction than the majority of his compatriots on this list. He is not addicted to sex, as far as we can tell, and he does not grossly abuse alcohol or drugs. His problems are much more emotional and stem from an abusive, alcoholic father and a tragic ex-flame. Both situations have left him beset with abandonment insecurity—he feels like anyone he really lets in will abandon him because his father and ex-lover did so. He’s terrified of losing his television audience and gets bullied into including things that he hates on his show to try and bolster ratings (don’t worry, he’s gets over that by the end of season 1) because of his abandonment issues. He is a serial dater because he never lets women get under his skin after his heart was broken. He begins to work through these issues as the season closes, but he was certainly dysfunctional on a couple of levels throughout season one. It’s also worth noting that his character is brilliant and insanely gifted as a news anchor. Much akin to the other individuals on our list, Will is great at his job, but still struggling to put it all together as a person.
Rescue Me is another show that I thought started very strongly but declined in its later seasons. It starred Dennis Leary as a firefighter named Tommy Gavin in NYC, post 9/11. It was a noble premise: to attempt to portray what first responders from 9/11 went through in their lives and how they coped with it after the event. Tommy Gavin was the bravest and craziest of the fire fighters within his station and was a legend across his borough and within the department. On the flip side, he was a RAGING alcoholic on a level above even McNulty from The Wire. He hallucinates when he was blacked out, and would usually see dead friends and/or deceased relatives. His best friend and fellow firefighter died on 9/11 and the only way Tommy can see or talk to him now is through his drunken hallucinations. This was the only show I have ever watched where I was rooting for the embattled alpha to yield to his addiction regularly because I so wanted to see him happily interacting with his cousin or brother (a cop who dies later in the show). Tommy seems most sentient when his dead relatives visit him in his blacked-out stupor. He’s happiest when he can talk to his lost loved ones, which eventually include his father and his son. If going on a bender means reuniting with half of the people you have ever loved most (and that was the only way to see them)… I would almost have to say that’s a worthy trade-off. I admit that this does veer slightly from the point, but it’s important to demonstrate that not all the alphas are equally dysfunctional, even when many of them share the same dysfunctions. To close, though, Tommy Gavin—bravest of firefighters, fully dysfunctional alpha.
Homeland is the one show featuring a female alpha from within this group. Claire Danes is immaculate as Carrie Matheson, the brilliant yet mentally unbalanced uber-spy working for the CIA anti-terrorism unit. Based on a real person (the same person upon which Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty is based), Carrie is the ball-busting, terrorist-killing super-agent you want working for your government. She has an uncanny gut instinct and the will to act on it in the face of significant obstacles (sometimes to her detriment). On the flip side of the equation, she is bi-polar and heavily medicated on lithium. She likes to go to bars wearing a fake wedding ring and pick up guys for casual one-night stands. She listens to great jazz religiously but also drinks to excess in times of great stress. She’s fully paranoid (probably more of a result of working for the CIA long-term) but courts danger as a matter of course. She attempts suicide at one point and submitted to Electroshock Therapy at the end of season 1. She is 100% mentally unbalanced and her emotional stability, or lack thereof, is readily apparent. She might be the best pure CIA agent in the bureau, but she is as screwed up as a tube of crickets. Same verdict—the best at what she does, the most dysfunctional character on the show.
Boardwalk Empire is another great HBO show dominated by a dysfunctional alpha—Steve Buschemi as Nucky Thompson, a historical bootlegger and politician that ran Atlantic City for a long period of time. Thompson is neither addicted to sex nor an alcoholic, despite the fact that most of his proceeds emanate from liquor sales during prohibition. Nucky is generally a good father to his adopted children and prefers business to violence, if possible. However, no other character within this list is more devoted to obtaining and maintaining power on the scale Nucky achieves (Walter White is obsessed with power, but not on the same level or scale as Thompson). Nucky wants to run Atlantic City and the entire Northeast liquor trade market. He will hamstring: his brother, his father figure (The Commodore), his protégé (Jimmy), ex-lovers, you name it. He will manipulate, jam up, or kill anyone that gets in his way. He is a crook of the highest degree. His father was abusive and Nucky is haunted by feelings of inadequacy because of it. His lives in the shadow of the Commodore for a huge part of his life and is always trying to fill those massive shoes. He cheats on his wife and is possessive of the things that interest him (most notably his women on the side). He is comfortable torturing or murdering rivals or their agents, sometimes doing so with his own hands. But, no one plays politics better than Nucky. Whether it’s winning elections, outsmarting rivals, or playing factions against each other, Nucky takes the other characters to school. He’s not a vicious, gratuitous gangster like Al Capone from The Usual Suspects, but he most certainly is ruthless. He’s the best player in the prohibition game, but like all the other characters on this list, he is dysfunctional as can be.
So there we have it, 12 shows with 12 supremely gifted, dysfunctional alphas: President Bartlet (The West Wing), Jimmy McNulty (The Wire), Don Draper (Mad Men), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Hank Moody (Californication), Marty Kaan (House of Lies), Cal Lightman (Lie To Me), Will McAvoy (The Newsroom), Tommy Gavin (Rescue Me), Carrie Matheson (Homeland), and Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire). I think if you read deeper into other quality series that I simply haven’t gotten around to watching (The Sopranos, The Shield, Deadwood, etc…), you’d find a similar pattern. Why is it that within our best contemporary shows, the archetype primary character is somewhat predictable in this way? And before people start going crazy about that statement, I don’t mean these characters are similar, only that the paradigm for leading roles seem to be pretty rote—incredibly gifted, dysfunctional alpha.
These characters are as different as can be in many ways—they are driven by different things, their neurosis manifests itself in disparate ways, etc…, but they all possess those two defining characteristics. Why is it that this has become the norm? I don’t pretend to know why each show’s writers crafted these characters as they are, but I do think there are some themes and commonalities worth exploring that might grant a deeper level of understanding therein. Prerequisite interest required from the audience necessitates professional brilliance from the characters. Beyond that, viewers want characters that have depth and realness; there is a natural human desire to experience hope & redemption; sometimes, the characters permit the viewers to feel superior in some way; and this character-type challenges viewers to think about deep, introspective issues. I contend that some variant combination of these factors necessitate the brilliant yet dysfunctional alpha archetype in dramatic fictional television.
When I began thinking about and subsequently writing this piece, my epiphany was simply that all of the best dramatic shows were dominated by a dysfunctional alpha. It wasn’t until I had started writing the rundowns on each show that I realized each of these alphas had something else in common—vocational brilliance. Every one of these characters is the very best at what they do, whether as a politician, investigator, creative director, chemist, serial killer, writer, management consultant, lie detector, newscaster, firefighter, CIA agent, or gangster. Why do our characters have to be so good at their respective crafts? Because we wouldn’t care otherwise. The audience is much less likely to invest themselves in leading characters unless those characters have a redeeming quality that outweighs their emotional baggage. These people need to be at the very top of what they do in order for us to put up with all their other bullshit. It’s important that many of these individuals succeed in their vocation because they provide services of great societal value. And in the instances of characters who don’t do something inherently valuable, our alphas are usually the lesser of all evils. Or, they are incredibly conflicted about what they’re doing and could potentially do something worthwhile if they ever put their prodigious talents to use elsewhere.
This is the theory behind the popularity of the Olympics or professional sports—Americans always want to see the very best doing something that we ourselves cannot accomplish. We are enthralled with excellence and achievement. We want to watch those more gifted than us put their talents on display. The harder the task appears, the more impressed we are, and the more we want to watch. I think this provides the impetus for all of our dysfunctional alphas being so good at what they do; if they were only average or above average at their vocation, why would we care enough to watch them? If Carrie Matheson was some two-bit CIA agent or if Hank Moody was just some hack writer living in L.A., we wouldn’t want to watch a show about how screwed up they are. But because Carrie is the very best field agent with an unparalleled ability to suss out terrorists, we want to know what happens to her; because Hank is one of the most gifted writers in the country, we care about his exploits because they become the basis for his writings. Unlike the reason for our alphas exhibiting so much dysfunction, I think the explanation for vocational brilliance is pretty simple—the audience simply wouldn’t care about the characters enough to put up with their baggage otherwise.
Realness of Characters
The onset of cable television and the Internet have democratized the gathering and consumption of information. Before, when Americans could only access news through the major networks, radio, and newspapers, there was a much tighter hold on the dissemination of news and narratives; the media simply did not cover many issues. The pervasive Christian sensibilities of their audiences would never permit a primetime TV show about drugs or sex—the country was far too closed-minded about such issues, specifically regarding what was fit for public consumption. Because of this, audiences received characters that were really more like caricatures—no family really looked like The Cleavers, but that’s the type of television characters audiences received. Luckily for us, that just wouldn’t fly today.
The Internet allows users to seek out and enjoy whatever information or stories they desire. Cable channels enjoy far laxer standards for what they can say or depict on screen; premium channels like HBO can get away with even more. Lowering these barriers, combined with drastically different societal norms concerning “appropriate topics for discussion,” have produced a need for characters that more closely resemble real people. If you tried to feature a show with a lead character that was perfect or did no wrong, you would lose your audience. No one is actually like that. Viewers can suspend disbelief concerning certain things, but authenticity of character is one aspect in which you cannot fail as a writer or director. Star Wars I, II, & III didn’t suck because the plot was bad or the sci-fi worlds too unbelievable, they sucked because you didn’t believe any of the characters. This was partly through horrible casting, but it was also through the horrendous dialogue—you just never got the sense that these were real characters. I think this plays hugely into why all of these great shows feature a dysfunctional alpha; every person alive has some weakness, whether it’s weakness of willpower, morality, physicality, whatever—none of us are perfect. I believe we crave characters that display some level of humanity, and that, invariably, requires some form of imperfection. But like all televised theater, the creators sensationalize the size of those character flaws to make the show more interesting or controversial because, after all, these shows do want to attract the largest audience possible. And, history has invariably proven that humans love spectacle. The characters can be sensationalized versions of real people, but in the end, they have to be believable—hence their respective dysfunctions.
Hope & Redemption
There is a running joke within my family about any movie we are about to watch together—is there hope and redemption? Because if the movie is in any way dark, my mom doesn’t want to watch it if there isn’t hope and redemption by the end. I think this speaks to a larger desire within the human psyche for people in which you’re invested to overcome their personal obstacles. It doesn’t make for an interesting or remarkable story if the protagonist doesn’t have to overcome anything difficult to achieve his or her end goal. We want our heroes to be challenged, to question themselves, to doubt their abilities, to struggle with their inner demons, and ultimately to overcome all of it and emerge victorious. The more formidable the challenge, the deeper the dysfunction, the more rewarding the payoff. I think this simple axiom drives much of the storytelling in modern television; we want to watch our favorite characters struggle with their inner demons to the brink of losing all control and imploding in a heap of self-inflicted failure only to have the protagonist fight back, regain control, and best his/her dysfunctions by the end of the story. It’s easy to conjure up external circumstances that assail the protagonist in order to generate tension and conflict, but it’s much more challenging and interesting if the most difficult obstacle your character faces is from within. That’s why all of our alphas are so dysfunctional—yes, they battle external assailants all the time, but the hardest fight to win is always the one with yourself. These shows are so great because of this; it’s not just the hero battling external villains or circumstances, it’s the hero fighting those villains and overcoming those circumstances while the most intense battle is happening inside of themselves. This makes their plight all the more difficult and as such, all the more rewarding. And the more rewarding the victory, the more fascinating the journey.
Our Need to Feel Superior to Others
This is more of a guess than the first three themes explored, but I think it could also be playing a part in why shows rarely err from this paradigm—badly damaged leading characters that we like and respect make us feel better about ourselves and our tribulations. I think engineering characters such as our dysfunctional alphas can make the audience feel better about its collective self. If these leading characters, who are all the very best at what they do, can be this badly damaged, maybe I’m not so bad myself; even though I’m not as good at my job or as good looking at these people, at least I don’t have major psychological issues torturing me every day. I don’t know if this line of thought ever actively enters a writer’s mind, but it does make pretty good sense to me. This is most certainly the only reason people watch reality television—to feel superior to the trash they’re watching. Is it crazy to think truly creative writers would not play on this inherent emotion, but in a much more subtle way? I don’t think so. This is a little more of an intellectual stretch than the first three themes, but I do think it could be one factor at play the helps explain the dysfunctionality of our alphas.
I think the primary reason all our best dramas follow this template, however, has to do with the questions the creators and directors want the audience to ask itself. Every great expression of art, in any form, is designed to do one of three things—to make you think, to make you feel, or both. Of course the artists themselves are trying to express something, capture a moment or an emotion that s/he felt at one time, make a statement, whatever. But the end result of art is causing an emotional or intellectual response within the audience consuming that artwork. To that end, I believe making these alphas so dysfunctional provides the best possible platform to elicit those responses from the viewers. Each alpha’s dysfunctional plight forces us as viewers to ask ourselves at least one hugely important question…
- Jed Bartlett, The West Wing
- Are the individuals within our government, despite personal flaws, actually capable of trying—and succeeding—in making this country a better place for its inhabitants?
- How much are we as an electorate entitled to know about the public figures asking for our votes?
- If you’re trying to do something important and impactful, what transgressions will your constituents forgive? What should they forgive?
- How can a public figure best overcome a scandal of his or her making?
- Jimmy McNulty, The Wire
- Do the ends justify the means?
- How far would you go to right a greater wrong?
- Can you forgive the invention of a fake serial killer to force your city government to distribute the necessary resources in the name of fighting debilitating crime?
- What levels of rule breaking do we allow in the pursuit of justice? What should we allow?
- Does infighting and politics within every organization ruin that organization in some way? Is anyone capable of just doing his or her job without politics of some sort intervening for the worse?
- Do the ends justify the means?
- Don Draper, Mad Men
- Are you defined by only that which you do as opposed to the person you are inside? How many bad things can one person do before you can no longer consider him a good person, regardless of what’s inside?
- How many times can you forgive a transgression because you think that the committer is actually a good person deep down? At what point do you give up on an individual who never quite seems to put it all together as a person?
- Walter White, Breaking Bad
- How much of a free pass do you get if the wrongs you commit were motivated out of a love for your family? Think Michael Corleone in The Godfather…
- How much risk would you undergo to help your family?
- What will people do when they are truly desperate? Does that forgive illegal actions? Should it?
- How much can you forgive when external situations force the person’s hand?
- Is there ever a situation in which habitual felonious behavior is permissible? What does that say about us as viewers if we do not judge that character harshly for it? If we accept it altogether?
- At what point have you lost yourself entirely when wrapped up in a situation that routinely forces your hand?
- Are situations ever truly out of your control?
- Dexter Morgan, Dexter
- Are heinous crimes like murder permissible so long as the only recipients deserved to die?
- Are there people in this world that deserve to be killed?
- Do we care if citizens take justice into their own hands if we’re sure the transgressor did that of which s/he’s accused?
- What does it say about the audience if/when we root for a serial killer to remain at large, continuing to kill under the circumstances detailed above? Should we feel bad about this?
- Are there immutable laws of morality? Should there be?
- Hank Moody, Californication
- At what point do you give up on the person with whom you’re in love? Should you ever?
- How many times can you forgive your loved one for the same transgression?
- What is the cost of indulging almost every temptation with which you’re presented?
- What level of debauchery are we comfortable allowing, assuming no one is getting hurt?
- Is there ever a situation like this in which no one is actually being harmed in some way?
- Will we let certain gifted people get away with things simply because of their gift?
- Marty Kaan, House of Lies
- What’s the personal cost of “having everything”? Is the high life really worth it in the end?
- What would you do to obtain it? Are you comfortable with the implications from your answer?
- What does working for a truly soulless corporation do to you as a person?
- Is it true that it’s “only business”, or should it be personal? Ethical? Moral?
- Exactly the same as Hank Moody, what is the cost of indulging every temptation?
- When does fun that involves substance abuse become addiction?
- Is it possible to work for such a company and make it through to the other side unscathed?
- Cal Lightman, Lie to Me
- Is it really better for you to tell the truth in every situation?
- Would you want the ability to tell when anyone was lying, all the time?
- At what point does having a unique gift become a burden to the extent where you pity the gifted?
- Should we forgive someone who struggles to demonstrate affection if that individual suffers from serious abandonment and betrayal issues?
- Even if it comes from a generally good place, how much manipulation of others is permissible?
- Will McAvoy, The Newsroom
- What would you risk in order to do something you thought was important? Your entire career?
- Should journalists feign impartiality all the time or should our news people report the news with their personal slant on it?
- What happens to the quality and importance of our news when it’s driven by ratings and advertising dollars spent on the respective programs?
- Could you forgive true betrayal? At what point do you forgive someone who wronged you? What if you’re in love with that person? Should that change the situation at all?
- Tommy Gavin, Rescue Me
- What toll does massive trauma take on the traumatized? How deep does it go? How long are the after effects felt? Can you ever really get over it?
- How much grieving do we allow for those enduring said trauma? What level of self-destruction will we allow before we feel the need to act?
- Should you be allowed to get away with more if you perform an important public service?
- Would you really be able to fight the type of addiction from which Tommy suffers?
- Carrie Matheson, Homeland
- How much does love impair one’s judgment? Is that excusable? Should it be?
- How much can you forgive of someone knowing the actions were beyond his or her control?
- How important is the mission when compared to the possible destruction of your agent’s mental stability and overall life?
- What seemingly preventable end (i.e. a terrorist attack) justifies the means employed by the USA in the war on terror?
- What toll do these long wars take on its warriors, who rarely are soldiers at all?
- Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire
- Are politicians and members of the establishment (like police, justices, etc…) ever that many degrees separated from the gangsters? Are they any better or worse than those gangsters? Would you be immune to the lavish handouts provided from such characters if faced with that situation?
- What does power do to those who wear the crown? Who would you step over to get it?
- Is blood really thicker than water? Should it be?
- What will that power cause you to do to keep it? What about expand it?
- Is power ever really worth the trouble of obtaining and keeping it?
That, in the end, is the necessity for alpha dysfunction—the creators want you to think and to feel something deep and important, and you can’t access those depths when watching caricatures. These characters need to be real, complex, and flawed in order to elicit the type of emotional and cerebral response the creators intended. They must be believable and relatable in some way. They need to pose difficult questions to their audiences. We’re not supposed to agree about the answers to these questions, but we are supposed to ask them and focus on how they make us feel and what they make us think.
The characters need to be excellent at their vocations or they won’t capture our interest—it has to outweigh their dysfunction or we’ll get fed up with them. We will not become emotionally involved with the characters if they aren’t believable, and that requires imperfection. In TV & entertainment terms, that necessitates dysfunction because everything is sensationalized to both hook you and to fuel ratings. As humans, we possess a natural desire for hope and redemption. We want to see people struggle mightily so that when they triumph they have earned it. And, it’s much more interesting when the greatest tribulation comes from within. We can also feel better about ourselves for not having to battle such demons, or we can take consolation if we are dealing with similar situations. But, in the end, television is entertainment. Great television is art, and art is designed to make us think and to make us feel. As far as I can tell, no vehicle better accomplishes those twin goals than the dilemmas tackled through various alpha dysfunctions like the ones seen here. Nothing forces the audience to question its morality or its conscience like the issues explored through these various dysfunctions. And that, in my opinion, is the primary driving reason why all of our great dramas follow this paradigm.
To be continued….
In Part III, I will draw some more conclusions about the similarities of these characters as well as provide a bonus feature that I think you will enjoy. Have a great rest of the week!